A/N This is a re-write of my first story, Baptism of Fire. I've added some new material and tweaked bits of the narrative in response to a comment by one of my reviewers, as well as put it into my preferred third-person perspective. I hope you will agree that it is a somewhat better story now. Please do leave feedback!

Prologue

Silence reigned in the main chamber of Earth-Space Defence Force (ESDF) Central Command, broken only by the quiet hum of electronic equipment.

General Ralph Peters, Commander of the underground complex from which the forces of the ESDF were coordinated, gazed at the massive data screens that dominated one wall of the huge room. Multifunction devices that could be made to show a wealth of data from any number of satellites, auditory, and visual sensors all over the globe, they were today configured to display a live feed from the satellites orbiting above the ESDF's lunar base, Vérité.

Except that one hour ago that feed that been abruptly cut off.

He spoke into the stillness. "Any response from the laser repeaters?" he asked, referring to the obsolete but still useful array of emergency ground-based line-of-sight communication lasers the lunar base maintained in case the satellites were somehow unavailable. Like right now.

"No sir," replied Staff Sergeant Alvez, the chief technician. "We've had nothing."

The general closed his eyes. He could feel the beginnings of a migraine, and unconsciously rubbed his temples with the fingers of one hand. Valerie was right, we should have kept more of them. he thought to himself. His wife, a prominent US politician, had been against control of the ESDF's lunar bases being given to the Lunar Front (LF) from the very start. She had always been suspicious of the LF's ideology, which was dominated by a combination of mystical superstition, apocalyptic prophecy, and an almost obsessive emphasis on high technology, arguing that it was too risky to allow people with such a belief system to hold so much military power. But the ESDF was suffering badly from years of extensive budget cuts and downsizing, and the financial burden of the bases was astronomical. To have someone else absorb the cost and thus be able to channel the money saved into other areas, combined with the promise of cutting edge technology from the LF's many lunar research laboratories, had been too great a temptation to resist. Valerie Peters had fought a losing battle with both her fellow politicians and the military, her husband included, but had finally cajoled him into arguing for keeping control of the last base "to monitor how things are up there". He, in turn, had successfully persuaded the committee overseeing the transition. Now he regretted not taking her concerns more seriously. With access to just one more base he could have sent someone on the ground to take a look at Vérité, make an overflight, anything more than just doing nothing.

"General, sir!"

General Peters' eyes snapped open at the sound of the chief technician's voice, and were immediately drawn to the left side of the data display wall. The screen was split, with one large and two smaller windows.

"I don't know how it happened, but the feed suddenly went live, sir," explained Alvez. "As far as we can tell, it's from one of the survey/recon satellites. What you're seeing is thermal, visual, and magnetic imagery of Vérité.

"Any communication from the base?"

The technician shook his head. "No, sir, this is all we have. Still no response from the laser array, either."

"Okay. So what can you tell me from this?" Peters gestured at the displays.

"Well," Alvez began, as he switched the main image to thermal, "Vérité doesn't seem to be suffering any atmosphere leakage, and thermals show us that the centres of power generation are still running at full capacity. All shuttles are accounted for." Alvez ran a hand through his hair. "Everything seems normal, sir, apart from the communications blackout, and the fact we haven't ourselves been able to access any other data from the base. I can't explain it."

"Very well. Can we zoom out? One of the LF's research plants should be within range. Maybe they're having some kind of trouble too."

His chief technician shook his head. "Sorry, sir, but this is all we have. We can't control the feed. I don't kn-" Alvez broke off, frowning at the big display as a flurry of white dots suddenly appeared on the thermal image. He turned to his console, switching the primary display to visual as the dots formed a ring that surrounded Vérité. Without warning a series of bright orange flashes erupted on the screen.

"What the hell!?" exclaimed Peters. Alvez didn't answer immediately, his fingers making quick, precise movements as he queried the mainframe computers. He glanced at the readout, his lips drawing into a thin line. He turned to the general, his face grave.

"Sir, thermals indicate a number of explosions within Vérité. They apparently have large breaches in several of the outer domes; visual's picked up several areas of catastrophic atmosphere evacuation."

Peters winced. Sudden loss of dome integrity in the vacuum of space was bad news. Death would not come as quickly as commonly assumed; victims would have perhaps 10-15 seconds of consciousness. Paralysis would follow together with convulsions, during which water vapour would form rapidly in the soft tissues. This would cause considerable swelling of the body, and effective circulation of the blood would be almost nil. Death would finally occur in about a minute and a half. He shivered at the thought. At least they won't feel anything after the first few terrifying seconds. With conscious effort he refocused on the voice of his staff sergeant.

"... looks like Vérité is under attack, sir, but by whom we don't yet know."

