With his limited education in military history Michael knew that millennia ago people would line the streets and have a parade for the soldiers that were leaving to go to war. They made it an event, a celebration almost…
There was no such parade for Michael and Jessie. Their departure for the eighteen week journey to the Frontier was subtle and unceremonious. The docks were never quiet, but at this time in the morning everything seemed a lot more subdued. The day was just breaking, the planets weak sun barely strong enough to break through the thick clouds, so the morning of their departure was wet and grey. Ten minutes before they’d arrived twelve ships had broke through the atmosphere and landed at the docks, the huge iron leviathans sitting in their bays like carcasses of washed up whales. Now server titans, automated to do nothing but the most menial and trivial labour, tramped up the bay doors in straight convoys, unloading huge boxes of supplies from the nearest trading station on Chimera.
Michael felt sad for those automatized robots. After training he knew the amazing things that Titan’s could do, and seeing these older Bulldog’s left as nothing more than mindless serfs…
‘I hope I don’t get given one of those antiques,’ Jessie said looking at the same convey of Bulldogs he was. ‘Don’t get me wrong they’re as strong as they come, but god they’re slow.’
Michael gave a noncommittal grunt, giving the stocky AI’s one last look before they disappeared out of sight behind a huge stack of cargo containers stamped with the IMC’s emblem. ‘Bulldogs haven’t seen action in Titan combat for twenty years. We’ll get one of the newest models.’
Splashing through huge puddles of coolant Michael saw the reflection of their ship first, it was a tiny troop carrier, so small it could have passed for one of the colossal cargo containers that sat around it. But where most of the ships in Escolara were rustic and old, this one was brand new, a sleek spear or carbon steel and burnished aluminum. Its windows tinted black to protect the occupants from the unshielded glare of the stars.
The person that waited for them wore the grey and black uniform of the IMC navy. And compared to Michael and Jessie in their combat overalls he looked exceedingly official. Stopping in front of the navy officer with perfect synchronicity they dropped their packs onto the damp concrete and saluted the officer who returned the gesture. ‘At ease pilots.’ He said confidently, looking down at a data slate in his gloved hand. ‘Jessica Marie Raden?’
‘Welcome to the IMC Navy. When you arrive aboard the Assegai you will check in with senior personnel coordinator McEvoy and from their you’ll be placed into your squads before being taken to the barracks and assigned your living quarters. Am I understood?’
‘Aye, sir!’ they both barked.
‘Good, climb aboard.’
The journey to the Assegai took less than three minutes, the new ship broke through the heavy atmosphere of Michael’s home world like it was nothing, bursting through the dense layers of air in nothing but a quick burst of white hot fire and thunderous turbulance. Michael was used to being in zero gravity, they’d done hundreds of hours of anti-gravity training during the first year at the academy, he was accustomed to the knots it set in his stomach and the light headed feeling it wrapped around his brain. But he never got used to how it looked.
That endless velvet vaccum specked with pinprick lights of distant stars, the small orange mass of the nearest star, the hot pink glow of the nearby nebula outside the portside window, and out the starboard side Michael watched the dull grey orb of Tartarus sink further and further away from them as the ship scythed through the void. No matter how many times he came up here, he never got used to seeing that view.
‘Mother Earth!’ Jessie blurted suddenly. Following her line of sight out of the hauler Michael felt his jaw drop.
‘Wow,’ he breathed. Pushing against the restraints of his chair to try and get a better look at the ship that was so large it almost blotted out the entirety of Tartarus’s distant star. Unlike the sleek, aerodynamic ship they flew in now this battle cruiser was blocky and slab-sided, it edges cut with an engineers ruler rather a designers pencil. Even from this far away Michael could make out a dozen banks of orbital bombardment tunnels and five automated defense turrets running along its central prow alone. It was huge; it must have been more than three kilometres from prow to stern, and flanked by two navy destroyers it made look tiny when in fact each was capable of overrunning a medium sized moon all on their own.
