Chapter 15-The Final Battle

TSU cruiser Fury of Gaia, Earth orbit

13:04 hours, 28th October 2397

"You will come back."

Matthew smiled as he pulled on his helmet. "Not without you."

Kimiko gave him a serious look, "Where would I be without my knight in shining ANGEL?" She blew Matthew a kiss before activating her faceplate's opacity filter, blocking his view of her. "Save it for when this is over, gyokusai." She said before turning to where Michael was crouched near the hangar bay doors.

Matthew called after her, "Good luck!" As he made his way to Gabriel he couldn't help letting out a quiet laugh, though whether it was genuine elation or just nerves he couldn't tell. He rapped his knuckles on Kaon's helmet as he passed. "Glad to have you watching my back."

Kaon replied with a brief thumbs up, only taking his eyes off his datapad for a second as he fine tuned the calibrations of Samael's rifle.

Continuing on, Matthew came across Fairburn and Colton making their final preparations.

Fairburn grinned as he firmly grasped Colton's wrist. "Guess I'll see you wherever we come out of this."

Colton gave a loud bark of laughter, clapping his friend on the shoulder as they shook hands, "You sound worried Cal."

"I'm only worried you're gonna fly as bad as you usually do." Fairburn grumbled as he pulled his hand away. "Not that you could do much worse."

Colton shrugged nonchalantly as he stepped back, "I think I detect a hint of envy from the great Captain Fairburn." He bowed low with a smirk, "Just remember-nothing stops the unstoppable!" Turning, he walked away with another burst of laughter, waving a hand in Matthew's direction as he passed, "Good luck out there, kid. Try to stay in one piece."

Matthew couldn't help smiling as he turned to watch Colton go.

Fairburn donned his helmet, keying his personal radio. "Tenacious as a brick wall. And about half as clever."

Matthew responded over his own radio, "Well, you can't question his optimism at least."

Fairburn let out a rare chuckle, "I guess at least one of us should stay positive." He straightened up, "You're ready for this?"

Matthew saluted, "Yes sir, waiting on your orders."

Fairburn cut the radio connection, "Mount up, we're launching." He turned to leave, "And give 'em hell."

Standing alone, Matthew took one last look around the hangar bay. The bustle of activity was starting to die down; pilots settling into their vehicles, making their final checks, engineers retreating, pulling away the automated fuelers and loaders as the ships were cleared for launch. He nodded to himself and climbed up into Gabriel's cockpit, the hatch swinging shut behind him. He closed his eyes as he fell back into the embrace of his harness, mind and machine becoming one. As the sensation rushed through his body he breathed in and opened his eyes to the familiar blue glow of the screens around him, then they flickered and Matthew was once again looking out through the ANGEL's eyes. He keyed his comm panel and gripped the control handles tight. "Angelium 01, Gabriel, ready to launch!"

A few seconds later a reply came through, "All callsigns showing green, prepare for launch. Bay doors opening."

The lights in the hangar went out, plunging the cavernous space and everyone within into darkness for a moment before they were replaced by a deep red illumination. Slowly the bay doors began to slide apart, grinding inch by inch until the entire wall of the hangar was pulled aside. The secondary membrane smoothly irised open and there was a thunderous roar as the air in the hangar blasted outwards with the force of a gale.

Matthew's comm panel pinged a second time as another message came through. This time it was Greaves. "Callum, and the rest of you, you know what you must do. I have faith in your courage, your strength and your skill. All the hopes of the people around you are resting on you. The fate of Earth is in your hands. You five are my chosen, the best pilots in the TSU and I know you won't fail. So go and end this war. Go forth and change the galaxy."

None of them responded. There was nothing left to be said. As the last of the air vented from the hangar the lights flicked to green. Every pilot in the hangar engaged their engines, lifted into the air and sped out into the void in a gleaming swarm. Matthew's wings flared blue behind him as he leaped forward and joined them.

Earth still hung motionless in the endless black in all its majesty, only this time the planet was screened by rank upon rank of ships ranging in size from tiny fighters and interceptors to the mountainous hulks of cruisers and carriers. Closer to the surface the orbital defence platforms had been arrayed, heavily armed satellite stations, Earth's last line of defence. Even now the TSU fleets were busily arranging themselves into battle formation, forming neat rows that overlapped one another into a colossal wall of cannon and armour.

