PHASE II : THE TYR ARC ( 18 of 28 )

: “ Gejagter unter Jägern ("THE HUNTED AMONG THE HUNTERS")


Command Center, BWS Valeria
Tyr System
03 Feb 2681 (2681.034)

Arrayed around the holomap, which was set into a table, was no small collection of power players. Though the Confederation possessed far more advanced imaging devices, Union designers frequently had to deal with a cost effectiveness gap that made them cut costs wherever possible. The holomap was one such cost concession, the whole thing dated from the K-Wars.

Facing each other across the map table were Admiral Erin Hanton of the Combined Fleet and CEO John Tan of Tanfen. Though both were seething at each others' perceived lack of reason, both held their tongues. Arrayed between them stood several of their aides and officers. Through mutual agreement, both had agreed that their bodyguards should be left outside. It would have been absolute stupidity for either side to hurt the other. Lord John had already left explicit instructions with his Loyalist Marines should he ever fall through treachery. All knew that the Corp fleet only followed their own officers. And only a madman would have harmed the Admiral in the heart of her own fleet. Both tolerated each other. For now.

"Solutions, Admiral?" Lord John uttered as he gazed forth at the data, watching power usage bars rise up and down, as well as depictions of the fleet. Tiny little ships, perfect in every detail, hovering in the darkness between them. Each ship was recognizable, down to the turrets and the ship name on the bow. Large user friendly tactile windows hovered over each craft in bright neon, showing more detailed information. The Valeria itself bore a large rotating Union symbol along with the number one beside it, as well as its name and serial number. The Flagship itself. Dragged along behind it, almost reluctantly, came the Tanfen sector fleet, shepherded along in the middle of the formation.

Hanton rubbed her chin. Earlier, she had received the fuel data via laser link and then called her best logistics personnel together to find a solution. Not much was forthcoming. Lord John’s analysis came up just about the same as theirs. Too many refugees, and too many ships that were not suited for the task of saving lives. Toss in the fact that the Combined Fleets' own supply tankers and lighters already had their hands full just keeping the fleet moving, what with the different logistics standards between Confed and Union ships, and any solution would have been a nightmare to implement. Supply Command had a devil of a time even getting the proper clamps for refueling between Union and Confed ships. The problems were being exacerbated by their differing tech standards, as the Union was limping along roughly a decade behind its more advanced ally.

Though Hanton had reserved several O2 and civ-grade fuel tankers from Tyr VII, they were simply insufficient to handle the sheer size of the Corp fleet, especially once those ships were loaded to the gills with civilians. There just wasn't enough fuel and oxygen to go around, it was as simple as that. The whole plan to evacuate the civilians using Tanfen's Merchant fleet had been a desperate one to begin with, and now it was coming apart at the seams.

"We are at an impasse, Lord John. The closest stop with enough civilian grade fuel for the fleet is too far away to reach in time."

Lord John’s eyes narrowed. He almost felt like saying "I told you so," but he kept his words to himself. Both were lost in thought, and their aides too were silent, studiously refraining from speaking their minds.

"Why don't you draw out a few of your smaller warships, converting them into passenger ships instead of committing them to the battle?"

"That is not an option, Lord John. I need every ship that can fly and fight if we are to beat back the buggers."

"And I simply cannot see how we are going to save those people, and live to tell about it."

Hanton mulled over it. If she filled the lesser destroyers and light picket ships to overflowing, and cannibalized all of her fleet's shuttle units, she could save a lot of people, but that risked weakening the fleet. It was a hard choice. The lives of perhaps a few thousand civilians, versus the possibility that the alien fleet could overpower her already thinly stretched defenses, and then strike at the heart of the Union, endangering millions more. If the bugs broke through the line, then they would be in an excellent position to threaten dozens of worlds. She shook her head in frustration. Too many lives depended on her decision, and there was no way to find out which choice was the right one until it was too late.

Very well. It was always a privilege, and a duty, for those in power to make the hard decisions. It no longer mattered. She was an officer, and as such, it was her job to make such hard choices. The only question was whether or not she would be able to live with the result of her orders, though there was consolation in the fact that a lethal mistake would doom her as well.

"Reston, prepare to draw off destroyers and pickets from the order of battle. As many as possible without opening a gap in our line." She began to move her hands about the holomap. She almost made to touch a ship's highlight window and then drag it over to help form a new task force. Damn her compassion to hell for the choice she would have to make.

Max kept his mouth shut, as it was only fitting of a junior officer to stay silent when senior officers were discussing important matters. As Lord John was the most senior Family member, as well as CEO of Sutari, he called the shots. On the way there, Max had already been informed of the situation, though he could not possibly figure out a solution to the problem at hand. Every breath he took, every kilometer he traveled, was a commodity to be measured. It had never occurred to him that things he had taken for granted would be the subject of much debate, and that so many lives would hinge upon the final decision.

He had already stood here for some fifteen minutes as both Admiral Hanton and Lord John exhausted all their options. Caruno stood with Lord John, to his right, along with a host of other lesser executives and officers, some from the Homeguard, some from administrative and legislative divisions under Lord John, all of whom were there to advise him.

Truth be told, standing still was a hellish task. At least for him. He had to distract himself with something. Anything. He began to categorize and catalogue every single item in the briefing room, idly noting which of them had gone, in the process of being manufactured, over a Tanfen assembly line. His gaze first took in the most expansive item in the room, the holomap table. It looked old, like one of those K-48 models that just came out after the K-Wars. Almost ancient history in hardware terms. Newer machines and tactical display units generations beyond it graced the latest warships.

Suddenly the thought hit him. History!

It came back to him in a flash. All those lessons from the Family tutor, and in preparation school. Aunt Schala’s insistence that he actually digest all of it. Among the volumes he had read were historical reports of both Family and military actions around the Tyr system. As the thought snapped into his mind like a well oiled gear, time slowed. And slowed. Down to an infinitesimal crawl.

Somewhere, far away, in a place beyond time, beyond comprehension, a snowflake moved. A little one to be sure. But all it would take was one snowflake to affect the avalanche of fate on the mountain of destiny. That little snowflake first hesitated, then fell, in the right direction. If more fell the right way, the snow would turn into a snowslide, and then an avalanche, perhaps turning fate from its course. Time seemed to turn back to normal, as if a critical moment had passed, which was indeed the case. The cosmic scales, so long turned towards the twilight, now leaned back.

He saw Admiral Hanton nod to her aide in grim acknowledgement of what she had to do; watched her hand reach out to the holomap to give the fateful order that would jeopardize the entire fleet, and the whole war effort. He had an alternative.

"I have a possible solution, Admiral."

Everyone in the room turned to look at the owner of the voice. It came from the Tanfen entourage. Ranks parted to reveal the young man.

"What is your name, Master...?"

The young man walked forward to stand beside Lord John before saluting. “Maximilian Gan of the Family’s Walking Steel Regiment, Admiral Hanton."

Lord John glared at Max, as if displeased at his impromptu little stunt at undermining authority. Hanton urged him on. Any ideas, even from a boy that could almost be her son in age, would have to be listened to.

"Go on, Master Maximilian. What possible solution would you have to our little crisis?"

Max still looked a little sheepish though. As if he suddenly realized his mouth had got him in trouble with his own side, of all things.

"Well, Admiral, I did some previous research on the Tyr System before I transferred here. When I was looking through our archives, I came across references to several old Tanfen..."

He paused as he looked at Lord John. John gave a terse nod at Max to continue. "... several Tanfen Homeguard bases, dating back to the Kilrathi Wars. As luck would have it, pardon the cliché, Admiral, one of these depots is a few hours away from the Valeria."

