If not for many years of discipline, Centurion Erekan Scalas would have been stifling a yawn behind his visor. The Regonese flock leaders, war chiefs, and politicians had been talking at Brother Legate Dravus Maruks for three hours, while Scalas and his other three brother Centurions had stood by and listened. If not for the climate controls in the Caractacan Brothers’ combat armor, they would have been freezing in the cold, whispering winds that sifted across Kego City’s Peace Plaza. Maruks had his helmet off, and his squarish, sun-blasted face was red with cold and wind-burn.
Maruks looked tired. As well he might. Regone was the fifth such system that the Avar Sector Legio of the Caractacan Brotherhood had needed to visit recently. It seemed that every brush fire in the galaxy was flaring up since Valdek had fallen to the so-called “Galactic Unity,” two thousand hours before.
The Brother Legate was in the midst of telling the gathered Regonese leaders that the Caractacan Brotherhood was not a mercenary company that they could hire to crush the Exiles on the third planet. The fifty, three-meter-tall avian nashai gathered around him at the base of the towering stone spire that formed the center of the Peace Plaza didn’t seem happy with the statement. They were clearly agitated, feathers rising and falling, hopping from clawed foot to clawed foot, beaks clacking.
“Should we be concerned about this?” Centurion Undon Rokoff asked. He was speaking over the private channel in Latin, his voice pitched low so that it couldn’t be heard beyond his helmet, especially since the Centurions were standing in a half-circle several meters from the meeting itself. “They are getting awfully excited.”
“No,” Scalas replied, just as quietly. Rokoff was the junior Centurion in the Avar Sector Legio, and was still getting used to his command. “That’s just the Regonese way. They get loud and expressive when they’re upset, and these Exiles have them very upset. But they aren’t likely to try to get violent with outsiders, much less Caractacan Brothers whom they’re trying to ask for help.”
“You’ve been here before?” Rokoff asked.
Scalas didn’t turn to look at him; they were in formation, standing statuesquely still, providing another image of Caractacan discipline and unshakability to the Regonese. “Yes, about three years ago.” Much of the galaxy had gone to using kilohours and megahours to measure longer spans of time, but the Caractacan Brotherhood was nothing if not traditional, and they still used old Earth years, even though Earth was long gone. “For much the same reason.”
“Erekan is one of the more widely traveled and well-read Centurions in the Legio,” Centurion Virgil Costigan put in. “He’s been on worlds I’ve never heard of. If he says it, you can trust that it’s true.”
Scalas said nothing. Costigan was an old friend; the two of them had served their novitiate together. But Costigan had been a rising star in the Brotherhood for some time, and Scalas couldn’t help but feel as if the other man had overshadowed him. Even when Costigan himself insisted that such feelings were nonsense.
“They certainly make enough noise to make one wonder.” Centurion Maximilian Soon towered over his fellows, standing a head taller than Scalas’s own not inconsiderable two-meter height. “Though much of it seems to be more concerned with fears of what might happen rather than anything that already has.”
He had barely finished speaking when a powergun bolt split the sky. Everyone, human and nashai, froze.
Every Regonese head turned to stare as the bright, green-white bolt shattered the peace and quiet over the ancient city. Their feathers rippled, and wide, golden eyes stared, blinking rapidly. Beaks clacked.
Then the shockwave washed over the Peace Plaza with a roaring clap of thunder, and they scattered toward the hardened structures that ringed the historic plaza. The threat from Exile-sympathetic terrorists had apparently been considered significant enough that the various flocks had taken steps to fortify the central monument of Regonese history.
None of the Caractacan Brothers on the Plaza bolted. They were Caractacans. Discipline was a by-word, part of the Code. “Never to flee before an enemy.” Maruks simply lifted his casque and lowered it into place, sealing it as another trio of bolts rained down out of the clear, blue sky. One struck a distant spire, similar to the stone chimney in the center of the Peace Plaza, but built of steel and glass. The lower half of the spire shattered, and the structure cracked, beginning to fall toward the ground, dropping slowly in the three-quarters of a G that was Regonese surface gravity.
Maruks reached out under Feygeil’s partly outstretched wing to grasp his arm, as the big Regonese started to rush past him. “Stay with us,” he said in Trade Cant, the de facto lingua franca of the spaceways, particularly out in the Carina Arm. “Centurions.”
Bright sparks were starting to flicker in the sky above, as those Regonese ships in orbit capable of combat began to take the hostile ship under fire. Scalas fell in with the other Centurions around the squat, thickset Brother Legate, and they started toward the bunker on the far side of the Plaza from the bombardment.
They had gotten about twenty meters toward the rim of the great circle when the main gate blew up. Dust and fragments billowed into the sky with a heavy, ground-shaking thud.
