The final book in this explosive new military science fiction series from one of the brightest new stars in British science fiction – perfect for fans of James S. A. Corey and Jack Campbell
Six months after the Damascus operation
We deployed out of the Jaguar’s aft ramp.
Rounds slashed the air, pinging against the dropship’s hull, ricocheting around inside the cabin. That and the snow made it hard to see where we were, let alone who was out there, and we were greeted with a wall of white: cold and impenetrable.
“We’re taking some serious fire,” Lieutenant James said. He was piloting Scorpio One, our designated transport. “I can’t stay on-station much longer—”
The dropship swayed in the high wind, undercarriage grinding against the roof of the building on which we had landed. Quite frankly, that James was able to keep the boat in the air at all was impressive.
I zoned out: had more important things to worry about, such as staying operational. My null-shield lit – creating a miniature lightning storm in reaction to the incoming fire. The heads-up display on my tactical helmet flashed with warning icons, the communicator-bead chiming as bodies went down. Simulants were dropping all around me. Three greens on my left flank bought the farm before we’d even got out of the damned dropship: bodies cut to ribbons by armour-piercing, depleted uranium rounds.
And it wasn’t just Scorpio One. My ear-bead was filled with panicked reports from the other squads, officers calling in casualties across the theatre.
“Lazarus Legion!” I yelled. “Form up on me!”
As some asshole once said, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
* * *
Six hours earlier, the briefing room aboard the UAS Independence was filled with personnel. Mostly, not simulants but real skins – troopers dressed in fatigues waiting for the drop. It was a big turnout: the Lazarus Legion, of course, but three other simulant teams as well – Hooper’s Raiders, Baker’s Boys, and the Vipers. They were all good outfits, squads that I’d specifically picked for this operation. Together with James and the flyboys of Scorpio Squadron, the Independence’s briefing room was packed out.
“We’re currently six hours from the objective,” I said. “Welcome to Rodonis Capa; a star system unremarkable in the extreme, located on the Rim of Asiatic Directorate territory.”
Faces were bathed in the soft green glow of the projected graphics, as the display powered up and the briefing began. We were sailing in-system, moving on the singular point of interest in this sector. The star was faded and bitter; a G-class sun that had been in decline since before Neanderthal man had left his caves. Six whittled nubs of rock, any atmosphere they had once possessed long bled off, circled the star. Those worlds were largely inhabitable and long dead. The exception: that was our target.
“This is Capa V,” I said, zooming in on a muted white ball. “This is where we’re going.”
Capa V was a world barely within the circumstellar habitable zone, a planet that clung to the heat and light of its distant mother-star.
“I’ll bet it’s lovely in the summer,” Martinez said, with his usual dryness. He yawned; from the look on his face he hadn’t long been awake. “Someone wake me up when we get there.”
“Bottle it, padre,” said Jenkins. “This is it.”
Martinez had been acting as unofficial chaplain to the platoon, offering sermons of damnation and damnation in equal measure. There was even a rumour going around that Martinez had been ordained. Sperenzo’s team were of the Creed – Latter Day Catholics, proper fanatics – and it was open for debate whether the Venusians would disobey an order from me if it were at odds with one of Martinez’s. The Venusians, identifiable by their tanned skin and Latino features, watched Martinez expectantly.
He raised a dark eyebrow. “For real?”
Lieutenant Keira Jenkins looked to me, the prickle of anxiety about her lean face. “I got a feeling. Now settle down, people, and listen up.” There were murmurs around the table, but no one spoke out of line. “The floor is yours, Colonel.”
Jenkins was harder, angrier than I’d ever seen her. We’d been conducting raids like this for the last six weeks: searching for anything that might lead us to Vincent Kaminski or the survivors of the Damascus operation. The result was that Jenkins, more so than the rest of the team, had become an over-coiled spring. Long hours aboard the Independence waiting for intelligence to come in had been filled with zero-G gymnasium sessions. She was more than ready for this.
