Front Lines


I think that says it all. I stayed up all last night reading, and I can't wait to do it again. Thanks for writing such a great story.
As what normally happens at the start of a new chapter, I must apologise for the length of time it’s taken me to update. Things have been pretty busy around here lately with university work and no shortage of other things snapping away at my time. Also I wasn’t happy with how a lot of this chapter initially turned out and ended up re-doing a fair bit of it. Anyway, thanks again to all readers and commenters.

Chapter 31: Diversions

Fool’s Perspective

Confederate spokespersons have denied rumours that Kilrathi forces, freshly regrouped less then a week after the destruction of their command ship, are advancing back through the systems they previously abandoned. Whether this is currently the case or not, it is certain that the Kilrathi will not abandon Vega sector so easily. In spite of this truth however, independent sources within Confed have revealed that there has been no significant redeployment of Confederate warships to that sector. Military spokespeople have neither confirmed nor denied this.

I’m not sure why I was surprised. Psychotic feline mentality presumably dictated that they come back and hit us very, very hard for trashing one of their beloved dreadnoughts, and the simple truth was that there wasn’t much Confed could throw in their way. The Hermes and her escorts had been blasted to hell and would be out of the fight for months, the Invincible had apparently already moved out of Brimstone to God only knows where. One too many fleet carriers were lurking in Sol sector which had been as quiet as the grave since the battle of Earth and thus were serving no real purpose there.

You’d think that a near apocalyptic battle which brought the Confederation and pretty much all of humanity to the brink of annihilation would have convinced people of the need for smart leaders who actually knew how wars needed to be fought. If men like Admiral Tolwyn weren’t constricted by the pisstake civilian governments then we might be able to do some damage to the enemy as opposed to ourselves.

Barbara Miles’ voice continued to echo through the shuttle’s passenger area which through some amazing stroke of luck I had all to myself. Leaving me free to wander back and forth through the small space. (I always pace when I think).

It had taken me far longer then I would have liked to get home. One of the shuttles scheduled to take me from Tomayo to Sol was redirected to Port Headland at the last minute, with me in it. They never did tell us why Port Headland was in need of shuttles but I got the feeling it was to do with what I’d just heard on the news. The Kilrathi were on the move once more and Confed was in desperate need of hardware.

That news story had started a train of thought that led to a singular point that I spent a long time trying not to consider. The destruction of the H’varkann, the price the men and women of the Hermes carrier group had paid for the salvation of Oasis station, the Kilrathi’s retreat. Hell even Torrent’s miraculous escape from the enemy. What if it was all for nothing? Was a delay of less then a week of the Kilrathi’s ultimate triumph the only thing we’d gained with the death of so many people?

Maybe our expectations and hopes were a bit naive. The dreadnought was after all little more then a large carrier. Destroying one of those wouldn’t make much difference to the war on the whole. Would it?

Of course not.

Nine hours later

Tiananmen depot wasn’t such a bad place. Strategically located in the Axius system at a proximity to the nearby jump points which effectively made it static target practice for any enemy fleets moving from one end to t’other. The smell of engine grease lingered throughout the lower decks and the bar was barely bigger then the Hermes’ brig.

Yes in a stunning display of Murphy’s law, the fates cast another detour my way when the shuttle I was on was deterred at the last minute. I have no idea why they’d need a shuttle here and to be honest I never thought to wonder why. By this time I was both frustrated and starving and the most pressing thing on my mind was lunch. After that I’d need to call my parents and tell them that assuming the next shuttle didn’t get re-directed to Firekka or some equally out of the way place, I’d be a few days later then the few days later I’d originally said I’d be.

Damn shuttles.

As I shouldered my way past the lines of people all crowding around the lift and made my way to the stairs, I couldn’t help but wonder if the others were having this problem. Razor and Salamander had caught a different shuttle to Earth but had left at pretty much the same time as me. It wouldn’t be surprising if they’d been whisked away to the far reaches of Confederate space. Adish didn’t have as far to travel so he might have made it. Torrent’s fate was anyone’s guess and I didn’t have a clue what Scar was doing.

After about twenty minutes of idly climbing up and down assorted flights of stairs I finally managed to track down a restaurant with the somewhat unimaginative name of ‘Lance’s’. The lunchtime crowd appeared to be dying down and the guy behind the counter gave me a resentful look when I apparently broke him out of some boredom imposed trance by ordering hot food.

I took a table next to a window which showed a handful of motionless stars. There’s something about stars which makes it very easy not to think about anything. You look into the void and it steals your mind away, and as often as not it can take something like a scramble alarm to bring it back. (That actually happened once but that’s another story).

The face of Barbara Miles relaying more news of the Confederation’s latest hardships was pleasantly absent from this restaurant. Instead an almost inaudible jazz tune and the sporadic chatter of the other patrons was the only thing I could hear.

