Updated: Oct 23
Lieutenant Cameron Powell understood the costs of war. His father knew the costs of freedom, giving his life in the tradition of the service. His grandfather understood the price that nations paid, maintaining order for the Interplanetary Colonial Administration as the high commander of the Spacer Corps. That order was threatened when the Martians broke away and declared war on the ICA. Cameron's mother soon understood the price widows paid when her son went off to join the fight, walking a deadly path his father laid out for him....
Credits and Copyrights
First Copyright©2020 Divided By Zero Books
Second Copyright©2022 Divided By Zero Books
All Rights Reserved.
Written by Nick Oakes
Edited by Cassie Poormokhtar and Derwin Lester II
Cover Art by Mark Baker
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
July 2146 – Lunar Outpost Alpha-1, Moon
Four months on Luna and not a damned thing to show for it. At least that’s what Ensign Cameron Powell told himself as he found himself out on the Mare again, scanning for signs of the Opposition Force, a part played today by Alpha Company’s Third Platoon. Four months of maneuvers, drills and exercises, and not one step closer to a resolution of the Mars Crisis. As Cam knelt behind a craggy and pockmarked lunar boulder, his helmet radio buzzed, and he heard a familiar voice break across the spooky near-silence of his own breathing.
“Ensign Powell,” the voice said, “this is Sergeant Sikorski. I’ve got a visual on two tangos coming over the ridge to our eleven o’clock. Repeat, two tangoes on the ridge, Eleven o’clock, over.”
Cam brought his head up over the edge of his cover and scanned the horizon. It was another five days until sunrise on this side of the moon, and even the suit’s high-grade IR scanners had a hard time picking up motion on the ragged lunar horizon. Then he saw them—two spacers from the look of it, moving in a loose reconnaissance formation just under the virtually gridded-out distant rim of the far lunar ridge.
“Powell here,” said Cam into his microphone. “I see them. Pass the word along to sit tight, over.” As he spoke his helmet’s built-in image enhancers showed him a second pair of simulated enemy troopers moving down into the rille across the Mare Tranquillitatis.
At this range the radios were risky, and their orders from company command had been radio silence unless they had vital information. Cam watched another pair of spacers from the OpFor unit move into view on the other rim of the channel-like rille, followed a few moments later by a fourth, and then a fifth. Bravo Company’s Third Platoon had sent out their advance squad to probe the rille for Cam’s unit of Alpha Company. That mistake would cost them, Cam thought with a grin. His platoon had already planned their ambush.
As the target squad moved down the far slope of the rille, Cam slowly brought his weapon up and rested it on the top surface of the boulder. He chinned the command button in his helmet and blinked twice, willing the comm system to send the ready signal. The plan was to open fire when the OpFor squad moved within a hundred meters. Cam took an opportunity to quickly recheck his weapon while he waited—the Mk. 31 Focused Microwave Rifle, or “Femur”, was designed for anything from singeing the hairs on skin to rupturing internal organs, all without surface damage to EVA suits. Silent, efficient and nonlethal—unless you turned the settings up high enough to straight up fry someone’s innards, that is.
By the time the OpFor spacers neared the one-hundred-meter proximity point, Cam could almost see their faces through the visors of their suits with his helmet’s high-grade visual suite. For half a moment, he almost paused, struck by the oddity of firing on spacers that looked almost identical to his own platoon, down to the ICA and IDC insignia on their shoulder plates. Then he blinked twice and thought, Fire.
In unison, two dozen Mk. 31 Femurs fired, sending barely perceptible blips of high-frequency electrical energy across the intervening space in a single pulse. They barely even left a shimmer in the all but nonexistent atmosphere just over the Lunar surface.
As three pulses hit each of the OpFor patrol, they doubled over and collapsed to the ground. It was almost comical to see them fall, the lower lunar gravity dragging them down in a bizarre halftime, bringing them to their knees in an eerie echo of horse-playing Apollo astronauts nearly two hundred years earlier. Then the comm system erupted with noise—bursts of chatter from the stricken patrol, responses from the rest of their company, and finally the high-frequency staccato fuzz of jamming sequences activated by Alpha Company’s commanders now that they had been engaged. Cam blinked twice and thought, First platoon, fall back to the contingency point. Repeat, fall back, over. And with that, the engagement was over. Textbook, Cam thought with a small smile. Maybe his time on the moon wasn’t completely going to waste.
