Sandy only partially heard him as she stared out the window of the military transport plane. There was a blackened, concave pit where Oasis City had once been. Everyone Sandy had ever known had lived there, including both her parents, her two older sisters, and her baby twin brothers. All dead now. All dead. Sandy hadn’t wanted to believe it, until the plane had taken off and circled the valley in preparation for boosting to orbit. Now, there was no denying it. She felt a void of quivering numbness expanding inside of her.
Sandy slowly pulled her eyes away from the awful scene outside.
“Your name?” repeated the soldier, whose face was round with a wide nose, and skin the color of vulcanized rubber. His eyes were black too, the whites made stark as a result. His armor hummed slightly — a different sound altogether from the low thrumming of the plane’s engines as the pilot began to throttle up for transonic speed.
“Sandy,” she said softly.
“Her name is Sandrine Whittmer,” said Kap, who like Sandy had been glued to the windows.
“And your name?”
Kap’s voice was a steady monotone, like he was giving rote answers in class. Unlike Sandy, he hadn’t turned his eyes away from the destruction of their world. Sandy turned to look at her friend. Like her, he was now wearing a loose-fitting jump suit the plane’s crew had given him after they’d been carried aboard in their emergency evacuation pouches. A medic had checked them out, put patches on any obvious bleeding, then they’d been strapped into the bench seating that ran along either side of the clamshell cargo bay.
Kap had had nine brothers and sisters, plus a raft of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, all of them exterminated in the same instant as Sandy’s family. The earthquake had been some kind of weapons detonation, according to what the medic had told them. Now they were being taken back to the military spaceship to which the black-faced soldier belonged — as the only two surviving humans of New Mojave.
Sandy couldn’t wrap her brain around it. There had been thousands and thousands of people in Oasis City alone. What about all the little towns and communities on the verge between the temperate zones, and the open desert? What about all the wildcat loners who went into the desert to fend for themselves?
“What happens to us now?” Sandy asked.
“We’re going to have the doc check you out, then one of the officers will probably get a statement from you for the Captain.”
“You already know what happened,” Kap said. “What more could we add?”
“It’s procedure,” the soldier said. “You’re the only ones from the surface to have survived. You might know something.”
Sandy turned back to look out the window as New Mojave began to resolve into a curved limb of cloud-splotched planet. She’d seen photos of the south pole from orbit, showing the skull-cap of green foliage over the rust-colored dry latitudes. Now, the green was all but gone, pocked with hundreds of mist-shrouded holes in the ground, of varying sizes. A slim halo of green still merged into the desert, but the heart of the temperate zone had been completely wiped out. Such that Sandy wondered if people would ever be able to live there again.
Which re-conjured images of Sandy’s family. The twins had been almost two. Matthew and Cail. The one stern and serious, the other a smiling n’er-do-well. Upon their arrival home from the hospital, Sandy remembered experiencing a stretch of quiet jealousy. No longer the baby of the family, she’d had to adjust to life as just another “big sister” like Helena and Susan. But once the boys had gotten out of their fragile, messy first few months, they’d turned out to be quite fun, and for them Sandy felt the most ache. Overwhelming ache. The more she stared down at the wasted south pole, the more Matt and Cail’s faces swam in her vision, until she realized tears were flooding down her face and she was gently sobbing.
The soldier’s suit motors whined as he stood and clomped over to where Sandy sat. One of his gauntlets rested on her shaking shoulder — with surprising softness — and he squeezed just so.
“I’m sorry,” the soldier said. “I wish we could have gotten here sooner, maybe done something to help. My name is Sergeant Abbott. Squad Sergeant, actually. My Corporal, Chowen, is the one who found you back on the surface. I’m going to look after you both until the Captain of the Opportunity decides where you’ll both go.”
“Go?” Sandy snuffled.
“You can’t stay here. All the civilians have been evacuated from the remaining space station. It’s a garrison outpost now. This star system is closer to the Gulf than any other in the Emancipated Worlds, and if the Colonial Administration Authority comes back, we don’t dare leave civilians behind to take the brunt. Again.”
“But I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” Sandy said, gripping the safety belts across her chest with claw-like hands.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Abbott stepped into the egress slot and felt the hardpoints on the back of his armor mate with their sockets in the bulkhead. Motors and servos spun and whined, then the armor began to split apart as the egress slot took full control. 30 seconds later, he stepped out of the egress slot — his undersuit patched with dark sweat. He palmed for the slot’s door to close. It did, followed by the hiss of cleaning and mechanical fluid being sprayed across the armor’s components, prior to automated servicing. Wash and wear.
Chowen was there, also in sweat-stained undersuit — again slimmer and more shapely than Abbott’s. She offered her boss a tall bottle of thankfully cool athletic drink, which he accepted. The red electrolyte fluid tasted mildly of nameless berry — probably artificial — and he gulped audibly, using the bottle’s flexible plastic straw.
“How are they?” she asked.
Abbott spat out the straw and cleared his throat.
