Chapter 1

TCS LT-922

Approaching McAuliffe VI

McAuliffe System

Private James Sullivan had never been so scared in his life. Every single creak and pop he heard within the confined of landing ship number nine hundred twenty-two, made him nearly jump out of his skin. Each noise he heard he believed to be his last. The older men in his squad insisted that the Navy would have cleared the orbit of Mac Six, but he retained his private reservations. He was the youngest in the squad, out of Basic two months ago. He was a replacement marine, and as with replacements all through the ages, the vets in his squad did not think much of them. Each of them had seen at least one planetary campaign. McAuliffe VI would be his first.

It was one of the first planets to fall to the Kilrathi, back in '34. Scuttlebutt said that not a Terran remained alive on the planet. Other rumors spoke of forced labor camps, slave markets, and most horrifying of all, ranches where humans were fattened up for the Cats to eat. Sergeant Fuchian said the last was complete nonsense. The Cats did eat Terrans, but usually in a pinch. The Sarge had seen some brutal fighting on Rostov III as well as Hubble III. Hubble III was the Sarge's first action. It was there he came across gnawed bones of Terrans. The Kilrathi did not butcher humans like cattle, but rather ate them the same way he would eat chicken. That was not a comforting thought.

At nineteen years of age, he vaguely remembered a time when humanity was not at war. He was born the year before first contact with the Cats. What he remembered most of his childhood was fear. Not his, for he was too young to understand the threat, but his parents were always afraid. They did their darnedest to cover-up their feelings, but he overheard them often enough. Being born on Earth Station, there was not exactly any bomb shelters buried beneath mountains he and his family could take cover within.

"Sullivan, how are you holding up?" Asked a giant of a man with distinct mongoloid features while making his rounds. Sullivan could easily imagine the Sarge as one of Genghis Khan's marauders. Of course, the Kilrathi made the Mongol Horde look like a bunch of pussy cats. Mongols destroyed cities; Cats destroyed whole worlds.

"I'm fine, Sarge," he lied. He was terrified, and both of them knew it.

Sergeant Fuchian had talked to him earlier, and Sullivan tried to deny he was scared, tried to play it cool. Fuchian saw right through it. He told him that if he was not scared, then he was either a liar or just not paying attention. Sullivan admitted as much, and then asked his squadron commander the sam question. Fuchian told him; "Every second I'm on the line."

This time, Fuchian only nodded. "Just stay close to McCoy."

The Martian sat next to him, harnessed into one of a thousand seats in the landing craft. "You'll be fine, Sully. Just relax," PFC McCoy told him. He knew a little about McCoy, such as, like all Martians, he had to endure some heavy-duty physical therapy just to walk in an invasion ship's Fleet Standard 0.8 G gravity. It was twice what he was born into. The Private First Class was taller than most, as well as slighter built. He looked nothing like the buff Marines seen in so many war vids.

The ship rocked again, throwing his further into his seat. Of all one thousand marines, only a few sergeants were out of their seats. None of them as much as stumbled when the ship lurched. They had their space legs for years. Sullivan doubted he ever would get his. He doubted he would survive the landing, the way the ship was rocking and rolling. LT-922, was one of a hundred such ships, each carrying a thousand Marines, which was set to hit the beach of Mac Six. Literally. The ships were designed to land on water. They could do the same on land, but it would require more fuel. They could touchdown, but taking off again was another matter.

For a couple of weeks, the Confederation Navy was hammering the Cats in orbit of Mac Six, as well as other points across the system. They just recently cleared the planet's orbit of Kilrathi defenses. As a Private, he knew precisely squat about what the Navy was doing. What little he could pick up was generated by the rumor mill, which ranged from on the mark all the way to space dragons ate the sun. The story he kept hearing was that the Cats' Admiral withdrew from battle. Withdrawal means a possible return.

He looked around the cramped interior of the invasion ship. He could spot his fellow rookies, by the wide-eyed expression upon their face. Did his look the same? He hoped not. If he was going to crash and burn on his first campaign, he was determined to do so with some dignity. He clutched his assault rifle tightly in his hands. The vets just sat back and relaxed. A few looked bored. A few more just looked pissed off at the bumpy ride.

If not for his combat armor, he imagined his harness would have left some serious bruises on his chest. His helmet was just as much for protecting his head from shrapnel and relaying information via comm-net, as it was for making sure he did not knock himself out before they splashed down. He wished he could see outside, but his own HUD could not tap into the ship's navigation system, and the grunt compartment had no windows. Something about windows being a structural weakpoint. Nothing would ruin a Marine's day faster than explosive decompression. If he was wearing a combat E-suit, then he might be able to ride that out, but the simple breather in his kit would not cut it.

When once the ship only occasionally rocked, it began to buffet wildly, much like an untamed horse. Not that he had ever seen a horse, not on Earth Station anyway. His first trip to Earth was after he enlisted and was shuttled down for Basic. He seldom left Earth Station in his youth, and even then it was either to Luna Station or the moon itself. Few horses inside the massive domed habitats. The rough ride reminded him of his first trip to Earth, once the shuttle hit the atmosphere. He assumed that meant LT-922 was inside McAuliffe VI's atmosphere.

