330 km above Mars terrain-level
2,400 km (ground distance) from Stormkeep Plains
Air/Space Assault Carrier Phoenix 2
Herc Slot #1
3 days after the storm
Katana was incensed. His rage threatened to unleash itself and blow
clear through the Transparillium cockpit of his gleaming Basilisk, which was
still immaculately dressed-up from the required, the necessary
parade and inspection before Emperor Petresun himself on one of those days
that whoever it was had long ago dictated to be one of the holier days
on the Earth calendar. Holiday it was not, and neither was it the
Emperor's birthday, nor was it even NTDF Day. It just was, and
Katana didn't want to have anything to do with it until he found himself
stuck with the none-too-enviable position of having had a direct
communication from Emperor Petresun to get an entire company ready to ship
all the way back to Earth for a little pomp and pageantry. Of the long
journey itself, nothing was mentioned, save for a terse paragraph
that stated flatly that the Empire shall "cover all necessary travel
expenses". Being tight-fisted as the Empire was, Katana had reason to be
surprised that they were parting with their money at all.
Pomp and pageantry indeed. That, and politics, and a centuries-old
tradition. Some things simply never changed. Despite all the wars,
and all the advanced technology, and all the 'Sieges that resulted.
Despite everything. And if having to drag his hand-picked platoon's
collective sorry behinds all the way to the Imperial Palace on Earth,
having to scrub down their Hercs thoroughly and do silly, gaudy-looking
paint jobs, having to drill long monotonous hours under the impossibly
bright glaring Sun, and then having to drag 'em all the way back
home to the remote reaches of the Solar System weren't enough, Katana
now had to deal with the possibility that the StormKeepers Squad, of
all the people in this Prometheus-forsaken galaxy, had tried to steal
one of his new recruits. Had, in fact, somehow managed to whisk him off
the parade grounds of the Imperial Palace and all the way onto the
whats-its-name SK stronghold on Mars. And craziest of all, had reportedly
slotted him into a Herc and placed him directly in harm's way, making him
defend a StormKeepers base from a surprise Cybrid incursion.
Yes, the StormKeepers worked in mysterious ways. Yes, they did do strange
things from time to time. And yes, they did have rather strange beliefs.
And, of course, there was the fact that they owed allegiance to no-one,
not the Emperor, not the Rebel Leader Harabec, nor anyone in the Terran
Defence Forces. They claimed to answer only to some person known as
Tsoron, or was it Xacalon. Sometimes they changed it to "the Aldur".
Sometimes they shortened "Xacalon" to "Xac". And neither did they worship
any of the major religions of the time, preferring, instead, to claim
to do everything for some "Darkstar". Presumably it was some kind
of holy relic, its worthiness known only to the SK's.
But, hell no, that did not mean they were entitled to grab a
newly-promoted freshie from the ranks of the New Terran Defence
Force, straight out from under their noses, so to speak, the very night
before the grand parade was to begin. How they managed to do it, nobody
knew. An entire TDF barracks, a portion of which the NTDF had borrowed for
the duration of the parade, defended by no less than four PERIHASP Hercs
on active duty around the clock, and they had managed to slip in a transport,
an unarmed supply transport, no less, and take off with just one man
into the starry night. The StormKeepers were mysterious, and seemed to have
strange capabilities in unexpected ways, granted, but this was over-stepping
their bounds. This was where they had stepped over the line. This had to be
classified as kidnapping, plain and simple. Enforced slavery was one of the
more recurring terms being pushed around in the NTDF High Command, themselves
thoroughly mystified by the whole matter and unable to render much assistance
from home-base millions of miles away.
The StormKeepers were going to have to pay for their audacity, Katana decided.
He checked in with the pilot of the assault carrier. Good - they were cleared
all the way to ground level. Which meant that as far as could be told from
groundward-looking sensors and reports from friendlies in the region, there
were no baddies in the region. No rebels. No Cybrids. The StormKeepers -
well, they were something else entirely. Nobody did know how to
classify them exactly - good, or bad. It was almost as if they wished
to remain unclassified.
Tapping a button on the console, Katana did a quick-check of his squad.