The general closed his eyes tiredly, his heart beginning to thump in his chest. You know who it is, don't you? he told himself scathingly. His wife's many warnings echoed in his head. They're dangerous, Ralph! Who knows what they're up to up there? They're hardly going to give us the really good stuff, are they? People like them just don't do that. They're after power, and the more, the better. They will always ensure they have an edge over us. He hadn't listened to her, not really. No-one had. And now they were paying the price. God have mercy, he murmured.

"Sir?"

Peters twitched, his eyes blinking open. He shot Alvez a questioning look.

"You said something, sir. I didn't catch it," the technician explained.

The general shook his head. "Sorry, I was lost in my thoughts there for a moment." He straightened his shoulders briskly, trying to shake off his mood, and glanced up at the display wall.

"Staff Sergeant, sir!" called a voice.

"What do you have, Bill?" responded Alvez.

"Another feed just went live! It's another one of the high-res birds. I'm putting it on-screen."

"Do we have any control over this one?"

"No, sir, we're just getting the image you see here."

The main data display reconfigured itself, the previous display shunting to a secondary display window. On the main screen was a high-resolution, telephoto image of the ten fifty-man shuttles used to transfer personnel from Earth to the Moon, sitting neatly in their long launch bays. As the staff in Central Command watched in fascination first one then a second, third, fourth shuttle ignited its engines.

"Evacuees!" said Bill triumphantly, as docking tubes fell away from the aerospace vehicles. Exhaust plumes glowed incandescent white, and a moment later the shuttles simultaneously leapt forward on their launch ramps as powerful electromagnetic rams hurled them away from the dying lunar base.

"Some got away, thank goodness," breathed Peters.

"Don't speak too soon," said Alvez, his voice soft and low. The general spun round to look questioningly at his subordinate. The chief technician just pointed wordlessly to the secondary display, on which multiple ripples of fire could be seen erupting from several points around the base.

"Oh hell, missiles," muttered Bill. They watched in horror as the image of the shuttles, which were still accelerating away from Vérité, was obliterated by a storm of white and orange. Could anything survive that? thought Peters, a single hot tear squeezing itself out the corner of his eye. What kind of person would fire on fleeing transports? More missiles slammed into the remaining shuttles still in their launch bays, smashing them into fiery ruin.

Peters cursed explosively, his outburst startling the technicians crewing their consoles. He stared at the big display screens, facial muscles trembling with rage. Struggling for control, he turned to Alvez. "They wanted this! They knew our people would make for the shuttles, and so they waited until they had taken off, and then swatted them like flies – with a bloody satellite ready to film the entire thing in glorious technicolour!" The general shook himself like a dog, and the fire in his eyes died. "And we're powerless to stop them," he finished helplessly. The staff sergeant just nodded, unable to say anything meaningful. The shock of what they had just witnessed was making him numb.

Abruptly the main data display went blank. Alvez cried out in surprise and spun round to his console as his team of technicians attempted to restore the feed. A minute of hurried activity later, and he had his answer.

"Sorry sir," he said, addressing General Peters. "There's nothing wrong with our equipment. They're simply not giving us anything."

The Commander of ESDF Central Command sighed. "Understood." He thought for a moment. "You were recording the feed, right?" Alvez nodded. "See what information you can glean from it. We're going to need response options – we can't just sit back and let this one slide – and the more we know, the better."

"Yes, sir."

- - - - 0 - - - -

"We have something, sir."

General Peters looked up from the notes he'd been making on his datapad. He would have to file his initial report soon. "Yes?"

Staff Sergeant Alvez gestured to the main data display, reconfiguring it as he spoke. "This is a replay of the initial explosions within the base. My team and I went over the imagery, and we've been able to do some enhancement." The screen showed the overhead thermal image of Vérité. As the technician manipulated his controls, a box drew itself around the site of one of the white dots they had seen earlier. It became some kind of military vehicle, a long barrel-like protrusion on its right side. "It's a little fuzzy still, but this is about the best we can do," he continued. The image froze. "Now watch." In the slow-motion replay Peters saw a very dim glimmer of light burst around the vehicle, followed almost immediately by a far brighter flash as an explosion erupted from the lunar base. "What you've just seen, as far as we can tell, is the firing of an electromagnetic hypervelocity cannon."

Peters blinked. No-one in the ESDF had heard anything about hypervelocity cannon research being done by the LF. The memory of his wife's words returned, haunting him. They're hardly going to give us the really good stuff, are they? He shrugged off the thought with a twitch of his shoulders. "Any data on the platform they're using for this thing?"

Alvez opened his mouth to reply, only to be cut off by a cry from another member of his team.

"Sir, one of the comsats just went live!"

The central display window flickered, and the recorded satellite feed was replaced by a stylised image of the Moon, in front of which was a blood-red sword.

"The LF," grunted Alvez, recognising the insignia immediately. Moments later the image vanished and the head and shoulders of a man appeared, his steel-grey eyes gazing forcefully into the visual pickup.

