Falling Skies (Chronicle)

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Falling Skies

10:07 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC115

Villore VII – Moon 6 - Senate Bureau

Vieres Constellation, Gallente Federation

A tangle of voices echoed around the cavernous interior of the Senate chamber as the last group filed out through the main entrance, an uncountable number of dialects and accents slowly replaced with a stony silence.

His eyes remained downcast, his field of view filled with holofeeds from every corner of the besieged planet. To his right, closed circuit footage showed the glossy black surface of the Shintoko Tower, one of Arcurio’s most well-known landmarks, folding like a house of cards. Its lights flickered out like a thousand candles caught in the breeze as it toppled into two neighboring structures.

Directly in front of him, a burning armored personnel carrier emblazoned with the markings of the Caldari Providence Directorate crashed to a halt, slamming into parked vehicles in a crowded street littered with smoldering debris. A figure emerged as the hatch was thrown open, more of a shadow behind the glow of immolation than anything identifiably human. It battled against the heat, frantically attempting to flee the superheated wreckage. Upon doing so it was kicked and beaten into a lifeless burning heap by a bloodthirsty crowd.

His eyes moved on, head still downcast. An ocean of protestors with all manner of homemade weapons filled a broad, tree lined avenue in downtown Pakuri. A young woman no more than 20 years of age, holding the fluttering flag of the Gallente Federation, crumpled to the asphalt as a canister of riot control gas struck her sternum. She remained inanimate as the crowd surged over her toward the Provist blockade.

The sound of a quiet, smooth voice dragged his eyes from the carnage. “Mister President. I need a decision as soon as you’re ready. Our forces are on standby.”

He nodded his hairless head, his eyes returning to the mess of holographic images projected beneath the immaculate glass surface of the desk. He picked out the face of a handsome young Gallente man, sullied features locked in a scowl, lips moving in silent protest. Without looking up, he replied:

“And then what? If I give the green light, what happens next? This operation is a massive risk. If it fails, you know what Heth will do. It would be the biggest mistake of my life to think he wouldn't burn every shred of Gallente existence from Caldari Prime.”

Blaque approached him slowly as his words echoed around the empty chamber and his hand gestured to the carnage laid out on the surface of the desk. “Our people are dying on the ground. We can’t wait any longer. Whether he orders the Shiigeru to strike an hour or a year from now, so long as it stays in orbit and our citizens down there persist in causing unrest, it will remain a clear threat to the security of Luminaire. Heth’s reaction is something we can never fully prepare for.”

“Don’t lecture me, Mentas. I’m well aware of the situation. If the administration at the time hadn't been so damned spineless, we wouldn’t be in this position now” was the calm, quiet reply.

Blaque couldn’t help but allow himself a small smile as he watched Jacus Roden, President of the Gallente Federation, drum the fingertips of his right hand against the laminated surface of the desk. The older man let his eyes settle once more on the collage of destruction projected beneath his hand.

A low-slung, sleek white vehicle stood waiting at the black and yellow striped barrier of a Provist checkpoint. Roden ran the tips of his fingers over the grainy image of a Caldari Providence Directorate soldier, his rifle stood at his side as he stooped over to speak through the open window of the vehicle. A second later his neck snapped back, his head erupting in a crimson haze.

The rear wheels of the vehicle bounced over the tangled body, its nose pushing through the barrier and its bodywork riddled by small arms fire. Roden watched as a perfectly straight contrail of smoke extended from the guardhouse of the checkpoint like a bold line drawn across a sheet of paper. The detonation of the ‘Foxfire’ anti-personnel rocket tossed the vehicle through a tail over nose flip into a roadside drainage ditch, leaving a trail of fire and billowing black smoke in its wake.

“The situation is spiraling out of control down there. The Provists are losing grip and each hour we delay, we lose more lives to their heavy-handed action.” Blaque’s words were carefully delivered as he fixed his gaze on the top of Roden’s smooth-skinned head. “We need to make sure that the option to call in an orbital strike at the hands of Admiral Yanala is taken out of the equation.”

Roden pulled his attention from the charred remains of the vehicle as the Provists began to flank it in well-trained cover formation. He met the sharp amber gaze of Blaque. “I've seen enough. How long would we have to wait for a full deployment?”

“The Navy can move as soon as they have approval, but the FEDCAFT story we pushed to the media will only hold for so long. Sooner or later they’ll expect our forces to return to headquarters.” As Blaque finished the sentence, his eyes washed over the mess of video feeds in front of the President.

“Ranchel is confident that our forces can pull this off?” Roden’s tone was inquisitive, with a measure of wariness, his attention turning to Blaque across the desk. Blaque nodded in response.

“He has Admiral Bauvon in command of the strike force, over a thousand vessels at his disposal if needed. It will be a surprise offensive. We’ve been monitoring Caldari Navy communications in Black Rise. At present they believe that if we’re going to attack, we'll do so with a full-scale offensive against the State, rather than just Caldari Prime. The FIO has solid intelligence on this, and the diversion has worked. Phase one is complete, phase two needs nothing but your authorization.”

Roden rested his elbows on the surface of the desk, balling one hand into a fist, the second clasped around it as a rest for his chin. “And how do they predict that this will play out?”

“The Caldari Navy already has forces primed to jump to Luminaire should our cynosural inhibitor network be compromised. They’re always on standby. When we bring the net down, they’re liable to jump through at least a token reactionary force, but nothing we won’t be able to clean up given time and commitment. The main unknown factor is always going to be the behavior of capsuleers. If they realize what’s happening, they may see this as an offensive to take back Caldari Prime.”

Roden let out a slow sigh, his fingers gently rubbing over his clean shaven chin. “They will soon realize that this is not the objective of the operation. Until then, our forces will have to deal with them as appropriate.”

