The recently colonized world of Glenlyon has learned that they're stronger when they stand with other star systems than they are on their own. But after helping their neighbor Kosatka against an invasion, Glenlyon has become a target. The aggressive star systems plan to neutralize Glenlyon before striking again.
An attack is launched against Glenlyon's orbital facility with forces too powerful for fleet officer Rob Geary to counter using their sole remaining destroyer, Saber. Mele Darcy's Marines must repel repeated assaults while their hacker tries to get into the enemy systems to give Saber a fighting chance.
To survive, Glenlyon needs more firepower, and the only source for that is their neighbor Kosatka or other star systems that have so far remained neutral. But Kosatka is still battling the remnants of the invasion forces on its own world, and if it sends its only remaining warship to help will be left undefended against another invasion. While Carmen Ochoa fights for the freedom of Kosatka, Lochan Nakamura must survive assassins as he tries to convince other worlds to join a seemingly hopeless struggle.
As star systems founded by people seeking freedom and autonomy, will Kosatka, Glenlyon and others be able to overcome deep suspicions of surrendering any authority to others? Will the free star systems stand together in a new Alliance, or fall alone?
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The city of Ani, dead before it had been officially born, felt ghostlier than usual this night under the slowly shifting light of Kosatka's primary moon. Carmen Ochoa eased carefully among the deserted buildings constructed to house families and businesses that hadn't appeared before the foreign invaders who called themselves "rebels" infested the area.
She paused before entering an area scarred by war, the wide street half-blocked by the front portion of a tall structure that had collapsed when artillery fire tore into it. The rubble provided perfect cover for ambushers, while also forcing anyone traveling this way to divert their path into the open for a short space. Carmen knelt down in the shadow of an intact building, using the scope of her high-powered rifle to study the path ahead. Given time, the multispectral sensors in that scope could identify just about any threat.
The silent, empty city where unseen dangers lurked in the night reminded Carmen of a book she'd once read, a story set on a world called Barsoom that held many ancient, abandoned cities. It'd been a shock to realize that Barsoom was supposed to be Mars, Carmen's childhood home. The romantic, crumbling glory of Barsoom's lost cities had nothing in common with the squalid and ugly slums of Mars that Carmen had known, except perhaps for the fact that both contained endless threats to the life and freedom of anyone who lived there, and perhaps also that both were places where dreams of a brighter future had long since died.
Someone was trying to turn the recently settled world of Kosatka into such a place. Carmen wasn't going to allow that.
The invaders had been pushed out of the other two cities that Kosatka boasted, though both Lodz and Drava had taken a lot of damage as the price of that victory. The human cost had also been painful. But as long as the invaders continued to maintain a toehold on this world around and in Ani, the risk of the next attack succeeding remained too high, and no one knew if the star systems that had attacked Kosatka would return anytime soon with another invasion fleet. The more that could be learned about the military resources of Scatha, Apulu, and Turan Star Systems, and the more the area controlled by the remaining invaders could be shrunk and their numbers reduced, the better chance Kosatka would have.
Which was why she was here tonight, slinking through the shadows of an empty city, rather than back in Lodz with her new husband Dominic.
Satisfied that no dangers awaited, Carmen moved cautiously forward once more. The remaining invaders had lost a lot of equipment, especially the sort of sensors that could have spotted infiltrators such as her, and the sort of mines and automated defenses that could have threatened her. But Carmen kept her progress slow and careful as she flitted through empty buildings whose ground-floor doors and windows had been blown out or forced open during past fighting. She passed like a ghost through what would have been the large lobby of an apartment building, around the edges of what could have become a corner office or small shop, stepping over drifts of dirt on the floors in which weeds were striving to take root, past the empty maws of inner doorways and unfinished ventilation ducts. In the darkness those openings gaped with a deeper gloom that seemed somehow sinister, as if enemies lurked within, watching and waiting. But her sensors detected nothing, so Carmen kept moving.
Her first warning that she'd finally reached an enemy perimeter came when her scope alerted her to energy use and body heat ahead. Sentries, their gear battered enough that it could no longer offer the concealment it once had. The concealment that Carmen's outfit still had and kept them from detecting her.
Carmen waited, watching through her scope, long enough to spot the nearest sentries when they moved. Their camo clothing matched itself to the buildings and wreckage, but movement still showed against the otherwise deserted surroundings.
