The Atribulan procession was a sight to behold as they made their way to the bridge of The Protector. Alexander was so far lost for words he’d spent most of the introduction gaping idiotically at the new arrivals. The revelations unravelled soon after, the Human President hadn’t been entirely sure that it was all real. He’d pinched himself once just to make sure. The assisted evolution theory was one he found some solitude in. He’d always known that too many things were just passed over as coincidence in the universe but he could never have guessed that this was why. The thing that did catch him off-guard however was the statement that Mars had been humanity’s ancestral home. A huge asteroid had wiped out the early organisms after little more than a few millennia but thankfully debris reached Earth and there the micro-organisms prospered. “So it is agreed?” asked the Emperor once he had finished reciting the battle plan he had so carefully drawn up with his fleet Commanders. Alexander mulled over the latest world rocker. The Keep was a left over Atribulan warship that had been retrofitted by the early Senate races for use as the seat of governance. They had believed their gods had placed it there for that very reason. The Emperor demanded it be taken back. A full-scale ship to ship battle in the orbit of Engevaal while a small contingent broke into The Keep, led by a few of his hand-picked honour guard. “What happens once we have The Keep? Is it that important to this war?” Admiral Victor Edwards asked knowing the death toll would be high if this plan was followed. The Emperor’s head lowered as if the connection to the Administrator was being lost.
“We have contingencies in place for scenarios like this. We created much of the life in this universe, you really believe we didn’t prepare for the eventuality that one day that life may challenge us?” he grumbled to himself as if he was being talked down to. “The warship you name The Keep is a countermeasure to such a problem. A weapon of great power that was once condemned by many but eventually agreed upon as necessary.”
“If this weapon had been under our feet the whole time, I’m sure we’d have found it,” suggested Alexander more unsure than he liked.
“You think we would have left such a horrendous weapon open to you to use freely?” The Emperor chuckled at the very idea.
“What exactly does it do?” Jarner questioned almost demanding someone to just spit it out. The Emperor moved to the viewing window and observed the majesty of the gathering fleet around Earth. The Human Confederate Navy 1st, 2nd and 3rd fleets were present. The Sarcurians had diverted all they could spare as well. The news of the mythological alien’s return had brought more vessels than Alexander had ever hoped for. For that at least he was thankful. “The void will take a biological sample and de-construct anything in its operational range that shares the same DNA.”
“What’s the kill range?” Jarner asked.
“It has the radius of a galaxy.” All the eyes in the room enlarged at the horrific weapon of mass genocide they had all probably walked over at least once. They just hoped the Votheen didn’t find it before they could use it.
The battle that raged above the atmosphere of Engevaal was a brutal one. The vastly outgunned Senate Security defence fleet was just buying time by throwing bodies on the line. The Caliterrian Armada had only recently joined the fray but even their tenacity was being tested. Arkan watched with increased disdain as his empire crumbled all around him. He was safe, for now, in the war room. That made him feel worse. Like a coward hiding while men and women died above. All in his name. He blamed the Senate of days past. The Caliterrian Forerunner of the time had demanded the Votheen be extinguished for good. They hadn’t listened and now the galaxy paid the price. Arkan looked up data from the battle above on a terminal not infected by the alien AI. The Caliterrian Armada had taken a beating as it made up the brunt of the fleet. Something stood out to him suddenly. He cast an accusing eye toward Ora Acil who was also present, “Why is a large part of your fleet absent from the fight Queen?” he snarled, offended that the Sarcurian could be protecting their home world above the Senate’s seat of power.
“How would I know from here? The Votheen AI has locked me out from my people. Would it surprise you if they were above Rethera?” She didn’t even care that her defence was flimsy or that it may anger the Caliterrian. She was going to add something else but the Caliterrian looked stricken by something else he had read. “The Humans.” He sat back and folded his arms. “They’re here.”
“I guess you were wrong about them after all.” That almost felt good. Ora was sick of tiptoeing around the brute. Alexander Wilhelm had been right, Arkan had to learn the Senate was bigger than him and his people. Why had she not seen it before?
“I see no proof yet that they have come to assist us. For all we know they could have thrown in with the Voth…” Arkan bolted up from his seat, knocking it over. Something in the data had spooked him.