“Frankly, for all I care, the State can keep that godforsaken icy rock. As for the Shiigeru, we can no longer tolerate its presence.” Blaque’s reply was without hesitation, a pause only for breath interrupting him. “It now presents an undeniable threat to the security of the Federation, and should never have been agreed upon after the invasion.”

President Roden gave a gentle nod of agreement. The words of his next sentence were delivered as if part of a speech, each one selected, analyzed thoroughly and approved before being spoken. “This operation will cost lives on both sides. The only saving grace is that the number of Federal casualties will be far lower if we act now instead of allowing Provist forces to unleash the full force of the Shiigeru on our people. You have my authorization for phase two.”

The response from Blaque was immediate, a hand thrust between the buttons of his crisp olive-colored jacket. He withdrew a sleek black datapad from his breast pocket and slid it across the desk to the President, who offered his thumb to a glowing green square on its holographic display. His words were slow and measured. “See to it that it’s done, and keep me updated every ten minutes until the operation is completed, regardless of the outcome.”

Blaque nodded in response, catching the device as it was slid back to him. “You have my word that the pilots selected for this operation are the finest the Federation Navy has to offer.” The younger man slid the small datapad back into his jacket before turning on his heel and making for the door. He lifted his fingers to his earpiece as he walked.

Roden’s eyes were drawn back to the surface of the desk long enough to watch the aftermath at the security checkpoint. Three Provist soldiers carefully wrapped their fallen squad member in a large black sheet before carrying him off toward the guardhouse. The old man lifted his attention from the collage of holographics in time to see the head and shoulders of Mentas Blaque vanish through the side exit of the Senate chamber, his last audible words echoing around the large open space.

“Ranchel? Blaque. Phase two of Operation Highlander is go. Deploy at your discretion.”

13:32 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC115

Caldari Prime – Outskirts of Arcurio – Altitude 1338 meters

“Prepare for insertion! Six Minutes!”

Major Kuos Askulen sealed the hatch to the cockpit of the Sparrow-class dropship, before making a ‘v’ with his armored fingers as he walked the length of the troop compartment’s port side aisle. He double-tapped his cheeks in a gesture to his eyes, then pointed to the red light beside the dropship’s rear loading ramp, its domed lens illuminating as if on cue. His voice was raised over the deafening drone of the craft’s thrusters.

“Equipment check, be prepped to give these bastards hell!”

The dropship bucked violently in a hail of anti-aircraft fire, Askulen’s feet momentarily leaving the steel deck plating. The nausea of temporary weightlessness churned his stomach before his feet made contact again, and when they did, he staggered and bounced sideways, his armored form pressing into the lap of one of the seated men from his platoon. A muffled voice sounded out from beneath him.

“Damn, Sir, you gotta learn to control yourself until we’re off duty.”

Askulen righted himself, pressing a large hand down on the soldier’s helmet, deliberately skewing it to one side as he stood. He smirked from beneath his ‘Nightstalker’ tactical goggles as his retort came amidst a chorus of whistles and shouting.

“Only your sister gets that pleasure, and definitely only when I’m off duty. Get your shit in line and prepare to deploy.”

He continued walking, his head craning around to watch the platoon of sixty men prepare their equipment. The rattle and metallic snap of magazines being inserted into standard-issue Kaalakiota R-66A Assault Rifles was a familiar noise that always curled his lips into a smile. He reached the rear of the dropship and turned to face those under his command, gripping the well-worn framework above his head for support.

“Our objective is to re-secure the surface-to-orbit defense batteries at the southeast corner of District Nine. Our LZ is hot with Federal Defense Union activity, but secure for now. We're gonna set up a defensive perimeter, then move northwest to secure and man the batteries.

“Do not underestimate our hostiles. Reports indicate we’re up against a sizable force of these prototype soldiers that have been in the news. You’ve all had the briefing; you know what they’re capable of.”

The professionalism of his unit had always given him a supreme confidence in their ability to perform under fire. They were a credit to the Caldari Navy. He gave a nod, watching the well-trained squad run through their various pre-deployment checks.

Half way down the portside aisle, Second Lieutenant Oroki Matavo straightened out his ballistic helmet, glancing over to the soldier strapped into the seat opposite him. He kicked out at the other man’s armored boot to rouse his attention, shouting over the drone of the Sparrow’s thrusters.

“Hey Tsu, you hear that? We’re up against those cloned freaks. We gotta keep the squad close-cut, good spacing, hit 'em hard and fast and be prepped to knock out their CRU if they keep coming.”

Corporal Yon Tsuata nodded back across the aisle in agreement. “We got a good crew, solid command; we’ll be in good shape once we hit the ground. We knock out their infrastructure and they’re on the same playing field as we are.”

Matavo shook his head, giving a nervous laugh. “I wish I shared your optimism. The stories I’ve heard, these things can take a full mag from a 66A and just keep coming. We’re probably gonna run short on ammo before we kill enough of them.”

Tsuata opened his mouth to respond but before he could speak, the wind was knocked out of him with a hard metallic thump. He looked across the aisle to see a series of fist-sized holes open up along the Sparrow’s fuselage above Matavo's head, long shafts of light penetrating the armored hull as sparks bounced around the dropships interior.

His eyes were drawn downward with the realization that the warmth in his lap was coming from a hole in his thigh. There was no pain as his eyes followed the path of the armor piercing round. It led from a hole in the floor beneath the half of his foot and boot that remained, through his seat, then made entry through the back of his thigh and exit through its top. He barely had time to register the second entry wound below his left pectoral muscle before he lost consciousness.

Matavo’s mouth dropped open slightly as the young officer’s lifeless head lolled forward, a crimson trail leaking from his lips. Within seconds there was chaos as the troop compartment began to fill with thick black smoke. He reached forward, his restraints automatically loosening for an emergency drop as a second hail of fire from below riddled the side of the dropship, showering sparks and crimson across the floor. Matavo let out a shout, grabbing at the edge of what remained of his seat as he was pelted with a hail of soldiers and loose equipment.

