Storm Assault (Star Force Series)
Author:B. V. Larson

    The carrier ship Gatre hung in space over Eden-8. Dark, imposing and diamond-shaped, the ship had only a few gun turrets. Every cannon it did have was a light laser with an automated brainbox driving it. The real armament was inside her: fighters. Over a hundred of them slept in her launch bays, waiting like wasps to charge out and defend their nest.

    Gatre was Captain Jasmine Sarin’s ship, but as the overall commander of Star Force I spent a lot of time aboard. The carrier was equipped with some of our best command-support hardware.

    There were no other vessels in the immediate vicinity. Stretched out below the ship was the loveliest of the seven inhabited worlds in the Eden system. Eden-8 was a warm planet with amazingly tall forests and lush growth everywhere. It was as green as Earth was blue, being covered with more land than water. Someday, I thought to myself when I gazed down at that glowing jewel of a planet, humanity would fill that vast wilderness. But for now, it was very sparsely inhabited like the other three worlds here that were dedicated to my species.

    I sat in a dark chamber which was lit only by the green glow of the world outside my window. The room was my office, and it was late. The ship was deathly silent and still. No one was stirring other than the night-watch people up in the bridge section.

    I had a bottle in my hand, and a lot of things on my mind. I’d spent a lot of time doing this lately: sitting, staring and drinking.

    After Sandra’s death, my mood hadn’t always been bad…but I knew I’d changed. I was less forgiving, less likely to see the humor in a given situation. I was also quicker to anger. More than once an underling who had screwed up in my presence or bothered me with something trivial found himself kicked through a hatchway—literally. Fortunately, flying headfirst or ass-first out of my office and smashing into a bulkhead was only an embarrassment for my nanotized troops. They weren’t physically injured, only their pride suffered.

    At first, they seemed understanding and tolerant about my new attitude. They made up excuses for my behavior to one another when they thought I wasn’t listening. This only served to further piss me off.

    I knew, at some level, that I was being unreasonable—but it was hard to care. I was grieving and drinking and grabbing what fun I could out of life day to day. I was in a slump.

    I’d been hanging around with Major Gaines in the evenings, a black guy with the unusual first name of Bjorn. Gaines had become my sidekick during the turbulent days after the fiasco in the Thor System which had cost literally trillions of biotic lives. He seemed to have his own demons he would prefer to forget about, so we never mentioned them. Instead we drank, caroused and put dents in the walls and tables of whatever room we were in at the time.

    These dents slowly reformed themselves after our abuse, of course. The smart metal ship never complained, cleaning up after us like a long-suffering parent.

    Thinking of Gaines got me to my feet. I put down my bottle on my desk and used my com-link to connect to him on a private channel.



    “What are you doing, sleeping?”

    “I was getting around to that, yes sir,” he said.

    “You want to play some pool?”

    He was quiet for a second. Then he laughed. “Sure, why not.”

    One of our favorite stops was the pool room. I’d had one built on the carrier after the battle for the Thor system had been lost. The ship was big enough—hell, a third of it was still empty. Even the parts of the vessel that had a purpose were pretty bare-bones. I’d decided Gatre needed a place for her crew to unwind.

    I’d soon found Gaines to be an excellent competitor. He had true predatory instincts. I’d thought he might have been lucky to be one of a handful of survivors from his unit, which had seen heavy action on Yale a few month ago, but now I realized luck had little to do with it. He was a natural. His moves, his focus—if it hadn’t been for my microbial baths, I wouldn’t have stood a chance against him in the pool room. He was that good.

    But fortunately, I had enhancements to my body that were unique, as far as I knew. I was older and a bit slower, but I was definitely much stronger. When I cracked a bat into a ball, it flew with fantastic speed. Gaines needed all his agility and guile to survive when the ball came screaming his way.

    Like many games of Star Force pool, the one we began that night became a matter of endurance. Headshots were illegal now and generally considered bad form. But taking careful aim and nailing your opponent anywhere else was perfectly acceptable, as long as you banked it at least once.

    Our version of pool was radically different from the earthly version. We played in zero gravity with a baseball bat, a load of colored balls and a few players. The walls were plain flat sheets of smart metal, and the players were the pockets. Nailing one of them was the key to victory, but you had to bounce it off at least one wall for it to be a legal score.

    Half an hour later it was Gaines’ turn at bat, and he had blood in his eye—literally. I’d nailed him with a scorching four-ball in the clavicle that had ricocheted upward and into his face. On passing, it had plowed away part of his eyebrow. It was unintentional, so we hadn’t called it a foul. Still, I could tell he wasn’t too happy about that one. His nanites had sewed him up within thirty seconds, but the blood still dripped and glistened on his cheek.