‘That, is one huge ship.’ Breathed Jessie, just as much in awe of the huge vessel as Michael was. Banking sharply they flew alongside the vast length of the ship, the name Assegai written in three story high lettering flying past their window in a barely recognisable blur of white paint as the pilot leveled out and prepared to swing around and enter the one of the hangars. With a sharp judder and screech of tortured pistons the hauler landed in the hanger and the restraints locking Michael and Jessie into their chairs broke apart, letting them stand and pick up their packs.
‘If I were you I’d double time it outside. It seems the commander has decided to push up squad assignment.’ The Navy officers deep voice said through the intercom.
Taking one look at each other was enough for the panic to set in.
Ripping their packs from under the chairs the two pilots struggled to pass the empty chairs to get to the rear doors, bursting out in a blur of khaki overalls they failed to notice the shear size of the space they occupied. The clean metal walls and the dozens and dozens of troop haulers, of all different makes and sizes, lined up against both walls in two perfectly straight rows. Or the amount of mechanics, navy personnel and engineers that were at work around them, repairing the ships with welding blades and shouting to their colleagues over the sounds of mechanical hammers and buzz saws.
‘Road call!’ a strong voice echoed through the hangar. 'The names you hear paired to yours will be your squad members for your foreseeable careers!’ Sliding on a puddle of spilt oil Michael swore as he hit the deck, no doubt causing the beginning of a colourful bruise.
‘Get your arse up!’ Jessie hissed, pulling him to his feet by the back of his collar. Ahead of them a large group of pilots stood in well defined ranks. All stood to attention as a navy commander bellowed down at them from his improvised dais of a haulers carcass.
‘You will be placed in squads of six, each squad will have an assigned leader. Do you understand?’ the commander said, now up close and stood to attention in formation with the other pilots Michael could make out the ugly knot of scars that flawed his mahogany face and the ugly warped look of the skin on his right hand.
‘Yes sir!’ the group shouted as one.
‘Good! Hunter Squad – Pilot Ramsey, Pilot Pattillo, Pilot Haywood, Pilot Jones, Pilot Free, Pilot Narvaez.’ Bellowed the commander from a data slate he held in his unburnt hand. With every name called a pilot stepped out of file and saluted. ‘Pilot Ramsey, you have commander over Hunter Squad.’ A distant voice shouted something Michael didn’t catch.
These were the people he’d be fighting with for the next seven years…they looked so much older and than him and Jessie. Only a handful looked anywhere near to their age. ‘Blacklight Squad – Pilot Hallan, Pilot Rhodes, Pilot Ennis, Pilot Raden,’ Michael’s heart skipped a beat as Jessie stepped forward and saluted nervously. ‘Pilot Rayvaan, Pilot Spectre!’
Thank you. Michael breathed, stepping forward beside Jessie and saluting crisply. ‘Pilot Rayvaan, you have leadership over Blacklight Squad.’
‘Thank you sir!’ said a huge grizzled looking veteran a few people ahead of Michael.
The rest of the names ran off in a blur. Michael’s heart was beating so fast he could see it thumping through his overalls, he was nervous. Why was he nervous? This was what he always wanted.
But now that he was here, it all seemed so daunting.
After another few minutes’ five squads had been formed and organized. Now the commander lowered his data slate and looked over them all, a cold distant look behind his hard black eyes. ‘For those of you who are on your second or third call of duty, you know what is coming. But for those of you fresh from training, I’ll say this. The Frontier is not training, the Militia are not combat drones and the Titans we fight don’t fire practice rounds. Statistics say that two in every three of the people looking at me now won’t make it back. You’ll see squad mates killed and you’ll kill people yourself. But you’re pilots. The best soldiers the navy, army and air forces of a dozen different worlds have to offer. If you can’t withstand the Frontier then there isn’t much hope for the rest of us.’ He said with a dry smile.
‘Rookies report to McEvoy in personnel to be assigned living quarters, and Titan assignments will be in three days. We’re set to enter Void-space in three hours. Welcome to the IMC Assegai, dismissed pilots!’