Before the “received” light had even gone off in his HUD, Cam was wheeling around and taking his first bounding step up the slope toward their fallback point, where the other ten members of first platoon were gathered and waiting. The point of the operation had been to engage Alpha Company and draw them into further skirmishes out on the Mare. Cam chinned the radio switch and willed it to establish a connection with Sergeant Fitzpatrick, the head of First Squad and leader of the contingency team.
“Sergeant Fitzpatrick, this is Ensign Powell. We’re inbound to the fallback point. We made contact with the OpFor, so prepare for noise on our six, over.”
All he got in return was a scramble of static. Cam frowned—it wasn’t unheard of to lose signal when they were being jammed. But there was usually at least a partial connection, some bit of static that broke through. This time there was nothing. Not even garbled words that might have given a clue as to the status of First Squad. As he came up over the edge of the rille, he saw why it was the case.
Almost three dozen spacers in the dark grey OpFor uniforms were gathered in the flatlands above the lunar rille crest, weapons pointed in First Platoon’s direction, and in the middle of them Cam could see his Charlie Squad gathered with their hands on their helmets. What the hell, Cam thought, unsure of how they’d been caught by surprise. A thousand thoughts flashed through his mind—had they been flanked? Had they been given faulty information by their own company’s patrols? Had they just missed something?
As Cam raised his Mk. 31 to his shoulder and prepared to fire, however, a new and more disturbing thought came into his mind. As he felt the skin of his stomach, and then his upper left chest erupt with a painful burning sensation, Cam almost cracked a smile. He was remembering something Sikorski had told him a month back before a similarly bungled training op: “Remember this, LT. The brass will screw with you. They’ll toy with you; they’ll do whatever they can to get under your skin. But it’s all because out there, in the shit, you can’t predict what you’ll have to put up with. So just be happy that here they won’t kill you when you fuck up.”
It almost felt like poetry, Cam thought as his legs buckled under the sudden burst of disorientation and discomfort that surged up and down his body like lightning. The bastards really like to give it to you rough, he thought as he hit the reg, sending up a plume of Lunar dust that obscured everything around him. He watched it fly as if it were snow on the wind, blurring the distant stars like a thick haze.
By the time the OpFor put him “under arrest,” he was lost in wondering which of those stars harbored the planet where his father had died. They got him to his feet and brushed him off, laughing behind their visors; Cam felt a twinge of worry, wondering if he would end up dying on a planet near a much closer star.
A few hours later, after his platoon had been rounded up, “defeated” by Alpha Company, and marched back to base as mock prisoners, Cam stood at parade rest before Captain Velasquez and Major Nnamdi, respectively the executive officer and commander of Bravo Company. The Major sat behind his desk in the command center of LOA-1, and Captain Velasquez stood beside him with his hands folded behind his back in a gesture of rigid self-determination—both stared Cam down as he gave his after-action report on the botched ambush that resulted in his platoon becoming “prisoners” of Alpha Company.
“After we engaged what we assumed to be OpFor’s advance units and made to pull back to a better position to be reinforced for pursuit, we discovered that other elements of Alpha Company had flanked us and were moving in to neutralize First Platoon.” Cam shifted his weight, clasping his hands tightly behind his back to center himself. “I can’t say for certain what happened to cause the breach in our operational security, but I take full responsibility, sirs. It was my fault.” The last sentence felt like poison as it left his lips.
Major Nnamdi looked at Captain Velasquez, who nodded at him.
“I appreciate your candor, Ensign,” said the Captain, leaning against the desk with one arm bent out as his hip. “But I can’t say I’m glad to see our company get embarrassed like that on a straightforward training op. You should be aware by now that failure of this degree in the real world will get your people killed.” He paused a moment. “If things get hot with the Martians, we’ll need all the officers we can get. But we’d be damned fools to send green recruits straight out of the OCP into the maw of whatever is coming, now wouldn’t we?”
