Chapter 5: Fire Above, Chaos Below


Avalon, Patton Base, August 19th


Panic was in the air.  Martial law had been declared but no one knew why.  No explanation had been given for the galactic emergency and everyone feared the worst.  Rioting broke out among the frontier worlds and was put down with brutal force.  Several attempts at protests in the capital were quickly dispersed.  Miranda, however, was afraid it wouldn’t last for long.

Dr.  Mayfield hadn’t left Patton Base for days, and now she was afraid to leave.  The Light Infantry were out in force, but their presence did nothing to calm people’s nerves.  Homeowners were barricading themselves in; markets were rushed on and supplies horded.  Factories were shutting down because no one would come in for work.

Miranda was practically alone at Raptor headquarters; Chairman Clarke had called most of the staff off on other projects.  No one was there except for her and a couple of troops to maintain the servers.  Her only company was her search program, and all it did was hum, scanning through the myriad of possibilities to discover wherever Pollos had gone.

Not that it seems to matter anymore, she thought, all hell’s broken loose.  I don’t think this Orb is going to stop the Federation from going straight to...

Then Miranda noticed a flash.  Yes, I’m sure of it, there on the computer screen.  Mayfield accessed the display and checked the log.  Something had changed, and opened the galactic map.  Sure enough, it had taken most of the frontier worlds off the search.

“So you’re somewhere near Avalon,” she said out loud, “but where?”  Even with only six systems to search, there are lots of light years between them.  It would take time...

“Dr. Mayfield!” a voice called out from the hallway.

Miranda quickly cut off the search program display and activated the door control.  A trooper blundered into the lab, a cyberspace set dangling around his neck.  The doctor smiled; he was too chicken-shit to get the implant.

“Dr. Mayfield, we just got word.  Jennifer’s Star is under attack.”

Her first thought was for Vin Dane.  “Attack?  By whom?”  He made it out before this, right?

“Well... the report says the TFS Ares, but... that can’t be right, can it?”  The trooper, trained to be a deadly spy, looked as if his heart had been broken.  His faith, Miranda realized, his faith in the Federation is hurt.  He’s only known Clarke’s enforced peace; he never had to live through the last civil war.  “I mean, the Ares is our ship!”

Her lips betrayed her thoughts.  “The Caal...”


“Never mind.  Thank you.”

As the trooper disappeared, Miranda couldn’t help but think of Dane.  He can’t be there... he should know better than to try and fight.  Yet despite herself, somehow, she knew he was there.  He’s been in worse situations, she tried to console herself, but I don’t know how he’s getting out of this one.  Oh God, Vin, get the hell out of there!


Jennifer’s Star, August 20th


They held out for two days.

Already, the Ares Battle Group was destroying the last battlestation, as well as its companion satellites.  As Ivan Sun readied the antique fighter for atmospheric flight, another rumble shook the cockpit.  That’ll be the orbital bombardment, he knew, destroying the planetside batteries.  It won’t be long now...

The forty-year-old Vampire fighter powered up; Sun was half expecting the damn thing to explode.  The onboard systems came to life, then began to fade.  Ivan punched the console and the power went back up to full.  The pilot already missed his old fighter.  Without total immersion, flying these crates was like having sex in zero gee... a lot of patience and duct tape.

Once the last light went green, Ivan punched the throttle and blasted off into the sky.  His lidar/radar detector went off immediately, indicating the planetary assault shuttles and their fighter escorts heading for the surface.  The onboard comp gave him three minutes before contact.

A little light bleeped to the side; Sun ignored it.  It bleeped again and a hologram suddenly appeared in front of him.  Vin Dane did not look happy.  “Commander, just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“What the Fleet always does for you jarheads—saving your ass.”

“You’re going to get yourself killed!”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.”

“I don’t know if you’ve checked your scanners lately, but there’s a lot of squadrons coming down.  What do you think you’ll accomplish against that?”

“Against the fighters, not much... but I figure I can bag a few transports.  That’ll help you on the ground more than me with a rifle.”