They were still there, all right, Hercs standing at frozen attention
in the dark recesses of the transport's belly. NTDF Thrawn was glaring
back at the holo-cam, his own rage mirroring that of Katana's. Avatar
looked cool about the whole matter, his calm mien belying the fact that
he, too, was troubled by the whole business. PrinzEugen simply growled,
"lemme at 'em..!!" - short, and to the point.
The long wait through the dark night of inter-planetary space did at
last penetrate through to Katana's consciousness, with the same old
arguments playing themselves over and over again in his mind. A crack
of doubt began to show itself, keeping his simmering rage from truly
What if it was all just a dumb clerical mistake?
What if there really was something about this Dire Wolf guy?
What if the SK's came up with some perfectly good reason?
Not likely, Katana, thought. His ruminations continued, however.
Katana quashed the thought. It was too far-fetched, too unlikely,
given that the Humans had decades to implement all the appropriate
He just had to wait and see. No matter how he chafed at it, no matter
how angry he got, and no matter how he wished it could take less time,
there was simply no way to expedite the extensive planetary check-in
procedures in the space above Mars, for that space was hardly empty,
but crowded with dozens of cargo and personnel transports plying the
Earth-Mars route, fleets of Imperial ships and their accompanying
air/space fighters, and even one or two space-borne leisure craft
owned by some rich director, or owner, of some giant corporation.
And then there were the Orbital Defences to contend with. It was said
that no craft, no matter how small, could escape their steady gaze,
armed as they were to the teeth, what with their electro-magnetic
railguns, plasma cannons, and ultra-large-scale lasers. It was
rumored that some of these platforms even carried kiloton-range
tactical or even megaton-range strategic nuclear missiles, but,
as always, in such cases, nobody could really be sure, and it
was all publicly denied. Which meant absolutely nothing, of course.
What Katana did know, was that you absolutely did not mess
with an Orbital Defence Platform. They told you to follow a
prescribed landing course, and you did, whether you were from the
TDF or not. Or NTDF, for that matter. The platforms orbiting Mars
were much less dense than those around Earth, that was for sure,
and there was a possibility that some skilled pilot could fly
right past them. But none of the NTDF pilots, nor the a/s assault
carrier's captain, was in the mood for suicide runs today.
The lurch of the carrier jolted Katana, and the rest of the pilots,
back into a heightened mode of alertness. They had entered the
Martian atmosphere, and the radar-predicted weather disturbances in
the high stratosphere did not augur well for chances of a
Presently, the assault carrier burst through the thin cloud cover,
and after a period, too long, as PrinzEugen had repeatedly grumbled,
they arrived at their Landing Zone, or LZ, which still was a long
trek from their intended WayPoint. Even Thrawn himself cursed, once,
and swore that they had better get what they came here for.
Nearing the objective, the four Hercs assumed a Crescent formation,
a broad, concave pattern that would allow all four of them to lock
onto a single, frontal target, creating a kill-zone of extreme
They had not quite reached the glowing WayPoint depicted in their
holographic cockpit displays when a gray dot appeared
simultaneously on their radar screens, right behind them, a position
in 2D space they were in barely ten seconds earlier.
Taken by surprise, but reacting like the combat-hardened veterans
they were, the NTDF soldiers quickly performed the Crossover
Maneuver, their already-excellent skills honed by the precision
parade drills practised for the past week-and-a-half.
Hanuman's black Basilisk, his personal Hanulisk, shimmered into
view, taking on solidified form as the stealth cloak disengaged with
a deep gurgling sound. His weapons were pointed skywards, and groundwards,
aiming at nothing in particular, showing that Hanuman did not intend to
have an armed showdown, despite the fact that the time was now almost
high noon - a classic time for such encounters in many of the old,
flat, two-dimensional rec-vids.
"Greetings, NTDF Katana, Thrawn, Avatar and PrinzEugen. I, Chief Instructor
Hanuman of the StormKeepers, have been expecting you. And before you decide
that I belong in your Crescent Kill-Zone, I would like to tell
you, all of you here, that we, of both the SK, and the NTDF, have
all been played for fools."