Nnamdi nodded slowly and then spoke in his slightly accented baritone. “I agree. You allowed an enemy unit to move into position behind your own and gain the upper hand in an advance action that would have compromised the security of the rest of the regiment if this were a real-world operation.” He raised his eyebrows. “If it had been the real deal, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.”
Cam remained silent. He’d learned from nearly four years in the OCP to keep his mouth shut when having the boom lowered on him by superior officers.
“Do you have any further input to give us on this matter, Ensign?” said Velasquez. “If not, you’re free to return to your garrison area.” The tilt of his face imparted on Cam that the conversation was concluded.
Cam simply gave a small nod of his head. “No sirs,” was the only answer he gave.
Then he came to attention and snapped off a crisp salute, which Captain Velasquez returned as the Major stood to do the same. They stood like that for half a moment as the tension in the air settled.
Cam had already turned to leave when he thought of something. He caught himself as he made to move through the open hatchway of the aluminum and carbon fiber composite airlock of the Major’s office and turned back to face his superiors, a furtive look on his face.
“Actually, I do have one question, sirs.”
The Captain frowned, and the Major gestured for him to go ahead as he sat back behind his desk.
“Out there on the Mare,” said Cam, “when we got ambushed, that is. Was everything on the up and up for that op? Something’s been nagging me about it that I can’t quite put a finger on.”
The two senior officers shared a serious look, their faces grave. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be more direct Ensign,” Captain Velasquez said. “What exactly are you getting at with this line of questioning?”
Cam turned back to face them fully, naturally returned to a position of parade rest. “We received no warning from my contingency squad before we were ambushed. One moment we were pulling off a flawless ambush of the OpFor’s patrol unit, and the next we were being ambushed ourselves. It’s almost like they knew where we were, prepared to counterattack already.” He hesitated before continuing. “As if there was some sort of leak in the intelligence hierarchy. But that’s impossible, isn’t it, sirs?”
The Major put his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers. “Your point being?”
Cam shifted his weight again. “Well, I just.” He hesitated a moment. “I think we might have been set up. It’s almost as if the OpFor unit was given our approximate position and set up their own bait to draw us out. I know because it’s what I would’ve done if I had that sort of information, sirs.”
Captain Velasquez cocked his head and eyed Cam intensely. “Do you have any other evidence to back up this theory, Ensign? That’s some pretty heavy speculation for you to lay on, after all.”
The weight he’d put on the word “Ensign” caught Cam off-guard, but it told him everything he needed to know about the politics of the meeting. The temperature in the air seemed to drop instantly.
“No sir,” he said after a moment. “Except I didn’t recognize a few of the spacers who gathered us and brought us back to base. I know most everyone in Alpha Company by face, and I’m positive that there were some I didn’t recognize in the OpFor detachment. Seems as if there are pieces moving on the board that weren’t there when we started all this business of war games.”
The Captain raised his eyebrow again. He looked at the Major, who gave a small shake of his head.
“Very perceptive of you Ensign,” said the Captain, “but I’m afraid it’s a bit beyond the scope of your command purview to poke your nose into those sorts of details.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Suffice to say, these things come down to us from Division, and their directive is to put each new platoon commander to the test here, in the safety of near-Earth space, before we get be deployed further out-system. We’ve got a lot of young Ensigns like yourself being shuffled into platoons, and if we can’t shape you all up before the shooting starts, then our asses will really be in the fire once it does.”
Cam just looked at him for a moment, recalling something one of his spacers had said a while back. “I wasn’t aware that a shooting war was an inevitability at this point, Captain.”
The older man said nothing, but Cam was sure he saw the slightest hints of a smirk pass across his face.
After a moment, Major Nnamdi spoke up. “Look, Ensign, it’s been a long day. Why don’t you head back to your garrison area, get some rest. Better yet, go out and enjoy some time here on LOA-1 before whatever comes next. You and your platoon have earned that much at least.”