The HCNF 2nd Fleet emerged through the Atribulan portal which had allowed a direct and instantaneous route to Engevaal. Their first view of the conflict was of a Caliterrian dreadnought erupting in front of them. It broke up in stages, swamped by the Votheen fighters that darted amongst the debris field like flies. The Votheen must have been stunned by the entrance of the Human contingent as they were allowed to skirt the border of the conflict unimpeded. As they cut in, it looked as if they’d run into a cul-de-sac as numerous vessels moved to intercept them. Just when all hope seemed lost more shimmering ruptures ripped across the theatre of war as the Atribulan and the Sarcurian joined the conflict and brought down an entire attack group. As the Atribulan took the attention off of the lesser races, another set of portals allowed 1st fleet through. “This is Sword, Shield form up. Intercept vectors,” Admiral Edwards ordered over the communication channels that linked all the ships together. 1st Fleet was quickly encased in 2nd Fleet, the former was comprised up of The Protector and a smattering of frigates. The Pariah was safe in The Protector’s hangar whilst Shayara and Jarner were in a Falcon class drop ship with fire teams of numerous other races. 2nd Fleet did its job, despite the nasty nature of it. A handful of cruisers were swept away by the heavy cannons of a Votheen capital ship. The core, 1st Fleet, remained untouched as it broke through the upper atmosphere and headed toward Curalie. Shield dispersed back into space as Sword levelled out and spat out its drop ships. Shayara’s drop ship was among them, it headed toward The Keep which rose amongst the smoke in the distance, the city below was ablaze.
A supercharged slug smashed into The Keep and created a large enough gap in its face to allow the insertion team through. As they made their way to it, slicing through the skyline of Curalie, a flurry of plasma fire sprayed the stragglers. They disintegrated in an instant but most of the pilots’ desperation kept them one step ahead of the carnage. As the drop ships funnelled through, it was immediately obvious that the interior of The Keep was in as bad a condition as the city outside. They moved amongst the interior city skyscrapers, a large bang and then a shudder caused Shayara to grip onto the cargo net. “What the hell was that?” she called to the pilot loud enough to be heard over the engines.
“No idea, systems are all fine and we haven’t taken any damage.” Then Shayara saw the feral eyes staring back at her as the Votheen crawled from the roof onto the windscreen. She tried to warn the pilot who had turned to answer her question but no sound came out of her mouth. The glass shattered as the Votheen opened fire, riddling the pilot as he gargled for air and screamed for mercy. The crew all rushed to clumsily unlatch their restraints as the alien climbed aboard, the drop ship losing altitude with every passing moment. Taking a quick glance out of the view port to her left, Shayara could see other ships in similar trouble, it had been an ambush. The Votheen had been waiting in the upper levels of the high-rise buildings. She saw Jarner wide-eyed fighting with his buckle as the alien made its murderous way down the line. She shook her head and placed a hand over the release. He held it. There wasn’t enough time to kill the intruder and reassume control of the ship. The landing would be rough and regardless of where they were they probably wouldn’t survive.
The abruptness of it was the most jarring part as everything turned black. The last sound she heard was the wail of the sheet metal bodywork as it bounced and crunched into something below. She wasn’t sure if she was dead. Complete darkness; she must have been. Numbness, another sensation. A heat licking at her face. Maybe she wasn’t. She took a shallow breath and twitched her finger which seemed to have found a warm sticky substance. As she opened her eyes everything seemed to be at the wrong angle; no, she was at the wrong angle. Her seat had dislodged in the impact and she was laying on her side still strapped in. The warm sticky mess was a marine’s entrails that had leaked out when a beam had snapped and cut him in two. Her mind kept to Jarner as she fumbled once more with her straps that buckled without much complaint this time. Her first few steps were full of dizziness and were tentative. She stumbled along like a woman intoxicated. She found Jarner still where she had left him, unconscious but breathing. She let out a sigh of relief and looked around for the Votheen that had caused all the chaos. She saw its feet sticking out from the crushed cockpit. Her ears suddenly popped allowing everything to become audible, Shayara hadn’t even realised they’d been muffled. She could clearly hear gunfire pinging off the body and battle cries. How long had she been knocked out for? She scurried about and located her firearm several rows forward under the seat of a deceased Atribulan. Half the crew had survived and vacated their seat. Shayara checked and her firearm was still operational. She smiled at the result and moved toward the hatch where both artificial and genuine light was flooding in. It took her eyes time to adjust to it but eventually she recognised the area they had gone down on. They were on the main skyway which linked The Keep’s General Hospital to the main trading floor. The surviving members of the drop ship had used the debris and wreckage of the crash as cover. The Votheen had them pinned down on both sides and it looked incredibly grim. Shayara climbed out slowly, kept her head low and made it to the crooked wing that served as cover for a battle-scared Sarcurian. “What’s the situation?” she asked but she didn’t hear herself speak it above the ringing in her own head.