    We were both sweating and mildly drunk. We were playing nine-ball, our usual game of choice—you had to be a glutton for punishment to play the full fifteen.

    I missed with the five, and it was Gaines’ shot. He grinned at me as he took the bat, hefted it and located the bright orange ball. It was well-placed, hanging mid-room with barely any spin on it.

    “You know sir,” he said, taking his time with his shot, “after all that’s happened, I’m surprised you trust me to be in this room with you alone.”

    I glanced up at him sharply. This was an unexpected comment. He was making a reference to the number of assassins I’d met up with lately. The most recent of them had managed to kill Sandra, my girlfriend and bodyguard. It was a sensitive subject, and he’d brought it up cavalierly in the middle of a game.

    Naturally, this was the opening Gaines had been waiting for. The moment my eyes left the five-ball he took his shot. When playing pool with a Star Force marine, you should never take your eye off the ball.

    Crack! The ball was in motion, and it took an unexpected course: downward. There wasn’t time for me to dodge, I’d blown that fraction of a second by looking at Gaines’ face. I had only a brief moment to think. What was he up to?

    I knew in an instant. I instinctively reached down with my hands and covered my groin.

    The ball came firing up from the floor at a wicked angle. My fingers took the blow and went numb. A normal man’s knuckles would have been shattered like a collection of sticks, but mine were too hard for that. I cursed, and he chuckled. The bright orange ball floated away and bounced until it hung near the ceiling, spinning like a lost planet.

    “That was low even you for, Gaines.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    When I was ready, he took his next shot. Just as in normal billiards, when you sunk a ball into a “pocket” you got to shoot again. There was nothing quite as painful and humiliating as having some shark run the table on you, bouncing balls off your sorry body until they’d all struck home.

    I managed to dodge his next shot, and it was my turn to shoot. I hefted the bat with a grim smile. My hands had recovered enough to grip the bat properly, and I was ready for vengeance.

    I pushed off the floor and floated up near the ceiling. The six-ball had come to a halt in a tough spot, too close to the wall for a really good hit. I grumbled at my luck.

    “As to your implied question, Gaines,” I said, “I do trust you. I’ve fought alongside many men, and I’ve learned to know if they’re assassins or not.”

    Gaines snorted. My comment seemed to amuse him. I twisted around up there in the corner of the room so I could see his face. He was smiling at me, as if I’d said something funny.

    I frowned at him in return. “If you have something to say that isn’t just meant to distract me, now is the time to speak, Major.”

    His smile faded. I stared at him until he dropped his eyes. He glanced down and opened his mouth, then closed it again thoughtfully.

    At that precise moment I took my shot. It was a wild one, a swing done with all my power, but only one-handed. I had held the bat loosely so as not to look as if I was ready to make the attempt. Trickery was everything in a half-drunken game of pool.

    Although I couldn’t hit the ball with my full power, that didn’t mean I gave it a love-tap. Of all the marines in Star Force, I’m pretty sure I’m the strongest. I’d been rebuilt to withstand the pressures of a gas giant, and not even First Sergeant Kwon could beat me at arm-wrestling.

    Gaines was startled by the sound of whistling doom. He gave a little lurch and his eyes widened. The ball was a blur and had already made two ringing banks, leaving deep dents in the walls behind it. He looked for it, but was already behind him.

    Not quite sure where the hit was coming from, he hunched his shoulders, squeezed his eyes shut and wrapped his hands around his jewels. I began to smile, because he’d guessed wrong.

    Thump! The ball hit him in the ass. I’d fired a triple-banker, and managed to bring it up hard from behind him. Really, the shot was a lucky one. I almost never made triple-bankers, and when I did, they often didn’t hit the spot I’d been aiming for.

    But this one did. He made a hissing, gargling sound I found most gratifying. I had plenty of lumps of my own, and it did me good to think Gaines wasn’t going to be sitting down comfortably for the next hour. He’d be sore, in fact, until the nanites managed to build him a new ass.

    He moved slowly and painfully after that hit, but I could tell he was angry now, and dangerous. There was no more banter between us. I’ve found after many games of pool that this was a common tendency. It was all fun and giggles for the first three or four hits, but after people got banged up a bit, or after they took a really low blow, they tended to become grimly serious.

    We sweated and swung the bat with ferocity. I managed to dodge the seven, then slam it back at him, nailing him in the left shinbone. But then he got into the zone. First the eight-ball and then the nine struck home—I took them both. When he landed the eight my ribs cracked on the left side, I was pretty sure of that. This slowed me enough so that he got me in the thigh with the nine, taking his shot quickly before I could recover.

