2949-06-15 – Tales from the Inbox: The Jericho Heist

I cannot verify this story, nor can I definitively tie it to the names its participants claim. Sent in by a pair of freelance spacers who claim to have been featured in this text feed once before, this account did not come with any corroborating evidence such as sensor feeds and the like which is quite common with our recent fare.

Given that the heist claimed is technically illegal, I can see why the participants chose to send only a written account. The Incarnation, as the damaged party, cannot attempt to enforce charges until after the war), but wars don’t last forever, and plundering a battlefield is hardly an honorable practice in the best of times.

Still, this pair seemed proud of their handiwork, and I can verify the existence, until about eleven days ago, of a dubious bounty offered for the collection of one wrecked Jericho bomber. The anonymous posting on the Maribel datasphere was taken down and listed as cancelled, but due to the legality of this sort of salvage I would expect the poster to do so even if they had received the desired item and paid out the promised bounty.

I suspect if there is anything to this story, Naval Intelligence is already looking into it.

“Vari, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Hugh Apperlo waited for an answer, but when none came, he turned away from the viewpanel to look at the woman at the little starship’s helm station to find her staring back at him, expression, as usual,  wholly indecipherable.

Diane Dragović was barely big enough to call a light-duty hauler, and its main duty space was a weird hybrid of a smaller ship’s cockpit and a larger one’s command deck, with the twin side-by side helm stations of the former sitting in the middle of a relatively spacious compartment, with a few collapsible secondary stations set along the port and starboard bulkheads. Hugh heard an alert chime on his station, but made no move to see to it until he had an answer.

Varinia Villa eventually relented, shrugging her shoulders in her odd lopsided way. “Theoretically, yes.”

“I can’t say I’m reassured.”

Varinia’s hands ceased their movement over the controls. “Tell me the word, and we leave. There’s no contract on this run.”

Hugh briefly considered doing so, but his eyes moved from Varinia’s face to the crystalline spines protruding from holes in her specially-configured smart-fabric tunic. These, the reason for her distinctive shrug, were artificial structures anchored deep in her muscles each one the vertex of an erratically geometric pattern of ridges and protrusions that extended from her left shoulder down her arm and back.

Seeing the spines, he was reminded why she was so willing to take risks for a big payday. His shoulders sagged, and he gave in. “Just be careful. Ellison will want his ship back in one piece.”

Hugh took a seat and made a show of checking through the various engineering alerts on his board, refusing to look up at the viewpanel. The alert which had chimed a moment earlier was a minor one, nothing he could use to request a halt. What Varinia was about to do had originally been his idea, and he regretted having voiced it the moment he said it, seeing that curious gleam in the woman’s dark eyes that suggested furious activity behind them.

That had been three weeks ago, and Hugh had never regretted his idea more than he did now, piloting borrowed Dragović toward the tattered wreckage left behind by one of dozens of skirmishes that had taken place along the front in the last few months. Though capable of extremely precise maneuvers, the ship was otherwise in no shape to make a run for it if there was trouble - its Xiou-Edwards drive worked correctly about eight times out of ten, and its main gravitic drive could only provide about four gees of acceleration before half the circuit breaker switch-heads in the engine room decided to quit their jobs rather suddenly and retire to a quite life embedded in the opposite bulkhead.

“Entering the field.” Varinia reached over to pat Hugh on the shoulder in what she probably thought was a reassuring way. The effect was somewhat spoiled when a small piece of debris clanged against the ship’s forward hull.

Hugh took one deep breath, rolled his neck to ease the tension in his muscles, then loaded the sensor program they’d loaded before setting out. As the computer analyzed each piece of debris that tumbled past, Hugh called up the engineering diagnostics, watching the various jittering charts and fluctuating readouts for a pattern that might spell trouble. If he could spot a problem early, it might just save both their lives.