Max manipulated the holomap console to highlight a sector of space. As he said, it was a few hours away. "This base was a deep space refueling depot back when ion drive and jump technology were more primitive. As time went by, it saw less and less use until it was forgotten. As far as my knowledge goes, Admiral, the fuel and oxygen supplies stored in underground bunkers on this asteroid base would still be there."

"Why weren’t these fuel and oxy stores removed then? If it was common knowledge that there were still extensive stores of fuel and oxygen, why did nobody have them moved?" Hanton asked, her curiosity piqued.

"Cost effectiveness, Admiral. Shipping technology then was quite inefficient. Back then, freighters had to be maintained more often between jumps, and it turns out that the overall cost of removing these supplies would have outweighed any possible gains. To empty the entire base's fuel and oxy bunkers would have cost more than to simply leave them there as a reserve. Also, as time went by, other stores become more easily accessible, and this depot was left in mothballs and apparently forgotten," John said before Max could reply.

He didn’t mention that he himself hadn't been known of its existence until Max had spoke up. Before the Founding, this had been Gan territory, and their own people had built the base; it was an almost exclusively Gan resource. It almost sounded too coincidental to be true, but then again, enough coincidences form a fact. John wondered, could the Family Gan have foreseen this, or even planned ahead for such an eventuality to stockpile and then mothball the base like this?

John continued "And what would have passed for milspec fuel then would be compatible with our current power plants. Excellent, Maximilian."

At least Hanton agreed with John on one thing. "Agreed, Lord John. I’ll send a recon unit first to ensure the depot is safe. After that, I propose sending a force along with several of your Sector Fleet tankers to take these reserves. Reston, belay that previous order, and order the Ghost Warriors to do a fast fly-by of the depot. Coordinates X46, Y42, Z-58, near jump point 6."

Hanton’s aide nodded as he sent the order down the line. As her aide spoke, she reached forth, touching the small image of the Valeria with her index finger. Her touch prompted the map to reveal a detailed list of what ships the Valeria held. She then tapped on an icon that representing the Ghost Warrior recon squadron, and then, as if physically grabbing them with a giants hand, clenched her fingers around the icon, swung her hand around, and dropped it off at the depot, thus signaling the squadron's destination.

This information system wasn’t new. It had already been in common use by the time of the K-Wars. In theory, a commander could have literally led a fleet single-handedly by virtue of this system, but tradition and pragmatism won out. Mistakes could be made, orders sabotaged, and it had been recognized early on that even such an advanced tool was no more than that, a tool. Though useful, it could not replace other officers. Even though it was officially immune against computer glitches, it was standard practice to let real officers confirm orders given this way.

John gave a thin-lipped smile. "I will send along a representative to ensure that our interests are not compromised Admiral. Will we receive any escort?"

Hanton shook her head. "I'm sorry, but that's a negative, Lord John. I have my hands full taking care of the alien threat. I need every one of my vessels here to deal with them and to handle the evacutaion. As I recall, you already have extensive defensive assets. Use them."

"And if they prove inadequate to whatever task may present itself?"

"Once the raiding team have gone out of fleet range, I expect that we’ll be out of contact. As you know, the aliens are capable of jamming any kind of long range transmission that is not somehow enhanced. Another task force, farther away from here, managed a transmission only with a comsat and a signal booster. I'll have one of your ships outfitted with a one-way signal booster. It will be about as subtle as a matter-antimatter warhead, and you will only be able to use it once, but it should allow you to contact us in an emergency."

Hanton gestured at the screen again, highlighting a squadron of fighters. "To that end, in case you meet something more than you can handle, I shall have a squadron of Panthers from the Bunker Hill on standby. The Hill is a lot closer than the Valeria is. The Panthers can reach your position on maximum afterburn within, at most, ten minutes. That is all I can spare for now."

"Then it will have to do, Admiral. I will remain here, the better to coordinate the efforts of my fleet with yours." Lord John replied. He left it unsaid that he already thought the Admiral was madder than a Porhenner on trichloropenthol, and that someone had to be around to keep an eye on her.

And as added insurance, thought the Admiral.

Lord John then turned to Max. "Maximilian, I require someone to be acting commander of this task force in my absence. Do you wish to take this task? If not, I will find someone else."

Lord John's eyes said the rest. Make it quick, I do not have time to dawdle.

Max simply nodded. This was what he had been waiting for. Responsibility. "Aye, milord John. Your will be done. I will lead our personnel on this

John nodded in approval. "Good. You may be of the Families yet. Do not fail me, Maximilian."

Max saluted and stepped back into the fold. His first independent mission, for the Families, away from supervision. Then the reality of it struck him like a brick smashing through a glass window. If he failed, thousands of lives, including those of Tanfen personnel, would be snuffed out. He had to succeed. But then again, the depot had been abandoned decades ago. It should be a milk run, right? His thoughts ran through his head madly, as he stood higher, and prouder, behind Lord John.

John then turned to Caruno. "Caruno, fuel up three of our tankers, the Starry Memory, and a reinforced flight of Bolts. Detail off that understrength squadron from the 101st Light Tactical. It will do for our purposes. Then load up all the intel and data on that depot to the Memory."


John faced the Admiral. "When do you propose to launch the task force, Admiral?”

"After the Warriors come back with recon data. They're much faster than your ships, so it should only take them about an hour. Then I figure six hours to make sure everything’s ready before moving out."

"Very well. I take it that this meeting is adjourned, then."

"It is. Good day, Lord John. I will keep you informed as to what we uncover, in an hour's time. Meanwhile, please avail yourselves to our lounge."

"Thank you for your offer, Admiral. We will wait on our ship."

As one, the Tanfen entourage left, following Lord John. The door hissed shut, leaving Hanton, and her aides.

"That boy bears watching, Renton."

"I agree ma’am. He’s a sharp one. Pity he wasn’t one of us."

"Perhaps. Loyalty to kin is to be admired, but that boy seems to know the tune and how to dance by it. We’ll see. Ghost Warrior ETA to the depot?"

"They’ve just launched, ma’am. Figure about fifteen to twenty minutes for a full burn to reach the base and another twenty to get back."

Hanton nodded as the holomap updated itself, showing several blue wedges appear from the belly of the Valeria, before turning into stripped triangles. The wedges represented Arrow recon fighters, equipped with cloaking devices and packed to the gills with sensors. The Ghost Warrior flight seemed to pick up speed, and then disappear into the distance, off the edge of the table.

"Make sure their CO reports to me personally as soon as she gets back. Oh, and get me a cup of coffee while you’re at it, Reston. The blackest stuff, as strong as you can make it; I’ll need to be awake a good while yet."

"Aye aye ma’am." Her aide said worriedly. She normally didn’t imbibe a lot of coffee, but at the rate she had been sculling the stuff, it sounded like her nerves were tuned finer than Nero’s fiddle. Which was, in fact, a rather apt simile. Rome, or a good portion of its galactic equivalent, was burning. Hanton continued watching the fleet, attempting to come up with contingency plans. She wasn't going to let Rome burn to the ground, not if she could help it.


Command Galaxy Kaikuhur
Command Deck C
A few minutes after

"Why did you not tell me of the presence of this Gan facility before?" Lord John asked his nephew, his expression suggesting that he was not far away from going up in flames.

Max tipped his head apologetically. "Forgive me, milord. I did not think to connect it to our present plight, until now."

