Prologue – Nothing Beats a Royal Flush

March 27, 2180 (New Era Calendar) /

Sirius System, Grid Thirty Latitude by Thirty-Five Longitude, Planet Gravenda

Captain Jace Sanders slammed a fresh clip into his CR4 Assault Rifle. Visible in the damp air, the quick exhale of breath came from his lungs as he centered himself. No more time. He whirled from behind the thick tree stump that he used for cover and let loose into the oncoming Confederate lines.

"Johnson, Kravitz, focus your fire at eleven o'clock," Sanders shouted into his comm unit over his rifle's staccato. The two PFCs took aim and unloaded at their eleven into the heart of the advancing line's right flank. Captain Sanders strafed the narrow expanse of jungle and took cover behind another massive tree trunk. "Dammit, Lopez," Jace shouted to another marine as he replaced the empty magazine, "Hold that flank!"

This had been the sixth tour of duty and half as many years for Captain Jace Sanders and by far, Gravenda had been the toughest yet. The Confederation hit hard in their bid to retake Gravenda back from the Alliance. Rumor had it that the Confeds were bringing in the big guns, even designating a large portion of their Twelfth Fleet to retake the world, but to men and women like Jace Sanders none of that really mattered: as long as they held Gravenda, and by extension, the Sirius System, they would disallow any incursion into a number of key Alliance worlds.

Jace's 35th Regiment had been one of the first groups Alliance brass sent in to provide reinforcement. That was three days ago. Three days of relentless battle. Three days of improvised contingency after improvised contingency.

The original commander of the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Travis and most of his Alpha Company perished when their dropship ate a barrage of AA fire. That left command of the depleted 35th regiment to Jace Sanders, and ever since touchdown, it had been a living hell.

Sanders wiped the mud and sweat off his brow and looked back at his soldiers fighting for their survival.

"Hold it together Thirty-Fifth!"

He snatched a look from behind his cover and watched as the Confederate line advanced through the harsh jungle. When one soldier fell another moved up to take his place, and they didn't stop. Sanders had fought against the Confederation for three years and never had he seen them fight as vigorously as they had today.

Never once did he think he wouldn't walk away from a battlefield.

Until today.

He yanked the pin from a grenade and chucked it into the enemy line. Dirt and mud flew into the air with the bodies of the Confederate soldiers caught in the blast. Sure enough, they continued to advance, unrelenting.

From behind the tree trunk, he unloaded his entire clip into the enemy in frustration as his men continued to retreat deeper and deeper into the jungle. Sure, Sanders had a plan, but it wasn't supposed to happen like this.

They weren't supposed to be taking this many losses.

The Confederation wasn't supposed to be coming on this strong. It was as if the fear of death had been erased from their minds, like they'd been conditioned to give their lives.

Hell, everyone was scared to die.

"Marines, retreat to fallback position bravo!" Jace ordered as he continued back-tracking through the jungle, bullets whizzing by his head. He reached down and scooped a CR4 from the corpse of a dead marine.

We'll get the job done for you, soldier.

Armed with a pair of CR4 Assault Rifles, Sanders continued to give the relentless Confederate line fits with every squeeze of the trigger. Jace heard Lieutenant Lopez shout, "Come and get it you bastards!" as the LT unleashed a barrage into the enemy.

The ammo counter on both of his rifles clicked to zero and he flung them to the mud in anger. Corporals Johnson and Kravitz reloaded their weapons from behind relative cover behind another of the massive tree trunks—one aiming high, the other low. Sanders brandished his sidearm, a P6 pistol and dove for safety behind a stout tree stump.

He heard Corporal Kravitz's blood-curdling scream before he heard the rocket pulverize the tree he'd been using for cover. The explosion separated the Corporal from his boots and into the jungle's canopy. Jace sprinted over to Corporal Johnson, hauled him up by the shoulder and helped him back to his feet.

"Dammit, Marine! Come on! I don't need any more dead heroes."

Jace watched the Corporal muster a smile of futility before turning his attention back to the still-advancing Confederate lines. With one glance, Jace knew that this battle was already over; his men simply battered beyond their limit.