Ellison had offered to loan them a much newer ship for what they intended to do, but Varinia had insisted on Dragović. Hugh didn’t yet know why, but he had learned a long time ago to trust her instincts. Though most people tended to dismiss her as Hugh’s bedroom plaything because of her slight build, pretty face, and horrific fleshsculpt devised by Silver Strand chattel dealers, Varinia really was the brains of their two-spacer operation. If she thought the seemingly inferior ship gave them a better chance of collecting the remains of one of the Incarnation’s new Jericho attack craft, and then trading this wreckage for the sizable anonymous bounty posted on the Maribel grey market, she was probably right.

“Nothing on the sensors yet.” Hugh didn’t need to say anything, but he also hated to let the tense silence fester. “No candidates, no sentry buoys.” In theory, the Navy deposited sentry buoys at the sites of battlefields warning civilian craft to stay away, but with the Navy in most engagements ceding the field of battle to the Incarnation, they rarely had an opportunity. The Incarnation’s own salvage efforts seemed secretive and lackluster by comparison. Perhaps they wrote off every ship crippled in combat, seeing no point in recovering more than survivors and data.

“It’s here.” Varinia probably hadn’t intended Hugh to hear her whispering assertion. He snuck a glance at her, and saw her face set in dark determination, as if she could will a wrecked Jericho to appear before them. He knew what this score meant to her – it was the first time they had even a prayer of obtaining enough money for the first set of procedures to reverse the horrific modifications which had been forced upon her years before. Hugh would have preferred to invest it into buying their own ship – he’d long since stopped letting Varinia’s fleshsculpts bother him – but he didn’t dare tell her that. She had been trying to have them removed as long as he’d known her.

As if forced to do so by sheer force of will, the sensor routine suddenly chimed its discovery of a target object. “Matching contact.” Hugh flicked his finger over the alert to send the coordinates across to Varinia’s station. “Ninety-four percent certainty.”

Varinia adjusted course immediately, though it caused several pieces of wreckage to clatter against the ship’s already battered plating. “Get that scoop open.”

Hugh did as instructed, opening the forward cargo doors and extending the struts and meshwork of the haphazard scoop they’d installed there. The hold was just big enough to hold a single one of the arrowhead-shaped Incarnation strike launches, but they hadn’t expected to find one entirely intact. The anonymous bounty hadn’t specified how complete a wreck was needed.

Varinia, busy making a series of minute manual course changes to line up on the target object, nevertheless whistled as they drew close. “This is the jackpot, Hugh. Look at it.”

Hugh looked up at the forward viewpanel, and couldn’t help but agree. Tumbling slowly, the dead Jericho bomber dead ahead looked almost completely intact, though with its amidships badly torn up by what looked like railgun fire that had penetrated its starboard armor paneling, scythed through the machinery and crew within, and burst out the other side, taking most of the port-side hull structure with it. Despite the damage, the wrecked strike craft was essentially in one piece, and it looked like its ventral weapons bay might even be intact. If that bay contained live ship-killer torpedoes, Hugh knew they could get paid for the operation twice, provided he could extract them from the craft without blowing anything up.

As the distance ticked down, Hugh glanced back down to his console only occasionally. He wondered whether the crew of the Jericho had died instantly, or if one or two of them had lingered in the dead craft until their oxygen ran out. He wondered whether their bodies were still aboard, and how he could dispose of them hygienically and respectfully. Varinia wouldn’t care – she thought of the Incarnation as akin to the cruel underground which had turned her into a monster, and not without reason – but Hugh thought it important to be concerned with such things.

“Final approach.” Varinia made a last adjustment, reduced their relative velocity, then sat back as the Jericho vanished below Dragović’s bow. A moment later, the ship lurched and began to tumble as their target connected with the mesh scoop.

Hugh slapped his palm on the control to retract the scoop, watching on a secondary camera feed as the entangled wreck began to slide into the ship’s hold. “We got it.”

Varinia breathed a sigh of relief, probably already imagining how much more human she could make herself with her cut of the payout.

Hugh turned in his chair to congratulate Varinia on a perfect approach when several alarms on his console began to wail. “Aw, Hells. Looks like sentry buoys, and they’re not Navy.”

