6

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June 22nd, 2247

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Proxima III

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With a slight hiss of metal scraping on metal the polished gun barrel slid into the body of the rifle, the usually silver tube painted a dull assortment of browns to better suit the craggy and inhospitable terrain Proxima offered. The barrel twisted, locking into place with a satisfying click as the magnetic seals activated and held the weapon together. Considering the device had to handle bursts of plasma streaming down its chamber he hoped most sincerely that the seals were as tight and secure as advertised. Allegedly the magnets were strong enough to lift a tank, a statement that he treated with a very healthy amount of scepticism.

Life had taught Dermot Hannigan to be careful, to watch his back and to take every statement, affirmation and unshakeable truth with a large pinch of salt. All too often something prized as unbreakable broke, or something unconquerable fell, or something impossible happened. This war had shown him nothing was safe or certain and that even his own beliefs needed to be constantly checked, weighed and challenged. Complacency got you killed.

He replaced the heat cover over the rifles vitals and began to fold up his cleaning kit, giving the weapon a final check over first to ensure it was spotless. He had to admit the PPG rifles Earth Force had standardised with were at least very easy to maintain. They had virtually no moving parts and were made out of Morbidium alloy, an almost indestructible material that couldn't chip, bend, twist or break. He'd seen a pistol run over by a tank and still function perfectly adequately afterwards, a very handy advertisement for the manufacturer. Unfortunately the material was remarkably heavy for its size which made using it as body armour impossible, something which most infantry despaired of.

The rifle itself however only had a fairly small amount of pure Morbidium in it lining the firing chamber which kept the weight down to a manageable level, though the relatively small weapon still weighed as much as the previous generation of larger more complicated slug throwers. Slight as they appeared the weapons were still very useful in a melee and Dom had seen first hand how strong they were even against Minbari skulls.

Beside its strength and ease of maintenance the other grand advantage of the PPG was ammunition. The weapon was fed from an interchangeable fusion battery, a small energy cap a couple of inches long that contained enough energy for dozens of rounds. It allowed each soldier to carry thousands of rounds of ammunition with ease, something impossible with the old assault rifles. In a war such as this one where soldiers could be cut off from supplies for months conceivably this quantity of ready to use ammunition was a tremendous advantage and the primary reason why Earth had adopted energy weapons across the board, both on land and in space.

The only downside was that the rifles didn't deliver the same physical impact as a 6mm bullet travelling at twice the speed of sound and was less effective against body armour. Instead infantry had to spray a target with plasma and trust quantity of fire over quality, a tactic which did seem to work most of the time. Another linked problem was that the bright red plasma rounds made it easy to spot where the EA troops were firing from, and to direct fire on them.

As such some specialists still used slug throwers, especially snipers and infiltrators. Silenced machine guns and invisible snipers had both been a massive shock to the Minbari, the uniquely human concepts inflicting damage far beyond their actually means. Even the mere hint of a nearby sniper reduced most Minbari platoons to crawling across the ground, cursing vehemently every inch of the way.

"Good as new." He approved, laying the weapon on the matt he had been using for a bed these past few weeks. "Weapon inspection in five minutes!" He called out. "If I find dirt on anything I will P-T you so hard your grand kids will be born exhausted!"

"Yes Sarge." A dejected chorus of voices resounded.

It was not a huge surprise Dom Hannigan had made Sergeant. He had decided early on the army was going to be his life, despite a brief flirtation with the idea of joining fighter command, and had dedicated himself to the task. Despite being a fairly new recruit his performance in the Dilgar war ensured he wasn't one of the men de-mobbed after the conflict as Earth Force cut down its troop numbers to something more sustainable in peace time. Unsurprisingly the army bore the lion's share of cuts, reduced heavily to free up cash for the navy. If promotion and progress in the navy was slow, in the army it was virtually non existent. Even so Dom had managed to make Sergeant by thirty, aided by several small scale actions that kept the army busy during Earth's golden age of prosperity and expansion.

Like most of humanity he hadn't expected another major war, not after what happened to the Dilgar. He had imagined that would have been warning enough to the galaxy that humanity was not to be trifled with. Sadly the Minbari hadn't received that message, and after the first engagements it became apparent that such a warning didn't really apply to them.

The 99th Airborne Regiment had been sent to new Canton Colony early in the war, a lush tropical world favoured by holiday makers and romantics for its glorious beaches and hotels. By the time they arrived the Minbari had already blasted the paradise into a patchwork of petrified forests and craters and the hotels were swarming with alien soldiers. After a hair raising assault the unit landed and fought for three months solid, taking a measure of the strength, skill and dedication of the Minbari and finding them a grim opponent to face. As far as Dom was concerned the old Dilgar Imperial Guards were still the toughest enemy he'd ever faced in battle, but the Minbari were lethal in close combat and completely unshakeable.

They were evacuated from New Canton when it became clear the situation was untenable, escaping just hours before the Minbari thoroughly blockaded the world and trapped the remainder of Earth Forces on the ground. The Regiment had learned a lot in the long fight through the jungles, swamps and mountains of the Colony, they knew how to defeat the Minbari in a stand up fight and had done so often, but they also knew that their enemies were not mindless fanatics. Some of them were soldiers every bit as deadly and disciplined as elite human formations.

Unfortunately the fighting had also cost the regiment half its effective strength which meant when they returned home they had to soak up replacements. They were lucky in being able to absorb veteran soldier from units that had been wiped out elsewhere keeping the 99th as a mostly veteran unit, but at least a quarter of the soldiers hadn't seen action and were going to get a major shock.

"Alright Red Platoon, get up, form up, by the numbers." Dom ordered. "Present rifles for inspection."

