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GYRFALCON



Book One of the Taking Shield series






Anna Butler
















Second Edition, December 2016



Gyrfalcon © 2015Anna Butler

Second Edition, 2016




All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, situations and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination.


This book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of International Copyright Law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. This eBook cannot be legally loaned or given to others. No part of this eBook can be shared or reproduced without the express permission of the author.





Praise for Gyrfalcon




This book is so good… a true page turner. Action packed. Many secondary characters that are excellent and add so much to the story… . If you like high action science fiction that is truly believable, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

It’s About The Book Reviews




If you like lots of different kinds of spaceships in your sci fi stories, then this is absolutely for you. If you like realistic, relatable characters that will make you laugh, curse, and sob for them, then this is definitely for you. The writing is engrossing to the point you feel immersed into this dangerous world. The battle and fight descriptions are particularly well shown… this is a wonderful start to a new, apparently quite long sci fi series with a lot to offer.

Joyfully Jay’s Reviews




I very highly recommend “Gyrfalcon”. Having grown up reading Classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy, I’m always thrilled to read a new book that seems like it would fit right in on any sci-fi shelf in any library anywhere, right next to the works by the great sci-fi authors of the past.

Love Bytes Reviews




Contents











Acknowledgements



For Julie, who christened Flynn; for Shelley, who said "Tell me about those shield-suits!" and forced me to work out how they functioned; for Alice, who doesn’t mind being Quist; and for Nan and Sally, who prodded and poked until I got Gyrfalcon into shape. With love to you all, ladies.










GYRFALCON



21 Quartus – 7 Septimus 7486




SECTION ONE

21 Quartus 7486: Uninhabited planet, designation A2T-486G




Chapter One



Something broke out of the bushes, wings beating, tooth-ringed mouth gaping wide on a hoarse shriek. The Maess drone appeared so suddenly behind it, plunging through the thick forest undergrowth, that Shield Captain Bennet just had time to hurl himself sideways. The photon pistol built into the cyborg’s right arm spat a plasma bolt that smacked so close to his ribs, it punched a grunt out of him. The air stank: burnt ozone, rank vegetation, fear.

Bennet landed rolling, twisting to fetch up on one knee and face the drone, the barrel of his laser rifle slapping into his gloved right hand. No time for finesse. The drone was already moving, the business end of its laser coming around in an arc as it swung its arm. That barrel mouth looked big enough to swallow a space shuttle.

He fired from the hip.

He was faster than it was. Drones were bigger than humans, taller and wider, but slower to move and not nearly as well motivated to survive. Bennet snapped off two shots while it was still turning, laser pulses straight to the chest to take out the cyborg’s main processing unit.

The drone stopped dead. The outstretched arm wavered and dropped.

Over to his right came a shout and the shrill whine of laser rifles. Bennet took his third shot with more care, blasting straight though the cyborg drone’s simulacrum of a head and tearing through the little group of organic cells that gave it a feeble travesty of life. Almost simultaneously, another couple of laser rifles sounded from one side, hitting the drone square on.

It went down without a sound.


**~*~**


Twenty minutes earlier, the Shield ship Hyperion’s cutter had dropped Bennet’s raiding party on A2T-486G, a small planet in the disputed territory between Maess space and the outermost colonies belonging to Albion, his home planet. The Maess had seeded the system with spy satellites, feeding back data to an automated listening post. A2T-486G might be a couple of dozen systems from Albion itself, but this put the Maess uncomfortably close. Almost on the doorstep.

One day they’d be back to blow the place, but Shield’s job that day was to sneak around the satellites and scout the listening post as a possible target for the infiltration job that Bennet would be carrying out for the Military Strategy Unit as soon as HQ gave the go-ahead. It should have been an easy run in and out, with no local resistance—A2T-486G had no recorded sentient life forms. The numeric designation on the star charts translated to ‘breathable atmosphere, no intelligent life.’

“A perfect place for the Maess,” Bennet had said at the pre-mission briefing on the Hyperion as they approached fixed orbit, “given their strategy toward the rest of the galaxy.”

As hundreds of dead, and dozens of ruined colonies, could testify, the Maess embraced xenophobic paranoia with passion. Out to destroy humanity, the Maess weren’t likely to stop until Albion, too, could be reduced to ‘breathable atmosphere, no intelligent life.’

And in Bennet’s opinion, they probably weren’t too fussy about leaving Albion with an atmosphere.


**~*~**


Shit, but he’d been careless, letting the drone get that close. He’d been damn lucky. Bennet breathed out the air he’d been holding, flipped up his face shield and spat to get the acid taste out of his mouth. He looked around to check on his unit.

A second drone was down like the first, lying on its back with its legs kicking and twitching. The unit sergeant stood over it, delivering the coup de grâce with his laser pistol.

Bennet used the pad in his chinstrap to toggle to the command comms channel. “Sit rep!”

Shield Lieutenant Rosamund had her back to the second drone, her rifle still aimed at the one that had almost got Bennet. “Two.” She lowered the rifle. “Both down. We’re clean. No casualties.”

“Stay sharp!” Bennet flicked down his visor and pressed his chin into the sensor control on his chinstrap. The display showed him the all clear for the immediate vicinity. He’d left Second Lieutenant Chivers in command of the Hype, holding her with most of her company and the squad of small Mosquito fighter craft in geostationary orbit a few thousand miles from the listening post. “Chivers! Anything on the sensors?”

“Single energy pulse from the base about forty seconds ago, sir. We’re jamming it. Nothing’s getting out now.”

Shit.

“What happened, sir?”

“We ran into a couple of drones. Keep jamming, Lieutenant. Go to red alert and stay sharp. Tell Dieter to get the cutter warmed up and ready for a fast exit. Keep me posted if anything else happens.”

Bennet waited for the acknowledgement and returned his attention to the drone at his feet. It looked both disturbingly human sprawled on the ground, arms and legs outspread, and disturbingly wrong and alien. He rolled it over, never more grateful that the shield-suit came with gloves.

