A lone man stood impassively among the ruined landscape. Winter had settled on the planet Naeve, and it would be one of the longest, coldest cold seasons in history on the green and blue gem. Most of the main continent had been covered in overcast for the past four months, and darkness began to creep into the souls of the denizens of the ravaged planet.
Some were affected more than others.
Alexander Kol stared at the two unremarkable grave markers. One of the graves was empty. His beloved Amelia's body had never been found, and he doubted it ever would be. The shockwave from one of the impacts had shattered the Gilded Towers's outer skin of clear ceramic and glass and hundreds of people were thrown from their living quarters out into the air.
The other grave was not empty.
The number of dead continued to rise, and the overwhelmed medical establishment had ordered to diggings of mass graves to prevent the number of diseases that flared when such a large collection of corpses were left unattended. Though it gave the battered people activity to keep them occupied, there were always more dead than there were graves.
And Kol had refused to allow Nathaniel to be dumped in one of them like some piece of trash.
It had taken two days for Kol to scratch out a final resting place with a twisted metal rod that had once been used to reinforce a plastcrete wall. He had used that same rod to carve out two unremarkable grave stones, with only the names of his wife and son to mark their funeral mounds.
Alexander spent much of his time in grief, but the cries of his body for food and sleep soon forced him to make contact with other survivors and rescure workers. The destruction was so widespread that many of the less injured people were forced to sleep in massive cities of tents. Many of the buildings had been compromised, as well as transportation. Most of the available vehicles were being used to transport out the critically injured and bring in rations and food supplies.
So, the passing of a transport overhead did not phase him any. Why should it? Shuttles were coming and go at all times as the orbital infrastructure transferred personnel and provisions to the battered surface. In many ways, Tycho was lucky in that it only sustained damage from the Advent bombardment, as opposed to parts of the continents of Asis and Turas, which sustained multiple orbital drops.
Unlike the other shuttles, this one didn't continue on past Kol's position. The noise of its engines didn't fade into the distance but, instead, rose to higher levels. The shuttle began to spin lazily in place as its VTOL system activated and it landed with all the grace of a fat-bellied swine.
Alexander turned to face the shuttle as the rear ramp opened with a depressurized rush of air. The shuttle itself wasn't even in a transport--it was a full-fledged assault shuttle complete with full racks of ordinance on its hull. Assault shuttles were designed to transport and support ground combat troops, and were fully capable of launching either anti-troop cluster missiles or armor piercing ordinance capable of crippling even Vasari warforms. This shuttle was no exception.
As the ramp completed opening, a dozen marines in full battle gear jumped down the ramp and spread out over the shuttle. Though they paid him no mind, Kol wondered what could bring a full squad down in an assault shuttle. His question was quickly answered as a figured followed the marines down the ramp. Though a vac suit covered the body, it was unmistakenly feminine, and Alexander noticed the markings of an admiral on the soulders of the pressure suit.
Kol waited patiently as the figured stepped up to him, removed her helmet, and saluted him brisquely.
"Admiral Alexander Kol?" she asked, then continued on without a pause. "I am Vice Admiral Veronika Eltsina of First Fleet's Forty-eighth Task Force."
He studied the woman. Though the vac suit hid the exact contours of her body, Kol was reasonably sure that she had a compact frame. She was almost a foot short of Kol's own six feet, and much more slender that she should have been, proportionally. Eltsina possessed a rather handsome face with dark tresses that, while not at their best thanks to a long ride in a shuttle with a helmet, were rather luminous.
What caught Kol's attention, though, were the eyes. The person standing before him appeared to be in her thirties, but those eyes were sharp and spoke of decades of experience. That told Kol that she was a recipient of the anti-aging therapy. Judging by her rank and entirely too young appearance, she must have joined her planetary fleet and then the TEC right out of high school.
Kol returned the salute. "Yes, I am Alexander Kol, Admiral."
"We've had a hard time finding you, Admiral," Eltsina replied in a slightly accented voice. "Please, come with me, Sir. I have orders from the Magistrate."
Alexander turned slightly to let his gaze sweep over the marine commandos, who were not looking at him rather pointedly. With one last look at the markers of his family, the admiral turned back to face Eltsina. "Very well, Vice Admiral."
The shuttle ride into orbit gave Kol his first real look at the overall devastation caused by the Naeve Raid. Though only a small percentage of Naeve's orbital infrastructure had been destroy, the overall impact to defensive and military ability had been severe. Kol noticed that several satellite yards were missing--most likely they were the stations that the Exiles had dropped on the planet.
Of the massive shipyards themselves, they were gutted. They were large, ungainly hulks in the best of time. With only minimal point defense, they weren't designed to take much punishment. One of the yards was completely missing--destroyed, and its remains having long ago burned up in Naeve's atmosphere--while the others were only half-functional now. Any ships that were under repairs or construction had been aborted by the lasers of missiles of captured TEC vessels.
Kol's gaze eventually fell onto the planet itself. There was something...odd about it. It was subtle, and he doubted anyone would notice the difference between Naeve's normal healthy outward glow and the somewhat glassy appearance it now had. Kol had spent over half his life in space, and had had plenty of time to study the jeweled Naeve at his leisure.