The twenty men and women lined up in the artificial light, powered lanterns hanging from the rock above them. Since they arrived the Regiment had been living underground in caverns, mine shafts and tunnels to keep them off the Minbari radar. For a lot of the older soldiers it harkened back to the climactic battle of Balos, an engagement where the EA forces had been forced to shelter underground for a month while naval forces duelled high above for the system. Fifteen years ago the Dilgar had planned to spring a trap at Balos and halt the inexorable Earth Force advance on their homeworld, now humanity was planning to do the exact same thing. Like the Dilgar before them this was their last chance to keep the enemy clear of their homeworld and everything rested on the element of surprise followed by a little ingenuity and a lot of pure courage.

Dom walked down the line checking each weapon in turn, scowling at the owner and checking their battledress. Generally speaking everything was in order, though little escaped his scrutiny.

"Private Crockett, what is this?" Dom pointed to a scrawl on his rifle.

"Sir, that's my girlfriend's name Sir."

"You wrote it on your weapon Private?"

"Sir yes sir."

"You're nuts." He gave the gun back. "But serviceable."

He moved onto the next young man, again flipping the rifle over and checking it out. The soldier stood perfectly still, waiting patiently for the result.

"Very good Private Garibaldi." Dom returned the weapon.

"Thank you sir." He answered with a sideways grin that perfectly recalled an expression his father used. Alfredo Garibaldi had been Dom's mentor and had saved his life more than once. The old Sergeant Major was a Regimental legend, Sergeant Crowbar of Red Platoon and even fifteen years later Alpha Company still bore his symbol, an enraged Daffy Duck in a steel helmet, rifle in one hand and crowbar in the other.

Michael Garibaldi was not his father. He had much the same attitude, a very similar outlook and a quick mind, but it was tempered with some caution and reserve from his mother's side of the family. He was great at his job, but there was a hint of the subversive about him, a distrust for authority that would hurt his chances of a glowing military career. He was a good enough soldier, but he wasn't an excellent soldier like his father had been and if Dom was honest he didn't think the younger Garibaldi belonged in the army. Unfortunately the impending invasion hadn't given anyone much choice and Michael had accepted the situation, which made Dom's job a lot easier.

"Sergeant Hannigan?"

Dom stood to at the call, turning to acknowledge the platoon commander, Lieutenant Tucker. Another former member of Alfredo's squad Tucker had risen through the ranks to become an officer. It made him slightly older than most Lieutenants and put off some of the other officers, but the wealth of first hand knowledge Tucker brought with him made him an invaluable asset.

"Sir."

"We got a briefing Dom, file in to the HQ zone."

"Yes sir." He turned back to the troops. "Red Platoon, fall out and report to briefing! Lively!"

The group quickly split up, heading towards the side of the cavern given over to the company commander. They arrived to find several rows of simple chairs waiting for them along with most of Blue and White platoon representing the bulk of Alpha Company. Dom made sure his people took their places before joining them himself, glancing over the large video screen stood on a tripod in front of the eighty or so personnel.

"Company, stand to!" Came the familiar bark of Master Sergeant Malone, the senior NCO in Alpha Company and again one of Alfredo Garibaldi's veteran followers. The Company rose to its feet on the order, a response to the arrival of Captain Emma Fox who gave them a nod of acknowledgement.

"Be seated."

There was a cacophony of scrapes and groans as eighty people sank into the metal chairs and settled themselves for the briefing. There had been a lot of idle talk and rumours about what was in store for them and it was with anticipation that the Company gave the Captain their attention.

Physically Emma Fox had changed little. She was still small, still wore short blond hair and still possessed two large blue eyes. What had changed was the look that was in those eyes, the confidence she radiated, the poise she stood with and the certainty in her voice. She had gone from a smart but untested junior Lieutenant in the Dilgar war to a fully qualified senior Captain in this one, a highly respected veteran officer which was always a rare commodity in front line units. Earth Force invested massively in junior officers, it was said World War Three was won by Lieutenants acting independently when cut off from command, and as the EA developed it learned those lessons well. A Captain or Lieutenant in Earth Force had the same tactical and strategic knowledge as Regimental or Brigade commanders in alien forces, and nowhere was this more obvious then with the Minbari. EA officers had responsibility and flexibility completely beyond their Minbari equivalents and exploited that knowledge ruthlessly. Sadly casualties among officers tended to be abnormally high especially in conscript units where they often tried to lead by example, usually with fatal consequences.

"Alpha Company, we have just received word Minbari forces are two days out." Captain Fox began with the information that was the most anticipated and dreaded. "We will be in action before the end of this week."

A wave of gasps, sighs and mutters swept the unit revealing a mix of emotions.

"We will be taking part in Operation Storm Shadow." She continued. "A major combined arms attack that will destroy the best of the Minbari army and reduce enemy supplies through attrition."

She brought the screen on line.

"Our objective is to hold Proxima and force the Minbari to fight here, to assault their pride and give them such a stinging defeat that they commit fully to seizing this world. They will expend resources here that otherwise would be directed at Earth. That is our overall objective, to bleed them dry and give Earth a greater chance of countering any future offensives."

She called up a map of their assigned continent.

"This is our area of responsibility as part of IX Corps, First EA Army." Fox highlighted certain points of interest. "We're currently deployed here, beneath the Zvinki mountains and we expect the Minbari to make initial landings here, here and here." She lit up each location. "Large defensible plains that suit their mobile forces. Based on past experience it is unlikely the Minbari will be there long and will launch their own assault a few hours after landing. That's fine by us."

A few coloured blobs appeared on the map.