Despite that, they would continue to fight. He would continue to fight.

Sanders and Corporal Johnson unloaded everything they had into the Confederate lines. All they needed to do was make it to fallback position bravo where the Confederate ground troops would have a nasty surprise waiting for them.

A pair of meaty impacts reached Jace's ear as a series of rounds buried themselves into the Corporal's upper torso. Johnson never let up, unloading rapid fire shots into the enemy lines with his rifle until it clicked empty. Traces of blood foamed out of the side of the Corporal's mouth.

"Captain, leave me! I'm dead."

"I can't do that, soldier!" Jace shouted back over the commotion, hammering a fresh ammo magazine into his pistol. He looked over at Corporal Johnson who looked eerily at peace. His eyes widened when he saw the pair of primed frag grenades and he ran like hell.

Before he was clear, the pair of grenades went up. A sharp, stinging pain shot through Jace's shoulder as he ran back through the jungle as fast as his feet would let him. His comm unit beeped and he realized he'd made it back to bravo.

"Rocket jocks," he started into his comlink in-between heavy breaths, "Hit those bastards with everything you've got."

Captain Sanders didn't need to see it to know what was happening. He felt the jungle behind him explode with every rocket propelled detonation.

The marines positioned at Point Bravo armed with rocket launchers prepped to deliver the Confederate soldiers a healthy helping of pain. Rocket after rocket fired off into the Confederate lines until the seemingly-endless lines of soldiers ceased.

When the smoke subsided, Sanders fumed, ignoring the pain tracing down right shoulder. As he continued to walk for what seemed an agonizing eternity too long, the trees up ahead got lighter and base camp in the clearing had come into view.

Jace walked past the medic tent where soldiers screamed for medication, help, or divine intervention. And then past the area of ground where another group of soldiers rested—these fatally wounded. He saluted them as he passed.

In seconds, Lieutenant Lopez was at his side.

"This was a fucking disaster, sir."

"No shit, Lieutenant. Call the Deliverance and request an EVAC, we can't hold here anymore."

"Already been done, Captain."

"Good work. Prep the rest of the Thirty Fifth for dust-off."

Jace snatched an old-fashioned, damp and wrinkled paper map out of one his many pockets. On the map, the clearing in which they'd taken refuge.

"Those capable of fighting? Have them reinforce the perimeter here and here," Jace said, pointing at two points near the front of the clearing—essentially a choke point.

"Yes, sir. I'm on it."

Jace reached back and felt the pieces of shrapnel that had burrowed into his right shoulder and winced at the pain.

How many more dead heroes will this war have?

Jace Sanders knew that, before the end of the day, there would be at least one more.

- - -

The exhaustion Lieutenant Lopez felt had been mirrored by the equally low morale of the 35th. They were down to less than half of their original number of five hundred. And out of the two hundred or so still alive, only three-fourths of them were physically and mentally ready for combat.

He knew why Sirius was such a hotly contested system, but right now, he didn't care. So what if this would help give the Alliance a lane into Confederate space?

For a grunt like him, it wasn't his job to care. His only responsibility, in the eyes of the Alliance Brass, as a soldier was to fight and follow orders. But he saw it differently. Lieutenant Lopez's responsibility was to insure the safety of his unit—nothing more and nothing less. He was failing at that responsibility.

What he wouldn't have given for a cold brew. That would've made him realize his worries were unfounded.

"LT!"

The young private manning the comm system yelled and

Lopez double-timed it, "It better be good, Private."

"It's Admiral Morzov of the Deliverance."

The LT managed the first smile he had in days.

"Good work, Private. Has the Captain been notified?" "He has, and he's on his way."

As on cue, Captain Sanders jogged over and snatched the comlink.

"Admiral, we've been trying to reach you for hours. Is the fleet holding in orbit?"

"Afraid not, son. Get your men ready for EVAC, we're pulling out of Sirius."

"Sir?"

"There's no time, son. You just have your men ready!"

"Understood, Admiral."