Varinia’s pale face became even paler. “The Incarnation doesn’t-” She interrupted herself, wheeling the little ship around and putting it on the fastest course to the system’s periphery. “Pirates, Hugh. God have mercy if they catch us.”

Before the war, there hadn’t been pirates on the Frontier for nearly two decades, but Hugh didn’t doubt she was right. Varinia, as a native of the Silver Strand and a firsthand witness of the cruel economy of the place’s outlaws, knew piratical activity when she saw it.

2949-06-08 – Tales from the Service: The Cvetkov Maneuver

 Rajab Spano felt sweat dripping down the back of his neck. Even with the self-contained atmospheric system within his armor suit blasting cold air at him from all directions, he always sweated in the suit during combat operations. A D’Sousa Systems sales representative had assured him that the Model 48’s enhanced atmospherics over previous models would eliminate operator perspiration, but after having used the new suit for more than a year, Rajab had definitively concluded that either his body’s capacity for sweat was a power which no mere technology could overcome, or the representative had been a damned liar.

“Spano, three o’clock low.”

Rajab turned toward the callout just in time for his suit to register several hits from a handheld laser. Fortunately, they struck the thick armor-alloy plating of the suit’s torso front and shoulder guards, doing little but discolor the fresh coat of heat-resistant intumescent paint the company armorers had just finished applying for just this purpose. Though he couldn’t see it, he knew the paint at the sites of impact had bubbled into a thick, black foam, protecting the metal underneath.

Before Rajab could switch to thermal vision to spot his attacker among the thick vegetation, a spotter drone launched by one of his compatriots marked the location from above. He raised his right arm to bring his suit’s thirty-milimeter smart-cannon to bear on the unseen enemy soldier, knowing a single fragmentation round from the weapon would shred the Incarnation straggler and everything in a two-meter radius.

“Hold it, Spano. Ramires wants prisoners.”

“Overwatch, Colonel Ramires can come out here and get his own damned prisoners.” Rajab snarled as several more laser strikes registered on his armor. Adjusting his aim to match the updated telemetry from the drone, he squeezed his right control gauntlet.

Though the D’Sousa Systems Model 48 weighed four hundred fifty kilos even before Rajab’s considerable bulk was factored in, but it still rocked back noticeably when the smart-cannon fired. At such a short range, the thunderclap of the projectile’s supersonic exit from the barrel and the dull boom of its explosion barely fifty meters away merged into one glorious sound which perfectly drowned out any protest the overwatch coordinator might have made.

“Adams, Graves, let’s pick up the pace. Too many stragglers here for my tastes. Leave the mess for the F.D.A.” Rajab stomped over to the tangle of broken kindling and shredded vegetation where his attacker had been hiding in a stand of local plants. Though he couldn’t see a body, he marked himself down a probable kill and turned toward the ridgeline.

As he turned away from his handiwork, the balance point of Rajab’s armor-suit changed suddenly. It wasn’t enough to slow him down or throw him off-balance, but it was enough to start alarm indicators blinking in his heads-up display. Something from the vegetation had snagged on the upper part of his suit, probably the comms antenna projecting just behind the armored dome which served as the suit’s helmet.

Setting the suit’s servos into a bouncing double-time jog and letting the motion pull his legs along, he switched his attention to the external microcameras which gave him an all-around view just in time to see the obstruction. A young man in a tattered set of Incarnation combat fatigues clung desperately with one hand to the root of his suit’s comms antenna while the other hand struggled with a round object which was almost certainly explosive.

“Aw, hellfire.” Snarling, Rajab skidded to a halt, his suit’s boots plowing deep furrows in Berkant’s fertile soil. Reaching up with his left arm, he swatted at the area behind his domed helmet, the big suit effortlessly flexing to allow the massive hand at the end of his robotically-extended arm to swipe at the plucky enemy soldier.