Matthew followed the rest of his squad, speeding hurriedly toward the front line. Angelium would be the tip of the spear that struck back against the Rahk'Shar. As they took up their positions a voice that Matthew recognised as one of the admirals from the meeting earlier came across his comm panel, which was signalling a fleet wide message. "TSU command to all callsigns, this is Admiral Harbeck, I'll be conducting the defense operation from the rear line. All defense platforms and auxiliary fleets are to report directly to me. All main fleets are to fan out in defense pattern ultima and sound off."

A series of short replies followed from the commanders of the main fleets. "Admiral Garner, Red Fleet is standing by."

"Admiral Chen, Blue Fleet is ready."

"This is Morgan, Green Fleet, standing by."

"Richter, Gold Fleet, awaiting orders."

"Admiral Markov, Black Fleet is in position."

"Santiago and White Fleet, ready to roll out Admiral."

"Akosu, Grey Fleet, preparations complete."

Harbeck continued, "If everyone is in position, let's begin. All fighter, interceptor and ANGEL squadrons are to engage enemy fighters and Leviathans at knife-fight range as soon as able. Your objective is to clear a path for our bombers and corvettes to launch bombing runs on their heavier armour. That should force them to bring their big guns into play, and we'll respond with capital ships. Any enemy forces that get too close will be dealt with by my defense fleet so the rest of you focus on the targets ahead of you. And when that dreadnought shows up...hell, we just throw everything we have at it." He paused for a moment.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sure I don't need to tell any of you that we currently form the entirety of the Union's naval combat force, the largest armada to ever engage the Rahk'Shar in a single battle. We represent the defiance, define the will of all Humans in the galaxy. Remember that you stand here and fight not only for your own lives, but for those of your family, your friends, your comrades who stand and fight by your side. You fight for Humanity's right to exist! These Rahk'Shar bastards who have taken so much from us, hunted and slaughtered our people for half a century, they may think they are unstoppable. They will come here expecting another simple victory, another pathetic world to be crushed. What they will find is the wrath of a species that will weather any storm and survive any attack. What they will find is their death! I vow that I will not live to see the day that Earth falls and Humanity is stripped of its last scrap of courage. I will not live to see the annihilation of my people. So I say to you, brave soldiers, stand here and fight, for everything we have been, for everything we can yet become. Stand as one and fight back against destruction! Glory to the Terra Sphere Union!"

A roar went up as, with one voice, the fighting men and women of the TSU raised a mighty cheer, a savage war cry that shook the stars.

Matthew drew both pistols and crouched low, counting off the seconds. In the silence that followed, Humanity waited with bated breath for the die that would decide their fate to be cast. Matthew withdrew into himself, visualising his previous experiences of combat. He felt tension build in the pit of his stomach, rising slowly up through his chest, an icy shard of dread.

The silence seemed to stretch out for an eternity before it was finally broken by a burst of static, followed by Farrell's voice through the comm panel, "Angelium, jump signatures detected at our twelve, get ready, they're here."

The fear gnawing at Matthew drained from him instantly, replaced by an odd serenity, a void of emotion. His eyes snapped open and all his muscles bunched like a coiled spring, ready to launch him headfirst into whatever was coming.

When the Rhak'Shar came their arrival was announced by innumerable pinpricks of dull blue light which soon expanded, blanketing the stars with their iridescence, each one a doorway through which the enemy flooded. First came the frigates, the cruisers and the carriers. And then, as if by some unseen signal, the warships opened and released their countless fighter squadrons upon Earth like a plague of locusts.

Matthew sprang forward, firing both pistols and bringing down a pair of fighters. As he closed with the enemy ships he twirled past a third craft that sped toward him, and fired another shot that reduced its engines to starbursts of emerald flame.

Both fleets crashed together like two great waves smashing against one another. Matthew dropped low, spinning away as a ring of explosions blossomed around him. He rolled onto his back, firing blindly into the mass of needle-nosed ships that raced overhead until both guns clattered empty. Flipping upright, he reloaded, soaring upwards once more in a graceful manoeuvre that brought him back to back with Michael.

The two ANGELs spiralled together, rising higher, four guns singing in unison as they spat a deadly hail upon the swarming alien vessels. In a matter of seconds the pair had cleared a space around them, giving them some breathing room before the next attack came.