Lunch took a while to arrive, as it so often does in restaurants. I hastily forced it down and was still hungry afterwards but I didn’t feel much like getting anything else so I went off in search of a com terminal.

The one I found looked like it had been attacked by some sort of rust-laden swamp beast. The com screen and controls were set in a casing that could conceivably have passed for a trash can and might have exploded if given a solid enough kick.

My parents weren’t home so I had to settle for a two minute long, stammer filled apology to their answering machine. A fresh wave of annoyance washed through me at the thought of my shore leave’s collection of assorted disasters thus far. Granted Confed’s need outweighed any inconvenience that I suffered during time off, but it would take some sort of unfeeling, superhuman beast not to be annoyed wouldn’t it?

Thirteen minutes later

“Two days?!”
“I’m sorry sir but…”
“I don’t believe this! You can’t tell me that your next shuttle to Earth departs in two days. For Christ’s sake, this place is in the middle of a supply route from Sol to Vega sector.”
“Yes sir,” replied the Ensign in front of me with a barely suppressed snarl, “As you said this station is in the middle of a trade route, however supplies, or personnel as is usually the case in terms of shuttles typically come from Sol, to here, to Vega. Not the other way around.”

If I’d been Salamander’s age I might have felt an instinctive dislike for what could be interpreted as an insubordinate tone. At the time though all I felt was a curious amusement which was something of a mix of annoyance and absurdity. Like when things go wrong once too often and all you can do is laugh at the fates which are delighting in crapping all over you.

Once I finally stopped giggling I returned my gaze to the Ensign and tried not to feel the numerous stares from other base personnel that were doubtlessly boring into the back of my skull. I kept my voice as calm as possible, this wasn’t really her fault after all.
“Can I book passage on that shuttle then?”
“Of course sir.” Her tone seemed to have mellowed somewhat as well, “Can I have your name, rank and registration number please?”
“Captain Elias Venner, C88T2Y3.”

She swatted her console a few times and made a gesture which might have been a shrug. I’m not entirely sure why.
“Ok, it says here sir that you were redirected here from shuttle 203 from Vespus station. We are permitted to reimburse you by way of free passage on your next flight.”

She swatted the console again and a thin sheet of plastic emerged from a small slot on her desk and she handed it to me.
“Here’s your boarding pass sir. If you’d like to speak to the quartermaster on level 5 he’ll issue you with a bunk for the next two days.”
“Thanks.” I said again, trying not to sound too sarcastic.
“Enjoy your stay on Tiananmen depot sir.”

I almost snarled.
Three hours later

Feeling lonely? Has fighting for your people kept you from some much needed human contact? If that’s the case then…
“Computer, delete message.”

From behind me, someone sniggered. I couldn’t much blame them, I’d been known to do the same thing on occasion. When you get an audio message with a seemingly innocent subject line and a supposedly sensual and pathetically fake female voice offers, well, you get the idea. It’s not so annoying in the case of traditional text emails but when you’ve got some digital whore crooning at you in a room full of people it can be something of an embarrassing experience.

I’d left my emails unchecked for about four months now and the vast string of bull shit messages from God only knows who had totalled to about 194. On less busy days onboard the Hermes, I’d often wonder how it was that I’d been stuffed on such obscure mailing lists, more often however I’d think about how nice it would be to find whoever put me on such lists and punch them very hard in the face.

I scanned through the list, hoping to find an important email or two amidst the sea of shite but I didn’t look very hard, and to be honest the prospect of sifting through 194 emails didn’t sound like the wondrous experience that you might expect.

I shut down the terminal and left the other computer using persons to their activities. The next half hour I spent watching a bunch of tugs dragging cargo containers to a transport. I had the feeling these were going to be a long few days.
“Excuse me?”

It took me a few moments to respond as I initially thought the man was talking to someone else. When I turned around I saw a forty something man with a pronounced beard, in what looked like a civilian technician’s uniform staring at me.
“Your face looks familiar, were you one of those flyboys on the what’s it? Um, the Hermes?”

I almost sighed, I’d been in a conversations that started with these kind of lines already, although the other guy didn’t recognise me until my face showed up for two seconds on the news on the first shuttle mishap.
“Oh.” He paused and stared at me for a minute like I was some sort of disappointing museum exhibit.
“It has to be said,” he muttered whilst moving to the window, “You guys did a pretty good job out there. That’s the kind of thing we need right about now.”

Something about the way he said ‘pretty good’, and for that matter the words themselves bugged me. Over one thousand confederation soldiers were died in that battle, ‘pretty good’ doesn’t come close to doing justice to their sacrifice. Then again, I doubted there was much that could.
“Thanks.” I said after a moment, not entirely sure how to handle this conversation.
“Well you’ve got to admit, things ain’t been all that peachy for the Confederation as of late have they? I mean, as if the battle of Earth wasn’t bad enough, now we’re being beaten back from all angles ain’t we boy?”