There was a strange look painted on his face. Something about it told Cam that despite the gentleness of this suggestion, it wasn’t a request. Some quality of his calm baritone said all that and more. He then made a small, dismissive gesture with his hand, as if to say, “Off you go now.” And that was that.
Cam gave another salute, which Captain Velasquez again returned in short order. The Major just nodded once, a slow, serious movement that conveyed a weight of meaning—age, seniority, fatigue, and on and on.
After leaving the Major’s office, Cam wound his way through the labyrinthine catacombs of the mostly subterranean Lunar Outpost Alpha-1 colony. It had its roots in what had been the main U.S. base on the moon since the late 2020s. Now it expanded by the hour into a sized-up staging area for the expected, even hotly anticipated, war with the Martian Colonial Federation. It took Cam nearly an hour of walking the gunpowder-smelling corridors, processing through section after section of the prefab facility, but he eventually found a bar he’d known before during his deployment called CyberPub. It was crawling with junior officers, so he knew that at least he’d be among his peers while he wallowed in self-pity.
He loped through the open hatch into the cozy, vaguely retro pub, and looked around for a place to be alone with his thoughts. There was a small booth tucked into the corner of the large, main room, a respectable distance from a rowdy group of Ensigns cheering someone’s birthday over at the bar. Aside from that, the place was surprisingly empty, a fact that Cam thought would serve his melancholy well.
Cam crossed the room slowly, his mind turned inward. Glancing at the vidscreen playing news over the bar, he resolved to keep his back to it when he sat down. He cursed the cheap weighted coveralls that the IDC issued its personnel for duty on the moon. They helped prevent long-term bone loss and muscular atrophy, but when you trained to be in peak physical condition, it was irksome to walk around like a gangly teenager wearing an early 2000s New York designer’s fever dream of outer space fashion.
He adjusted his posture to better accommodate the G-suit, gesturing for a bottle of beer to the tired-looking waiter. Folding sore hands on the table, he thought back to the fiasco out on the Mare. What sort of dirty trick might have been pulled on him? Far be it for Cam to so much as think of defying the chain of command by openly insinuating such a turn of events, but he couldn’t help but cling to a few private suspicions. Especially when it was this obvious that he and his platoon had been played. It was possible that someone had either decided to use his platoon as a punching bag, or to pull the rug out from under him in order to test his mettle, just like his superiors had said. A rather underhanded way to go about it, but there it was.
This thought pinballed back and forth across Cam’s mind; the waiter brought his drink. The man, a bored Lunarian from the look of him—the spindly, taller-than-average frame and strange posture gave it away every time—mumbled something as he drifted away again, his own lower-G weight suit dyed the same chalky grey as the regolith beyond Lunar Outpost Alpha-1’s tunnels.
Cam mused on the possibility of his number coming up with the divisional brass, supposedly to ensure he’d be ready for the heat of action when the real excitement started. While he was happy it had happened here, in the safety of lunar training scenarios, he couldn’t shake the irritation that his spacers had likely been sent out there to be used for what he felt was little more than inter-departmental hazing.
Cam was in the middle of taking a drink from the cold, reinforced glass bottle of alcohol, when a hand landed on his shoulder. He looked up, half expecting to find one of the drunken revelers near the bar asking him if he really was the son of Major Derrick Powell, but instead he found a welcome surprise. It was none other than Ensign Peter Driscoll, dressed in his own Infantry green G-suit and wearing his roguish smile to boot.
“Hey,” said Pete. “You lost, Spacer? This place is an officer’s bar. I’m gonna have to ask you to vamoose or else me and the other local brass’ll have to dump you out on your ass.”
The man had a lazy, warm, and slightly hazy smile on his face that told Cam he was already a few drinks in. Pete had always done his damnedest to live up to the old stereotypes of Canadians being fun drunks.
A broad smile spread across Cam’s own face as his friend spoke, and he leapt to his feet to pull him into a welcoming embrace—a little too fast, as he bumped the table in the low gravity.
“Shit, Pete!” said Cam. “Never thought I’d run into you here, man.”
It was true—even though both knew they’d be stationed to Luna, the probability of running into each other amid the hundreds of thousands of other spacers was a near statistical impossibility.
