Lt. Al Carbella decided that Taren V was the most blighted planet in the entire blighted district. He was part of an insertion team, which meant that they were dropped into a situation with little backup and uneven odds. After landing behind enemy lines they had battled for almost a week (with no outside help) before reconnecting with League forces.
Now his weary team had been recruited to take the nearest beachhead, which didn't even have the sense--like most beaches--to be pretty or flat and was, in fact, a mountainous mess. He popped his head above the self-dug trench and let off another round of fire at the now retreating Anty troops. Over his left eye, the Heads-Up-Display flashed a yellow circle right in the middle of the beach they had been approaching for the better part of the day. Well, apparently the time had come for an advance. Carbella pulled himself over the top of the trench, his fellow infantry men moving together. To one side, Major Kentar let loose with a battle cry and fired towards the enemy, unleashing a steady stream of depleted uranium shells from the hip. Carbella used his hand-held P2 Pistol to fire off a few highly volatile plasma packets at the enemy troops.
Within a few minutes, his armored boot hit sand and he was on the beach, approaching the yellow dot on his HUD. Carbella laid down a systematic field of fire, driving the already running Anty troops even farther back. A few meters in front of him an Anty was hit directly in the chest by a plasma packet and flew backward, the sand spraying up in golden waves around the dead soldier and steam rose from the fried armor.
Carbella walked carefully forward, letting out short controlled bursts from his pistol to clear a path for his advance. After stepping over the bodies of various sizzled Antys, he reached the top of the dune and found himself looking at the shore. For a second he though that he damn planet had found another way to piss him off by whipping up a storm, pounding the shore with large waves in beat with his blasted headache. He looked closer and saw that it was even worse, to his alarm the thing causing the waves was a hovercraft, disgorging Anty troops like puss from a pimple. Then Carbella heard a low pitched hum. The back of one of the hovercraft fell open and a skimmer, forward cannon blazing, flew out. It was soon followed by a seemingly endless supply of brown and green metal bikes, spitting yellow light and haloed with the sand pushed skyward by their jets. In the corner of his eye, Carbella saw the order to hold. He went down on one knee and pulled a Repeater off his back. As the fast armored hoverbikes swarmed his position, he realized that he wanted to be anywhere but right where he was.
Centurion Charely Proslin tightened his hands around the control bars of the Antarean Skimmer Bike. The brown and green combat paint streaked in such a way that the vehicle looked fast and the low comforting hum of its hover-drive reassured its driver that it was fast. He strafed the field of retreating League troops, cutting down a line of infantry. Whizzing forward, Proslin kept one hand on the control bar, sending out a barrage of yellow energy packets to stab into the scattering blue and white armored backs. With a whir he pulled up on the control bar and swiveled around. Proslin rejoined the rest of the skimmers, pushing forward together in a tight delta formation that flew across the now secured beach, insuring a safe path for the medium and light infantry. The formation moved like a scourge through the no-man's land, driving away the enemy with powerful and quick bursts of fire. Over the wind, Proslin could just barely hear his squad leader, screaming out of his ear-comm unit.
"Advance forward! Drive these rats for their tunnels. Let's take the battle back to their inner lines."
Leaning into the turn, Proslin swung towards the concentration of ULP troops. He was hit with a powerful wall of air, pushed down from above and forced to slow his vehicle. There was odd sound of latches unlocking. He looked up to see the dim outline of a dropship. Then, directly in his path--so close he had to activate reverse thrusters to stop in time--a set of three battlesuits dropped down. They were trailing wisps of the clouds they had fallen through and and left huge dinosaur footprints as they moved forward. With a series of loud clicks and whirs the battlesuits positioned themselves. They placed their legs in a sumo wrestler-like stance and uncoiled gatling guns from their shoulders, locking them into position. Before Proslin could draw another breath the two skimmers to ether side were blown to pieces in a hail of bullets. One of the battlesuits repositioned its gun, pointing the huge muzzle directly at Proslin's face. He heard the feeder warming back up. As the gun began to rotate, he realized that he wanted to be anywhere but right where he was.
Sergeant JD Asure laughed with glee as he blew another Anty skimmer to earth-colored bits. What had once been an organized formation pointed directly at the heart of ULP forces was now chaos and Sergeant Asure, more than any other Exo-Commander in his platoon, thrived in chaos. Nothing gave him more pleasure than watching the explosions of skimmers with punctured fuel tanks and enemy infantry blown yards back by the force of his personal arsenal. He walked slowly through the field of battle, the suit swiveling on its waist in service to his own movements as he strafed the sides of the battlefield, driving the Antys farther and farther back.
