Alpha Centauri Star System, Planet Chiron L-191e, Taenarum Rainforest Airspace
A lush carpet of green raced away thousands of feet below, obscured by a winter morning drizzle that bathed the Taenarum rainforest. Inside the transport, a series of metallic clicks punctuated a mild chatter while Velasquez Company ran final diagnostics on their assault rifles and suits.
Some were still solid with fear, while others jittered on the spot--fired up to get the calm before the storm over with. Like most of them, Kael had come to terms with the situation as much as she could. She instead fidgeted with the tungsten-carbide knife, and imagined if she'd have to use it today.
"Uh, apparently there's been a change of plans," the pilot announced; he didn't sound like he believed what he was told, but relayed the message anyway. "The Armorclads you were supposed to join have been ordered to press deeper into the city without you, but there is a convoy en route to hold the forward operating base. Your new orders are to escort the convoy to Athernis, one hundred kilometers from here. Good luck."
The Raven dropped altitude, then the loading ramp swung open while the craft was meters off the ground. Kael glanced beyond the loading ramp and saw a cluster of reeds and small bushes shudder while the Raven hovered above their air space. She remembered one year ago, cowering when she had the luxury of a rope and all the time in the world. Boot camp had changed her, for better or for worse.
She leapt from the transport, a fifteen meter drop; she tucked, rolled, then scanned the immediate area again before she gave the "all clear" hand sign to her team. The others jumped too, followed by Team One and then the rest of the company.
Once on the ground, they moved out toward the rendezvous point, and an hour later they approached a hill that overlooked a sizeable chunk of the rainforest. The sun was rising, and cast a blend of orange hues across the verdant horizon, where a pair of towering trees rose over the canopy.
By now, the morning rain had found its way into Kael's boots and made her socks all wet, which released an incessant squish-squash as she marched. She wanted just a moment to sit and breathe, but they all had to make it to the rally point.
"Holding your mouth shut for too long is bad for you," Kael said to Miranda. "We probably won't get a chance to brush our teeth out here."
"I've got nothing to say," Miranda replied.
Even with the combat armor, Miranda was still among the shortest and smallest in the company. For the moment she appeared to ignore the world around her, and instead intently watched her own reflection mirrored on her combat knife.
"Are you really going to do it? Kill another human being?"
Miranda nodded. "I don't give a shit which one--it's the Ghosts fault I'm here. What will you do?"
"I don't know," Kael shrugged. "None of this is my problem.
"But you're already out here. It is, in fact, your problem to deal with."
Kael said nothing to that. The truth is, something felt wrong about this entire deployment, and one thing they'd all been taught is to listen to their instincts. Nobody deployed a half-baked company into a war zone unless the situation was truly desperate.
That, Kael thought, or we aren't being told what's really going on here.
They met with the convoy another hour later: a pair of Lynx all-terrain assault vehicles at the lead and the front, with two personnel carriers between them. These vehicles didn't look like what they were taught to expect in the wilderness; they had the default slate gray paint instead of the green camo paint scheme.
Kael took the driver seat of the last rover and keyed the computer from follow to manual mode. A stab at the accelerator and the Lynx fish-tailed after the vehicles in front of her. Velasquez company followed a dirt road that meandered across the rainforest to low-lying grasslands, then drove along a riverbank downstream, then peeled a sharp right back toward the tall grass and increasingly thin jungle.
The thick fog and mist gave way to pelting rain while they drove, until soon towering trees surrounded them. Shafts of ice-blue daylight streaked between the wide trunks and peeled away the cool black shadows of the deep forest.
Kael glanced at the mission clock in her visor. It read DEC 13 (17:01:03). She remembered her birthday was less than ten days away and took comfort in the fact she might live to see the day...although the possibility her present might have a caliber size made her nervous.
In the passenger seat, Chitra Kumar focused on the surroundings and didn't say a word to her. Despite everything that happened, Kael still wanted a chance to talk to him alone, perhaps somewhere nice and quiet when things slowed down.
A moment later, Kael smelled something in the air. A sharp odor, but she couldn't put her finger on it. She slowed her vehicle and activated the TAC/COM radio. "What the fuck was that?"
