Excerpt: Merged

Takeshi couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing quite like watching the ground come up at you at five thousand miles per hour.

When he was in orbit, his vision quickly became obscured by all the alarms lighting up across his head’s up display as the mech began to heat up on re-entry. The suit could handle it, but the temperatures were still pretty startling. Takeshi couldn’t believe that humans used to go into space with machines that were like coffins, boxes with no maneuverability and little in the way of external sensors. Old time Humans must have been crazy brave, or just incredibly naive.

Once he hit the thermosphere, the extreme heat warnings faded away, but new warnings took their place. Ones about speed, strength of gravity, thinness and composition of atmosphere. Takeshi found them all kind of amusing. If he had any control over anything that was happening, would he be plunging towards the planet at suicide speed? He supposed he should have been panicking or something, but he assumed the mood mods were doing their duty and keeping him calm, even in the face of a very messy death.

The planet Uhlm was continuing to race towards him, a patchwork of browns and beiges, a desert planet that grew less enticing the closer you got to it. Some planets were gorgeous and just got prettier as you neared them, but Takeshi had learned almost immediately most of those were gas giants, and while technically you’d never impact with anything falling into them, you’d fall until the atmospheric pressure crushed you, or corrosive gases fatally damaged your mech, depending on the type of giant that caught you.

Takeshi could finally make out differences in the terrain, a ridge of mountains like swords and a valley of shifting sands, when finally the light on the side of his HUD turned green, and Ike’s voice sounded in his head. “Lhoraz weapon damage compensated for. Are you all right, Takeshi?”

“I’m fine as long as you keep us from smashing into the planet,” he replied, but even as he said that, he felt the tug of directional rockets, and his speed started to slow as the inertial dampeners kicked in.

Info flowed over his HUD, cascading like water. The suit had definitely taken some damage, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Ramon had gone dark after the blast, and he had yet to reappear on the tracking screens. “Scans show you have suffered second degree burns and two cracked ribs,” Ike said in his soothing, mellifluous voice. Takeshi had stopped falling down and was now flying forward, over the barren landscape below him. How close had he come to crashing? Just guessing, without looking at the data, he figured he was about sixteen hundred meters above the ground. The measurements told him it was more like twenty four hundred, but he was still pretty close.

“Pain dampeners kicked in,” he reported. “I didn’t feel anything.” Oh, maybe he had, but it was lost in the adrenaline surge that followed that energy blast and knocked Ike offline. It was rumored that the Lhoraz were working on new weapons, but no one in the Galactic Defense Force had any clue they were so close to being operational.

“Ranger Campbell, sound off please,” Commander Khoroushi’s voice cut in. She sounded a bit more stern than usual, which was never a good sign.

“I’m here,” he replied. “Had a bit of a power failure, but I’m back on line now. Has Ram—Ranger Bader come back on line?” With just a thought, Takeshi had swept up, away from the ground below, and started flying back out of the atmosphere. It was nice having Ike take over and do these things for him. Without the AI interfaces, these mechs were impossible to use.

The fact that there was a lengthy pause before she replied pretty much told him all he needed to know. “He hasn’t signed in. His comm signature is dark.”

Takeshi cursed softly as he finally broke through the atmosphere and back into space. The Lhoraz ship was gone, as it had slipped back into subspace only two minutes after unexpectedly popping out of it. He had a sick feeling it was a test run of their new weapon. But that brought something to mind. “Commander, how did the Lhoraz know we’d be running a combat simulation out here?” Not only was that classified—it hadn’t even been sprung on them until this morning—but in the Astera galaxy, the ass end of nowhere? The Lhoraz had never been spotted this far out.

“We’ve been asking ourselves that as well, but this is not to be discussed on open comms. Return to base as quickly as possible.”

“Yes ma’am.” Base was currently the Battalion Cruiser Sahara, a Yamamoto class ship he had joined six months ago, after his old ship, the Harman, was seriously damaged in the fight at Canes Venatici. He lost a handful of friends there, which was the worst part, but the second worst part was knowing that they hadn’t won the battle against the Lhoraz. It had essentially been a draw with both sides taking such heavy damage that both retreated. There were more than a few rumblings that humanity’s days were numbered, but Takeshi refused to believe that. A draw was not a loss, even if it a felt a bit like one.

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