“It hasn’t hit the boy yet. The girl? She’s out of the shock enough to cry about it. But the boy? He’s keeping a stiff upper lip.”
“I wonder if I should talk to him.”
“Might be worth a shot,” Abbott said. “Boys sometimes will show stuff in front of a woman they won’t show in front of a man. Afraid they’ll look like wusses.”
“Boys only?” Chowen said, arching an eyebrow and landing a playful fist in Abbott’s sternum.
Abbott smiled at her, took another long pull, then turned serious.
“How is the squad?” he said.
“They’re playing it straight, but I can tell they’re nervous. I think being on the surface actually freaked them out.”
“Hell, it freaked me out,” Abbott admitted. “Never seen anything like it. Ever. Total and complete collateral damage. If someone had told me before, that people were capable of doing that to other people, on that scale, I’d have not believed it. It’s beyond murder. During the Secession War, that never happened.”
“You’re too young to have been in the Secession War.”
“My father was in the Secession War. Squad Sergeant, just like me now. He said they did mostly ship-to-ship engagements, occasional boarding actions, and a little bit of on-planet fighting. But this kind of whole-planet annihilation… my Dad would have never thought it conceivable.”
“I think the CAA isn’t messing around with us this time.”
Chowen hugged her arms over her small breasts, staring at the floor.
“I wonder which planet will be next?” she said.
Abbott’s mood sank.
“We’d better hope to hell that General Portland and the Defense Force brass have a plan.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“The truth is,” Bruce said to Tanna as they sat in his cabin aboard the EWW Refusor, “that we don’t have a plan.”
Over one hundred light-years from New Mojave, the former Commandant of the Emancipated Worlds Defense Force paced the floor, while his newly returned boss sat in one of the cramped cabin’s small fold-down chairs. Her welcome back to the Force had been undramatic. The squad guarding the transport had saluted as she’d walked past them — a salute she’d returned out of unconscious habit, never lost. If anyone had minded Jimbo climbing onboard with her, they hadn’t said so. The ride to orbit had been silent, and nobody onboard the Refusor besides Bruce had said so much as five words to her since her return.
Of course, most of the crew on the ship were too young to have been serving when Tanna had been Commandant, and she couldn’t blame them if they didn’t fall all over themselves for a strange old woman in civilian clothes following General Portland around. For all some of them might know, she was Bruce’s ex-wife.
Tanna smiled suddenly at the absurd thought, which brought Bruce to a standstill.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just… go on.”
“We’ve always assumed,” Bruce said, resuming his pacing, hands clasped behind his back, “that when the Authority attacked, they’d come after our military assets. Ships, orbital stations, planetary fortifications. We never expected them to select an explicitly civilian target, nor did we expect them to use Total War measures of such magnitude.”
“Is the fleet still spread out, then?” Tanna asked.
“Just like you left it,” Bruce said. “We’ve added a handful of new ships to the existing number, mostly small stuff that the yards at New Cleveland can produce. There are thirteen squadrons operating between all star systems, with five other squadrons in reserve.”
“That won’t work against a flotilla like the one that hit New Mojave,” Tanna said. “They’re counting on us to not be able to concentrate enough resistance in any one place at any given moment to make a dent.”
“So what are your ideas?”
Tanna stood up and walked to the AV unit in the wall. Tapping keys, she brought up a three-dimensional map of the Emancipated Words, suspended in the air in the middle of the cabin. Tiny stars surrounded by tinier planets sparkled between Tanna and Bruce. Waving her hands, she rotated the map until she thought she had the best view.
“New Mojave was a demonstration of firepower,” Tanna said. “The next target will be more significant. Something that will really hurt us.”
“Industrial asset?” Bruce said. “Maybe a larger population center?”
Tanna stared at the little speck of New Mojave, then the nearby star systems, then back to New Mojave. She wished very badly to know who was in charge of Peacekeeper strategy these days. Once the Secession War ended, the Emancipated Worlds had been cut off from the Colonial Administration Authority’s interstellar communications network. The EW had constructed a network of its own, but the two skeins were completely separate. Barring spy missions sent across the Gulf, there was simply no way to ascertain the mood or objectives of the Authority. Something Tanna had pounded home to the Senate during her former stint as Commandant, and which had fallen on more or less deaf ears.
Now, their ignorance severely hampered Tanna’s ability to make educated guesses.
“It’s almost impossible to say,” she said. “Have we received anything official from the CAA? Anything at all notifying us of their expectations? By now they must know that they have our attention.”
“Nothing so far,” Bruce said. “The survivors aboard the station in orbit at New Mojave reported that the Authority fleet came in, did its business, and left again without so much as a burst of static.”
“What’s the Senate’s reaction?”
“They’re pissing themselves.”
“I figured that. What else? What’s the Chair got to say about all of this?”
“Chairperson Golgov spoke to me personally yesterday. He instructed me to take any and every action necessary to thwart the next attack.”