It seemed as if Lord John was about to say something more, but he stayed silent. Only after a few minutes of contemplation did he continue. "I am not here to berate you on manners, even though you should have been aware of the fact that going over my head was not in keeping with respect to your elders. However, your suggestion deserves due credit."

"Thank you," Max said, as both walked down the corridor of the Kaikuhur. In any other setting, it would have been an uncle talking to a nephew about life and matters of little importance. This certainly involved life, and but also matters of great, if not overwhelming, importance.

John paused and looked at Max in the eye. "This mission, Maximilian, is of the utmost importance. The lives of Corp personnel and Family are in your hands. I cannot go, my duty ties me here with the Branch and the Fleet. You must represent me. Do not fail me, or the Families."

Max could only nod. Inside though, he quailed. So many possibilities assaulted his mind. What if he failed? What if something went wrong? Everyone would die. He had never felt like this before, even as a Captain with the Steel. It had simply him, his squad, and the enemy in the accursed archipelago. Now, the lives of thousands were depending on him

"Aye, milord. Your will be done. I shall not fail."

He only hoped that he could live up to his promise. He had already broken one as it was.


BWS Valeria
An hour later

After about her third cup in an hour, her aide signaled her. She had already seen it on the map. Crimson wedges were fading in from nowhere, turning bright blue on the map as the inbuilt computer registered their IFF codes. The wedges then moved in and faded again as they landed on the Valeria.

"Admiral, the Warriors have returned, and their CO wants to speak with you, as per your standing orders."

"Send her in, then."

The squadron commander of the Ghost Warriors, Lieutenant Colonel Ruth "Lynx" Lofton, reached the bridge a few minutes later. She saluted.

Hanton saluted back before prompting her. "Well, Lieutenant Colonel, what did you find?"

"Well, Admiral, I’ve got good news and bad news."

"Good news first, then."

"The depot is there, and our cam data indicates storage tanks of some sort deep inside the asteroid base, filled with large volumes of liquid, though its hard to tell for sure at the range we ID’ed them. If my bet's on, those are the fuel and oxy tanks we’re looking for, Admiral."

"And the bad news?"

"The base isn't abandoned. I’ve got almost half a dozen signatures of craft around the base. Light fighters mostly, though IR and silhouette traces had one of them as a T-bolt. The rest are probably Ferrets, Razors, or Arrows, though God knows what the Corps are selling these days."

"Someone inside the base, I take it?"

"Yes. A significant number, enough to trigger thermo’ to ignore ambient base temperature in the area. It looks like that old Homeguard base had just become home sweet home for a pirate gang."

"Any distinguishing markings on their craft?"

"Only one. Some sort of weird bleeding tulip."

Hanton nodded. That was enough to know for now. She thanked the Lt. Colonel before calling in Lord John. After a few minutes of explanation, and the viewing of a data disc containing the recon data, John only nodded grimly.

"That symbol, admiral, is owned by one of the most vicious pirate bands in the sector-the Keung Fraled Consortium. The Corp has already lost several million credits in assets, not to forget valuable personnel, to their operations. It is rather distressing that our currently most valuable asset turns out to be their secret base."

"Be it as it may, Lord John, this is now not simply a raid. We've come too far to abort the operation because of pirates. We have to organize a full assault to secure the base for the transfer. What do you have in the way of groundpounders?”

John gazed warily at the Admiral, gauging her question before deciding to answer. "About four under-strength companies' worth of light infantry, half of them mechanized. And three squads of Loyalist Marines."

"Moving too many troops into position would alert the pirates before we can pin them in place. We have to strike them quickly, with our best troops, before they can dig in. That means that the Marines are going to draw this job. I'm going to authorize Bravo platoon of the Valeria's Marine contingent to secure the base for us, and I want your Loyalist Marines to back them up."

Intel had given her an extensive briefing on Tanfen, which had covered the infamous Loyalist Marines. They were indeed formidable opponents, with the training of soldiers and the instincts of bodyguards. Unconfirmed intelligence stated that they were vicious close combat specialists. They'd be useful in the cramped quarters of a pirate station.

John weighed his options before nodding grudgingly. "Aye. Half my personal guard, and Master Maximilians’ own guard will accompany your marines on this mission. I trust we will have access to our own armories for this operation?"

"Done, though command goes to one of my own. Reston, who’s in charge of our boys?" the Admiral replied.

Her aide thumbed in a query into his datapad before answering. "Lieutenant Kyra Kaslowski, ma’am."

Hanton turned back to John. "Lieutenant Kaslowski will lead this task force, and Lord Maximilian will hold advisory capacity. I can’t afford to take any risks. Not at this time."

"Then, that will be all, ‘Admiral.’ I trust to your ‘judgement’ in this matter. We shall see if you are right."


Command Galaxy Kaikuhur
Command Deck C
4 hours to zero hour

Kyra, Max and Richard arrayed themselves around a holo schematic on the command deck. The holo looked old, even ancient. It was still in monochrome, and was two-dimensional, an odd contrast since mostly everyone in the known universe was used to three dimensional images. That only spoke volumes as to the age of the base, and its construction plans. Other officers from both the Loyalist Marines, and the Union Marines hung on the sidelines as they themselves observed, took notes, and prepared to receive orders. Richard and Max did most of the talking, since they had the most experience with the target at hand.

Richard called up a holographic schematic of the base and zoomed in on it. "This depot was built around basic Tanfen construction modules, which means that there is only one main landing bay. That's the only entrance to the areas beyond."

"The upper levels," he circled a huge area on the map with a calloused finger, "house the living areas, command centre and the mess hall. The ground level contains the administration areas, as well as storage facilities and an armory. The fuel and oxygen reserves are on the lower levels, in armored storage tanks along with rearmament bays dating from the K-War. As those facilities are based on blueprints authorized by Homeguard Command, the entry bays from the landing bay will only average about six feet in height, enough for a man to walk through, but low enough to deter most powered armor units, except for the lightest models - and those ain't worth jack in these surroundings, 'cause they can't stop a SABOT round."

One Union officer raised a hand.


"Does that mean that we are going to charge in without any kind of armor?"

Richard shook his head. "No. Those blueprints were based on armor suits constructed before the conclusion of the Kilrathi Wars. Newer suits are lighter and smaller, though the heavy, ah, CAS suits you Union boys use still won't fit in there. Still, we'll be able to use security suits. Better than nothing, after all. We have a limited number in storage aboard the three Command Galaxys, and will be distributing them equally. They'll be our fire support and our exfiltration security team."

"Don’t these things require surgery to use?"

"That would have been about three decades ago-the newer versions don’t need them for instantaneous feedback and response now. Any other questions?"

The room was silent. Max continued looking at the schematics, silent and brooding. Richard took a look around, saw nothing and continued.

"In addition, we have no idea what the pirates may have been up to these last few years. We don't know whether or not they have managed to activate the anti-intruder systems, which are spread throughout the base. These systems were installed to protect research facilities from an invader. If they are still operational, then our friends will have several assets at their disposal, like turreted guns firing anti-personnel rounds, blast doors that either allow the venting of an entire section to vacuum, or simply delay attackers long enough for the turrets to slice them to pieces."

He lowered his voice into a growl. "Watch out, people, because this is not the worst of it. We will have to forget about the elevators, as those can be flooded with gas, and shutting down their power supply would trap us like birds in a cage. Last but not least, there are bound to be
Bakelite-conduits - those are deadly. They'll burn and suffocate us, so keep a sharp look out, people. Activating these systems would ordinarily require the clearance of at least a Homeguard colonel, but we shouldn't rely on that."

