So I was back in the war, as per usual I would not be going alone. The Russians were sending their newest ships. Three Aurora class battleships under the command of a new admiral who had made a pretty good name for himself, Alexander Sikorsky. The Germans contributed five ships of the Siegfried class. Their biggest battleships yet. Also, they had finally got around to replacing their comically obsolete Albatross fighters with the new Horten-Gotha fighter-bomber.
The English warships Agincourt, Dreadnought and Iron Duke were also heading out. Accompanied by the new French battleships Normandy and Richelieu. Along with what was probably going to be the last fighter carrier built. The Orleans. A virtual sister ship to the Garibaldi, though a bit bigger.
All these governments probably wouldn’t have thrown in all of this firepower if it wasn’t for a dramatic change in the strategic situation. Surviving elements of the Drankmastarian fleet had coalesced together under the command of a new admiral. Ossirin Buchloren. Drankmastarian fleet prisoners talked about this guy like he was the devil himself. According to official records he had not always been a fleet officer. He had started out as a warrior. A ground fighter of great skill who had assumed his rank in the Imperial Navy by singlehandedly slaughtering the entire bridge crew of an imperial battleship that was facing imminent death at the hands of the Russo/German fleet at the battle of Onidorob. He saw to it that the survivors of that battle retreated instead of blowing up or surrendering.
Admiral Buchloren was described as a poet warlord. A man consumed with a singular desire to push us out of his space at any cost. With that in mind he had instituted radical reforms among the surviving fleet. As to what these reforms would entail was anyone’s guess. However it did show that he had a much more flexible mind than those he killed off. He had secured his fleets communication systems. Retreated to distant star systems, and started using our own hit and run tactics against us. No one in the Allied Fleet had any idea what he was planning to do with his remaining force. He could not punch through the layers of defenses on the way to Earth. His ships would probably not be welcome at most of the worlds that we had liberated. But he could still do an awful lot of damage with the nine battleships and dozens of cruisers that he was estimated to have.
As the Montana floated away from Earth we were escorted from of the factory by the corvette Semblance under captain Ross. In minutes though a couple of dozen ships of widely varying designs were in formation around us. The latest recruits of the Auxiliary Fleet under their new commodore. A serious minded Dutchman named Theo van Wijngaarden. I was quite surprised to find out that quite a large number of regular military staff had gone over to the AF. Including the former midshipman Kaito. After recovering from the mission on Thau he had transferred to the AF. Where he developed a reputation as a level headed negotiator and a decent pilot. He was flying the El Dorado now. It was good to have him along, I still missed Sasha though. Seeing her ship flying along side mine did not help me forget about her.
I had plenty of other familiar faces with me though. Linda had completed her training and was looking forward to commanding my ground forces. Chen was taking a well earned vacation so I had one Robert Hoover captaining my ship. Mr Hoover was the helmsman of the Montana during the battle of Durga, and the dust up with the Blue Furies. No one else in the universe had as much time driving battleships with a dead stick. He had single handedly gotten us out of more scrapes than I would like to admit to. He was young but his piloting skill was simply unbelievable. I wanted to keep him on with the IEC and I also wanted to see if he could captain as well as he could pilot.
At Poorsovt the Russian delegation left us. Admiral Sikorsky had orders from his government to find The Horde and examine it. The Russian people did not entirely believe that something like the Horde could exist. I advised against their surveillance. They would be jumping headlong into a star system which would probably be completely consumed by a hostile and utterly impossible to understand life form. But, orders are orders so Sikorsky and his shiny new fleet went off into the unknown. I had requested that they rig their Web-Way key with a massive self destruct charge just in case they were overwhelmed. I was not optimistic seeing them again. Too bad, those were some lovely ships that they were throwing away.
We met up with Harding at a half forgotten Web-Way terminus seven transits from Earth. He had another location for the Web-Way device. However it was occupied by a large garrison of extremely hostile imperial troops. There was also the issue that there was a large Drankmastarian fleet that was believed to be operating in the area. Since the Eutopian’s were largely out of the war we no longer had their stealth cruisers to conduct surveys of hostile areas. But that was what the Semblance was for. It used a somewhat simplified form of the Eutopian’s meta material stealth technology. So Greg took his ship through the Web-Way and we waited anxiously for him to come back.
The usual work continued on while we waited for reconnaissance information to come back. One must stay busy while serving on warships or else the boredom will drive you half mad and it will seem like the walls are closing in on you. After the usual wait of a few hours the Semblance returned. The tactical situation was not great. The primary target was a heavily industrialized world with a population of nearly a billion people. The garrison was a million troops with at least fifty thousand of their armored warriors. Huge numbers of atmospheric fighters and a massive, multilayered defensive grid. But there was no sign of an enemy fleet and the planets defenses were coordinated through a large central system that, in the old days would have been vulnerable to a single well placed orbital strike. Nowadays these sort of things were much more heavily guarded. There were massive plasma turrets capable of shooting down anything we were able to drop from space.