His first thought went to planet-based defenses. During one of the many lectures in Basic, he saw a vid of one ship being hit inside the atmosphere, splitting wide-open and spilling Marines into a meteoric stream. The sight was enough to keep him up at nights, and more than once such a nightmare brought him sharply awake. He thought it pathetic; here he was, not even blooded, and he was already having nightmares. He wondered how the vets handled it, seeing what they saw.

The Sarge had returned to his seat once the ship hit the atmosphere– well, the mesosphere at any rate; the ionosphere and exosphere extended a great ways into space. "Alright grunts," Sullivan heard the Sarge. Sullivan could pick up a hint of the man's Chinese accent. Fuchian was born on Earth, and Fuchian was some sort of Latinization of his name. Sullivan once heard him called Fu Yi Qan or some such Mandarin– er, Chinese Common. Thanks to the Society of Mandar, Mandarin has become a four-letter word.

Fuchian continued. "We've got ten minutes before splashdown. I want a last check on weapons, and each of you to be ready to hit the pavement shooting. Lieutenant Peterson says the Navy pretty much bombed the shores around Doveshire to Hell and back three times over, but I don't want none of my grunts getting their assess shot off because the Navy wasn't completely accurate of their assessment." The last words came off thick with sarcasm, telling all the Marines exactly what he thought of the Navy.

According to scuttlebutt, the Navy made a similar statement at Rostov, and the 17th Marine Division landed in a firestorm, literally. The Cats fired enough pulse weapons to turn the air into an inferno. A lot of Marines were cut down before their even left their ships.

"Getting my lazy bone shot off is better than some other parts of me," he could hear McCoy muttered, covering his mike with one hand.

Sullivan agreed. Having one's posterior flamed by a plasma pulse was survivable. In fact, hit just right, it would be a million credit wound. But Sullivan did not travel through several jump points– that alone was torment enough to last a lifetime– to make it here, only to be shot in the first few minutes. Of course, he could not name a single ground-pounder who signed up to loose limbs and organs. The former was worse; internal organs can be cloned. Lose a leg or arm, and it was a prosthetic, and the cheapest, most reliable one the tax payer's credit could buy.

As the clock ticked down, he checked over his rifle for the hundredth time since entering the system. Once he was satisfied it was in shape to kill some Cats, he went over debarkation in his mind again. The battalion, part of the 198th Regiment, had drilled for hostile debarking upwards to a thousand times, either in a mock-up, the real thing, and even during planetary landing drills. The battalion was down to three minutes from fully packed into an invasion craft, to fully deployed, stomping tail and taking names.

The 17th Marine Division was only suppose to spend a couple of weeks on the surface uninterrupted. Everybody in the outfit knew the mission by heart. They would splashdown on the coast, some twenty kilometers from Doveshire. Afterwards, it was a simple matter of marching inland to the city and taking its spaceport. The marching would be the simple part; taking the spaceport in one piece was another matter. After that, larger, divisional ships can land, disgorging millions of soldiers of the Confederation Army to take over liberating the planet. That was the thing about being a Marine; sure the battles were brutal, but they were short.

Landing Zone

McAuliffe VI

McAuliffe System

Sullivan remained silent as he, and the whole transport's compliment, disgorged from LT-922 on the beach of Courland Bay. The beach was too quiet, with only the sounds of boots clanking down the ramp, and orders being barked by NCOs everywhere. Nothing stirred on the beach. In fact, little was left standing on the beach. The fleet gave the LZ a good working over, pounding any structure the Kilrathi can take shelter within from orbit. Hundreds of craters overlapped each other along the shores of the curving bay.

To the north and east, the colossal peak of Mount St. Benedict stood as a sentry for the bay. It was a large mountain, one of the largest Sullivan ever saw at some four-point-eight kilometers. At least it was before the bombardment. The fleet worked over the volcano, and its younger partner, Mt. Baden, as well as the beach. The smaller of the mountains was clearly missing its peak, while St. Benedict had a new crater in its slopes. If the Cats had any weapons built into the mountain before the landing, they sure did not anymore.

Smoke hung like a haze over the bay. It was not enough to block out the fierce sun, but it was enough to choke any Marine who was fool enough to walk off their ship without their breather. When he touched down off the ramp, his boots did not dig into sand, but rather crunched glass. It was only after he landed did he fully begin to comprehend the firepower the Terran Confederation Navy could bring down upon the heads of its enemies. Anything out in the open must have been vaporized. Just how could anybody survive such a bombardment?

"A tropical beach; this is a nice change of pace," McCoy broke the silence, his own gaze scanning the beach.

Beneath the star McAuliffe, the beach of Courland Bay was warm, tropical being as good a description as any. This was the sort of place where the whole battalion could take leave; if any of the trees still stood. It was not that much different than the beach where the 198th ran exercises not to long ago. Only a few kilometers to the southwest sat the town of Newtown, the 17th Marine Division's first objective. After that, it would simply be a matter of marching up the Emerald River to free Doveshire and its spaceport.