“Not if you’re dead!”

“Not planning on dying, sir.  I’ll pick you up later.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some fighters that want my attention.  Discom.”

The hologram disappeared as warning threats flashed on his antique equipment.  Ivan knew that he didn’t stand much chance against a squadron in combat.  On the other hand, they weren’t designed to fight in an atmosphere, even though they had the wings to do it.  But his Vampire fighter was designed for this very situation.

I hope the ghosts are crappy pilots, Sun wished, then plunged toward the first squadron.

Three fighters peeled off from the slower transport to attack.  Ivan didn’t waste energy on firing back.  He cut engine power, nosed down, and dropped like a stone, falling faster than the fighters could follow.  Then he hit the power again, swooping up past his attackers, right on target for the dropping shuttle.  One kinetic missile flew straight up and shattered it into a thousand pieces.

Sun dived away and went for his next target.


Sergeant Palencia watched as the smug pilot’s face disappeared when the vidphone went blank.  Colonel Dane smashed his hand against the table in frustration.  After being with him for most of the week, Demar noticed a curious fact about his new CO—Vin Dane was the only man on the planet who wasn’t scared of the Caal.  If anything, he was angry, like a man desperate to get revenge.

The colonel knows a hell of a lot more than he’s telling, Demar thought.  Maybe that goes with being in Intel, but I know this goes deeper than that.  This is personal with Vin.  What the hell did the Caal do to him before?

Once Dane calmed himself down, he resealed the helmet on his power armor until the nanotech made it a solid mass.  Palencia heard the colonel’s voice over the proximity circuit.  “Come on, we’ve got Caal to stomp.”

They rushed out of the building and onto the parade ground of Wellington Base.  Littered around the field were some Tech Infantry in powered armor, some Light Infantry in white Delta light armor, and lots of military personnel and civilians with assorted weaponry.  It was the worst collection of troops that Demar had ever seen.

Vin activated his suit speakers.  “As you know, shuttles from the fleet above will be landing in a few minutes.  Our only hope is that we can hit them at the landing sites.  We’re assigned to stop any landing near this base of the city of Valeria.  Other teams have been organized to cover other major cities.  However, there is no support, we are alone.

“The Caal exist off the life essence of other beings”, Dane continued.  “However, they can be killed.  Most of the time, they’re attached to their host and will die when you kill their prey.”

As Palencia looked over the field of nervous faces, Demar knew that’s not what they needed to hear.

“Sometimes,” the colonel continued, “they will jump from body to body, so if someone shoots at you, kill them.  I don’t care if it’s a neighbor, friend, lover... kill them.  Trust me, they would thank you for saving them from the Caal.

“There’s also no point in running.  If they get past us, there’s nowhere you could hide that would be safe.  Sergeant, do we have a landing?”

Demar checked the local lidar; there was a blip coming in towards Valeria.  “Shuttle coming in on the west side of town, sir.”

“All right, we have a job to do.  Let’s do it.”

The militia rushed over to the waiting hovertrucks and aerodynes, the only transport they could find, and took off for the city limits.  Dane and Palencia activated their chameleon circuits and ran towards the expected landing zone.  In their suits, they could reach the area before the militia did and scout ahead.

It didn’t take long to arrive at the spot.  The battlefield was flat as a pancake, except for a little drainage ditch in the middle.  Already, they could see the shuttles on their final approach, fighters flanking them.

Dane hit the comm to all units.  “All units, form up behind the first row of buildings.  Prepare for landing.”  Then he switched back to proximity frequency.  “Sergeant, let’s go.”

The two of them fell back to the office blocks comprising their barriers.  The militia arrived moments later, filing in behind whatever cover they could find.

It didn’t take long for the shuttle to land; half of the fighter escort hovered while the others flew over their heads.  Enemy troopers filed out in one great horde, wearing fatigues and carrying plasma rifles, trying to get plenty of distance out from under the shuttle’s thrusters.

“Hold fire until I give the word,” the colonel ordered.  Demar could already see the militia itching to fire, afraid of the enemy in human skin getting too close.