The Centurions turned almost as one, each man dropping to a knee and bringing his powergun to bear. There was no cover in the Plaza; the entire circle was open ground, sloping slightly down from the central spire.
“By twos, fall back to cover!” Maruks bellowed, even as hard shot fire started to hiss and snap through the cloud of dust and smoke. A bright flash in the sky above heralded the end of the orbital bombardment, as the attacking ship died in a spectacular explosion. Maruks had his own powergun in his hands; no Caractacan Brother went anywhere unarmed. They often limited themselves to sidearms while in their Sector Keeps, but they were not in a Sector Keep at the moment.
The Centurions answered the gunfire with the bright blue-white flashes and thunderclap reports of powergun fire. Tiny sections of copper wire turned to plasma and accelerated to a substantial fraction of the speed of light, blinking across the Plaza and seeking out targets that were only vague forms highlighted in Scalas’s visor.
Scalas held his position, dropping two charging nashai—presumably Exiles—with two shots, as Soon and Maruks pounded back toward the hardened overhang behind them, Feygeil in tow. As soon as another bolt scorched the air and hammered at him with the shockwave of its passage to his right, he rose, pivoted, and charged back to pass the Brother Legate and the other Centurion, where they were pouring fire into the gate.
He might have gotten another five paces before the entrance to the bunker ahead was filled with the armored forms of more Caractacans, a squad of Scalas’s own Century XXXII, boiling out into the Plaza behind their weapons, quickly identifying where the friendlies were and returning fire toward the gate. But there were a lot of attackers in that gateway.
Something heavier than the lighter small arms fire suddenly spoke in the gateway, and heavy slugs cracked overhead, shredding the cloud of dust ahead of the vehicle bulling its way through the wreckage of the shattered gate.
“Backblast!” an amplified voice roared in Latin, a moment before an HV missile streaked across the Plaza in an eyeblink and struck the vehicle like the hammer of some legendary god. The six-wheeled gun truck blew apart, flattening the nearby attackers and throwing fragments whickering high in the air.
The Plaza suddenly went quiet, which only made it easier to hear the rattle of gunfire and the thump of more explosions farther out in the city.
Scalas got to his feet. Before he could issue any orders, Maruks’s voice came over his comms.
“Soon, Rokoff, get to your Centuries and secure that gate,” he said. “Costigan, Scalas, we will get Feygeil inside and see if we can’t sort this mess out.”
Even before they could acknowledge, the Brother Legate was striding toward the bunker, ushering the war chief of the Dreje flock ahead of him. Feygeil went along meekly. Even though he overtopped Maruks by almost a meter and a half, the Brother Legate’s sheer force of personality had taken over in the face of the crisis.
Scalas jogged behind them, signaling his men to fall in as he went. He hardly needed to; they had heard the orders, and quickly closed into a diamond formation around the Brother Legate and his charge.
He glanced at Maruks as they went. It hadn’t been four months yet since the Draeyeenan had taken command of the Avar Sector Legio. He was no Michael Kranjick, but no one ever would be. Kranjick had fallen on Valdek. But if anyone had to take the reins from him, Scalas was glad that it had been Maruks.
He made a concerted effort not to think about the fact that it might have been him. That simple possibility brought up a storm of conflicting feelings of resentment, self-doubt, and relief that was better left alone.
The sounds of combat redoubled outside, and more powergun fire thundered from the gate. The attack wasn’t over. Maruks didn’t flinch, didn’t speed up, though even given the short length of his stride, he could move with remarkable swiftness without seeming to. In moments, the knot of Caractacan Brothers and a few more Regonese who had been swept up in their passage got through the hatch and into the bunker, beneath the steelcrete overhang.
“Herald of Justice, Maruks,” the Brother Legate called over the comms. “Status report.”
“The ships are secure, Brother Legate,” Captain Valdorius Titus replied. “Though it was touch and go there for a moment. A grounded freighter came apart and started pouring out troops and fighting vehicles. Most of them headed into the city, however.”
“A freighter?” Costigan asked.
“Yes sir, an older Sagmarion-class,” Titus replied. “The strange thing about it was that the attackers weren’t all nashai.”
“Who else, Captain?” Maruks asked sharply.
“Humans, velk, and a few yeheri,” Titus replied.
Scalas frowned behind his visor, watching Maruks. Even with his helmet on, the Brother Legate looked pensive. And Scalas had gotten to know the man well enough since he’d taken command to suspect that they were all thinking along the same lines. “Tell me about the orbital bombardment,” Maruks said.