The suit, designed with safety stops to prevent him from damaging most of his own systems, stopped him from crushing his unwanted passenger into fine paste, but he did see the explosive device fall to the ground as he flailed to gain a killing grip on the Incarnation soldier. Just to be on the safe side, he stomped forward several paces as he struggled, in case the weapon was armed.

Unfortunately, the young soldier on Rajab’s back was too agile to be caught in one of the places where Rajab could crush him against the suit’s armor plating. Hanging on for dear life and swinging his body to avoid Rajab’s flailing arms, the man refused to be dislodged.

“All right.” Rajab dropped his arms and extended the stabilizing fins for his suit’s jump rockets. He’d never tried the Cvetkov maneuver in a live suit, but he’d been playing with it in the simulator for months, and it would certainly dislodge his passenger.

After an abridged startup sequence, he lit the rockets, propelling hundreds of kilos of metal and polymer into the air and crushing Rajab down into his control harness with at least three gees of acceleration. The acceleration lasted only a moment, though – Rajab had just cleared the treetops when he cut the rockets, rolled the suit over backwards with a quick burst of the attitude thrusters, then engaged them again at full force while still rotating.

In the second and a half of near-blackout as he held down the rocket burn control, Rajab saw the lavender Berkant sky whip out of view to be replaced by the canopies of trees close at hand. When the sky reappeared once more in his narrowing tunnel of vision, he fired attitude thrusters to correct his spin, just as his suit’s legs crashed back through the trees and toward the ground below.

The Cvetkov Maneuver, a crazy trick developed by a crazier Marine, was not something the D’Sousa armor-suit had ever been designed to handle, but when the Model 48’s boots bit into the heavy soil, sliding only a few meters before arresting his backward motion, Rajab was glad for its durable construction. He’d caused a few new warning lights to blink, but the one he cared about – the one which indicated an intruder clinging to his back – had gone.

Oddly enough, the tickling of sweat running down Rajab’s neck and back had vanished as well – the gee forces had whipped the moisture, at least temporarily, into the far crevices of his suit, providing a moment’s relief.

That moment ended when the Incarnation soldier’s body, which had none of the tree-branch-breaking mass of the suit and had thus had a far less direct return path to the ground, tumbled out of the canopy of a nearby tree into the leaf litter below. Rajab didn’t hesitate – he loaded another thirty-milimeter fragmentation round and fired, obliterating leaf litter, body, and tree which had arrested its fall.

“Ramires wants prisoners.” Rajab mocked the overwatch coordinator’s tone within the privacy of his suit before dashing forward to rejoin his two compatriots.

The Raid on Berkant a few days ago marks an interesting change in strategy for the Incarnation. Perhaps they are attempting to mimic the Confederated Navy’s successful use of ground-force raids on worlds like Meraud and Meyerfeld while massing their main fleet for another offensive.

All we can say for certain is that the Berkant raid does not seem to have gone according to our enemies’ plans. Though they were able to severely damage the spaceport and overrun an outlying military garrison facility there with a few thousand troops deployed from a pair of Tyrant cruisers, the response from F.D.A. and mercenary forces (which had, by a stroke of luck, been engaged in a field exercise on the planet in large numbers) was quick and forceful enough to cause the Incarnation’s raiding troops to withdraw in disarray to their landing craft. Many hundreds were left stranded in the garrison facility and its surrounding terrain, and the responding forces fought a bloody two-day battle to clear the area. Among the mercenaries engaged in this fighting was Rajab Spano, a heavy armor-suit trooper with the mercenary Crisp Company.

The Tyrant cruisers used an approach similar to that used by Confederated warships to reinforce and resupply Margaux during the last few months – they jumped into the system farther out than is normal and coasted in on a ballistic course with engines cold, being spotted only hours before they were in position to deploy their troop-carrying launches.

Though the long-term impact of the raid on Berkant infrastructure is minimal, many have forecast that this raid indicates the system to be the next invasion target, but this isn’t the first time an invasion of Berkant has been predicted. You may recall that the first proper fleet engagement of the war was fought in the Berkant system, but the Incarnation fleet had no troop-ships to exploit their success in this engagement.

