“Joh Solano was a drunken old bastard who should have stepped down years ago. But during the occupation of Prahran, I was damn glad to have him around. His Rangers were some of the toughest warriors I’ve ever had the privilege to fight with. Years later when the Rangers were finally disbanded, Solano’s Rangers trained the first Surface Army units in the Fleet. Their techniques helped strengthen the SA for some of the fiercest battles of the war.”
– From the personal logs of General Prevens, First Division, Prahranian Army
Both of Kantor’s armadas converged on the blue and white planet, the fourth from its star. It was larger than most such worlds but had only a dozen industrial cities. They would identify the largest cities first and begin clearing landing zones for the Viper troops. His five heavy cruisers commenced their bombardments from orbit, crushing any resistance like a child throwing rocks from a bridge. The high ground of space belonged to Kantor and his ships. There was no opposition to them.
They found several ships in orbit and one permanent station but all were quickly destroyed and offered no resistance. For a space-faring civilization, the enemy seemed to have no concept of planetary defenses. There were no surface to orbit cannons and of course no warships anywhere near the planet. Kantor kept one eye on the outer scanners, just in case the enemy was waiting to catch them off guard on the surface.
One rotation into the attack and things were going smoothly for Kantor’s invaders. They had completely bombed out all the industrial sites and leveled many cities in the process. Troops were occupying all the major cities and what little military forces they encountered were easily defeated. Empire aircraft soon dominated the skies over every city.
The aliens were weak and cowardly. They chose to run rather than stand and fight. Those brave enough to fight tended to do so with tenacity, but when superior force was brought in, they turned tail and ran into the forests and mountains that covered most of the central temperate zones of the planet.
Kantor had designated the planet KV-01 but the ground commanders were starting to call it Kantor-tara or Kantorland after their leader’s house. Lord Kantor did not object, but he still referred to it by its proper designation.
In his briefing room, Kantor and Varco sifted through battle data to get a better handle on what the planet had to offer. There were fairly sophisticated manufacturing areas in the northern hemisphere and plenty of self-sustaining agricultural fields in the south. Several mountain chains cut through the largest continent. Preliminary reports indicated mines had been dug that extracted coal and various rare minerals. The Empire could easily set up mining on this world and start exporting raw materials back to the farthest regions of the Votainion Empire.
That was not of any real concern for Kantor. He was only interested in taking land, not developing it. The Empire expanded with an iron fist and then devoured resources to sustain itself. Kantor had no interest in the later. His was the fist the Empire relied upon to deliver it such rich and valuable planets. As long as planets could be taken so easily with force, the Empire would never fall.
“The natives call themselves humans, My Lord. They call this world, Prahran,” Varco said. He seemed taken with the humans like no other race they had fought.
“You admire these pathetic creatures?”
“They are not good warriors, but their basic physiology is not that different from ours. We are alarmingly similar to them in many important ways.”
Kantor showed sufficient interest so Varco continued.
“They are bipedal, roughly the same mass and have strikingly similar features. They are slightly smaller and ugly. I’ve even detected Votainion-like thought processes in how they reason and behave. For instance, their buildings are adequate for habitation by Votainions and are designed to blend with the natural environment. It will be quite easy to occupy this planet until reinforcements arrive.”
Kantor processed the information and then pointed to the map before them. “Their military has retreated into the mountains. Our troops are finding it difficult to pursue them. Lack of familiarity with the terrain is hampering our efforts to completely pacify them. I want the ground commanders to use native scouts to help them.”
Varco was startled by the request. It was not standard procedure to use an indigenous species to help hunt their own kind. The very thought of betraying their own was repulsive to most Votainions. It showed the complete lack of respect that Kantor had for these people. Varco found that he had a new respect for his Captain.
* * *
General Solano peered through his field glasses at the cave opening across the valley. He could clearly see the two camouflaged soldiers standing guard outside the rocky opening of the cave. Their forest colored uniforms stood out against the gray rock. One of them pointed to something below them and both soldiers readied their rifles.
A single soldier made his way up the slope of the mountainside. He was not easy to see until he came out of the tree line right before the cave entrance. There were words exchanged. The new arrival was allowed closer.
“Command Five, this is Hotel Four,” came a voice from the radio.
Solano grabbed the microphone. “Go, Hotel Four.”
“Trooper here wants to pass a message to you in person, sir.”
Solano scanned the area around the cave’s entrance with his glasses and a hand scanner mounted to the top of his rifle. “Standby,” he said into the mic.
There was a low, throbbing sound that suddenly broke into the screech of the Eight-fighters the invaders used. Two planes swept over Solano’s head and blasted the entrance to the tunnel before he had a chance to warn them. The resulting explosion caused an avalanche of rock and dirt where there used to be a tunnel in the mountain side.
“Damn,” Solano swore as he hunkered down and waited for the fighters to circle back around and attack him. They did not return.
