Barghest – Chapter 12

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Inclusive Fitness

Hour 2200, Day 359, Year 2130

Calque (KAL-ka) slang, verb: calculated the risk and determined it to be acceptable.

    Ex. See Dick sit down. See Jane buckle up. See Spot hide. See Jane calque coordinates. See Dick engage sublight engines.  See Spot immolated as hull stress causes localized system failures and hydrogen leaks onto the bridge.  See Dick snap his femur as gravity kickback smashes him against the console. Jane did not calque well. Dick will buckle up next time.

“Drop is in thirty minutes. Get the teams ready.”

Malak nodded at Colonel Thomas’ order, but it wasn’t necessary. He had already checked in with his team leaders. Giltine, Kapziel, and Almaut were all prepared, and Malak trusted that the soldiers serving under each of them would be too. He adjusted his shoulders under the new body armor issued for the mission; it fit tighter than he was used to, but the dark material did not impede his range of motion.

It was what they were now – or would be once the mission was complete – no longer research subjects but soldiers. It was a status that meant more than just success for the purpose he had been created. It meant a measure of rights. Malak would never say so – and he had ordered the others to keep their thoughts on the issue to themselves – but he knew what kind of legal position they were all in. Under the Emancipation and Suffrage amendment to the Constitution, they were all people. Citizens of the Sol Coalition. The Constitution required every citizen to serve two years in the military, and then they were granted secondary status. They could vote and have children. Another ten years of service granted primary citizenship. Those citizens could own property and run for public office. They were eligible for appointment to various government positions. Malak didn’t have his sights set quite that high. He wanted to be in a position to exist, outside of a black-budget research station. He wanted that choice available to all of those he was responsible for. He had already been through one test mission with Skoll and Kapziel’s two betas. He knew how laughably easy war would be for all of them. The military leaders and scientists, with the exception of Thomas, were impressed by small things.

Killing Cullers was no problem; it was what they had been designed to do. Thomas, however, expected more. He wanted Malak to gain intelligence about enemy movements. He wanted prisoners for interrogation and technology for reverse engineering. He wanted black boxes from Culler ships and codes for their communications. He wanted more than battlefield success, he demanded from them an end to a nearly century long war. And he insisted that it take place so quietly that the humans would never know where the Cullers disappeared to. The colonel’s attitude made it clear that he did not like Malak; he had expressed more than once his support of the ban on GMH research in the Sol System. Malak vividly recalled his comments, years earlier, comparing the research subjects to Rottweilers. However, Thomas had gained respect for the Alpha. The Colonel had an inkling of what the Project Hellhound soldiers were capable of and it made him both cautious and demanding. Malak understood that.

He locked in the last commands to his armor tech and picked up his helmet. Thomas stopped him with a raised hand before he could exit the compartment. “Before the Repulsion, every army and regiment on Earth had its own motto. They used to put it on grave markers when soldiers died in combat.”

“Hn,” Malak answered coolly. The colonel had a habit of trying to teach lessons about Earth history and early human military tactics. Usually they ended in a critique of some action Malak had taken. The Alpha had found that limiting his responses and expressions curbed most humans’ desire to engage him in conversation. Unfortunately, the colonel was not so easily deterred. Thomas shook his head, finally looking up from his seat. He waited, fingers irritatingly tapping – his favorite tactic when he felt Malak was being too reticent. “I do not intend to die,” he finally elaborated, simply wanting to end the conversation and go to his teams to prepare, “and if I did, there would be no grave, and no marker. As you are aware.”

“Yeah, fine,” Thomas waved the response away, making Malak clench his jaw. “But what would it say?”

Malak was quiet for a long moment. The question struck him as more important than he would have thought. He rolled his shoulders, subtly testing his armor. He was born to fight for the humans. Despite how he had been created and the circumstances of his training, they had never physically abused him. He had no choice but to serve, but still had an innate instinct to protect. His future was not his, and yet Thomas had spent an interminably long time explaining how the pay system would work once they were confirmed as soldiers of the Sol Coalition, how hierarchy and combat assignments were structured in human battalions. It was a strange dichotomy – breeding them to serve and remain hidden, but expecting them to desire, and be content with, the meager rewards of a soldier. A soldier’s rewards without a citizen’s rights.

In spite of that, the humans deserved protection from the Cullers. He, and his teams, deserved to be allowed to do what they could do best. A tone sounded over the ship’s communication system, announcing that they were twenty minutes out from the drop, and everyone needed to be in position.

“Just think about it,” Thomas said gruffly. “See you in forty-eight hours. Try not to destroy any equipment.” He picked up his tablet and began scrolling through the mission file, muttering, “I hate requisition forms.”

Malak hit the door activation but paused before stepping through. “Natus at mortem,” he replied in a low voice. Thomas didn’t acknowledge him, but Malak turned the phrase over as he entered the bay and took his position opposite Giltine and Kapziel, and next to Almaut. Born for death. It seemed appropriate. A banner, as well as a curse.

***

“Count thirty-four,” came the low whisper over the transmission system. Malak pulled up the map of the underground tunnel system on his display. The pale blue trails overlaid his vision, showing potential paths to the chamber that Giltine and her team were investigating. Thirty-two was a lot of Cullers, but not overwhelming, not with concussive grenades and the high ground. Giltine had positioned her people on a series of ledges opening from three tunnels at the top of a large cavern. Intelligence had indicated a heat mass, approximately 20 meters below those ledges.  Giltine confirmed that thermal bloom to be the enemy.