I turned to glare at my new conversation partner with barely concealed dislike. You’d have to be deaf not to hear the scorn in this guy’s voice, and I was beginning to get a pretty good idea of where that scorn was directed.
“You don’t want to believe everything you hear in the news.” I said through slightly clenched teeth.
“Oh sure, of course. The news don’t tell the whole story does it? You need to think about these things. See through all the bull you see? What I see though ain’t pretty. You boys and girls ain’t doing too good in most places. Granted you managed to actually do your jobs in Brimstone, but that’s a fluke isn’t it?”

That was more of an accusation then a question. The next things I felt were, quite understandably, anger and disgust. Who the hell did this blinkered fuckwit think he was?
“Listen,” I said, making no attempt to hide the scorn in my voice this time, “If you think you can do a better job out there then why don’t you join the academy and stop whining to me about our defects. Failing that, why don’t you shut the fuck up about things you don’t know one damn thing about?”

Heads were turning our way. The man’s face twisted into an expression that for a moment made me think that he was going to take a swing at me.
“If you’d done your jobs right,” He said instead, “Then maybe the Earth wouldn’t have got punched full of holes. Maybe my wife wouldn’t have got killed if you’d just done your fucking jobs right.”

That shut me up for a few seconds. I was tempted to say that I was sorry for his loss, but I really wasn’t. In spite of his loss, this guy still didn’t know a fucking thing about war, and he was still a loud mouthed asshole.
“If stupid shits like you had actually listened to us instead of believing that the bloodthirsty, greater-then-thou Kilrathi actually wanted to live in peace with us then we’d have been able to finish this war the easy way. But no, you just sat with your heads buried in the sand, mothballed half the damn fleet, turned your fucking backs on us and then ran crying to us when the cats went on the warpath again. If the government and its gaggle of civilian sheep, that’s people like you by the way, had let us do our jobs from the start then we wouldn’t be in this mess would we?”

His face had been getting progressively redder throughout my elaborate comeback. I’m surprised he didn’t try and punch me there and then.
“You little fucking…”
“Hey Ormerod!” Said a third figure who was advancing on the technician with unfriendly eyes. “Isn’t there somewhere else you need to be?”

Ormerod started defiantly at the newcomer, (a marine judging from the uniform), but not for long. With a rushed, hatful glance at me he made a somewhat speedy departure.
“Fucking idiot.” I muttered to myself.
“You said it,” said the newcomer, still observing Ormerod’s retreat. “Don’t let him get to you. Man’s an idiot, through and through. Gives that speech to every new pilot who lands here. He likes to hate and doesn’t like to face facts.”

Any other day, I might have sympathised. But with the comedy of errors that had haunted my shore leave and my sympathy for Confed’s new shuttle redirecting policy all but gone, I wasn’t in a sympathetic mood.
“I’m Sergeant Luke Parson.” He said, extending a hand as he spoke. “Head of the marine detachment for this dive.”
“Captain Elias Venner” I replied, extending my own hand, “Everyone calls me Fool.”
“Is that a callsign or an assertion.”

I spat out a short lived laugh.
“Both, as often as not.”
“Yeah well, I’m not one to judge. Me and my men are only here because we got pretty banged up in our Repleetah days and they’ve put us out to a floating pasture.”
“You were on Repleetah?”
“Yeah, got wounded in the days when the supply ships were still going back and forth. Managed to get shipped out.”

I made a facial expression which was half an acknowledgment, half, well, nothing. Repleetah was to the marines what the battle of Earth was to pilots (and any marines who survived the experience.) Bloody and pointless.

It has to be said though, this guy didn’t have any obvious wounds on him. Then again it wasn’t obvious to anyone who didn’t know that I’d lost my arm.

After a few minutes of what I think was contemplation Parson shrugged and let loose a smile of sorts.
“Anyway, come this way and you can down a few with my boys and me. Maybe let us know what it was really like at Brimstone.”
“Sure,” I replied, “Lead the way.”

To be continued
you know, your character just said what i have come close to saying to almost every war protester that has dared cross words with me. That is exactly the sentiment of someone who believes in what they are trying to do and is tired of the beuracracy being in the way.
Good story. Though wolfboy I would have to disagree with the war protestor comments. One can protest or disagree with a war, yet still respect the soldiers who fight and give their lives in that war.
Dran said:
Good story. Though wolfboy I would have to disagree with the war protestor comments. One can protest or disagree with a war, yet still respect the soldiers who fight and give their lives in that war.

Yes but the loudest and most annoying protestors are the ones who don't give a damn about the soldiers or the military.
Not really they are just the ones who get the press because it stirs controversy which is good for ratings.
As is traditional with any new chapter, I have to apologise for the fact that its taken me so long to update. I’m currently swamped with five separate university tasks which are currently taking up a lot of my time. Also I had a lot of writer’s block to fight through for this chapter. Anyhoo, thanks again to all readers and commenters.