Harding noticed a large abandoned complex. Far away from the main industrialized zones. He believed that this might the web-way device. So we were going to attack.
The plan we cobbled together was relatively simple. A squad of volunteers in Angel suits would deploy from the Semblance. They would glide down to the central node, infiltrate, capture or if needed, destroy the place before the main fleet came through. Once the main fleet arrived we would fly down to the surface. Conduct a survey of the abandoned complex and if it was the web-way control facility then we would secure the place against attack. If not then we would pack up and leave. There would be nothing there worth getting into a ground battle over. A battle that we would likely lose.
Linda wanted to lead the initial assault. She had been training in an Angel Suit on her off hours. She had customized it towards her fighting style with an axe instead of a sword and a grenade launcher loaded with what she described as “scary strong” ammunition. I was reluctant to let her go at first but she talked me into it.
Still, I was reluctant to let her go. The doctrine of use of Angel Suits called for a team of four with a diverse range of weapons to complement each individual users weaknesses with the strengths of their team. Teams were formed as organically as possible, allowing groups of fighters to chose their teammates as much as practical. This created very smoothly operating groups of individuals who were bonded together by much more than just combat experiences. Having Linda come in, not just as a team member, but as a commander made me uncomfortable.
Since the node was heavily armed and armored against any kind of space borne attack. The plasma weapons there were bigger and more effective than anything these bastards could possibly mount on their ships. So those going in would have no escort. No fighters or corvettes backing them up. No trump card against the Drankmastarian superiority in ground combat. I was so nervous that I felt that I had to see my sister off on the Semblance at the start of the mission.
I stood around awkwardly at the back of the ship while she and her compatriots geared up for the drop. Once we were in position I hugged her one last time. I told her that I really didn’t want to see her go but she chuckled and said. “I know, but it’s well past time I started to carrying some weight in this fight.”
A red light came on, within minutes the air would be vented out of the airlock. I got out and waved goodbye as she got into position. Then a door snapped open, she and eleven other volunteers were violently sucked into the upper atmosphere of the planet.
Within seconds their suits had configured into a simple triangle shape. They were moving fast, within moments they had broken the sound barrier. Theoretically they would be too small and fast for enemy sensors to notice their existence, let alone hit them. But my part in this mission wasn’t over yet. Right after the drop the Montana, the Orleans and the new German battleship Siegfried had punched through the web-way terminus. We were going to stage a little distraction to allow Linda’s teams the best chance of success. As the battleships punched through the upper airs of the planet we joined their formation and dropped our cloak. I joined Greg on the bridge as the distraction began. It was beautiful, swarms of Bugatti 111P Super Bugs and Horton fighters fell like meteors from the Orleans and the Siegfried. I got on the radio and announced. “Okay everyone, you know what to do. Fuck shit up! this is a raid, act like it.”
Atmospheric fighters rose up from the ground. Everyone had their designated targets. The Semblance was going after a large armored warriors garrison but to get there we had to get through five squadrons of fighters. Greg cut loose with the Semblances extensive air to air missile stocks and plasma turrets. However dozens of enemy fighters were able to get close enough to use missiles of their own. Most were disintegrated, some bounced off the ships armor. Greg started jinking furiously. The Semblance had excellent maneuverability for a ship her size. But her strength lay in her armor and overwhelming firepower. Still, it was starting to look like we weren’t going to make it to the garrison. The sheer number of enemy fighters was incredible and their skill had definitely improved. Then the Siegfried’s fighters showed up. The Horten-Gotha fighter was state of the art and these ones were overloaded with missiles that scythed right through the bulk of the enemy. Then they started turning with the enemy fighters. Drawing them off. Greg shouted, “garrison building in sight, arming primary weapon! All friendly assets take evasive action!”
All power was directed to the forward plasma turret. The Semblance was the first IEC ship made with built in plasma weaponry. Those used on the Semblance incorporated some specialized components made from diamonds forged in the heart of a dying star that had been found by Dillinger’s gang in the museum on Orizico. The Imperials had lost the knowledge on how to maintain the weapons that these diamonds had been plugged into. We hadn’t.
When it hit everything exploded. Not just the target, but everything around it. Every scrap of matter deconstructed and detonated with all the force of a nuclear fission blast. In a blinding flash the garrison and millions of tons of the planet below simply no longer existed. The explosion was so damn big that it almost took out the Semblance and three German fighters.
Ross desperately fought with the controls. Just barely carrying us clear of the explosion. Even with the automatic blast shielding I was still blinded by the flash.
“Jesus Greg, what the hell was that thing set at?”
He groaned with effort, “full power sir. I figured that if we were using a new weapon we should see what it could do.”
The radio blared with the screams of half blind German and French pilots. I rubbed my eyes and said. “Let’s not use that thing again unless we have to. Take us over to the factory that the Siegfried is attacking.”
