Chapter One


The sight of the burning starships around me was like a galaxy of new stars lighting up the emptiness of space. Their fuel and energy cells burned without oxygen long after the crews had suffocated in the vacuum of space. Hundreds of dreadnoughts, battleships, carriers, and starfighters exchanged fire in the largest battle of the war.

The Revengeance was taking point in the assault on the enemy flagship Earth’s Successor. We had managed to take out its support craft and casualty ratings were still well within acceptable parameters. Acceptable if I didn’t think of Black Squadron-3 as Daniel, Skull Squadron-6 as Rebecca, or Dagger-Squadron-7 as Lisa. They were men and women I’d trained with and called friends, now just particles and gas.

“Focus,” I commanded myself, then spoke into my helmet’s comm. I was sitting in the middle of my tight Engel-fighter cockpit moving at speeds which boggled the mind. While space was largely empty, the tightness of the battle formations meant I needed to fly like I’d never flown before. The slightest misstep would mean not only my death but my entire squadron’s destruction. “Dagger Leader, I need you to bring up your teammates to thin out the ranks of those Crosshairs.”

“Yes, your Excellency,” Dagger Leader, a woman named Arianna Stonebridge, said, referring to me by my noble title rather than rank.

I hated that.

This was a last-ditch assault which Prince Germanicus had planned to blunt the offensive into our territory. The Commonwealth had reclaimed thousands of worlds in their quest to reunite humanity, but they were stretched thin and the Archduchy’s resistance was fierce. If we’d had more allies, we could have repelled them, but the Archduchy of Crius had few friends. In my more reflective moments, I had to wonder how badly we’d abused our neighbors that so many had cheered the arrival of the Commonwealth.

The interior of the Engel’s cockpit was a mixture of levers, pedals, and sensor equipment which projected countless images into my cybernetically enhanced mind. I saw close-ups of the sword-shaped Crius destroyers moving to cut off the escape of the massive Earth’s Successor even as enemy reinforcements arrived from jumpspace. The saucer-shaped Commonwealth ships launched several thousand more starfighters to whittle down the shields of our ships, but it made no difference to our battle plan. We had to score a decisive victory here, even if it meant decimating our ranks.

Archangel Squadron’s part in the mission was critical. We had to weaken the Earth’s Successor enough for the Revengeance to blast away at its engines and allow the rest of the fleet to destroy it. Our foe was a massive, ten-kilometer-long super-carrier, which doubled as a dreadnought capable of leveling planets. Adjusting my targeting computer, I gauged its shields and knew it would take everything we had to crack them before the Revengeance and its support craft arrived to hammer it. If the shields were still up when our ships reached firing range, the attack would be like raindrops on steel. We could do it, though. We just needed to get past a few hundred enemy fighters first.

“Here they come,” I muttered, not transmitting across the Engel’s transceivers. We were tens of thousands of kilometers away from the Earth’s Successor, but at the speeds we were moving, we were only a few minutes from interception. Seeing two squadrons of V-shaped Crosshair fighters descending on us, I decided now wasn’t the time to worry.

I picked one to shoot down with plasma cannons, followed by another, then another. The ones beside my targets detonated nearly as fast, destroyed by Hans and Brutus with the rest of Dagger Squadron’s pilots inflicting only slightly less damage. Crosshair fighters were inferior to Engels in several ways, not the least being inferior range. The Commonwealth’s military doctrine believed in quantity over quality. These men had paid for it in their lives. I’d have to send their senators a bottle of wine in thanks.

“Got three that round, Colonel!” Lieutenant Colonel Hans Nakamora, my second, said. “I’m only two behind your score.”

The last of the two squadrons we’d faced were cut to pieces by my cannons before he’d finished his statement, bringing my kill score to four hundred and seven. Commonwealth soldiers were rarely enhanced, either genetically or cybernetically, which meant they tended to die far easier in battle with Crius ones. But, for all my complaining about their inferior equipment, quantity had a quality all its own.

The Commonwealth was thirty times the size of the Archduchy and equally more populated. The flower of Crius’ youth was being extinguished under piles of the enemy’s dead. No, I had to stop thinking like that. We would win here. The war would end. We would have peace. If I kept telling myself that, I’d believe it.

“Come back home, alive, Cassius,” Judith said, embracing me as I was about to depart on the shuttle up to the Revengeance.

“I’ll come back with my shield or on it,” I replied. “Crius will triumph.”