Chapter 32: Eye of the Storm

Torrent’s perspective

Dirt and debris from the levelled buildings was being thrown backwards in the wake of the assault vehicle which was moving at doubtlessly unsafe speeds towards the city. The Ralatha, or what was left of it was now standing almost on its tail. Its engines were still operational and the ship was making a slow ascent into the clouds, the strain that this impromptu sky ride was putting on the hull had to be considerable. Also the flames from the gaping hull breach in its bow were spreading over some of the exposed areas of the forward section where the hull had fallen off.

In space, even the most violent explosions die off pretty quickly with no oxygen to fuel them. In an atmosphere, explosions are amplified considerably and burning ships don’t typically stay ships for very long. It was pretty remarkable that the Ralatha had lasted as long as it had.

Unfortunately, it meant that when that Ralatha finally went off, the explosion would be huge. We needed to get as far away from it as possible before the reactor finally gave in. I just hoped that the thing would still be in the air when it finally blew.

“Relax!” Bellowed a happy looking marine who was seated to my left, the only human in his platoon by the looks of things, “Kath’rak’s never dropped anyone yet.”

As if on cue, one of the transport’s wheels ran over a particularly large piece of debris and the entire vehicle jolted to the left at a sharp angle, I lurched forward involuntarily and was caught a second later by the safety harness. The transport eventually began to wrest itself out of the awkward angle it had gotten into and the right hand wheels, slowly at first but then at a deeply unpleasant speed, crashed back onto the road. Flinging me back into my seat as they did so.

My stomach responded to all this with an angry rumbling. In the last fifteen minutes I’d been flung out of a bomber, had to over-ride the safeties on my ejection pod to get to the ground in time to get the hell away from the Ralatha, had to endure the painful shift in decent velocity as I hit the pod’s deceleration thrusters at the last minute, enjoyed the sensation of plunging into a solid stone surface at a speed slow enough to save me from broken bones or blood loss, but fast enough to knock the air out of my lungs. After that I’d been ripped out of my ejection pod and literally hoisted into one of five escaping marine recon vehicles, now I was being jostled around incessantly. These things may very well keep me alive, but they weren’t doing my digestive system much good.

I kept my gaze at the metal floor below me. It was one of the few things I could see that wasn’t a blur. I could feel the bile writhing in my gut but it didn’t seem to want to escape just yet.
“Don’t worry we’re nearly there.” The terran marine said, shifting as far away from me as he could, presumably afraid of getting vomit on his boots.

One of the Kilrathi parted with a disgusted grunt as he presumably realised that I was on the verge of hurling. No one else seemed to care.

“So what’s…”
The next thing any one of us, hell the next thing anyone on the planet probably heard was the Ralatha exploding.

A deafening boom followed by a drawn out screech sent everyone’s hands flying to their ears. The assault vehicle swerved as the driver recoiled under the pain of the noise. Kilrathi hearing is a hell of a lot more sensitive then human’s and it’s a wonder that the assembled marines were able to sit through the whole experience with little more then an occasional pained grunt.

There was a blinding light from the direction of the Ralatha that hurt my eyes even though I wasn’t looking in its direction. When it finally died down to a level that I could look at it, I saw two burning Ralatha segments. They looked more like fireballs then debris. The good news is that the explosion didn’t seem to have caused any significant damage to the landscape. The flaming pieces would land in a levelled section of the colony so they couldn’t do much more damage. Hopefully.

Twenty minutes later

My stomach was still churning in the depths of the air-raid centre/CIC that was buried about half a mile under the surface. Nervous colonists were sat in a series of cavernous halls, some staring intently at the ceiling as if it would reveal some clues as to what was happening on the surface.

I was staring intently at the floor, trying to focus on the featureless grey floor and keeping as still as I could in the hopes of not angering my gut further. There were no available fighters left so there was nothing I could do except sit and wait.

I had no idea what was happening above. Things had been pretty quiet so far however so with the Ralatha gone there might not be much left to do except mop up the strays.

Then again, there was no telling how many marines the enemy might have landed on the surface. But still, if we could take out the enemy’s remaining fighters then any marines would be cut down like weeds, no matter how many of them there were. (If we could take out the fighters.)

I’d cast a few glances around the shelters when I arrived for Z’ratmak or his h’rai. No sign of any of them. That meant nothing however. This was a big shelter, they could be anywhere and I hadn’t looked too hard. Even if they weren’t here they might be in one of the three other shelters in and around the colony.

I hoped they were alright, but that’s all I could do which in the grand scheme of things meant less then nothing. I needed to be in the air, fighting to give them whatever chance I could to stay alive, not sitting down here in a worthless queasy slumber.