His shot had taken out the featureless face and left the head a truncated knob of melted metal. It had only rudimentary hands with weaponry built into stiff, elbow-less arms. The dark grey plasticised skin of its chest had peeled back, revealing circuitry melted into a puddle of metal and wiring. This one was definitely finished.

Even through his gloves, the skin felt clammy, dewed with condensation and some sort of dank, greenish residue. He rubbed a fingertip over it. Algae? Was that even possible?

It shouldn’t have seen him. The damn drone just shouldn’t have seen him. His close-fitting shield suit generated a dispersion field that should have scattered any sensors the Maess used: infrared and UV light, radar, sonar and heat sensors. As long as his power pack was still active, he should have been virtually invisible to a drone.

Unless there was something wrong with the suit?

The monitoring meter showed green and the wafer-thin power pack between his shoulder blades would drive the suit for three hours; up to four if he were lucky. The only other possibility was that despite the distortion created by the shield-suit, the drone had been so close Bennet had tripped every sensor it had. But he should have seen the drone first. Their shielding wasn’t nearly as effective as his. The sensor net built into his helmet should have picked it up from miles away. He should have seen it. That he hadn’t until it was on top of him… that was a concern.

He keyed open the command line. “Everyone, check your power. Now.”

He was cleaning his fingers on his pants leg when Lieutenant Rosamund darted over to join him. “All suits are green. Are you all right?”

“Just a bit singed.” Bennet glanced down at the side of his shield-suit. The kick from the Maess laser had left the outer layer crisped and shredded, with some of the masking circuitry exposed. There was no other damage, to the suit or to him. “Thanks for the assist, Rosie.”

“My pleasure.” She ran her hand over the hole in his suit, her downturned mouth clearly visible through her transparent face shield. As she took her hand away, she patted his arm. It was the most she’d allow herself in the field and Bennet wasn’t certain if the comfort was for him or her. She gave him a slight smile, light years away from her usual grin. “I'm not one to grumble, you know, but Shield is not Infantry. We're supposed to do fast scouting runs in and out of enemy territory, not play peek-a-boo with the drones the way mudbrains do.”

“Someone changed the job description.” He rechecked the sensor net. Still nothing close up, but a concentration of signals showed up at the Maess base ahead of them that hadn’t been there five minutes earlier. He fished a handheld scanner out of his pocket to double-check the readings.

“Bennet,” Rosie said, tone low and urgent. “The base!”

“I’ve got it.”

“Sir!” Sergeant Tim joined them, holstering the pistol he’d used on the second drone. “I’m picking up energy surges up ahead.”

“Yeah. We’ve got ’em, Tim. Drone signatures. Chivers jammed a signal out of the base, but that took a few seconds. This whole job’s going tits up.” Bennet watched the sensor display for a second or two. Close in, all he could see were the tiny tracers that his sensor-net was calibrated to pick up—one for each Shield warrior down there. “There’s nothing else moving out here but us, that I can see. So far.”

“How in hell did they spot us?” Tim shrugged off his backpack and dug out a maintenance kit. He ran a repair sensor over the gash in the fabric of Bennet’s suit. “No damage to the circuits, sir. The dispersion field is still active. Hold still.”

Bennet obediently raised his arm and let Tim apply a patch from the repair kit to cover the exposed wiring.

Rosie’s mouth twisted. “The damn things just weren’t on our scanners. We should have seen them.”

Bennet nudged the drone with his foot. “I know. But take a look at this one. It’s covered with algae or lichen or something, like it’s been standing in that bush for weeks. Maybe they were out here on standby, and we activated them by sheer proximity. Hell, I wasn’t as much as a couple of yards from that thing. That close, and not even our suits can hide us fully.”

Tim grimaced. “That may mean more of them out here. I’ll alert the boys and girls.”

“Thanks, Sarge.”

“So much for an unmanned listening post.” Tim kicked at the drone’s foot. “I was kinda hoping for an afternoon stroll sort of job.”

“Weren’t we all?” Bennet frowned. “Not going to happen, not now. Not with drones stirring at the base. They’ll know we fried these two. They’ll know we’re here, even if they can’t see us.”

Tim’s grimace deepened. “All the suits are green, sir. They can’t track us.”

“They’ll still be waiting, and on alert.” Rosie pushed back her helmet and rubbed at the red mark the edge left on her forehead. “They’ll have seen two of their own go dark.”

Shield’s normal operative mode was to sneak in and out of bases fast and unnoticed. That had just gone to hell. Tim blew out a sigh. Rosie glanced at the rest of the raiding party, and Bennet could almost feel her calculating if they’d be enough.

They had to be. They had a job to do.

Bennet straightened up. “I don’t know what other defences they have here and standing still waiting for them to shoot at us isn’t a good idea. Get Chivers to launch a couple of Mozzies, Lieutenant, and make sure he’s warned Dieter to have the cutter ready. I don’t want the Mozzies too close yet, but if that signal was picked up and we need a fast extraction with air support, I don’t want to be scrabbling around for it later. Get everyone ready to move out, Tim. We’ll have to make this fast. Warn ’em we’ll be zigzagging all the way to evade motion sensors and the Maess will be waiting for us when we get there. On my mark.”

Tim threw him a salute and jogged back to the four warriors while Rosie talked with Chivers. Bennet waited until Chivers acknowledged orders and reported that two Mosquitoes had launched and would take up a holding pattern fifty miles to their south.

“Good. Let’s get a move on.” Bennet waved at Tim and signalled in the direction of the listening post, a mile ahead of them.

Sergeant Tim waved back and started forward. The four Shield warriors in the raiding party went with him, straggling out in a zigzag line, going forward in fifty yard stages. Some stages they ran and some they walked, varying the length of their stride and speed, and some they crawled on their bellies. All random. The Maess motion sensors would have a field day trying to see patterns in that.