The Sparrow banked hard to avoid another lethal burst of fire, failing to outmaneuver the lead that its aggressor had predicted. Its armored side was shredded in a third hail of depleted uranium, a dozen or so men thrown out through a gaping slash in the side of the craft. Matavo tightened his grip as the dropship spiraled wildly, flames from the port side thruster assembly licking in through the damaged hull.

He looked up as the sound of the co-pilot’s voice thundered through the troop compartment’s PA system. The stench of seared flesh almost overwhelmed his senses.

“Mayday, Mayday, this is Protectorate wing ‘Dragon’ two five seven. Port side thrusters knocked out, pilot KIA, zero control, we are going down. Repeat, we are going down. All personnel brace for crash landing.”

Matavo was thrown across the aisle toward the center of the craft as it banked hard again, before falling into a steep dive. He wrapped his arms around one of the structural supports, narrowly avoiding a surge of bodies that tumbled toward the front of the craft. Those of his unit who were still alive scrambled to brace themselves for a hard landing.

He looked up toward the rear of the dropship as the body of Major Askulen rolled past him, and couldn’t help smiling at the irony of the red light that suddenly turned green, as if oblivious to the chaos. The loading ramp yawned open and spilled personnel and equipment into the trail of thick black smoke that followed the craft and through the tangle of debris his eyes caught sight of something beautiful in the amber evening sky.

Some 340 kilometers above, the setting sun refracted off the hull of the Shiigeru. The vessel the Sparrow-class had been dispatched from, the bastion of armored Caldari steel that had served as his home for the last three years of his deployment.

He watched her sleek hull shimmer behind the heat haze trailing from the crippled dropship. Loose crates of equipment and dead members of his platoon tumbled past him, thrust out through the rear of the craft by a funnel of air forced in through its damaged side.

Several more sleek grey hulls streaked into the sky above. They were distant, but easily recognizable as the silhouettes of four Wyvern-class supercarriers that had joined the Shiigeru. He remained transfixed, and for a split second he smiled again, before a blinding white flash removed him from existence.

13:36 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC115

Caldari Prime – 227km south east of Arcurio – District 9

The well-worn bronze frame of the Boundless Creation MH-82 Heavy Machine Gun rubbed against her armored thigh, her boots kicking up a trail of dust as she ascended the steep side of the hill. The matte black hulls of three Sparrow-class dropships thundered across the evening sky above her head. The tactical heads-up display within her dropsuit’s helmet marked them with red brackets and provided velocity and altitude readouts as she glanced skyward.

On reaching the summit she drew in a long breath, the coarse rasp of the respirator filling her ears. The dropships banked hard toward southern Arcurio and passed through a column of thick white smoke, twisting it into a coil in their wake. Movement in her peripheral vision drew her attention away from the flying machines.

A Saga model light attack vehicle bounced across open ground, its unarmored driver and passenger’s heads swaying with the rough ride. Their gunner, dressed in the combat uniform of a Provist occupation force infantryman, was almost thrown from the vehicle as he attempted to keep a barrage of antimatter fire on a pursuing vehicle that was obscured by dust.

She crouched on the crest of the hill, easily supporting the sixty-kilo bulk of the MH-82 in her augmented arms. Her heads-up display instantly recognized the target, providing its velocity, heading and an estimation of its condition and combat readiness. When she pulled the trigger, the weapon roared into life.

Quad rotary barrels belched flames three times the length of the weapon, the cloned brain of its operator predicting a perfect lead. A maelstrom of dust and dry soil was thrown up around the vehicle as it rolled over like a discarded toy, riddled by a hail of depleted uranium rounds. 

She pulsed the trigger in two-second bursts to prevent the weapon from overheating, stopping only to allow the pursuing friendly vehicle to cross her line of fire and vanish over the opposite hill. After another three bursts, the rotating barrel gave off a soft whine, spooling down as she spoke to the other members of her squad.

“This is Highlander Two Niner, Unit Six. Hostile scout patrol neutralized. Awaiting further orders.”

“Acknowledged, Unit Six, resume anti-air support,” was the immediate reply, distorted by gunfire.

She remained crouched, one knee in the dirt as a wing of three more Sparrow-class dropships tore across the sky above her head.

Flames jetted from the weapon, its aim lifted as a hail of countermeasure flares poured from the rear of the dropships. She smirked behind her visor, her heads-up temporarily blinded but her brain operating on instinct no mortal soldier could match. A simple neural command from her occipital implant magnified her vision instantly, drawing the silhouette of her target fifty times closer.

A hail of rounds struck their mark, two bursts of fire shredding the snarling painted nose of the lead dropship and punching holes in the numbers ‘257’ along its side. It belched a contrail of black smoke and shimmering debris, rolling over and spiraling into a steep dive.

She let loose a third barrage of fire and watched as a trail of equipment and infantry poured from the craft, its burning fuselage vanishing behind a distant hilltop. Her visor returned to the correct visual plane in time for her to witness an angry orange mushroom cloud rise into the air, followed by the distant rumble of the dropship’s impact.

16:31 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC115

Caldari Prime – 171km south east of Arcurio – District 2

“Move! Move! Move! Forward!”

Six sets of heavily armored boots pounded the rough ground as the squad advanced. Two of the men broke off to the left, rounding the battered side of a reinforced concrete silo as First Lieutenant Odaki Tunen’s voice burst into their ears.

“Dragon 257 didn’t make it. We push forward. We can do this.”

Another pair of the State Protectorate soldiers split off from the group, flanking right and using two large logistics transports as cover. The young Lieutenant rested his armored back against the side of the domed four-story silo, his respirator rasping harshly as a voice broke across comms into his helmet. As he listened, those on the right flank drew closer to the side of the target building behind the transports.

