Read The Empire’s Corps: Book 01 - The Empire's Corps Online

Authors: Christopher Nuttall

Tags: #war, #galactic empire, #insurgency, #marines

The Empire’s Corps: Book 01 - The Empire's Corps (10 page)

BOOK: The Empire’s Corps: Book 01 - The Empire's Corps
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She caught sight of a frozen girl, barely entering her teens, and smiled inwardly as she stepped into the tube. If a teenage girl could endure it, so could she. The cold air struck her bare skin and she shivered as she checked her weapon and emergency supplies. The real nightmare was the ship suffering a disaster and losing power, leaving them stumbling their way out of a stasis tube, completely confused and without the slightest idea what was going on. She’d heard of ships that had lost main drive and yet somehow retained the stasis tubes, allowing their crews to be rescued years later, but few of the stories had any basis in fact. If something happened to the
Sebastian Cruz
, they were all going to die without ever knowing what had hit them.

The tube hissed closed and she braced herself, as if she were expecting a physical blow. Back on the Slaughterhouse, she had been hit repeatedly in order to teach her how to take a blow, yet this was different. She felt sick, unsure of her ground, almost as if she were on the verge of panic. She hadn’t fallen to panic since she’d entered her teens. Indeed, her self-control had been remarkable, or so she’d been told. There had been no need to enter a stasis tube on her homeworld and even crawling through tight spaces had still had her in control and aware of her surroundings.

“Stasis field activating in three,” a voice said. She could hear a thumping sound in her ears and it took her a moment to realise that it was her own heart. How many other Marines, she wondered, were nervously waiting for the moment of stasis? How many others were on the verge of panic? “Two…one…”

The universe blinked…

***

“Stasis field activated,” a crewman said. He had been a Marine before mustering out and transferring to the auxiliary section, taking up a position on the transport ship. The Corps used it as a way of circumventing the restrictions on the Corps’ deployable strength, although it had been too long since the crewman had served as a Marine. “Major?”

“Good,” Edward said. It still felt odd to be called by a superior rank, even though he understood the practicalities of the situation. On his first deployment, he’d earned a punishment duty for calling his Captain by his actual rank while onboard ship. “Check the power systems and then prepare to seal this deck.”

He walked down the compartment, glancing into several of the tubes as he moved. His men hung suspended in eerie light, an unearthly shimmer playing over their faces, frozen in a single instant. They wouldn’t endure the boredom of the voyage; they’d come out of the tubes on Avalon, feeling as if no time had passed at all. He would have joined them if it had been permitted, but there was too much work for him to do. There was one final tube in the compartment for the Professor, if he chose to use it.

The massive airlock hissed closed as they stepped out of the compartment, leaving the Marines frozen in darkness. He felt the dull clang running through the ship as the docking clamps were released, allowing the transport to start powering up her drives and start heading out of the system. A pair of Imperial Navy destroyers had been assigned to escort them, although he knew that they wouldn’t be remaining at Avalon once they’d tanked up from the orbiting fuel depot. It was a shame, but there were too many other planets that needed starships and Avalon just didn’t rate as important. The entire planet and its population wouldn’t even be noticed among the massive sea of the Empire.

His communicator buzzed. “Major, this is Captain Yamato,” a voice said. “Would you care to watch the departure from the bridge?”

Edward hesitated, and then realised that it might break him out of his funk. “I’m on my way,” he said, hearing a dull thrumming beating through the ship as the drives slowly came up to full power. “Thank you, Captain.”

The
Sebastian Cruz’s
bridge was massive, large enough to serve as a CIC on a battleship, although only a handful of consoles were operated. Edward had been a Lieutenant during the Han Campaign and he’d seen how a transport had served as the headquarters of the Major-General in command of the operation, allowing him to issue overarching orders from high orbit. He’d been chewing tacks at being unable to go down to the surface, but with the planet in open revolt and enemy-crewed starships in the system, he’d been deemed too vital to be risked. He would probably have been happier as a Captain, even when the rebels had started launching nukes towards the Marines and the Imperial Army regiments backing them up.

