Beth Carlyle checked her weapon as she led the way towards the pair of airlocks that blocked access into the orbital fortress’s command centre. Years of planning had gone into the operation, but she knew better than to take anything for granted. The last thing the underground needed was a failure so close to zero hour. They’d prepared the right access papers and bribed a number of bureaucrats to look the other way at the right time, yet too much could go badly wrong. She swallowed hard, realising that her throat was as dry as the desert on the planet below, before halting in front of the guards. They were the President’s Own, but that didn’t mean that they were trusted to think for themselves. The papers Beth had prepared for her and her four-man team claimed that she was the Admiral’s latest mistress, with her own team of bodyguards. Admiral Lopez had so many quirks that no one would think anything of it. And if they did, they’d be considered suspect and executed.
She smiled. Her short red hair and carefully-tailored uniform, tight in just the right places, could be counted upon to distract the guards. Two of them hadn’t even looked up at her eyes yet; absently, she wondered if they were even going to bother checking the papers. They’d seen her before, after all. And Lopez was in the habit of showing off his women to his command staff. They’d see nothing out of the ordinary in it.
The guards checked the papers and Beth tensed, despite herself. It seemed to be hours before they passed the papers back to her and opened the first of the airlock hatches. Years seemed to pass before the second and third hatches hissed open, revealing the command centre. A glowing hologram of Lance – the President-for-Life had named his capital after himself, in one of his less remarkable displays of egoism – hung in front of them. It was surrounded by dozens of consoles, each one manned by an operator charged with monitoring a specific section of the sky – or monitoring the work of another operator. The slightest mistake would mean accusations of counter-revolutionary subversive planning, leading to an interrogation that wasn’t – always – survivable. Beth’s elder brother had vanished into an interrogation centre when she’d been eight years old and had never been seen again. He was far from the only person to have simply vanished within the Verge. President-for-Life Curran Lance had a simple remedy for any suspicion of disloyalty. The suspect was transported to a prison camp and worked to death.
Admiral Lopez sat in the centre of the massive compartment, staring down at his screens. Beth had heard that Lopez actually spent most of his time viewing pornographic material – when he wasn’t amusing himself with his small harem of girls rounded up from the families of suspected underground members – and personally she believed it. Lopez’s sole qualification for his position was complete devotion to President-for-Life Lance – and a complete lack of imagination. He was simply too stupid to pose a threat to the President.
She smiled, lifted her weapon, and fired. A burst of superheated plasma blew Admiral Lopez’s upper body into bloody fragments. The operators turned and stared, a handful reaching for alarm buttons before Beth’s escorts gunned them down. She waved at them to stand up and keep their hands firmly in the air. They’d assumed that the alarm would be sounded, but Beth intended to delay that as long as possible.
“Secure them,” she ordered. One by one, the command staff were cuffed with plastic ties and pushed into a corner of the compartment. Beth sat down in front of the main console and pressed a datacard into the slot. The hackers swore blind that it would unlock all of the security features, but the President was a paranoid man – who knew how many security systems existed that the underground hadn’t had time to analyse? His friends in the Federation could have provided him with the latest gear.
There was a ping as the system unlocked. Beth allowed herself a moment of relief and then started tapping commands into the console. The first command sealed the command section on the fortress from the remainder of the station, before sleepy gas was unleashed upon the unsuspecting crew. Once they were all out of it, Beth keyed in the second command, bringing the fortress’s weapons to bear on the automated systems orbiting Lance. She checked her timepiece, smiled again, and pressed the trigger. Years of careful planning was about to come to a head. The President-for Life was about to have his reign brought to an end.
“We have to keep moving,” Lieutenant Simon Plax insisted, as the alarms grew louder. The Presidencial Palace on Lance was huge, easily large enough to house a garrison, and very well defended. It didn’t seem to matter to the rebels. At last report, several of the outlying guard posts had been overrun – or simply surrendered by the guards. The President-for-Life was feared even by his own men. “Mr President – keep moving.”
President Curran Lance, the effective Dictator of the Verge Republic, was grossly overweight, the legacy of late-night marathon eating sessions after finishing his official business for the day. Simon found him personally disgusting, but he didn’t always get to choose his client – and the several million pounds awaiting him in a numbered bank account on Masada provided an excellent reason to stay loyal. The underground’s insurgency, however, was almost enough to get him to change his mind. Who would have dreamed that the underground, notorious for its inner feuds and betrayers, could have put together such an effective operation? They were on the verge of actually toppling President Lance.
“I always told you that you were too soft on those scrum,” an acidic voice proclaimed. Bridgette Lance was thin where her husband was fat, a screw who revelled in the power her husband wielded. She was almost as unpopular as her husband, without even Lance’s handful of redeeming features. “You should have ground them into the gutter.”