Bennet and Rosie did their own zigging and zagging, Rosie tossing questions to Bennet whenever the zigzags converged. “Where in hell did they come from? They weren’t there when the Maurice scouted this system last month. Nothing showed when we did our flyover earlier, either.”

She was right. Hype hadn’t picked up any anomalous power signatures, or anything more than the usual low-level power outputs Bennet would expect on an automated base. There had been nothing to indicate the drones were here. “Maybe the Maess have improved their shields.”

Rosie surged forward. “I hope not. The bastards are hard enough to fight already.”

“The alternative is that the drones were all on standby. They wouldn’t churn out enough power to register, then. Falling over those two out there… well, that must have relayed back and the drones re-activated to respond to a perceived threat. Odd, that.”

Rosie cocked an eyebrow in Bennet’s direction. “Okay, we weren’t expecting to see them here, today, but a post with Maess drones isn’t that unusual. I wish it was.”

“It’s not their usual MO for an automated post. They normally rely on passive defences. I’ve never heard of them keeping drones around in the undergrowth as a welcoming committee just in case we stroll by.”

Rosie blew out a sigh. Like Bennet, she was on her belly now, inching her way across the forest floor. “They wouldn’t leave just drones, would they? I mean, I get that they could be pre-programmed to stand around in bushes or be in sleep mode until there’s an alarm, but a drone doesn’t have enough brain to be left in charge. Does this mean there’s a real one on the base somewhere?”

“Last time I looked, I moonlight with the Strategy Unit as an analyst, not as a psychic. How am I supposed to know if there’s a real Maess there?” Bennet relented at the grin she gave him. “The scouting reports all point to this not being a critical base, just a standard listening post. That wouldn’t merit much of a Maess presence at all and on past experience, it’s unlikely they’d risk a real one this far forward of their lines. Mind you, while I know there’s nothing to suggest anything more than a few spare drones here, the situation’s not what we expected. Something’s changed about the way they’re operating.”

Rosie’s response was most unladylike.

“Yeah. It never changes for the better. If they’re building up numbers around here…” Bennet grimaced. “Let’s not make too big a deal of it now. When we finish here, we’ll take a look around the nearby systems, just in case.”

“It changes today’s job, though.”

“Well, they’ll be very suspicious if we waltz in and waltz out and leave the base untouched. With drones there, we’ll probably have to blow it.” Which was a damn shame, because on paper at least, the base had looked a strong contender for the infiltration mission the Strategy Unit was lining up for him. “We’ll decide when we get there.”

“What are you planning?” she asked. They were running now, weaving from side to side. “Now we know we’ll have to fight our way in, I mean?”

Bennet grinned. “Planning? Who has time to do any planning? It'll be a firefight not a social occasion.”

“That sounds a bit, you know, spontaneous.”

“What I do best. Let’s just keep it simple. We go in, take a look, blow it up, and then we go home. If we’re lucky, Chivers’ll have the coffee on.”

“I like simple.” Rosie zigged and waited for Bennet to catch up with her on the zag. “So, we run like hell toward that listening post and knock it out?”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”


**~*~**


A hundred yards out, Bennet paused and held up a hand. The Shield warriors slowed, drifting to a stop, staying under cover. From the data collected by previous scouting runs, there wasn’t much of a base to speak of, just a small blockhouse in the middle of a clearing giving access to the main installation below ground.

“Mind you,” Rosie said in Bennet’s ear. “With our luck today, who’s going to trust the scout reports? There’s probably a base down there the size of Sais City.”

But there was only the blockhouse, very small and very insignificant. Rosie expressed quiet surprise, the cynic. Bennet fished out a larger, handheld scanner and held it so they could both see it, checking the readings of his helmet sensors. Four drones patrolled the near side of the clearing. They weren’t the only ones.

“Two inside the blockhouse, four here and another four on the other side. Ah, there we are. There’s a stronger power reading coming from underground. I guess tripping over those drones out there did wake the baby.”

Rosie sighed. “The question is, are there more on standby in the woods waiting to come out to play?”

“Not according to the scanner. Nothing for miles around except our own people. No ships parked anywhere close by, no power sources other than the base.”

Rosie merely sniffed, focusing on priming grenades and anti-drone flashbangs. “Not sure I trust the scanner any more than the scouting reports. There could be more of them powered down, below ground or in the trees. What are we going to do? Call up the Mozzies?”

Bennet was tempted. The Mosquito one-man fighters could level the base without putting the rest of the unit at risk. But it was still worth checking out the place even if he did have to take it off the list of possible targets for the bigger mission. “No. Not until we’ve taken a good look at it and collected what intel we can. We’ll take out the drones we can see, then blow it.”

Rosie handed him half a dozen grenades. “That's a shit plan, Bennet.”

“It's pretty much yours. The ‘run like hell and take out the base’ plan.”

“It's still shit. They know we’re here. They aren’t going to stand still and let us shoot them.”

Bennet shrugged and attached the grenades to his belt. “You take Tim, Kerr and Younis and work your way round to the other side. When you're in position, signal me and cut down the drones on that side when I tell you. Use everything you've got—I want them down and staying down. I'll hang onto Paul and Lydia and get the drones on this side and then meet you at the blockhouse. A nice simple little plan.” Bennet reached for the controls to his helmet audios. “Switch to battle frequency.”

Rosie nodded and complied. “Be careful.”

She worked her way to Tim and within a few minutes she and her small team melted away into the trees. The remaining two warriors closed up to wait with Bennet and get a quiet briefing on what he expected of them. A seasoned veteran, Lydia barely blinked, focused on priming her own grenades and flashbangs, but Paul was a rookie. This was his first job. He swallowed visibly, the fingers around the stock of his laser rifle whitening. Still, he met Bennet’s gaze and nodded.

Bennet grinned back. Shield warriors. They were the best, even when they were barely out of school, green around the edges, and scared.

