A Cybrid carrier burst through a gaping hole in the humans' defenses
where two destroyers from the combined Human Alliance fleet had gone
down, one after the other, in starry explosions that briefly lit up
the darkness of the Martian night. Heedless of the fierce engagements
happening all around it, the carrier plunged toward the drop
point which the <Choosers-of-Strategy> had earlier designated.
It took a whole minute before the closest orbital defense platform
was able to bring its guns to bear on the new threat. Its full attention
had been focussed on a trio of incoming cruisers threatening to make
good on their suicide runs headlong into a cluster of Human escort
carriers which were loading up on refugees from civilian transports
coming up from the ground.
Particle beams lanced out from orbitplat M-1, reaching for the
approaching ship. These were joined a few seconds later by a flight
of anti-ship missiles launched by the first Human frigates able to bring
themselves round to the proper orientation. The missiles were followed
closely behind by an entire squadron of StratoStar fighters from the
StormKeepers Aerospace Wing.
The various intercept attempts were, however, too late. The drop
position had been reached, and the Cybrid carrier began to launch
its re-entry modules which headed straight for the surface of the
The air/space-capable StratoStars did not give up. The pilots took
their dual-mode fighters into the upper atmosphere, matching the
velocities of the drop modules, picking them off one by one until
they had to pull out before they came into range of the ground-based
The Cybrid carrier continued to launch its drop pods, seemingly
unmindful of its pending destruction, as all manner of energy
beams and kinetic projectiles embedded themselves in its rear
end. Leaking fire, the carrier continued on its mission until
missiles from the StormKeeper destroyer [SSK] Prescience
connected with its drive and guidance section, severing it completely
from the rest of the vessel.
In freefall now, unsteered, and unsteerable, the Cybrid ship
continued to move forward from sheer momentum. Even as it hit
atmosphere and started to break up, a last package shot out from
its frontal launch bay, headed for the ground.
Zone 13A, Northern Flank
"Now would you take a look at that. Sure is some sight, isn't it?"
Taking his eyes momentarily off the firing sector for which he was
responsible, [SK] Kitsura chanced a look at his fellow squadmate,
who was at the moment positioned immediately to his left and slightly
in front. Like himself, [SK] Tanapath was in his Apocalypse,
a towering, three-storey-high anthropomorphic form bristling with a variety
of high-energy weaponry. A small army of SART personnel, daredevils all of
them, revved their high-speed recovery cycles and darted like rodents about
the feet of the giant robotic HERCs.
"Yes, it sure is. Look, even our Salvage And Recovery Teams seem to be
getting really excited about it." [SK] Kitsura flicked his eyes over to his
designated zone, and once again finding nothing there for the moment, looked
up at the sky above him. In front of his eyes, the holographic targeting
reticle projected onto his helmet visor danced about, following every eye
movement. Outside, the swivel-mounted weapons swung smoothly, their every
position slaved directly to the pilot's head orientation. It was literally a
look-and-shoot system that had been perfected over time, starting from ancient
experiments in airborne fighter craft a millennium ago.
From the purplish-blue sky, swarms of meteor-like Cybrid re-entry pods, each one
carrying a pre-packaged, armed-and-dangerous Cybrid warform, streaked downwards
in eerie silence. These were met halfway by lances of light from the ground,
many of which missed, but those beams that did connect turned the would-be
alien intruders into stardust, breaking up their drop pods into smaller
pieces that separated and burned up in the lower atmosphere. But for every
pod that was shot down, many more made it through, landing somewhere beyond
the horizon. The automatic defenses were being overwhelmed, and the pieces
of wreckage from the shot-down Cybrid carrier only served to make matters worse
for the targeting-and-acquisition systems on the stratospheric defense turrets
which now had to struggle with the difficult task of distinguishing live
targets from orbital debris.
A new voice joined in the chatter. "Okay boys - and girls - this is [SK] Zeke
here. Looks like Chief Han and the command staff will be late for the party,
'cause it's already started. Them Cybrids are confirmed landed at Zone 13E,
and our advance scouts are high-tailing it back here."