“This is Imaya. Shiwari and I are in place. Left flank is clear, keep them distracted.”

“Position acknowledged, move forward at your own discretion.”

Tunen remained crouched, peering around the side of the silo toward the building, its front riddled with impact marks from heavy caliber projectile fire. The devastated carcasses of two tangled Caldari LAVs littered the asphalt in front of the building. The other man in his pair, Corporal Tarawa Oiki, unslung a CBR7 Swarm Launcher from his shoulder, flicking the arming switch and bringing the stock up against his collarbone.

Lieutenant Tunen nodded, bracing the fold-out stock of his Ishukone Assault Submachine Gun against his shoulder, its barrel pointed around the wall at the front of the building. He let off a hail of rounds toward the front of the building, shredding the concrete around two of the closest windows. A split second later secure comms lit up, sending his voice flooding into the whole squad's ears.

“Covering fire! Move forward!”

He watched the muzzle flashes in his peripheral vision as the two squad members on the right flank opened up with a pair of S-1 Forge Guns. Massive chunks of concrete were hurled from the front of the single story building as the first round made impact, blasting a hole clean into the building. The second round passed through the opening, lighting up the windows from inside with a series of vibrant blue flashes.

Tunen smiled behind his visor, letting the empty magazine clatter to the ground from the grip of his SMG. With a hard metallic click, a replacement was slid into the slot in time to hose down the three shell-shocked Federal Marines that staggered from the gaping hole in the side of the building.

His head snapped to the left as a rumble from inside the silo caught his attention, the ammunition inside it starting to shift.

“They’re preparing to fire! Left flank, advance after swarm!”

Corporal Oiki flicked up the sight of the Swarm launcher, bracing his lower body to absorb the recoil and aiming the barrel of the weapon around the corner of the silo. With the depression of the trigger, a salvo of self-guiding missiles was released. They corkscrewed, following the contour of the ground before several of them took a route into the building via a shattered window, the rest using the massive hole in the wall. There was silence, and then a series of loud reports came from within the building and the rest of the windows blew out in a hail of glistening shrapnel.

Oiki nodded across the open ground to the two soldiers bearing the forge guns. Their spent weapons were dropped, replaced in their hands by Ishukone-designed submachine guns. They advanced on the building, their black-clad forms slinking between the wreckage that littered the front of the building like beads of oil through conduits. They were joined by the men from the left flank, vanishing into the smoke that poured from the hole in the wall.

A number of muzzle flashes from small arms lit up the windows as the men began to systematically clear the building. Screams in both Gallente and Caldari echoed out through the frame of the shattered building. Tunen nodded to Oiki, following him to the left while using the silos as cover on approach.

As the Lieutenant advanced, something caught his eye. He slowed to a walk, tilting his head as dust and sand blew over a matte black form slumped against the back of the silo. The gun reports became more distant to him as he reached behind his ear, clicking the release for his visor and blinking several times as the bright light hit his eyes. He inhaled the dusty air, the first time he’d ever done so on his people’s ancestral home world, and rested a titanium-kevlar-covered knee on the ground between a pair of lifeless legs.

His eyes inspected the armored form of the State Protectorate officer, his chest plate and helmet having taken a full frontal impact from a heavy caliber weapon. He was brought back to reality as the sound of the swarm launcher tore through his senses. Oiki’s voice filled his ears:

“Sir, we have to advance. Let’s move. Building is clear.”

The Lieutenant nodded, even though his Corporal was out of sight. He replied without hesitation.

“Squad, sound off.”

“Clear!” were the five responses in quick succession.

Tunen was mesmerized for a few seconds more as he looked into his own eyes. It was the first time he’d ever seen himself dead. His vacant, dust-covered features were visible through his shattered visor, identical but lifeless eyes staring back at him.

He rifled through his own corpse’s equipment, snatching up a belt of M1 Locus grenades and a Cerberus CRG-3 shotgun before standing. In a macabre gesture he winked, then smirked at himself, before making his way around the side of the silo to link up with his squad.

17:45 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC115

Caldari Prime – 291km north of Arcurio – District 11

“ETA is 5 minutes.”

“Acknowledged, we have one HAV left. We have it pinned down, and the driver is hesitant to show himself.”

Corporal Vincent Henette adjusted his dropsuit-wrapped frame in the gunner’s seat of the ion blaster cannon turret, his heavy foot pressing down on the left control pedal to rotate the turret toward the crest of a hill in the distance. He spoke in a hushed tone, as if whispering to the crew of the Kaalakiota designed Gunnlogi-class heavy attack vehicle he knew was still concealed behind the facility’s heavily armored perimeter wall.

“I see you, Provist bastards. I got all the time in the world.”

The heat haze rising from behind the perimeter wall was a clear telltale that the vehicle was still there. Henette’s visor flipped through several filters. X-ray showed no trace, unable to penetrate the barrier. Night vision blinded him with white static. The third filter gave a clear image, an infrared overlay detailed enough to show the outline of the vehicle’s driver, forward gunner and tail gunner that was displayed before his eyes. He nodded his head before the same voice disturbed the peaceful quiet inside the gunner’s compartment.

“Two inbound with escort, but they have a big tail. A whole company of State Protectorate infantry.  Prepare for contact!”

He gripped the two firing handles for the ion cannon’s triggers and took a deep breath, his feet ordering the turret to swing toward a trench that ran the full length of the perimeter wall. A single thought and the visor of his dropsuit pulled the intersection of the trench and perimeter wall into close view, just in time for him to witness a group of armored bodies slipping beneath the steel surface. They were using the same way that his platoon had infiltrated and taken the facility six hours previously.