“Please, take a seat,” Yamato invited. He was a tall Japanese-ethnic man, with a quiet air of competence. Ethnic Japanese were rare among the Marines – the legacy of the Third World War had cast a baleful shadow over the Terran Federation, and the Empire – but those who did pass through the Slaughterhouse were renowned for being among the best. “We’re just clearing the high orbital defences now.”

Earth floated at the centre of the display, surrounded by enough tactical symbols to almost obscure the planet itself. As humanity’s homeworld, Earth was the best-protected world in the Empire, surrounded by over a hundred orbital battle stations and thousands of automated orbital weapons platforms. Hundreds of asteroids, space stations and industrial nodes circled the planet, part of an industrial base that was second to none. The Sol System, with massive orbiting factories around all of its planets, hundreds of cloudscoop facilities and a combined population of over seventy billion humans was the greatest concentration of industrial might in the Empire. It took five of the oldest colony worlds, settled for over seven hundred years each, to amount to Earth’s massive industry. The sight of Earth’s halo of industrial stations never failed to fill him with pride.

And yet it was limited. The Terran Federation had had an even greater advantage over its enemies and it had never been able to put down the revolts that threatened its very existence. The Empire, which had replaced the Federation at the height of the Age of Unrest, had made deals with most of its opponents, offering them autonomy within a united human Empire. The remaining ones had been ruthlessly crushed. Yet, still, the Empire couldn’t hope to hold down all of its worlds if they all rose against it. Leo had been right. The Empire was more dependent than ever on its population’s goodwill…and that was increasingly lacking.

“Thank you, Captain,” he said, as they passed the final orbital battle station. Earth’s defences were probably rated as overkill. In theory, the entire massed might of the Imperial Navy couldn’t break through the defences. In practice…Earth hadn’t been attacked since the end of the Age of Unrest, at least not directly. Terrorists and independence movements had attempted to launch covert strikes in the past. “It is a spectacular sight.”

“It is,” Yamato agreed, seriously. He settled back into his command chair as the two escorting destroyers took fore and aft positions in the tiny convoy. Edward was mildly surprised that they hadn’t been asked to escort some freighters as well, but perhaps it was understandable. There was no direct traffic between Earth and Avalon. “It is the safest world in the galaxy.”

There was no detectable irony in his voice. Edward had grown up on Earth. Unlike Leo, he’d been aware from a very early age just how thin the veneer of civilisation was over the planet, no matter what the Empire spent on welfare. Millions of people left Earth every year, willingly or unwillingly, yet it was nothing more than a drop in the bucket. He knew how block gangs could hold thousands of people to ransom, or how terrorist cults could pop up, carry out their merry slaughter and vanish again, or how the services could sometimes cut off for hours on end. For someone born in the Undercity, Avalon would be paradise itself. Somehow, Edward doubted that they would appreciate it.

“Depends where you live,” he said, finally. He’d signed up for the Marines on his eighteenth birthday and never looked back. “How long until we cross the Phase Limit?”

Yamato made a show of checking his timepiece. “Nine hours,” he said. “You are welcome to stay and observe, if you wish.”

Early human experiments into faster-than-light travel had all failed, without exception. It had taken years of experimenting before the human race realised that it was simply impossible to generate a phase field inside a star’s gravity well, no matter how much power was applied by the engineers. The first phase ships had triggered their drives light months from Sol; now, with advanced gravimetric sensors, it was possible to locate the precise moment when it was possible to leap into Phase Space. It had opened up the stars to human settlement.

“Thank you,” Edward said, “but I have paperwork to be getting on with. I’ll watch it from the observation blister.”

Nine hours later, he stepped into the observation blister and was surprised to see Leo standing there, staring out into the darkness of space, lit only by the unblinking glow of a thousand stars. Sol itself, the star that had illuminated Earth since before the human race first crawled out of the sea, was little more than yet another point of light, perhaps slightly brighter than most.

“Major,” Leo said, in greeting. “I just wanted to see the transition for the first time.”

“It’s really something,” Edward agreed. Despite himself, he liked the crusty young-old academic. The man didn’t deserve what had happened to him. “Take a seat and brace yourself.”