Chitra glanced at her. "What was what?"
"The air. It smells weird and just rippled like someone moved it. Didn't anyone else feel it?"
"I felt it," Arya chimed in.
No sooner had Arya replied did a black metal rod streak past the corner of Kael's vision, propellant exhaust fumes in its wake. Kael stood on the brakes, wrenched the steering wheel away as the missile lanced a scant three meters to her side--then crashed dead-center into the personnel carrier's rear.
The armored missile, designed to take out Ravager tanks, speared through the carrier's skin like a steel arrow through tin foil--then detonated. The entire vehicle barreled into the rover in front of it, and their intertwined mass sheared a small canyon through the planet, plowed a deep wound into jungle loam--then both vehicles exploded.
Heat splashed across Kael's torso. Pressure slammed through her body, rumbled her guts as it passed. The twin explosions twisted the vehicles into the air and slammed them down, entombed the occupants.
Shrapnel pinged off Kael's combat armor. She heard the sound of burning comrades, crystal clear as the audio gain isolated and focused on their screams. She understood that meant her allies were dying, and understood everything that just happened; she just didn't know what to do.
A steel bar smashed into Kael's visor, cracking it. Finally she jumped from the vehicle and on a low crouch sprinted toward the tall grass, far enough to not get caught in the explosion of the remaining vehicles, then searched for the ambushers.
A heartbeat later, she turned and stared down the barrel of a sub-machinegun.
Kael had never been truly terrified before, so even when the Ghost sprung up from his cover to aim right between her eyes, her mind remained rational. Her body, however, was a different matter.
An icy lump settled in her gut. She wanted to move--badly--but all her limbs could do was tremble. She tried to scream, only to have a broken whimper bubble up her throat.
The Ghost opened fire--
And a frozen palm smashed into Kael's left shoulder.
The force pitched her a dozen meters from the gunfire. Kael met the backside of another soldier with an explosive crash, and lost all feeling in that arm as she reached for her gun.
Kael rolled prone on her elbows and squeezed off a three round burst where the grass shuddered to movement ahead. To her far right, she saw Miranda leap straight up to take a snap shot of the enemy positions in the grass with her helmet camera.
Bullets sparked Miranda's midsection as she sprung up--riddled across her visor and threw her into a sickening twist back down to the ground. Over Kael's heads-up display, real time estimates of the enemy positions and her allies appeared.
Miranda's vitals plummeted into the red line.
Kael resisted the urge to go and help; there was a battle to survive.
She brought out a fragmentation grenade, ringed an index finger on the safety pin. As she threw the grenade into their midst, a full spray of automatic gunfire sparked her armor--cracked the outer shell and slap-dashed her into the ground.
Kael heard the enemy scream or curse in a foreign language, but the result was all the same: she didn't miss.
A flash of fire then subsonic fist slammed through her body again. She'd been too close, and the explosion jarred her bones as it passed. The blast swept her down, dragged her through the grass, suffocated her.
She gasped in a sizzling, smoking heap, momentarily blinded while everything echoed. When her sight and hearing returned, she saw the personnel carrier and the Lynx still burning in the rain. There was no blood, no survivors--as though the soldiers she'd trained with had never existed.
"Just so you know," Arya's voice cracked over the radio, "there isn't a whole lot of Ghosts. A few dozen, maybe more. They're fighting guerilla style and must be trying to regroup. Don't let them."
As Kael got up, an entire slab of Therrite plating cracked and fell away from her left side, exposed the shredded rag of the bulletproof jump suit underneath. That entire side felt numb, no pain at all, but a few more well placed shot and she would've been killed.
She quickly shook off the disorientation, then sprinted after the rest of the remaining company in pursuit. The Ghosts had blindsided them, but were now retreating and Kael wasn't about to let them get away with it.
Kael aimed, sprayed a dozen rounds after the Ghosts as they raced up a small grassy hill--slashed the shrubbery at their feet, spat bark and mulch in their trail.