He watched as six Federal Defense Union scout dropsuits slithered through the half-meter-high opening, followed by two hooded figures in black ankle-length trench coats. Henette frowned behind his visor, watching the two figures, their faces obscured under the lip of their hoods as they kept low and made toward the rest of his squad.

“Breach! Breach! They’re coming under the wall!”

Instant reaction, the kind that can’t be trained into a soldier, the kind that is the product of cloning an individual and biologically linking them to their weapons and dropsuit, ensured that the incursion beyond the outer wall was halted immediately.

Corporal Henette swung the turret to face the gap as soon as the words filled his ears. He focused, locked and fired, all within a fraction of a second, allowing the heavy caliber barrel of the blaster above his head to belch a stream of plasma.

The two men who had made it through the opening were vaporized instantly, a cloud of dust shielding their demise from the killer. As the area cleared, it became apparent that the sheer force of the strike had blocked the hole beneath the wall completely, searing the steel together and turning the sandy earth in front of the wall into a crater of shattered glass.

“Breach secured, but they’ll be back once they regroup.”

He rotated the turret back to his original quarry as a barrage of heavy-caliber fire bounced off the armored side of the gunner’s compartment, lining up the sights with the front of the approaching HAV. The entire frame of the turret rocked as the barrel above his head spat a trail of blue plasma toward the vehicle. Two direct hits destroyed its front left tracks, causing its exposed wheels to dig into the soft sandy earth.

The munitions readout on his visor’s heads-up display flashed red, the turret of the HAV rotating to face him after it had slid to a sideways stop.

“Shit,” was the only reaction that came to mind as he punched the release on the harness. He rolled sideways, out through the personnel hatch, falling three meters onto the hard concrete below as the Gunnlogi’s railgun obliterated the gunner’s compartment.

The initial realization that he was still on the field rather than awakening in his assigned CRU was a complete blur. He looked up at the black night sky, the distant green hue of the Verge Vendor nebula cast as the backdrop for an immense orbital firefight. The sounds of the battle came to him in muted tones, the massive hulk of the Shiigeru shimmering against the blackness as a kaleidoscope of colors detonated against her hull.

His visor refreshed after a rapid self-diagnostics test of his suit, a jumble of red and blue brackets indicating vessels above the cloud line. Several of the larger hulls were distinguishable by their silhouettes alone; three Nyx-class supercarriers to the left, two Wyvern-classes to the right. He drew in a deep breath, his ears still ringing inside his helmet before the whole area was lit up for a second. He was temporarily blinded by the immense blue flash and when it cleared, only a single Wyvern-class remained overhead.

Henette turned his head to the side, blinking several times in disbelief. The figure’s hood was pulled back, his smooth hairless head pressed against the sight of a CreoDron Tactical Swarm Launcher. The second of them, almost an identical copy of the first, was loading the launcher. The young corporal lay on his side in the dirt, watching them move smoothly and methodically before the launch of the weapon brought him back to his senses, and the blast wave whipped up their black overcoats.

Commander Reme Vrie’s deep voice boomed through their squad comms as the remains of the Gunnlogi were torn apart by the swarm of warheads.

“Fire One! Fire One! Finish it, and then we advance!”

The two bald heads nodded in unison, the first tossing the depleted launcher into the trench before they both followed. Their strong hands then gripped Henette’s ankles, unceremoniously dragging him into the trench.

The first one spoke, his voice quiet and gravelly, barely audible as he pulled his hood back over his head. “He’ll live, but we don’t have time for this shit. Let’s move.”

The second nodded in agreement before they made their way toward the end of the trench flanked by twelve Federal Defense Union mercenaries. The positioning array for their objective was close; a surface-to-orbit strike platform located only a short dash away across open ground. Within a few more seconds they were there, Henette loading a series of charges into his CreoDron shotgun as a squadron of Wren-class fighters screamed across the sky directly above their heads.

Henette's eyes were torn away from the weapon as one of the bald men disrobed beside the exposed control interface for the array, revealing an almost organic looking black dropsuit that shimmered slickly as if wet. The soldier began to watch with intrigue when the other hairless figure slipped a wiring harness from within his coat. It almost seemed to come alive, shimmering with fiber optic activity as experienced hands connected it to one of the access ports beneath the control interface.

Another huge flash lit up the sky and then a second as two more capital-class vessels succumbed to the ocean of destruction overhead, tens of thousands of crew vaporized with them. Henette recoiled slightly when he saw the bald-headed man peel back a layer of synthetic skin covering a neural jack at the base of his neck. It was then that he noticed the lettering stenciled between the capsuleer's shoulder blades.

The loose cable hung down over the identifying mark of the Equipment Certification and Anomaly Investigations Division – a sub division of the Interstellar Services Department, which in turn belonged to CONCORD. The second of the two capsuleers showed no emotion, his voice flat and direct. Their features were almost completely neutral, as if stripped away purposely with only the slightest hint of Gallente ethnicity. Even their accents were neutral.

“Don’t be concerned about that. We’re not with ECAID on this one. You can consider us freelance.”

The capsuleer connected to the platform closed his eyes, his voice quiet as the rest of the troops set up a defensive perimeter. As he spoke, the locked control interface above his head lit up and a set of three enormous turrets across the open ground burst into life, their armored shields retracting, twin barrels extending and lifting skyward.

“I can unlock the console, but if you read me the positioning co-ords this will be much faster.”

His eyes remained closed as Henette called over his commander. Vrie took up vigil beside the capsuleer and rested a hand on his back beneath the tangle of wiring.

“What do you need?”

“Positioning data.”

“One seven. Zero Three. Seven Six. Inclination is seven niner point three two degrees. I hope these numbers are still good.” was the reply from Vrie.

The capsuleer repeated the numbers in a soft mumble, a frown of concentration creasing his features. The turrets across the facility immediately repositioned themselves, aiming up toward the blanket of destruction above the cloud line.