The sun had been on the verge of vanishing over the horizon when I moved into the subterranean stronghold. Earlier Z’ratmak had informed me, (not asked) that I was to accompany him and his h’rai on a journey to a favoured point on one of the mountain’s overlooking the village after they’d slept off the evening meal. The view was supposed to be breathtaking and apparently there was no shortage of game to bring home for tomorrow’s feast.

I’d been looking forward to it, it was about then that it actually occurred to me that in spite of the annoying psychological evaluation that I’d had forced upon me, I was also on shore leave. I thought I’d finally get a break from killing and maybe even the nightmares. I thought I’d get to unwind for a while, I wasn’t expecting to be hurled right back into the firing line.
But, if nothing else, at least I’d taken out the Ralatha. That was something of a consolation.
“You know, considering you just torched a Kilrathi cap-ship and maybe saved half the colony, you don’t look too pleased.”

I turned my head, slowly, towards the sound of the voice. I found myself staring at the face of the human marine I’d been sat next to in the assault vehicle earlier. He still seemed pretty chipper. I couldn’t understand that.
“Was it enough?” I asked bleakly, my voice coming out hoarse.
“Time will tell,” He replied, sitting himself down next to me. His chameleon like battle armour darkening somewhat to match the areas now covered by my shadow. “But there’s nothing to be heard up there, no tremors, no explosions, no-one banging the door down. I think we might just get through this with our asses intact.”

If he was a pilot on the Hermes he’d be lynched ten times over for such blatant and moronic tempting of fate. We’re a pretty superstitious lot I guess, but when you hear idiots chanting about victory in the middle of battle or making foolish predictions about how the future will play out which are based on nothing, you often have good reason to wonder how long that person has left. Not that those of us who don’t tempt fate are spared from one of the large number of painful ends however.
“Hear anything from the CIC?”
“Nah, they won’t let us in there. Commander Gregory probably thinks that…” He cleared his throat and mimicked a stereotypical upper class British accent, “Such barbaric and uncouth ruffians such as myself would surely start firing at the computers and try to devour his command staff.”

I almost laughed, then thought better of it and returned to staring at the same spot on the deck plating as my gut groaned anew.
“So what’s next for your team?” I asked.
“Well for now we’re on guard duty, if the enemy break through the door it’ll be the job of me and my three furry friends to keep them away from the colonists.”
“Just the four of you?”
“We’re pretty short handed. We lost contact with a lot of our people who were heading to the shelter in the Jolvark forest.”


I pushed the thought aside. I didn’t know what Z’ratmak had been doing and I wasn’t going to jump to conclusions.
“…Also, Confed never thought of Ghorah Khar as all too important in the grand scheme of things. Ever since the Kilrathi bugged out of Enigma we’ve had marines getting shipped out of here to God only knows where, and the Kilrathi aren’t helping. They keep chanting about how they can handle their own world without terran marines making them feel like prisoners on their own world.”
“Well, truth to tell that’s really just a few malcontents. Still, before today without imperial destroyers coming through the sky a lot of the colonists were beginning to wonder how necessary a Confederate presence still was. If it wasn’t for the attack I might have agreed with them.”

A short lives buzz echoed momentarily in the shelter, it was followed by a faint crash and a light shuddering that caused more then a few uneasy murmurs.

A sound like that meant one of two things. Either a Confederate or Kilrathi fighter had just plunged into the ground over the bunker. There was no way to tell which it was.
“I guess its not over yet.” The marine said in the most serious voice I’d heard from him so far.

The unnerved murmurs died down somewhat. There was no shortage of children who were in tears. I could imagine how terrifying this had to be for them, locked away in this desolate cave, not knowing if they’d ever be able to go home, not knowing if the enemy was going to charge screaming down the stairs and start firing into the crowd. That was a terrifying prospect for anyone at the best of times, doubly so at least for children.

“I never caught your name.” The marine said after a few moments. I turned to face him, my stomach slightly more peaceful now.
“Ryuku Katori.” I replied, “Callsign’s ‘Torrent’.”
“Tim Gardener.” He said, extending a hand, “Don’t have a callsign really but the other guys in my unit normally call me whelp, clawless freak, churnah, target practice, that sort of thing.”

I had to laugh at that. Z’ratmak had unleashed similar taunts at no shortage of bumbling crewmembers onboard the Hermes when he was serving onboard her.
“So, were you just transferred here?”
“No, I’m on, well, was meant to be on shore leave.”

He spat out a short laugh,
“Hell of a time you picked to come here.”
“Just unlucky I guess.” I said, almost shuddering at the memory of where I’d been before I came to Ghorah Khar.
“Well, though I’m loathed to lend compliments to a pilot, your lack of luck is lucky for us. Without you that destroyer might still be up there.”
“Nah,” I shrugged, “If I didn’t get it, someone else would have.”
“I’m not so sure. We’re not over furnished with…”
“Attention.” Boomed a voice over the loudspeaker which made everyone in the room jump, “All available pilots are to report to the CIC immediately. I repeat, all available pilots are to report to the CIC immediately.”

