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by Christopher Besse
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: Something stirs in the darkness on the planet Zilith. A team of physicists working on a black INTEL project code named 'Element' has vanished. A SEAL recon team has been inserted to find out why. Lieutenant Jackson and his team must recover an anomalous heavy metal, discovered by a long range geophysical probe on the outer rim of charted space. Stalked by elusive night creatures and hunted by a hunter-killer platoon of Caldarian assassins known as the Black Order Legion, Jackson and his team move toward an ultimate confrontation. Extracted by the battle-damaged HMCS Haida and pursued relentlessly by the Sipedesis, they race for the USS Lexington and Battle Group Six, positioned as a blocking force in front of the main Caldarian Armada. There is one final task to complete. They must penetrate the security perimeter around the Caldarian command ship, the Shimmering Wind, and assassinate the High Admiral.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2007 2007
eBookwise Release Date: December 2007
26 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [492 KB]
Reading time: 315-441 min.
"An action-packed page-turner to the final page. In Element, Chris Besse has given new meaning to the phrase "military science fiction." It's Heinlein meets Clancy ... sit back and enjoy the ride. You'll be begging for more."--Major Michael Farmer, Author of Tin Soldiers Iron Tigers and War Dogs
Chapter 1 Recon "The darkness falls, The bells peal, Death take us all."
--Private Verlin Haydren, 4th Floren Marine Battalion, at the Siege of Exdor--Terra earth year 1763 AD
Nothing moved in the alien night shadows, but the stillness and silence itself was a danger. It meant that whatever was following them knew that Jackson and his team were aware of their presence.
Mike Platoon's Wheel, Lieutenant Thomas Daniel Jackson, turned his head and let his eyes sweep the trail below him slowly and carefully, his Night Referencing Helmet (NRH) turning the shifting darkness into a holographic display of what passed for day on this strange, dark planet. He read the numbers off his display and cursed silently. Biological--nominal, infrared--nominal, electronic distortion--nominal, filter search parameters, random-passive--nominal; nothing! And that scared him worse than a full-redlined passband would have.
Jackson felt a whispering echo as his platoon level neural link went active. The neural link had been a major step forward in secure tactical communications systems and was ideally suited for recon teams. The neural energy was instantly translated into normalized speech patterns across the team's tactical net.
"I don't like this, Sir. We've been patrolling for four days with all active systems shut down and now, all of a sudden, we make signature contact. Two nights ago we picked up a return on the thoracic passband just as we settled in, then it disappeared until now and wham, we've got hard lock on a residual shimmer envelope when we shouldn't," Jeff Choi's thought echoed across the neural net.
"So what you're really saying," DeLuca broke in over the link, "is that we're ass deep in alligators in Indian country, and you think things are going to get ugly really quick. Is that it?"
"We were ass deep in alligators the minute we inserted," Jackson thought back in response. "Let's just see who these folks are, shall we, and we'll take it from there.
"Give me a suit check. Send the data stream now. I want sensor arrays in standby mode and all implants powered down. Nothing running but your thermal grid and HUD, all transmissions across the neural team net only. Chief, I want you to monitor the Hancock's command link and get ready to call for an extraction run if we make contact."
"Aye, Sir," the Chief responded.
Jackson watched as the numbers took shape in his mind and were instantly displayed across his helmet tactical display.
"Affirmative, all suits and implants nominal, no emissions. Neural network is set to team net, narrow band, standard battle format," Jackson confirmed.
Jackson knew his suit was working. Liquids moved through five kilometers of microscopic tubing, making it feel like a million Duvarian swamp ants trying to lift his body up and carry it away. He remembered the shock at the caressing feel the first time he had put a Bristol Dynamics class one recon suit on. Now he rarely noticed this second skin. The flexplate armor was as supple and oily smooth as a serpent moving through the grass, and it's bonded outer Chameleon coating could be used in passive or active mode, drawing power from the suit's tiny, nuclear power module.