“Dual 1000mm coils active. Siege hardware enabled. Systems ready to fire on your mark.”

The response from Vrie was a simple “Do it.”

He nodded, the flickering tangle of fiber cables swaying like a bio-luminescent ponytail. The two capsuleers raised their hands to their ears, and in the first display of emotion they smiled at each other as the turrets fired.

The ground beneath Henette’s feet trembled, the trio of turrets belching thorium slugs from each of their barrels in quick succession. The speed of their release created a thick white contrail of plasma that pierced the clouds, pushing them aside to reveal the carnage in orbit above. Even from three hundred kilometers away they could see the impact, the final Wyvern-class supercarrier punctured by two of the rounds. They passed directly through its heavily battered superstructure before striking the titanium diborite hulk of the Shiigeru behind it, the other four rounds slamming into her rear decks.

As the capsuleer spoke again, the roar of a group of hydrogen propulsion cells began to drown him out, three more Gunnlogi-class heavy attack vehicles crawling their way through the entrance to the complex.

“Reloading. Keep them off us long enough for a second volley.”

17:55 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC115

Orbit of Caldari Prime – Altitude – 324km

Her camera drone refocused as the blast wave washed over the side of the vessel, debris bouncing against its hull. She played a mental tug of war with the Shiigeru’s engineering subsystems. Her voice was carried out through the vessel’s announcement system and broadcast across Luminaire’s local communication frequency.

“This is CN Shiigeru, primary reactor containment failure, secondary reactor online. Primary magpulse propulsion system failure. We are adrift.”

Admiral Visera Yanala braced for a second barrage of fire from the surface, the vessel‘s shield systems beginning to fail as critical charge alarms burst through her consciousness. The camera drone moved through a smooth wide arc with a single mental command, surveying the burning scars that littered the side of the Leviathan-class.

Spirits, don’t let them take her from me...

She forced the shield resistance fields to overheat again, diverting power from ballistic control to the Shiigeru’s defenses as she watched the surface of her own home world deliver another devastating strike. She broadcast across the local frequency again.

“This is CN Shiigeru. Preparing for bombardment of Caldari Prime.”

I’m losing her… I have to offline the rest…

Titanium diborite plating spilled out from the fresh wounds, shimmering in the orange light from Luminaire as a second barrage of fire slammed directly into her armored hull. Yanala could feel her grip on control loosening. Her targeting systems registered two more locks before a hail of antimatter from the squadron of Moros-class dreadnoughts battered the side of the stricken vessel and hull breach warnings filled her field of view.

“This is CN Shiigeru, all hands abandon ship. Repeat, all able personnel abandon ship.”

She could feel the pull of Caldari Prime as the Shiigeru’s systems began to shut down in a cascade of critical failures. It was almost as if the planet was willing her to return to the surface on which she had been born and raised. Hundreds of escape pods jettisoned in union from the flanks of the Leviathan’s superstructure, a number of them obliterated by capsuleer fire but the majority drifting safely free of the vessel.

Yanala’s mind spun with the realization of what would happen should the vessel be destroyed in low orbit. Feedback was still being broadcast, as confirmed by her commands to offline the Oblivion system and shut down the secondary reactor. She watched as the command to jettison the titanium behemoth’s magazines was accepted, and over twenty thousand citadel torpedoes – unarmed but highly explosive – spiraled away from the stricken titan as they fell from orbit. Her camera drone kept them in focus as they began to burn up harmlessly on entry, a trail of metallic candles falling through the clouds.

She then watched as the squadron of Moros-class dreadnaughts turned their weapons on her once more, over a thousand capsuleer vessels pounding at what remained of the once proud Caldari Navy flagship.

This is it… Now we part ways again… I’ll miss you so much…

The last group of antimatter charges slammed into the titan’s superstructure, thousands of damage report logs and hull-breach warnings flashing across the Admiral’s field of view. The Shiigeru seemed to arch her back for a second, before a monumental blast shattered her mid-section like glass, thousands of tons of steel and titanium diborite thrown out in a graceful arc of shimmering metallic confetti. Yanala’s visual feed was stable long enough for her to witness the forward half of the Shiigeru drifting toward Caldari Prime, its severed decks gaping open and a trail of debris following in its wake as it was pushed forward by the explosion.

Please, let the void take me…

Blackness and silence ensued after the capsule’s connection with the Leviathan was severed abruptly. When her feed resumed, she was surrounded by chaos. A pair of enormous Comet-class frigates roared past her capsule toward the burning rear half of the Leviathan. She watched as its twin reactor cores detonated, the two frigates obliterated in an immense blast that claimed the burning remains of her vessel.

She commanded the camera drone to move around in a sharp arc, transfixed by the burning trail of molten steel that streaked across the atmosphere below her. It was only when the first volley of blaster fire stripped away her capsule’s shields that she realized she was pinned in place, her propulsion systems rendered useless by the pulsating soft blue hue of a warp disruptor.

17:59 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC 115

Caldari Prime – 601km west of Arcurio – District 2

Captain Danton Mirelle fed a series of eight rounds into his matte green CreoDron shotgun and pushed forward the lever to cock the weapon. His back was rested against the side of a concrete foundation for the cooling tower that loomed over his squad. Those around him were also tending to their weapons when the metallic rattles of their respirators were cut short by the voice of their commander.

“This is Highlander six five alpha, we are pinned down. Objective in sight. Heavy resistance. Requesting immediate orbital support.”

There was no response other than the sound of the three State Protectorate heavy attack vehicles pounding the opposite side of the cooling tower, their cover provided by three of the hyperboloid-shaped structures. Mirelle took a deep breath, watching his commander repeat the message to no avail, their comms hardware simply giving out a quiet hiss of static.

Gunfire rattled around the ten-acre complex. A series of grenade detonations interrupted the first few words from their squad commander. Their bright flashes cast the shadows of six men against the concrete wall.