"Ahem... so I guess this is it. By the Grace of Xacalon, let's get this show
on the road, ranking officer or not. All non-combatant personnel, SART teams,
medical staff, logistics, fall back and hold position at Zone 12X. Ah.. in case
you don't get it... the Cybrids are coming right at us from the North, so you
get to go SOUTH.. copy? SART's, you'd better follow the rules this time. This
party's for real, and the 'Brids don't quite care who they step on. Roger that?"
There were mutters of acknowledgements on the radio-net, and TDL tactical
data-link displays, as the leaders of the different sections reported in with
head counts, equipment status, and gripes of various sorts. The process took
just a few ticks under three minutes as the StormKeepers took stock of their
combat-readiness situation and prepared to move out.
Finally, everyone was ready.
[SK] Zeke cleared his throat.
"Okay, this is it. This is the Big One. A thousand Cybrids, and a lil' handful
of us here. Good odds, on any day, eh? So... let's go get 'em folks!!"
"For Salvation!! For Xacalon!! FOR THE DARKSTAR!!!"
The ground rumbled and shook as the gathered HERCs took a collective
step forward. The man-made quakes increased in tempo as the HERCs picked
up their pace and charged headlong with multi-ton footsteps into the vast
They did not have far to go before they met up with the trio of scouts
fleeing southward in their lightweight Talons. The initial
reports were sketchy, but the scout pilots agreed that the Cybrid
forces bearing down from the North numbered at least a hundred.
[SK] Zeke spoke up again. "As I said, good odds, people. We've trained
for scenarios like this, eh? Three to one, yes, we did... ahh..
here they are."
A vast cloud of dust over the horizon preceded the appearance of the
Cybrids. As it slowly cleared, the Human defenders found themselves
faced with a line of alien forms stretched out almost as far as the eye
The two opposing sides slowed down and eventually stopped, seemingly
for the purpose of sizing each other up. The alien forces were led by a
bug-shaped monstrosity that had been identified in the updated contact
profiles as the 90-ton Executioner. On the other side was [SK]
Zeke in his brand-new Human Predator, the result of a concerted
R&D effort by the combined Human Alliance. The 60-ton anti-grav tank
made a stark contrast to the much larger Executioner.
[SK] Zeke licked his lips nervously. As the last-minute anxiety
pangs hit home, he started to question his own sanity in signing up
for the Predator project. "As a pionner Predator pilot, you know what
this means, don't you? When the Cybrids come, this will be your ride."
The Predator's Chief Propulsion Engineer, Roger Simmons had told him
- and Zeke had, at the time, cheerfully agreed. And now, he was actually
driving what could only be described as a working prototype into
his first real battle, leading a squad composed of more conventional forces.
No more time for simulations.
No more time for preparation.
No more time for regret.
It was not clear who fired first, but the air was soon filled with
dozens of missiles as the opposing forces emptied their racks. Some
of the smaller vehicles fell in this first wave of attack - their
shield integrity compromised, amor stripped away.
Gritting his teeth, [SK] Zeke poured on full throttle, leading his
troops in a turbo-boosted charge into the heart of the battle,
zig-zagging his way into the enemy lines, looking for points
of vulnerability. He voiced into the TDL as he went along,
"Kitsura, Tanapath, Tzen Loong, I'm going in - cover me!!"
[SK] Kitsura looked on in amazement as [SK] Zeke headed straight
for the lead Executioner, and using his Predator's
agility advantage, circled around the larger HERC. Once in position,
Zeke started to stick doubly-linked particle beams into the
Executioner's rear end.
"Tana, target lead Exec. Tzen, ditto.", Kitsura sent to his
wingmen. An automatic voice input system hidden in the HERC instrumentation
package recognised his words, and transmitted the message over the
secured Tactical Data-Link in a compressed burst of digital data.
The TDL system working in this way saved precious radio bandwidth
and cut down on "analog radio chatter", the bane of battlefield
communications of a few generations ago.