On the left flank, Doc Hearst felt uneasy and exposed, as if something was watching them from the darkness above them. She carefully shifted her weight, trying to sink a little deeper into the dark ooze that seemed to bleed from the planet's surface.
"I sure wish I had my Class One assault armor on," she thought, and immediately regretted it as soft, chuckling echoes momentarily filled her mind from the other team members.
"Somebody forgot to set their privacy passband," Dyer whispered.
"What's the matter, Doc," LPO DeLuca thought back at her. "You miss all those servo manipulators and heavy plate armor the line grunts wear?"
Jackson had to smile grimly at DeLuca's comment. Suit technology had come a long way. During the 21st Century, several nations began developing suit armor to protect their armies. At first, suits were the exclusive domain of Special Operations teams. They had fully integrated electronics, multi-weapon platforms and high tech munition dispensing systems, all available at the tap of a chin control or retinal blink. So suited, a recon team could take on a full company of regular line grunts and their support elements. It only took a few years for the more developed nations to realize that they needed to extend similar protection and abilities to their regular forces or they would lose any tactical advantage, no matter how well trained their military forces were.
But that all changed, Jackson mused bitterly, when a desperate weapons technician with the Russian Twentieth Tanks released a low yield plasma discharge over an entire Chinese division at the Third Battle of Peking. They were slaughtered to the man because all their implants, nano enhancements and advanced acquire and engage electronics were disabled by the low energy pulse that radiated their position.
The two Russian regiments holding the line had descended on the helpless Chinese division that writhed and twitched like a bowl of squirming cockroaches, and put them to the sword in a crazed killing frenzy.
The slaughter at Peking-Three, Jackson thought.
After that, the focus on suit technology was stealth. Simply put, in the long run it was better to be invisible, get into knife cutting range, and kill them quick.
Bringing his mind back to the present, Jackson listened to the thought link and checked his suit. He was acutely aware that the ceramic deflection plating along the suit's dorsal line was not vibrating.
That's a good and a bad thing, he thought. Good because it meant he hadn't been illuminated, bad because it might mean that they had already been painted and were in the kill zone of whatever was stalking them.
"What do you have?" Jackson asked.
"Thoracic lock!" Choi's thoughts echoed across the neural net. "Confirm signature as thirteen Caldarian bio's, one unknown on point, running database on the unknown now.
"I don't know why they decided to close the distance here and now but they have. About 200 meters back and they know we're just in front of them by the way they're moving, and like I said, I had shimmer acquisition even before my passives picked them up."
"That's impossible," Jackson's mind whispered across the link.
Jackson scanned the bush around him and gestured to the dark section of trail across the narrow canyon to a point just before the switchback they had just walked. "OK, we're going to take them from here. I know it isn't the best spot but right now, this is all we've got. Hopefully they'll bunch up as they approach the turn but if these folk are who I think they are, their point element will probably flank the turn in anticipation anyway."
His team lay spread out in a ragged ambush line covering the trail across from their position. It was 40 meters across. The danger signal had come up the line from Choi. As rear security, he had been waiting and listening off the trail for two or three minutes at a time, then racing ahead to catch up with the team. Jackson's intuition told him they were in deep, serious trouble.
In eighteen months of bitter, bloody fighting, Jackson had learned to listen to that intuition. For one side or the other, the waiting and running was over. He and his team could run no further. This was the final jeopardy in a game of evasion that had begun two days ago when they got a twitch on the thoracic array. Last night, before dusk settled in, Jackson had located their Remain Overnight (RON) site, passing it and fish-hooking back to it just at dusk; so that anyone following would think their RON was 500 meters from where it actually was. Jackson's stomach felt empty, a reminder that their last meal, if field glop could correctly be called food, had been several hours ago.
Four days of eating patrol glop. His mind recited the training droid's litany of ingredients. A balanced meal of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and electrolytes, all tailored to each individual's specific tastes, heated by the body and eaten using either the nourishment dispensing tube or, if you were stupid enough to take your helmet off while on patrol, by slurping it straight from the pouch.
"It's times like this when I sure wish they could do this without hanging us out so far on a limb," Wicker said. "We always seem to pull the really long distance recons."