Another round of uneasy murmurs sounded in the chamber. I stared at the ceiling for a moment before pushing myself to my feet and trying to recall where the CIC was.
“Shit. Guess there’s more of the fuckers.”
“Guess so.” I replied. “Listen, thanks for the lift earlier.”
“Pffft, think nothing of it. Uh, I’ll see you when you get back, maybe. Watch your back out there.”

Three minutes later

As it turns out, I was the only available pilot. Nevertheless Commander Cunningham seemed pretty pleased that there was at least someone.
“Here’s the situation captain,” He said in a surprisingly similar voice to the one Tim had mimicked, “The TCS Carnthranizdolles, a Fraltha class cruiser that defected to the Confederation shortly after the battle of Earth has recently arrived in system. This cruiser has been reconfigured to serve as a light carrier. There’s currently a mixed fighter compliment of terran and Kilrathi ships onboard. Four of their pilots were wounded in a recent skirmish with enemy forces and now they have less pilots then they do fighters. So, I’m transferring you temporarily to the cruiser.”

I nodded, I can’t say I was too pleased with the prospect of going to another Kilrathi ship, but tried to reassure myself that these Kilrathi were the good guys.
“What’s the status on the enemy sir?” I asked.
“The last enemy fighters have retreated back to this.” Cunningham pointed to a large red blip on a smallish looking map screen. “Judging from the size of it we believe it to be a snakier class carrier. We’ve also detected at least four marine transports. If we can take these out then we can blast their offensive capacity to dust.”

That sounded good, but converted cruisers could only manage meagre fighter compliments at the best of times, and Confed had a total of two cruisers in this system. We were at a sever disadvantage against a carrier.
“I won’t lie” Cunningham continued, “We’re in a bad situation here, so we’re going for all or nothing. The Carnthranizdolles and the Caledonia are going to head straight for that carrier. Their combined firepower combined with a few torpedoes might just get the job done.”
“I understand sir. Is it likely we’ll receive any further re-enforcements?”
“No Captain, I’m afraid not. The closest ship is three days away, and it’s a Drayman. Do you have any further questions?”
“No sir.”
“Very well then. A shuttle is waiting in hanger one. Lieutenant Powell will show you the way. Good luck.”

To be continued.
Sorry once again for the month long gap between updates. Again the usual excuses apply. Thanks again to all readers and commenters.

Also Dahan, if you’re reading this. Sorry I didn’t meet the self-appointed deadline for chapter 5. Its been an awkward time here and I’ve run into some writer’s block on the fall of the flag front. Nevertheless, I’ll get the chapter finished as soon as I can.

Chapter 33: End of Round One

Z’ratmak’s perspective

I flinched instinctively at the sound of the shot, expecting immediately to feel the heat clawing at my flesh, burning my fur to cinders and sending me to Sivar in a momentary fit of agony.

At first I could not determine what was happening. I was still dazed from the impact to my face. My thoughts seemed to be following the actions around me at a distance of two paces. It was several moments after hearing the agonised roar that followed the sound of the weapon discharge that I realised it was not mine.

I turned my head to my attacker, only to find my eyes no longer obstructed by the sight of a gun barrel. Instead my enemy was flailing madly, seemingly trying to reach for something on his back. His weapon shot out once or twice into the trees, no doubt in his agony his fists had closed involuntarily, his finger closing around the trigger as they did so.

A bright orange flash of light buried itself in the back of the enemy’s head and he immediately collapsed to the dirt. The appetising scent of his superheated brain lingered on the breeze for a few moments and as I slowly recovered my wits I made it a point to enjoy that smell.
“Are you alright my Lord?” Asked an unfamiliar voice from somewhere above me. I looked around and saw a few paces away a Kilrathi marine clad in the protective armour of the Confederation. He was, presumably, one of the marines I’d previously ordered to fall into the forest. Of his comrade, or mine for that matter there was no sign.
“I am fine.” I replied, images of my mate and cubs in my mind hastening my return to consciousness. The smell of burning wood on the breeze had much the same effect. Weapon’s fire had set alight to the forest and now that fire was spreading. With no one available to control this blaze the forest would be nothing but ashes by tomorrow morning.

I chased off a momentary image of me and Vra’kara vanishing into this forest as cublings, entire days spent in innocent frivolity. Now it was going to be destroyed. The loss of it weighed heavier on me then it rightfully should have considering the circumstances.

“We must strike down any remaining Imperial soldiers.” I said, doubting that the two of us would make much difference against the force we faced, “we need to give our people time enough to reach the shelters.”
“I understand sir. And the others?”
“We cannot wait. Come.”