Looking at her, then at the image of Capa V, I suddenly felt very tired. I couldn’t take another false lead, not when we’d had so many already.
“You take this one,” I said to Jenkins. “I want to see how you’d do it.”
Captain Baker, commanding officer of Baker’s Boys, jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow. “Won’t be long before you lose her,” he said. “Sooner or later she’ll want a team of her own.”
Baker was probably the oldest Sim Ops officer on the Programme – certainly the oldest survivor of the Liberty Point Massacre – and had been a veteran of the Alliance Army long before induction. His Boys, on the other hand, were all fresh faces – barely a handful of transitions between them. The eager look in their eyes was unnerving.
“Later rather than sooner, I hope,” I said.
“Pay attention, people,” Jenkins said, and the room fell silent. “As the man says, our destination is Capa V. Known to its Directorate residents as ‘Cold Death’.”
A briefing file opened on the display.
Capa V was a uniform, brilliant white: a world in the grasp of an ice age from which there would be no return. Great ice shelves claimed half of the planet, frozen seas the rest. Only very occasionally were there breaches in the ice: blue streams indicating liquid water down there, streaks of black where rocky plateaux broke through. Empty, featureless plains were the order of the day.
“Looks cold,” Baker said. I knew exactly what he was trying to do: to test Jenkins, to push her to the limit. But on an op like this? I already knew that wasn’t a good idea. Regardless, he went on, “And you know how my rheumatism plays up in the cold.”
“Stow it, Baker,” Jenkins said. “Local weather is a pleasant minus twenty, but expect it to feel even colder with the wind chill.” The image magnified. “At your age, you’ll probably want to stay buttoned up.”
Sufficiently cowed, Baker went quiet.
Jenkins continued. “There are three settlements on Cold Death, and our target is here.”
A small outpost – labelled QUIJONG BASE – lay in the south, nestled at the foot of a titanic mountain range. The base specifications rolled over the display and I quickly took in the relevant details. Several kilometres squared, over a hundred buildings and hangars of unknown purpose: arranged in a neat network, interspersed with work-yards and open areas, gridded by roadways with the occasional concrete barricade. Numerous communications towers and potential HQ locations. Lots of surface vehicles, but no visible air support. A single landing bay sat on the edge facility, suggesting that the compound had at some time been air-capable, but this was currently empty: dusted with a thick layer of snow.
“Six days ago, an M9 Sentinel surveillance drone captured a data-feed from this outpost. This contained an embedded security key known to be employed by Directorate forces when handling the movement of captured enemy combatants. Command believes that there are POWs down there.”
“Prisoners of war?” Sperenzo said. She was a small, compact Venusian woman – one of Martinez’s kin, her face claimed by a mess of gang-tattoos, hair cut short to her scalp.
Jenkins nodded. “Like I said, this is the shit. What’s more, Command has been able to identify that these POWs are from the Damascus incident.”
“Fuck me,” Baker said.
I fought the urge to smile.
“How’d they find that?” Martinez asked, his eyes narrowing as he inspected the intel. “Seems too good to be true . . .”
“Maybe it is,” I said.
Whatever the truth, Jenkins was more than sold on the idea. “The Directorate might have people in deep,” she said, “but we have people in deeper. An intel source has identified this as a prison facility. The source has so far proved reliable.”
“About those maps,” PFC Dejah Mason said. “What are those things?”
Always with the questions, I thought. Dejah Mason was the youngest member of the Lazarus Legion. Whether her inquisitive nature was as a result of her age or her disposition was hard to say, but she was a damned good soldier. Young, blonde and Martian, I feared for any man or woman who dared underestimate her.
She pointed out a circular formation in the middle of the map; as big as a dropship, glazed with ice but not snow. It was made of metal: like a concealed missile silo or the entrance to an underground facility.
“It looks like a pit,” Mason said. “Or a covered shaft.”
Jenkins scrolled over the site, magnified the image. “Possible mine,” she said. “Limited heat detected, no radiation.”
Mason frowned. “So we don’t know?”
“No,” Jenkins said. “We don’t. That a problem, Princess?”