From his own ship, almost as far as Newport, hundreds of ships sat beached. It was a throwback to the ancient days that never seemed to fade. Invasion ships were large, and required a great deal of space to come to a stop. A sheltered bay spanning tens of kilometers offered the best choice. Otherwise, they might have landed on top of Doveshire, and took it by storm. Sullivan was just as glad that was not the case, for he might already be dead. From what he heard, only a few ships were shot down while entering the atmosphere. He briefly glanced about, trying to find any wreckage.

"Leave your gear and assemble up front!" barked Sergeant Fuchian. "The rear echelon sluggards will see that you get your packs when you need them. Take two days' worth of rations, all your ammo, and for the love of all the gods, don't forget your rifle!"

There were a few snickers at that, but Sullivan thought they sounded forced. Even the hardened veterans in the squad were nervous, anxious to their unknown fate. How many would survive to see tomorrow. Sullivan grinned despite himself; just how long was a day on this planet? It was in the brief, but he would be a son of a Varni if he could remember what it was. He supposed he would learn the length of day all in good order.

McCoy slapped Sullivan on the back as he was dropped his gear. "You're one lucky Marine, Sully. My first landing involved a lot of Cats trying to kill me on the way down."

Sullivan frowned. He was right, and did not like the prospect of wasting all his luck on just reaching the planet's surface. "Where are the Cats? They don't give up land this easy, do they?"

McCoy shrugged. "If they don't think they can win, they'll retreat. Maybe they were just overawed by the sight of this might invasion force?"

"Don't be an idiot, Private!" Fuchian barked. "Filling Sullivan's head with those types of ideas will get him, and you, killed."

"Then where are they?" McCoy asked. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you Sarge."

Fuchian pointed towards the west. "Inland. Cats hate the water." It made sense to Sullivan. He heard that Kilrah was one giant desert, with not even a sea in sight. "Don't worry men, we'll see plenty of Kilrathi soon enough."

Ruins of Newtown

McAuliffe VI

McAuliffe System

Thousands of Marines moved cautiously through what was left of Newtown. This might have once been a pleasant seaside town, with beaches and sunshine in excess. Sullivan was not so sure about the color of McAuliffe, but the thought of a quiet, semi-tropical beach was a dreamy one. Instead, the Fleet reduced the village to rubble during its bombardment of the LZ. If anybody was still alive in Newtown after having fusion warheads go off all over the place, he would be very surprised.

Next to him Pfc McCoy voiced the same thoughts. Noise discipline was relaxed, at least for the time being. The 148th Regiment, 17th T.C.M.C. Division was not likely to run into any enemies in this blasted place. Blasted in the most literal sense. Nothing stood more than a single story tall, and even the short buildings were missing roofs and walls. If not for the recent plastering, the rubble would make for great defensive positions. Other platoons in the Regiment were seeing to that. Courland Bay offered the best place so far that ships could touch down and resupply the invasion.

The ruins were quiet, so quiet that he could hear the flow of the Edward River as it emptied into the sea a klick off to his right. Despite knowing how impossible it would be to survive such a bombardment, Sullivan was still on edge. This was his first campaign, and though he heard the vets and their stories often enough, he still was uncertain as what to expect. Not knowing was vastly more horrifying than a certain fate. Would he live to see it over. Would he even live to see tomorrow?

Scattered about the ground where hundreds of charred bones. Some where unmistakably human, while others were alien indeed. Though they were made from calcium and had similar shapes, the bones of the Kilrathi were more robust. Not to mention larger. The average Cat was at least half a meter taller than the average human, and often more so. The Cats were big; big arms, big legs, big claws— even bigger teeth. One Cat skull sat staring lifelessly into the sky, its blackened surface still covered with chunks of roasted meet.

Sullivan wondered just what this Cat was doing in Newtown before the bombs fell. Like all newbies, he heard his own share of stories about what the Kilrathi do to conquered peoples. Several species have existed for centuries under Kilrathi yoke. A few years before he was born, a reptilian race, the Varni, fell to the Kilrathi. Only a handful of that species still lives free, refugees within the Confederation. Millions of others were scattered across Cat space, serving as slaves or even food. The last though angered and frightened him. What fate could be worse than to be a Cat's dinner?

Sullivan's heart started as he spotted sudden movement. It was no enemy, just a small creature, one who was coming out of the ruins. "Oh look, a cat," he said casually.

With those words, the veterans in his squad hit the dirt, their weapons at the ready and fingers on hair trigger alert. It was not until after he spoke did Sullivan realize what was happening. He pointed at the little cat lurking in the shadows. "Somebody's house cat."

Several Marines burst out laughing, breaking some of their tension. Fuchian glared at all of them, and at Sullivan. "That's not funny," he said, rising to his feet.

As the Marines continued onward, McCoy stepped up to Sullivan. "You realize, Sully, that we are totally screwed now."

"How so?" Sullivan asked. He knew the Sarge was not pleased with his choice of words while pointing out the feline.

McCoy snorted. "If some little tabby could survive this bombardment, how do you think the Cats fared?"

Sullivan considered his words, and did not like the conclusion he was forced to draw.