2949-06-01 – Tales from the Service: The Landsman Bulwark

Private Yudai Boyd saw the blinking indicators in his heads-up display only moments before touching down at the end of his final pre-calculated jump toward the Incarnaton fortress. Acting reflexively, without making any conscious decision, he engaged his suit rockets one more time, jetting laterally fifty meters just before a heavy pulse-beam cut into the icy vegetation of his initial landing point.

Though his short evasive rocket-jump had evaded the targeting optics of the slow-tracking fortress guns, it nearly planted all five hundred kilos of his armor-suit rig on the shoulders of a light F.D.A. fireteam trading fire with an Incarnation infantry patrol. He barely heard the chorus of cursing his suit’s microphones picked up; he was focused on the emplaced weapon which had very nearly boiled him inside his armored shell.

Leaving the infantry to their duel, he stomped forward under the cover of a dense copse of trees toward the ridgeline, hoping the fortress guns didn’t choose to simply scythe blindly across the hilltop. Most of the Marines had come down in defilade positions on the reverse slope, but he’d landed behind a cut in the ridge which gave some of the heavy guns a clear shot. The cut didn’t appear on the relied map in Yudai’s HUD, but even the greenest Marine knew better than to trust pre-battle intelligence data, and Yudai was far from green.

Crashing through the copse, Yudai deployed the pair of spotter drones attached to the back of his suit, watching their cameras as they flitted up through the frigid canopy into the open air. Even from the ridge several klicks away, the massive installation loomed large, its gleaming walls possessing an ageless, cyclopean quality that did its best to dispel the reality that the fortress hadn’t existed fourteen months earlier. Equal parts prison and garrison, the structure housed a massive population of transplanted Confederated civilians, their innumerable, pitiless guards, and a sizable military force.

The spotter automatons picked out the emplaced pulse-beam which had almost killed Yudai within seconds; its barrel of magnetic metalenses glowed fiercely for the drones’ infrared sensors. As he watched, another gun of the same type bloomed into fierce heat as it spat an invisible burst of coherent light toward another point on the ridge where another F.D.A. squad or Marine trooper tarried in the open long enough for the targeting systems to lock on.

“Boyd, Prentis, those beam turrets are yours.” Corporal Ori “Ice” Berg marked the two weapons on the tactical net, and indicators bracketed each. “Get them before the F.D.A. armor comes around the ridge.”

Yudai winced, remembering how lightly armored the “armor” assets assigned to the skirmisher force were. They were really little more than fast carryall trucks with one-centimeter armor-alloy plates bolted to their noses and sides – agile and easily capable of navigating the ad-hoc road network of Meraud’s ice-rivers, but not really prepared to withstand anything but small arms fire. He focused his spotter drones on the turret mount assigned to him, which he couldn’t help but notice was the same one which had nearly killed him. At four klicks away, the weapon was outside the range of most of his weapons, but he didn’t need to destroy his mark right away – all he needed to do was get its attention.

Yudai switched his suit’s integral rail-cannon to its highest muzzle velocity, lowest rate of fire setting. Attached to his right arm, the weapon probably didn’t have enough power to penetrate the armored gun-shield of the fortress turret, but it would make enough noise to tell the gunners where he was. Crashing through the last line of trees, he raised his arm, locked the suit joints, and opened fire, each projectile tearing through Meraud’s chill atmosphere with a thundering crack.

The targeting optics in Yudai’s helmet registered a few hits, but the turret was already swinging toward him, so he cut in his rockets to rush into the cover of a huge boulder covered in vine-like vegetation. The plants coiled and reached for the warmth of his suit, but he swatted them away idly, watching the turret come to rest pointing directly at him with his drones. The weapon couldn’t reach him behind cover, and it couldn’t turn to face a new threat without giving him a chance to move and attack once more.

“Ice, I’ve got mine tied down.” Yudai itched to destroy the weapon, but he knew better than to approach before the fortresses revealed its other weapons.

“Copy. Keep it that way.”