He inhaled sharply. "Now, these toys are a serious threat. To counter them, every member of the assault team will have to wear an armored space suit. All of you have practice with them, so they shouldn't hamper you too much. That'll negate the effects of breathing vacuum, and the armor is heavy enough to stop a laser bolt that'd otherwise fry you."

"Heck, speed's life, ain't it? With those suits, we'll not be very fast. If we want to keep the buggers on their toes, then we'll have to press them,
and we can't do that when loaded down like that," one of the Union Marines snorted.

"That may be, grunt, but the fact remains that there's no way for us to be quick enough to keep them from shutting down life support in certain areas. If you want to suck vacuum, and feel your eyeballs blowing up, be my guest." His expression hardened. "Those rats have nothing to lose, so they will hit us with everything they have. If we want to survive, we'll have to live with those suits. It's as easy as that."

Kyra gave a sharp nod, a silent order for her trooper to stand down. The man did, albeit reluctantly.

Richard continued. "Every fire team will have one trooper with a platolum tower shield to give the others time to take out any turrets, and to provide cover to take the corridors. All of us will be armed with plasma and shrapnel grenades. As per standard procedure in a tight built up area, every fire team will also have a shotgunner, with SABOT and AP rounds to take down doors and armored targets. I'll replace the sniper in our team with a heavy machine gunner. Leave nothing behind, except any POWs the pirates have taken."

Kyra shot Richards an incredulous look. "That'd be a direct violation of the Valentine's Convention, Lieutenant."

"The Convention doesn't apply to pirates, but only to armed combatants of a nation state. So, no dice. I don't want one of them shooting me in the back. These bastards have murdered dozens of people, it's only fair we take out the trash."

"Wrong." Kyra said evenly. "The Convention not only protects armed combatants, it binds us as well. There are some things that we just don't do, no matter who our opponents are. That includes torture, rape, and as in this case, summary executions. The point is-if they surrender, we must accept it, Lieutenant."

"The point, Lieutenant Kyra, is that these people are terrorists and insurgents. We are here to get the fuel for the convoy. They are in the way. You want to negotiate, fine. If the convoy can't make the jump because you're playing nice with pirates, then it'll be on your head. They are not going to step aside just because we ask them nicely, and we don't have the time to get around them. Doing away with them is the only way to ensure the safety of our people, as well as that of thousands of civilians."

Kyra took a deep breath, and seemed to relax completely, just before she lashed out. Her right hand grabbed Richard by the throat, slamming him against a wall. Her left hand whipped out at the same time, jamming a razor sharp combat knife against the throbbing vein in his neck. Richard started to react, and then froze. No matter how fast he moved, she would be be able to slice his jugular open. Looking into her eyes, he had no doubt she would do it if he gave her a good reason.

The Loyalists started to go to their comrade's defense, and then stopped as they realized that the other Union Marines already had their weapons out. They had the Loyalists dead to rights, and both sides knew it. One wrong move would start a bloodbath right here and now. Max stepped between the two groups, trying to avert disaster, and hoping neither side was crazy enough to simply shoot through him. Meanwhile, Kyra and Richard continued their "discussion."

"Listen to me, Lieutenant," Kyra said, her voice ice cold. "Do you know what happened in this very system eight years ago? I'll tell you anyway. Black Lance Marines raided a base on Tyr VII to free a 'hostage.' They didn't just settle for taking her, though. They lined up everyone on the base, including the medical staff, and shot them. They fucking murdered a bunch of doctors! And you know what the worst part is? By your logic, they were perfectly justified in doing so. Back then, the Union of Border Worlds wasn't a legitimate government in Confed's eyes. Back then, we were the 'terrorists and insurgents.'"

Kyra took another deep breath, and eased her grip on Richard's throat, though she still kept the knife near his jugular.

"The Laws of War are there for a reason, Richard. They protect soldiers like you and me, but they won't work unless we abide by them. No matter what you think of these pirates, you can't play judge, jury, and executioner. You may have gotten away with that shit on your Homeworlds, but not out here. If they surrender, they will be taken prisoner and turned over to the Union for a fair trial. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is found shooting prisoners will go with them, to be tried for murder."

Richard gave her a stiff nod "Suit yourself. None of my people will help you with the prisoners, though."

Kyra sighed and placed her knife back in its sheath, figuring that was the best she was going to get. The other Marines holstered their weapons. They had made their point. This operation was under Union command, and it would be carried under the standard Laws of War.

"Why all this anger against these pirates?" Kyra asked. "I thought the Corp always factored in losses to shipping?"

Richard gave a grim look, as did the rest of the Loyalist retinue. Kyra paused. This seemed to be a touchy subject. All of them looked so pissed off that she instantly felt for her holstered pistol, just in case. Richard simply nodded his head to Max, indicating he should tell the story. He was too emotional to talk. Max took a deep breath, before choosing his words carefully.

"That may be true, Lieutenant Kyra, but the Keung Fraled Consortium had gone one step further. They..." he seemed to pause as he tried to find an appropriate word "..hurt and seriously injured a member of the Family Tan. She may be scarred, both physically and psychologically, for life. This in itself is a cause for a blood vendetta. The Consortium has been bold enough to leave their symbol on ships they’ve raided, not to mention leaving dozens of dead and wounded."

It was not necessary to add that such acts justified, at least for the Tans, retaliation unrestrained by any conventions. Kyra had already been briefed concerning that. If there was one thing the Family Tan did well, it was bearing grudges, and settling old scores.

"An eye for an eye just makes the world go blind, Maximilian."

Richard gave a snort. "But not if my enemy goes blind first, and not before he takes a dirt nap."

"And if..."

Max held his hand up. "Please, Richard" he then turned to Kyra, "and Lieutenant Kyra, this matter is a touchy subject at best. I agree that we won't shoot prisoners. Let’s concentrate on how to retake the base intact instead."

Richard started to say more, but one look from Max shut him up. Kyra nodded and stood back, letting Richard continue.

"Good, then listen up. I'm going to tell you is important. I know just what the Corp may have had in that base, and how its laid out, and it'll save you valuable time, and lives. Now, after the main landing bay, you'll come to three corridors..."


Command Galaxy Starry Memory
B Deck, Armory
04 Feb 2681 (2681.35)
One hour to zero hour

The two Union Marines guarding the armory stood aside as Richard and Max both scanned in their retinal scans and handprints before entering their own respective passwords. The heavily armored door hissed open, revealing a fine selection of lethal response apparatus. Making maximum use of the tight space, the small room, little larger than a broom closet, boasted ten Archer heavy pistols, of which two were Gauss models, along with a rack of heavy laser rifles. Two light support weapons, demolition charges, and enough ammunition to blow up the ship and a good chunk of anything else nearby took up the rest of the space. Next to the blast door, in a sealed box, were the rest of the Loyalist’s reg blades, stored in their scabbards.

The Union Marines simply nodded and left to join up with their lieutenant. They had their own kit, though they were borrowing several light security powered armor suits from the Corp. Each Command Galaxy had four, stored in the lower decks that could also double as EVA or cargo handling units.

"Ahh, this sight always makes me feel young again. It will be a good day, Max, when I sink my blade into the throat of a Fraled dog," Richard said, while gesturing expansively with his arms.

Max did give a wince at Richard’s eagerness to hasten the end of the Fraled consortium. He could see trouble ahead. The Loyalists wanted revenge, the Union Marines wouldn't stand for it. They would be lucky if they didn't end up fighting each other.

Behind him was the rest of the squad, all in a row. Each of his personal detail would go on the mission. All were now clad in their body armor. All that they needed now were the tools of their trade. Richard hefted a TS-818 assault shotgun and handed it to Max, who handed it down the line. Then on it went, until the armory stood nearly bare.