“We’re cut off. We push forward, use the dark. Mirelle and I will run the flank and take the objective. The four of you provide covering support. Our CRU is intact. We have local support but negative capability on orbital strike. Comms are down. On arrival, we destroy the batteries with unpinned Locus grenades and thermite blasting plastic. Any questions?”

There was silence before Commander Vors Ralle nodded, then signaled for the squad to move cover. The six men pushed forward, crossing a short section of open ground. Chunks of wet earth were kicked up around their feet as one of the three Sagaris-type HAVs spat a barrage of inaccurate heavy machine gun fire at the squad.

Ralle reached up, smashing a bulkhead light on the wall above them with the stock of his shotgun to cast darkness over the entire squad. A split second later, the lights to the entire building shut down, followed by the floodlights under the cooling towers.

A deep rumble that shook the very ground beneath their feet seemed to quell all noise from the battlefield. Several sporadic reports of automatic fire broke the silence, as well as the flash and detonation of a grenade somewhere at the opposite side of the complex. The entire area then fell silent. The heads-up displays on their visors distorted and flickered before vanishing outright.

The group’s commander peered around the corner of the concrete building that the squad was now using as cover. The armored helmets of the other five men looked to each other, although they could not see the expressions of confusion on each other’s faces as Ralle stood upright, lifted his visor, and simply walked around the corner into the open.

His squad members disengaged their own visors as the rumbling grew louder. Mirelle called out to his superior, a dim amber glow emanating from the open space Ralle had ventured into. His head craned around the edge of the building before he too stepped into the increasingly bright amber glow. The rest of his squad swiftly followed, their voices fading away into silent awe.

Above them, the entire night sky was on fire as the first chunks of burning debris passed over their heads. The State Protectorate troops they had been faced off against just seconds ago had their faces turned up to the sky in the same direction. Every one of them stood inanimate as the wreckage began to pass overhead, showering the battlefield with debris.

Tiny shards of superheated diborite armor bounced against concrete, dropsuits and the armored surfaces of vehicles. None of the men seemed to notice, but every one of them closed their visors to protect themselves from the rising intensity of the light. Their eyes were fixed on an immense spectacle.

Night became day as the forward section of the Shiigeru hurtled across the sky, tearing an amber scar through the blackness. Thousands of smaller pieces of debris were spread as far as the eye could see, raining down across the landscape in the distance with a flurry of bright white flashes.

As the bulk of the wreckage passed a thousand meters overhead, the pressure wave beneath it folded the cooling towers over like paper, their reinforced concrete structures toppling onto the three heavy assault vehicles that had been in pursuit. Every window in the facility imploded simultaneously.  Roofs collapsed, walls buckled, and steam rose from the wet ground as debris began to fall around them, the sheer air displacement knocking every one of them off their feet.

The awestruck squad watched from the ground as titanium rain poured from the heavens. Superheated shards of hull plating slapped into the wet mud with loud hisses while huge chunks of half-molten superstructure, some the size of HAVs and dropships, slammed into the facility, leveling buildings and destroying the munitions dump at its rear in a spectacular hail of fireworks.

They watched what remained of the Shiigeru as she drew closer to the ground, before being scorched from existence as she made impact a little over 70 kilometers west of their position.

20:23 EVE Standard Time

March 22nd, YC 115

Perimeter II – Moon 1 – Caldari Navy Assembly Plant

Kimotoro Constellation, Caldari State

The blanket was coarse and uncomfortable against her new skin, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was transfixed by a wall of monitors on the opposite side of the recovery room as she inhaled a deep breath. The odor of medicinal alcohol tainted the cool air.

She watched the mighty vessel break up over and over, a hundred different angles from a hundred different media sources. The soft drone of the medical bay’s ventilation system was the only soundtrack provided.

Seconds later she was watching a perfect black sky. Stars glistened like diamonds spilled on black silk. The forward section of the Shiigeru didn’t roll or tumble as it came into view. It flew straight and true, the same as it always had. Thousands of people, her people, ran for their lives as the man-made meteor scythed across the night sky over Arcurio. The holofeeds that were displayed switched between security reels, amateur recordings and professional news footage. They all told the same story.

She watched as the remains of the vessel wept amber tears of molten metal, scattering the streets with burning titanium diborite. She watched as the pressure wave beneath it caused a million windows to implode in unison. She watched as the top half of the regional headquarters of the Nugoeihuvi Corporation was toppled by the hail of falling debris, crushing thousands on the streets below. Finally, she watched as the trail of conflagration vanished over the horizon toward the Kaalakiota Peaks.

Her breath was released in a shaky exhalation. Her hands trembled as they gripped the edges of the blanket, clutching them together across her chest.

“I’m still waiting for an answer, Admiral.” His appearance might have changed somewhat, but the voice of Tibus Heth, Executor of the Caldari State, still played the same coarse and commanding tune it always had. Yanala inhaled slowly, tearing her moistened gaze from the next replay of destruction on the wall opposite.

“I’m unsure as to exactly what you’re asking, sir,” she replied, her small frame sat upright on the large medical gurney. Her feet hung limply above the floor.

Heth stepped forward. Two tall and well-built men wearing the dark blue uniform of the Caldari Providence Directorate had been flanking him and now one of them reacted immediately, sliding a chair into position. Heth seated himself in front of her. Admiral Mininela Erinen, Executive Officer of the Caldari Navy, moved to stand alongside him, her freckled complexion creased with concern.

“I’m asking why you decided to disregard and therefore disobey a direct executive order.” Heth cleared his throat gently after speaking, rubbing softly at his larynx with rough skinned fingers.

“I believe I already answered that, sir. The Shiigeru was not in proper alignment for a strike. We also had a number of Caldari Navy vessels, and a number of Caldari-loyal capsuleer vessels which were too close for safe initiation.” Yanala’s reply was immediate, without hesitation. Erinen’s eyes flitted back and forth between the two of them as they spoke.