“Fuck Crius. I don’t care who wins,” Judith spoke treason. “I only care that you live.”

“Enough time for chatter after we’ve won the war. First round’s on me if you can shut up until then,” I said to Hans, noticing we’d managed to break through the defensive screen of the Earth Successor’s starfighters.

There were far fewer defenders here than I’d expected. We had nothing but a clear shot to the ship. We had a good lead on the starfighters behind us, which meant we could probably get two full attack runs away before they turned around to engage us. Then things would get hairy and we’d probably be overwhelmed.

So be it.

I’m sorry, Judith.

“Gwydion formation. Prepare payloads. You know the drill,” I said, having planned the starfighter portion of the attack to the last detail. As a Colonel-Count, I was technically outranked by the fleet’s fighter-generals, but they’d all chosen to follow my lead thanks to my reputation. My birth rank had also played a role, I’m sorry to say. “Sound off.”

“Affirmative,” Hans said. “Prepping payload. Archangel-2 over.”

“Affirmative,” Brutus said, “Prepping payload. Archangel-3 over.”

“Affirmative, Excellency,” Flavia said. “Payload prepared, Archangel-4 over.”

And so on and so on until all twelve of us had confirmed their readiness.

I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of pride as I gave directions for my squadron to begin our attack run. Archangel Squadron was a mixture of elevated commoners, low-level nobility, and even a bastard son of Prince Germanicus. When I’d begun my service to the Archduchy of Crius, they had considered me nothing more than a rogue genetic, born from the misguided vanity of a father with too much power and influence in the Ruling Families for his rank. A clone. Almost as low as a nat. Now they called me Cassius Mass the Fire Count.

The Colonel-Count of Analathas.

The Butcher of Kolthas.

My glory reflected the ranks they had all achieved. We passed the trials of countless battles and became a symbol of what Crius could achieve working together. Awarded the highest honor our country had to give in the Lucifer’s Star. Now we were going to die for our nation. It was the only way this ended.

“Stay safe,” Judith said, muttering. “Don’t be a hero.”

“Every soldier is a hero,” I said, staring at her. “The act of standing up for others makes you one. We’re all prepared to die to save our loved ones.”

“Okay, first of all, that’s bullshit. Half of the army is conscripts. Second, being prepared to die for your country is different from trying to. I know you want to live up to the legacy you think you have to, but you’re better than any of your ancestors.”

“Am I?”

“You’re probably the only one worth a damn.”

Sometimes I wondered if she was right and I was the only noble fighting for the people and, even then, whether that was just a lie I told myself. “I promise I won’t throw my life away.”

Judith looked down. “Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep.”

“Target the main batteries, sensor systems, and power-flow relays,” I said, watching the targeting spots light up across my screen. We needed to cripple the Earth’s Successor before the Revengeance and its backup came within anti-starfighter battery range. “Launch singularity missiles on my mark.”

“Cloaking failure, we’ve been spotted, sir!” Archangel-3 shouted, making it clear the damage her starship had suffered was at fault. It didn’t matter now as the airless void around us lighted up with green energy blasts.

“Carry on,” I said. “We know this is a one-way trip.”

“Copy,” Brutus said.

“Mark and fire,” I said, pressing the LAUNCH button after marking each of my targets. My entire payload was launched with only a bare minimum of movement necessary to avoid the overtaxed battery crew’s fire. “Scatter.”

I spun my cross-shaped fighter in the formation my soldiers had practiced hundreds of times. It worked, for the most part, as glowing, green energy blasts sailed harmlessly past us. The sight of Gabriel, Archangel-3’s wingman, catching the tail end of a bolt was like a blow to the stomach though. The big, burly bronze-skinned man was newly wedded with a second child having been approved for creation. Any hope he might survive dissipated as he flew out of control into another blast which tore his Engel into space debris.

“Taking heavy fire, Colonel!” Hans said. “We need to pull back if we’re going to do any more damage.” I could hear the plea in his voice. We didn’t have to die here. We had done our share to win the war. More than enough. Which was true. Few other living units had paid anywhere near our dues.

But we had our duty. Checking our targeting numbers, I saw less than a quarter of the targets we needed to knock out had been destroyed. Missile boats escorted by Skull and Dagger Squadron were coming to serve as reinforcements, but Black Squadron was almost annihilated. It would not be delivering its payload. Worse, the Earth’s Successor was pulling back its starfighters to engage us as predicted. Swerving out of the way of several greener energy bolts, I fired my quad-plasma cannons into the side of an emplacement, causing it to explode in a pleasing orange-red brilliance.