[SK] Tanapath responded in kind, as the words "Acknowledged. Engaging."
appeared in a holographic window on [SK] Kitsura's helmet display.
[SK] Tzen Loong followed a second later with a light-hearted "Lemme at him!".
The two Apocalpyse's worked in tandem, throwing EMP projectiles at
the Executioner. [SK] Tzen Loong's Basilisk added in autocannon
rounds for good measure. As the cascade of electro-magnetic pulses brought
down the enemy HERC's shields, [SK] Zeke sheared the Executioner's
right leg clean off with two more linked bursts from his particle-beam weapons.
Even as the Executioner started to topple and fall, [SK] Zeke
was already boosting away, bringing his firepower to bear on a smoking
Bolo tank which was under siege from [SK] Kato. The turret disappeared
in a messy explosion just as [SK] Kitsura started to acquire the new target.
The Bolo ground to a halt, permanently out of the action.
"Very nice. Two down in two minutes. You might yet set a record today, Zeke."
There was a new arrival on the scene, moving in hurriedly from the
south-westerly direction. [SK] Zeke heaved a sigh of relief as his TDL
display acknowledged the receipt of transmission from [SK] Hanuman.
"Ahh... Chief Han! Thank the Darkstar!! Handing command over to you, sir!"
[SK] Kitsura grinned to himself. Despite a recent promotion to Fire Rage,
[SK] Zeke himself had frankly admitted a lack of vital experience in leading
HERC combat deployments on a large scale. Now there goes one relieved guy,
"Not so fast, Zeke. Stay in charge. I need one volunteer".
Uh oh. Whenever [SK] Hanuman started to ask for volunteers, it
was usually to help with some audacious, unorthodox strategy that had just
come to his mind. [SK] Kitsura shrugged. But, of course. Hanuman was not
only the Base Commander of ShadowStorm. He was also the StormKeepers'
"[SK] Kitsura. I believe you are currently available."
Kitsura winced. Hanuman also had a habit of picking the closest SK he
"Uh.. yes Chief. I believe so, sir. Tana, you take the lead.
Tzen Loong, stick close to Tanapath now, roger?" [SK] Kitsura
promptly turned around and started to follow [SK] Hanuman's faster
Talon as he downsized his tripartite section to a pair and
waited for the proper acknowledgements from his wingmen.
As was his prerogative, [SK] Hanuman said not a word of his plan
to anyone, but merely dropped into cloaked mode and continued
heading north-east, not even breaking a stride, his Talon
swiftly and easily taking him to a hundred and ten kilometers an hour.
Shrugging, [SK] Kitsura, too, dropped into cloak and tried to follow his
commander as best as he could in his lumbering Apocalypse.
Zone 13F, Northern Flank
"Believe me when I say this, Kitsura. It wasn't your fault."
Away from the chaos of battle, [SK] Hanuman had switched to full
bit-rate audio now, his voice as sharp and clear as 128 KHz's worth
of digital sampling could make it.
[SK] Kitsura jumped. It seemed as if the Commander had the ability
to read minds. He tried to pull his eyes off the casualty list,
but found that he could not. The name [SK] Tzen Loong seemed
to glare accusingly at him in its tiny red, glowing holographic letters,
beside the lettering KIA - Killed In Action. A few places above,
[SK] Tanapath's status displayed in yellow as SRO - Successful
Recovery Operation. Tanapath had ejected from his Apocalypse and had
been picked up by the high-efficient SART teams, who were now, in all
probability, picking apart the massive HERCs' remains for salvageable material.
One wingman dead. One alive, and well. But it was small consolation.
"Sir. I... we.. we.. trained together. Six years. Six years!
Same cluster... same section... now he's gone. Just.. gone. And..
damn the Reckoning.. I... I wasn't even around.."