“How brilliant of the Chairperson. Will he next issue us instructions on how to wipe our collective ass?”
Bruce chuckled briefly, then got back to business. “I did what we’d originally planned. I sent Golgov and the other Senators the list of emergency requirements, in terms of manpower, additional ships, and consumables. So far they’ve not responded to my request, though I’ve been told the Senate is deadlocked on whether or not to proceed at my direction, or seek a direct diplomatic channel to the Authority.”
“Direct channel for what?”
“Surrender, I suspect.”
Tanna swept her arm through the hologram and slapped the AV, shutting off the display.
“Spineless assholes,” she said. “That’s our first job, right there. Tell the Captain to set course for the capitol. We can’t fight this war if half the planets are sitting on the fence, deciding whether or not to jump sides. We need everyone committed, or we’re not going to have a chance.”
“Yes ma’am!” Bruce said. He punched the AV and called the bridge. A few moments later, the tenor of the engines through the frame of the ship began to shift as the Refusor broke orbit and began to accelerate away from Clarity.
Jimbo, who’d curled up on the foot of Bruce’s bunk, popped an eye open just long enough to decide whether or not what was happening was worth his waking up, then snuggled his head back down between his front paws and went back to sleep.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The 19 ships exited translight as a group, with the largest of them, the Peoples’ Ship Secretary-General at the heart of the formation. Like in the previous attack, Admiral Dung was entering the star system at a distance, giving his carriers plenty of time to deploy their fighters and attack craft, while the fleet closed at a leisurely pace — sure in the knowledge that whatever resistance awaited them, could be easily dealt with.
Unlike in the previous attack, the target this time was not a planet, but a series of factories. The Trojan satellites of the giant gas world Muehling had been industrialized since the first expansion across the Gulf, and Dung had drawn a large red circle around them when creating his systematic plan of attack — in the unfortunate eventuality that the Emancipated Worlds did not accede to Authority demands in the wake of the razing of New Mojave.
Deputy Overseer Brynhildjur was on the Secretary-General’s bridge dais again, only this time in a uniform not too different from the Dress Reds that Dung had prescribed for the first strike — when the approved media presence had been required by order of the Security Council on Earth. This time, the only audience would be the Emancipated Worlds themselves. Specifically, the so-called Senate, which Ms. Brynhildjur would be addressing just prior to the attack on Muehling. The Deputy Overseer had even applied a bit of makeup — not necessary in Dung’s opinion, but it did hint at the fact that Brynhildjur had been an attractive woman in her youth. Before the mantle of responsibility had turned her into a neutered tool of United Nations policy.
“Open Communications,” said the Deputy Overseer.
One of Dung’s bridge officers looked at the Admiral, who simply nodded, and the bridge officer’s fingers crackled across her keyboard, bringing the AV in the ceiling to life. A light in the AV shown red, then yellow, then green, at which time Brynhildjur cleared her throat and began to speak.
“I am Deputy Overseer Oljandra Brynhildjur speaking on behalf of the Colonial Administration Authority, of the United Nations of planet Earth. I am sending this message to you today from the vicinity of the planet Muehling, which has been a shipyard and industrial center for this part of space since long before your unfortunate disobedience. No doubt you are now aware of the penalty for that disobedience, as has been doled out to the unfortunate inhabitants of the planet New Mojave.
“I am not a vindictive woman, nor is the Colonial Administration Authority vindictive. But for over a quarter of a century, this region of space has sought to drag humanity backwards into the cesspool of time — to an era when personal prides and personal selfishness once threatened all we as civilized humans hold dear. Therefore the Colonial Administration Authority, at the behest of the United Nations Security Council and the Secretary-General herself, places before you these demands.
“One, your so-called Defense Force will immediately cease all military operations.
“Two, your Senate and its officers will convene, in preparation for my arrival at your capitol.
“Three, you will turn over to me all of the original Peacekeeper officers involved in the original insurrection of 2685, including the ringleader of that group, one Captain Tanna Noribatu. Again to take place once I arrive at your capitol.
“Failure to respond to these demands with necessary swiftness and obedience, will result in the destruction of the Muehling industrial complex, which neither of us desires. I therefore give you 48 hours during which you can confirm the veracity of this transmission. If at the end of that 48 hours I am not satisfied with your response, my officers aboard the vessels of this Peoples’ Fleet will have no choice but to follow their orders, and take action.
“I await your decision.”
The bridge officer looked to Dung again, who nodded once more, and the light in the AV unit went from green, to yellow, to red.
“Was the transmission successful?” said the Deputy Overseer.
“Yes ma’am,” said the young bridge officer. “We have radioed your visual and audio message to Muehling. They should be receiving the signal in just a few minutes.”
“I am sure good sense will prevail,” Dung said, noting the uneasy expression on the Deputy Overseer’s face. “They won’t want any more bloodshed.”
The Admiral had to suppress smiling at his own lie.
48 hours was a short time to wait for yet another chance at vengeance.