Richard then turned around and inspected Max and his retinue. Excellent. All were armed to the teeth. "Let’s go - our ride's waiting."

The ride in question was docked piggyback onto the Starry Memory, a Union assault shuttle. The techs and a skeleton crew would maintain the 'Memory, while Max and his retinue, along with a detachment of Lord John's guards, would take part in the assault. Another assault shuttle was docked with the Kaikuhur to transfer Lord John's guards on board. All in all, the assault comprised some thirty Loyalist Marines, and almost forty Union Marines, in two assault shuttles with air support from a reinforced flight of six Tanfen Homeguard T-bolts.


Zero hour
Outer Picket of the Combined Fleet

"All systems on-line?" Kyra asked the pilot of the shuttle.

"Aye ma’am, we’re ready to go. ETA, about five hours."

"Let’s go then."

While the T-bolts could have reached their destination much quicker, they had to guard the assault shuttles and tankers, which were too slow to keep pace with their swift protectors. When they arrived, it should be about six AM, local time. Just when a man stops paying attention and starts considering the possibilities of sleep. They planned to catch the pirates unaware, and whack them hard. The fighters and shuttles raced towards the base. The lives of Tyr's civilians hinged on this one operation.

"Admiral Hanton, the assault force is away, on schedule," a tech reported on board the Valeria.

"God go with them, then."

Elsewhere on the bridge, another man nodded, "For the Family."


HG Depot-A18/ Fraled Consortium Base
Landing Bay
04 Feb 2681 (2681.035)
6 AM local time

As if some ancient goddess of good fortune had been listening to all their prayers, the pirate base was strangely silent. There was no comm chatter, no sensor signals, not even a real fighter screen. The pirates didn't have the kind of radar that could give early warning of the attack.

The lone picket, an old Ferret that had just taken off when the assault force arrived, died under a volley of IFFs before its pilot could do more than scream once, briefly. Though it was enough to provide the pirates with a heads-up, it was no more than the Marines had expected. The tankers hung back, surrounded by the T-bolts, while the shuttles jumped forward, right into the gaping mouth of the base's landing bay.

The Border Worlds assault shuttles came in fast, as belly mounted turret guns spat out hails of gatling cannon shells, shredding everything in the landing bay. The barrels were rotating at incredible speeds, sending forth bright crimson streaks of annihilation throughout the bay. Pirates and rogues of all stripes fell, cut down by scythe-like volleys of 20mm high explosive ammunition. Some pirates were sliced in half by the hail of death, others were simply turned into meat patty, exploding into a cloud of flesh and bone.

Though they had expected the assault, with several of them hiding behind crates and aiming rifles at the bay, they were simply not prepared for the sheer scale and ferocity of the attack. The few fighters the pirates had were all docked in the bay, even better luck which meant that the tankers were safe. Pilots that attempted to reach their craft were torn to shreds by gatling rounds, and most of the survivors were pinned in place by bursts of fire.

As soon as the shuttle cleared the magnetic shield, with its metallic feet touching the landing bay, the front bay doors slammed open with explosive force. The first to leave the shuttle bay doors were troopers in light powered armor, armed with fragmentation grenade launchers, and light gatling guns on external hard points. Though they were only light security suits, they were the only ones that could possibly fit in the tight confines of the base. They were still nonetheless a massive force multiplier. Their pilots looked like hunched demons, with their hard angular edges, and hardpoints that turned them into something more than, while at the same time less than, human. In close combat, a power claw could crush a man's skull like a grape. One good kick could have shattered a man's ribcage like glass.

What the shuttle guns could not hit, the powered armor troopers tore apart. They cascaded their frag grenades in high arcs from their launchers, each grenade giving a small pop before it exploded, showering the entrenched pirates with swirling razor sharp shards, causing them to scream in pain. Though smaller than the shuttles' own turret guns, the 12mm gatling guns had wider angles of fire; they cut swaths of pain into the survivors.

Following behind them came Loyalist and Union Marines in armored suits, unpowered, and without hardpoints; essentially a space suit with armour plating, on the off chance the pirates would attempt to decompress the bay. Roaring a battle charge, the Marines came out guns blazing in support of their larger brethren. A chorus of battle cries reverberated throughout the landing bay.

"For the Union!"

"Border Worlds el numero uno!"

"For the Family!!"

"Semper Fi!"

"In Her Name!"

"Border Worlds forever!"

Their features were etched in crimson and argent as sleet storms of energy and lead shot slammed into the enemy. Some faces were contorted in grim anger and desire for revenge, the rest by calm determination to do their duty.

Though a good many of the pirates had fallen in the initial mad minute, a great deal more survived, and were being led by a rail thin individual, screaming threats and taunts and alternating them with shots from a heavy laser rifle. Sporadic fire concentrated as the surviving rogues began combining their fire into sleet storms of death.

A Union Marine in a light security suit gave a shriek as a light gauss rifle slammed into him, haphazardly aimed by a pirate who had probably stolen the weapon. The hyper velocity metal slug, accelerated by electromagnets, punched through the suit's armor like tinfoil, tearing off the Marine’s arm in a shower of sparks and blood. In the low gravity of the bay, the droplets of blood seemed to float idly in the air like perverse beads in a universe of pain. Mad with rage, the Marine returned fire, sending off his gatling rounds at the pirate sniper, in his own version of a mad minute. He watched in glee as round after round slammed right into the woman, first tearing off an arm and a good chunk of her torso like a man tears a turkey carcass apart, before tearing her head off. Spent shells flew and tinkled on the floor and his feet in the symphony of battle. On his HUD, his ammo counter flashed 000. The Marine gave an insane grin of satisfaction before collapsing from the pain.

"Corpsman!" screamed a voice. In a battle, the cacophony of voices both heard, shouted, and in one’s mind sounded like pandemonium. But the Marines, both Union and Loyalist recognized the call, made since the earliest days of battle on the ancient homeworld of Terra. The one that called for succor.

One hand holding his helmet, another a bag, an armor suited Loyalist Marine bearing a painted cross over his breast and shoulder plates ran forward, fast and low as bullets and energy bolts zinged overhead like a light show, trying to desperately reach the wounded man. The Medic zig zagged left and right, dodging and running like mad, his Archer bouncing still in the holster on his hip.

A Loyalist Marine, knees bent slightly as he engaged his HV-SMG, gave a blood choked gurgle as a pirate slammed a high velocity round into his faceplate. The reinforced armour that supposedly protected the Loyalist’s skull in his armored spacesuit only caused the round to ricochet, turning his cranium into puree. In his death throes, his fingers tightened in spasms to randomly spray the area. Gore sprung up from the geysering fountain where the Marine’s head once was, showering the medic with gore.

A fellow Loyalist bit off a cry of pain as Branson’s SMG let off a round right into her leg, hamstringing her. The Loyalist Marine fell to one knee, but kept firing. She only gave a rictus grin of insane anger before screaming, "For TAAANNN!!!" and continued firing.

"Fuck! Branson!" roared the medic as the headless corpse dropped it’s SMG, and fell back onto the floor twitching madly. The metal fittings of his armored suit made Branson, or his mortal remains, look like a massive armored bug turned onto its back and trying to get up. He would have to be mourned later.