Finally, she slid warily through the nearest buildings and into a small park, the trees and bushes planted there nearly four years ago grown into a stunted and tangled mass. As Carmen had expected, the invaders had counted on anyone entering that to make enough noise to be heard, but she'd learned how to move slowly and cautiously enough to pass through such obstacles. She kept her eyes open and her scope active, spotting a single trip wire in time to avoid stumbling into it, and stepping carefully past it.
Finally, Carmen reached a position where she could lie next to a tree, gazing toward a building where several individuals were visible as shadows through the shattered windows. She focused on them, zooming in, but the features remained vague and the lips too ill defined for the scope to be able to read the words they spoke. There were enough other invaders present to make any attempt to get closer far too dangerous. The signal pickup on her scope remained quiet, showing that these invaders weren't using any electronic communications that didn't depend on fiber-optic landlines.
That left little chance of any intelligence collection. But she'd already pinpointed this enemy-held area. One more task and she could call in a strike. Carmen watched, patient and remorseless, until she could be sure which of the figures was in charge by the way the others acted.
Finally, she aimed her rifle up toward the satellites orbiting the planet, all controlled by Kosatka's own government, and used the high-gain transmitter in her scope to send a tight burst signal that identified the invaders' location, as well as a requested time for the strike.
Then she had to wait a little longer, the night quiet about her, occasional movements of enemy soldiers visible, the group inside the building still talking, the timer on her scope counting down. As the numbers dwindled to less than a minute, Carmen zoomed in on the leader she'd identified, aimed with infinite care, and then fired, the noise of the shot shattering the calm of the night.
Her target jolted away and fell as the high-powered bullet slammed into them, the others around their leader scattering and diving for cover.
Carmen was already moving, no longer trying to remain silent, moving fast to put distance between herself and the invaders, hearing alerts sounding behind her, a few shots tearing through the bushes around her. As she had wanted, the invaders had all taken cover, lying low, their attention fixed on the buildings around them.
The strike came down.
It had been dropped by Shark, Kosatka's remaining destroyer. Streamlined, solid metal projectiles, released from low orbit on precise trajectories, falling for hundreds of kilometers, gaining energy as they fell. Carmen saw multiple sudden shadows spring to life in front of her as the projectiles drew bright lines of light through the night sky behind her, a display beautiful to anyone far enough away but terrifying to those at the aim points. The invaders, belatedly realizing the strike was inbound, might be springing to their feet to flee, or might be cowering helplessly on the ground.
It didn't matter what they were doing, because anything they did was too late now. Carmen felt her lips pulling back in a snarl of anticipation as she ran, her breath rushing between her teeth.
The ground beneath Carmen shook as the projectiles slammed to the surface, releasing their accumulated energy, tearing apart anything they struck, cratering the soil, blowing apart buildings. In a moment of insane fury, a small portion of the dead city of Ani ceased to exist.
Carmen dropped to the ground as pieces of debris whipped past above her. A large piece of wreckage rocked the ground as it plummeted down a few meters to one side. She stared at it, feeling her heart pound in belated reaction to how close death had come that time. The roar of destruction blanketed all other sounds, momentarily deafening Carmen as she scrambled back to her feet and ran once more.
As the multiple roars of the impacting projectiles faded, Carmen heard the rumble of buildings collapsing and felt the rush of air and dust at her back.
Part of Ani was gone, but so were the invaders who'd sheltered there. A little more of Kosatka was free.
Carmen didn't linger near the site of the strike, moving a few kilometers through the dark and once-more-silent city before risking sending out a full report, her scope relaying the data and video it had recorded.
Eventually, she reached the building where the unit she was with had holed up. Outwardly, it looked as deserted and dead as the rest of the city. But sentries with weapons at the ready greeted Carmen in the outer rooms. A large inner room, shielded from the outside, held twenty men and women as well as their equipment. Inside, most wore only T-shirts and trousers, their camo, personal weapons, and body armor (if they had any) placed on the floor beside where they sat or lay on the floor. Officially, those twenty and the five sentries on watch outside made up the Third Company of the Second Regiment of the First Brigade of Kosatka's planetary militia. The unit had been one hundred strong before the invaders landed, made up mostly of people who'd come to Kosatka to start new lives in a wide variety of occupations but had found themselves forced to defend their new homes. Some of those hundred had been called back for critical jobs, others for family emergencies, others wounded. The rest had died. Those remaining wore the weary, fatalistic expressions of men and women who were going to see their job through but didn't expect to be there when victory finally came. If it ever did.