The shuttle quickly lifted off once its passengers were unloaded, dashing back into the sky with its fighter escorts.  Vin waited until they were out of sight, then gave the order to fire.

Plasma bolts screamed out across the open field.  Enemy troopers dove for cover that wasn’t there; their howls filled the air, an inhuman squeal of pain.  The militia didn’t bother aiming after a while.  The field became a sea of bodies and blood.  They were winning.

Then it began.  Suddenly one of the Light Infantry whipped her gun around and incinerated her entire platoon.  Dane turned and put a plasma bolt through her head.  Then a plasma grenade blew up one of their cover buildings.  More panicked shots; an entire section of the militia disintegrated.  What was left of the enemy horde began rushing forward.

The militia hadn’t listened to Dane’s words; they ran.  A blind panic had infected them once their own people started shooting at them.  Demar and Vin worked as a team, dashing from position to position, using their power armor’s superior weaponry and speed to destroy as many of the enemy as they could.  Still the possessed troopers kept coming.  With their own soldiers fleeing, their defenses were broken through quickly and easily.  It barely slowed the enemy down.

“Shit!” Dane cursed.  “I told them!  There’s nowhere to run!”

“We can rally then!” Palencia shot back.  “Come on, they haven’t run far!”

It was impossible to tell emotion through a suit, even if it was visible.  The colonel seemed to freeze for a moment, then grunted in acknowledgement.  Without another word, they rushed after their wayward soldiers.

The militia ran toward the city center and the two TI grunts raced after them.  Dane tried using the rally signal, but no one was listening.  The chase continued.

In the center of Valeria, a giant circle park around which the old corporate buildings stood, the militia trickled in.  Once the two armored troopers arrived, the colonel activated his suit speakers.  “Halt, all of you!  There is nowhere to run!  We can only survive if we work together—”

Vin’s speech was cut off by the shattering of glass.  An old woman and man suddenly tackled a militiaman and began beating him savagely.  Civilians suddenly poured towards the park, firing projectile weapons, waving knives, all of them charging towards the defenders.

There was an eruption of fire as the militia desperately mowed down the mob.  Their shrieking bristled the hairs on the back of Demar’s neck.  Then the inevitable happened—these impromptu soldiers were taken over and obliterated those who weren’t possessed.  Within a minute, their army was crushed.

“Fuck it,” Palencia spat.  “Colonel, we have to leave now.”

“But this city...”

“Is lost!  Come on!”

Dane reluctantly ran with the sergeant, escaping the slaughter behind them.  “There’s nowhere we can go, Demar.”

Palencia ignored him and bit down on his dentcom to change frequencies.  “Lieutenant Commander Sun, this is Sergeant Palencia, are you receiving me, over?”

There was a pause, then a crackly response.  “Sarge, is that you?”

“Of course it’s me!  We need a pickup NOW!”

“Is the colonel with you?”


“The Vampire’s only a two-seater.”

“We’ll cram in—now get us out of here!

The sky above them burned with fire.  Once his suit’s optics adjusted, Demar saw the antique fighter come down to land in front of them.  The canopy opened and Ivan sat there with a shit-eating grin.  “Need a lift?”

Palencia deactivated his chameleon circuit and popped out of his power armor.  Wearing only his skin-tight reclamation suit, Demar looked over to the slight light-distortion that he knew was Colonel Dane’s suit.  “Come on!”

The suit speakers were eerily loud.  “There still might be resistance in the other cities...”

“Sir, the situation’s FUCKED!” the sergeant shouted back.  “Now do you wanna stay with the Caal, or get the hell out of here?!”

There was a moment of silence before Vin’s suit reappeared and popped open.  “All right.”

“Let’s go.”

The two of them managed to cram into the back of the craft before Sun closed the canopy, sealing them in.  They hovered to the rooftops, then slammed the thrusters into overdrive.  Blue sky quickly gave way to black as they left the atmosphere behind.