The Medic reached the fallen Border Worlder, and dropped his bag. Blood still kept pouring out. Heavy trauma, extreme loss of blood. Subject unconscious. Vital signs unknown. The Medic raised his right fist, revealing a nightmarish looking gauntlet, bristling with needles and other medical impedimenta. Reaching to the man's neck, he found what he was looking for, the emergency release clamp. First, turn, then pull. With a hiss, the suit’s faceplate popped open. Without wasting time, the medic touched the glove to the man's neck, while using his other hand to check his vital signs. His pupils were dilated. Pulse was irregular. Face blue and pale, skin was clammy to the touch. Extreme shock and trauma.

The medic's primary objective would be to stabilize him. He tapped a command into a keypad set into the glove, before raising his index finger and jabbing it at the marine’s neck. With a hiss, a needle delivered a set of painkillers strong enough to stun a horse, and a stimulant to ensure the heart and other organs kept functioning. Then he immediately took out an aerosol can and sprayed the wound shut with rapid ‘Organo’ sealant, which then automatically tightened itself upon drying to form a seal. The man would probably need a new arm, regrown or cybered. That was not the problem right now, as the man had lost extensive body fluids, and the trauma meant he had only minutes to live. After sealing thw wound, the medic ripped open an emergency access panel, gaining access to the abdomen in event of power failure in the suit. Without wasting time on niceties, one hand grabbed a plastic tube, connected to a sealed pack of albumin; blood protein used to replace lost body fluids. He then connected it to a disposable IV jack set like a thimble on his index finger. Putting it on the end of his medical gauntlet, he jabbed it right near a major vein, before connecting it to the albumin bag. Done.

He’d live. The suit itself would stabilize the rest of his vital signs. Good thing, these powered armor suits. He heard another scream for help. He sealed back the faceplate to make sure the Marine wouldn’t catch a stray round and make all his work in vain, before rushing onwards towards the sound.

With practiced ease, the Loyalists and Union marines had split up, each covering the other as the power armor troopers covered the advance of their lesser brethren. The Loyalists and Unioners didn't exactly coordinate and cooperate with each other, and could have SNAFU'ed the entire op, hence they each were given a sector of responsibility. With Richard's usual flair, the Loyalists went left. The Union troops went right. Anything not wearing a Tanfen or Union uniform was a TWEP (Terminate With Extreme Prejudice) target. Casualties were relatively light, though each loss was difficult to replace.

Kyra had only seen a few Archers being used in her career. The Navy frowned on non standard issue weapons, and refused to provide the ammo for them. The Archer fell into that category. It was still a slug thrower, in an age where energy weapons were the norm, and that only made it even rarer. Only one of her squadmate had one, and he claimed he had traded it for tickets to the Platinum Panzers in the finals. She had often wondered why the Corp so heavily favored the gun, and thought it an idle piece of propaganda, until she saw them in action. The damned thing was almost a sawed off version of an SMG. Fed from two linked clips, the thing had enough modern tech in it to disqualify it as a 'thrower. Spent shells flew out of the Loyalists' Archers like a silver stream while an argent blaze fanned the flames of death coming from the barrel.

Though Max chafed at his orders, he was the last to come out of the shuttle, but come out he did, guns blazing. His portable support weapon may have been heavy, but he still wielded it as best as he could, giving supporting fire along with his other bodyguards. Spent capacitor rounds ejected themselves with small sizzling sounds as his G-240 spat out round after round of heavy laser bolts, causing the stench of ozone and burnt flesh or steel wherever they hit. Max was inured to violence; but he still disapproved needless loss of life. In this case however, it went beyond that.

One of the pirates, who had apparently realized that he was one of the few survivors, jumped to his feet, breaking into a mad dash for a lever that would negate the magnetic shields and vent the entire bay to vacuum. On his way there, the pirate constantly roared invective, along with showing the universal symbol of defiance-the one finger salute. It was the rail thin individual.

Max immediately dropped his sights over the man, tracking the bastard with an icy calm that astonished him. These scum had hurt the Family, and had harmed its members. That called for retribution. Max planted his legs wide, braced himself and then let off a round, toasting the pirate like a spit roast from left to right, punching into his left torso, and leaving a clear exit wound to the right, cauterized from the high heat to form a tunnel within his flesh.

Most of the remaining pirates in the bay lost their nerve, and were routed, screaming and running. A few strategically placed frag grenades and rifle rounds ended all resistance in the bay. The rest of the pirates fell like dogs.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” shouted both Richard and Kyra, their voices seemingly small in the sudden silence of the bay. The only thing left was the acrid smell of cordite, the sharp coppery scent of spilt blood, the stench of ozone from energy weapon discharge, and the bold wide streaks left by the fallen as they were cut down. The bay was taken. The initial part of the plan had gone well, their entry and exit points were secure.

There was little need to collect intelligence. Besides, time was short, but a cursory pat of the bodies was done. Under cover of overwatch fire the wounded from the Loyalists and Marines were dragged back into the assault shuttles. The fallen would certainly not need evacuation, though they would have been, if there had been time.

"All units, move out. TWEP the little bastards!" shouted Richard through his squad comlink. Kowalski nodded at the powered armor troopers, "Guard the bay and our cab out, boys. We'll smoke out the rest of 'em as planned."

Richard pointed at Marle and Mei Yin. "You know your orders, take C and D teams and clear this level out. I’ll take A team and clear a way to the command centre."

Kyra had tasked her men to take the fuel and oxy tanks, located a level down, and then to help capture the command center as well. They all knew their orders. The order to overload the bases reactors could be done from only the main command center, thus, it had to be taken rapidly. However, so did the fuel tanks. The Union Marines cocked their heavy laser rifles and drew their laser knives, splitting up into teams of six.

The Loyalists split off into groups of four with a corporal leading, and each drew their reg blades, smiling with grim anticipation, their features highlighted in crimson from the eddies and heatwaves from each blade. Some cocked TS-818 assault shotguns and HV-SMGs. One member of each team packed a light support weapon.

"In Her glorious name boys and girls. Let's whoop ass. Remember the Constantine!" roared Richard. If only Lady Merine never boarded the Constantine that day. But it was too late for that. Lady Merine, Kuan Yin protect her soul, would be able to breathe easier today. Justice was about to be meted out.

"Ooo-rah!" came the collective roar from the Loyalists.

“What of me?” asked Max.

Richard turned to answer. "You are a Lord; your life cannot be at risk. We have argued this before, and my decision as your bodyguard is final. B team" and he gestured at Celes and three other Loyalists, "will stay here on bodyguard detail."

Richard then gave a grin. "Your MOS was first aid right, Max? Make yourself useful, and watch our ride while we’re gone." Max was left alone in the bay, along with Celes and his bodyguard detail. The other powered armor Marines shuffled off to guard each exit from the landing bay.


Over The Next Few Minutes

As soon as Richard and his men reached the first junction, an ear-splitting roar sounded. High velocity rounds began pinging against the metal bulkheads like a steel hailstorm. In the ceiling, an automated turret cast its unblinking eye down the corridor, ready to mow down anything that moved. The anti-intruder devices had been commandeered by the pirates, God only knew how. Damn. Their luck couldn’t have run out at a worse time.

The going was slow, and brutal. Pirates attacked from ambush and hardened positions while the defensive turrets made things even worse. Both forces had to advance under heavy fire, under the protection of a platolum tower shield to take out the defenders.

The Loyalists were thorough; they left nothing behind to threaten them. As they passed each corridor, the last marine in the squad scattered IFF proximity grenades all over the floor. Anybody that did not broadcasting an IFF that showed them as a Tanfenner or Union Marine would trigger them, causing a hundred razor sharp metallic shards to scythe through anything in range.

