With the planet's fighting men and women deployed across the galaxy—battling in the noble cause of enslaved humanity—the insidious Xul have reached across space to devastate the unsuspecting Earth with asteroid fire. Without warning, a once majestic world is reduced to near-rubble—and the very future of humankind is in dire jeopardy.
Interplanetary leaders are on the brink of abandoning Earth and its colonies to an overwhelming enemy. But Brigadier General Garroway of the Marine Interstellar Expeditionary Unit is unwilling to concede defeat—not as long as there's a single marine willing to give his or her life in defense of their embattled homeworld. The ultimate battle is about to be waged—with breathtaking new attack technology, an ancient code of courage, and the help of an ally race that once inhabited the Earth—in a war that will alter the universe forever . . .
12 February 2314
Assault Detachment Alpha
Above Olympus Mons,
1235 hrs, local
He was sealed inside a windowless carbotitanium laminate alloy canister so tiny there was scarcely room to breathe, much less move, but his noumenlink gave him a complete three-sixty on the view outside.
Gunnery Sergeant Travis Garroway, USMC, was streaking through thin atmosphere, hitting it hard enough to scratch a searing contrail of ionized gas across the night-black sky. His entry pod was surrounded by a faint haze of plasma, but he could still see the surface of Mars spread out beneath him like a map—all ochers and tans and rust-reds, desert colors achingly reminiscent of the American Southwest back home.
Ahead, Olympus Mons rose against the curve of the Martian horizon, enormous, stunning in its size and sweep and grandeur. The crest of Olympus Mons reached twenty-seven kilometers above the Martian desert floor—three times the height of Everest above sea level. As big as the state of Missouri, it was the largest volcano in the Solar System.
Garroway had stood at the base of that mountain three months earlier, playing tourist, and hoping to get a look at it from ground level. The results, however, had been disappointing. Olympus Mons was so large that the curve of the Martian horizon actually hid the peak from an observer standing at the mountain's base. The only way to see, to really feel the size of that monster shield volcano was to see it from orbit, or . . . as Garroway was doing now, on a hot-trajectory re-entry forty kilometers up.
"Alpha Two, Alpha Three," he called. "Do you copy? Over."
Static hissed in his earphones.
"Alpha Two, Alpha Three. Chrome, are you hearing me?"
Still nothing. The re-entry ionization was still too heavy to permit radio communications. Damn. He'd wanted to share this with Chrome—Staff Sergeant Angelina O'Meara.
A jolt caught the entry capsule, punching the breath from his lungs and eliciting a sharp, bitten-off curse. There was a popular misconception going the rounds at Eos Chasma, the Martian equivalent of an urban legend, to the effect that Olympus Mons was so tall the crest actually extended above the Martian atmosphere. He wished the idiots spreading that nonsense were with him now, enjoying the ride. The average surface pressure on Mars was only about one percent of Earth-normal, and at the top of Olympus Mons, the pressure dropped to two percent of that.
By contrast, the atmospheric pressure at the top of Mt. Everest was about twenty-five percent of the pressure at sea level; the Martian atmosphere was thin—the next best thing to hard vacuum, as Captain Fetterman liked to say—but the one-third gravity meant that it didn't get squeezed down as tightly to the surface as on Earth, but extended much farther into space. There was plenty of—thud!—atmosphere here two miles above the mountain's caldera-cloven crest to give him a hell of a ride.
Mars Military Training Command
1236 hrs, local
Colonel Robert Ellsworth Lee lay in a couch on the Mars Observation Deck, watching the show. In reality, the tiny, inner Martian moon was currently above Elysium, over the horizon from Olympus Mons, but his noumenal link relayed the imagery from a low-altitude robotic satellite positioned to track Alpha's atmospheric entry and descent.
From this vantage point, unfolding within the window of his mind, the orange face of Mars, pitted and wrinkled, stretched across the entire black reach of the sky. A cloud of brilliant stars streaked across that face, trailing white fire.
Thirty-two of those stars were the IMACs of the Alpha drop. The rest were decoys, deployed to shield the insertion from enemy radar and laser sensors. IMAC—the acronym was pronounced "eye-mac"—stood for Individual Marine Assault Craft, a name that seemed a bit grandiloquent for something not much bigger than a large garbage can.
Ever since World War II, some 370 years before, the Marine Corps had searched for new and effective ways to deliver combat Marines to the beachhead. On an island atoll called Tarawa, in 1943, thousands of Marines had died because their landing craft had grounded on a reef well off an enemy-held beach, forcing the men to wade or swim ashore under devastating machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire. That near-disaster had resulted in the introduction of the Marine amphibious vehicle—the AMTRACK—and, in later years, a whole zoo of armored amphibious vehicles designed to swim Marines ashore and provide them with firepower once they got there. Other innovations had included the helicopter, the tilt-rotor Osprey, and the high-speed hovercraft.
As their battlefields began extending into the vastness of space and to the surfaces of alien worlds, those delivery systems had become more and more powerful, more and more complex. The AMTRACKs, LCACs, LVTPs, and AAVs of the twentieth century had given way to various types of planetary landing and assault boats, combat shuttles, and boarding pods. IMACs were only the latest twist, derivations of the standard ship-to-ship boarding pods in use for the past century or so.
A boarding pod or an assault boat, however, had one key weakness. It had to get from here to there through enemy point-defense fire, but with the knowledge that one hit would take out the craft and every Marine packed on board—perhaps as many as fifty or more on some of the larger shuttles.
The key to survival in modern combat was dispersal. Don't provide the enemy with a few large targets, each carrying many Marines. Instead, let each Marine have his own landing craft—many, many small targets, each with one Marine sealed into a tiny, high-tech cocoon. High-energy lasers and missiles with antimatter warheads were going to score a kill if they hit the target, no matter what. Better, then, that each warhead that struck home killed one Marine rather than fifty.
Besides, for each one-man pod in flight, there might be a dozen or more decoys which, together with the high-energy electronic jamming going on, was guaranteed to give radar technicians, airspace monitor AIs, and tracking networks complete and utter breakdowns of one kind or another.