The psychologists had insisted that every starship had to have some form of observation blister, even the ones that never went outside their home system. Edward had little time for headshrinkers – it was his experience that no civilian headshrinker really understood the military – but he had to admit that they probably had a point. Having a viewport out into the outside universe was good for morale. On the bigger ships, there was even a strictly regular schedule for spending an hour or so gazing out at the stars. When starships were flying in convoy, it was possible to see them all and even wave to observers in their blisters.

“Here we go,” he said. “Brace for impact…”

The stars seemed to leap forward, suddenly becoming agonisingly bright, just before the blister went brilliant white. The light faded – in a sense, it had never been there – revealing a tunnel of light, seemingly speeding away into the distance. It was an optical illusion more than anything else, or so Edward had been told, but it was still spectacular. He peered forward into the shimmering light, trying to make out the shape of the two destroyers, but they were hidden somewhere in the glare.

“My God,” Leo said. He sounded shaken. “We just cracked the light barrier.”

“Yep,” Edward said, happily. “Next stop; Avalon.”

Leo nodded, pulling himself to his feet. “As I understand it, there is no way that we can get a message back to Earth now,” he said. “Is that correct?”

Edward blinked, but nodded. “Not until we get to Avalon and send a message back with a starship,” he confirmed. “Why do you ask?”

“I was told to wait until we were out of contact before speaking to you,” Leo said. He dug through his pockets and produced a golden cross. “The Commandant wanted me to give this to you once you were beyond recall.”

Edward took it and stared down at it, puzzled. It was a simple golden Christian cross, nothing else. It meant nothing to him. His religion was the Marine Corps. He’d never been raised to follow any particular religious belief. The cross felt light, almost fragile, in his hand, yet he was perversely sure that it would be very hard to destroy.

“Thank you, I guess,” he said. “Did he say why?”

Leo reached for the cross and turned it over, pointing to a tiny indent at the bottom. “See?”

“I see,” Edward said. The cross held a cunningly-disguised code key. An encrypted message, coded by a given algorithm would be impossible for anyone else to decrypt. They were illegal outside the government and military and, even for a Marine Captain, possessing one would raise questions. Very uncomfortable questions. “Why…?”

“He said that he might be in touch,” Leo said. He keyed the hatch and it hissed open. “Good luck, Major.”

Chapter Nine

 

With only a handful of exceptions, the majority of colony worlds established during the Fourth Expansion Period were intended as profit-making enterprises. The founding company (Development Corporation) intended to use its position to permanently milk the colonists for profit, even though this was not always particularly onerous. However, as the Empire’s financial problems worsened, the various development corporations have found themselves forced to squeeze their vassals harder, setting off a chain of decline. The results have not been pleasant.

- Professor Leo Caesius,
The Waning Years of Empire
(banned).

 

The seven helicopters roared out of the morning sunlight, sinking rapidly towards the small township in the distance. Four of them broke off and established a patrol pattern around the town; the other three continued to descend, the crews rapidly lowering lines towards the ground. A number of black-suited figures rapidly rappelled down towards the ground, scrambling down in fear of hostile gunfire. A transport helicopter was never so vulnerable as when it was unloading troops. No incoming fire disturbed the morning and the troops breathed a sigh of relief.

Major George Grosskopf breathed in the morning air as his close-protection detail spread out around him. The small township might look quiet and innocent, but an experienced eye could tell that that was deceptive. Kirkhaven Township had only been established five years ago and the inhabitants had barely succeeded in taming the surrounding area and farming the land. The entire town should have been alive with people – men going to the farms, children laughing as they headed to school – and their absence was indicative of trouble. The whole area was quiet.

It’s too quiet
, he thought, as the two companies of Civil Guardsmen spread out further, walking towards the town with weapons raised and ready. The local Police Constable – a fancy name for a man who was effectively a part-time representative of law and order – had missed his daily call and no amount of effort by Camelot had succeeded in raising anyone else from the town. Avalon’s planetary communications network was primitive – it would have been a laughing stock on any other stage-two colony world – but the man had been careful to always place his call. The sudden silence suggested that someone had attacked the town. So close to the badlands, it was far too easy to guess just who had attacked – and why.

BOOK: The Empire’s Corps: Book 01 - The Empire's Corps
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