"Third Army is already deployed in heavy defensive positions outside the landing zones to resist the attack. Third Army is newly raised and made up of mainly conscripts untried in battle, we estimate they will hold for a day or two under full attack before breaking. First and Second army will wait in reserve until that moment, until the Minbari begin to pursue, then we hit them when they are over extended and vulnerable."

She returned her gaze to the group. "You probably noticed all those VTOL's parked in the next cavern along and you probably prayed they were nothing to do with us. Sorry to disappoint you people, but we will be launching an airborne offensive to cut off the Minbari line of retreat."

She smiled at the groans.

"Yeah I know, flying through a battlefield in the face of aerial superiority is suicide. Fortunately we've taken measures to ensure the Minbari will be unable to call down fighter or warship support."

She reached into her pocket and retrieved a small green cylinder some three inches long and a half inch thick.

"This is our key to success, something the tech folks have been working on since before the war. Personal jammers."

She gave the device a quick turn over, showing it to the assembled troops.

"Nothing more than a modified homing beacon and a battery, but it will mask you from sensors by producing a blanket jamming field. Every individual will have one at all times, and you will keep it active at all times. The battery is good for eight months, and if we're still fighting by then I'll be frankly shocked. They work against all known sensors and have been tested on a small scale elsewhere. These will prevent you from being targeted from the air or from orbit, it will force the Minbari to rely on visual means to spot you, unless you rip your thermal suppressive uniforms."

Tucker raised his hand. "Captain, you said these devices were active?"

"That's right, they broadcast a blanket jamming field."

"With respect ma'am, what's to stop the Minbari just firing on the centre of the signal? It'd be like walking around with a 'shoot here' sign."

"Good question." Fox grinned. "Command has been seeding these devices, and larger ones beside, across the planet. When the Minbari land all the jammers will be activate, your own personal devices will merge into a carpet of ECM across the entire theatre of operations. Everything will be covered, you'll be indistinguishable from the terrain around you and crucially, from the Minbari ground forces themselves."

Her smile grew cold.

"And that is the key point. From orbit the Minbari will not be able to distinguish our troops from their own using sensors alone. If they engage randomly they risk inflicting friendly fire on their own people and according to our intel people there is no higher disgrace than to kill a soldier on your own side. Because of this utter fear of inflicting friendly casualties the Minbari ships won't fire blind, their fighters will have to acquire targets visually before engaging, and their artillery will only fire where directed by observers. Ladies and gentlemen, they'll be fighting on our terms."

There were a few chuckles and grins.

"The only way they can call in support is with forward observers, they can bring down artillery or warship fire, so our snipers will be busy dealing with them." Fox said. "Additionally several specialist teams are going to be hacking and scrambling Minbari ship to shore communications further complicating matters."

"So if this works," Tucker began. "The Minbari will have no orbital strikes?"

"That's right, we'll take away their favourite toy." Fox said jollily. "We can match them, they will have artillery, so do we. They have air support, so do we, and as you know once their fighters hit atmosphere we can track them through friction and turbulence, no more stealth. What we have in this battle is a level playing field, and half a million prime Earth Force soldiers ready to host a rematch."

There were a few cheers, the troops beginning to feel their spirits lift. In every battle of the war the Minbari had orbital supremacy which made it impossible to field full scale armies. Anything bigger than a tank platoon or infantry company was spotted from orbit and wiped out. But not this time.

"Okay people, settle down." Fox said. "We still have a major task ahead. The Minbari will be able to reinforce, we won't. What we have on the planet is what we have full stop. Keep your heads and remember who you are dealing with. The Minbari are our most dangerous enemies, they are stronger than us, they have better vehicles, they still have some of the most versatile and lethal weapons known to exist. Fortunately this time we're ready. Bugs."

The Sergeant moved two the front holding two tubes, one much bigger than the other. He handed the larger of the two to Fox.

"First up, the Hammer Mark Two anti tank missile. Fully autonomous after initial target selection fire and forget weapon. As you know Minbari tanks are fast, infuriatingly fast and agile in fact. Our old Hammers were too slow and too sluggish to hit all the time, these new ones have been upgraded." She patted the tube. "These babies are accurate and nimble enough to bring down a fighter, but have the warhead to punch through a tank. They cost a fortune but are worth it, they will deployed on a squad level."

She took the second tube.

"Second, the Splinter rocket launcher."

This device was much narrower, less than four inches across but nearly four feet in length.

"This is an unguided pure kinetic kill weapon. It's optimised for use against Minbari crystalline armour and I am told it will kill anything smaller than a tank head on, and should penetrate flank and rear armour on a Minbari heavy vehicle at a hundred metres. These are short range, you aim by looking down these iron sights. Yeah I know, like something from the dark ages."

She turned it around in her hands.

"Use them against light vehicles, save your Hammers for the big stuff. They will be issued in bunches of five to each trooper, they are light but don't get them snagged on vegetation. We've got mountains of these things so use them at will, command recommends salvo fire of three per target to ensure a kill."

She paused with a grin.

"By the way, if they seem familiar it's because they were copied from Dilgar anti tank missiles. They were useless against our tanks, but against Minbari armour they do the trick. In fact you might find yourself carrying an original Dilgar manufactured one we confiscated after the war. Enjoy your little piece of history."

She handed the weapons back and moved on with the briefing.

"Many of you here have already faced the Minbari, but many haven't. Even the old hands here might not know entirely the sort of forces were going up against, even if you've fought then on New Canton this will be a different type of warfare on a much larger scale. The EIA and military intelligence has put together details about the Minbari army, this is everything we know, it's on data crystal and I expect you all to study it." She smiled. "But if you don't, here's the highlights."

She altered the briefing screen to show a selection of blue and purple vehicles.