She was using Mason’s new callsign; the tag by which she’d become known since dropping the label “New Girl”. Mason pulled a face as she looked down at the holo.
“Not necessarily,” she said. “But it doesn’t look . . . right.”
“Christo,” Baker said, rolling his eyes. “We know all we need to. Let’s get down there already!”
“What’s the mission plan?” Captain Hooper of the Raiders asked. He was Tau Cetian, and the youngest officer on the strike force; right out of officer training. The holo-badge on his lapel flashed “99”: indicating the number of transitions he’d undertaken. Not bad numbers for a kid only five years on the Programme. If he made it, I predicted good things for Hooper.
“Objectives will be uploaded to your suits before we drop,” Jenkins said. “But in short, we’ll make planetfall together and spread out once we get dirtside. Primary targets are these buildings.” Flashing indicators marked the sky-eye view of the settlement. “Live capture and retrieval is our goal. Like I said, I’ve got a feeling about this place.”
I hope that you’re right, Jenkins. I really do.
“What’s the predicted level of resistance?” Mason asked.
Jenkins sighed. “Mili-Intel suggests minimal. There’s a garrison down there, but they don’t know that we’re coming.”
Sperenzo whistled. “So far as we know.”
“In any event, consider enemy forces secondary,” Jenkins said. “Repeat: objective is retrieval of personnel. We’re coming in-system dark, and Intel hasn’t heard any Directorate chatter concerning our presence. Independence has already knocked out their communications satellite, so they won’t have the chance to call for help.”
The Independence would be anchored in high orbit; observing the objective and our progress. She was fitted with the best in stealth tech – hopefully enough to evade the Directorate’s counter-surveillance. The orbital comms rig – the satellite to which Jenkins referred – had been blasted to space junk an hour ago. There was plenty of debris circling Capa V, and so the ground forces were unlikely to have read much into the loss of their comms.
Even so, I scrolled over the global map of Capa V. Our objective was in the south, and a few thousand klicks north was another base: largely uninhabited, according to surface scans. Further still was a refinery platform, protruding from a frozen sea.
“Going to have to watch for activity from those outposts,” I said. Something about them made me feel uneasy. “The idea that they could mount a response to our incursion can’t be ruled out.”
Jenkins pulled a face. “Apparently both are automated. Command says that they aren’t of tactical significance.”
“I’ve heard that before.” I keyed a command on the console, updated the tactical brief. “I want Independence to keep eyes on those outposts at all times.”
“Affirmative,” Jenkins agreed. “As we’re expecting this to be a live exfiltration operation, Scorpio Squadron will be providing air support and pilots.”
She glanced over at the flyboys, across the tac-display. Lieutenant James and his team were already skinned up, looking every bit the part of Alliance Aerospace Force pilots. They were using next-generation simulants. Those were gene-engineered skins designed to be lived in, replicas of human bodies with enhanced capabilities and response times. The trade-off to looking real was that the bodies were not as strong or durable as combat-sims. Even now, I’d never actually seen James’ real body.
“We’ll be dropping in MX-11 Jaguar heavy dropships,” he said. “Lazarus Legion and Baker’s Boys will be on Scorpio One; the Vipers and the Raiders on Scorpio Two. The third and fourth Jaguars – Scorpio Three and Four – will be empty. They’ll be available for evacuation of any recovered personnel. Once the ground pounders drop, all dropships will remain on-site for close air support.” He waved at the station map. “The Jags have anti-personnel rockets and heavy slug-throwers. That should keep the Directorate heads down until you search those buildings.”
Air support was likely to be the key to the success of this mission. In the event that we found prisoners, it would allow us to get people off Capa, but also provide some shock-and-awe. If the Directorate were caught by surprise, a couple of dozen Banshee anti-personnel missiles would cause quite a stir: persuade them that a much larger strike force was inbound.
“Just try not to leave us behind this time,” Jenkins said.
James looked affronted.
“What?” Jenkins said, in mock-ignorance. “You have form, jockey. Just sayin’ is all . . .”