He secured the mic on his radio and moved laterally across the face of the mountain, keeping under the conifer trees for cover. I’m getting too damn old for this kind of thing. Fighting is a game for the young. Not for tired old men.
He stopped near a large bolder and gathered his breath. Fishing around in his pant leg pocket, he pulled out a flask and took a long drink from it. The hard liquor felt good going down and helped to calm his already frazzled nerves. The radio squawked for his attention.
“This is Command Five, go.”
“What the hell happened up there?” General Prevens asked.
“Air strike. Cave five was hit,” Solano said.
He got back on his feet and continued down the side of the mountain to where the actual command post was hiding in a different cave. He passed through several check points manned by young soldiers barely out of diapers. Eventually he shuffled through the entrance to the armored communications truck parked inside. A single soldier stood guard outside it.
The Prahranian Army was reduced to small groups hiding out in the mountains that surrounded the largest cities. Solano’s Rangers were mixed in with the army soldiers and fought alongside of them. With only a few thousand troops, they were outnumbered and under-equipped.
“They are either monitoring our comm channels or we have a new problem,” Solano said as he stepped up into the back of the truck.
General Prevens was standing hunched over the communications gear in the narrow confines of the truck. His helmet was off and he wore a headset mic. His short black hair was a tangled mess on top; a bad case of helmet hair. “We have no evidence that they have broken our encryption.”
“Which means they’re using our own troops to rat us out.”
Both men shook their heads. Solano took off his helmet and set it down on the floor of the truck. He wiped the gray whiskers of his beard and twisted his neck to work out a crick. Damn helmet was heavier than when I was a junior officer.
“I wonder what that kid was bribed with?” Solano asked rhetorically.
“There are reports of occupying forces using death threats on family members. I don’t see anyone desperate enough to betray his own people, at least not yet,” Prevens said.
“Any word from the Sokol?” Solano asked as he sat down.
Prevens worked some switches on the communications gear and shook his head.“Let’s try and reach them again, they should be here by now.”
Prevens directed a young man to his right to make a satcall to orbit. The man hesitated for a second and then executed the task.
“Be prepared to pull out,” Solano said to another soldier who passed the word on to the driver of the comm truck and the men outside. Then he selected the next hiding place from a paper map that covered the tiny desktop.
* * *
Captain Raider put the incoming call on the main viewer. It was General Solano of the Stellar Rangers. He was dressed in dirty army fatigues and looked battle weary. They had been on the run ever since the aliens had invaded.
“Captain, we’re barely holding. How soon can you get here?”
Raider double checked that their signal was being encrypted before replying. It was unlikely that the aliens could understand their language, but he wasn’t willing to risk it.
“General, we’re commencing our attack momentarily. I’ll be in touch when we have secured the system. We can offer suborbital cover for your troops at that point,” Raider said.
Solano nodded wearily. His tired eyes were bloodshot.
“Good luck, Captain,” Solano said, as his image was replaced by stars.
Raider looked at Sasha, standing beside him at the con. She was watching the bridge crew work, her dark eyes studying how a proper Federation starship operated.
“Comm, put me through to the Kelley,” Raider said. Sasha looked over at Raider and met his eyes. She was very pretty, but scarred by the harsh life of deep space pirating.
Captain Blud’s face appeared on the main viewer.
“Captain, I believe we are operational.”
“Excellent. We will jump in tandem to Prahran. We don’t know how many enemy ships we’ll find and we don’t know what it will take to destroy them. I’ll attempt to surround them and lay down fire with our masers. Give them everything you’ve got. You have free range to target whatever you think you can destroy.”
“May luck favor the bold,” Blud said, his bald head catching a glare from the nearest light. The bridge of the Kelley looked brighter since Trimble and her crew arrived and restored full power to the ship.
Raider smiled. Blud was known for bold attacks when they served in the fleet together. Many of the maneuvers Raider planned to use were pioneered by Blud in demonstration drills before the Starforgers had been created. Both men were convinced it would be how future fleets would wage an interstellar war. Neither man could have known that they would live to use those plans in battle.
* * *
Devon stood alone in the small access space with a large square porthole that faced stern. It was used to keep a visual eye on the pipes and fittings that carried power from the stardrive section to the main body of the starship. It was quiet and dark now as the crew were preparing for a tunnel jump.
She held a sandstone rock in her hands as she looked out at the silent stars visible out the porthole. Her fingers caressed the rock, a keepsake from her life on Ocherva. It was given to her by her android, Thirty-seven, after it had a curious episode of collecting rocks. She half smiled for a moment in recalling how the android had amassed a huge rock collection in her tiny dwelling before she put a stop to it. She wondered if it had managed to make its way back to Selene or if it was destroyed along with everyone else she knew on the moon.