[SK] Kitsura punctuated the last statement with a mighty stomp of
a HERC foot. The ground thundered its reply - for a short while. The sound
dissipated quickly, lost in the open terrain. But it did not make him feel
"He died for a noble cause, Kitsura. You know that. For every StormKeeper
who falls, dozens... hundreds perhaps.. will be able to evacuate safely
to orbit..." [SK] Hanuman was mentioning the obvious. However, it helped..
[SK] Hanuman paused for a few moments to let [SK] Kitsura deal with his loss.
It was a difficult time for everyone, even more so for the Commander,
although he did not say as much. Each and every StormKeeper stationed at
ShadowStorm Base was hand-picked, chosen personally by Hanuman and the
Vice-Commander for training, for the preparation for this very war. Each fallen
StormKeeper affected Hanuman deeply. Prior to every engagement, he had
the records of his men's lives, their histories committed to memory, sworn
to be remembered eternally, in every way possible.
It was never easy to let go, but at some point, something had to be done -
for the sake of the current generation - and future ones to come.
[SK] Hanuman let a few more moments pass, and spoke again.
"I shall now brief you on your mission."
"We are here for a purpose. You are here for a purpose.
Now, listen carefully. In the lead vehicle of every quadratic and
tripartite section, with a ton or more to spare, I have asked
for the addition of a small piece of equipment to the module loadout.
You will find it in your stats display under Modules, sub-menu 6".
Hanuman continued. "As you can see, going by the power readings, it
is a rather powerful transmitter. It has been pre-keyed for one purpose.
I suggest that you map this module to a spare command queue."
"There will be two steps. Let's simply call it Steps 1 and 2. You understand
the op? When I give the word, activate Step 1. A short while later, the
moment I call for it, go to Step 2."
"Uh... sir, but.. I wonder.." [SK] Kitsura was curious, but did
not quite feel it in his place to question Hanuman's plan.
"It is all very simple. Wait here, out of sight for as long as you can.
Ah. Yes. I also would like to suggest that you start running as soon
as I call for Step 2. Understood?"
"Uhh.. yes Chief. I understand..."
[SK] Kitsura waited a long moment before [SK] Hanuman abruptly broke
off and started running at top speed away from him, cloaking as he did
so. It was only then that his sensors registered a Cybrid Seeker,
sprinting away to the north. From his last known heading, [SK] Hanuman
seemed to be on an intercept course with the Seeker. Kitsura tensed,
and got ready to carry out his seemingly simple task. He went through
a few voice input tests - dry runs to see if the system worked right.
And then he stood still, waiting for Hanuman's word.
The Seeker was hurt, as far as [SK] Hanuman could tell from his
damage indicator. It swerved erratically at times, veering sometimes to
the left, sometimes to the right. It behaved like its sensors may have been
affected as well - which was a plus. Hanuman followed the Seeker at a
cautious distance. At a pre-determined optimum range, he spoke.
"Launch MDM - now."
A tiny missile launched from an equipment slot in the center of
Hanuman's Talon - a spot normally reserved for such un-weaponlike
modules as extra batteries and instantly-charging shield capacitors.
[SK] Hanuman did not need to re-engage the cloak as would have been
the case for usual HERC-scale weapons whose discharge would have disrupted
the photon synchronisation fields, causing the cloak to drop momentarily.
The missile ate up the seven-hundred-meter distance to the Seeker - and
overshot it entirely. The only discernible effect seemed to be a sprinkling
of dark-colored dust as it passed overhead.
The Seeker seemed to be startled by the Micro-Duster Missile. It stopped
and turned slowly around in a circle. [SK] Hanuman halted as well and stayed
very still. A moment passed when the Seeker seemed to look right in the
direction of Hanuman's Talon. Then, seeming to shrug, the Seeker
squatted down on its haunches and launched itself again on its original course.
[SK] Hanuman called up a new display, overlaying it on top of the real-time
radar beam map. After a while, a dot appeared, faint and vague at first,
sharpening and focussing with time.
"Ahh.. good, very good." Only now did Hanuman lean back in his seat,
which he had literally been on the edge of for the past seven minutes.