“All right, people,” I said, ending the discussion. I didn’t want this briefing to be derailed. Over the last few weeks, Jenkins had vociferously argued that James was the only reason we were out here. Maybe she was right, but dwelling on it didn’t change things. “Let’s do this—”
Captain Ostrow burst into the briefing room, jostling himself into a place at the tactical display. He scowled bitterly.
“I’d rather that you hadn’t started the briefing without me,” he said.
“Sorry,” Jenkins said, “but we’ve finished without you too.”
Ostrow was the Military Intelligence officer assigned to the Independence, and as such he was technically supposed to sanction every operation that we conducted in Directorate territory. According to our mission parameters, we needed him to endorse that we had “just cause” for each mission: that we weren’t acting outwith our military authority. He was a genuine pain in the ass.
“Funny how that worked out,” Mason said, smiling.
“I’ve been looking over this intel,” said Ostrow, “and I’ve got to say, I’m not convinced. This is the third target you’ve identified this week—”
“The third potential,” I said, firmly. I could use their own language against them, if Mili-Intel wanted to play it that way. “Which means that it could be an actual.”
“It could be a mining station,” Ostrow countered. “It’s just as likely. And this supposed intelligence chatter could be explained by movement of contraband, of arms or warheads . . .” He shook his head. “The board is a no-go on this operation. It’s a red signal.”
The room settled into an agitated quiet, troopers waiting for my response. Their concern wasn’t necessary. I had absolutely no intention of backing down; not on this or any other operation in Directorate space. The bastards were going to pay for what they’d done to us, and we were going to get our people back.
“I’ve read the intelligence files too,” I said, “and I’m approving this mission. I’ll answer for it if I’m wrong.”
“Which is exactly why you shouldn’t be conducting these operations yourself. You’re too damned close. He was your man. This is Directorate space, for Christo’s sake. Just our presence here is violating so many treaties that I don’t have time to list them . . .”
I heard the pinch in Ostrow’s response as he trailed off. He knew that he had gone too far. I saw Martinez’s face drop across the display, and held up a hand to warn him not to react.
“They killed thousands of servicemen and women in Damascus,” I said. “Did that violate any of your goddamn treaties?”
“I realise that,” Ostrow said, reading the anger that his comment had generated around the table. Even so, he gave it one last try: “That aside, this operation is not sanctioned by Command or the Pentagon. Resources are tight enough as it is; with the losses at Liberty Point, you should be on the frontline! This could trigger a major diplomatic incident—”
“Another major diplomatic incident,” I corrected.
“We’re already at DEFCON one—”
Jenkins looked at me expectantly. Eyes are windows into the soul, the old cliché went. When I looked into her eyes, I saw hurt and sadness: a combination of emotions that I knew only too well. There was no way I could add to that. Kaminski and Jenkins had been together, for what it was worth, and she had taken his loss worst of all.
“The mission is a go,” I said, ignoring Ostrow. “On my approval, if no one else’s. Strike force proceed as briefed.”
Every soldier in the briefing room slammed a hand to their hearts.
I looked down at my missing left hand.
* * *
Both hands on my plasma rifle, I faced the snowstorm. It was blindingly bright outside, and although I was wearing a full tactical helmet I fought the very human urge to put a hand up to my face to shield my eyes. The sky was a brilliant white – Rodonis Capa nothing more than an ineffectual blur on the horizon – and the snow was so intense that it was disorienting.
“Everybody out,” Jenkins yelled over the comm-net. Sealed inside our powered combat-suits, this was our only method of communication. “Go, go, go!”
I kicked off my boot-magnetics and armed my M95 plasma rifle. The Trident Class V suits were insulated and carried full life support, but even wrapped in that battle-tech the cold hit me immediately. The Directorate’s nickname for the world – Cold Death – seemed more than apt. I felt the pull of Capa’s gravity: the dropship had been gradually moving into the world’s gravity well since we’d broken orbit. A surge of combat-drugs – a cocktail especially designed to keep me killing – hit my bloodstream.