Asure turned to one side, where the enemy was weakest and scattering before the League's might. Ahead of his squad, he was the first to see the dim outline of an Antarean APC, a purple and green rhombus shooting up sand all around as it hovered across the beach, picking up the ocretreating troops. Relishing the chance to take down a heavy vehicle, Asure flicked a switch to activate missiles, only to discover his suit no longer had an arm. He'd been so focused on the APC that he hadn't noticed the Antarean Crab-Tank that skittered out of the dust to his right. He cried out as a powerful burst of energy from the insectoid maw of the tank disintegrated his suit's legs out from beneath him. As metal crunched into sand and he tilted backwards, he realized that he wanted to be anywhere but right where he was.
Group-Ascend Case Rawley grimly disintegrated another damn League battlesuit. He never was the type to take joy in harm, but he knew this was a necessity. His duty was made even more important by the reality of the injured being loaded into the APC behind him. Rawley sat square in the middle of the turret mounted atop six legs that propelled the Crab Tank. ULP troops popped out from behind mounds of sand and fired at him, their shells denting his armor. With the weight of experience, Rawley knew that his tank's slow firing energy cannon wouldn't be a good weapon against the small spread out group of men. Taking a deep breath, he relaxed his mind and let his thoughts flow through the neural jack behind his head. With a thought, a dozen small drones, each looking like miniature versions of his own tank, unlatched themselves from his vehicles's underside and legs, dropping to the ground and uncurling small legs and plasma guns. They scattered out before his tank like a green and red blanket, each firing far faster than his powerful pulse cannon ever could, forcing any Leaguer that didn't want his head blown off to stay down. At other strategic key points in the battlefield he saw brother tanks doing the same, covering the now retreating APCs. They were forcing the League battlesuits to back away, stumbling backwards in a slow and clumsy manner quite unlike the fluid movement of his own tank.
His tank's blood-red legs stabbed into the ground, taking back the territory the Empire had lost to the League's battlesuits. Ground dominance was what the Crab-Tanks and their drones were built for, and dominate they did. Few ground troops could stand up to a Fist of fully deployed tanks.
The inside of his cockpit suddenly blinked red and a low pitched alarm klaxon went off. Rawley's sensors had detected incoming aerial fighters. The drones turned their little guns upward, trying to act as a point defense system for his tank. To his shock, he watched as one drone, occupied while it was tracking incoming enemy ordnance, was tackled by a League infantry-man, who then shot a hole clean through the machine. At the same time, a Sword fighter, it's long forward fangs cutting through the sky like knives, blew away another drone with a hail of bullets. In no time, all the drones had been picked off. Rawley heard a series of urgent tones from his computer as the Swords began to lock on to him for missile launch. He heard five confirmed locks when the Crab tank to his right disappeared in fire. When his computer proclaimed that it detected incoming enemy fire, Rawley realized that he wanted to be anywhere but right where he was.
Nothing prettier than a set of Anty tanks going up like roman candles, thought Lead Pilot Charley Westell, or at least there would be nothing like it if the smell were to actually filter through his Sword's anti-septic cockpit. He came around with his group to strafe the Crab-Tanks a second time and was immensely satisfied to see another tank bloom into flames. He felt the slightest, smallest, remote bit of sympathy for his poor targets. How could they possibly contend with the power and united might of his Sword wing? On his signal, the group reformed, riding each other's wings. The Antys were reforming, tanks re-positioning in an attempt to get a bead on his flyers and infantry men assembling and equipping anti-air weaponry. His squadron of twelve fighters, now in a diamond formation, pulled up into the air--rapidly gaining altitude.
With a half-twist that made the sun gleam off their silver wingtips and long forward slats, they flipped one at a time, each unloading a set of missiles just outside the range of enemy weapons. Westell chuckled as he bombarded them with explosives. His group turned, gunning thrusters, and faced the remaining Antys standing between the fighters and the APCs. The group laid into the Antys, weapons free in order to eliminate whatever threat the enemy had left in them. The beach below them lit up with explosions and sand flew so far up into the air that it brushed the bottom of his fighter.
The air turned choppy and scattered the Swords as two of the wingmen to Westell's south-east turned into fireballs. Following instinct, Westell pulled his fighter up, moving out of range of any ground troops. He could not have been more wrong. As he turned towards the ocean, he saw an Antarean Damocles Drone Controller Vessel rise from under the water, dripping rain drops as it unleashed a storm of Iret drones: forward-swept wings, a small energy gun and two rectangles filled with air-to-air torpedoes. Westell pulled to the side to avoid a mid-air collision and re-formed with two of his wingmen. They used finely tuned bursts of gunfire to pick the drones out of the sky. In front of him, he saw a banking Sword explode as half-a-dozen drones concentrated fire on its cockpit. In union, the group swiveled and pinned Westell with red eyes. He fired two missiles, which made a Y in the sky as they each took down a cluster of drones. For a second Westell thought he might be turning the tide against the drones.