Ivan’s lidar suddenly bleeped and the pilot hit the acknowledgement button.

“What the hell was that?” Demar asked.

“That means the Ares knows we’re not one of its fighters.  We’ve got a squadron inbound.”  Target sensors and weapons systems went active around them, playing hologrammatic games on the canopy.  “Anywhere in particular you want to go?”

“Maybe one of the moonbases is still active?” Palencia offered.  “If we can hide there, we’ll survive long enough for the fleet to pass by.”

The bleeping became more insistent.  “Hope we’ll live long enough to make it.  Hold on!”

Ivan banked the fighter towards the nearest ship of the fleet, an outlying destroyer.  A Wraith squadron was inbound, coming up behind them.  Demar watched in horror as Sun slowed down their speed.  “What are you doing?”

“Listen, jarhead, I’m flying this crate.  Not you, so shut your trap!”

“When those other fighters reach us...”

“They’ll be within the destroyer’s point defense arc.”

“And so will we!”

Sun smiled, a demonic grin hidden by his helmet.  “Makes life exciting, doesn’t it?”

Palencia was in shock; they were going to die thanks to the crazy pilot they thought would save them.  What amazed him more was how Dane could stay so calm... maybe he was asleep.

Within seconds, the weapons lock warning sounded, the destroyer’s particle phalanxes opened fire, and the universe seemed to explode with light.

Sun hit the thrusters.  As the enemy’s trailing squadron was destroyed by their own ship, Ivan navigated through the forest of defensive fire, finally swinging around the engines.

The destroyer was in orbit, so its engines weren’t firing—but since you couldn’t detect anything through the exhaust of an ion drive, no ship designer bothered putting sensors there.  Ivan killed the power, using the fighter’s inertia to let them coast out of the battle group’s way.

After the explosion of light and threat warnings, the sudden silence and dark was too much for Demar to handle.  Every part of his body was numb.  Finally, his lips managed to mutter.  “W... wh... what hap...”

“We cleared the fleet and killed the power,” Vin Dane explained.  “With any luck, they’ll think the destroyer finished us.”

“Won’t they de... detect the fighter?”

Sun unsealed his helmet and looked back at them.  “Without power, we’ve got no signals for passive lidar to detect.  Their comps will ignore us, think we’re debris.”  A smile escaped his lips.  “Space trash.”

“Oh,” Demar mumbled, his wits finally coming back to him.

“So, colonel sir,” Ivan asked, “where do you want to go from here?  We should clear their short-range detectors in ten minutes, then I can nudge us with the vectoring exhaust without the fleet noticing.”

Demar spoke up.  “Are there are any moonbases still—”

Vin cut him off.  “Aim for the dark side of the fifth planet.”

“Why?” the sergeant wondered.  “What’s there?”

The colonel smiled.  “A ship.”


Riding their inertia, the antique fighter managed to swing into the orbit of the fifth planet.  It was a desolate rock with two tiny rings straying around it.  Hanging on the edge of the rings, the Vampire was virtually undetectable.

“All right, I’m going to risk it.”  Ivan turned the power back on and the fighter’s consoles lit up.  Sun tapped on the lidar/radar screen.  “Sir, if there’s a ship out here, I don’t see it.”

“Of course not,” Dane groaned, “no one’s supposed to see it.  That’s the whole point.  Give me access to your comm system.”

Ivan hit a few buttons and a hologram appeared on the canopy next to the colonel’s face.  Demar, trapped in front of him, could barely make out what he was doing.  Once Vin changed the frequency and limited the signal strength, he went to transmit.

The colonel made a sound that was halfway between a yawn and clearing his throat.  Within a few seconds, a similar sound came back through the speakers.  Dane deactivated the hologram and said, “Hold position.  You’ve been given permission to dock.”

“Dock?” Sun asked.  “With what?”

With a burst of blips, the lidar/radar went beserk.  Demar turned his head and looked out the canopy.  A piece of space seemed to detach next to the rings and come toward them.  Vin’s “ship” was as black as night and shaped like a contorted shark without the rear fin.  There were no rivets or holes; to the other two, it didn’t look like metal at all.