Kimiko reloaded her rifles as she called over the comm, "Nothing to it."

Matthew allowed himself a brief smile, "Thanks for the assist." He held up one fist above Gabriel's shoulder, which Kimiko lightly tapped the back of Michael's hand to before peeling away and diving torward yet another cluster of enemy ships.

Matthew turned and spotted two fighters screaming toward him, one from his twelve, the other from his three. "Enough of that." He muttered, returning his pistols to their holsters. He reached for his swords as the fighters continued to bear down on him. The one heading straight at him burst apart just before coming into range. Matthew drew both his swords and brought them around in an arc, cleaving through the fighter to his right. He twisted away from the explosion, Gabriel's wings creating a swirling pattern through the shower of sparks and shrapnel.

One of Lucifer's chain javelins curved around Gabriel and sliced through the hull of a third ship before Matthew had even registered the black ANGEL's presence. Fairburn's voice sounded strained over the comm but still held the same air of authority, "Stop playing around! Bomber squadron moving up on our six, provide support and get them to the closest enemy capital ship."

"On it." He dropped into a dive and drew up alongside a cluster of four bombers led by a corvette that his IFF indicator tagged as Paladin squadron. "Paladin, this is Angelium 01, need a hand?"

"Thanks 01. We've already lined up a nice fat cruiser. If you can clear a path to her it'd be much appreciated."

"Roger that Paladin, stay close." Matthew sighted on the indicated cruiser and put on a burst of speed towards it, readying his swords as a wall of opposition closed in to repel him. He rolled aside as plasma fire began raining down, swatted away a stray shot with a flick of one blade and drove the other through a fighter that drew too close. As gunfire erupted from the ships following him he darted from one target to the next, moving faster than they could track him, striking with lethal precision before moving on.

They continued on like this, cutting a trail through the Rahk'Shar fleet until they were almost upon the cruiser itself. Before Matthew could give the command to commence a bombing run two full fighter squadrons converged ahead of their formation, blocking their path. The ships swooped gracefully out of their steep dives and into formation, all guns blazing.

Another call came through from the Paladin corvette, "Shit, we can't take them head on. Paladin, break off!"

Matthew was about to respond when he was interrupted by a joyous whoop over the comm and, as he watched on, the approaching fighters became a wall of fire and shredded metal that quickly dissipated. "Hope you don't mind if I take this dance, kid."

Matthew felt a relieved smile cross his face as he heard the familiar, boisterous voice. He turned to see Raphael approaching, the orange ANGEL streaked with deep black scorch marks. "Looks like you've been getting careless." He said.

"This?" Colton replied quizzically, as if noticing the plasma burns for the first time, "I think it improves the look."

Matthew chuckled despite their situation, "Yeah, well if you want to do something stupid how do you feel about taking on a cruiser?"

"Sounds like my kind of party!"

"Alright, Paladin squadron, recommence attack, hit that cruiser along its port side. Sergeant Colton, I need you to take the starboard side. I'm gonna hit the bridge directly."

Colton drew up alongside Matthew as he put on a renewed burst of speed toward the cruiser. "Copy that Corporal."

"Roger 01. Paladin, form up and commence bombing run."

They sped ever closer to the cruiser. Matthew gritted his teeth and pressed his swords together, overdriving them as he had during the battle over Mordred. This time he would need to be ready to strike as soon as he reached the hull of the ship.

There was a flicker of light from the cruiser's prow. Matthew gasped, his eyes shooting open. "Evade, now!" He yelled into the comm panel. He threw himself to the right just as Colton dodged left, the energy beam from the cruiser's main cannon passing between them. He didn't see what became of Paladin squadron.

Matthew grunted as a wave of blistering heat and pressure rolled over Gabriel, tossing the ANGEL into the wake of the shot. His viewscreens flared green, then white, and he turned his face away, slamming his eyes shut even as his helmet's opacity filter darkened to protect them. It took a few seconds before he realised Colton was speaking to him again, "Matthew? Bannon! Can you hear me?"

"Yeah, I read you. Some of my visual sensors got fried by that flash, endothermic shielding took a beating too. Other than that I'm alright."

"Good. Paladin, you still with us?"