A tear fell down her cheek in remembrance of her friends. Aven, the wiry and smart Controller who always seemed to look after everyone like a mother hen. Brant, the loner who could fix anything with his multi-tool and a stiff drink. Hap, her best friend in all the universe. Devon squeezed the rock hard and began to cry. Images of her lover, Seth, flooded her mind. His soft touch, his whiskered smile and deep, dark eyes. It was not fair. Everyone she had ever been close to on the moon was dead.
She carefully pushed the rock into a crevice behind some piping. Then she took the alien handgun out of her jacket pocket. She hadn’t surrendered it when she came aboard, but instead kept it on her at all times, hoping for a chance to shoot its owner. She knew she would never get another chance to face the blue-skin with the scar above his pale, colorless eye. But she kept the pistol around just in case.
The sound of boots on the metal deck caused her to wipe her eyes and sniff back her tears. She stuffed the pistol back in her jacket pocket and turned around to see who it was. Red Allen had a concerned look on his face.
“You all right, Lieutenant?”
She tried to smile but only managed to turn away and stare out the porthole. “I could really use some of that rocket juice you made.” She sniffed back her tears and turned to look at him.
“We’re just about ready to jump into a battle that by all accounts we should lose. I think we’ll need our wits about us, don’t you?”
She frowned and turned back to the window. “Ever lose everyone who was important to you?”
Allen stepped up beside her and looked out the porthole. Then he addressed her with that boyish charm of his. “Nope. Do me favor and see to it I don’t experience that.”
“We’re going to need every pilot we have to take on these bastards. You in?”
She faced Allen with a determined look on her ruddy face. “It’s time for a little payback.”
Allen released a smile. “Now you’re talking.”
* * *
Kantor surveyed the bridge of his warship. The invasion was by all accounts a success. All the major cities were occupied and the space in the system was clear of any threats. He stood before his tactical station and stroked his goatee. Something in the back of his mind nagged at him, but he could not identify it. Did I forget something? Am I leaving a flank open to attack? No. Everything was proceeding according to his plans. Everything was perfect. In fact, it was the smoothest planetary invasion he had ever seen.
Usually the planets they invaded put up more of a fight. Either they had some form of stellar military or the planetary defenses were far superior to what his forces were using. The relative ease that his Viper troops had destroying the entirely ground based military was surprising, considering the enemy owned this entire region of space and beyond. It was that beyond that concerned him.
Were they forfeiting this world in order to reinforce other worlds, closer to their home? Or were they so naïve that none of their worlds had more than token defenses? That gnawing feeling in the back of his head intensified. How can one control a vast region of space without warships to keep member worlds in line? What possible military benefit could come from ceding this world to his forces? Try as he might, Kantor could not suss out a logical reason.
“My Lord, all commanders report combat ready. Ground forces are still searching for the militant leaders in outlying areas. Efforts to use their own troops to reveal their positions have not been successful,” Varco said, standing rigid before Kantor.
Kantor nodded slowly and pulled up a map of the star system. Varco glanced at it.
“We are missing something Varco. Where are the stellar defenses? For that matter, where are the attack forces?”
Varco surveyed the system and then looked at his Captain with an upturned brow. “Perhaps there are none, sir.”
Kantor shook his head slowly. “There has to be. The question is where are they?”
Varco’s dark eyes went back to the star chart.
Kantor pointed to the gas giant planet farthest from the one they were invading. It was nothing special, as were all the planets of the system, save for the one they were invading. But it had moons. Exactly how many, they did not know for sure. Astronomical observations were incomplete due to focusing on the engagement.
“They could be hiding somewhere around that planet. A moon or an asteroid buried in the rings.”
“Sir, if the enemy had such a force in hiding that far away, what are they waiting for? How come they have not showed themselves?”
Kantor looked flatly at his second in command. “Perhaps they are waiting for reinforcements. Maybe they are waiting until our guard is down. For example, when our attentions are focused on taking the cities and reconstituting the resources.”
Varco narrowed his eyes and eased away from Kantor. It was his posture for disagreeing with his Captain. Kantor read him well.
“I doubt this foe even has a stellar armada, sir. There are no signs of an economy that could produce warships of any kind of sophistication. I think we might be over-analyzing our victory.”
Kantor reached out and clapped Varco on his shoulder and revealed a toothy grin. “Perhaps you are right, Commander. But better prepared than not.”
Varco lowered his gaze in acquiescence.
Some points of note here. I never refer to any Votainion starship as anything other than a warship. Cultural issue. All starships are warships to the Votainion, warrior culture. For everyone else, I just call them starships.
I like the moment that Devon has alone with the rock that Thirty-seven gave her. There is a short story in the anthology – Tales From Ocherva, Volume One, called Rock Collection. If you get the chance, read it. It is my most read short story. Thousands have read and enjoyed it. But absolutely no editor would purchase it. Go figure.
I enjoyed writing about the ground war on Prahran. Some of my former military experience coming through in those scenes.