Planet by planet, galaxy by galaxy, the inhabited universe has fallen to the alien Xul.
Now only one obstacle stands between them and total domination: the warriors of a resilient race the world-devourers nearly annihilated centuries ago . . .
A power vast, ancient, and terrifying, the mighty Xul have lost track of the insignificant humans hundreds of years after devastating their home world—which has enabled the United Star Marines to operate unnoticed and unhindered. A near-autonomous intergalactic policing force, they battle in defense of an Earth they may not live to see again. Now, following the trail of a vanished twenty-fourth-century transport, they are journeying through an unexplored stargate to the edge of an unknown galaxy many light years from their sun. For the last, best, and only chance to defeat the tyrants of the universe may at long last be at hand . . .
Green 1, 1-1 Bravo
0340/38:22 hours, local time
The Specters descended over the Southern Sea, slicing north through turbulent air, their hulls phase-shifted so that they were not entirely within the embrace of normal space. Shifted, they were all but invisible to radar, and little more than shadows to human eyes, shadows flickering across a star-clotted night.
On board Specter One-one Bravo, Gunnery Sergeant Charel Ramsey sat huddled pauldron-to-pauldron with the Marines locked in to either side of him. The squad bay was red lit and crowded, a narrow space barely large enough to accommodate a platoon of forty-eight Marines in full Mark 660 assault battlesuits. He tried once again to access the tacnet, and bit off a curse when all that showed within the open mindwindow was static. They were going in blind, hot and blind, and he didn't like the feeling. If the Muzzies got twitchy and started painting their southern sky with plasma bolts or A.M. needlers, phase-shifting would not protect them in the least.
"They're holding off on the drones," Master Sergeant Adellen said over the tac channel, almost as if she were reading his mind. Likely she was as nervous as the rest of the Marines in the Specter's belly. She just hid it better than most. "They don't want to tip the grounders off that we're on final."
"Yeah, but it would be nice to see where the hell we're going," Corporal Takamura observed. "We can't see shit through the LV's optics."
That was not entirely true, of course. Ramsey had a window open in his mind linked through to the feed from the Specter's cockpit. Menu selections gave him a choice of views—through cameras forward or aft, in visible light, low-light, or infrared, or a computer-generated map of the planet that showed twelve green triangles in a double-chevron formation moving toward the still-distant coastline. Ramsey had settled on the map view, since the various optical feeds showed little now but water, clouds, and stars.
The MLV-44 Specter Marine Landing Vehicles were large and slow, with gull wings and fusion thrusters that gave them somewhat more maneuverability than a falling brick, but not much. Each mounted a pair of AI-controlled high-speed cannon firing contained micro-antimatter rounds as defense against incoming missiles, but they relied on stealth and surprise for survival, not firepower, and certainly not armor. A Specter's hull could shield those on board from the searing heat of atmospheric entry, but a mag-driven needle or even a stray chunk of high-energy shrapnel could puncture its variform shell with shocking ease. Ramsey had seen the results of shrapnel impact on a grounded Specter before, on Shamsheer and on New Tariq.
The Specter jolted hard, suddenly and unexpectedly, and someone vented a sharp curse. They were falling into denser air, passing through the cloud deck, and things were getting rougher.
"One more of those," Sergeant Vallida said, her voice bitter, "and Private Dowers gets jettisoned."
"Hey, Sarge! I didn't do anything!"
"Don't pick on Dowers," Adellen said. "He didn't know."
"Yeah, but he should have. Fucking nectricots. . . ."
It was rank superstition, of course. Even if it went back over a thousand years. Maybe it was the sheer age of the tradition that gave it so much power. But somehow, back in the twentieth or twenty-first century, it had become an article of faith that if a Marine ate the apricots in his ration pack before boarding an alligator or other armored transport, the vehicle would break down. Over the centuries, the focus of the curse had gradually shifted from apricots to genegineered nectricots, but the principle remained the same.
And Ela Vallida had walked in on Dowers back on board the Kelley just before the platoon had saddled up that morning, to find him happily slurping down the last of the nectricots in his drop rats. Dowers was a fungie, fresh out of RTC, and not yet fully conversant with the bewildering labyrinth of tradition and history within which every Marine walked.
"Fucking fungie," Vallida added.
"Belay that, Sergeant," Lieutenant Jones growled. First Platoon's CO wasn't evenly physically present on the squad bay deck; the eltee was topside somewhere, plugged into the C3 suite behind the Specter's cockpit, but she obviously was staying linked in on the platoon chat line. "Chew on him after One-one Bravo craps out, and you have something to bitch about."
"Aye, aye, sir," Vallida replied. But Ramsey still heard the anger in her voice.
Likely, he thought, it was just the stress. This was always the roughest part of a Marine landing, the long, agonizing wait, sealed into a tin can that was flying or swimming toward God-knew what kind of defenses. Did the Alighani Muzzies know the Marines were coming? What was waiting for them at the objective?
How many of the men and women sealed into this Specter were going to be alive an hour from now? . . .
Don't even think about that, Ramsey told himself. It's bad ju-ju. . . .
Not that he actually believed in luck, of course . . . or in the power of nectricot curses. But he didn't know anyone who'd survived the hell of modern combat who didn't engage in at least a few minor superstitious behaviors, and that included Ramsey himself. He never went into combat without a neumenal image of his Marine father watching from a minimized mindwindow. Totally irrational, he knew.
His mental gaze shifted to the tiny, mental image of Marine Master Sergeant Danel Jostin Ramsey, resplendent in his dress blacks . . . an image recorded just days before the landings on Torakara.
The Specter gave another hard lurch. According to the feed from the cockpit, it was raining outside now, and lightning flared behind the clouds ahead. The mission planners had chosen to insert through a large, tropical storm, taking advantage of lightning and rain to shield the assault group's approach for a precious few seconds longer.