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For the better part of two rotations the battle raged on and around the ice-world called Alice.
The pirates managed to destroy the planet's small navy during the first few minutes of battle.
Then, expecting an easy victory on the ground, they dropped into orbit. The force fields around their ships disappeared, as hundreds of assault craft spilled out and spiraled down toward the bluish white planet below.
It was a mistake, and one for which the invaders would pay dearly. Missiles rose from the planet's surface followed by man-made lightning. Caught with force fields down, two of the attacking ships were destroyed, and others were damaged.
Then, angered by the effrontery of their victims, the pirates unleashed a terrible fury. Mushroom-shaped clouds marched across the frozen landscape turning vast sections of ice and snow into superheated steam and radioactive glass.
But most of the important targets were located deep underground safe from the planet's harsh winters and pirate attacks. They survived and the battle continued.
The combatants had fought many times before and knew each other well.
On the one side there were the settlers, life-long losers most of them, driven, or drifting farther and farther from the center of the human empire until reaching its very edge. For Alice was a rim world, the last stop before the Il Ronnian Empire, and the great unknown.
Now the settlers eked out a precarious existence built more on hard work than the scarce resources of their planet. They were quirky, independent, and tough as hell when backed into a corner.
The pirates were as pirates have always been, the lowest common denominator, the linkbetween animal and man. Once, years before, they'd been something better.
They were soldiers back in those days. Soldiers who fought valiantly for a cause they believed in. A confederation of planets, each represented in a star spanning democracy, each part of a greater whole.
But in spite of their heroic efforts to hold it together, the confederation had collapsed of its own weight, and given rise to the Empire.
The first Emperor was wise in his own way, and knowing he couldn't micro-manage each planet, he provided all of them with a measure of independence and full amnesty for the confederates.
Tired of war, and preferring order to anarchy, most of them agreed.
But some scorned the offer, choosing to fight a guerrilla war instead, waiting for the day when they would seize power and restore the confederacy. The day never came.
Time passed, and with it, the ideals they'd fought for. Raid followed raid, and death followed death, until the difference between "military" and "civilian" targets started to blur.
There were atrocities, each worse than those that went before, until minds grew weary and hearts became numb.
Now, many years later, they sought loot rather than liberty. Gradually, without realizing it, patriots became pirates and a cause disappeared.
The settlers' command center was deep underground. During the past two days it had survived attacks from air-to-ground missiles, smart bombs, and a flight of robotic subsurface torpedoes. They'd burrowed within one mile of the complex before they were detected and destroyed.
The C&C was large, lit mostly by flickering vid screens, and filled with the soft murmur of radio traffic. Smoke streaked the air, empty meal paks crunched underfoot, and a feeling of weary desperation pervaded the room.
Sara Bridger-McCade focused tired eyes on the surface of the tac tank. She hadn't slept for more than twenty-six hours and exhaustion had taken its toll.
Sara was beautiful, or had been once. Now a long white scar slashed down across her face. It was deathly white against her heat-flushed skin. A grim reminder of her first encounter with the pirates many years before.
Sara wore a plain gray jump suit, light body armor, and a blaster in a cross-draw holster.
Ignoring concerned stares from C&C staff she tried to concentrate. The tac tank was a swirl of color and movement. It was similar to a three-dimensional electronic chess board, in which the green deltas belonged to her, and the red squares to someone else.
But this was no game. These markers represented real flesh-and-blood people. Mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Friends of hers. They were dying and Sara couldn't stop it.
Some of the population would survive as slaves but most would die. It was the pirate way. Take what you want, destroy the rest. Sara peered into the tac tank and looked for an answer.
Hills and valleys were outlined with green contour lines and marked with elevations. Surface and subsurface installations showed up as yellow circles. Civilian domes and factories were light blue. All of it looked so neat and orderly without the sprawl of dead bodies, the stench of burned-out homes, and the cold-blue stutter of energy weapons.
Without ships to bring help, without FTL communication, the settlers had a single ally. The weather. Up above, on the planet's surface, a class-two storm raged. Nothing like an eight or, God forbid, a ten, but just enough to slow the pirates down. Sara had hoped for more, hoped the storm would defeat them in a way that she couldn't, but the pirates were well prepared.
They wore heatsuits, rode in armored crawlers, and knew what they were doing. Slowly but surely the red squares were pressing in, pushing the green deltas toward the underground command center, crushing anything that stood in their way.
Over there, about ten klicks short of Donovan's Rift, Riston's Rifles were still holding against a company of mechanized infantry. And there, just short of the main armory, Colonel Larkin was fighting one last battle.
But that was it, after two days of battle the pirates had come close to wiping the planet clean, and would soon be victorious.
Sara's vision blurred and she rubbed her eyes. Was there a way out? Something she'd missed? A weakness?
No, nothing. The knowledge lay heavy in her gut. The pirates would take Alice within hours. She'd failed. The battle was lost.
But why? Why such determination? Why so well equipped? Why Alice?
"Sara?" The voice was calm and gentle. She looked up to see a man and a woman standing on the other side of the tac tank.
There were five members of the planetary council. Sara, Colonel Larkin, presently defending the armory, Rico, off-planet with Sam, Professor Wendel, and Dr. Hannah Lewis.
Three qualifies as a quorum, Sara thought tiredly, though it hardly matters. There's nothing left to decide.