Pete returned the embrace with extra vigor. “Oh, you didn’t think you’d seen the last of me back in Colorado, did ya?” He smiled again. “I thought I’d take a night off from going over my screwups out on the Mare and happened to run into a familiar face.”
He nodded over his shoulder. “She missed you, man.”
Cam looked over his friend’s shoulder; his breath caught in his throat. There, just behind Pete, wearing her own navy blue Fighter Corps coveralls and a radiant smile that lit up the room brighter than the harsh blue LEDs overhead, was Ensign Erica Ventura. An old flame if ever there was one.
“Hey there.” She moved in to get a hug of her own. “Bet you’re surprised to see me here, aren’t you?”
Cam was at a loss for words as she embraced him but returned the gesture all the same.
Moving out of the hug, she smiled at Cam and made to sit down at Cam’s table. He and Pete followed suit. “I was passing through on my way to Meyer Station for fighter training and I ran into Peter,” she said. “He said you were stationed here, so we thought we’d look and see if we might get lucky. Guess we did, huh?”
She grinned. Cam was at a loss for words.
Finally he said, “I’m just glad to see you both. How’ve you been since the OCP?”
As he spoke, Pete gestured for two new beers.
“Thanks,” said Erica.
“For what?” said Pete. Then he said, “Oh, you wanted one!” He waved his hand at the tired wait staff and corrected his order to three. Cam rolled his eyes and Erica laughed.
“Actually,” she said, “I’ve been doing office duty back on Earth. Fighter Command thinks its newer ‘assets’ are better used as expensive paperweights back Earthside while the more experienced pilots train at the Lagrange stations.” She shook her head. “I think the only reason I got called up for real-world training is that a captain in my unit got grounded for panic attacks. Go figure. At least I get to fly a real Dart now.”
The three of them settled into their own old time-tested routine tall tales, playful teasing, and thinly-veiled references to the commonplace bullshit of daily military life. They were three drinks in when Cam brought things around to the day’s events. “I dunno what might’ve been going on out there. They might have pulled a fast one on me but, well, how would I ever know?”
He emptied his drink and clinked the bottle on the table with a more force than he’d meant to. “Anyway, what’s it matter, really? I can’t exactly go banging on colonels’ doors to ask about something happened on an Ensign’s watch, right? If they didn’t straight up laugh at me I’d probably get NJP’d.”
Pete’s eyes were slightly unfocused, and they seemed to keep drifting back to the news playing over the bar. According to his frequent interjections, they were covering the proceedings at a session of the ICA Council, where a ruling on the situation between the Earth and Mars was expected within the hour. Even a little buzzed, Cam knew that most every spacer on Luna had an ear to the wall for the results of that meeting.
“Hell,” Pete said, “no sense in chasin’ after windmills, is there? You got ball-tapped and you just gotta sit and take it with a smile. It sucks, but it is what it is and what it is you can’t change, eh?”
Erica gave Cam a weary but compassionate smile. She’d seen her fair share of hierarchical B.S., most of it the sort of bureaucracy you’d expect to see in an interplanetary megacorp and not the military.
Pete stood suddenly, his voice booming. “Ah c’mon you pencil-pushing assholes, can’t you do anything right? Tell the damned dusters where to stick their friggin’ jacked-up people’s revolution and be done with it. Damned bureaucrats can’t even do that much right, for God’s sake. Whole system’s going to hell.” He took a swig of beer and let out a hiccup. Then he said, “Maybe we should just nuke Mars after all.”
He then wandered over to the bar and got into an animated sort of no-sided argument with the Ensigns there, each of whom had a drunken opinion on the state of interplanetary politics. This left Cam to find something impactful to say to Erica, which was difficult enough to do even when he wasn’t getting steadily more drunk. Despite all their pleasant history, Cam suddenly found himself feeling very small in her presence.
Thankfully, Erica broke the awkward silence. “So you’ve talked a lot about what you’ve been up to.” She put her elbow on the table, resting her head on the palm of her hand. “But how have you been holding up? It really has been too long. And I really am glad to see you, by the way.”