We set out of the burning forest and back into the open. Ideally we would have used the tree line for cover but the smoke from burning wood was making the air un-breathable. We could not hope to stay in there without inviting suicide.

No sooner had we exited the trees then to my utter astonishment I saw two Imperial marines barge out of the trees not five meters from us. Their visors were up and they were hunched over, gawping at the floor and gasping for breaths of unspoiled air. Their weapons dangled carelessly from their paws. I truly almost laughed at the sight.

Why were their visors up? This was my first of many questions on the subject, Their battle armour would cleanse the air they breathed of poisonous smoke.

With a silent nod to my comrade, we raised our weapons, aimed for the heads and fired. Air soon became a somewhat less pressing priority for the two soldiers.
“Unbelievable.” Muttered the soldier next to me in quiet tones, twitching his head back and forth as he spoke. “What fool of a commander has trained these troops?”
“I suspect that these were roo-” I cut myself off, not wishing to use terran mannerisms here, “cublings, soldier’s on their first mission. Still, I have never seen soldiers so inept.”

The Empire was not above throwing unprepared warriors in the face of the enemy. It was a fact that many Kilrathi fighters were eliminated by vastly smaller terran forces simply because the terrans had, to quote Ryuku, ‘earned their wings’ whereas the Imperial equivalents couldn’t tell the wings from the weapons. There were exceptions of course, but not many.

The same, albeit to a lesser extent, was true for marines. The Empire had been known to cast unprepared soldiers into battle against trained terran marines. Several young warriors from virtually all battalions, seeing unimpressive looking opponents only half their size often make fatal errors based on overconfidence and a lack of thought. But the two enemies that we had just shot were less vigilant then a sleeping Utara. Any self respecting Imperial instructor would have ordered their deaths for such stupidity long before they were let loose on the battlefield.

Something was not right here.

However, the corpses on the floor were not entirely typical of the opponents we faced. From what I had seen so far, many of the warriors seemed reasonably confident, if just somewhat – ‘green’, as you might say. Perhaps this was simply a case of idiots as an exception. Though ultimately this did not matter much.

With my comrade… I grow weary of referring to him as such, it sounds awkward. I was later to learn that his name was Halgak. In any case, whilst he still scoured the immediate area with his eyes, I lifted a pair of terran standard vision enhancer goggles to my eyes and scanned the surrounding area.

I noticed the group of whom my h’rai was a part, still running towards the shelter. It looked like they still had a fair way to go, but they were making good speed. Also it looked very much like they were no Imperial marines chasing them. I think they were still focusing on us. Understandable considering we’d taken out several of their ranks. Vengeance had to be satisfied, though I had no intention of accommodating the enemy in this way.

As I returned the goggles to my belt, another two Imperial marines burst out of the forest, though these were infinitely better trained then the first two. They emerged with their visors down, their weapons at the ready and they immediately began scanning the area around the forest upon exiting it.

Halgak and I were fortunate enough to be close to a sloped area of land which provided limited cover. Gunfire soon began to chase us to this cover, and our first few shots were blind ones, the laser discharges too numerous to allow for proper aim.

With each shot their aim was becoming more accurate. We had to act, now.

As if sensing my thought, Halgak rolled to the left, firing as he did so. This presented his body to the enemy, which as he hoped drew their fire towards him, allowing me to make my move.

I raised myself and fired at the enemy whilst they were firing at the still rolling Halgak. After two missed shots, I burned a hole in one of the Imperial soldier’s ribs. He fell over and howled his last agonised breaths to the wind. The second one went down as he turned his weapon back towards me, but it was too little, too late. He died instantly with a burning hole in his face.

Halgak hastily stood up and fired off a few more shots into the still howling Kilrathi. The marine soon fell silent, but I did not doubt that his comrades would have heard his wail and would be moving to investigate.
“Fall back!” I shouted to Halgak, making no attempt to conceal our doubtlessly exposed presence. “Run!”

No sooner had I spoken the last word then the fairly quiet yet all too familiar sound of Imperial gunfire started to sound. Streaks of red light began to chase us as we ran back towards the city, firing almost blindly back in the direction of the burning forest as we did so.

Everything was happening too quickly to make a definite count, but judging from the frequency of gunshots and some half seen figures that were shooting at us, I estimate that there were at least five Kilrathi pursuing us.

I searched for any available cover, but all I could see for meters was relatively flat grassland punctured in some places by scorch marks from weapon’s fire. The only protection we had came from the reasonably sizable distance between us and the attackers. This was a poor substitute however.

A sound akin to a crash of metal and a pained growl to my right told me that Halgak had taken a hit. I flicked my head in his direction and saw him fall to his knees, clutching at a steaming hole in his leg with one paw whilst trying desperately to fire more shots off in the direction of the enemy.