A red light flashed in front of his face and the Sword's right wing was cut off by a brilliant ruby energy beam. He felt his engine on that side falter. His fighter began to fall. He looked up as the sun disappeared behind the Damocles, then his Sword lazily flipped in the air. As the ground rushed up to meet him, Westell realized that he wanted to be anywhere but right where he was.
Tertiary Node H2506, also known as Mavis Tayler, followed her orders--terminate League air fighters--with extreme prejudice. She smiled fiercely as her drone-grouping, six medium-sized Iret drones, swarmed a Sword and cut it to pieces with their precise and powerful focused energy arrays. The little trap command had set worked all too well as the League's aerial support found themselves in entirely the wrong position to counter her host-ship. Red beams cut into the silver bodies and small torpedoes arced across the beach as the enemy's Swords fell from the sky. The drones swiveled in mid-air to track fighters attempting a fly-by. Tayler shifted slightly in the interface chair as a information flew up circuits, through the ship, and into her second spine. Her mind carefully manipulated the drones via neural impulses, each move she made was interpolated by the ship's Artificial Intelligence and relayed through hyperspace at five times the speed of light. Though the room she was in was completely dark, she wasn't aware of it. Her view of the battlefield was piped directly through her brainstem and into her visual cortex. The Total Sensory Interface presented Tayler with a mesh of visual data from the drone controller and sensory data from the drones, with an enormously fast computer filling in the blanks. A tactical display hovered above everything and the status of her drones floated in the upper right corner of her vision. Her tactics training came back to her in a flash and her drones clustered around a Sword, hitting it with laser fire from all directions. Data took the place of a visual examination of the event as explosions obscured sight.
Tayler twitched painfully as a spark of bio-neural feedback arced across her second spine. One of the drones was somehow damaged and its failed circuits were sending a digital mishmash up her interface line, which turned it into painful electric feedback. Squirming, she focused in on the center of the TSI, forcing her vision to zoom in on a drone falling to the ground in a shower of sparks. It hit the ground with a painful shock that distributed itself around her nervous system. Tayler shifted her point of view to see her attacker. Far above her Damocles, a USN Command-Destroyer was descending from space, lancing down with fire as it forced its way into the atmosphere.
The ship's massive weapons array was wreaking havoc with Antarean forces. Heavy gatling guns turned their attention to her drones and began to swiss-cheese them one by one. The electric bio-feedback hit her spine with increasing frequency and power as her drones fell. She tried to disconnect as she watched the League Destroyer turn its attention to her ship, but it was too late. Feedback was burning its way into her spine with increasing power and frequency as her drones fell. Somewhere a barrage hit the safety system and the electricity pumping into her brain increased exponentially, as did the pain. Brain-death felt near. One huge missile, half the size of her ship, unlatched itself from the bottom of the destroyer. The last thing to go through her head before she lost consciousness was the realization that she wanted to be anywhere but right were she was.
Senator-General Jack Manchester was quite pleased. Of course, if you listened to his detractors, Manchester, elected to a political position because of his military prowess and appointed to a military position because of his political prowess, spent quite too much time being pleased with himself. Especially considering how few of his recent military engagements had a "pleasing" outcome for the United League of Planets. However, this time he actually had reason to be happy, he was winning. There had been a short moment of worry when the Antareans had launched a number of those drone controller ships from underwater to cover an infantry retreat. They had begun to demolish his air support and he had needed to bring his ship out of orbit and into the atmosphere to save his squadrons. He had done so most effectively. The unfortunate side of that was, while they were technically able to enter atmospheres, United Space Navy Destroyers didn't really do so with any sort of skill. They flew into a planet's atmosphere just about the same way they did anything else: brute force. His Rhapsody-class Destroyer shoved air out of its way in large waves and hit the lower atmosphere with a flaming belly flop. Unfortunately changes in the movement of the ship were coming so fast that the inertial dampeners could barely compensate and Manchester was being rattled with such force (as was the rest of the crew) that he felt as if his teeth were going to fall out. He waved a hand elegantly, something difficult to do while the ship felt as if it was falling apart around you, and ordered them to keep the ship steady.