“Why exactly was the 37th squadron so closely grouped?” Heth’s voice had taken on an inquisitive tone, his eyes focused on Yanala’s tear-soaked expression. Her gaze had returned to the scene displayed on the wall opposite. Burning wreckage littered the streets of Arcurio; searing white flames tore across the midnight sky. Her voice was quiet, but retained its authority as she replied.

“Standard formation in a contact fought at close quarters. It is imperative not to drift when in low orbit.” Her eyes moved from the carnage to examine the features of her commanding officer, as if looking for support.

“Admiral Yanala’s judgment in this instance is sound. Throughout the engagement, she followed standard operating procedure taught to all Caldari Navy capital pilots. The main issue we faced was the lack of support from capsuleer loyalists. Telemetry shows that some of our own were firing on Caldari forces.” Erinen nodded to Yanala as she spoke, Heth’s cold gaze examining the expressions of the two women for several seconds.

“There were seven instances when the order was given to fire. Fleet telemetry examined by the Caldari Providence Directorate also shows that while charged, Oblivion was armed on none of these occasions. This is despite contradictory statements made over fleet comms by you, Admiral. How do you explain this?” The growing irritation in his voice began to seep through with the question.

“Micromanagement of a fleet engaged against over a thousand hostiles leaves room for mistakes to be made, Sir. In eight decades of piloting for the Caldari Navy, I have learned to minimize the risk of human error. Arming the weapon increases the risk of accidental deployment.”

Heth’s jaw tensed, a long slow exhale preceding the booming of his voice, his arm swinging around violently to gesture to the collage of destruction stretched out across the wall. “Risk? Do you have any damned concept of the word? Take a look at what you have caused. Take a look at what your effort to minimize risk has done! Caldari Prime, our home, is burning. The embers will smolder for decades due to your failure to act.”

Erinen cast a sharp glance to Heth, her mouth opening briefly. “Sir –”

“Silence!” Heth’s finger jabbed in her direction. “You will speak when addressed, or asked a direct question. When I speak to you, you will know, because I will look at you. Until then you will be silent.” Erinen blinked with surprise as Heth turned his attention back to Yanala, his eyes meeting hers. She almost growled as she responded.

“Sir, do you honestly think that unleashing the full capability of the Shiigeru would have had any less effect than what you see behind you? She was capable of vaporizing a capital ship with a single shot. Her entire purpose was to destroy anything that posed a threat to her. Firing on the surface of our home world would have caused infinitely more damage. I suggest that you leave the theorycrafting of military tactics to those of us who have served in our armed forces for over half a century.”

Heth’s nod to the blue uniformed Provist at his side was barely noticeable. The man made a sharp exit, as he continued without missing a beat. “Your suggestion is noted. In the same respect, your failure has served as an example to other officers of how not to behave in live combat.”

Admiral Yanala lifted her chin slightly, her eyes fixed on Heth’s features. “I believe that my conduct and judgment remained exemplary throughout the engagement. However, I will face any consequence laid out for my actions.”

Heth folded his arms before the soft hiss of the door interrupted the conversation, the blue uniformed Provist reappearing. Yanala nodded to herself, her eyes closing briefly before she watched him approach, bearing a small tea tray. Erinen could do nothing more than lower her head, her fingers gently covering her mouth as he rested the tray on the surface to the side of Yanala’s gurney.

Heth stood and uncovered the single shallow tea bowl, a small traditional teapot of Achuran origin resting beside it. He carefully took the handle, well-practiced in the art of pouring. A soft puff of steam escaped the spout before the deep green colored liquid cascaded into the cup.  He spoke quietly, the two Provists remaining silent and Admiral Erinen still watching on.

“The paperwork has been filed for your immediate discharge from the Caldari Navy, and your cloning contract has been terminated. You know what remains to be done, Admiral.”

A gentle, smoky aroma permeated the air as he offered the shallow cup to Yanala. She accepted without hesitation, cradling it in both hands. She gently breathed in the scent before speaking softly, her tone more that of a disappointed mother chastising an unruly child than her usual display of authority.

“This kind of behavior will not solve your problems, and the more people you use as scapegoats to cover your own failings and bad decision making, the further you press yourself into a corner from which there is no escape.” She smiled, and glanced down to the cup before continuing calmly.

“You may feel that this is the honorable thing for me to do in order to pay penance for defying your orders, but you are wrong. This is the honorable thing for me to do after having allowed your incompetence of command to affect my judgment.

“I will drink now as punishment for allowing myself to be forced into choosing the lesser of two evils, and for tearing a burning scar across the heritage of every Caldari in order to preserve the honor of our people and the sanctity of our home world. It has experienced far too much unrest over the last half-decade under your failing leadership and crusade to take it back by force.

“By drinking, I retain my honor. I also make the choice to punish myself for the shame I have allowed you to bring upon the name of my family. That is the difference between the two of us. I will retain my honor, and in time the truth will be known that I refused to fire on my home world after being ordered to do so at the whim of an incompetent commander who is out of his depth.

“For the first time in a half decade, I can see clearly now. For the time being, you may sit in the ivory tower that your Provist thugs have constructed. In the end, it will be torn from beneath you by the very people you seek to subjugate in order to cling to your weakening grip on power.

“You may think yourself intelligent enough to be able to read the people, but you are wrong. The State’s capsuleer loyalists are already beginning to move against Provist policies. How long do you think it will take for the people to do the same?”

“Are you finished?” Heth’s voice was a soft growl, his gaze locked on the eyes of Visera Yanala.

As she lifted the cup close to her lips, she offered a small smile before drinking.

“Yes, Tibus, I am. And so are you when our people come to realize what you've done.”

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