"All our resources are spread thin. The Ramillions have eight teams deployed in the Ortesian Rift, trying to interdict Caldarian troop transports coming through the corridor. And two Myloen deep insertion teams vanished without even a trace of residual DNA dust when something killed the Mylock and her escorting frigate, the Day Star. It doesn't matter how many high tech electronics they deploy, you and I both know that the only way to gather reliable, hard intelligence is to insert a recon team and let them do what every army since the dawn of time has done--find the enemy."
"Well, that's why they pay us the big bucks," Hearst whispered. "It's a good thing these Neural COM links are secure or we'd be crow bait by now," she added.
"Can't patrol in the dark with Chameleon mode on like we did in the old days, Doc," Chief Miller responded.
"Until now," Jackson thought. "At least, if what the spooks briefed us on is true. This of course raises an interesting question. Is there such a thing as truth in the intelligence business?" he asked the team in general.
"Rhetoric, Sir, pure rhetoric because we all know there is no such thing as an intelligent spook," Hearst's cynical thought echoed back.
Jackson felt dark, rippling laughter echo across his neural nodes and could sense the team's bow-string tight acuity as Hearst's anecdotal comment relieved some of the tension.
At 29, Jackson was still leading platoon recon teams. He had specifically been asked to stay at the platoon level by Captain Jim Ortello, commanding officer of SEAL Team One, Earth-Prime, and had agreed. The Confederate recon teams were desperately short of officers who could lead teams in the field and with their resources spread so thin, a man with Jackson's unique abilities was needed where he was.
At first glance, Jackson wasn't what people would think of as part of the varsity-elite of the Confederate armed forces. His brown hair was cut to the standard military length but all one had to do was to look into his deep, hazel eyes to sense that there was more to this man than what was first seen by the casual observer. He bore a confidence and casual lethality that said loud and clear, 'enter at your own risk'.
He was barely six feet tall and his frame was small but it hid a deadly litheness and whip-like suppleness that spoke of years of hard training and disciplined martial arts at the masters' level. It was rumored within the close-knit family of the teams that the knife scar Jackson carried low down on his left side was the result of an encounter with a Black Order hunter-killer team on his first deployment on Galdaris-One.
Jackson reached down with his left hand and tapped a small control node on his left thigh. A signal was transmitted to the other seven members of his team. He felt the locking lugs on his particle rifle latch into the battle lock position on his conformal pack and a small blue dot of light, low down in his HUD, informed him that the power source was switched off. Seven small, blue ID signatures appeared for a brief moment on his battle display, indicating that his team had followed suit.
The last goddamn thing we need right now is for a power pack to go active and start radiating a signature, he thought.
Suddenly Jackson tensed, and his eyes swung to the slope above the trail he was watching. Movement! Just a nuance but something was there. Jackson's eyes were drawn down and to the right. He worked the starlight filters on his helmet trying to gain more resolution on his display.
A spot of deeper darkness detached itself from the lighter background of the surrounding night and seemed to glide down the slope. The spot stopped, and Jackson's display went nominal momentarily as he lost target lock. He adjusted his filters again and swung his head. He felt his heart quicken as ghost-like, the rest of the hunter-killer team came into view.
He thought over the neural net and seven helmeted heads swiveled in the dark, in response to his terse command. Weapons came up and seven black-gloved hands moved to safeties and gently thumbed them off.
"I have lock," Doc Hearst whispered. "Tracking." She was holding the left flank and in the darkness her weapon slowly tracked on an invisible target. The eyepiece of her night scope was locked in the eyecup of her battle helmet. The target and acquisition features on her MP-225-N allowed her to lock and fire without necessarily bringing her targeting scope to the eyecup on her helmet but experience had proven that a shooter was more stable and accurate using the systems inherently built into the battle helmet. Where the acquisition and shoot system really shone was while patrolling. Snap shooting from the patrol position had saved more than one point man's life while allowing the team to roll out and outflank a hunter-killer team. Another part of her mind cataloged the hard edge of tension in Jackson's voice. It was feral and a savage elation took shape in her mind.