Carmen received nods of recognition as she entered, feeling a small rush of pleasure at being accepted as one of them. She'd spent a long time feeling alone. Carmen felt herself finally relaxing, exchanging greetings with her comrades, peeling off her camo, and gratefully accepting a cup of coffee.
"Kosatka is short on a lot of things, but they make sure we always have coffee," Captain Devish said as he crouched down beside her. "It's lousy coffee, but it's here."
"There's no more coffee in Drava or Lodz," Carmen told him. "What's left on the planet is being sent to the fighters here around Ani."
"I hope the planet gets more shipments in before it all runs out. You did a good job, Carmen."
"Thanks," she said. "What's the assessment?"
"No signs of life. The strike wiped out that invader strongpoint." Captain Devish, among the few professional soldiers in the unit, had come to Kosatka from Brahma, one of the Old Colonies. When asked, he always gave his reason for emigrating as "I was bored." He certainly wasn't bored now.
"Good." Carmen took a drink of the hot and bitter coffee, feeling exhausted. "Did my report make it through?"
"Yeah. Clean upload." Devish gave her a searching glance. "I heard you worked for Earth government once."
"Yeah. After I got off Mars." She didn't try to hide her origins anymore. People could accept her or reject her. Carmen no longer cared. "I worked in Albuquerque."
"Albuquerque? What was that like?"
"Better than Mars."
Devish grinned. "What'd you do?"
"I was in the Conflict Resolution Office," Carmen said. "Working to find legal and peaceful resolutions for conflicts and disputes on Earth and all settled worlds."
"You're kidding." Devish shook his head. "How effective was that?"
"It worked when people believed in it. When they stopped believing, stopped caring, it didn't work. I came out here to try to make people believe in that kind of thing again. Because what's happening to Kosatka shouldn't be happening anywhere." Carmen touched her rifle. "That's why I'm using this now. But someday we need to get back to depending on laws for our protection."
"That'd be nice," Devish said, not quite hiding his skepticism that such a day would ever come. "Anyway, you can relax. We've been ordered to stay under cover through daylight today, so there won't be any more action until nightfall."
Finishing the coffee, Carmen went into a side room for some privacy and uplinked to Kosatka's planetary net using landline relays to keep anyone from being able to tell where her signal was coming from. Fiber cables run to the roofs of other buildings linked them to antennas communicating to the satellites above.
This room, like most rooms in Ani, lacked furniture, so she sat on the floor, settling down with her back against the wall behind her. Carmen set her comm pad down long enough to comb her hands through her hair and rub her face so she wouldn't look like someone who'd just spent the night crawling through a dead city. Fixing a smile on her face, Carmen tapped a link.
After a long moment, the image of Dominic Desjani appeared. His face still bore signs of the strain of the injuries that kept him mostly confined to bed. "Hey, Red," he said, smiling. Red, the common slur aimed at those from Mars, had somehow become an affectionate nickname by Dominic for her, one she loved hearing from him. "How are you?"
"Working late," Carmen said. "Sorry."
"I never knew collecting intelligence was so stressful."
"Yeah, well, fieldwork. You know." She didn't want to lie to him, but she also didn't want to admit to all of the risks she was running. "How's the leg?"
"The one that's missing? Still gone." Dominic gestured vaguely. "I'm told maybe another month before I get a prosthetic. There's a big backup manufacturing them for all the wounded, and I'm sort of low on the priority scale."
"What about regeneration? Weren't they looking at a regrow for you?" Carmen asked.
"Still looking." Dominic smiled. "I can wait. There are others who need stuff grown back worse than I do."
"As long as you're okay," Carmen said.
"What have you actually been doing, Red?"
She sighed. "Collecting intelligence."
"That covers a lot of different ground. You look pretty worn-out."
"I'm doing my part, Domi."
He stayed silent, unhappy, his eyes on her.
"I'm going to be back in Lodz in a few days," Carmen added, trying to change the subject. "What do you want to do?"
Dominic shook his head, still gloomy. "Maybe have some more honeymoon."
"That'd be nice. Domi, I'm sorry. You know who I am. You knew what you were getting when you asked me to marry you. I'm a Red."
"You came from Mars. But you're not like those gangsters fighting for the invaders." Dominic looked away. "You are a fighter. I knew that, yeah. Maybe someday you'll tell me everything you did on Mars. Everything you did to get off that hellhole of a planet."