“It appears to have been another freighter, sir,” Titus said, “with two 30cm powerguns mounted in her hold. She was destroyed by the Regonese orbital defense constellation only a few minutes after she opened fire.” He paused. “Wait a moment.” The line went dead for several seconds. Maruks appeared to be staring at the wall, though there was no telling how much data he was calling up in his visor’s display. Feygeil and two of the other Regonese, a Yeg flock leader named Uyibel and a lesser functionary of the Geg flock whose name Scalas hadn’t caught, were clattering into their own comms in Regonese. Unlike most worlds and races in the galaxy, Regone had a single language shared across flocks.
“Sir, the Exiles’ defensive constellation just opened fire on the blockading Regonese vessels, aided by three starships. They did serious damage; at least fifty of the Regonese ships were destroyed outright. And the starships are currently inertialess, inbound at about Point Five C.”
“Lift and render the Regonese what aid you can, Captain,” Maruks said grimly. “We will be secure here on the ground.”
“Acknowledged, sir,” Titus answered. The comm connection cut out.
Maruks looked at Scalas. “Thoughts, Centurion?”
“I think it’s clear that this is no longer simply about the Exiles, sir,” Scalas replied. “The Regonese may have thought they managed to keep them bottled up on the third planet and keep Bergenholm tech out of their hands, but clearly someone got through the blockade. And that someone has a vested interest in sowing chaos.”
“You have a theory.” It wasn’t a question.
“Valdek is only forty parsecs away,” Scalas said. “Given the timing, the Unity is the only culprit that makes sense. The more they keep the brushfires burning across the Avar Sector, the less organized resistance they’ll face as they continue to move on other systems.”
Maruks nodded. “You may well be right,” he said. “According to your reports, however, the Unity forces on Valdek were entirely made up of human clones.”
“So they were,” Costigan put in. “But if they are only out to cause chaos, then they might not commit that kind of massive force. The clones on Valdek seemed to be primarily trained for massed human-wave assaults, not special operations. If they only want to divert us, then they might use mercenaries.” Costigan was maintaining his bearing with admirable skill, but to Scalas, who had known the older Centurion for years, he could see that he was uneasy. His tanks and combat sleds were back at the spaceport with the starships; they had been a bit too much to bring to the Peace Plaza. The rest of his Brothers were trained as superb infantry fighters, of course, but they were cavalrymen, first and foremost. As much as the Brotherhood cross-trained, a certain level of specialization was almost inevitable.
And it had been some time since Costigan had been the Hero of Tide’s Point Station. He was as much a tanker now as his men.
The structure around them shook with a heavy impact, or possibly an explosion. “Brother Legate, Soon,” the Centurion called. “We are under heavy fire at the gate, but it appears that another force might have penetrated the fortifications on the north side. I think they are trying to kill or capture the Regonese flock leaders, sir.”
“Agreed,” Maruks called. “Hold your position; we will deal with the second incursion. And Centurion? If it appears that the opposition is using clone troops, make sure that you record it.”
It was a testament to how similarly the veterans of Valdek were thinking that there was no hesitation or surprise in Soon’s voice. “Yes, Brother Legate.”
Scalas was already moving, jogging down the curving corridor that ran through the heart of the fortified ring. Squad Sergeant Kahane, nearly as short and squat as Brother Legate Maruks, was beside him, with the rest of his squad following, their powerguns ready. That blast had come from part of Century XXXII’s sector on the ring.
Ahead, around the bend, blue-white flashes flickered, and thunderous reports reverberated down the passageway, along with the rattle and snap of less-energetic gunfire. Scalas leaned forward, pounding down the passageway while he called out over the comm, “Friendlies coming in!”
The Caractacan Brothers had set in around the fortified ring before the meeting had begun, joined by small units of Regonese flock warriors who had come as honor guards with their leaders. It sounded like both Caractacans and Regonese were fighting hard where the enemy had breached the ring.
He came around the bend to a scene that was nightmarishly familiar.
Whatever the enemy had used to breach the wall, it had blown a hole four meters high and three meters wide in the steelcrete. Fragments had been blasted across the passageway, and several were actually embedded in the opposite wall.
Three motionless forms in crushed chameleonic armor were slumped against that wall, half-buried in the rubble. They were not alone, however. The breach was littered with Regonese bodies, most of them mangled, charred, and smoking, as Caractacan Brothers poured powergun fire through the hole, joined by the lighter small arms carried by the lightly-armored Regonese warriors.
Half a dozen armored forms hulked in front of him as Scalas came around the bend. Three were covered down in a recessed doorway on the inside of the ring, two were in another on the outside, and the last was down in the prone on the floor, behind a small mound of rubble, firing up into the breach. Even as Scalas came up next to him, that Brother knocked a nashai form tumbling off the pile with a well-placed bolt. Feathers flew, burning, and the thunderclap of the discharge drowned out the brief squawk of pain.
Scalas brought his own powergun to his shoulder and blasted the next shape. That one was a velk, readily identifiable by its wide, flat head. The bolt transfixed the velk through the upper torso and it dropped, its fatigues on fire.