"Patience," she whispered to herself.
Jackson watched the Caldarian point man. He had gone to ground. His pulse quickened and his mind instantly began analyzing the tactical implications. Some sixth sense born in combat warned Jackson that whatever or whoever was walking point was uneasy and had sensed that they were being watched. An old memory flashed through his mind and he recognized that these were skilled and dangerous professionals stalking them in the darkness. "Point man just went nominal."
He felt the team's heightened acuity across the neural link.
Choi watched the data scroll across his helmet display. The scrolling stopped and he felt a cold needle of dread as he read the data.
"Unknown bio identified as Andorian, Sir," he whispered.
An Andorian tracker! "Shit," Jackson breathed.
"Why aren't they cloaked?" he whispered. "Something's wrong here. We're going to do this real careful and make sure we watch our backs."
"Whoever they are, they're definitely way too serious about their job," Hearst whispered. "Well spaced and spread out. I'd say they're definitely the varsity team. Fourteen against eight, not bad odds," she added as an afterthought.
"It could be worse, Doc," Dyer's thought echoed back. "It could be us in the kill zone." There were no comments.
"Robbie, I'm going to let them close it up as much as I can into the kill zone. I know they're close but with them spread out like they are, we're only going to get one shot at this before they realize what's going down, and then they're going to try and roll us up on the flank and break out. I want you to take out the Andorian first and I want your second shot on the COM man, if you get a second shot. He's two behind the one I think is the officer. In this dark it's hard to say. But the first shot goes to the tracker. Whatever else happens, take him out first.
"Chief, as soon as it starts, hit the transponder. That shuttle is gonna be coming in hot with no brakes and we're gonna be hauling ass to get the hell out of Dodge."
"Aye, Sir," was Senior Chief John Miller's only response.
Weapons Specialist First Class Robert Michael Dyer pressed the contact on his night scope. As it spun up, he placed the custom made eyepiece into the shooting cup of his battle mask and watched as his helmet display spooled the telemetry to his target. Everything came into sharp relief and he could see the Andorian tracker and the COM man clearly. His rifle was a fully automatic and optically integrated Tactical Operations 2351 chambered in .50 caliber. He could let his systems shoot for him, driving nails in the dark at a thousand meters but like most shooters, he preferred doing his shooting manually. He was a purest in the truest sense of the word and a perfectionist when it came to applying his particular deadly art form. His optical system had a built-in shine collector to dampen and absorb 'street shine', the tiny glimmer of detectable light from the reflected light off the forward lens of a light-intensifying night scope. The can or silencer pulled about three minutes of adjustment (MOA) but any silencer does that, and he simply made the proper adjustments to compensate. The rifle and scope were current issue, the stock made of the most highly advanced components in the combined Confederate inventory, overlaid with a composite chameleon skin to match his recon suit.
So, he thought wryly to himself, the Jarheads use the great, great grandchild of the 1996M40A3, and the army ranger teams use an adaptation of the M24 SWS (Sniper Weapon System). Dyer's weapon of choice was the Tango Operations 2351. He loved the big TO-51. It was chambered in .50 Cal and yet it was lighter than one of those ancient, heavy barreled sniper select M-16's in 5.56 that sat in heavy lexite museum cases in the run down, rusty range building in Coronado, California. He tapped in a command on his chin bar and checked the wind and humidity. He made a few minor adjustments and settled down to wait.
"Go to exotic places, meet new people ... kill them," he whispered. His heavy weapon swung up, tracked and then settled. "I have lock," he confirmed a moment later. His finger took up the slack and he waited. He watched as the Andorian's head slowly rotated from side to side.
"One two hundred grain, urillium cored, armor piercing, tactical smart-point coming your way," he whispered. "It'll punch through your body armor, even that terrilium field armor you Caldarian recon bastards wear. And I hope you're just regular Caldarian legs and not Legion," he added as an afterthought.