As planned, Scorpio One had landed on top of a low, flat building – a hangar of some sort. The other teams started to call in to Jenkins; meeting the same level of resistance. The Raiders were pinned down a couple of hundred metres south, in one of the open yards between structures, and the Vipers were taking heavy fire beside a garage in the east—
A lucky round breached my null-shield and I felt the slug pop against my shoulder. It bounced off my combat-suit armour plating, but it still hurt.
“Fuck!” I yelled, gritting my teeth.
The ablative plate was good but, as demonstrated by the three dead sims underfoot, given enough kinetic fire eventually we’d go down like any other skin.
“You okay, sir?” Mason asked.
“Try not to get shot,” I said. “Hurts like a bitch.”
“Area is hot,” came the voice of an Independence observer, watching our progress from orbit. “Advise immediate relocation from that site, Lazarus. Multiple hostiles closing on your position.”
“Lazarus Actual copies.”
To describe the theatre as “hot” was a significant understatement. Fire slid by all around us, from both the roadways below and guard-posts liberally sprinkled throughout the compound. Most of it was small-arms fire – I guessed assault rifles and machine guns – but it was hard to tell in these conditions.
Barely visible through the half-light of the snowstorm, my tactical helmet identified the three other dropships. The Jaguars were big and heavy: hulls a dark grey, with bloated crew cabins and stubby wings. They were lifters, not fighters, and carried only light armament. The precise, planned formation in which they were supposed to land hadn’t survived contact with Capa V, let alone the enemy.
I took a decision. “Make for safe altitude, Scorpio Squadron.”
“Baker’s Boys have been assigned the landing pad,” Jenkins said. “If the Raiders take the—”
In my peripheral vision, I saw a flash of light. Immediately, I identified it as a laser weapon: a mounted cannon of some sort, big enough to generate a searing beam of ruby energy.
Scorpio Three was a couple of hundred metres to my left. She’d been skimming low over a concrete block, empty and ready for evacuees, access ramp grazing the roof.
The beam panned, like a searchlight, and hit the ship’s underside.
“Down!” I shouted.
The wreckage of Scorpio Three went down fast, VTOL engines failing, and the shock of the exploding Jag dropship made the hangar shake. It landed somewhere in the middle of the compound, throwing up a plume of black smoke. Directorate troops – identifiable only as flashes of heat in the storm – began to move on the site.
James cursed over the comm. Scorpio One fired off a couple of Banshee missiles, unsuccessfully seeking to chase the source of the attack, and lifted skyward.
“Scorpio One pulling out—”
“Copy that. Two has evaded further anti-air fire . . .”
“. . . Tagging multiple tangos on east wall. Looks like a laser cannon—”
The other ships started to do the same: hulls occasionally flickering with incoming small-arms fire.
If we wanted to stay operational, we needed to get moving.
“Legion, move on that satellite dish,” I ordered. “All other squads, take immediate cover.”
I hunkered down behind the light cover and started to plan our next move. Spy-feeds from the stealthship that had scoped the outpost were superimposed onto the interior of my helmet face-plate, demonstrating where we were supposed to be.
“Looked a lot smaller from orbit,” Martinez said, gruffly. “And when there weren’t people firing at us.”
“Do you get that a lot?” Jenkins asked, ducking back as a grenade exploded on the other side of the dish. Hot frag showered the area, sparked against our shields.
“They weren’t supposed to know that we were coming . . .” Mason said.
“Devil’s eyes are everywhere,” Martinez said with a shrug.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Getting these buildings pacified and searched; that’s what we’re here for.”
The outpost was situated between two mountains, criss-crossed by gantries and metal catwalks that provided numerous defensive posts. The scant overground constructions were all snow-and ice-covered; metalwork made brittle by constant exposure to the elements.
Mason knelt beside me and reached into the deep snow with her gloved hand.
“So this is snow . . .” she said, almost wistfully. Although Mars was mostly terraformed, it was a planet without such a weather system. “I never thought that I’d get the chance to see it. Almost pretty.”