Wherever they came to a room, one Marine punched through the door with a SABOT shotgun round, causing the doorlock and a large chunk of the door to cave in before another Marine then did a rapid eyes check for POWs or pirates. If there were pirates, a frag grenade was sent skeeting into the room, or a spray of machine gun rounds turned the room into a shooting gallery.

Whenever a room had had been cleared of opposition, it was, as the finishing touch, smoked out for good with a plasma grenade, to make sure that nobody remained. There were some screams as a pack of pirates that hoped to pull the trick were turned into blazing human torches. A few quick shots ended their screaming before the squads moved on. POWs were slapped with a friendly IFF chip on their clothes before being pushed into the back of the group with the rearguard as the squad moved on.

Richard saw something out of the corner of his eye. Movement. With hand signals, he urged his squad to move into ambush position. It was pirates, at least three of them. His three other teammates hid in the shadows, their eyes glittering like those of bloodhounds in the darkness.

He waited until the point man walked past him before he made his move. In one smooth move, Richard body blocked him, causing the pirate to stumble as he tried to draw his own gun. As the pirate stumbled, Richard shoved two feet of blazing steel right up his back, causing the pirate to gasp in pain. With one jerk, he pushed his blade up higher, wedging the pirate's body up his blade before he walked out into the corridor, his Archer blazing.

The other pirates were both infuriated by the sneak attack, but also surprised, and only some of them reacted fast enough, drawing their own rifles. However, none of them were quick enough to solve the dilemma they were confronted with - either to shoot right away, thus probably killing their comrade, or to hold their fire until they could take a shot without hurting a friend. The hesitation was all that Richard needed. The pirate he had skewered provided him with a human shield, even if it was a dead one, while his Archer roared down the corridor, highlighting his features and the corpse protecting him in crimson.

The unearthly tinkle of spent Archer shells formed an orchestral contrast to the blazing heat and the roar from the muzzle of the Archer. Richard grinned as he heard and played the song of battle. It was a beautiful song, with a depth and harmony of rhythm and motion that nothing else could match. It pulsed in his blood, in his very being. He knew it would be the end of him one day, but till that day, the song of war was a glorious thing of beauty he would play again and again.

Each 5 millimeter round was machined precisely, and manufactured to exacting standards. Though ballistic weapons had fallen out of favor, five centuries of use by the Corp had created ammunition and ballistic weapons that were far better than anything that had ever existed. Each Archer round was made of tungsten, before being coated with SlikCo and then loaded with a delayed fuse high explosive tip. This formed a bullet that could pierce through body armor and then explode violently, ripping apart whatever it had penetrated.

Each round flew straight and true, one after another. The pirates all gave howls of pain, dropping down or staggering before their bodies exploded like blood sausages, turning the corridor red with gore. His other men opened up in a crossfire in the adjacent corridors, making the pirates dance like puppets to the tune of ballistic death.

The silence afterwards was deafening, but Richard grinned. He lowered his reg blade, causing the corpse to fall down to the ground with a slight sizzle. All of his foes had fallen, defeated. The last sounds of spent ammunition ended the song he played, with a beautiful bell-like noise as each round danced like skeets before dropping to the floor gently.

"Area cleared," he uttered into the comlink as he reloaded his Archer.

The vengeful forms of those that bore a rampant stallion on their armor flitted through the base like murderous wraiths, brutally and efficiently rendering the Fraled Consortium and its members candidates for life insurance claims. The Family Tan’s revenge was going to be complete, very complete.


Lower Levels
Oxy Plant, West Wing
About The Same Time

The pirate gave a blood choked gurgle before his head came flying off his shoulders. The body slumped down, headless alongside its other lesser brethren. A Union Marine team had found the oxy plant, as expected, in the lower levels.

The oxy tank assembly was a gothic monstrosity, filled with pipes scrawled with techno-chemical symbols that only a bio-technician would have understood. Gusts of steam and the harsh scent of chlorine and ozone tainted the air. However, in itself, it produced the element most basic for life, oxygen. Ice gathered off the asteroid base formed the main ingredient for the machine. Knowing that the pirates would probably have demanded either an exchange, or create a "hostage" situation involving the plant, not to mention their record of violence, the entire Border Worlds retinue operated with lethal prejudice.

The plant guards had foolishly clustered around the main controls. Trained heavily in urban combat, the squad used the towering shadows in the area to sneak up on them. They all looked amusingly agitated at the time, no doubt by the sounds of gunfire and mayhem from elsewhere in the complex. They certainly received their fair share. At a prearranged signal, the Marines leapt out of hiding, hacking, slashing, and gunning down their targets. Most of the pirates went down in the first minute. The rest scrambled back, trying to regroup.

"Surrender and you'll live to stand trial!" The Union sergeant roared. For the Marines, this wasn't personal. They were simply soldiers who were doing a job. It was the only chance the pirates would get, though. The Union didn't kill needlessly, but it was more than willing to kill if it had to.

The pirates considered the offer, deciding it was the best they were likely to get that day. The Union punished piracy with death, but they'd rather take their chances in a court-room. The sergeant breathed out deeply and lowered his blade. The blade was hissing as blood boiled on its superheated edge. His squadmates were tired, but triumphant. One nursed an arm wound, but was otherwise as eager as the rest.

"Alpha Team here, oxy plant secured."

Minutes later, a message came through from Kyra. "Bravo team here, fuel tanks secured."


The Command Centre
Upper Levels
A Few Minutes Later

Kyra let off a burst of fire from her rifle, before ducking back under cover. Of all the places in the base, the command center was the most heavily guarded, and the last bastion of resistance. No matter how hard she tried, it simply couldn't be taken. Her squad, along with Lieutenant Richard's own Loyalist squad, had taken heavy casualties. Two heavy laser turrets guarded the approach, creating a killing field of ten metres of corridor, along with electrified tiling, hardened barricades, and about twelve psychotic pirates blazing away with a variety of weapons.

Richard belly crawled up to Kyra, shots zinging over his head as the Marines all attempted to give back as good as they got. A Union Marine attempted to get in line to use his LAW to take out the turrets. Even cold fired, it still hurt a few pirates through shrapnel damage. The tiles prevented anyone from charging at the door.

The noise was deafening. She tried shouting. "Can we break through?"

Richard shook his head, and gave the hand signal for no go. "Defenses too heavy! We’ll have to try something else!"

Suddenly, the shooting stopped, though the turret guns continued to track for targets. Blast doors sealed off the exit points with a sudden, final bang. Suddenly, vents opened up in the ceiling and a hot reddish goo began pouring out in torrents. Sticky and hot, bakelite was normally used for insulation in wires and other technology. Used in large doses, it could impede, stop, and eventually drown invading forces. When it cooled down and hardened, it was tougher than the hardest plasteel.

"Shit! Bakelite!" screamed Richard.

Kyra cursed. The men were beginning to panic. There was no escape. The only way into the command center was covered by a killing ground and to charge was absolute suicide. Well, it was a hell of a way to end her service. She began to raise her voice, ready for one final charge. Perhaps some of her men would make it. Lines from The Charge of the Light Brigade flashed before her eyes. Volley and Thunder...

Volley and Thunder...

She paused, and grabbed Richard's hand, gestured for him to lower his faceplate, and seal the suit shut. Her feet sloshed around, feeling even through her tri-kevlar boots the heat from the cooling bakelite.


She gritted her teeth. “Just do IT!”

Fuck, it might not even work, but even a few extra minutes sounded nice. Suicide tactics were all very well if you wanted to end up stuck in amber and suffocating, or going out in a blaze of glory charging a defensive position, but she had other plans for the rest of her life.

She turned towards her squadmates, as Richard turned to his.