"Men and women of Earth, this is the Counsellor," said the man, his voice deep and rich. "We have watched you for centuries as you warred and fought with each other, punishing the innocent and freeing the guilty. We saw you waste the rich resources of your world, squandering them for personal gain with scant regard for the suffering multitudes among you. Earth is rich with wealth! Yet in your blind selfishness you cannot see the truth, you do not understand that working together, the whole of mankind can live in unprecedented prosperity.

"Four decades ago the Lunar Front came out from behind the scenes. We revealed ourselves to you, patiently waiting for you to come to your senses, to acknowledge the error of your ways. We lived among you, believing that you would follow our example. But you did not change. Day after day you proved your incompetence, your unwillingness to work together for the good of mankind. You have shown yourselves unfit to govern humanity's home."

The Counsellor' leaned into the pickup. "The prophecies of Aruth tell of the Pure," he said earnestly, "men and women who understand the potential of mankind for peace and affluence. I speak to you now. Help us to rid the world of those who would seek their own gain. Join us as we purge mankind of its selfishness! We, the Lunar Front, are destined to lead, and we will take our place in history. We will not move from our cause; we will not be resisted. Those who stand in our way will be crushed!" He paused, his eyes looking away for a moment.

"He's off his rocker," declared Alvez, his mouth curling in a sneer. General Peters didn't reply. He sensed the absolute conviction in the man on the screen, could see the fervour that burned bright within him. This was no fool; that much could be seen in the attack on Vérité and the LF's manipulation of the data feeds to Central Command. The entire operation had obviously been planned with meticulous precision, a carefully choreographed dance of manpower, machines, and electronics. No, this was a man of considerable intelligence, fiery passion, and enormous resources with which to carry out his plans.

Ralph Peters shivered, but not from fear. He shivered because he knew that the ESDF had a fight on its hands, and deep within him he felt his soul stir in response. Before him was the enemy of his people, and at that moment he determined to do everything in his power to bring that enemy down.

On screen the Counsellor gave a tiny nod, and his gaze returned to the pickup. His next words sent a terrible chill down the general's spine.

"The Age of Peace has dawned. The Day of Cleansing has begun."

- - - - 0 - - - -

The pilot of the sleek 'Gungnir' aerofighter was on combat air patrol, patrolling in an oval pattern 28,000 feet above the airbase where he was stationed. His wingmate was making a similar orbit several thousand feet below, with responsibility for the interception of any lower-flying enemy aircraft. Making the turn at the end of his present orbit, the pilot revelled in the smooth, precise response of the Gungnir to his flight inputs. The LF sure knew how to make aircraft, he'd give them that. Their "Counsellor" gave him the creeps, though. He had seen the broadcast when the man had made his announcement to the world just a few hours ago. Just the memory of it made his skin crawl. He wondered what the LF would do. So far the only thing he'd heard about was the attack on Vérité, although there were very few details available. The brass had scrambled Gungnirs on every airbase in response, but no-one knew what to expect.

Whatever happens, it's going to be one hell of a fight. The LF have sorely underestimated us if they think we're just going to roll over and let them "purge" us. The pilotsmirked. And I'll be in the thick of it, doing what I do best. He would take great pleasure in shooting them down with their own weapons.

His headset crackled. "Viper 1, this is Sentinel." It was Air Command. "Contact at 130, 100 miles, angels 30. Intercept and identify."

"Roger," the pilot replied, and then contacted his wingmate. "Viper 2, this is Viper 1. Climb to angels 35, bearing 100. Combat spread. We have unidentified bogies, approx. 95 miles, angels 30."

A minute later his targeting computer beeped. Information started to scroll down the pilot's left-hand Multi-Function Display (MFD) as the computer located the targets 80 miles ahead, giving its best assessment of their identification and likely payload. He glanced at the screen and then did a double-take, hastily opening the comm channel to Air Command. "Sentinel, Viper 1. We have multiple bandits inbound. Computer says they are bombers. No nukes detected."

"Affirmative, Viper 1. Confirm multiple bombers inbound. We are scrambling more Gungnirs now."

The pilot never got the chance to reply. At that moment a burst transmission was detected, decrypted, and accepted by the Gungnir's sensors, the single instruction activating hidden subroutines within the computers governing the aircraft's various systems. Without warning, everything shut down. The pilot blinked, unable to comprehend what his senses were telling him. The roar of the engines died away, leaving an unnatural silence, the whisper of air flowing over the airframe indiscernible in the cockpit. Automatically he cycled the computers and wiggled his flightstick, staring in disbelief at the utter lack of response. He sensed the Gungnir start to nose over, no longer in controlled flight, and grabbed the ejection handles. Nothing. A chill went through his bones as understanding dawned, but the pilot didn't scream. What was the point? So this was how things would end, he mused. It wasn't exactly the way he had imagined. It surprised him how calm he felt about it. Weird.

The aerofighter impacted the ground at well over the speed of sound, a dark smear marking its demise.