He led the way almost to the tree line at the clearing’s edge where they could shelter behind a tree and keep low and watch the clearing where two drones stood in front of the blockhouse. The remaining two paced slowly back and forth.

Rosie's voice sounded in his helmet comlink. “We’re in position.”

“Fine.” Bennet kept the tree between him and the four drones. He glanced at Lydia and Paul. They were ready, watching for his signal. He took a deep breath. “Go now.”

Almost before he finished, the flat crack of two explosions and the unmistakable shrieking whine of a plasma rifle tore through the air on the far side of the clearing. The four drones in front of him froze for an instant, probably processing the data they were getting, and turned, too slowly, toward the noise. Bennet took his chance. He lobbed two flashbangs into the clearing and took off across it almost before they had the chance to hit the ground and explode, firing at the drones as he went. His helmet face shield and earpiece protected him from the flashbangs, but they ripped hell into a drone’s visual and audio circuitry. The drones staggered. Bennet switched to grenades, tossing them at the disorientated drones.

On his right, Lydia hurled a grenade. One drone went down in the massed grenade explosions, disassembled, and a second was disabled. Bennet got one of the remaining drones with his plasma rifle, the one on the left collapsing with its circuitry fried by a plasma bolt to the head, and as the last drone turned, firing, Paul took it out with a shot to the chest. It fell to its knees, sparks shooting out from its chest circuitry.

Bennet ignored it and continued his mad run up to the blockhouse, yelling at Rosie through the comlink. “All down! Get round here!”

He put a blast from his laser into the door lock and kicked the door open. A flashbang went in first, Bennet following in a smooth dive, landing on his stomach, laser spitting out fire. The answering fire went harmlessly over his head. A drone went down in a shower of sparks but the second… For a split second Bennet stared at the bigger, yellowish drone that swung a laser pistol around with one hand, while clawing at its blank ovoid face with the other.

Hands. It had hands.

Then the adrenaline kicked in and he rolled to one side, taking careful aim for all his speed. He fired once, getting it through the chest. The drone staggered back and went down.

The whole attack had lasted less than thirty seconds.

Paul helped him up, grinning, obviously relieved that he’d got through the little firefight without making a fool of himself.

Bennet grinned back and nodded. “Good shot out there.” He let the grin widen at Paul’s almost-blush and turned back to the job. His sensor net, both the helmet and the handheld, showed the base was quiet now and empty. “That's the lot, I think.” He raised his voice. “Good work, people! All clear inside.”

Rosie appeared behind him. She raised an eyebrow at the yellowy-grey drone. It lay on its back, arms and legs twitching, the big head moving from side to side, making the whirring noise of wheels and gears trying to get a purchase on a slippery surface. The hands clawed at air.

Hands.

Shit. An EDA drone. Didn’t often come across one of them.

Tim had Lydia and Kerr on guard just outside the blockhouse door, watching their backs. Bennet glanced at his remaining troopers. “Paul, Younis—you’re on point. The access to the main post is there.” He indicated the back of the room. “Take a look, but be careful. There may be more down there. Usual drill. Photograph everything, extract anything that you can and set charges. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Rosie poked at the drone with her rifle. “You don’t often see this kind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a whole one.”

“No. EDA drones are rare.” Bennet crouched beside the drone and studied it for a moment. “There are bits of one or two of these back at the Strategy Unit, but not a whole one. They have better developed arms and hands than usual drones. Look.” The hands were fully articulated and he could move and bend each of the fingers. He grasped one of the arms and manoeuvred it. A fully functional elbow joint, too. And it had been holding a laser pistol. That was not usual. He picked up the pistol. Other than the built-in weaponry taken from disassembled drones, the Strategy Unit only had a couple of Maess weapons to study. This was a goldmine. The techs would be kissing his feet in gratitude for months.

“Did you name it?” Rosie asked.

Bennet blinked. He shrugged out of his backpack and stowed the pistol away safely. “No. I have no idea who did. Why?”

“Enhanced Dactyl-Articulated drone, that’s why. We don’t normally let you name things. You have no imagination.”

“Very amusing.” Bennet reached for his camera. “EDAs are probably used for tasks that require using machinery, or fine-tuning things anything that needs better manual dexterity than the usual drones. Maybe a bit more intelligence and initiative than the others, too.”

“It’s not deactivated yet.” Rosie took a step backwards, but her rifle came up, ready.

Bennet nodded. He tugged at the head. It would only come partway free from the short neck, but by tilting it forward he could see inside. The small mass of iridescent tissue beneath was wired into the head and body inside a net of crystalline threads. It quivered rhythmically. “You can see where the stuff's wired in. Looks just like every other drone node I’ve seen.”

“Lovely,” Rosie said. “Just what I wanted to look at ten minutes before lunch.”




Chapter Two



The underground chamber beneath the blockhouse was about the size of the Hyperion’s hangar deck. A smaller chamber ran off to one side with ten drone recharging pods lining the wall. Careful scrutiny and much rechecking of the sensor data confirmed it was the only one. It looked like they didn’t need to worry about waking more drones.

Like all Maess architecture, the chamber looked as if it had been grown, not built.

Bennet laid his hand flat against the smooth greenish-black wall between two arching ribs. Whatever it was—metal? skin?—it was a touch warmer than the air and thrummed under his fingers, giving very slightly when he pressed hard. The surface was unbroken but for one access port to the computer banks behind, with a translucent area above it, about three feet square, running a vertical script. Machine code. Albion’s linguists were still struggling to decipher it. It had only taken them a century so far and they were just about at baby-speak level.

Bennet flicked a fingernail against the screen. Its vibration picked up a little, that was all.

“I just don’t get how they think when it comes to stuff like this.” Rosie had her laser pistol on focused, narrow beam, carefully cutting around the access port to remove it and taking as much of the crystalline wiring from behind it as she could manage. She used her free hand to gesture around the chamber. “There’s nowhere to work down here at all.”