There was a burst of static from Paladin squadron's comm channel, then a reply, "We lost Paladin three but the rest of us are still here. We should hit the cruiser before they have a chance to recharge that gun."

"Agreed." Matthew said. "Change of plan. Paladin lead, I need you to get as close as you can to their cannon and fire a torpedo straight down the barrel."

"Are you crazy? There's no way I'm getting that close."

"Trust me, I've seen this done before. They can't fire again for a few seconds anyway but there isn't much of a window."

"And what about the turrets?"

"We'll draw her fire. Sergeant Colton?"

"Got it, starboard side. Paladin squadron, stick to the port side as planned."

"Copy that 04."

The formation spread out, Colton speeding ahead and to the left, raining down showers of rockets and picking off turrets with precise shots from Raphael's E.D. cannons. At the same time, the three surviving bombers of Paladin squadron raced along the opposite side of the cruiser's hull, flying so close to the surface that they almost brushed the barrels of the guns as they passed. As they flew they dropped their explosive payload, leaving a trail of searing blasts in their wake. The cruiser retaliated quickly, turrets swivelling to track the attackers, plasma volleys cutting a dazzling pattern through space.

For the moment Matthew and Paladin lead were forgotten, even as they flew head on into the jaws of their enemy. Matthew looked up into the barrell of the cruiser's main cannon, so wide that a whole squadron could have flown inside. Getting this close was a suicidal move. No rational strategist ever expected a suicidal move.

Colton and the bombers completed their run and peeled off. A call came through from one of the bombers, "I hope you're ready back there. Paladin one's been winged and we're all out of ordnance."

Then the corvette again, "Now or never 01. Take the shot?"

"Affirmative, fire torpedoes and dodge low." And he boosted up, high above the cruiser. He watched as the torpedoes disappeared into the gaping mouth of the cruiser. He watched as Paladin lead dropped its bow and ducked under the larger ship's hull, throwing up sparks as the two briefly grated together. He flipped over, swords outstretched before him, aimed downwards. He punched Gabriel's thrusters to full burn, blasting downwards at top speed, the ANGEL becoming a blur of light as its wings stretched out into a long, saphire contrail. He closed his eyes and twisted into a spin.

Fire burst from the cruiser at regular intervals along its spine as the explosion inside its cannon set off a chain reaction, ending with a final column of burning plasma that erupted from the heart of the ship. A moment later Gabriel struck the bridge of the cruiser from above, swords first and still spinning. Matthew barely registered the moment of resistance that the armoured plating of the cruiser's hull gave before he tore through it like a drill. There was an elongated, torturous shriek of rending metal as the ANGEL continued along its path, shredding straight through each deck, one after another, and finally bursting free beneath the ship. A cloud of smoke from the fires within rose from the hole that Gabriel had punched through the cruiser which, like a dying animal, listed to one side and grew still.

The attack had taken only seconds. Beneath the gutted hulk of the ship Matthew pulled out of his spin, righted himself, sheathed both swords and landed, crouched, on top of the gouged hull of Paladin lead. The corvette dipped slightly under the ANGEL before correcting itself and carrying Matthew clear of the wreckage.

There was a round of cheers from the comm panel as Paladin squadron celebrated their victory. Once the bomber pilots and the crew of the corvette had settled Paladin lead spoke up, "Got that son of a bitch! That was one hell of a move Corporal."

Matthew gave a satisfied grin as he relaxed a little. "No problem Paladin, Angelium squadron is always happy to help. Go get your ships patched up and rearmed, there's a lot more work to do." And with that he stood and launched himself away from the corvette, rejoining Colton. "How are you holding up?" He asked.

"Guns are getting thirsty but I've never been better."

"You need to head back to dock?"

"I can play a little longer. C'mon, let's find something bigger to kill."

Before they had a chance to make a move the comm panel blared into life again, "This is Admiral Morgan to all ships, the enemy has broken through, I repeat, the enemy has broken through sector 3. Green Fleet is dispersing. All ships, move to-shit! Evasi-" The channel cut off into static.

Fairburn's voice cut across Angelium's squad channel, "Damn it. Melissa, did we just lose the Majestic?"

Farrell answered him a moment later, "Majestic is still in one piece, barely. She's pulling out and the rest of Green Fleet is scattering."

"Alright. Angelium, regroup at sector 3, stop the enemy from reaching the rear line."