"First, you'll notice camouflage is not something the Minbari use. Bit strange considering their ships do all they can to avoid being seen and shot at but there you have it. Minbari ground forces have no jamming technology, they fight hard but simplistically. They will use cover, they will seize advantages, but as far as we know they do not set mines, tripwires or other ambush tools. Goes against their sense of honour."

She sifted the images.

"We have two main opponents, two different clans among the Warrior Caste. Star Riders and Windswords. Both use the same basic equipment with a few local variations, both are well trained and equally devoted to their cause. However like all Minbari these two clans specialise in a particular aspect of warfare at the expense of training to perform a variety of battlefield roles. They are inflexible, if they fight outside their element they will suffer, become lost and misguided. Once they lose the initiative it will be virtually impossible for them to regain it."

She smiled.

"Even better is the fact these two clans rarely combine forces and work together on a tactical level, which makes pushing them beyond their field of expertise that much easier."

"First up." She brought up more images. "Windswords. These guys are assault specialists, line breakers. They operate the majority of enemy armoured units and usually form the spearhead of any attack. If they were human they'd be a heavy armoured division."

She flicked through pictures of Minbari tanks, some artist impressions, a few videos of them in action.

"Minbari tanks are faster than ours and more agile thanks to their gravitic propulsion. We've clocked them outrunning our recon cars so believe me when I say these guys are fast, quite capable of punching through a line and breaking out before we can move in reinforcements. They are nimble and graceful, they out range us and their main gun is a type of highly accurate disruptor pulse weapon. They also mount a twin linked fusion blaster turret for anti infantry work, far superior to our own heavy PPG's."

She showed a few more images, close ups of wrecked Minbari tanks.

"But they are not invincible. A missile hit will kill them, gunships will kill them, and our own tanks will kill them. Our Thor tanks are slower, but they are also tougher, that composite armour has actually proven surprisingly effective against Minbari weapons while the 135mm cannons they mount go through enemy tanks like a brick through glass."

She showed a few more images of EA victories.

"Our problem is engaging in favourable terrain to nullify the range and speed advantages of Minbari vehicles. Fortunately the broken rocky nature of Proxima fits the bill. We can engage Minbari armour in close confines at point blank range without air support. We've got a good chance."

She changed the image, suddenly revealing a mountainous slab of blue armour.

"Unless you face one of these, a Windsword assault tank. If you run into one, report it at once and run away. Fast."

The report only had a few images of these monster vehicles, massive hovering machines with highly angled sides and a giant cannon.

"These things are something altogether more nasty, they're tough enough to shrug off even point blank tank rounds." Fox informed them grimly. "They're used like mobile bunkers, they're slow and their gun has limited traverse. However they will blast clean through any vehicle or defence we have. They also mount a powerful secondary armament, anti aircraft weapons and missile launchers. They are bad news."

She brought up a schematic of a new device, this time clearly human.

"On a more positive note, this is our answer. You are looking at the only revolution in armoured warfare this century. Our first ground based railgun."

She ran through a few more images, the final one showed the cannon fitted to a Thor tank, the hugely long gun protruding from the turret.

"These thinks are brand new and still experimental. We've had rail guns for a long time on starships but have never been able to shrink down the power plants necessary to operate them into something that fits on a tank. We've codenamed these tanks 'Fireflies' and there are a few dozen on the planet ready to take on any Minbari super tanks that show up. As a bonus they should also go clean through Minbari troop ships and landing craft too in case they try to get creative and move heavy forces behind our lines."

Dom liked the sound of that.

"While Windswords specialise in armour they also deploy infantry and artillery to keep their tanks in one piece. Minbari artillery guns fire shells packed with a quantity of antimatter, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. The good news is there isn't much shrapnel, bad news is overpressure, heat and gamma radiation are extreme. Keep your uniforms sealed, it should help keep the radiation out, but against the other effects you better just pray."

Once more she showed several images of the weapons.

"A battery of these firing full yield rounds are more destructive than a nuke strike, and even at low yields they make our artillery look like pop guns. It is highly probable our job will be to hit artillery sites to protect the main counter attack by EA armoured forces."

She grimaced at the idea, then moved on.

"Windsword infantry are average. Strong, unbeatable in hand to hand, die just as fast as anyone else to plasma rounds and bullets. Keep them at range, use your surroundings, lure them into traps. They are impetuous and will chase you into places that even Wile E Coyote would see as a blatantly obvious ambush. Their tactics are poor, leadership is poor, and they aren't the sharpest tools in the box. But they are relentless, merciless and utterly dedicated once in battle. You can only stop them by killing them, so make sure that when they go down they stay down."

Dom had no problem with that, he'd seen Minbari kill wounded soldiers where they lay and after that he'd never shed any tears over finishing wounded Minbari. There hadn't been much mercy on offer to the Dilgar either, but here Dom had taken things much more personally.

"Our other opponents are the Star Riders." Fox drew his attention back. "These guys we've met before. Windswords favour direct attacks, armoured assaults directly into enemy lines. Star Riders prefer mobile warfare, flanking attacks and infantry assaults. They ignore heavy armour in preference for fast moving vehicles and light support. If they were human they'd be a cavalry unit."

She brought up a long thin vehicle on the screen.

"Basic Minbari troop transport. It'll carry a full platoon into action much faster than our own IFV's, infact these things are closer to VTOL gunships in terms of speed. This gives them mobility very similar to an airborne division, but with the hitting power of a mechanised unit. These people are very dangerous, if they get behind our lines and then can wreak massive damage, enough to bring our assault to a complete halt. They don't have the firepower of the Windswords but they use what they do have much, much more effectively."

She rattled through a few more vehicles used by the Star Riders, all optimised for speed.