As Corporal Berg acknowledged Yudai’s update, he saw a group of new heat signatures rise from within the fortress’s outer wall, climbing quickly into the air. Yudai cursed; if he was pinned down by the turret, enemy close air support could pick him off only too easily.

Fortunately, the planners of Operation Landsman had accounted for this probability. With a rumbling sound, three sleek arrowheads sped overhead, cresting the ridge barely ten meters above the treetops. Marine Puma interceptors, as agile in atmosphere as in the vacuum of space, sliced through the cluster of climbing air-support craft, sending two tumbling back to the ground and scattering the rest.

Knowing he owed the pilots a drink, Yudai repositioned his spotters to keep an eye on the remaining aircraft as well as the turret. He still hoped to slag the offending pulsebeam, but to do it, he needed to get a good deal closer.

Operation Landsman resulted in the rescue of nearly two thousand civilians from the frozen hell of Meraud’s Incarnation labor camps. Confederated casualties were light – about thirty killed across all services and another fifty or so wounded. Most of the casualties were suffered by the Frontier Defense Army, but this service contributed most of the ground troops, so this should come as no surprise.

The fortress prison-camp itself was not penetrated during Operation Landsman – its static defenses are reported to be far too formidable for a light raiding force to threaten. As Private Boyd’s account indicates, the fast-moving Marines struggled to engage the defenses effectively, but the fortress in turn generally lacked the ability to threaten Marine troopers at range.

No doubt both the Confederated and Incarnation armed forces will learn much from this raid. For the thousands of civilians rescued and the many more still in bondage behind the fortress walls, Operation Landsman gives some hope that the horrors brought on by this conflict will soon be at an end.

2949-05-25 – Tales from the Service: Operation Landsman

Meraud has haunted the imaginations of many civilians here on the Frontier since Naval Intelligence discovered a brutal forced labor colony there (Tales from the Service: Atrocity on Meraud) where Incarnation troops were sending Confederated citizens out to cut timber and do other menial resource-harvesting tasks in the planet’s frigid climate without the benefit of proper tools or modern thermal insulation. No doubt, the people sent there were those who remained to see the Incarnation’s rule over such planets as Adimari Valis and Mereena but did not demonstrate sufficiently slavish devotion to the Incarnation cause.

Though Meraud remains deep behind enemy lines and beyond the power of Fifth Fleet, another half-mad scheme from the mind of Admiral Zahariev’s chief adviser seems to have born some fruit, in the liberation of nearly two thousand Confederated subjects from this world. This daring raid, which employed one company of the Confederated Marines and several F.D.A. scouting companies, was ferried to location and returned safely by the Whitcomb Scourge and its formation.

This cruiser is the last of her class operational with the Fifth Fleet, it seems. Where once almost all the Fifth’s scouting formations were centered around a Wheeljay-class light cruiser, between the formations cut off in Sagittarius and the losses in battle since then, Whitcomb Scourge and the Lost Squadrons flagship Arrowhawk are the only ones remaining active. Neither of the Lost Squadrons hulls are likely to be returned to any useful service soon. Allegedly, the replacement light cruisers being fitted out now back in the Core Worlds are more capable units by far, but they will be months or years in coming to the Frontier. Zahariev’s battle line might still contain eight big battlewagons, but the fleet’s outriders have suffered badly in this conflict so far.

The Navy is already bombarding the datasphere with accounts and records from the daring Operation Landsman, and it would be a dereliction of my position if I did not gain an exclusive account from the event. Naval Intelligence has put me into contact with Private Yudai Boyd of the Confederated Marines, who was among the raiding party, and he has proved only too happy to provide his experiences. Ashton will be featuring snippets of Private Boyd’s helmet camera footage on the main vidcast some time this week, but here on this feed, we’ve picked up some other aspects of his story to relay.


Yudai Boyd and his compatriots had received a detailed briefing about the inhospitable climate of Meraud en route, but from the inside of his hermetically sealed armor-suit, the frosty landscape remained comfortably picturesque. Though the midday temperature rarely achieved five degrees Celsius even during local midsummer, the air inside his suit remained comfortably mild.