The powergun fire suddenly went silent. The breach was empty; the surviving attackers having fallen back or gone to ground. The Regonese kept shooting for a few moments, before their commander clacked and squawked at them to cease fire.
“Squad Sergeant Volscius,” Scalas called. This was Volscius’s sector; he’d been sure to remember where each squad was deployed.
There was no reply. Scalas gritted his teeth behind his visor. Of all the times for Volscius to play his little ego games…
“Squad Sergeant Volscius is dead, Centurion,” Brother Cordova said as he levered himself up off the floor to take a knee. He laid his powergun over his thigh and pointed toward the crumpled forms lying in the passageway. “He was too close to the breach when the charges went off.”
Scalas looked at the smashed bodies, forcing the conflicting thoughts to the back of his mind. Volscius had been a thorn in his side since the man had been promoted to lead his own squad. And yet, he had still been one of his.
It was not the time for ruminations or recriminations. There was nothing that could have been done, anyway. Volscius was dead. He could be mourned as appropriate later. The concern now was for the living.
“Bruhnan!” he barked. The big, hulking form of the Odroshan stepped out of the shadows on the far side of the breach.
“Yes, Centurion?” he called. Bruhnan was an enormous bear of a man, wearing armor that any other man in the Century would rattle around in.
“You are Squad Sergeant now,” Scalas told him. “We’ll get the Brother Legate to make it official later. Get your MT-41s up on the breach and get ready to hold it. This attack was too sophisticated; I doubt they’re finished. Kahane, get your support gunners up there as well. Where’s the Regonese commander?” He’d been speaking Latin, the Brotherhood’s internal tongue, but switched to Trade Cant for the last, raising his voice further.
“I am, Centurion,” a blue-and-gray-feathered Regonese said, stepping out of the doorway where he had been taking cover along with several of the Caractacans. The Regonese spoke Trade Cant with an odd intonation; they could form a startlingly wide range of sounds, but the rigid edges of their beaks still meant they sounded different than a being with lips. “I am Dreygef of Flock Yeg.”
“Dreygef, do you have any heavy weapons—machineguns, autocannons, that sort of thing?” Scalas asked.
If the Regonese nashai gestured in the negative, his body language was impossible for a human like Scalas to read. “No,” he said. “We are honor guard. Rifles only.”
Scalas nodded, even though he suspected that the Regonese couldn’t understand that gesture any more than he could theirs. “Keep your men back, then,” he said. “We will hold the breach.”
“This is our planet, our place,” Dreygef protested.
“And you have asked us for help,” Scalas replied, looking up at the towering avian. “Allow us to help. We have better armor and heavier weapons than you do. I suspect that these attackers are attempting to murder your flock leaders. You will do them no good by getting killed when we can prevent it.”
Dreygef blinked at him slowly a few times, then said, “Very well. But if they make the breach again, we will fight.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Scalas assured him, moving away and toward the breach. He wanted to see.
Several of the squad support gunners, armed with the heavier MT-41 support powerguns, were already set up on the edges of the hole in the wall. Beyond lay the park that surrounded the Peace Plaza, covered in the pale green, moss-like growth that was Regone’s analog for grass.
A vehicle squatted just a few meters away, its engine still humming. Scalas almost ducked back from the hole when he saw it, before he realized it had no turret. It was a utility truck, nothing more. But there was some movement visible behind it, so he stayed cautious.
Courage was a necessity for a Caractacan Brother. But there is a difference between courage and foolhardiness. And no one had ever accused Erekan Scalas of being foolhardy.
The sun was starting to go down, though there were still at least two hours of light left. High in the sky, he could still see faint flashes; there was a fight going on up there. It hadn’t been all that long since the attack had started; the enemy starships probably weren’t within the Caractacan ships’ engagement range yet.
He did move back from the breach, however, when he saw two more six-wheeled gun trucks, identical to the one that had tried to force the gate, trundle into view. They didn’t advance, but turned in and aimed their turrets at the ring.
As they did so, they started to disgorge more fighters from their back doors. The Exiles and their allies were determined to kill the flock leaders.
They didn’t know what they were getting into. “The next wave is coming, gentlemen,” Scalas said. “MT-41 gunners, prioritize the gun trucks.”
A clawed hand touched his shoulder pauldron. He looked back to see Dreygef looming above him.
“There are react forces on the way, Centurion,” the Regonese warrior said. “Many warriors, with heavy weapons. We have only to hold.”
Behind his visor, Scalas smiled tightly. “I daresay we will do more than hold, Dreygef,” he said. “Rest assured of that.”
He stepped up behind Geroges and lifted his BR-18. “Engage at will, gentlemen.”
The Alliance Rises comes out on Kindle and Paperback on August 24.