"If we can pin them and hit them with our own mechanised or armoured forces we expect to be able to overwhelm them." Fox said. "Our tanks and combat vehicles will shred their light armour, unfortunately though their crystalline armour is highly effective against energy weapons. PPG fire won't do jack to them so don't waste the rounds. Use a rocket, or call on some heavy support."

"Captain, what if we're deployed forward with no armour to back us up?"

"We'll have a few armed jeeps airlifted wherever we go." Fox said. "They'll mount additional rockets and a brace of .50cal machine guns. Turns out heavy bullets are highly effective counters to light Minbari armour, so you'll be seeing a lot of old Ma Deuces out there."

Dom shook his head, impressed that a weapon invented three hundred years ago was still so useful. Really he shouldn't be too surprised, most Minbari weapons were even older and still brutally useful.

"Unfortunately for us Star Riders infantry are better than their buddies in the Windswords. They are still rigid and unwilling to take the initiative in most cases but you will find some junior leaders who will try and take responsibility, who will try and act independently. Kill them first."

She shrugged.

"As a rule Minbari won't attack or change plans without orders, but once they do get orders they'll follow them to the letter until they win or they all die. You will get exceptions, smarter leaders, maybe a senior officer somewhere running the battle in person. Those are the guys who make life for us annoying, with so many troops expected on the ground you can expect more and more experienced enemies. If we kill them they're gone forever, and we deprive the enemy of a valuable asset."

She clicked through more pictures.

"These guys are fun, jump scouts. They use small gravitic packs to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Normally while they're up there they drop some grenades too, so watch your heads. Never forget Minbari infantry weapons are better than ours. I've seen some guys loot fusion rifles for their own use and while its fun to turn these things on their users, try to resist the urge. Our guns fire red bolts, their guns fire green ones, so any EA soldier who sees green fire automatically drops and engages without looking at who is actually holding the gun."

She glanced over the Company, making sure they took in her warning.

"Well those are the main units." She concluded. "There are reports of other Minbari forces that are deployed as shock troops but we have no confirmation. If this campaign is as critical as everyone seems to think we should expect the enemy to send in the best they've got, just like we're doing. No chances, no risks, assume nothing and if in doubt open fire. Boneheads or not these guys mean business, don't underestimate them."

She turned off the screen and relaxed a little, speaking more informally.

"The Minbari are team players, they complement each other totally. Massive direct force on one side, exceptional mobility and daring on the other. Together they are unstoppable, but divided we have a chance. We can split up these two different facets of the Minbari army, we can melt away before massive attacks or we can throw up a steel war in front of their flanking assaults. If we stay on our toes, keep one step ahead of them, we can do this."

From White Platoon Lieutenant Harlow raised her hand.

"Captain, can we expect fleet support on this one?"

Fox shook her head. "Unlikely, we expect the bulk of the Minbari Navy to be in this system, in fact its part of our objectives to try and detain them here. Trying to run a blockade like that would be plain suicide."

"So we're fighting cut off and surrounded again." Tucker remarked. "It's what we do best."

"We're Airborne, it's what we're here for." Harlow grinned in agreement.

"Once the Minbari land we'll have more solid objectives." Fox said. "But we will be dropping behind enemy lines, disrupting Minbari supplies, throwing spanners in the works, generally making nuisances of ourselves. While we do that the 49th Infantry Division and 2nd Panzer Division will launch a full scale assault through our sector. Once we link up we fight on foot as infantry support for the armour until game over."

It was going to be a hard fight. So far the Minbari had won every battle of the war, and even though on the ground things were more even than in space the human armies had still failed to achieve anything more than temporary local victories. To really change the course of the war required a massive victory, one that gutted the manpower reserves of the Warrior Caste by grinding them into the dirt of Proxima. Earth Force had the tools, the training and the will to do it, but nobody knew yet whether or not they had the simple ability to win.

"Tonight is probably your last night off duty for a while." Fox spoke quietly. "Take it for what it is. Enjoy yourselves, try to have a little fun, and in two days be ready to fight. This is it, the line in the sand. We're making our stand on this ball of rock, and if we can't stop them then we're finished. No turning back, no surrendering. All we can do is fight. I'll see you all in two days. Dismiss."

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Station Proxima Prime

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"You can't beat fate."

Catherine Sakai rolled over on the pillow and glared at him.

"To quote your brother, that's bollocks."

Jeffrey Sinclair split a wide smile. "Stop stealing our catchphrases."

"You can beat fate, every single time you want to."

"It's written in the stars." Sinclair informed her. "We've all got our destiny planned out, whether we like it or not."

"Wrong, wrong, wrong." Catherine wagged her finger at him. "I make my own destiny."

"So how do you explain this?" Sinclair gestured at the bed they were laying in. "Destiny."

She frowned. "More like alcohol."

He laughed lightly, savouring the release from his concerns.

"Everytime we meet it's the same, we say we'll just be friends this time, all we'll do is talk. Then its dinner, and a couple of drinks, and before you know it... Fate."

She sighed in irritation. "You're just annoyingly earnest and sincere. It's endearing."

"And you're infuriatingly carefree."

"We are nothing alike."

"And yet share everything in common." Sinclair spoke in wry amusement. "Cupid has a real sense of humour."

"If I ever meet the little creep I'm gong to wrap that little bow around his neck." Catherine fumed. "Trouble maker."

"Fate."

"This is what happens when you face impending death." She continued. "You make crazy decisions."

Sinclair laughed. "We met long before the war! How do you explain that?"

She huffed. "I blame your charming side. You should have been a diplomat." She paused. "Or maybe a stage actor, I always said you have a voice that people can't not listen to."

"And I suppose you're living proof of that."

Catherine smiled. "Just a little."