It came near them, opened a hole like a mouth, and then tractored them inside.

Once the “mouth” closed, an eerie light lit the cavern where the fighter lay.  Dane sighed in relief and said, “It’s okay, you can open the canopy.”

“Where the hell are we?!”  For the first time, Ivan sounded panicked.

“My ship, I told you.  The air’s breathable.  Now... open the canopy.”  When the pilot froze, Vin barked, “Do it!”

The cockpit opened and the colonel pushed Demar out ahead of him.  Ivan relunctantly followed.  The floor felt soft beneath them, giving a little and adding a bounce to their step.

“Welcome aboard, gentlemen.”  Dane smiled.  “I’d give you her name, but I doubt you could pronounce it.”

Demar stepped forward.  “You’re not Vin Dane, are you?”

“I’m afraid I am.  I’m the same man who joined the Tech Infantry at the end of the 3rd Civil War, worked his way up the ranks, and became the head of Military Intelligence.”

“But you’re... not exactly a man,” Ivan murmured.

Vin smiled.  “True.”  He stretched out his hand as it morphed into a black hook.

“You’re one of the Horadrim,” Palencia realized, “those freaky aliens!  That’s how you knew about the Caal!”

“My people fought them for ten thousand years,” the alien replied, forming the hook back into a hand.  “but unless we stop it, the Federation will fall to them in less than one.”


Avalon, August 21st


Now the people knew what they were afraid of.

Some media affiliate managed to get a camera on Jennifer’s Star and patched a feed through the Galactic Net.  Everyone in the Terran Federation had seen what the Caal had done on the planet.  Riots broke out all over the Federation, but they were no longer being put down, simply being contained.  There simply weren’t enough personnel on the streets to stop the chaos.  People were fleeing the capital in droves, taking any transport they could.  Those that remained huddled together in the streets and prayed.  A new religious furvor had sprung up overnight.  Prayers were lifted up to any god who would listen that the spirits of the Caal would pass over them.

Amanda Kait could only sit and watch everything she had built up crumble around her.  She gave out orders for the repair of the Home Fleet, but there were fewer personnel each day to receive them.  Her own ministry building, normally filled with people, was now bare.  Only a few staff remained to handle the gargantuan task.

This can’t be the end, she thought, not like thisThere have been so many invasions before, why should one more make any difference?

Amanda knew why, of course.  The Vin Shriak, Bugs, K’Nes, Vulthra, Jurvain... all of them were flesh and blood.  But the Caal didn’t die when you killed them—they just jumped to the next body, taking it over, and continued the attack.  As long as they were within range of a living host, the Caal would continue.  How could you stop something like that?!

Clarke thought he had the answer: blast them in space before they could reach the planet.  But the Fleet he had hoped to do it with was in the hands of the Caal.  All the Federation had around Avalon was a collection of broken ships, toys discarded from all the wars before.  It was almost enough to make her rush out into the streets and pray herself.

She would have... had she ever believed in anything but herself.

Kait’s fist slammed on the desk.  “Think, Mandy, THINK!” she cried out.  “There’s always a solution.  How can we stop the Caal from coming here?  How can we keep the Fed together?”

However, all her thoughts drifted back to the battle that was about to take place over Avalon in a few days.  Wait a moment, her memory jolted, the Battle of Avalon... twenty years ago.  In the 3rd Civil War, Admiral Erich Von Shrakenberg had destroyed jumpgates to defeat his enemies.  It was desperate move, since the gates were hideously expensive, and destroying one crippled trade afterwards.

Would you rather be possessed?  Amanda shook her head.  It won’t stop them all, she thought.  The larger ships are be able to make their own jump points in and out of hyperspace, but maybe... just maybe... forcing them to leave their smaller ships behind would make all the difference.

Amanda quickly made some calls.


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Text Copyright © 2002, 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home.  Unless you're sure the guy next to you is a Caal—then, blow his $%@&#! head off!