“The Votheen has a lot of feet on the ground here. Closing in from both sides and we have a handful of people left. They seem to know we’re looking for something and are taking no chances. Their comm traffic is on fire though, the Atribulan have gotten them spooked.” The Sarcurian wheezed as he applied pressure to his stomach wound that Shayara hadn’t noticed until now. A Votheen climbed over their cover but was soon bursting into flames as an Atribulan honour guard fired balls of white energy from his gauntlets, similar to the technology used by their warships. A gust of hot air knocked everyone off their feet as the north end of the bridge erupted in fire and collapsed. Shayara forced herself up, her mouth full of the taste of coppery blood. She looked up to see two of the Confederacy’s surviving falcon class drop ships, circling overhead to protect their downed comrades. This is what it meant to be Human, no one left behind. One touched down next to the wreckage of the one Shayara had been in. The hatch slid open to reveal the battle worn cheery one-eyed face of Isaac Jericho who’d still not adopted an eye patch in place of the bandages. “I think I owed you one rescue, didn’t I, ma’am?” Shayara smiled.
“No, actually you didn’t. Now I owe you again.”
“Take it as a buy one get one free deal and we’ll draw a line under the whole thing.” He smiled and hefted the Sarcurian survivor on board and called a medic to him. “Come on, we’ve got to go, now.” He pulled her by the wrist but she resisted. “What is it?”
“Jarner’s still in there.” She pointed to the husk of the drop ship that had begun to spark. “He’s alive, just unconscious.”
“No time, we leave now!” yelled the pilot who was itching to take off, plasma rounds slapped into his hull. Isaac took one look at Shayara and he knew what she was thinking.
“No one is left behind, you wait and that is an order,” Isaac snarled as he followed a limping Shayara to the hatch.
They climbed inside and found Jarner lapsing in and out of consciousness. “I’m here, Jarner, can you hear me? We’ve got to go,” Shayara told him as she placed a hand on his shoulder. Isaac cut his restraints with his boot knife but when Jarner tried to stand he hit the floor and shrieked in agony. Isaac examined him and shook his head frustrated.
“I think he’s got a leg fracture, we’re going to have to carry him.” Shayara slung her rifle over her shoulder and they both supported the Sarcurian. The progress was painfully slow, Shayara was limping and had to support Jarner which made the limp more painful and pronounced. They emerged just in time to see the drop ship rise into the sky, leaving them where they stood. Isaac screamed several expletives, well aware they wouldn’t return. It spiralled upward, passed the other drop ship on overwatch, then erupted in horrible crimsons and yellows. The Votheen fighter had followed them through the hole in The Keep and screamed away to the safety of the city. “Fuck!” exclaimed Shayara half pained by the fact they’d been left and half thankful they had. The surviving drop ship banked hard and dodged another round of fire spewed by the fighter that had returned for another duel. As it tried to come around again the drop ship unloaded a missile that caught the cockpit and caused the debris to rain onto the skyway amongst the rank of the Votheen, sending some up and over the barrier to a thousand foot drop to their deaths. Another fighter appeared, maybe it had been the first, and the drop ship took chase. Shayara and Isaac put Jarner in the mouth of the wreckage, hidden enough to avoid attention. They took up defensive positions on both sides and fired at anything that moved. “Is it coming back?”
“I fucking hope so!” was the appropriately blunt response from Isaac. Just as the flow of Votheen threatened their position and as a round singed the tiny hairs on Shayara’s ear, the south crossing erupted in flame and shrapnel. The drop ship had indeed come back and unleashed hell fire upon the massing enemy. As the drop ship touched down where the other had once been, two Atribulan jumped out and hefted Jarner aboard. As Isaac jumped on board a friendly hand assisted Shayara up onto the ship. She turned to thank the marine but found the President in marine fatigues instead. “I’m not sitting up there twiddling my thumbs. I’d like to be voted in for a second term. It’s a good thing I did. They weren’t going to help you guys down here.”
“He’s not joking, the bastard gave me a direct order to touchdown with a gun to my head,” the pilot admitted as he took off. Shayara shook Alexander’s hand.
“Thank you, President, I’m still surprised that you’re here.”
“Well, I’ve learnt not much can be solved by politics or words these past few weeks. Thought I’d try another approach.”