I stopped running, dropped down and fired into the line of enemy troops. They were closer now, and their shots were growing closer by the moment. Our own rushed fire was meeting with little success. I did not believe that we would be survive here. But we had to buy our people whatever time we could. As long as we held the Imperial marines here, they could not intercept the colonists on their way to the shelter. (If fate favoured us). We had been caught by surprise, and Sivar only knew where our already thin forces were spread. For all I knew there may already be Imperial troops moving through the city.

If they are there then the fighters will strike them down. I told myself again as I continued to fire.

Over the noise of the gunfire I thought I heard a slight whistling sound, but it was gone as soon as it arrived and was not significant enough to be worth my attention. At least that is how it was until the first of the explosions broke out across the line of what was now seven enemy soldiers.

My first thought was that a passing fighter had unleashed a basilisk missile into the enemy, but it soon occurred to me that no matter how intense the fire-fight, I would have heard the noise generated by the engines and checked to determine whose side the fighter was on.

Realisation still hadn’t struck by the time that the sound of the second explosion tore through the surroundings. Whatever had caused it had by the looks of things struck an imperial soldier. There was nothing left of him save the tiny, charred segments of flesh and bone which rained down over the battlefield.

I resisted the urge to look around and see what form this new friendly addition to the battle would take. But turning one’s head away from an enemy that was shooting at you was something done by Kilrathi as stupid as the inept “plebes” (One of Fool’s less then endearing terms for first year academy cadets), as the one’s me and Halgak had shot earlier.

The line was becoming disorganised as a result of several warriors forming it exploding. Some attempted to fall back into the forest, only to think better of it when they felt the intense heat. Other broke off to the left or right. I managed to down one of the soldiers who stood his ground and fought. His lack of movement allowing me to perfect my aim after a few failed shots.

Another enemy marine was claimed by an explosion from what I then came to recognise as a relatively low yield surface to surface missile. Those that were still alive were now well into a hasty retreat. Their running forms became less and less recognisable as they moved along the tree line.

When I felt it was safe, I made my way over to Halgak and at the same time cast a look behind me. In the distance I noticed a small looking grey patch in the sprawling green field before me. No doubt one of the colony’s ground assault vessels. It seemed to be heading in our direction.

Halgak made a noble attempt to stand before I reached him, it was not long however before the damage to his hind leg sent him crashing back to the floor. He parted with a single growl which was as much in fury as in pain. I could appreciate his frustration, but aggravating his wound would not help anyone.
“Remain still.” I commanded when I reached him. “Persist in this folly and you’ll find yourself in need of a new limb.”
“That might not be a deterrent my lord.” He replied through gritted fangs, “A new fresh limb, though unsteady would likely serve me better in this battle then this useless piece of meat.”

I had known marines who had grown such attachment to their limbs. (I cannot help but wonder why humans apologise for puns), anyway, when they are lost such marines mourn their missing arms or legs for months, often letting it interfere with their focus and endangering their entire squad as a result. It was refreshing to see such disregard for a non important piece of the self in the face of a greater need.

I told Halgak so, he managed a brief hint of a grin before hissing in sudden pain once again. After that we both watched the burning trees until the screech of a decelerating vehicle appeared from behind us.

There were four marines, two terran, two Kilrathi in the vehicle. The terrans raised their guns and bellowed their triumph as they came to a stop beside us. The Kilrathi manning the missile turret also looked pleased. The remaining Kilrathi had vacated the vehicle and was already moving towards Halgak. This was somewhat unnerving considering he was the driver, but the assault vehicle came to a graceful stop despite his absence.
“Grimes, Ado,” He roared, almost distantly, “Make yourselves useful and clear some space.” He then gave me the quickest salute imaginable to me before gesturing at Halgak’s shoulders. I nodded and together we hoisted him into the rear section of the idling war machine.

Within moments we met up with the crowd of colonists that I had been escorting less then an hour ago. I soon noticed Vra’kara and my cubs. More then anything I wanted to go over to them, but I knew that I had to stay vigilant until they reached the shelter. I couldn’t help but notice that all of them, even M’thrak seemed as surprised by my return as they were relieved. Though this may not be an all too unreasonable response considering the odds we faced, it was still a little unnerving to know that my h’rai had been bracing themselves for my death.

Relief, in part came from the fact that the sky was suspiciously devoid of fighters, suggesting that they were not needed to provide ground cover presently. Or alternatively that they’d all been shot down though I did not entertain this thought.
Alas, this became less of a relieving realisation when I returned to the shelter and learned that those fighters were all heading off to engage an incoming Snakier class carrier and troop ships. What meagre hopes of this battle being all but over were promptly incinerated. This battle had only just begun.

To be continued

Ah, as it turns out i can fit these chapters into a single post after all. Rest assured this one's as long as the rest.