Antares Fiction: ‘Questions?’ by Tim Bancroft

Since the launch of the Beyond the Gates of Antares Rulebook, we’ve been contacted by several community members who wanted to share their own writings – and we’ve been hugely impressed with some of the fantastic work that has been sent in – it’s fantastic to see the community making their own mark upon the canvas that is the Antarean universe!

We were particularly impressed with the writings of Tim Bancroft – who has sent in a number of pieces! This is the third section of Tim’s stories that we’ve shared – his previous pieces can be found here and here

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The humans in Shaltok’s simulation array once more ran for cover. ‘Come out and fight!’ he snarled. ‘Disruptors!’ Simulated scourer cannons fired as one and the sim’s crude undergrowth was shredded by the combined fire of his fellow troopers.
The simulation halted; speakers blared around the ship. ‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9, report to the bridge immediately. Shaltok to the bridge.’

Shaltok sighed, shut off the tactical simulation and lifted the array off his head. He blinked at the shipboard lighting, glanced round the sim chamber. ‘Troopers, study the tactical manuals. Work out how we can better strike at the humans when they flee for cover like that.’ The two battle squads acknowledged his orders, saluted. Good Ghar.

He made his way to the nearest trans shaft. Even on this small vessel the bridge was hundreds of metres away and he dare not be delayed.

* * *

Outside the bridge, two troopers in shipboard armour eyed Shaltok suspiciously. A voice boomed: ‘State your business.’
They know very well who I am. ‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9, reporting as ordered.’

His face was bathed in the sickly light of an ID scanner. Pneumatics hissed; the heavy hatchway swung open. The over-amplified voice boomed again. ‘Pass.’

As if you can do anything else. Shaltok stepped through into the bridge and the hatch mechanism wheezed, clanged shut behind him. Inside, the Captain and Force Commander Brak were standing at a comms panel, murmuring to each other as they decoded a secure transmission. Around the bridge, Ghar in command pods were silhouetted by the filtered view from the external screens: the blazing photosphere of Antares.

A warning chimed; the bright light vanished. The Captain grunted in pleasure. ‘Success. We’re in.’ He glanced up at Shaltok.

‘Yes?’

‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9 reporting as ordered, sirs.’ How many times do I have to repeat myself?

‘Private briefing,’ barked the Captain. He led the way to a sound-proofed niche.

‘We’ve just decoded our orders,’ said Commander Brak. ‘You are mentioned specifically.’

‘Me?’ Shaltok’s voice squeaked. ‘Sorry, sir. Why me?’

The Captain frowned. ‘A strange question.’

‘I believe it’s his brood, sir,’ said Brak.

The Captain looked quizzical. ‘You are a brood-mate of High Commander Karg?’

‘No, sir. The brood subsequent to his, one that cannot be compared with the High Commander’s.’ Let’s move away from that topic. ‘I was merely surprised at the honour. My orders, Captain?’

The Captain grunted, called up a transmission, selected a tag marked ‘Planetary Deployment’. An image filled the screen, two small moons orbiting a dry, sand-red world with small, rust-coloured seas. A blinking light indicated a position of interest just north of the equator. A single ship was shown orbiting the planet, a tag indicating it as a Freeborn frigate.

Karg’s voice overlay the display. ‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9 is to lead a small force to the ruins at this location and hide the device.’ The screen flashed up the launch of a Ghar lander from the troopship behind one of the moons, a fast course to the planet’s surface whilst the Freeborn ship was in orbital opposition. ‘The lander can avoid observation providing the ground forces evacuate quickly.’ An image of a device appeared on-screen. ‘There should be no indication that the device was placed by Ghar.’ The device disappeared, replaced by a close-up of the world: rocky, dusty, a haze in the air, cliffs, canyons, tufts of red and bronze plants with sharply-angled branches. ‘Survivors are to hide on the planet surface and await further instructions.’

Force Commander Brak stopped the recording. ‘Clear?’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Shaltok. ‘What does the device do?’

Brak zoomed in on the device, read the instructions. ‘Once deployed – and only when deployed – depress the activation switch.’

‘And then?’

The Captain furrowed his heavy brows in suspicion.

Shaltok saw the expression, swallowed. ‘Sorry, sir. I take it the ruins are useless?’

A shrug. ‘Surveys suggest they might contain Fifth Age data on bio-nanosphere integration –perhaps tempting for humans.’ He almost spat the last word.

Brak gestured towards readouts beside the image. ‘The planet is rich in heavy metals and minerals, the gate a useful location for a strategic outpost. Success is vital, Force Leader. Be prepared to attack on command with whatever troops you have.’

I’m bait. And I thought I was safe out here. ‘Thank you , sir.’

‘Dismissed.’

* * *

The flight deck of the lander was crowded, every station crewed. Shaltok stood behind the commander, watching. The sensor station buzzed and the operator spoke from beneath his combat array. ‘Commander. Three surveillance satellites identified.’

‘Weapons?’

‘Aye, sir. Weapons.’ Disruptors spat; explosions rippled and crackled across the fabric of reality. Deep blue and black hollows in space were briefly lit by the orange flare of the dying watchsats. ‘Success.’

‘Very well. Atmosphere in 10.’ The Commander turned to Shaltok. ‘Suit up, Force Leader. Your troop will have to bail out in the air. To success!’

Shaltok sighed. Casualties before we even hit the ground. ‘Sir. To success.’ He slipped through the connecting hatch into the lander’s hold. ‘Suit up. Aerial deployment.’ There was a groan from the Outcasts to one side. ‘Quiet! At least you’ve been warned.’ The Outcasts squirmed, stammered apologies and rushed to grab landing chutes to strap to their cannon and themselves.
His troopers were already climbing into their battlesuits and he felt a surge of pride at their calm efficiency. Good Ghar. Shaltok clambered into his own armour and felt the familiar contentment as the suit wrapped around him, connected itself to his nervous system.

His combat array lit up: all systems operational; all troopers powered and ready; local data loaded. He comm’d the flight deck. ‘Commander, ground troops ready to go.’

The Commander replied. ‘Acknowledged. To success. Deceleration in 9… 8…ah.’

Engines roared and the assault lander screamed to a halt, the abrupt deceleration pummelling all in the hold into their suits and harness. Outcasts groaned in pain. The lower bay doors opened and speakers blared. ‘Drop. Drop now.’

Still shaken, Shaltok hit the release and dropped with his command. Chutes and lines slowed their final descent to the surface. The rocky ground was closer than he realised, obscured by dust blown into the air from the lander’s downdraft. Shaltok landed clumsily, his suit tilting on two legs before he regained balance and crashed back into stability. There was a sharply curtailed scream from beneath his rear leg. He glanced down to see it had impaled a careless Outcast.
He shook off the remains, clumped into cover behind a large outcrop. ‘Casualty report.’ Statuses flickered on his array: one casualty, Outcast. He sighed. So careless.
‘Move forward by squads. Tectorists to front and flanks.’ Ghar scuttled into position to either side and along their line of march.

‘Move out!’

* * *

 

Tim Bancroft has been longlisted for the James White SF Award 2015 and won the Orwell Dystopian Fiction Award 2014. Follow Tim on his Blog at: timbancroft.me.uk.