“It’s just more organic than we’re used to. Seamless. There’s probably a single machine behind these walls, with the chambers hollowed out of it.” Bennet glanced into the drone chamber where Kerr and Paul were lacing each pod with explosives. “It’s possible the drones get plugged into more than a battery recharger when they’re in the pods. I’ve always wondered if they’re more than just foot-soldiers. Parts of a bigger machine, maybe. Moving computer terminals, with attitude and weapons.”

Rosie laughed. “Shame we have to strike this place off the list, though.” She ignored the sparks spitting and fizzing around her. “It was a good candidate for that job of yours.”

“Too small and quiet, maybe.” Bennet focused on the screen. It looked like it was sequencing data from the satellites. If they got the chance, he’d destroy the satellites on the way out of the system.

She raised an eyebrow. The port came free into Younis’s waiting hands. He wrapped it in clear plastic and tucked it into his backpack. Rosie smiled her thanks at him. “Is it possible for things to be too quiet when you’re sneaking into a Maess base?” She packed a primed stick of solactinite into the hole where the access port had been and switched to formal mode. “That’s it, Captain. The place is mined and ready to blow.”

Bennet followed her back up top. “Too small with only one access port. I may need to make more than one attempt.” He glanced at Tim, who sat over the downed EDA drone. Its legs still twitched. “Deactivated?”

“Just about.” As Tim gestured to it, the drone stopped moving. Tim grinned.

Bennet grinned back. “You can stop smirking. We’ll take it back with us, blow this place and head for home. Move out.”

They grumbled a bit—drones were damned heavy—but Younis and Paul took the arms, Kerr and Lydia the legs. Tim rode shotgun, chivvying them along.

A mile from the base, close to where he’d had his own close encounter with the first drone, Bennet called a temporary halt. He handed the remote detonator to Paul. “Rookie’s privilege, to celebrate your first job. Blow it up.”

Paul grinned and obeyed. The base went up with a very satisfying whump of sound. The warriors greeted the sheet of flame that danced above the treetops with shouts and laughter. It was a cheerful group, still laughing and backslapping, who turned to pick up the heavy drone and resume their trudge back to the cutter.

Bennet breathed out a soft sigh. Shame about scratching the base from his list, but he had other targets and this post had been too close to home for comfort. So, another nose thumbed at the Maess, another base gone, more intel gathered and a whole EDA drone and its laser weapon for the Strategy Unit to take apart. Altogether, a very good day for Shield.

“Good work, everyone. Very good work.” He slid his right arm through the strap of his rifle and shouldered it. “Let’s go home.”


**~*~**


They were still half a mile from the cutter when the sensor net in Bennet’s helmet went off like fireworks.

“Incoming!” He spun around to face the threat, watching the heads up display on the inside of his face shield.

Rosie moved fast. “From the north! Scatter!”

A fighter craft. Hell, a fucking Maess fighter craft. Small, fast, sharp-nosed and with curved-back wings, the fighter was another form of Maess cyborg and powered with the same sort of cluster of neural cells as the humanoid drones. It skimmed along just above tree height.

“Warn Chivers,” Bennet snapped out to Rosie.

Rosie was already talking urgently with Chivers. “Just the one? Captain, Chivers says they’ve picked up one fighter, but a Maess cruiser just dropped out of hyperspace at the edge of the system. The fighter has to be a scout. Hype’s shifted to keep the planet between her and the cruiser, and the Mozzies are ready to move on your mark.”

Dammit.

The fighter shouldn’t be able to see them in their suits, but it might pick up the cutter signature, despite the shielding. It flew overhead again, quartering the area. Definitely a search pattern.

“It’s looking for something,” Rosie said.

The fighter screamed around in a tight arc, coming back straight at them. It shouldn’t be able to see them. It shouldn’t… Hell! It could spot the downed EDA drone. It was homing in on that. They were too damned close to it.

“Drop that drone and run for the cutter!” Bennet raised his rifle. “Tim! Bring it down!”

Sergeant Tim unshipped the grenade launcher. Lydia raced to help him steady it on his shoulder, slapping a photon grenade into the breech.

“Fire, Tim! Chivers! Get those Mozzies here!”

Lydia jumped aside and Bennet ducked as the grenade zapped through the air above his head. He only half-heard Chivers’ acknowledgment. Overhead the fighter banked into a steep curve, turning for another run at them.

“Missed! Again, Tim!”

The explosion was shockingly loud and shockingly close.

The concussive boom threw Bennet off his feet, cannoning him into Younis and sending Younis flying into Paul, and showering all of them with dirt and splintered vegetation. Paul went down at an angle to Bennet, taking Rosie with him.

Bennet landed face down, his head ringing. His hearing was both too sharp and yet everything was muffled and soft. He could hear Rosie spluttering out something, repeating the same thing over and over: “Get up! Get up!” Chivers’ voice in his comlink earpiece, demanding to know what was happening, was sharp. But the shouts from Tim and the other warriors and the raucous shrieks of frightened bird-things were muted, as if they were coming from a mile away.

He lifted his head to look, just as the fighter craft flashed overhead and went into another banking turn. Sergeant Tim yelled something and fired again. This time he hit the fighter full on. It veered off and exploded in a flash of fire and smoke. Bennet curled up, his arms over his head until the shower of sparks and shrapnel died down. Luckily, the main body of the fighter went down a good few hundred yards north of them. The thump when it hit made the ground shudder and the fireball was a brilliant white.

Bennet levered himself up just as a strong hand clamped onto his arm and hauled. Tim. He let the Sergeant steady him for a second, glancing down to make sure that arms and legs were where they were supposed to be. The front of his shield-suit was covered in blood. His visor was fogged, smeared, and the hand he rubbed over it to clear it came away red. It wasn't his blood.

Rosie was down. Paul was down. Younis was struggling to get up. The two Mozzies arrived, too late, to give them air support.

“The Lieutenant!” Tim said, urgent, and turned to pull Paul away from Rosie. She scrambled up and scuttled a couple of yards off on her backside.