Dyer was brought back to reality by Jackson's terse order. "When I blow the claymores, it's show time. Confirm!"
Jackson listened as each team member confirmed that they were ready. They were using conventional claymores, set 20 meters apart above the path that the Caldarian hunter-killer team was on. The problem was that because of the thick undergrowth and the way the Caldarian team was spread out, a lot of the claymores' lethal force would be absorbed by the thick underbrush.
Jackson allowed the point element of the hunter-killer team to move past the three claymores he had set in the brush above the trail. As the next three Caldarians moved into the kill zone, Jackson hit the clackers and blew the mines. The brush around him erupted as red tracers reached out and converged on the Caldarians. The three on the trail were shredded as they took the full force of the claymores.
Jackson noticed with grim professional respect that the Caldarian team reacted immediately, and the men who were not killed in the initial assault went to ground, while the trailing elements broke out on the left and tried to out-flank Jackson and his men.
You didn't expect this, did you, he thought. You were ready and you knew we had detected you but you didn't expect us to hit you here.
The Andorian's head exploded in a mist of red gore as the big .50 round took him in the right eye. The compensators steadied and the big rifle ejected and fed another round. Dyer shifted smoothly left, the sound-suppressed Tango-2351 coughed once more and the COM man went down, his chest turned to raspberry jam by the heavy, high-powered slug. On exiting, the round destroyed the COM system before it could send its emergency auto signal to whatever Caldarian support units were in the system. Jackson changed magazines and gave the signal to form a skirmish line and advance. The volume of fire increased as the team broke cover and advanced on the Caldarian position. Wicker and Larsen broke right to flank the Caldarian platoon while laying down several slasher rounds from their M2303 rifles. Jackson fired off short, three round bursts as he advanced, letting his targeting system evaluate threats and take them under fire accordingly. A Caldarian rose out of the darkness and Jackson's system swung to the threat axis and fired, stitching him in two rows across his chest and blowing him off the trail, the impact of the rounds making him twitch and gyrate like a puppet on a string.
Suddenly the firing ceased and an eerie silence fell, broken only by the soft gurgling sounds of the dead and dying. The stench of blood and excrement mingled with the acrid aroma of smoke and powder.
"Check," Jackson thought over the neural team net. Far off in the back of Jackson's mind an alarm was screaming at him--something's wrong here, that was way too easy. But for the moment, he pushed it aside.
Choi bent over one of the gurgling forms and fired once. The form twitched convulsively and lay still. "Chief, did you get the signal out?"
"Sir," Dyer's urgent whisper pulsated through the team's neural pathways, inducing a release of adrenaline and endorphins, instantly heightening the team's already bowstring tight senses. "You'd better take a look at this."
Jackson moved in a crouch over to where Dyer, weapon still in the ready position, knelt beside what was left of the Caldarian officer. "Boss, did you notice the insignia on their uniform? This isn't your run of the mill hunter-killer team, Sir."
Dyer reached one gloved hand down and turned what was left of the dead Caldarian over.
"I think he was the officer but there's no rank insignia on what's left. He must have been no more than a meter away when the claymores blew."
Jackson looked down at the patch over the left breast of the shredded uniform. A cold knot formed in the pit of his stomach as he recognized the unit designation, a black onyx stone superimposed over a burning planet. "That's impossible!" he breathed. "What's a Black Order platoon doing way out here in this backwater, shit-hole of an uninhabited planet? We just cut down an entire Black Order platoon." The firefight had lasted less than a minute.
Dyer tapped the patch with a gauntleted hand. "Sir, these are the folks responsible for Caldarian security and counter-intelligence. They're assassins and killers but they're full military.
"You and I both know what that means. You only make it into the Legion after two full duty tours. That means two full terran years of active, front line service. Which means the crème de la crème or some such shit.
"What's going on, Sir?" His question hung in the darkness and the team felt a sense of foreboding pressing in on them.
Heads swiveled in the dark to look at Jackson as comprehension dawned. With one hand Jackson reached down and picked up the ceremonial 'Darok' the officer had dropped when he had been hit.