Cam looked at her, dumbstruck at her strangely wistful smile. A lot of history between them seemed to live in that smile. “Yeah, I’ve been all right. How about you, you holding up okay?”
She nodded, but her eyes told a different story. “Cam, I’ve been hearing rumors lately. The sort of rumors that say the brass is going to turn down whatever agreement the Council comes to with Mars unless it sees a reinstatement of the Tyndall Treaty. Not to mention how much they want a cessation of armament stockpiling in the outer system. There have been other rumors that the Federation is already moving on some of the outer system settlements. Don’t ask me how I know about all that,” she said, smirking grimly. “You hear those kinds of things when you’re flying a desk at AEROCOM.”
Cam frowned, a sudden hollowness in the pit of his stomach. The air in the room had been tense between Mars and the Interplanetary Colonial Administration for five years now, ever since the One Mars Party took power in the government of the Martian Colonial Federation. Cam had suspected these kind of rumors for a while, but not from this source. “So, it’s going to come to war then?”
Erica started to say something, but before she could, they heard a commotion of loud swearing and scraping chairs from Pete and the other Ensigns near the bar.
Cam turned on a swivel, expecting to see a drunken brawl kicking off. Instead, he was met with pandemonium of another kind. The gathered ensigns stared and pointed at the vidscreen, gasps erupting from the crowd. A young female ensign who barely looked twenty seemed to be weeping.
Peter turned to face his friends. “They did it! The rotten goddamned motherfuckers, they really did it!” His eyes wild, a wild fury aroused by only one catalyst. “Holy shit, I can’t believe it, Cam, the sons of bastards attacked us!” The voices of several other ensigns seemed to resolve into intelligibility at once. Mars had attacked the Interplanetary Colonial Administration.
Cam and Erica’s eyes snapped to the screen. Twisted wreckage, smoldering holes in once regal retro-modern buildings, and there, in the foreground, bloodied bodies being dragged out by police. The scrolling updates at the bottom of the screen rattled off a confused procession of information—an attack at the ICA compound in Copenhagen, dozens believed dead, reports of suspects still at large. A nightmare unfolded on the screen. Now the wheels were turning, moving humanity moved ever closer to the war Cam had been preparing for over the past four months and now found himself coldly yearning for.
August 2146 – Lunar Outpost Alpha-1, Moon
In the weeks following the attack on the ICA headquarters compound, the casualties were totaled up and the wreckage cleared. Cam spent most of his time waiting on what was to come. All told, the Martian Militia strike force that had infiltrated Copenhagen killed over twenty-eight hundred people, both military and civilians alike, with several hundred still missing by the first week of August.
Most of the suspected masterminds of the attack had been caught and dealt with. Cam, along with every other spacer in the system, had memorized the features of the remaining suspect—a lanky Martian named Selkirk DeLaria. His image captured a few blocks from the UN compound two days before the attack, and again hours before the bombing that kicked it off, was broadcast to every vidscreen in the fleet until every spacer in the Corps thought they could spot his angular brows and cold, coal black eyes from a mile away.
They all wanted to be the one to bag him. Between the orchestration of the Copenhagen Attacks and his activities in the MCF’s political wing, he had very few friends on Earth in general. In the weeks since Copenhagen, the Militia had attacked spacer outposts in every sector from the asteroid belt to the Kuiper Belt. All of it aimed at getting the Corps on the defensive, unsure of itself and its war footing. So far, it seemed to be working.
While this was happening, Cam had said his goodbyes to his two best friends. Pete’s infantry unit was on pre-deployment stand up, and Erica was sent to Meyer Station for fighter combat training.
With tears in his eyes, Pete hugged his friend goodbye. “Take care of yourself,” he said. “I’ll see you on Mars. Be sure to leave a few of the bastards for the rest of us, eh?”
Once Pete had left, still wiping his eyes, Cam had his farewell with Erica. She’d been even closer to him than Pete, given the events of a few particularly passionate nights their last two semesters in the OCP. That sort of fraternization had ended when graduation approached, as it would be frowned upon in the Corps. But here, she initiated contact, stepping forward and wrapping her arms tight around Cam as in the old days.