Captain Sanders turned to address Lopez, but before the Captain could issue out his next chain of orders, another PFC shouted from their station.

"Captain!"

Sanders keyed the comlink on his helmet.

"Martinez, what the hell is going on?"

"Sir, we've got intruders through our second perimeter."

Lopez watched as the Captain sprinted to Private Martinez's station. They'd need to hold out through one more battle and then he'd be able to enjoy that ice cold brew he was thinking about.

He checked the chamber on his CR4.

No Confederate soldiers would keep him from that which he desired most at the moment.

- - -

Captain Sanders was over the shoulder of Private Martinez demanding answers.

"How the hell is this possible without them tripping our sensors at the first perimeter?"

Martinez look dumbfounded.

"I don't know sir, maybe they were inserted past the first checkpoint, or maybe they disabled the first perimeter. I don't know! However they did it, they did it and they're headed here!"

Jace felt for his CR4.

"Marines!" he yelled, "Get ready for uninvited guests!"

Marines leapt from chairs and lay prone on the dirt. Others hid in the high brush and tree canopy. He thought he heard a hover tank in the distance, plowing through the jungle and fusion exhausts in the air coming to bomb the hell out of the place.

Then a bullet drilled through Private Martinez's skull. A second round cut into Lieutenant Lopez's neck.

The horror of what happened froze Jace in his tracks. He blinked twice, and the Lieutenant and Private looked up at him with blank stares, waiting for orders.

What the hell just happened?

It was as if he was shown a different reality for that instant in time. He shook the thoughts away and was back to business. But before he could issue out his next order, the sound of impending doom that had drawn nearer and nearer ceased.

Jace looked up to see three shadowy figures enter the clearing. There was no hover tank, no bombers, no enemy platoon—just three men. Captain Sanders' heart skipped a beat with a glimpse of the three intruders. The man on the right was a massive excuse for a human being. Jace estimated his height at close to seven feet and easily had four-hundred pounds of rippling muscle attached to his frame. He hefted a laser cannon that looked as if it had been yanked from the fuselage of a starfighter. On the left, a tall, sickly man in a one-piece combat suit stood, unarmed, with his hands relaxed at his sides, palms forward.

It was the man in the center that made Jace's heart pound through his chest. This man was shorter than both, and decidedly the most-normal looking of the three. He wore his combat suit under a long, black coat and stood with his arms folded across his chest. Long blond hair framed his narrow face. The look on his face belied amusement.

It couldn't have been them could it?

If it were, that would have explained the hallucinations he experienced at the sensor tent.

If it were, they were all dead.

No one had ever faced the Royal Flush and lived to tell about it. But Jace Sanders knew his men wouldn't make it easy for them. He looked up into the tree canopies at the rocket jocks readying themselves while fire teams led by Lieutenant Lopez took up positions to outflank.

"Hit it, Marines!"

The rocket jocks unloaded first, hammering the aggressors with high-yield projectiles. Explosions rang out, blasting dirt and smoke high into the air. Then Lopez's fire teams hit the three interlopers with everything they had till their clips clicked empty. The fire teams pulled back and grenadiers heaved grenades in the direction of the enemy.

Jace watched expectantly as the smoke and dirt settled down. The relaxation that washed over him was soon replaced with the violent pounding of anxiety. For a second, he thought he could make out what sounded like laughter.

Royal Flush, or not, there was no way in hell anyone could've survived that.

The smoke cleared and the three shadowy figures stood, untouched, a translucent energy sphere around them forming a protective barrier. The man in the center laughed heartily, his arms now at his sides, and matte black pistols gripped tightly in his hands. The massive laser cannon thrummed as the large man leveled its stock, and the sickly one levitated feet off of the ground, spires of energy in his palms.

Jace stopped in his tracks, frozen scared by the thought of what would happen next.

The laughter ceased and everything drew deadly quiet. Time almost stood still for an agonizing handful of moments when the leader took one step forward.

Louder and faster and harder Jace's heart pulsed with every passing second.

"Royal Flush," the man shouted, a grizzled edge in his voice, "Go."

And then all hell broke loose.