“If it wasn’t so fucking cold,” Martinez added. “Not like home at all. You ever heard of a simulant getting frostbite?”
“No,” said Mason, “but I think I’m about to be the first.”
“Not this again,” Jenkins said. “And for your information, this is most certainly not snow. This is an impression of snow. Check your wrist-comps for the chemical composition. There’s barely any H2O in it.”
“She’s from California,” I whispered, as I tried to get my bearings, decide where we should be heading. The cold was numbing, seemed to slow my thought-processes. “I guess she knows all about snow.”
“Better than these two off-worlders,” Jenkins said.
A stream of hard rounds hit the snow beside me.
“How many shooters we got out there?” I asked.
“I’d bet less than a hundred,” Jenkins said. “Fifty on it.”
“I’ll take that bet . . .” Martinez said.
“Button it, troopers,” I said. “We need to act fast. Drones away. Directive: identify and flag hostiles.”
The Lazarus Legion deployed their surveillance drones. A dozen autonomous flying units detached from our backpacks and sailed out into the snow. Even as I watched, two were caught by gunfire, exploding in a hail of sparks. The others began painting hostiles. Almost immediately, ghostly green figures appeared on my HUD. Ah, that’s better: I can see them. The drones sent back heartbeat, heat signatures, the whole deal. The info-streams combined with those of the rest of the strike force.
Martinez, back against the dish, clucked his tongue. “You owe me fifty, Jenkins.”
At least two hundred bodies were circling the compound, converging on our location.
Jenkins checked her plasma rifle. “Tell you what, I’ll pay you in Venusian dollars. That suit?”
“Fuck you, Jenkins,” Martinez said. The Venusian dollar wasn’t worth the unicard it was stored on. “You know I only bet in American notes.”
Mason sniggered. “Unmarked, so I hear.”
There . . .
Something on the drone feeds wasn’t right.
“You see that?” I asked the Legion, broadcasting the feed to their HUDs as well.
“It wasn’t on the orbital images . . .” Mason said.
The edge of the compound was a ragged, snow-bitten fence, studded with towers. One of those overlooked the landing pad: a tall, skeletal structure, with an armoured booth at the top. The sky illuminated as something up there activated, accompanied by a whip-crack every time that it fired. I magnified the image. A handful of Directorate troopers were manning the booth, firing a multi-barrelled laser weapon into the sky. I panned the drone’s position, took in the rest of the security fence. The other sentry towers were only half-completed: this was the only anti-air weapon that worked.
“No way that the flyboys will be able to pick up with that thing covering the strip,” said Jenkins. “That cannon will bring down anything approaching the landing pad.”
“Plan has changed,” I declared. “We’re moving on that tower before we commence the sweep.”
I opened the general channel. “This is Lazarus Actual; do you read me Baker?”
“Affirmative,” Baker said. His suit transponder placed his team somewhere on the ground, but it was difficult to say precisely where. “We’re pinned down. Where’s our air support?”
“Fucked, is where,” I said. “You saw that ship go down. Intel was wrong. They have anti-air.”
He grunted. “Figures.”
“Keep your heads down and stay alive. We’re going to solve the problem.”
I keyed the channel to Hooper. “Hooper, I want you to stay on overwatch.”
“Solid copy, Lazarus,” he said.
Hooper’s Raiders were already in position. The five-man team were equipped with M-23 Long Sight plasma rifles: a proper sniper’s weapon. That was their speciality, and the team was known for it. I saw the flash of rifles from the tallest structure of the outpost; firing almost incessantly. Hooper’s team would provide covering fire to the other teams as they moved across the base.
Finally, Sperenzo’s Vipers.
“Sperenzo,” I said, “run harassment. Move towards your objective and wait for a lull in the fighting.”
“Not expecting that any time soon,” Sperenzo managed. “But we’ll try.”
“The Legion is going off plan. We’re taking out the guard tower so that Scorpio can provide air support. Lazarus out.”