Lance ignored her. “God damn it,” he said, to Simon. “Where’s the fucking garrison troops?”
“Sitting in their barracks,” Simon countered, with some irritation. The President feared competent subordinates; if any of his commanders had shown initiative, they would have been purged. Simon wouldn’t have been too surprised to discover that the commanders were waiting for orders that were never going to come. Verge’s defence force had lost its command and control network in the opening moments of the coup. The soldiers would probably be happy to swear loyalty to whoever came out on top. “We have to get you out of here before the mob comes in.”
“I’ll be back,” Lance vowed, as they clambered into an emergency shaft. Simon was mildly surprised that he managed to climb up the ladder, but he supposed the thought of being torn apart by outraged mobs was enough incentive for anyone. “I’ll link up with my son and then come back and crush the rebels into the dust.”
Simon tuned him out as he reached the top of the shaft. President Lance had hired him and his team to provide protection from his enemies, but they had no friends among the government or military on Lance. They couldn’t rely on receiving any help on the ground, which meant that the only hope of safety was to get off-planet before the rebels gained control of the orbital defence network. If they ended up in control of the planet’s orbital defences – and they’d certainly taken the network out of commission – they could crush any opposition before it had a chance to develop. There was no way of knowing just how much time was left.
He poked a head out of the tube and peered along the bare corridor. It looked empty, but he launched a miniature drone ahead of him anyway, just in case. The Verge Republic was decades behind either the Federation or the Dual Monarchy; their guards wouldn’t be watching for a drone so tiny that it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. He kept one hand on his assault rifle as the President pulled his body out of the tube, sweating like a pig, followed by his wife. At least she’d run out of bile, thankfully. A few more sentences from her and he would have seriously considered leaving her to the mob. It was a mystery why President Lance, who could have had his pick of girls from the Verge, remained with his wife. Or perhaps there was no mystery at all. Simon wouldn’t have wanted to get on the First Lady’s bad side.
“They’ve left their posts,” the President said, as they moved down to the hanger. Simon silently blessed the underground’s oversight – assuming, of course, that it was an oversight. In their shoes, he would have dropped an assault group onto the hanger as soon as the coup began, blocking off all hope of escape. “I’ll have them shot for it.”
Simon ignored him. The shuttle – a standard civilian design, but with a few modifications – was waiting for them on the landing pad. He moved towards it carefully, keyed his ID code into the panel on the metal hull, and then checked inside as soon as the hatch hissed open. The interior was as dark and silent as the grave. He began the power-up sequence as he waved for the President and his wife to run towards the shuttle. They might get away from Lance after all.
Quickly, he tried to access what remained of the local traffic control network. There seemed to be heavy fighting going on in orbit, between loyalist starships and the ships and stations controlled by the rebels. The rebels had switched their IFF codes, allowing him to identify them – although he had to warn himself not to get over-confident. He shut the shuttle’s hatch as soon as the last of his team had slipped into the ship, and then boosted for open sky. The threat receiver lit up the moment they cleared the building, warning him that teams armed with modern High Velocity Missiles were lying in wait. He activated their countermeasures and prayed that they were good enough to allow them to survive. There was no way they could dodge any incoming fire.
An alarm sounded and he cursed. The shuttle shook alarmingly as it launched decoys, one of them managing to lure the incoming missile away from its target. It exploded close enough to shake the shuttle again before Simon managed to take it out of range. The underground probably knew that their main target had escaped. He just prayed that they’d have time to get the hell out of dodge before the rebels started using their orbital assets to destroy the shuttle.
“Get us up faster,” the President growled.
Simon ignored him. The shuttle had been modified by his team, but it hadn’t really been designed for a speedy getaway. He scowled as they passed through the atmosphere and out into the inky darkness of space, heading towards their destination. The President’s personnel starship hadn’t been touched by the rebels, thankfully. Their intelligence hadn’t been complete, Simon told himself. They probably assumed that they didn’t need to worry about the ship. How long, he asked himself, would it be before they changed their mind.
“I suggest you get on the line to your crew,” he ordered the President, who seemed surprised to be ordered around by his bodyguard. “Tell them that we will have to jump out as soon as we’re onboard.”
“They’ll do as I say,” the President assured him. Simon would have been happier if the President had called them at once, but he couldn’t snap at his employer too much. He resolved silently to change positions as soon as possible. Serving as a mercenary in the Marches was less dangerous, even if it was less rewarding. “Just get us onto the ship as quickly as possible.”
Simon broke every orbital traffic law in the book as he drove towards the starship. It had been designed as a luxury liner, but the President had invested a vast sum in ensuring his own personal safety – and comfort. The Federation shipyard that had converted the ship swore blind that it could match a battlecruiser for speed and protection, although it carried far less firepower than even a heavy cruiser. Simon would have been more impressed if the President had converted a battleship or even a dreadnaught, but the Verge could only afford a handful of such ships and they were needed on patrol. Besides, everyone knew that the Verge didn’t have a hope of standing off either of the major powers if they felt like overrunning the small republic.