Her eyes were dry, but there was sadness in her voice. “I guess this is it. Take care of yourself out there, Cam. I want to see you in the victory parade through Aldrin City, you got that? Keep your head down, keep your Spacers alive, and you’ll be just fine. I know you will.”
He hugged her tighter, forgetting for just a moment that they were both officers.
“You keep yourself safe, too,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll be a big fighter ace and all, but try to keep it on a reasonable level, all right? That sort of stuff can get you killed if you’re not careful. I’ll miss you, E.”
Quickly letting go of each other, they laughed, a sudden, jarring, and awkward sound.
“There might be some rough times ahead Cam,” she said. She hugged him again. “Stay safe out there. I’ll do my best to keep my F-97 in one piece.”
He didn’t have any response for that, not any that seemed fitting or meaningful, anyway. So, he just squeezed her a bit tighter and willed the war to pass quickly for both of them.
She backed away, rubbing a single unbidden tear from her eye, giving a final wave. Cam watched, helplessly frozen as she moved down the cargo chamber. Then she disappeared into the crowd. Cam promised the next time he saw her, he would tell her what she really meant to him. He hoped only for that chance.
Wandering back to his own staging area, Cam hardly noticed the clamor going on all around him. Since coming to the moon in March, Cam had seen firsthand how far the lunar colonies had come since the dawn of the Age of Expansion, over a century ago now. From humble beginnings as a series of ramshackle science outposts in the mid-2020s to the roughneck mining operations starting in the late 2030s, the moon had always been a source of pride for the rough-hewn people who managed to eke out a living by plying their trades upon its desolate surface, often providing huge dividends for shareholders back Earthside.
Cam wandered the staging areas, watching the loadmasters squaring away the goods to be sent up via shuttle to the fleet vessels waiting in orbit, reflecting on all that had come to pass. Since the war fought to control lunar resources in 2047, the Interplanetary Colonial Administration had fought aliens, space pirates, frontier rebels and bandits of all stripes to maintain order and prosperity within its space. Now Cam and his fellow Spacers would fighting other humans to determine which group would control Sol. A hundred years of progress, all on the precipice of being undone because a few bureaucrats on either side got greedy. It was the same old bullshit, different century, as far as Cam was concerned.
Still, Cam couldn’t shake the desire to seek retribution for the dead in Copenhagen. The war officially began two weeks earlier, just two days after the attack when the ICA sent the Martian delegation home and severed all ties with their government. But it still took time for the fleet to organize for combat deployment, a delay that the Earthside media said would allow the Martian Militia to finish prepping their own defenses.
War had been brewing with Mars for years, truth be told. Ever since the One Mars Party achieved plurality in the Martian Parliament, folks on Earth had assumed it to be more or less a waiting game. Now, the game had merely changed in nature. Now, it was a contest to see who could control the system.
Cam arrived back at his platoon’s staging area, a converted cargo hold in the station’s westernmost outskirts; several young spacers were sitting on boxes, waiting for him. They were led by Spacer Kikowani, an often-smiling, larger-than-life persona among the rest of the platoon. He hailed from the outskirts of Chicago, and everything about his countenance screamed that he was ready to get to Mars and kick rebel ass. His infantry green G-suit hung on his wiry frame like a scarecrow’s clothes. The younger man had a big mouth and a quick wit. He was popular with the other enlisted men, and annoyed a lot of NCOs. Cam liked him immediately.
“Ensign Powell,” Kikowani said, scrambling to his feet. All of them followed suit and snapped to attention. “We were just wondering,” Kikowani continued, “any news on our departure time?”
Cam smiled and patted the spacer on the shoulder. “Hang tight. All this hurry up and wait’s gonna pay off soon enough. We’ll get you ready to kick some Martian ass from Ceres to Saturn and back.”
The other man smiled broadly.
Cam added, “And we’ll be on Mars before you know it.”