Chivers’ voice in Bennet’s earpiece was almost hysterical as he begged for a sit-rep.

“Three down. Launch all Mozzies!” Bennet reached Rosie first. “Rosie? Rosie, are you all right?”

She nodded, dumb. There was blood all over her, too. Bennet passed his hands quickly over her, checking for injuries, half an eye on Tim, and what he was doing with Paul, and another half on Younis. Rosie wasn’t hurt beyond a minor wound to her left arm where shrapnel had sliced through her suit and laid the muscle open. She clamped her right hand over it and nodded, already over the shock, the colour coming back to her face.

It wasn’t thirty seconds before Bennet left Rosie for Younis. Kerr rushed to help Tim.

A lot of the blood had to be Younis’s, but he was moving feebly. He had trouble breathing. His mouth worked, every breath a rasping gasp, his lips already a bluey-purple. Blood bubbled and frothed around the edges of a hole at the bottom of his ribcage. Air whistled in and out. Only one thing to do. Bennet slammed the heel of his hand onto the wound to seal it, pressing hard against the slimy edges of torn flesh. Younis yelped, trying to push his hand away, but Lydia arrived, pushing Younis back and holding him down, talking in a low, soothing monotone.

Bennet glanced at Lydia. “We have to close this sucker. Pressure dressing.”

Lydia nodded. Between them, she and Bennet wrangled Younis partially out of his shield-suit without Bennet moving the hand that had the wound partially sealed. Younis was lucky. His suit might be shredded but it had absorbed most of the shrapnel. The wound in his chest wasn’t really that big. Messy and noisy with the air whooping in and out around the edges of Bennet’s palm, but not too big to deal with. Lydia readied the dressing and slapped it into place the instant Bennet took away his hand. The dressing sealed over the wound better than Bennet’s hand could. It sucked in and out as Younis choked and gasped, but it held. With his chest fully closed up again, Younis could at least breathe. He took a couple of shaky breaths before giving them the thumbs up. The blueness faded from his nose and mouth.

“I’ve got him, sir.” Lydia shook out more field dressings from her trauma kit and started to wrap Younis’s chest.

Bennet sat back on his heels. Hell, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes since Tim had dragged him up. Kerr blocked his view of Paul and he couldn’t see much. He wriggled across to join them. Rosie sat nearby, her knees drawn up, keeping out of the way but holding pressure dressings ready for Tim to snatch when he needed them.

Most of the blood had been Paul’s. He was unconscious. Or dead. Bennet couldn’t tell which.

“He’s bleeding out.” Tim’s hands were skilled and sure, but the dressings he pressed against Paul’s chest and side were soaked through with blood. Bennet tore another pack open and slid them under Tim’s hands. Kerr added another. The dressings reddened almost immediately. Tim shook his head at Bennet.

Bennet let his shoulders slump. Damn it! Damn it to hell. The kid had barely started out with them. He’d done well this first job, too. Damn. “Hold position, Chivers,” he said, quietly. He settled back, waiting. It wouldn’t be long.

Private Paul, Shield warrior, died ninety seconds later without ever regaining consciousness.


**~*~**


Rosie was never inclined to let Bennet brood.

When they’d dodged out of the system to avoid the Maess cruiser and dropped into hyperspace as soon as they passed the crunch point, and after Bennet had sent a brief report back to HQ and following the short committal for Paul before his body was secured in the deep freeze at the back of the hangar bay, she crowded him into the tiny Commissary and forced food and coffee into him. She didn’t outright tell him he was an idiot for blaming himself, but she came close. It was an interesting dynamic they had these days. They’d been friends for far longer than he’d been her commanding officer. If she took a few liberties because of that, Bennet supposed he could live with it. It was usually for his own good.

“I hate it when we lose someone.” Bennet pushed the plate away.

Rosie twisted a short red curl around one finger. Bennet had only once called her hair carroty, and it had been like lighting the fuse on a firework. He wasn't stupid. He never did it again.

“It could happen to any one of us,” she said. “Shield’s no place for the faint-hearted. You always say that.”

“Warner used to call it the place between the hammer and the anvil.”

Warner had been Hyperion’s previous captain, killed more than two months ago now on a job that went sour. Bennet had been filling Warner’s combat boots ever since on a battlefield promotion, until The Management back on Albion—aka Military HQ— either confirmed him in the post or sent him to another Shield ship. It would be nice if they made up their damn minds. He was almost reduced to praying nightly that they’d give him the Hype. He didn’t want to move to get his captaincy.

Rosie’s smile lit up her face. “Warner was far more poetic than you. Point is, though, that Paul knew what he was getting into. We all do. Yes, I’m sorry he died and he didn’t really get the chance to show us what he was made of, but don’t sell what he did short. He was Shield, and he died like one.”

“None of us can ask for more.” Bennet looked down at his plate. He wasn’t entirely sure what the cook had made that day—an already meagre culinary repertoire was always adversely affected by mayhem and death—but he picked up his fork.

“So,” Rosie said. “What’s next?”

“We scratch T2 from the list and go check out T6. After that, we see what HQ wants us to do next. There was something in the last transmission about a Maess fleet gathering over toward the Laconia sector and that’s a bit too close to Cetes starbase for comfort. The General warned me we might be sent there to poke around and see what they’re up to. A couple of our ships are out there now.”

“And after that?”

“Albion, home and beauty, I guess, and two glorious weeks’ leave.” Bennet’s gloom lifted at the thought. Home was Sais City, and the penthouse and decent food, warmth, safety—and Joss. His little burst of euphoria died as quickly as it rose.

Rosie snorted. “That’s all very well for you. At least you’ve got Joss to welcome you home. I’d almost rather be out here rather than slouching around all the singles bars in Sais City.”

Bennet forbore to comment on the kind of welcome he was likely to get from his partner. “What happened to that guy you were seeing?”