“Negative, Archangel-2. Continue mission. The Reclamation ends here.” I muttered a silent prayer to the angels to look after my wife.

“Understood, sir,” Hans said, his voice hoarse. “It’s been an honor.” It was a sentiment echoed throughout the squadron as we wiped out sixteen more targets but lost Anna and Daiki. Three squadrons flying the Commonwealth’s new inverted-pyramid-shaped Phoenix-class starfighters were coming from our upper flank. Sensors identified the squadron as the Godhand. Part of the wing commissioned by the enemy high command to destroy the Archduchy’s fighters. They’d killed virtually all of my peers and would finish the job today.

“That it has,” I replied to my unit. “That it has. Move to engage the Godhand. We only have to slow them down.”

I proceeded to swing around my unit to engage the Godhand along with the rest of my squadron. Ten against thirty-six. I predicted we would take down six before they destroyed us. We needed to change those odds.

“Formation, sir?” Brutus asked. We only had a few seconds before we were in weapons range and even less time to choose our method of suicide.

“Berserker,” I said with grim finality.

“Confirm?” Hans asked.

“Berserker,” I repeated.

It was a ludicrous tactical choice, but one which might at least do a bit more damage before we were chewed up like meat in a grinder. Putting all of our energy barrier strength to the front and our speed to maximum, we moved into a formation so tight it might have been part of a sky parade.

The moment we reached energy blast range, we unloaded with the full force of our plasma cannons as the energy sailed outward in a manner that sent the Godhand scattering. They had been expecting us to break and their leader made a poor tactical choice, mostly because they were our target and there was no way to dodge that many blasts.

The temporary loss of command from such a hardened unit allowed us a few extra shots as each of the Archangel units broke away to attack with almost no regard to their lives, myself included. Brutus actually smashed his unit into the side of a Godhand starfighter after taking a disabling shot. I managed to cook the insides of two before I realized all but Hans were gone of my unit. We’d destroyed twelve. So many friends lost. And for what? A few more seconds? A few more enemies dead? I was glad I wouldn’t have to live with the guilt. The enemy was already regrouping to finish us off.

Hans died seconds later, his Engel exploding in a brilliant ball of jump fuel. I pushed everything into my engines, hoping to escape the descending horde of vengeance-driven Commonwealth fighters and lead them away from the missile-boats, which were already delivering their payload.

Seconds later, I felt two plasma bolts rock against the side of my vessel, followed by alarms informing me my starfighter’s reactor was going critical. The vessel had sustained damage during a previous battle and the fix had not been perfect. I was doomed if a third shot struck me anyway, but this gave me time to slam my fist onto the EJECT button. It felt like cowardice, but I didn’t want to die.

The top of the cockpit shot out of the Engel with both my flight suit and a barrier protecting me from the worst of the gravity tremors. Even so, I felt like my face, body, and toes were being ripped off as the boosters propelled me away from my Engel’s burning remains. It was like a comet sailing away, the sides trailing burning gas. Moments later, it exploded, now far enough away it looked like a pinprick of light in a sky full of them.


I didn’t dare activate my rescue beacon now, lest some of the Commonwealth’s soldiers decide to pick me off or scoop me up via a tractor beam. Instead, I merely floated in the starry void, hearing nothing and seeing the spectacular exchange of light going on beside me. War was always beautiful from a distance, full of glory and promises of epic heroism.

It took an up-close and personal acquaintance with it to know every one of those light exchanges meant people boiling alive in an ignited atmosphere or being frozen to death after explosive decompression. I hated the Commonwealth and everything it stood for, but I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for all the soldiers dying this day.

That was when all of the light exchanges stopped. I blinked, staring out into my helmet’s screen and commanding it to pick up the transmissions which had to be going on. A sudden and complete end to the fighting could only mean one thing.

Oh, no.

I couldn’t hear anything on the Commonwealth channels, their encryption software had improved dramatically in recent month, but a single message was being repeated over all Crius ones. “Stand down and cease all hostilities. Prince Germanicus and the rest of the royal family are dead. Grand Admiral Plantagenet has transmitted our unconditional surrender to the Commonwealth of Interstellar Planets. Crius has fallen. Repeat: Stand down and cease all hostilities—”

Copyright C.T. Phipps


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