"Legion discipline," he said.
"Yup, two explosive darts in the ear canal is a great incentive for line duty," Wicker responded.
"The coffee, I stayed in because of the coffee," Hearst breathed.
"Choi, give me one full spectrum sweep, all bands. Now!"
The team went silent, their eyes scanning the surrounding darkness, and prayed that their sensors would remain nominal. They didn't.
"Boss?" Dyer said.
"I know," Jackson replied, "we're not alone. They never travel alone. Where's the other team?"
As if in response to his question, he heard Choi's urgent voice over the team net. At the same time, each team member's passive sensors red-lined. "Sir, we got incoming traffic about five hundred meters out. The sensors just went off the board."
A red light suddenly began to blink in the bottom left hand corner of the team's tactical displays.
"Tactical breach!" several voices responded at once.
"They're moving through the cover above us, trying to flank us and they're moving fast," Choi said.
"Why didn't we pick them up until now?"
"I don't know Sir, but we have to move--NOW!"
Jackson checked the team ordinance display. "Chief?" The unspoken question hung in the darkness.
"We're down pretty fine, Sir. DeLuca and Wicker are down to 75 rounds and one slasher round each. The rest of us have less than 30 rounds."
"Redistribute ammo and let's un-ass. Doc, rear security. Chief, you and Choi take point. Let's move, people! Where's that goddamned extraction shuttle?"
"It's inbound," the Chief said.
Going up one, Jackson thought tightly. He switched over to the frigate's frequency and spoke. "Nightshade, Nightshade, this is Stalker. We are hot, repeat, we are hot, over."
"Roger Stalker, you are hot," shuttle pilot Ensign Marcie Chantella replied. "Hang in there, Stalker. ETA 12 mikes, repeat--12 mikes to extraction, over."
"Roger Nightshade, en-route now. We're running and be advised we have a Black Order platoon in pursuit."
Holy shit, Chantella thought to herself, something's wrong here! Where there's a Black Order ground unit, there's a Black Order flight unit as well. "Roger Stalker."
The frigate USS John Hancock was on station in a high polar orbit waiting for the encrypted transmission that would tell her to begin her pick-up run for the recon team. The frigates were fast, highly maneuverable, patrol craft. Captain Lin Zhao stood behind the con. Lines of worry etched the delicate lines of his face. They had been on station for six days. The Hancock had been at general quarters for the entire time, shifting out only to eat and change watch.
The bridge watch was listening to the traffic from the recon team on the surface of the planet. "Ms. Lewis, come to course two-six-seven, mark four-four. Make your speed sub-light 5. Get ready to retract pick-up shuttle and stand by star drive."
"Coming to course two-six-seven, mark four-four, engaging sub-light 5, stand by star drive, aye, Sir," Commander Lewis replied.
"Disengage chameleon mode on my mark: four, three, two, one, mark."
"Chameleon mode disengaged, Captain." Commander Debra Lewis was 28 years old, held a PHD in astral navigation and was generally conceded by her peers to be one of the best frigate drivers in the fleet. She also had feelings for Lieutenant Jackson but that fact was a carefully guarded secret--for the moment. The Confederacy found that women had a better aptitude for piloting than men did and most of the pilots in the fleet were women. Not only did they excel at flying but for some strange reason they seemed to add a quality of peace and confidence to the bridge--an aura, as captain Zhao had once observed. Right now, the aura was stressed. Everyone on the bridge had heard Jackson's terse comments about the platoon of "Blackies" on the planet surface.
The frigate edged out of her polar orbit and began the run to recover her shuttle and the recon team. "Mother Hen, Nightshade One is commencing her run, 56 kilometers out and closing, altitude 3,000 meters," the voice of Marcie Chantella said.
"Roger that. Nightshade, be advised..."
A shocking explosion ripped through the frigate's port nacelle and raked her port side. Decks 3 through 9 were immediately vented into the vacuum of space. Everything within those decks was decompressed and sucked out. Bodies imploded and then froze in grotesque forms as they floated in a sub-orbital cloud around the stricken frigate.