She lay back and gazed at the roof. They were in standard guest quarters on the station, cramped, bland and cold without heart or personality. None of it mattered of course, they were too interested in each others company to complain at the surroundings.

"Five years we've been doing this. Stolen moments, crossing paths every few months then separating again. Then new orders come through, you go one way, I go the other, then what?"

"We wait until next time."

"And if there is no next time?"

"Then I'll find you in the next life."

She smiled easily. "Stop being so damn romantic."

"We both tried to deny it, but it hasn't happened." Sinclair stated the obvious. "We can't keep away."

"This relationship is bad for both of us."

"It's not a relationship, it's a whirlwind." He countered. "You don't dictate terms and limits to a storm."

"Yeah, you just pick up the pieces when it fades away."

Sinclair turned his own head to face her. "Little more depressed than usual?"

"Impending death has that effect on me."

"Ah, yes. That." Sinclair accepted. "We've survived the war so far, no reason why we can't again."

"This next fight is going to be the worst one yet." Catherine shared. "No one's going to run, everything is too desperate now. It's a fight to the death and the way things are we're the ones who are going to get it, not the Minbari."

"The brass has planned for this, our new tactics…"

"Jeff, you know you can't lie to me."

He eased his expression. "How did you get to know me this well?"

She shrugged. "Fate?"

It was of course a question never far from Sinclair's mind, whether or not they could win the war and whether or not he would live to know one way or the other. Mortality was never far from the thoughts of any combatant, but most buried those dark uncertainties beneath the surface of their consciousness. It didn't help to dwell on such concepts before a battle in case they harmed a persons confidence, which was of course a sure way to get killed in action. It wasn't exactly denial, but it was a deliberate disregard for the issue.

"I'm going to survive." Sinclair said firmly.

"You believe that?"

"Believing it makes it true." He answered. "If you want something badly enough it happens."

"If that was true we'd be winning, everyone wants that badly."

"War isn't over yet."

"But the result is."

Sinclair frowned. "What happened to making your own destiny, that nothing is set in stone?"

"Doesn't apply to facts." She said. "We're losing bad Jeff, we can't stop them."

"We can and we will."

"Why?"

"Because this isn't our destiny."

"Oh well, that seals it then." Catherine snapped in annoyance. "Why don't you walk up to the Minbari leaders and tell them destiny has other plans for you and everyone else?"

He smiled, diffusing her anger at once. "I have faith. We are going to win here, we are going to stop them at Proxima."

"And what if we don't?"

"Then it's the end of humanity, and that is just wrong. It's not justice, it can't be allowed to happen."

"Who decides that? Who decides what is right and wrong? God? You? The Bunny Men?"

"I'd say all of the above." Sinclair replied simply. "We don't deserve to die, so we won't."

"That's just crazy."

"That's just fate."

She sighed. "Yeah, here it is, now I'm angry and depressed. Another successful meeting with Jeffrey Sinclair comes to an end the same way it always does. Half the time I can't stand you, other half I can't resist you! It's like we got married without me noticing!"

Sinclair chuckled at the idea. "That's disturbingly accurate."

"It's like we're running through the same play every time we meet, just with different scenery." Catherine said in morbid amusement. "I can predict everything you're going to say or do to the second."

"Actually we missed a stage." Sinclair remarked. "How's your Aunt?"

She smiled. "I forgot about that. She's good, I heard from her a few days ago."

"She still running around on that junker?"

"If you mean the Race, yes she is, and that ship is better maintained than any warship Lieutenant Commander."

"Aye, aye Ma'am."

"That little ship has seen more action than any other vessel in space. Of course if I told you more I'd have to kill you." She exhaled. "How's your brother?"

"Malcolm is in Delta sector, he made First Officer on the Boudica."

"That's good." Catherine sounded pleased. "And Delta sector is on the far side of our space, well away from the Minbari."

"It is, but unfortunately it's right on the Ch'lonas border." Sinclair growled. "Those bastards have been hitting our colonies out there, they know we're weak, they can sense blood and want to take some of our border worlds."

"Vultures." She spat.

"People back home are so focused on the Minbari they forget the Ch'lonas and Koulani. We're fighting a war on three fronts, and we don't have the ships to reinforce the border sectors."

"Everything is facing the Minbari." Catherine agreed.

"Meanwhile Malcolm and the rest of the Delta Sector fleet are fighting off a stellar empire with less than thirty warships, Thirty!"

"They're all heroes." Catherine said simply. "Remember the days when the odds were on our side?"

"Barely." He admitted. "All I see now is the war, like there was never anything else."

Catherine Sakai understood the truth in his words. Her whole world was fuel mixes, angles of attack, evasive patterns and memorial services. She had been so intense for so long civilian life seemed an eternity away, a previous incarnation. But one thing she did still have were her dreams, the future that she desired and that above all else she fought for. She wanted her own ship, she wanted to head off into unchartered space and be the first living being to look on a new world, to survey a new star, to tread ground untouched across the infinity of time by any other soul. She was an adventurer, an explorer in body and soul, not a soldier. She fought because she wanted those dreams, and she fought for everyone else to have the same chance of fulfilling their own wishes as she desired.

"I've been assigned to the Midrange base." She announced. "They finally declared it operational."

The base was a giant station, an experiment to try and build an entirely self supporting colony in deep space. It was a basic O'Neill type station incorporating a long rotating cylinder rather than the less spacious ring stations that were standard templates for human construction. When the war started the half finished stations were taken over by the military, one at Proxima and the other at Beta Durani, and modified to operate as naval bases. Each about three miles long they could keep a full squadron of raiding cruisers operational for months and even had engines to keep the stations mobile, albeit very, very slowly.