"You fucking moron!" Arya cried. "You'll give away your--"
Too late; Kael felt the air move--and dropped to the ground just as the horrible sensation of time slowing to a crawl took her. The Ghost with the missile launcher had already opened fire, and with horrified eyes she waited for the world to end.
Then, a glassine shimmer flew past Kael toward the forefront of the company--faster than any human could move.
The heads-up display marked the camouflaged soldier: ARYA-LS1221.
The missile knifed through the air at supersonic speed, but Arya had already launched into a backward flip straight toward it, and for the longest split-second balanced upside down with her foot coiled back, thrice her own height off the ground--and kicked away the fired missile in mid air.
Arya tucked into a ball, braced--then the impact trigger activated. The missile exploded hundreds of meters overhead in a fiery-white conflagration, showered Velasquez company below with red hot metal slivers.
Arya shot down from the explosion in an ugly shower of disintegrating Therrite battle plate and the twisted remains of her weapons. She crash landed on all fours--cat like--and without even breaking stride shot back into pursuit.
Six leaping strides and she caught up with the rest of Team One--seized Adam by the wrist, catapulted him overhead like a rag doll as she wrenched away his coil gun sniper rifle, then forged past Chitra to the lead.
Enemy sniper fire crisscrossed past Arya's head while sub-machinegun bullets shot up dirt columns on the ground she'd been on. Twin thunderclaps from her gun and two rounds found the enemy snipers at extreme range.
The fleeing Ghosts turned as an execution squad to return fire; their rounds went wide while Arya strafed--flawless--and gunned them down. She rolled, moved left; bullets missed on queue and she cut down the next squad like lamb to slaughter while the remaining survivors fled.
Arya dropped to a crouch, cursed as she ejected the smoking charge capacitors, slapped in a new pair then screamed another order: "Fucking regroup god-damn it! They've got reinforcements on our six!"
A navigation marker to the nearest city, Athernis, appeared in Kael's heads up display.
On foot, it was a few days hike through the jungle.
Kael tried to stand, but vertigo spun her world and her vision blurred. The third overpressure damn near ruptured her lungs, and blood ran from her nose and ears. She barely managed to her knees, stumbled a dozen shaky steps then had to close her eyes as her heart pounded cold blood through her brain--too full--and burst.
She crawled toward the tree line, out of sight, and laid back against a thick trunk. A splitting headache throbbed, and she tasted copper in her mouth. Between the hacking coughs, Kael's mind raced through the situation for the next course of action.
ATLAS missile launchers were designated as a Class 2 weapon, which meant it required individual access codes from either the weapon manufacturer or Chiron Space Command--the only military force in Alpha Centauri with access to the United Nations Coalition funds required to purchase such an expensive weapon in the first place. The only way Ghosts would have such weapons is if a traitor granted them those access codes.
And you don't waste that kind of fire power on a bunch of secondary school kids without a very good reason.
That made the situation a hundred times worse.
They weren't dealing with just a ragtag bunch of disenfranchised and disgruntled squatters under new leadership; the Ghosts not only had access to their advanced weapons, but most likely knew their tactics, unit deployment rosters and schedules, and could intercept or evade accordingly.
Against such naked exposure to an enemy who practically knew where she was supposed to be at this hour the next day, the only viable option--at least for the moment--was to break protocol and not be where she was supposed to be, and not do what she was supposed to do.
By their plans, she concluded, we should be dead, but we aren't. They didn't realize exactly what they were up against, but I know what I fucking saw. Nothing, not even a fucking Armorclad or Sentry Droid can move the way Arya did. As sure as the fucking moons and the stars. Absolutely nothing at all.
Kael dizzied to her feet and limped farther into the jungle, plotted an uncertain course toward the rally point. After the numerous explosions, being shot at and tossed from a certain head shot, she only had her combat knife and her assault rifle, and the gun itself was in terrible disrepair.
It occurred to Kael that the Ghosts would be the feckless idiots they're supposed to be if they didn't plan for them to break protocol upon realizing how bad the situation really was.
For now, she had to assume that what remained of Velasquez company was divided and ripe for conquest--every soldier on his or her own, and until they regrouped... they were all now easy prey for the hunter-killer squad Kael knew were tracking them down.