“Damn it,” he swore, as the gaping hanger deck loomed in front of the shuttle. The threat receiver was lighting up again; the orbital fortresses had realised the danger that the President might escape and were opening fire on the starship. He brought the shuttle into the hanger bay, just in time for the first missile to detonate against the ship’s shields. Simon heard the President’s wife cry out as the entire ship shuddered and the shuttle crashed into the bulkhead on the far side of the hanger bay. “Is everyone alright?”
The starship shook again. Simon couldn’t understand why they hadn’t simply jumped out of orbit, leaving the rebels and the orbital defences far behind. The President was running for the hatch, trying to get out and into his ship, just as enemy fire slammed into the shields again. Simon realised, cursing the President’s paranoia, that he’d kept certain command codes to himself. The ship literally couldn’t jump out of orbit without his permission. His paranoia was going to get them all killed!
“Transmit the fucking codes,” he heard himself yell, heedless of the danger. What did it matter if the President was offended? They were all about to die, just because he hadn’t trusted his own fucking officers! “Get us out of here!”
He heard the sound of the ship’s drive fields growing stronger, as if her commander was trying to put as much space as possible between his ship and the orbital fortresses. Simon wasn’t an expert on space warfare, but he doubted that they could get away in time. Battlecruisers were designed for hit-and-run slashing attacks, not for standing up to overwhelming firepower. And the President’s ship didn’t even carry the weapons of a standard battlecruiser…
The President opened the hatch and ran across the hanger deck, into the nearest airlock. Simon followed him, praying that the President knew how to reach the bridge. It was in a non-standard position, towards the rear of the ship. The President was puffing and panting when they reached the compartment and ran inside, just in time to be knocked down by another direct hit. Simon cursed as he saw the display. The jump drive was offline.
“We’re heading towards the transit point, Mr President,” the ship’s commander said. He wore a uniform that was mostly gold braid, certainly more gold braid than Simon had seen on uniforms belonging to the Federation. “We might be able to make it to Sanctuary before they manage to catch up with us.”
“I don’t want to go to fucking Sanctuary,” the President snapped, between wheezes. Simon thought about rolling his eyes, but it would have taken too much energy. “I want to rendezvous with the Main Strike Fleet.”
The Captain looked horrified. Simon jumped in before the President could lose control completely. “Mr President, the jump drive is offline,” he said. “It’s the transit point or nothing.”
He could understand the President’s feelings. Sanctuary was – technically – part of the Verge Republic, but in practice it was effectively an independent state. And, conspicuously unlike the remainder of the Verge, it was a thriving economic powerhouse, protected by the Dual Monarchy. There were millions of former refugees on the planet who would love to have a chance to take revenge on the man who’d forced them to flee the Verge. It would be a dangerous place to go at the best of times, but there was no other choice. The crew would take hours to repair the jump drive – if it could be repaired – and that would give the rebels plenty of time to send ships after the fleeing President. They couldn’t even hope to hide.
“Very well,” the President said, finally. “Take us to Sanctuary.”
Simon settled back to watch the display as the ship powered its way towards the transit point. Luckily – although the President hadn’t seen it that way – the Verge Republic had been forbidden to emplace defences around the transit point, ensuring that they could make transit without having to fight their way through more fortresses. It seemed that the rebels on Lance were too busy dealing with loyalists in orbit to send ships in pursuit, which made Simon relax inwardly. Once they got to Sanctuary, he could poll his men and see if they wanted to abandon the President. It would be easy to get passage from Sanctuary to Masada.
“Damn ungrateful rebels,” the President muttered. “I shall return.”
He might, Simon knew. There was one person the President trusted – his son, who just happened to be Admiral Thomas Lance of the Verge Navy. His task force was only a handful of light years from Sanctuary, easily within reach once the jump drive was repaired. And then the President would return with his son’s fleet backing him. The rebels might end up losing after all.
An hour after fleeing Lance, the President’s ship entered the transit point and vanished. Beth cursed as she watched the icon disappear, knowing that it meant that the uprising was far from completed – and victory was uncertain. If communications had been better…but no, the Demon Murphy had put in his appearance and the rebels in orbit hadn’t been able to intercept the shuttle in time. And the President had gotten lucky.
She shook her head. Most of the remaining loyalists had surrendered, once the underground had promised them their lives. They’d have a few weeks to prepare for the President’s return – assuming he didn’t just take the money he’d stolen from the Verge Republic and set himself up in the Federation. If nothing else, the Verge Republic would never be the same again.
And they might even win!
“Contact the stations on the ground,” she ordered. “Tell them we’re ready to bombard hold-outs at their command.”