"Where did that come from?" Captain Zhao shouted.
"Sir, sensors show nothing at all out to maximum range but the residual halo signature is consistent with Caldarian main battle class particle weapons."
"What?" Zhao exclaimed. "That doesn't make sense!
"Helm--course one-zero-five, mark four-two, full sensor sweep off the port quarter, full sub-light now!"
"One-zero-five, mark four-two, full sub, aye, Captain!" Lewis' hands flew over the NAV console. "Come on baby," she whispered, "come on." The frigate's nose clawed about in a hard turn, trying to find her unseen antagonist and bring her weapons to bear. She staggered and reeled as a second broadside tore into her. The frigate had no armor and her energy envelope had been off-line but now it was gone, destroyed in the initial attack by her unknown and unseen assailant. Built fast but built light, the frigates depended on their speed to move them out of harm's way if necessary, and on their sophisticated sensors to warn them well in advance of any threat. She was dying.
"All hands, this is the Captain. Abandon ship. Repeat, abandon ship. Initiate escape pod auto-countdown. All crew members, man your designated escape pods.
Lewis undid her battle harness, grabbed her survival pack and ran for her pod. Entering, she turned and locked out the auto eject system, turned on the pod's internal NAV system and set the NAV console to manual flight mode. She then put on her EVA helmet, locked it down, strapped herself into her seat and hit the eject bar only just in time. As the pod ejected, it tumbled on its axis as the frigate was hammered again. Four pods in front of her exploded from unseen fire, the closeness of the explosions making her pod cartwheel as it spun out of control toward the planet's surface. Lewis decided to let it tumble before she brought it back under control.
Just in case, she thought. Lieutenant Commander Debra Lewis was going to land 2,000 meters northwest of the Secondary LZ.
A fourth series of smashing blows hit the Hancock again amidships, gutting the bridge and blowing a 35-meter hole in her side. The bridge structure collapsed and a steel truss fell across the Captain, crushing his armored suit. But he didn't feel it. He was already dead, his decapitated head spinning and bouncing off the torn bulkhead as blood spurted from his torso to freeze and mingle with the viscera and other body parts on the destroyed bridge. The frigate corkscrewed end over end, out of control, picking up momentum as the gravitational forces of the planet tugged at her, her outer hull already starting to glow as she entered the atmosphere.
Stunned, Ensign Chantella sat rigid at the shuttle controls and listened in horror to the death throws of the Hancock and her crew. "Gone, blown away, and we don't even have a clue what or who did it," she whispered. Then discipline and training took over and she overrode the auto NAV system, savaging the controls, banking the shuttle down and around on its final approach to the extraction LZ.
"Stalker, Stalker, this is Nightshade, over."
"Nightshade, we have you on chameleon-track, two clicks out at our twelve o'clock, over," Jackson responded.
"Roger your twelve o'clock, authenticate."
"Authentication code sent, Nightshade."
"Confirm authentication code, shuttle in auto sequence now, elevation 50 meters, rate of descent 0.2 meters per second, confirm ground zero now, Stalker. Nightshade turning Chameleon mode off, shuttle door opening."
Jackson dove and rolled for cover as particle fire rippled into the tree he had been standing behind moments before. The team had been running and trying to disengage from whomever or whatever was following them but every time they thought they had evaded, particle fire would hit them. They couldn't see the source and whoever was shooting was completely cloaked.
"Wicker, Larsen, when I give the word, lay your last slasher rounds down the edge of the trail." The team could feel the disciplined calm flowing from Jackson's neural link. It steadied them as they moved, trying to break contact. "Chief, you and Dyer grab Choi and go for the shuttle. Once you're inside, cover us and we'll make our move."
Choi groaned unconsciously. He had taken a particle shot in the lower abdomen. His suit electronics had been overloaded from the hit and the dense beam had torn through a lung. "Nightshade, lay your phase cannon on the tree line along the bottom of the trail and set for auto engage, deflection sixty degrees."
"Roger Stalker, engaging now."