They had been developed from the titanic mobile bases proposed in the Dilgar war to support deep strikes by the short legged EA warships and it was with irony that they were being employed in exactly that kind of role, only within the heartlands of human space. An even more gigantic six mile long contra-rotating station had also been designed, but there was simply not enough money, resources or time to create it.

"That's a ten hour journey in a Fury, better watch your air supplies."

"They had to move it that far out so the Minbari wouldn't guess it was there." She said. "The Beta one is still functional last I heard."

"We're getting transferred to a Marauder unit." Sinclair said. "We're going to hide out somewhere in the system and hit the Minbari supply lines."

"We get together, then end up split apart again." Catherine sighed. "I can't tell if I'm glad or not."

"I'm not." Sinclair admitted.

"Is meeting like this really healthy for us?"

"I don't care. We've got five hours until we need to report for duty and I'm going to spend them well."

"Do we have a future Jeff?" She asked honestly. "Does any of this?"

He smiled. "Yes."

"Why? You always sound so sure."

He hit a control and dimmed the lights around them.

"Just destiny."

.

.

On the other side of the station General Denisov downed a burning shot of Vodka, the clear cool liquid hitting all the right notes on the way down.

"Now that is good stuff!"

Before him almost two hundred officers laughed, cheered or clapped. They were a mix of faces, different genders, different religions, different races and creeds, but all in the same blue uniforms and all bearing the same blue and gilt badges.

"Genuine Russian blend, not some foreign copy." His long time aide Commander Dan Weinstein explained for all to hear. "I had one of the Belters bring it over from home."

The General took another eye watering swig. "You know back in the Great Patriotic War I think they ran tanks off this stuff!"

His remark generated another round of applause.

"I think I'll save the rest until later." He concluded. "While I still have my sight."

He placed the gift on the table and stood, drawing the attention of the room to himself again. He straightened his tunic and looked over the several long dining tables set up in the conference hall. A few officers were still finishing their desserts but most had long since finished the extravagant banquet Earth Force Command had treated them to before the eve of battle. No one had said it of course, but most were well aware this was the government sanctioned version of the condemned man's last meal.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Seventh Fleet, I trust this feast was to your liking?" Denisov began.

A roar of cheers and a banging of palms on tables signalled in the affirmative.

"Glad to hear it!" Denisov laughed. "And thanks to Dan here for the drink, thorn in my side though he is, at least he's an efficient thorn!"

"With good taste in booze!" An unknown voice called to much amusement.

"Though I'm beginning to suspect he siphoned it from the reactor of a Starfury!" Denisov joked, drawing a raised glass from his aide.

"Many different paths have brought us here." Denisov said more seriously. "I look around and I see faces I recognise from the Dilgar war, some from graduation ceremonies between wars, some from the early part of this conflict. Many of you I am meeting for the first time, officers promoted and transferred from other fleets, some of you selected from the academy command programme."

The Command programme was a reflection or the hard times the EA was facing, with some five percent of academy graduates being posted to command positions without any experience beyond their test scores. They were usually assigned escort ships or rookie squadrons of fighters, and unsurprisingly their life expectancy was alarmingly short even by this war's standards.

"You all started in different places, followed different paths, but they all met here. You all represent different corners of the Alliance, from every colony world we own, free or occupied. You stand…" he smiled. "You sit here as a true cross section of Earth Force, of humanity itself. Different, unique, individual, yet united.

"It is in this unity we gain strength. Our purpose gives us courage, for it is a war to defend all we know and hold higher than life or death. It is through our diversity that we gain knowledge, many different ideas and viewpoints combining to offer a reasoned plan of action. It is then in our courage that we, and all of humanity, gains hope.

"No one can guarantee a victory for us, no one knows if we will stand or fall, live or die in the face of this great test. It does not matter. What matters is that we set an example, that we show the people back home, and the Minbari, and everyone else that we are not beaten! Every battle we fight, every shot we fire is a signal as clear as the sun that we will not abandon our homes and families to destruction! Every life we take is one less Minbari to stare hatefully at Earth and one less target for our brothers and sisters to worry about in future battles.

"Our goal fellow officers is very simply to kill as many Minbari as possible. Nothing else matters. We must face unconquerable odds, make super human efforts and sacrifice the greatest gifts we have to battle this enemy without even the certainty of final victory to ease our minds."

Denisov held his head high.

"But what choice do we have? We have tried to negotiate, to reason with the Minbari. We have pleaded with them, even begged for mercy. We have offered unconditional surrender and yet all our words have fallen on deaf ears. So much death, so much slaughter, and for what? For one life, for one mistake, for one moment of failure. How is that worth the extermination of an entire species down to the last newborn child?

"When we fought the Dilgar it was for clear reasons. They were monsters, murderers and torturers of the highest order. Their cruelty deserved to be punished, the blood of tens of billions of innocent lives stained their hands. Have we committed crimes like that?

"The Dilgar were also invaders and expansionists, a race bent on galactic conquest and domination. Living space, that was their rallying cry, and they would build their new empire on the bones of everyone else. We did not try to conquer the Minbari, we did not send Mass Drivers to obliterate their cities. We have never threatened our neighbours with war or conquest, yet here we stand under attack with no allies.

"We have done nothing to deserve the severity of the war forced upon us. We stand alone in the galaxy facing the avalanche, pushed back to our inner defences. We have not earned this fate, yet it is upon us, so what shall we do?

"If we run they will chase us, if we hide they will hunt us. We cannot move the Earth, we cannot take it upon our shoulders like Atlas and deliver to safety far from here. We can break down and weep, fall to the ground and wail about the injustice of it all, but that only means that when our final time comes it finds us on our knees cringing. Not me, that is not how I will meet my end. We have a choice, it is not a good choice, but it is a choice about whether we meet the Minbari on our feet or on our knees!