Colton sighed wearily, "Well, sounds like that's our cue." He took the lead and Matthew followed, the two ANGELs turning back towards Earth and speeding away.

The fighting had divided into several pockets with wide expanses of open space between and it was these calm spots that they used to move quickly across the battlefield, both taking potshots at any targets that passed within range. Everywhere there were signs of the thick, chaotic struggle that had taken place early in the battle. Matthew flew through vast fields of debris, ranging from clouds of dust and shrapnel to nearly complete wreckages, even the hulks of ruined capital ships. He saw both the blocky, grey hulls of TSU ships and the deep red alien profiles of Rahk'Shar craft. None of it gave any real indication of how the battle was faring. He set his comm panel to pick up any open channels and his cockpit was instantly flooded by a sea of voices.

"-too many-"

"Taking fire-"

"Got one!"

"-port side."

"Cover me."

"-get on that carrier and-"

"Wolf five is hit!"

"-moving to assist-"

Matthew breathed in deeply and shut his eyes tight. For a while he allowed his guard to drop and flew blind, letting the shouts and cries wash over him. There were so many, too many. Every man and woman who fought for Earth. Who were dying for Earth. It would take a hundred ARC-ANGELs to save them all. They had five. The odds stacked against them seemed insurmountable.

Matthew kept his eyes closed until the beep of warning siren snapped him back to reality. He looked up in time to see the fighter he had been about to collide with disintegrate into scrap metal. A moment later there was a flicker of movement nearby and Samael materialised from the darkness. Matthew sighed, switching his comm back to the squad channel. "Thanks." He mumbled. He shook himself, reminding himself to focus on the task at hand.

Kaon mutely reloaded his rifle. Samael's cloak rippled as the stealth system reactivated and the ANGEL faded back into the background. Matthew knew the boy wouldn't stray far.

Looking around he saw that he had arrived at his destination, quickly joined by Colton. Gabriel's sensors also picked up Kimiko and Fairburn approaching from sector 2. He could see the remnants of Green Fleet; unlike auxiliary fleet ships these were denoted by a long green stripe painted from bow to stern. However, as Farrell had said, they were beginning to scatter, the Rahk'Shar ships pushing them out into an ever expanding ring, opening a hole in the Union's defensive wall. Beyond the lines of ships he could see the planet's surface and the space elevators, constant streams of shuttles scattering in all directions and disappearing into quantum space as they evacuated cilvilians.

As the five ARC-ANGELs regrouped Farrell's voice came across the comm again, "Heads up Angelium, more jump signatures detected. Looks like a second wave incoming and they're headed straight for sector 3."

"They're attacking where we're weakest." Fairburn responded, "Contact Harbeck, try to reroute auxiliary forces from sector 0 to plug the gap."

The ANGELs turned to face the next wave of enemies. More capital ships were apperaing from quantum space. Still no sign of the dreadnought. They assembled and issued forth another swarm of fighters.

"Ready up!" Fairburn ordered, "Looks like they've brought Leviathans this time."

Matthew had already picked them up his scanner, a new variant that resembled giant manta rays, scything blades sprouting from the tips of their thrashing tails and from two mantis like arms tucked under their bodies. He drew his swords, feeling them hum into life. "How many are there?"

"Who knows? All of them?" Fairburn's chain javelins flared red as the blades extended from Lucifer's arms. "Who cares? It still won't be enough!" In a flash he was gone, racing toward the oncoming horde. With a thrust of his arm he hurled one javelin forward, harpooned the nearest Leviathan through its gaping maw and ripped through the creature, spinning into a violent melee as leathery wings enveloped him.

Matthew watched on, momentarily stunned. "Captain? Damn it, Colton, Kimiko, cover the flanks." He threw himself into the fray after Fairburn, swords raised. He reached the ball of writhing Leviathans and hacked at the closest body, sinking both blades into its flesh. The Leviathan convulsed with a silent, agonised scream and fell away allowing Matthew to move onto the next. He slashed at a few more of the monsters but before he could get much further the horde broke apart, the Leviathans scattering as Fairburn tore free of their hold.