“Bennet, he’s an accountant. What do you think happened? There was no way it could work. He has no idea about Shield at all and was forever whining about me leaving to go on jobs.” She took a sip of her coffee and appeared to be avoiding his eye. “You know what that’s like.”

Bennet had always found a kind of obliviousness was the best response to deliberate provocation. He’d had a lot of practice at it. He focused on his meal.

Rosie sighed. “Sorry. It just… well, I know you and Joss have been together for years, Bennet, but he’s never struck me as being the perfect military spouse.”

It surprised Bennet into a choked laugh. Hell, no! “Your accountant?”

“I dumped him. It’s in the war book somewhere. Pre-emptive self-defence, they call it. I did it to him before he could do it to me.” She smiled, and it was a challenge. “A sound military strategy, they tell me.”

“Yeah,” Bennet said. “So I hear.”


**~*~**


The EDA drone had been on the edge of the explosion, and a surprising portion of it remained intact. Bennet had taken the head and one articulated arm and stuffed them into Tim’s backpack. He left the rest. He’d get hell for not bringing it all back, but there hadn’t been much of a choice—take Paul’s body home to his family or take what was left of the EDA back for analysis. They couldn’t carry both, not with Kerr and Lydia carrying Younis between them and Rosie still unsteady on her feet as they ran for the cutter to get them home, not with a Maess cruiser putting the fear of the gods into them. They couldn’t afford the weight of a drone holding them down.

Although the weight of the dead was almost as great.

Still it wasn’t a real choice. Shield always looked after its own. He and Tim took Paul between them and brought him home. Paul lay in the freezer in a clean uniform and wrapped in Albion’s flag. The drone head sat on a shelf nearby, to preserve the neural node.

Until he could get those fragments of the drone and the pistol back, all Bennet had to send to the Strategy Unit were photographs, data readings and his own notes and observations, but he dutifully assembled them to be transmitted on the next data burst home. If the Maess were continuing to develop their drones, the Unit needed to know about it. They needed every scrap of intel to keep standing against an enemy they’d never even seen.

It astonished him, sometimes, how easily they’d fallen into a war they couldn’t win. More than a century earlier, one of Albion’s exploration cruisers had been mapping potential planets for colonisation. The planet, tentatively named Maess after the woman who had discovered it, had appeared to be uninhabited.

First mistake.

When first contact happened, the explorers had gone with their usual MO of drawing a metaphorical line in the sand so the inhabitants would recognise the folly of starting a pitched battle. Shaking a spear, so to speak.

Second mistake.

The contact wasn’t directly with the aliens that humanity came to call the Maess, but with soldier drones manning a hidden base. The Maess drones responded to metaphorical spear shaking with deadly force. First contact had ended with seven downed scout ships and a crippled exploration cruiser that had barely managed to limp home to report the encounter.

Things had gone steadily downhill ever since. War followed. The most devastating war of Albion’s history. Bennet’s people had been sucked into a conflict that ranged across half a hundred star systems and dozens of worlds. Someone, somewhere, probably had a body count. Bennet didn’t even want to contemplate what it might be. Too high. Far too high. And always the battle was against drones, never directly against the Maess who created them. Sometimes Bennet wondered if the Maess even existed.

Metal and plastic constructs animated by a little node of neural cells, the drones hadn’t originally been humanoid in shape. Albion’s geneticists theorised that the neural node was derived somehow from Maess genetic material, but how it was done and how it worked was anyone’s guess. All the scientists knew was that the nodes were enough to activate the drones and give them a faint sense of animation, but not enough to give them independence and initiative, or any sense of self and personality.

Not that it mattered. The drones didn’t need winning personalities to wage war.

Since that first contact, the Maess had reacted by reconfiguring the soldier drones to something humanoid: head and torso, arms and legs. The heads were featureless ovoids, large eggs perched on broad shoulders, the arms were weaponry and the bodies no more than a smooth, grey, armoured covering protecting the circuitry beneath. Drones now looked close enough to human to be familiar, and alien enough to make the gorge rise.

Maybe the Maess did irony. Why else would a race hate humans so much, yet build its soldiers to ape them?

What the organic Maess were like was anyone’s guess. If anyone had seen a real Maess, they hadn’t lived to report back. Albion’s scientists had carried out some genetic mapping using the cells from downed drones, both from the humanoid soldiers and the small fighter spacecraft powered by the same kind of neural node, but extrapolating from there to show what the Maess were like physically… well, the geneticists had tried, but no two of them could agree on anything. They didn’t even know what the Maess called themselves or where their home planet was… They knew so little about their enemy, it was laughable.

After nearly four generations of war, all anyone was sure of was that the Maess hated Albion and wanted to annihilate humanity entirely. This was a fight to the death. There was no possibility of negotiation when their enemy would only engage through the means of animated tin cans with little capacity to think for themselves. Of course, as Bennet had been known to remark, humans had more going for them than a neural node the size of a walnut, and far too many of them couldn’t think for themselves either.

It wasn’t a reflection that filled Bennet with confidence that Albion would prevail against an inimical enemy, despite everything Shield could do.

Despite everything he could do.



SECTION TWO

34 Quintus – 15 Sextus 7486




Chapter Three



Joss had the most expressive back in the world.

If Bennet were looking for a body part to express outrage, resentment, and sheer bad temper, he wouldn't find anything better if he tried for a month. He closed down the comlink, grimacing. Bennet loved Joss, but just once, he’d like to get away without a scene. Just once.

They’d had a lazy day. Joss was supposed to be writing a lecture on one of the legendary leaders who'd got their people away when Earth went dark. But as evening came on, he had abandoned his desk in the window and, for at least the last half hour, his research into Seti-sen-Ankhaten had looked suspiciously more like a nap. He’d been relaxed and quiet at his end of the big sofa in the apartment’s great room, head tilted back on a cushion, mouth a little open and a faint, familiar buzzing marking every breath. The last of the evening light pouring in through the wide windows had fallen on his face, mellowing and softening it, glinting on a strand of silvery grey threading through his dark-blond hair. He was beautiful despite the fine lines tugging at the corners of his eyes. He might be almost twenty years older than Bennet, but he could still make Bennet’s pulse race.