    As we’d been playing nine-ball, the game was over. I congratulated him between clenched teeth and we limped out of the pool room. There was another trio of late-night players outside waiting to use the room and they cheered us as we passed. I took it as good-naturedly as I could. After all, they’d been watching on the consoles and they knew Gaines had beaten me.

    We went straight from the pool room to the officer’s wardroom. On board ship, the late night had transformed into early morning. The morning watch had begun, so the bar was just opening up. We demanded alcohol, and we were served promptly. I dabbed whisky on the bloody spots, even though there was no chance of infection. I found that the liquid slightly numbed the worst injuries and made the itching of the nanites more tolerable. The rest of my drink I swigged down with a gulp, then ordered more by waving the glass at the barkeep.

    “Colonel,” Gaines said after he’d drunk his shot and breathed a sigh of relief. “I was a hired killer before I joined Star Force. A pro.”

    I looked at him in honest surprise. Then I winced, half-expecting a hidden pool ball to smash into my gut. But there was nothing on his face but a look of regret.

    I suddenly understood. We’d known he had a shady past—as far as we’d looked. We knew he’d been in the U. S. Special Forces, but not what his missions had been. He’d come to us during the battle for Andros Island, the Saturday Assault, and he’d fought well ever since. That was good enough in our outfit.

    As a group, Star Force Marines were pretty accepting of new recruits. Joining us was akin to joining the French Foreign Legion a century ago. We asked very few questions, but in return we demanded total loyalty.

    So in response to his statement, I merely nodded to him. “We knew you had specialized training. You came to us ready to fight on a day when we needed every man we could find. I’ve never regretted signing you up, and I don’t regret it now, either.”

    “I know that, sir,” he said. “And I thank you for the opportunity you’ve given me to serve in Star Force. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.”

    “A man’s past is his own in this outfit.”

    Gaines nodded. “Do you want to know what my last assignment was, sir?”

    I looked at him with mild curiosity. “Sure.”

    “I worked freelance for years. I was recruited during the Saturday Assault to assassinate you, Colonel.”

    Now, finally, he had my attention. I studied his face, and I believed him. It made a lot of sense. At that time—and ever since—Crow had been throwing assassins at me. But I frowned as I considered the timing.

    “You couldn’t have been working for Crow, not then. He was still cooperating with me in those days.”

    “That’s right, sir. I was recruited by General Kerr. I’m happy to point out that I refused the assignment and was effectively kicked off Earth soil. I traveled to Andros Island and joined your forces there.”

    “I assume you didn’t mention this before for obvious reasons. This does go beyond the usual range of acceptable omissions, however.”

    “Well…” he shrugged. “I didn’t think the confession would improve my odds for advancement.”

    “Wait a minute,” I said, staring at him. “You’re telling me Kerr recruited you? Way back then?”

    Gaines nodded. “Yes sir. He did it personally.”

    My mind was whirling. I wished Gaines had reported this earlier, but I could understand why he hadn’t. We’d told him from the start that his past was in the past, and he didn’t have to divulge any details. In accordance with those rules, he’d kept quiet. But, if I’d known Kerr had been behind at least some of the assassination plots earlier, I might have done things differently. I might even have saved Sandra.

    “I’m sorry, Colonel,” Gaines said, frowning at me. “I didn’t even know Kerr was in the Eden system until after he’d left and the assassin was planted. Still, I wish I’d confessed at the time. It might have given you more warning.”

    With difficulty, I turned to him and straightened. I managed to give him a flickering smile.

    “I know how you must feel,” I said, “but it’s all right. You didn’t break any rules. In fact, you’re breaking them now by telling me about your past. Have you got any other news for me?”

    “Well sir, it’s my impression that Earth will never make peace with Star Force. Those in charge have seen this invasion by the Macros as an opportunity to take control of the entire world, to force all humans to bow to a planetary government. Really, the only thing that stands between them and total domination is you.”

    “Us, Major,” I said. “We stand in defiance of Kerr and Crow. Not just me. And I hope we’ll all stand together when the time comes.”

    Gaines smiled slightly, and I knew I had him. He reached out and we shook hands. It only seemed natural to drink to this statement of solidarity, so drink we did. After that, things became loud and blurry. I awakened some hours later on my bunk.

    In my mind, I played Sandra’s death over and over. I’d been torturing myself that way for some time now. I saw the pink froth on her lips and her glazed eyes. I’d been dreaming of her dying face every night, and today I saw it in the mirror staring back at me until I washed my troubles down the drain.

    It was that morning I made my decision. Kerr had been sending assassins after me for years pretending to be my “reasonable guy” contact inside the Empire. It was intolerable, and I had to respond.

    We’d been building up our fleets for months and had six new, sleek carriers. But build-up is one thing and launching an attack is another.

    The time had finally come. Star Force was going back to Earth.

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