The following is a preview of book 3 in my action-packed martial thriller series, Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming.
Somewhere Beneath Brussels Air Base
A quartet of graying men sat behind a rectangular table as if imitating the four oldest disciples at the Last Supper. But another, later event from Christian myth still haunted the young man waiting in the shadows before them.
Three of the elders wore dark blue uniforms bedecked with pins and ribbons. The fourth man, who sat on the far left, sported a lily white business suit. His balding head bowed to read a sheaf of papers under one of the four desk lamps which alone lit the stuffy room. White letters on the black plastic nameplate before him read GOV F. TOVE.
“What a disgrace!” Tove smacked the papers down on the desk. “That’s the only word for our response to HALO. A band of teenagers assassinated my deputy, terrorized multiple colonies, and got away scot-free.”
“It wasn’t exactly scot-free, sir,” said an even balder, bull-necked man seated at the table’s opposite end. His nameplate read GEN H. DRYDEN. “Our mass driver at Fort Arzachel did shoot down the enemy destroyer.”
“I wouldn’t brag, General,” said Tove. “The Roter Märzdestroyed Bigelow City in its death throes. Not a single enemy operative was captured in the bargain. We still don’t know HALO’s full capabilities, and their next objective is a mystery.”
“Considering their loss of manpower, material, and support,” said Dryden, “I’d imagine their current objective is basic survival.”
Tove jabbed a gnarled finger at the base commander. “You imagine. That’s exactly my point. We’re left guessing in the absence of useful intelligence. Can someone explain how the enemy vanished without a trace?”
Dryden’s acerbic tone twisted the knife. “Maybe Malov Strauss.”
“Undersecretary Strauss already gave a statement,” said the long-faced man to Tove’s left labeled COL M. ALVAREZ. The Colonel flipped through his own stack of papers. “He said he engaged and disabled XSeed 01, but the crashing destroyer forced him to withdraw emptyhanded.”
Tove grunted. “Strauss is a Fel. What’s the CDF’s excuse? XSeeds 02, 03, and 04 were also sighted over Bigelow City. Why weren’t they captured?”
Colonel Nikeda, the fidgety man with a pinched face seated between Alvarez and Dryden, said, “We have conflicting reports that two or more XSeeds were destroyed.”
Tove pounded the table. Water sloshed out of the glass to his right. “If that’s the case, where’s the wreckage?”
The three officers exchanged worried looks. “We’re still searching,” Dryden said.
“How hard can it be to find four giant robots?” Tove asked on the edge of exasperation.
“There’s a lot of lunar surface to cover,” said Dryden, “and even more space. In the meantime, we’ve gone over every millimeter of the Roter März wreckage.”
“And?” demanded Tove.
A heavy breath puffed out Dryden’s fruit salad-laden chest, preceding a sharp exhale. “We estimate only half the ship’s company was aboard when it impacted the surface.”
A strained silence fell and finally broke when Nikeda offered, “A Grand Dolph transmitted video of a shuttle leaving the Rote Märzshortly before impact. The Dolph was destroyed, but we’re searching along the shuttle’s last known course.”
The young man in the shadows had listened patiently to his superiors’ veiled bickering and finger-pointing. Now he sensed his moment. “Excuse me, Sirs, but you’re wasting your time.”
All four old men peered into the darkness shrouding the front of the room. “Do you think you can straighten out our priorities, Lieutenant?” Alvarez said flatly.
Whatever the Colonel’s intent, his young subordinate took the invitation literally. He hobbled forward on crutches gripped by hands bound in wrist braces, making soft thumping sounds on the polymer tiles as he advanced into the light. Brown hair spilled over a bandage encircling his forehead. A gold bar adorned each shoulder of his blue coat.
“Hanging on that cross must have given you brain damage, Bauer,” said Dryden. “The Colonel was being sarcastic. You’re here as an eyewitness to HALO’s attack on the Academy. When we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it.”
Tove hushed the General with a raised hand. “I want answers. If Lieutenant Bauer has them, I’m willing to hear him out.”
“Need I remind Your Excellency that Mr. Bauer only received his commission last week and only out of sympathy for his ordeal.”
“I beg your pardon, Sir,” Bauer said, “but if that’s the reason for my promotion, you can take it back. Sympathy has no meaning for me.”
Bauer’s cold, clinical voice made his superiors shift in their seats.
“Say your piece, Lieutenant,” said Tove. “Why should we abandon the search for HALO?”
“Pouring all our resources into a manhunt is better than our original policy of denying the problem,” Bauer said, “but we’re still reacting to their moves. We should take the initiative.”
A bemused look passed over Dryden’s face. “How do you propose we do that?”
“I’ve had plenty of time to think,” Bauer said. “Malov embarrassed the CDF, but continued involvement in outer space is a needless drain on this administration. Let the Arzachel garrison handle the search. The immediate threat is here on Earth.”
Tove leaned forward and laced his fingers. “I’m starting to agree with my officers. You’re quite presumptive for a young buck fresh out of school.”
“Is it presumptive to point out the rogue governor who’s seceding from the Coalition and taking a major spaceport with him?” asked Bauer.
“Chang,” grumbled Tove. “I warned the Council about his superstitions. Those feckless bureaucrats deserve a share of the blame for his betrayal.”
“That traitor is harboring HALO soldiers and allies,” said Bauer. “He appeals directly to the public, and the government’s inaction only strengthens his case.”
Tove seemed to deflate. “The Secretaries fear that direct intervention would be a public relations fiasco.”
“They’re right to be afraid,” said Bauer. “Despite committing political murders and attacking civilians, HALO holds the moral high ground.”
“How do you suggest we take it back?” asked Dryden.
“HALO has energized the grounder population,” Bauer said. “A growing number of colonists favor withdrawing from Earth, if only to stop the violence. That trend would be slowed, or even reversed, in the wake of sudden attacks with heavy grounder casualties.”
Dryden’s brow furrowed. “Do you propose that the CDF launch preemptive strikes on grounder populations?”
A grin tugged at Bauer’s mouth. “No, Sir. I propose that HALO will be responsible.”
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