The gang of spacers followed him into their bunking area. Spacer Waterson, a perennial butt of the other, usually older spacers’ jokes, walked beside Kikowani, stroking his chin. “Sir, I’ve been thinking. Do you think they’ll send us to Ceres or Vesta? Which one did you say is closer to Mars, Kikowani?”
Before Kikowani could answer, or more likely make a wisecrack aimed at his eager, young friend, Staff Sergeant Sikorski strode up to Cam and came to a position of parade rest. He was the platoon sergeant, officially Cam’s right hand man. He commanded a lot of respect among the younger men of the platoon, including Cam. He’d been through the Antares Crisis and had enough experience to go around.
“Ensign Powell?” he said. “Captain Velasquez wants you to know that AEROCOM has moved up our departure date.” He paused, his eyebrows arching in a frown. “According to the captain, there have been some, uh, worrying updates to the situation in orbit of Mars. You’ll want to come and hear for yourself, sir.”
Cam frowned and followed his platoon sergeant into their mini-command room, which was a tent set up in one corner of the retrofitted cargo hangar. Cam’s comm terminal sat against the back wall of the space, and he could see the insignia of the IDC Aerospace Command emblazoned on the screen. Its sweeping vector and globe were reminiscent of the old emblem of NASA, but its crossed sword and ballistic missile were undeniably martial in meaning. He leaned over the terminal, inputting his seven-digit ID code. It buzzed twice before Captain Velasquez’s face rose out of it in a hologram, resolving into thin air from a thousand points of light.
“Ensign Powell,” he said. “Glad to see you back in your garrison area. I’ve been trying to reach you for an hour.” There was no admonition in his voice, but Cam recognized the implication.
Cam stiffened, coming to attention. “My apologies Captain,” he said, pressing past the slightly annoyed implication the Captain had made. “Staff Sergeant Sikorski tells me that there’s news from Mars orbit? Is the regiment being moved up for more immediate departure for the belt?”
Cam supposed it was possible the Martians might have tried another direct attack on Earth. With the Transference Network being on lockdown, a naval attack was more likely. Cam doubted they could break through Earth’s defenses, but there was no telling whether that would stop them from trying.
Velasquez ignored him, apparently distracted by some other subordinate talking to him out of frame. When he finally nodded at Cam, he was frowning. “That’s right. Division received word less than an hour ago that the Militia has attempted to run the blockade put in place around Mars. There was a skirmish, and the fleet lost nine vessels. We took out fourteen of theirs and crippled five, but this has forced a rather hasty reassessment of the overall strategy for the push on Mars.”
He rubbed his chin before continuing. “The 116th has been assigned to help clear out resistance in the belt with the rest of the 3rd AEF and elements of the 4th. The rest of the inner system fleet will tighten the noose on Mars and start mopping up Militia elements nearer to Earth, while the outer fleet deals with the gas giants. With any luck, by winter of next year we’ll still be marching on Aldrin City as planned.”
Cam nodded, just as Sikorski stepped forward and came to a position of ease next to him.
“I dunno sir,” said Sikorski. “I would like the chance to mop the system with the bastards who caught us by surprise in Copenhagen. Rumor has it that son of a bitch DeLaria is leading the Martians’ political arm now.”
He reduced the multi-world Federation to just Mars, as most Spacers did, to reflect the idea of which planet they blamed for its crimes. Sikorski continued. “I personally would be very proud to string him up on the bow of the flagship and taking a victory tour of the system.”
Cam looked at him and smirked, a gesture that the Staff Sergeant returned.
“That’ll have to wait,” Velasquez said, after nodding at someone offscreen. “We’ve been receiving intelligence that the belt is swarming with MCF skirmishers looking to shore up the defenses for their activities in the outer system. We can’t let them do that, of course. That’s where the 3rd AEF comes in.”
Velasquez then gave a quick rundown on the new plan for their deployment. The first leg would take them to Ceres Station, where they would join up with the 297th Fleet Maneuvering Detachment from the Middle System Fleet for the operations in and around their assigned sector of the asteroid belt.
From there they and the other AEFs chosen for their part of the campaign were likely to be sent further out-system, to secure the Jovian and Saturnian systems. The same intelligence that put Milit