If everything worked as the engineers had advertised, this was going to
be a cakewalk. However, as [SK] Hanuman himself only knew too well,
Murphy's Law would dictate, every time, that "no battle plan ever survives
contact with the enemy."
[SK] Hanuman mouthed a silent prayer, calling upon the Darkstar, and all
the powers that be, to avoid contact with the Cybrids in his bantam-weight
It turned out that the micro-dust worked quite well. Each miniscule granule
a minature spy satellite all by itself, the "smart dust" was capable of
co-ordinated monitoring and tracking of a designated target. It was not
quite nanotechnology, but the R&D scientists had borrowed heavily from
that department when they went about the scaling-down process. Over the
centuries, circuits, sensors, and thrusters had gone into microscopic
proportions - but this, bringing them down to the size of dust grains
and what was more remarkable, networking the motes together, went a
step beyond current state-of-the-art.
It was truly cutting-edge technology. As was the case with the Human
Predator, once they had got a taste of it, the field commanders cried out
for more. Some of them even offered to trade in two companies' worth of
HERCs just for a batch of these super-spies, but, alas, the supply was
extremely limited. The top-ranking officers handed out the MDM's very,
[SK] Hanuman inched slowly closer to his objective, now a mere three kilometers
away. The red dot on his display stopped moving. Hanuman risked popping the
top of his Talon's head over the hill - and found what he was looking
The hapless Seeker had led [SK] Hanuman back to its operating base.
A quick approach to within spotting range, a laser acquisition, and a call
to [SK] Kitsura, and it was over in a few heartbeats.
Almost as soon as [SK] Hanuman uttered the words "Step 2", the skies opened
up, as Mars Orbital Defense Platform M-1 fired groundward in an awesome
demonstration of raw firepower.
The Cybrid Nexus that had been the focus of Hanuman's targeting
laser split into two under the inexorable onslaught of naval-scale
heavy lasers and charged particle beams. Within the space of three
seconds, the Nexus disintegrated into a million pieces and
was no more.
The hellish beams continued to play on the area for a few seconds more,
causing impact craters meters deep wherever they hit naked soil. A number
of Cybrid vehicles nearby, whether by design or by accident, were speared
through and through, some of them separating into halves like the Nexus
did, others disappearing from the face of Mars altogether under the touch
of weapons designed to punch through warship hulls.
Time itself seemed to stand still when the beams stopped.
In the intervening heartbeats, [SK] Hanuman chuckled to himself and noted
with grim satisfaction that even the heartless, mechanical Cybrids could
experience something akin to shock.
They recovered quickly, however. Point defense turrets traversed and
started to track Hanuman's Talon. The remaining Cybrid forces
milling around the area, still a sizeable number despite the orbital
bombardment, began to charge, heading right at Hanuman.
It was only then that [SK] Hanuman started to turn around, his famed
evasive techniques tested to the fullest as he put the agile Talon
through a series of incredibly complex moves which later tacticians would
call "Han's Twists".
Lasers passed above and around the nimble Talon. Missiles overshot
completely. And yet the Cybrids kept coming. If they could experience
emotions, they were probably fuming mad right about now. In one stroke,
[SK] Hanuman had destroyed their regional Nexus - a massive
centerpiece of the Cybrid command-and-control network. The Nexus
had been the last, final package to launch from the Cybrid carrier two
hours ago. It had co-ordinated Cybrid movements across five zones.
It had worked out plans to overwhelm, and take over the Humans' northern
defenses surrounding their precious base. It had even pondered
on its dark plans for the Humans cowering inside their base. But now it
was nothing but pieces of debris strewn over the cold Martian landscape.
[SK] Hanuman opened multiple channels to the nearest friendly forces.
"[SK] Coke, RA Thunderstrike, [BDU] Starstreaker, now hear this, now
hear this. The balloon has gone up. Sending location - now."
Hanuman noted [SK] Kitsura's Apocalypse standing exactly where
he had left him. He switched back to Kitsura's channel.
"Run for it."
[SK] Kitsura did not have to be told twice.
Together, they ran for their lives.