Lucifer stood framed in the centre of the retreating Leviathans, the ANGEL's javelins weaving a barrier around it's body, a thin silver mist rising from them as their superheated blades vaporised the blood splashed across them. "It doesn't matter how many they throw at us, I won't back down!" Fairburn swung one javelin around to attack in an arc. At the same time the Leviathans recoverd, circled and dived back in for a second assault.

Seeing Fairburn was about to be swamped again Matthew leaped forward, swords ready, and pinned one of the Leviathans through the side, just under its wing. He twisted and threw the punctured creature aside, trailing a spray of silver as it tumbled away into nothingness. He used the momentum of his turn to spin and caught the tail of the next Leviathan on his sword. The beast thrashed, snapping at him as it lashed out with one arm. Matthew parried, pierced the Leviathan through the belly and kicked its body away before turning to find his next opponent.

While the fight continued, Fairburn's voice came over the comm, "Vega, do you read me? What's the situation with the VIPs?" There was nothing but silence for a few seconds. "Vega? Respond!"

A muffled crackle and then, "Captain Fairburn? We're still waiting to get to the orbital station sir, there's a lot of people waiting for evac and civilians take priority. We need a little more time, think you can hold out?"

Fairburn slipped between two Leviathans as they leaped for him, neatly bisecting both. "We'll be fine. Contact me again when you have something to report."

"Understood sir, Vega out."

Matthew had become too engrossed in the immediate combat to pay much attention to anything else. He fell into a rhythm; slash one way, turn, parry and lunge. Kick then spin away. Dodge around Kimiko as she flashed past, their ANGELs almost touching in their graceful, deadly ballet. Come out of his spin and hack at the next target, then turn, reverse grip and finish it off with a backwards thrust before barrelling straight into the next one.

The next Leviathan he faced reared up as he sliced through its groping arms. He brought both swords around and down between its eyes, silencing its struggles. He heard something yelled over the comm but didn't really register the words, he was already looking for another enemy to fight. But then he felt himself being pulled off balance, some external force wrenching hard on Gabriel's arm. He saw a flash of orange as Colton tossed him aside and then a flicker of movement as something came from behind, brushed past by just inches, one claw outstretched. And then it was gone, fading into the distance behind Raphael.

Matthew took a few deep breaths, realising how near a miss he had just had. "Thanks Sergeant."

Colton's respnse was muffled by a sharp buzzing, as if his comm panel was malfunctioning, "Now who's getting careless? You should...know better..."

Matthew blinked. He watched mutely as the light of Raphael's wings flickered and winked out. The ANGEL slumped backwards, atmosphere venting from a rent in the cockpit, and then burst apart with a small concussive blast. He felt a tremor go through his body. He tried to speak, his voice coming in a breathless gasp, "Irvine?" There was nothing, the comm channel had gone dead.

The Leviathan that had sliced Raphael open had circled around and was coming back. Matthew tensed, feeling hot anger overtake him. He took the Leviathan head on, piercing it through the roof of its mouth with both swords. The enraged creature wrapped both clawed arms around Gabriel, crushing the ANGEL against itself in a macabre embrace. With an anguished yell Matthew ripped one sword free and plunged it into the side of the Leviathans body, then twisted the blade and tore it out before ramming it back into the shuddering flesh again and again. When the Leviathans grip finally loosened Matthew continued hacking at it until the mutilated corpse drifted out of reach.

Matthew spun, one sword sweeping around in an attack fueled by rage. His strike came up short, crashing against the blade of one of Lucifer's javelins. He stopped, breathing hard, staring into what passed for the face of the black ANGEL; impassive, expressionless.

Fairburn retracted the blade back into Lucifer's arm. "We're done here, that was the last of them." He paused. "We need to keep moving, there are more waves incoming across sectors 6 and 7."

Almost on cue, another voice cut across the channel, "This is Admiral Santiago, the enemy are breaking through sector 6!"

Harbeck responded, "Front line is deteriorating. All ships, fall back to sector 0."

Fairburn made an irritated noise. "You heard him. Angelium, pull back to the Gaia."