"The battle for Proxima will be decided on the ground. Our ships are too few and too ineffective to prevent an invasion. Our goal is to hold the Minbari as long as we can, to buy time for one final evacuation ship to escape, for one last family to seek refuge elsewhere in the Alliance. It isn't much of a grand strategic objective to fight for, but in the final analysis it's what every single one of us signed up to do."

"We did not choose this war, but we can at least choose whether to fight or to give up. We all know what's coming, I wish I could say this feast was simply because you are all good officers and good human beings, but we know that it isn't. None of us will see this again, not in this life at least. I am here because this was my plan, because I am responsible for this strategy and I will not make any man or woman take risks which I myself am not ready to make.

"Earth does not need one more General or strategist, if we lose here nothing will save humanity, not even me. Better an old Captain who can fight a warship here and try to make a difference, than an old General stood on Earth cursing as all turns to darkness. As I said we all have a choice, and mine is to fight.

"the odds are against us, but if by our actions others may live, then so be it. If this is what must be done to ensure the survival of humanity then I will do it gladly with joy in my heart! Let the Minbari come! Let them send their Warriors to this place and we will show them steel and fury!

"We are not a warrior world, we are a people of exploration and curiosity. We are businessmen and artisans, teachers and healers, scholars and adventurers. But today we are soldiers and we will fight better than our enemies who have spent lifetimes building up for this moment. All the calls to duty, all the heritage and meditation the Minbari have is nothing compared to the pure courage of a man or woman defending their home and family. We will show them that, we will show everyone that, and nobody will ever forget what we did here. We did not simply confront death, we fought it tooth and nail, we made it work hard to take us. We have just moments, moments in which we can make a difference. But by our deeds those moments will last for eternity. No one will remember the fact that the Minbari swept us aside, all they will remember is that we never stopped fighting."

The entire system prepared itself for the onslaught, each world, station, ship and outpost put its affairs in order and made peace. Some people partied through the hours and some would continue to do so even during the attack, ignoring the Minbari and determined simply to go from the world deliriously happy. Other people prepared sombrely, stockpiling necessary supplies and materials for the siege.

More than three quarters of the civilian population remained on Proxima. There were simply too many of them to move and many Proximans simply didn't see the point. They could be killed here in their homes, of be killed when the Minbari reached Earth and levelled the surface. It didn't count as much of a choice. Some of the small outer settlements had bunkers and shelters where people could withdraw to if required, normally those settlements were within the expected battlezones where Earth Force and the Warrior Caste would duel to the death for mastery of the planet. The cities on the other hand did not. So far the Minbari had avoided levelling cities and provided there were no military forces there or nearby there was no reason for that to change, at least not yet.

Earth Force gave the Minbari no excuse to target the cities, choosing to make its stand well away from any major population centres. Likewise the Minbari did not have the patience or from their point of view the need to occupy the settlements. They would all be flattened one day soon anyway, there was no need to expend the effort. The civilians went to ground, leaving most of the planet silent and deserted as the sun fell over the capital. A warm savannah breeze fanned the city, but few appreciated it. There was scant little comfort in the world as the population drew its collective breath.

The Belt Alliance still worked feverishly overhead, trying to tow away pieces of shipyard or carry away thousands of civilians. There had been a lottery to select which households had a right to leave, women and children only of course. Those men left behind as too old for military service or women in essential jobs were given second hand weapons and a brief tutorial on how to use them. Professional soldiers would go through them in moments, but any casualties they inflicted would be worth it. Anything to hurt the Minbari was worth it.

The stations were empty of all save military personnel, the shops and services were shut, wrappers and papers lay untended on the floor and hangar bays were filled with just fighters and military vehicles. Warships waited in lines and blocks, large vessels surrounded by smaller ones with crews taking their final rest before battle. Private messages were recorded, packed up and sent home on departing Belt Alliance vessels, bundles of thoughts and farewell destined for home.

On the station General Denisov stood by the door shaking the hands of every one of his guests in turn, wishing them looking and giving them his confidence that all would do their duty. He memorised their faces, imprinting their eyes and expressions into his mind so he would know who he was leading into battle, and they would know him.

The soldiers of the Third Army dug in on the surface, raw recruits fresh out of civilian life they were still smart enough to know their chances of survival were slim. Even if the battle was won Third Army was expected to take massive casualties, meeting the Minbari assault head on to draw them into the grand ambush.

In countless tunnels and caverns the assault troops waited, resting beside armoured vehicles, enjoying makeshift bars, or recording their thoughts in private. Michael Garibaldi fought hard to resist the urge to simply show up in a bar and drink himself into oblivion, an effort that was well hidden from his comrades. The war had sobered him up, made him realise the important things in the universe around him and showed him alcohol was no escape, not from the danger heading his way.

Vehicles stood ready, tanks brimming with fuel and lockers packed with ammunition. Long rows of rifles, helmets, body armour and assorted other equipment waited patiently to be picked up and used in action. Food rations were stockpiled high, munitions handed out to front line staging areas, maps uploaded to the battle net for easy access in the field.

Chaplains plied their trade in the ranks in one area, while black marketers plied theirs elsewhere. People found their comfort wherever they could, eased their worries in whatever way best suited them and for this once it was allowed. Provided they were ready for duty the following day Earth Force turned a blind eye to everything except crime.

Somewhere a guitar strummed slowly, a female voice giving sound to an old solemn song that carried through the caverns and between the expectant vehicles. Even amid the noise there was peace, tranquillity, an acceptance of the inevitable. There was just one thing left to do now and that was to fight. All they needed to do was wait and see when.

That time was almost upon them.