"Death shall come,

And he shall bring with him

Death."

-Strasdiet prophetic poem, dated ca. 3 BC by paleontologists.

Chapter One:

From the dark night sky streaked three shining beads of light, glowing a whitish orange- the color of extremely hot flames in a heavily oxygenated atmosphere- the color of space-ground shuttles falling through the stratosphere of Bevgel 7.

Within those shuttles were men and women; all human, all determined, all courageous, all willing, and none expecting to survive the next 4 hours.

But only some of them were right.

***

Within the lead ship, Platoon Captain Henry MacDonald was locked into his harness, bound at 6 points to the main structure of the ship. If the ship went down, he'd go with it- and this he knew.

As did the eleven other men within the vessel, each also locked, facing him, and did the 24 others in the two accompanying shuttles.

The Captain and all of his men had a mission- an obligation accepted freely, self-imposed. Up to the last minute they could have refused to accept it, walk away with no repercussions and the goodwill of some, the sympathy of most, and the understanding of all. Except themselves.

Platoon Sergeant Jon Prieste sat directly across from him, grinning, shoveling the contents of a C-ration into his mouth. He had somehow gotten his arms free, a talent that no one had ever been able to figure out the trick to. Gunnery Sergeant Prieste had ridden ships to work his way through school even before joining the Corps; he had no space-sickness, no sea-sickness, no motion sickness at all, which had successfully made him the envy of his platoon.

To Prieste's left, a corporal leaned forward the tiny amount her straps would allow, bringing the attention of the entire ship to bear on her. "Hey, Jon! If you don't stop eating that damn c-rat, I'm gonna shove that can down your ugly gullet as soon as we get out of this fraggin' carnival ride!"

Prieste grinned at her. "Ah, but dearest Eve, how else am I to make you squirm in so tantalizing a manner?"

A wave of laughter rippled across the ship, and Corporal Eve Ceana stuck her tongue out at him. "Deprived, huh, Jon? Guess that's what happens when you turn down perfectly respectable girls 'cause you're 'uncomfortable'."

The room erupted in cheers. Prieste grinned wider. "Respectable? In THIS outfit? Have you been hiding new recruits from me?"

The male half of the room whooped and hollered, while the female half chattered in anger. MacDonald spoke quietly, but his voice projected easily. "Strangely enough, I'd rather not have my final living memory be of you two bickering." Several members of the ship's company groaned aloud.

Curiously enough, a 277 mm shell choose that moment to explode against the ship's shields, as if to break the tension. The energy of the blast was easily absorbed by the overpowered shields, but the shock wave still battered the craft.

Inside, the squad fell deadly quiet. In a rapid staccato of clicks and whirr's, the soldiers' helmets sealed gently over their heads, completing the complex suite of powered armor in which they were protectively enclosed. Screens beeped into life, communications systems exchanging compressed and encoded bursts of data, confirming each other's identities, cross-checking various bits of information.

The suits themselves activated, nanofiber muscles and neutronium exoskeleton powering up and running self-tests, confirming their neural links and interconnections, preparing themselves for the quick-burst movements common in battlefield situations.

Tesla shield generators activated in each suit, spreading a high-powered field of airborne electrical capacity. The system would automatically electrocute anything inbound, sending out a surge of electricity powerful enough to fry guidance controls and vaporize metals. Gravity disrupters, capable of creating a burst of gravitons powerful enough to deflect plasma bolts, prepared their capacitors, scanning their surroundings for signs of danger.

The weapons attached to each suit powered up, sending ballistic data to targeting systems, receiving minute corrections in return.

MA-8 Dirac antimatter rifles- shaped like M4A2's, capable of firing antimatter rounds at over 2000 feet per second further then a mile- charged their electromagnetic fields, readying themselves for instant action.

MTS-8 tachyon sniper rifles- double-looped particle containers mated to M1D Garand frames- gathered the invisible, faster-then-light micro-particles from the surrounding space, feeding them into the loops, ready to release high-energy bursts of artificially slowed particles.

AT-1 Schuster anti-tank weapons, designed to fire 40mm sabot-style antimatter rockets past two miles- rockets that, when contacting solid matter, would detonate with the force of the Nagasaki nuke compressed into a lance of pure energy 10 meters in length.

All of these were activated, their sighting devices running self-checks, their mini-targeting computers checking and rechecking with the suits' master computers. All in all, that single ship carried weapons capable of the impulse output of more energy then Earth's star.

More explosions buffeted the falling dropships- everything from plasma bolts, to 600mm HEAP rounds, to low-yield fusion devices. The shocks carried directly into the ships and the soldiers within, vibrating skulls, spines, and internal organs. Jon whistled merrily, the distracting noise carrying over the communications channel.

MacDonald glanced at the readout arriving directly from the dropship's navigational computer, displaying velocity, time to impact, projected impact velocity, forthcoming accelerations, and a slew of other ballistic data, interesting only to physicists. His tongue manipulated a micro-switch, and his comm set switched to broadcast mode.

"Thirty seconds, and our LZ is hot. Squad leaders are the first out- fire team leaders next, followed by order of seniority. Confirm."

A chorus of 'confirmed' echoed within the captain's helmet. He glanced at the readout again, then began to speak. "Twe-"

And everything went blue-white.