A tense silence fell over the squadron as the circled back around to where Farrell's cruiser waited. The front line of the TSU fleet was now breaking apart entirely and merging with the rear line. As the Humans fell back the Rahk'Shar pressed forward, slipping through any gaps they could find in the defensive perimeter. Even their capital ships had started to close in, coming within range of the Humans' own heavy guns. The void lit up brilliantly as cruisers and frigates intertwined, exchanging shots as fighters, ANGELs and Leviathans danced and flitted through the gaps between them. Here Earth's orbital defence platforms were close enough to fire on the approaching ships. It gave the Union an advantage in firepower but they were being crushed by sheer weight of numbers, and more Rahk'Shar were now pouring forth from quantum space in a near constant stream. The best that the Humans could hope for now was to buy as much time as possible.

The Angelium squadron had found themselves fighting near the Sarek Station space elevator, once again locked in combat with a swarm of Leviathans. The creatures spiralled around their group, hemming them in, a few breaking off every few seconds to strike at them before darting away again. Others would peel off to make a beeline for the surface before their path was blocked by one of the ANGELs.

As a pair of Leviathans broke away from the swarm Samael materialised in front of them. Kaon killed the first with a shot from his rifle, with his last round. The second Leviathan he swatted away with a swing of the now useless weapon. Throwing the rifle aside he drew his pistol and stitched a line of bullet holes across the body of the stunned Leviathan.

As if this was what they had been waiting for the other Leviathans all rushed Kaon at once, weaving around and past him. With a growl of frustration Kaon spun and dived after them, Samael's thin, razor edged switchblade flicking out from the ANGEL's arm.

Matthew saw how his friend was planning to stop the Leviathans. "Kaon-don't-"

A small voice from the comm, almost a whisper, cut him off, "Edward."

"What?"

"My name...is Edward. Wanted you to know. Thank you."

"Kaon!" Matthew watched, helpless, as Kaon drove his switchblade into the back of the closest Leviathan. For a brief moment Samael stood atop the creature and Kaon seemed to be keeping it under control. Then the two started to tumble, hurtling down towards Earth's atmosphere, colliding with other Leviathans as they plummeted and joining together into a huge, ever accelerating ball of flesh and metal.

Matthew was able to keep track of the ball of squirming bodies until it crashed into the side of the space elevator, smashing straight through the colossal pillar as if it was nothing. The elevator swayed under the impact. Sturdy as they were, they weren't built to withstand anything more than the planet's rotation and the elements on the surface. The massive polyalloy structure fractured, split and broke apart. Sarek Space station, no longer anchored to the planet, was set to drift on the currents of Earth's orbit. The remnants of the elevator rapidly desintegrated into shards of polyalloy and metal that rained catastrophically to the surface.

"Kaon!" Matthew pushed Gabriel to full speed and raced after Samael. He was brought up short by a shout over the comm from Fairburn.

"Bannon! Stay at your post!"

"He might need help!"

"He's dead Corporal. Now return to your post and don't move until you're dead or I say so, understand?" Without waiting for a reply from Matthew he reopened the channel to Alejandro's squad. "Vega? Tell me you're still alive Lieutenant."

Alejandro's reply came quickly but it was difficult to hear. Wherever he was it sounded like there were a lot of people nearby screaming, shouting and otherwise making an overwhelming wall of noise. "Barely, Captain. We just arrived at the orbital station, next second the elevator's fucking gone. What the hell happened?"

Fairburn paused for a heartbeat. Matthew could just make out a muffled exhalation. "Leviathans. Suicide attack. Lieutenant, the VIPs, can you get to their shuttle?"

"We're on our way now, we just need a couple minutes to launch."

"You've got it. Fairburn out." As Fairburn cut the channel he allowed himself a little time to think. "Bannon, Yoshida, we're going after that station. Wait for the shuttle to launch and then cover its escape."

Matthew took a deep breath to calm himself. "Yes sir."

"On it, Captain." Kimiko sounded like Matthew felt. They didn't let it slow them down, however. The three remaining ANGELs Accelerated after the drifting space station.

Fairburn spoke up again as they neared the station, "Hostiles closing in, keep them occupied."

They broke formation, arranging themselves to defend the station. To either side Matthew saw Kimiko and Fairburn engage the enemy. He felt tired, drained of everything. He felt as if he was watching his actions from somewhere outside his body. He hefted his swords with aching shoulders and dived at the oncoming fighters, one last time. Once more he fell into the rhythm of combat; defend and counter, dash away, always seeking the next target. It was while looking around that he chanced to see a shuttle taking off from the station at full speed.

Alejandro's voice came over the comm, "Shuttle is away. We'll jump to quantum space as soon as we're at a safe distance."