"It's the aftermath of the orbital drops," said Veronika, leaning over and looking through the view hole that Kol was studying. "They say it will take years for the dust to clear out from the atmosphere."
Alexander only grunted a reply. Something else caught his eye. "That's a lot of activity out there, Admiral."
Veronika nodded. "Yes, sir. The Magistrate ordered the evacuation of Naeve."
Surprise slithered into the back of Kol's mind. It was so hard to care about anything anymore. Naeve had billions of people on planet, and evacuating all of them would be next to impossible. Of course, the Exiles had clearly proven their ability to resort to targetting civilians, and, one way or another, Naeve would be turned into more of a battlefield than it has already. Unless...
"How many capital ships are in your task force, Admiral?"
"Six squadrons, sir. Four Dunov squadrons and two Akkons," she replied instantly.
Not even a single battleship or carrier. They weren't there to defend, they were there to abandon the system.
Kol had to admit that the Aztec, Veronika's flagship, was a handsome ship. The Core Worlds spared no expense, and Veronika's ships were all third generation vessels. With full military designs, these weren't the jerry-rigged civilian vessels he fought the Vasari with half a dozen years ago. They were the most powerful vessels in their class that the terrans could build, with better shields, armor, and weapons than most of the former generation's battleships.
This was one of the problems he had been crusading against at his time in the fleet. Humanity had ground the Vasari to a halt, but the Core Worlds didn't exploit that to go on the offensive. They were content to wait, build up, and allow the Vasari to regain momentum. Oh, of course, there were raids, and Second and Third Fleets were doing admirably in the small skirmishes, but here the Terrans had a chance to liberate captured worlds or at least make the Vasari themselves commit to defense.
And what did they do? They squandered so much power in defensive pickets designed to dissuade Vasari raids. They had a point as the most developed Core Worlds were essential to the war effort, but that was a means to justify their fear that they themselves would find their own systems on the war front.
And so it was, that hundreds of desperately needed capital ships were kept at home in the Core Worlds or in the Northern Kingdoms under 'courtesy' patrols.
Within moments of Kol's arrival on the docking bay, he had been ushered off. Veronika had seemed surprised when an urgent message by her executive officer carried her off, but she gave Alexander a sincere apology before heading off to the flag deck. Kol was just thankful there wasn't a welcoming ceremony. He wasn't in the particular mood required to thoroughly enjoy the side-party--instruments included--and rows upon rows of naval personnel that accompanied the arrival of an admiral aboard a flagship.
Of course, Kol wasn't technically an admiral anymore. Yes, his various medals and distinguished service required anyone in the navy to address him as admiral, even in retirement, but he had no more authority to command a warship than the steward seeing to Veronika's linens. However, it was only a technicality, and Alexander would only be fooling himself if he thought for an instant that it would not become an actuality in the very near future.
"This way, Admiral, if you would please," offered a young lieutenant--Almos, Kol thought his name was---who gestured to a lift. The lieutenant waited patiently as Kol entered the lift--as any junior officer does well to learn in the presence of even a retired flag officer! "I can take you to your quarters, sir, or we can go directly to the br--"
"Take me to the Magistrate," interrupted Kol in a single breath. He somewhat regretted his harsh tone, but he quickly wrote it off. Given what he'd gone through, and his age, he was damn well entitled to a bitter outburst. Still, he though, he'd best learn to control his temper a little more, less he insult not only himself, but the navy reflected upon him.
The Magistrate looked more or less the same to Kol. His hair had turned uniformly gray, and his face was covered in more deep wrinkles than Alexander remembered, but other than those small flaws, he seemed very much his normal self.
Apart, perhaps, from the tired eyes now apart of the Magistrate.
"Admiral Kol," he said softly.
"Magistrate," replied Alexander.
They both looked at each for several moments, neither knowing what to say.
Gerard cleared his throat before gesturing to the desk provided to him by Admiral Eltsina. "Alexander, I cannot adequately express my grief over the passing of your family. I realized it must be a terrible burden, to be surrounded by so much death." The Magistrate paused once more to gather his thoughts. "But I must ask you to shoulder an even greater hardship..."
"Admiral on deck!" shouted the marine officer at the door. The various ratings, lieutenants, and even senior officers turned from their stations and duties to come to attention. Admiral Eltsina, their task force commander, hadn't been scheduled to make an appearance and neither had Admiral Toshinoka, their squadron CO, but none of them before had seen the tall figure clad in the Navy gold on blue of a full fleet admiral.
At least, not outside of a recorded medium.
"Prepare a recording, Lieutenant Dannings," ordered the Admiral to the communications officer.
"Aye, sir!" he replied quickly and inputing a few commands into his console. "You're on, Admiral."
"This is Admiral Alexander Kol, to all ships, to all personnel in Task Force Three Seventy-Five. As of oh-three-thirty-five hours, I have been recalled to active duty. By order of the Trader Emergency Coalition, and with the blessings of Magistrate Gerard and Admiral Veronika Eltsina, I hereby take of the task force with my flag aboard the Gibraltor. That is all."
He looked around at the mixed faces aboard the command deck of the third generation battlecruiser before turning his gaze back to the lieutenant. "Send it out."