"OK Chief, NOW! Go, go, go!" Wicker and Larsen dumped their last slasher rounds down the trail line and there was a high pitched hum as the auto cannon from the shuttle began to see-saw back and forth, chewing up foliage and hopefully anything else that might be out there. Jackson, Wicker and Larson retreated, expending the last of their ammunition as they converged on the shuttle. As they clambered aboard, Chantella already had the shuttle engaged and was lifting off when a series of flashes and crashes hammered against the shuttle's hull plating.
"Particle rifle fire," Jackson breathed. But the shuttle was already gone, its terrain-hugging guidance system keeping it low and fast as it hedgehopped at Mach 3.
"Sir, the Hancock's gone."
"I know Ensign, I heard," Jackson replied gently. "Take us to the secondary insertion point."
"Sir?" Chantella exclaimed.
"So we can find out who the hell is shooting at us and who or what killed the Hancock and why this place is so important."
"Aye, Sir, engaging chameleon mode and initiating auto navigation for secondary LZ." It was only then that Chantella realized that Jackson's hands were shaking.
Five hundred and fifty kilometers above them, a shape slowly began to materialize. The lesser stars behind it twinkled briefly, then went out as the shape took on substance and etched itself against the background darkness. It had no color. It seemed to absorb the darkness, like light was being squeezed away from it. Sleek and deadly, the shape exuded lethality. It was the Sipedesis, a Viper Class Caldarian cruiser. On her darkened bridge, a voice spoke quietly to the other individuals gathered there. "Well done, Legate Dra. The Confederate frigate did not detect us. We were able to close the distance to one kilometric and engage them at point blank range."
"Consul, the shuttle escaped," the legate replied.
"As planned," the Consul responded. "Our recon team will find them and terminate the survivors. The Confederates are already on their way to their secondary insertion point, running swiftly into the net we have set for them. All we need is the last piece of the puzzle."
"And why Consul, has this isolated, dreary planet suddenly become so important to us and the Confederates?"
Va's eyes took on an obsidian cast and his voice held a subtle edge of menace when he spoke.
"Return to our baseline and continue our patrol. Unless I am totally mistaken, the Confederates will be sending a reaction force from their dwindling fleet to this ... (What did you call it?) ... dreary, isolated planet soon."
In the clearing, on the ground that the shuttle had recently departed from, fourteen figures materialized from the background of the surrounding forest. A shimmer, a flicker in the darkness on a hostile world, they took shape--dark, composite body-armor merging with the night, shadows within shadows. Their battle masks gave them a stark menacing appearance. A solitary patch was the only break in the totally black durilium armor, a black onyx stone superimposed on a burning planet. The tallest knelt and spoke quietly into his tactical COM. "Viper wing, position secure. Decoy team terminated, over."
Five hundred and fifty kilometers above them, a single word was coded and transmitted on the sub-space-encrypted frequency used only by the Black Order Legion.
Beyond the dark confines of a system designated only as Alpha-237, a flattened, cylindrical object began to execute a series of high-speed course changes on a pre-programmed route designed to allow it to egress the system undetected. It then turned to course one-seven-four-prime and accelerated to maximum star drive. It was a deep space slot buoy that had been automatically ejected from the dead frigate as soon as the NAV system had detected the auto eject sequence beginning on the escape pods. The slot buoy's navigational computer was continually updated live from the frigate's main NAV system so that, if condition "Styx" was ever reached, the buoy would have the frigate's last known coordinates locked in its computer. It was so nicknamed in a dark attempt at humor by the Confederate navy, after the river in Greek mythology that separated the land of the living from the land of the dead.
Course one-seven-four-prime was a dead run home to the Lexington in Battle Group Six, holding station in the Degus system, once the evasive course maneuvers were completed. The onboard navigational system charted its course and made corrections to flat-line for home. The moment it settled onto its base course, it began sending a single encrypted pulse transmission. It would do this for six hours and then onboard charges would detonate, the buoy having completed its specific mission.
The Hancock was dead. The Caldarians were coming. It had begun...