"Understood." Fairburn replied, "Yoshida, cover them, Bannon, stay back here with me, stop anyone getting too close."

"Yes sir." Kimiko sped off to join the shuttle, flying alongside it and shooting down any Rahk'Shar ships that got near.

Matthew and Fairburn were now back to back, cutting through anything that tried to get past them, Fairburn spearing enemies from a distance and pulling them in so that Matthew could finish them off. Matthew didn't know how long they had been like that before Farrell's voice on the comm caught his attention, "Callum, there's another wave incoming."

"That's not news." Fairburn grunted as he cleaved apart another fighter.

"This time it is. Massive jump signature detected."

Matthew and Fairburn exchanged a glance through their ANGELs, then looked off to where the next wave of Rahk'Shar reinforcements would be arriving. A glimmer of light sparked into view, then expanded into a thin vertical rift that seemed to stretch across the entire battlefield as if heaven itself had split open. Pale blue light bled through the gap as it slowly widened, an enormous mouth threatening to swallow the world. And then a shape appeared from the swirling mist within.

Its size dwarfed even the largest colony ships, its silhouette eclipsing the stars as it emerged into real space, slowly, as if dragging its cumbersome bulk out from the rift. The length of the ship's vast hull was jagged and spined, its appearance at once both menacing and elegant, a predator personified. At its prow were three huge prongs that seemed almost like the grasping claw of some nightmarish beast. The dreadnought was headed for Earth, and at the point where the three spikes at the front met a malevolent red spark flickered and grew as the monstrosity drew closer.

"All ships, full retreat! I repeat, all ships, jump to quantum space now! Abandon Earth!" Matthew heard the frantic shouting from the comm panel but didn't listen to the words. He gaped at the titan bearing down him, unable to move, paralysed by the primal terror that all creatures feel when staring into the jaws of their destruction.

He was finally shaken from his stupor by Fairburn firmly hammering against the hatch of his cockpit. "Matthew? We need to leave! Right now!"

"Kimiko-" Matthew turned to where Michael was still hovering close to the VIPs' shuttle, fending off attackers. He punched his comm panel, yelling into it, "Kimiko! No time!"

"I can't leave them here."

Fairburn was back in contact with Alejandro, "Vega! Tell me what's happening."

"We're ready to jump now Captain."

Matthew turned back to his comm, "Come on, get over here!"

"If I leave now they won't make the jump!" She was right. The attacks were now coming so fast that Kimiko could barely react fast enough to deflect them, fighters and Leviathans throwing themselves at the easy target with reckless zeal. To leave the shuttle unprotected would condemn the lives of everyone on board, even as they prepared to jump. And when it did jump...

Fairburn grabbed Gabriel by the shoulder, "There's nothing we can do now, come on!"

Matthew shook his head, eyes still locked on Michael. He saw the rift begin to open as the shuttle engaged its quantum drive. "I was supposed your knight in shining ANGEL." He whispered, almost smiling at the absurdity of the phrase even as he felt himself starting to come apart.

Kimiko made a sound that was nearly a laugh, "You were. But someone has to do this." The rift was open now and the shuttle was moving into it. Kimiko dropped one of her rifles, stretching her arm towards Matthew, who likewise reached out a hand, letting his swords slip from his grasp, as if he could pull her to safety from so far away. "Thank you, Matthew."

"For what?"

"Y'know...I'm not afraid anymore."

And then the shuttle was gone, and a split second later so was Kimiko. One instant she had been floating there, framed by the opening into quantum space, the next she was gone; caught in the shuttle's slipstream and torn away. The rift collapsed soon after like a door slamming shut.

Matthew let his body go limp. Everything had gone the complete opposite to how it should have and now there was nothing left. He barely noticed as Fairburn dragged him away from the planet and the rapidly approaching dreadnought, or as both their ANGELs tumbled jarringly to the deck of a hangar bay.

From where he lay he could still see out through the open hangar doors. For a moment the planet was framed in all its beauty, the dreadnought bearing down on it, a ruby gleam flickering at its prow. There was an all consuming flash of blinding red light. Matthew's vision cleared slowly. As it did he saw the hangar doors closing, through them he caught one last glimpse of the dreadnought. But Earth was gone...

To Be Continued.