In the future,
earth's warriors have
conquered the heavens.
But on a distant world,
Humanity is in chains ...
Many millennia ago, the human race was enslaved by the An -- a fearsome alien people whose cruel empire once spanned the galaxies, until they were defeated and consigned to oblivion. But a research mission to the planet Ishtar has made a terrifying -- and fatal -- discovery: the Ahanu, ancestors of the former masters, live on, far from the reach of Earth -- born weapons and technology ... and tens of thousands of captive human souls still bow to their iron will. Now Earth's Interstellar Marine Expeditionary Unit must undertake a rescue operation as improbable as it is essential to humankind's future, embarking on a ten-year voyage to a hostile world to face an entrenched enemy driven by dreams of past glory and intent once more on domination. For those who, for countless generations, have known nothing but toil and subjugation must be granted, at all costs, the precious gift entitled to all of their star-traveling kind: freedom!
2 JUNE 2138
Kingdom of Allah, Earth
0525 hours Zulu
The trio of TAV Combat Personnel Carrier transports came
in low across the Mediterranean Sea, avoiding the heavily
populated coastal areas around El Iskandariya by crossing
the beach between El Hammam and El Alamein. Skimming
the Western Desert at such low altitudes that their slip-streams sent rooster tails of sand exploding into the pale predawn sky, the TAVs swung sharply south of the isolated communities huddled along the Wadi El Natrun, dumping velocity in a series of weaving banks and turns. Ahead, silhouetted against the brightening eastern horizon and the lights of Cairo, their objective rose like three flat-sided mountains above the undulating dunes.
The defenders would know that something was happening;
even with stealth architecture, the three transatmospheric
vehicles had scorched their radar signatures in ion reentry
trails across the skies of Western Europe as they'd descended from suborbit, and the mullahs of the True Mahdi
had been expecting something of the sort. The only question
was how long it would take them to react.
Captain Martin Warhurst, CO of Bravo Company, sat
hunched over in his travel seat in the rear of CPC Delta's
red-lit troop compartment, crowded torso to armored torso with the men and women of 1st Squad, First Platoon. There
were no windows in the heavily armored compartment, no
viewscreens or news panels, but a data feed painted a small, brightly colored image within his Helmet Data Overlay, showing the outside world as viewed through a camera in the TAV's blunt nose.
There wasn't a lot to see, in fact -- abstract patterns of light and darkness wheeling this way and back with the
TAV's approach maneuvers. The area beyond the Giza complex,
along the west bank of the Nile, was brightly lit. The
extensive archeological digs behind the Sphinx and between
the two northern pyramids, those of Khufu and Khafre, were
bathed in harsh spotlights reflected from aerostats hovering high above the ground-based beam projectors.
He knew the mission orders, knew the lay of the land and
the location of the company's objectives, but it was almost
impossible to make sense of what he was seeing on his HDO
display. Balls of yellow and red light floated up from the
ground -- fire from enemy antiaircraft positions. Colored
lines and symbols glowed among alphanumerics identifying
targets, way points, ranges, and bearings. His cranialink provided analysis, based on data jacked through from the CPC's combat computer. He could see the area marked as the platoon's drop-off point, midway between the Sphinx and
"Captain Warhurst," the phlegmatic, female voice of the
TAV's AI pilot said in his helmet receiver. "Thirty seconds. Hot LZ."
"I see it," Warhurst replied. His grip tightened on his
weapon, a General Electric LR-2120 Sunbeam pulse laser,
with its M-12 underbarrel 20mm RPG launcher and data hotlink to his Mark VII armor. He'd been in the Marines for
six years and made captain two years ago, but this would be
his first time in combat, his first hot drop, his first time in command with a live enemy.
God, don't let me screw it up....
The TAVs made a final course adjustment, shrieking low above the sands between the middle and southern pyramids,
their dead-black hulls slipping through crisscrossing targeting radar beams like ghosts, evading hard locks. Air brakes unfolded like ungainly wings as their noses came up, and billows of sand exploded from the hard-driving plasma
thrusters arrayed at wing roots and bellies.
"Hold on," the AI's voice said, as deceleration tugged at Warhurst's gut and the steel deck tilted sharply beneath his booted feet. "We're going in."
"Hang onto your lunches, boys and girls," he called over
First Platoon's comm channel. "We're grounding!"
A jolt ... a moment of suspense and silence ... and then
another, harder jolt as the TAV decelerated on shrieking
thrusters to a slow-drifting hover. With a shrill whine of hydraulics, the first CPC was extruded from the side of the
TAV's fuselage on unfolding davits as raw noise banged and
shrieked inside the sealed troop compartment. Plenum
thrusters already spooling howled now as all four onboard
hovercraft personnel carriers swung free of the floating TAV and detached their cables. Sand blasted around the hovercraft as they floated half a meter above the surface, skittering sideways to clear the overhang of their huge, black transport while the TAV engaged full thrusters and rose clear of the drop zone. "Good luck, First Platoon," the AI pilot's voice announced.
"We're clear of the TAV, Captain!" Lieutenant Schulman,
the CPC commander, yelled over the vehicle's comm system.
Hammer blows clanked and pinged and sang from the hull outside. They were taking small-arms fire. "Objective in
sight, range two-three-five. Moving!"
"Roger that!" Warhurst's helmet display feed had shifted
automatically to a pickup on the CPC's hull now that the
hovercraft was free of its ride. He could see the flash and
wink of gunfire in the darkness, the streaking tracers of
heavy automatic weapons. Somewhere in the distance a round of HE went off with a deep-throated crump, briefly lighting the dune shadows nearby. The CPC's turret shrilled as it rotated in its collar above and forward of the troop compartment, and Warhurst felt the steady thud-thud-thud of the 50mm autocannon slamming high explosive rounds into an enemy gun position.
The armored Marines remained strapped in their seats,
weapons muzzle up between their knees, silent while boiler
room noise boomed and banged around them. Once, the
CPC lurched heavily to the left as a near miss rocked the
hovercraft over on its plenum skirts like a boat listing in
heavy seas, but Schulman righted the stubborn, tough-hulled
machine and swerved hard as armor-seeking missiles
strobed in dazzling cacophony outside ...