As the atmosphere thickened around them and the ship's speed decreased, the shaking slowly stopped. Soon the destroyer was casting its enormous shadow over the battlefield. League soldiers, rallied by the sight, cheered loudly. At least Machester imagined they did, he couldn't hear them through the ship. On the other hand, the Antareans looked up with fear in their eyes and ran towards shelter and heavy armor.
The turrets on the underside and wingtips of Manchester's ship swiveled to track the fleeing Antareans. The crew applauded and hooted as one enemy vehicle after another went up in flames. Command had wanted him to split his troops, to send almost half his contingent to the Fenril system. They had a small base there that was worried about possible Antarean attack. Manchester was sure that he could clean up here first and then move on to Fenril. It looked like he was right. The planet would soon be theirs.
Though he had come from a long line of gentlemen officers, Manchester's emotional state was approaching something akin to glee as he watched his mighty vessel's guns cut down Antarean resistance, of all shapes and sizes, like so much wheat. His Communications Officer, a pretty young thing that he had handpicked as much for her looks as skill, turned towards him and caught his eye. Glancing down at the arm display, he saw an incoming signal from the sector's Fleet Admiral. The admiral must have heard of how well the fight was going on this planet and was calling to offer congratulations. Keying open the channel, he was shocked by the scowling face of the Admiral, glowering up from the holo-screen. Manchester began to say how he had the situation so well in hand when he was interrupted.
"Manchester!" yelled the Admiral. "What in the name of all that is holy is your ship doing in the Taren system?"
Manchester tried to explain but was only able to sputter before the Admiral curtly interrupted him again.
"Do you realize that the Fenril system is about to be overrun? Do you know why? I'll tell you why! Because the contingent of troops that you were supposed to send never went!"
The Admiral paused to let it sink in. "I'll have your stars for this!" The Admiral's spittle dotted the image, then he cut the communication off.
Senator-General Jack Manchester, soon to be Senator Jack Manchester, and doubtless soon after that simply Jack Manchester, slid down into his chair. Now oblivious of the explosions and victory outside, he realized that he wanted to be anywhere but right where he was.
A minimal force was meeting with surprising success in the Fenril system, a key point in the sector. In a move of what must have been desperation, the ULP leaders had ordered protecting fleets from other systems to send the bulk of their forces to engage the Fenril attack force. League troops had left the Taren system right before Facilitators hacked the interdiction system online. However, the Antarean attack on Fenril would fail, 87.6329% of Antarean fleets would be destroyed.
All was going as planned.
If Fay (as its technicians called FAI, the Fleet Artificial Intelligence) had hands, it would have rubbed them together. However, FAI did not have any hands, nor any limbs at all, at least in the conventional sense. If you asked the Antarean techs who were responsible for the security and upkeep of FAI, which you were not allowed to do, they would have claimed it had limbs in a far more metaphorical sense. Specifically, tendrils. Huge, long, electronic tendrils that stretched wherever any Antarean vehicle larger then a bike could be found. FAI itself would have had a simpler response (though you wouldn't be allowed to ask it either): I fight, therefore I am.
FAI had been keeping a very close eye (more like a large bank of sensors, really) on Sector U0547, which contained Fenril, Taren and a number of other systems. FAI had been fed the dossiers of all the commanders the ULP had sent there and had manipulated the events, and the commanders, exactly to its liking. If FAI had emotions, it suspected it would be taking joy in its work at this moment. Fenril was indeed a key system, but not in the way the League thought. If it had been human, one might say it had a special kind of insight, since FAI was not human, it was just good programming. Fenril was key in that it had a great deal of resources and ship creation facilities, it was also key in that it was in the center. The ULP Admiral in charge of the sector played a good deal of chess. The center was valuable to him, in fact it was the most valuable place on the board. In its early years, FAI had played a great deal of chess, and a great deal of Go, among other things. The center is not always the most important point, as its enemy was soon to learn. The sides and corners can be just as important, if not more so, than the center. If FAI had been built to empathize it might have felt bad that the Admiral was going to learn his lesson in such a harsh manner... then again, it might not.
FAI sent orders out to the 10th and 18th Fists to begin their attack on the now easy targets on the rim of the sector. There was a 98.9996% probability that Antarean forces would take the entire rim of the sector. A 84.9749% probability that enough Antarean vessels would remain to close in on the set of systems farther in and close a tight circle around the (now) ULP controlled core of the sector. There was a 99.9999% chance that the Antareans would then control the entire sector within two weeks. FAI calculated hat after the battle for the sector was over, there would be a 32.1587% chance that there would be enough scrap metal left from the ULP fleet to create even a single battleship. If FAI had a face it would have smiled. In a week, the United League of Planets would collectively be wishing they were anywhere but right where they were.