Joss had woken with a start when the comlink’s chime sounded, one hand groping blindly for the link before Bennet could reach it. It was the call Bennet had half-expected: Shield General Martens with his orders. Joss handed over the link in silence. He walked over to the windows, where he turned his back to stare out across the park toward the great dome of the Thebaid Institute and, beyond that, the towering spire of the Theban Cathedral. His head was silhouetted against a sky turning silver as Albion’s twin moons rose in the dusk, little Pollux tagging along the heavens behind big Castor and fated never to catch up. Farther up and out, the fixed orbital satellites and weapons installations of the Janus Net, the planetary defence grid, twinkled in lieu of the stars that were yet to rise. Bennet talked to the General while Joss’s fingers tapped out furious rhythms on one thigh, the other hand splayed out across the glass, taking his weight as he leaned forward. His back was rigid with discontent, the shoulders set and stiff.

Bennet was closed off on the wrong side of that barrier of spine and muscle, yet again. The gods alone knew what the price of getting away would be this time. There was always a price. Some days Bennet didn't mind paying, some days the cost came too high. He put the comlink back into its cradle and waited. The explosion would come. He'd better be ready to duck.

Joss stalked back to the sofa and picked up the book that Bennet had been reading before the call came, flipping over a few pages before tossing it back against the sofa cushions. The History of the Theban Peoples didn’t usually merit such casual treatment, not even poor old volume 67, barely worth the memory space on a data reader much less the printer’s ink of this ancient version. But in Joss-world, anything was fuel to keep his anger seething.

He spared Bennet another furious glance. “Whoever wrote that was an idiot.”

Bennet hid the smile. It was such a Jossian approach. “It’s an old volume. Our thinking’s moved on, that’s all. It was right in its day.”

“It’s well out of date.” Joss’s mouth tightened down. “You don’t usually take calls from generals. Does she talk to all her captains when she cuts short their leave? Or is it just one of the perks of promotion?”

“They’ve lined up a special job for me this time, that's all.” Bennet had expected to be called as soon as HQ cleared the mission, but admitting to it would be a colossal mistake. That was when outrage and bad temper would explode into something he’d rather not deal with.

“Uh-huh. One you can’t talk about.”

Bennet let his hands close, pressing the nails into his palms. “No. No, I can’t.”

“And somewhere behind enemy lines, I suppose.”

“It’s my job. Scouting around in Maess territory comes with the uniform.”

Joss’s derisive sniffs were as eloquent as his back. “And you’re going when, exactly?”

Ah, the I’ll-make-you-say-it-so-I-can-blame-you-personally tactic, the one beloved of martyrs everywhere. It wasn’t as though Joss hadn’t heard for himself. He’d been listening, for all he’d been pretending to be fascinated by a view of Sais City he’d seen a thousand times before. But Bennet wouldn’t react to provocation. It was the best defence he had. The only defence he had. “I’ve got to see General Martens, first. She’s sending a driver for me. He’ll be here at ten.” He glanced at his wrist chronometer. A couple of hours.

Joss sniffed again, dropping down onto the sofa beside the poor abused book. He picked it up again, smoothing the covers. His hands were long and elegant, with tapering fingers. Bennet loved those hands and what they could do to him.

Something in Bennet’s throat tightened. “I won’t have time for supper, Joss. I’m sorry. I’ll cancel the reservation at the restaurant.”

“I might find someone else to go with,” Joss said, still not looking at Bennet.

The reservation was for an hour later. If Joss wanted to go out, then he was cutting down to nothing their time together before Bennet left.

“That’s up to you.” Bennet gave up and headed for the bedroom to collect his kit. He had no time for Joss’s games. Not tonight. If Joss was going to play at being hurt and offended, then he could manage being a martyr without Bennet’s help. The gods and all their saints knew that he’d had more than enough practice.

The standard military duffle was stuffed into Bennet’s closet, already packed. He checked it out of habit, not because he doubted that everything he needed was in there. It occupied a few minutes he didn’t have to spend dealing with Joss. A shower would occupy a few more. He headed into the bathroom. A coward’s way out, maybe, but hell, some days being a coward at least lessened the assault on his eardrums.

The hot water was soothing but, as usual after a brisk rub with a towel, his hair looked like a black-spiked bottlebrush. He grimaced at himself in the mirror as he shaved. Make that an anaemic black-spiked bottlebrush, thanks to the grey eyes and pale colouring he’d inherited from his mother. The hair was a disaster. A buzz cut to get the cowlicks under control was a real temptation. Of course, that would send Joss into orbit with rage. Bennet grinned. Yeah. Very tempting.

Joss was waiting when Bennet came out of the bathroom.

“Are you going out?” Bennet asked, wrapping a towel around his waist.

“Are you?”

“I don’t have any choice. It’s my job.”

“It doesn’t have to be!” Joss thrust the history volume at him. “This could be your job! You wanted it to be once.”

“Once.” Bennet put the book into the top of the duffle. “Before I realised that I’m not cut out to be a scholar.”

“You were the best. And if you weren’t a scholar, why in hell has the Institute asked you to revise that volume?”

Well, that couldn’t possibly be the Dean needing to keep Joss sweet for another donation, now could it? Without Joss’s money, the archaeological research program would grind to a halt. Bennet glanced at Joss and kept his mouth shut. Things were difficult enough without a dose of truth. Besides, it was only partly true. Joss was right: Bennet had been a scholar once, and a good one. He could revise that volume on his own merits and Joss didn’t have to buy it for him. The thing was, it wasn’t what he wanted any more.

“They’d sell half the faculty to get you back,” Joss said.

“We’ve talked about this before. Often.”


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