The Germans latest battleship had quite a fight on its hands. The planets plasma defenses were still online so the Siegfried was firing every volt of plasma from its turrets to try to keep the skies somewhat safe. Its captain shouted to everyone. “We can’t keep up with this, we have got to go!”
I concurred and we got the heck out of there to wait for Linda to do her thing.
After an hour I was starting to get nervous. With no response from her or any of her team I started modifying the plan. We were going to go back down there and use the Semblance’s plasma cannon on the central node. Greg thought it was a bad idea.
“I don’t know how many shots they got on us, this ships stealth system may be compromised and if we go down there compromised then we are sitting ducks.”
I snapped at him, “do you think I want to blow up a facility with eleven of my best employees and my sister in it?”
“No, but if we do this without a cloak then we die for nothing and they die for nothing!”
“Then what do you propose we do?”
He was opening his mouth when the radio crackled. Linda announced. “This is Paladin, castle is conquered and the dragons are sleeping. Care to get me out of this tower?”
Greg got back behind the controls while the rest of the crew assumed their positions. The Montana was already signaling the rest of the fleet to come through. I apologized to Greg but he said. “Now is not the time, let’s just finish this.”
While the Montana and Siegfried provided cover Greg flew the Semblance down to the roof of the massive fortress that housed the planets central defense node. Though the planets main defenses were down, there was still the matter of hundreds of manned fighters and thousands of enemy soldiers to deal with. Linda’s teams were fighting a huge battle as they retreated. Bolts of plasma energy lit the skies as we came down to pick them up.
As a door mounted rail gun chattered away I could see her unit wasn’t all there so I shouted. “Where are Rouch, Grimes and Casen?”
“They didn’t make it, let’s get the hell out of here!”
We lifted away, once the doors closed massive explosions rang out. It was the main guns of the Montana firing on the fortress. Reducing it to dust. The Semblance was flying as fast as it could towards the abandoned complex on the other side of the planet where Harding had already begun his examination of the place. All I could focus on was my sister. She was seriously messed up. Several plasma shots had hit her. The suit had absorbed most of the energy. Still, she was clearly hurt and visibly shaken up by the experience.
I took her helmet off, she was shaking badly, without looking up she said. “I had no idea, I never. I just never.”
I checked her eyes and asked her if she heard a ringing noise.
“Of course I hear a ringing noise! I just had a hundred explosions go off in my face.”
I told her that I had to look at the other members of her team. She was clearly off in her own little world. While I tended to the other volunteers she just kind of sat in the corner with a thousand yard stare. I asked Fallon how she had done on the raid. He just shook his head. He wasn’t in any mood to talk either.
Right before we landed Harding radioed everyone. “This is not part of the active Web-Way system. I don’t know what this is but it is not what we are looking for sorry everyone.”
This was probably for the better, this planet was way too well defended. I got on the radio and called a retreat.
As we turned tail back to the Ristavron system I couldn’t help but feel that there was something off about my sister. She had seen combat before and I had never seen her this shaken up. I summoned her to my stateroom. Silently I thumbed through some papers while she asked. “Alright I am here. What is it you wanted to talk about?”
“You didn’t complete the training program for operators of the Angel weapons system did you?”
We had known each other long enough that we could tell when the other was lying. She hung her head and stated. “No, I completed the technical portion, marksmanship, close quarters combat but when I took 5meo it didn’t work out. It caused me to have a whiteout. Drakous said not uncommon with cyborgs. Something about the differences between biological and electronic brains. I aced the rest of the training regimen. That has to count for something.”
I was pretty upset. I wanted to tear her to pieces for her recklessness.
“5meo is a delicate subject, a molecule not to be handled lightly. Heck some of the people who have taken it have suffered serious consequences. Combat is a thousand times more serious than taking that drug Linda. You have to be able to trust your teammates, more than that you have to be willing to run away. The Angel Suit offers only one real advantage over the enemies power armor, speed. That is something that has been used to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The enemy has samples of ultra-fiber now. I doubt they can synthesize it. Still, you are going to have to face the facts. You bit off way more than you can chew and you got three good men killed because of it.”
“I know, I know, I feel horrible about it.”
“There may be other consequences you know. I don’t know how stable your position at the IEC will be once the facts get out. In spite of everything you have done one screwup can have serious, lingering consequences.”
“You think I don’t know this? Besides I imagine you have made a few screw ups yourself.”
“Luckily for me I haven’t done anything catastrophically bad yet. But geez this sort of thing wears on you. I don’t even want to imagine how many bottles of antacids the Russian and Japanese flag officers go through. Unless they are just straight psychopaths. Which some of them probably are. This is not the natural state of the human species. Despite what our enemy thinks. We are not made to be constantly trying to rip out each other’s jugular veins. So, try to get some rest, and know that I will be keeping you away from frontline combat for as long as you are on this ship.”
She stood up and left my room without any further ado. Travis Fallon resumed command of the Montana’s detachment of Angel Suit users after a few marines were reassigned to his command to fill the crater left by the deaths of Andy Rouch, Eric Grimes and Sam Casen.