"ALL UNITS! Faceplates down!"

They complied, though they were on the edge of breaking.

Kyra felt instant change as her faceplate sealed her off in a world of her own. The suit's own small air conditioners started up, cooling her down as the inbuilt oxygen supply kicked in. The bakelite was reaching her knees now. She couldn’t even twitch her toes. Great way to die, she thought.

"I’m calling in fire support..."

"Fire support? Here? What in hell are you - "

She ignored him. “Tango Leader, this is Bravo Leader. Do you read?”

Outside, the flight leader of the T-bolt flight responded. "Tango Leader. I copy. What’s up?"

"We need suppression fire!"

She pulled out a set of schematics from a belt pouch. The bakelite was reaching her hips. A drop of the stuff dripped onto the map, smearing it, and causing it to smolder. "Coordinates 4X, 58Y, 76Z! Use dummies and fire for effect!"

It was all or nothing.

"Will do, Bravo Leader. Tango out."

Kyra turned to Richard. "Engage your magnetic boots and hold on!"

"What the fuck fo - "


Outside, the Thunderbolt flight aligned themselves for a missile run on the assigned coordinates. Banking in over the rocky expanse, each fighter released a single dumbfire warhead that flew straight and unerringly at the target. The observation window and connecting corridor to the command center. Plumes of fire erupted as the whole area was vented to vacuum. The sound of tearing metal reverberated throughout the area. Screams were heard as the pirates literally exploded.

The base shook, and the bakelite, instantly exposed to such an extreme temperature change, turned brittle and shattered, falling away and getting sucked out into the half a dozen massive holes in the corridor. Air and decompressed pirate corpses also flew out into the void. Overhead, the ancient computer droned silently in the vacuum.

"Hull breach detected. All personnel please evacuate..."

The electrified floor flashed once, then went silent. The turret guns lowered themselves, their red blinking sensor eyes glaring defiantly, before darkening. All resistance, eliminated.

"Tango Leader. Targets destroyed. Thanks."

"No worries, boss lady."

The T-bolts turned away and resumed CAP over the area. Cold tendrils of frozen gas lingered around the area as the marines took stock of the situation.

If it hadn't been for her magnetic boots, Kyra would have joined the rest of the garbage outside. As it is, she had lost several ammunition clips that weren’t secured down to her web harness. She turned around. The Loyalists seemed mostly alright.

She demanded a soundoff list from her own men. Most answered. One poor sod didn’t. Anton it seemed. A razor shard of bakelite seemed to have impaled itself into his faceplate, killing him instantly, not to mention decompressing him. Poor bastard. His shocked face seemed to stare at a horizon only he could perceive. She reached in, and pulled out his dog tags, keeping them in a container on her hip.

Richard nodded at her. "The main controls should work."

And they did. The consoles, except for the blown out screens, still functioned. Inbuilt compressed LED screens still continued to flicker as backup monitors. It would be slightly inconvenient to space walk all the way back to the nearest airlock, but it should prove tolerable. One of the Marines queried the computer as to the status of oxygen and fuel supplies on the base. It took a little practice, typing through the large armoured mittens, but after a few choice curse words, and several thumps on the backspace key, the Marine managed to type the query in.

Amazingly, little had used by the pirates. A large amount, more than enough to fill three super heavy tankers full of fuel was still there in the bunkers. Same too for oxygen. A few keypresses confirmed orders to the computer network to authorize tankers to dock in, and fill up their tanks.

"Bravo Leader to all units. Command HQ is secured. Mission accomplished. Bring in the tankers."


Back at the landing bay

Max left his heavy support weapon back on the shuttle, and instead carried a Gauss Archer. Shadowing his every move was Celes, along with her squad. Power armored Marines stood guard at each corridor. It seemed quiet, other than the occasional sound of gunfire and screaming. From what he heard on the commnet, apparently all objectives were achieved, though not without casualties. He had to constantly deal with the stream of wounded and malnourished prisoners of the pirates, as well as the walking wounded from the marines. Medikit in hand, he walked from patient to patient.

A steady stream of freed POWs was filing into the landing bay, along with groups of captured pirates. Max hid a smile as he saw the Union troops bringing in far more captives than the Loyalists. They also left their own troops to guard the prisoners, not wanting to risk the pirates having an "accident" at the hands of the Loyalists. The Union fought by a code that was far different to the one the Tanfenners used. The Tanfenners hadn't broken their word, though. Not technically. They hadn't shot men who had surrendered. Of course, they hadn't given them a chance to surrender, either.

Though all went well, he still kept his guard up. Almost two years of service in the archipelago made him think that regardless of how idyllic everything seemed, some little bastard was probably taking aim at you. Watch everything, perceive everything, miss nothing.

Then again, practically everything that wasn't wearing a Tanfen or Union uniform was dead or captured anyway. Max leaned back on the hull of the shuttle, almost considering this a cakewalk. Thoughts of Celes and Kyra wandered into his mind. Both were fair of face and feature, and both were more than generous in the upholstery department... but then again...

Hateful eyes peered at him from underneath a floor grate. One of the Fraled Consortium's remaining men had secreted himself in the tunnel network underneath the landing bays, his heavy gauss rifle in hand. He had participated in enough raids against Tanfen to know how a commanding officer acted, though this particular brat looked too young to be one. No matter. He had watched his comrades murdered like dogs. Seeing how Tanfen viewed pirates, he was dead either way. Might as well take some noble born brat with him. Taking a deep breath, and with an insane grin, he touched a button on his rifle, causing it to glow and give off a low whine as a round was jacked into the chamber, and the capacitors were charged for one massive blast.

Carefully, the pirate pushed aside the grate and drew a bead. With all the background noise, and with most of the marines' attention focused on the trickles of refugees and prisoners coming in, they had little, if any attention paid to someone climbing in from a grate. Though Max wore body armor, the gauss rifle he had would punch through it like tinfoil. The laser designator he had attached to his rifle gave a little bead, centered right in his back.

Good bye, fucker, thought the pirate.

As the laser danced, Celes instantly reacted. One hand reached for her Archer, the other to push Max down, while landing on top of his chest to protect him with her own body. The rest of the bodyguards turned around, drawing beads, but none of them had a clear shot. Shit. In her position, she couldn't possibly turn around fast enough before the Gauss rifle would punch through and skewer both her and Max, regardless of how much armor she wore. Nevertheless, a Loyalist never went down without a fight.

The sniper's finger tightened around the trigger, grinning in anticipation of the kill.

In slow motion, her Archer continued to rise from her prone position.

The sniper's finger was only a micro gram away from reaching terminal pressure.

It was the end, yet she saw nothing. Time and her surroundings seemed to fade into shades of gray. Max, her principal objective seemed a contrast in her vision. Though she never considered it before, bearing in mind her station, Max seemed to be quite handsome. More so in her position. But all that speculation was idle now. Death was knocking on the door of her consciousness, his cold teeth clicking with anticipation. Of course, in any other situation, this would have been both compromising and distinctly amusing, but now it was black irony at its best.

Suddenly, a stream of laser fire walked itself up the floor, slicing the rogue in half, leaving him with a look of agonized surprise on his face. Kyra walked into the landing bay, with Richard and the squad streaming in behind her. Her rifle was in her hands, smoke and ionic discharge wafting from the barrel. She seemed distinctly amused at Max, and the position he was in.

"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," she said evenly, knowing that that Max would understand exactly what she meant. If the Tanfenners had been a little less savage, the sniper might have been more willing to surrender, less willing to die and take Max with him.

Her smile broadened into an ironic grin. "Is that an Archer in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"