Professor Wendel smiled wearily. He was an elderly man with bright blue eyes and a white ponytail. "We did the best we could, child. Let's save what we can."
Sara looked at Hannah. She had an open face, beautiful brown skin, and a tight cap of kinky black hair. She had a diagnostic scanner strapped to her right arm and a stethoscope hung around her neck. There were bloodstains on her OR greens. The planet's main medical facility was a thousand yards down the main corridor.
"The professor's right, Sara. Release the remaining troops and let them slip into the bush. The pirates won't find them. Not on Alice they won't."
Sara knew Hannah was right. The locals were experts at cold-weather survival. They knew the terrain, and those fortunate enough to be some distance from the C&C would have a chance of escape. "And the children?"
Hannah looked at Wendel. It was he who answered. "They're gathered in the cafeteria. The pirates will take them as slaves."
Sara felt a terrible sadness roll over her. Which was better? To die? Or live as a slave? She knew what Sam would say, knew he'd want his daughter to live, knew there was no other choice.
Sara nodded. "I'll give the necessary orders." She activated her throat mic and began to speak.
And so the word went out. "Disengage ... pull back ... fade into the bush. Save who and what you can. Live to fight another day. Thanks for all that you've done ... and good-bye."
Then it was over, a kiss on the cheek from Professor Wendel, a hug from Hannah, and a wave to her quickly departing staff.
Some, either because of skills or appearance, would have a chance to become slaves, but most, like Sara with her disfiguring scar, would not. They would tend to last-minute chores, say good-bye to loved ones, and meet at the main entry. There they would make one last stand.
Sara's heels made a clicking sound as she walked down the corridor. Normally it was spotless, with shiny floors and clean walls. Now it was dark and gloomy, stained with smoke, and littered with the debris of war. Lights buzzed on the edge of burnout, bloody dressings littered the floor, and odd pieces of clothing lay here and there.
A horn honked behind her and Sara stepped aside. An electric cart rolled by, loaded down with heat-suited people, headed toward the main entry.
Many of the people wore bloodstained bandages. The wounded, determined to make their deaths count, looking forward to taking some pirates with them.
One waved. Sara waved back. She couldn't remember his name.
The cafeteria was dark and somber. There were fifty or sixty children spread around the room, all were subdued, some were crying. Sara saw small huddles here and there, as parents said good-bye to their children. Many would never have that chance, for they were already dead, or dying somewhere in the cold.
Ten or twelve hard-pressed teenagers moved among the crowd, little more than children themselves, doing the best they could to bring help and comfort.
Some elderly men and women were in charge. One, a woman named Edna, bustled over to greet Sara. She had a wrinkled face and plump hands. Edna wore the same cheerful smile she always did, and Sara admired her courage.
"Hello, dear, come to see Molly? She's right over there. Hurry now, we plan to sing some songs until they come to take the children away."
Sara smiled her thanks, and marveled at Edna's words. "...Until they come to take the children away." As if "they" were nothing more than counselors taking the children off to summer camp. But Edna was right. It wouldn't do any good to dwell on the horror of it, to think of what Molly would face, to break down and sob as she desperately wanted to do.
Sara felt angry for a moment. Angry at Sam for being off-planet when the pirates came, angry at the Empire for leaving the rim worlds vulnerable to attack, angry at God for letting it happen. It wasn't fair, damn it!
"Mommy!" Suddenly Molly was there, arms thrown around Sara's waist, face pressed against her stomach. Somehow, much to Sara's pleasure and her daughter's chagrin, Molly had a mop of tightly curled, brown, almost black hair. It was soft and thick, strangely comforting to her fingers, a reminder of Sam.
Suddenly the anger was gone, replaced by a terrible sadness. There was so much she wanted to say and so little time to say it. Sara knelt and took Molly in her arms. They hugged and took comfort from each other. Then as they pulled slightly apart Sara looked into her daughter's eyes. They were big and solemn, filled with knowledge beyond her years, and brimming with tears.
"Things didn't go very well, honey, we lost."
Molly nodded sadly. "I know, Mommy. They told us. The pirates are going to take us away."
Sara forced a smile. "I'm afraid so, Molly. Do you remember how the pirates took me, and your grandmother?"
Molly nodded. She'd heard the story many times. How the pirates had stopped the liner, how Mommy fought them at the main lock, how Daddy unknowingly saved her life a few months later. "I remember."
"Good ... because you must do as I did. Stay alive, help others, and remember the things Mommy and Daddy taught you." Tears began to roll down Molly's cheeks.
"Are you listening to me, Molly?"
"Yes, Mommy, I'm listening."
Sara scanned her daughter's face, determined to remember it, and take the memory with her. "Good. This is the most important part of all. Never give up hope. No matter where they take you, no matter how long it takes, Daddy will come. He'll hunt them clear across the universe if that's what it takes. Be ready. There'll be trouble when Daddy comes, and he'll need your help."
Molly sobbed and pressed her face against Sara's shoulder. "I don't want to go! I want to stay with you!"
Sara gently pushed her away. "I know, honey ... I wish you could. But Mommy has things to do. You take care of yourself, and remember I love you."
And with that Sara stood, kissed Molly on the top of her head, and turned away.
By the time Sara entered the main corridor she could hear the sounds of distant battle. The pirates were forcing their way in and the command center staff was making one last stand. Tears rolled down Sara's cheeks as she pulled her blaster, checked its charge, and headed for the entry. The bastards would pay.