Scourge to all Landsman units.” Yudai recognized the crisp, pleasant voice of the operational overwatch officer, a pretty Navy lieutenant aboard Whitcomb Scourge circling protectively overhead. He had seen her only once, during the briefing, and decided that he would waive the usual formal hostility Marine grunts had for Navy officers if he was ever to encounter her off-duty in a station bar back at Maribel. “Skies are clear. Operation is go.”

“Copy, Scourge.” Captain Nenci, the Marine commander of the ground troops for the operation, used the same all-blast channel. “By the numbers, boys, just like in the simulator.”

Yudai switched on the electric heaters built into his suit’s jump-rockets to make sure the ever-present frost hadn’t choked the system, then ran a full diagnostic just in case. In front of his face-plate and on the three-dimensional relief map projected into one corner of his vison, he could see thermal-cloaked F.D.A. scouts fanning out forward toward the ridge three klicks distant where the Incarnation’s outer picket line resided.

Despite their short terms of military service, Yudai and most of his compatriots had come to respect these volunteer skirmishers, expert woodsmen and hunters on their native worlds before the War. Even the greenest F.D.A. recruit was more respectable, as a Marine saw it, than a detached, antiseptic Navy spacer scowling down at the dust kicked up by real battle, a battle between men armed with weapons, not between distantly-separated machines in which the crew was merely a set of biological components.

The skirmishers, without powered armor-suits or jump-rockets, needed a great deal of head start, but so did the column of armored personnel carriers disgorging from the heavy dropship behind Yudai and his fireteam. Though quite speedy on a road, these vehicles needed to bull their way through rugged, crystalline forests until they reached the nearest of the ice-rivers which served Meraud as roads in almost every season. With a rising whine from their turbo-electrics, each of the eight-wheeled monstrosities lurched into motion down the gradual slope toward the distant glint of the nearest riverway.

“Sound off.” Corporal Ori Berg, known by most of the company merely as Ice, barked into the fireteam channel.

“Green, Corporal.” Yudai replied, trusting the comms network to prevent his message and those of his three other compatriots from interleaving and becoming hopelessly unintelligible.

The seconds ticked away, and the various non-Marine elements of Operation Landsman fanned out on the three-dimensional map. The Incarnation garrison probably outnumbered the raiders ten or fifteen to one, but they hadn’t come to conquer the Incarnation fortress – they’d come to cut off a few of its questing limbs before they could be retracted into that impenetrable shell. In several directions around the fortress, the Incarnation had dispatched battered secondhand crawlers and convoys carrying work-parties to their suicidal task hacking usable resources out of the frozen Meraud landscape.

Yudai considered his fireteam lucky in the duty assigned to it – they were one of the two fireteams, a mere ten Marines, assigned to support the F.D.A. skirmishers at the fortress perimeter, where fighting would be the fiercest. In addition to the heavy emplaced weapons of the Incarnation base itself, armored vehicles and hostile close air support were probable. Tying up these forces to prevent them interfering with the liberation of the work-parties would be dangerous, but Yudai preferred the certainty of danger to the possibility that he might spend the whole operation watching the skies anxiously but never firing a shot.

A timer appeared in one of Yudai’s displays, counting down from fifteen seconds to represent when Ice wanted him to jump. Each Marine in the team would jump in sequence, allowing those firmly on the ground to support the jumper in case the leap attracted enemy fire. Yudai armed his rockets just as the first pair of armor-suited Marines – one from each fireteam in the fortress group – climbed into the chill sky on pillars of steam and fire.

When Yudai’s own rockets engaged, their calculated arc took him high enough that the tops of the fortress’s inner structures peeked over the top of the ridge beyond. Imagining the wide eyes of Nate guard staring at surveillance screens as rocket-plumes lit the horizon, he grinned inside his helmet, looking forward to an operating environment with ample targets and few things anyone would complain if he demolished.