Malak knew his mission was to order an attack and destroy the supply post of alien repair parts and fuel cells. It would have been a simple thing, with the combination of technology and superior senses, for his teams to surround the Culler stronghold, initiate combat with high-temp, low-percussive detonations and then cut down any survivors that tried to escape the tunnels as they collapsed.

He did not. “Hn,” he stated flatly.

Parshav spoke over the same channel that only fed to the team leaders, and Malak noted his position with Smierc and Almaut deeper in the tunnels, below him some seventy meters, “Hold for note.” There was a brief pause, then, “This isn’t a natural tunnel.”  Malak stared at the veined stone in front of him, trails of heat made by a native microbial life form glowed in his night-vision. Soldiers were all supposed to use the radio terminology that had been drilled into them in preparation for such situations, but Malak found the practice ineffectual and unnecessary. When they were on mission, his team spoke clearly and to the point. Parshav wouldn’t have bothered using the command channel if his observation wasn’t important.

“Assess,” Malak instructed.

“Laser cuts and some heat-vaporization,” Parshav finally determined. “High energy requirements.”

“Brief said this was ‘a hiding place of opportunity’,” Kapziel quoted. His curiosity came through clearly.

“Suggesting intelligence got this one wrong?” Almaut sounded distracted. “Shameful.” There was a long pause while Malak considered the ramifications. It was a training mission, one designed to ensure that they could follow orders, kill the enemy, and withdraw quietly. It hadn’t been openly stated, but it was reasonable to assume that the targets had been chosen for their control factor: well-researched, containable, and with limited possibility of anyone – Culler or human – stumbling upon them. So, he had to wonder why – on an out-of-the-way, relatively harmless waypoint – why had the enemy expended significant resources to improve existing tunnels. The twelve soldiers in his group waited in complete silence behind him for an order. Malak toggled through his stat display to check on the dozen he had left on the surface as a perimeter guard. Culler excavations were an unknown factor that could destroy his mission success – and the lives of a hundred soldiers.  Malak determined that he would, at his earliest opportunity, put in a request that some of his people be trained to review intelligence and plan missions.  It would significantly reduce the number of humans he desired to put on permanent disability leave. He controlled his breathing, and his temper, while he waited for more information.

“Hold,” Giltine spoke again. “Count revision.” Parshav was feeding information into the shared network regarding additional excavations that had not shown up on the satellite scans. The Cullers had dug thousands of additional meters beyond the tunnel system they had in their maps. Whatever was down there – it was important to the enemy. “County sixty-two.”

That changes things, Malak thought to himself. Giltine’s group was now outnumbered more than 2 to 1. They weren’t impossible odds, particularly if he directed Kapziel to relocate and assist her. It was unlikely, however, that the teams would be intact after an engagement on that scale. Malak did not want to lose anyone. Not on their first mission. Not ever, if he could do anything about it. He also wanted to know the purpose of the new tunnels. A significant portion of his education had been on Cullers: anatomy, behavior, culture, technology, language. They were not a colony-building species. At least, humans had never observed that kind of behavior. Although a point of origin for Earth’s enemy had not been established, it was assumed that supplies were transported from there, as Cullers did not have fuel mining or harvesting stations, agricultural resources, or any permanent bases. The closest thing to strongholds for them were waypoints, like the planet selected for the training mission. Cullers utilized such places for ship repairs, regrouping, and resource transfers between military units.

The natural tunnel system had been periodically monitored by the Sol Coalition for almost two years. Information collected by surveilling the waypoint had been developed into strike attacks on larger, more important battle groups. Traffic to and from the plant had dropped in the last six months, which was why it had been selected for termination. No movement meant no intelligence, which was the only reason the Cullers holed up underground were still alive. They lost their value, and so Malak and his teams were instructed to use them for target practice.

Two years, Malak thought with disgust, and the SC never noticed a large-scale excavation. It was only his second time commanding an operation, but so far he was not impressed with the tactical directives of the Sol Coalition. It was too late to do anything about that, and it would only stir up resentment and division among his people if he spoke what was on his mind, so Malak remained silent. The original plan had been to send Giltine to the cavern with the known heat-source, and she would be able to eliminate any Cullers there. Kapziel and Almaut each lead exploratory teams into the tunnel systems in different directions to ensure that no Cullers were left alive or useful technology abandoned. Malak split his own team into a surface guard and a strike group that could assist any of the other three if they encountered trouble. If he changed the mission parameters, it would increase risk for everyone.

“Team Two,” he spoke quietly to Kapziel, “split forces to support Team One and secure the exit.”  The soldiers behind Malak shifted, their breathing changing for a moment as they listened to him deploy other units to take their position. All maintained silence. “Team Three,” he trusted Almaut to relay his instructions to Smierc and Parshav, “prepare a grid search protocol. Three squads.” He switched channels to speak with his own group. His display was lighting up with information about their physical stats, and Malak turned the notifications down, preferring to rely on his own senses to keep tabs on the soldiers. “Relief watch is on its way. Check weapons and tech. Explore and Assess.”  The command was well received by individuals who were bred and raised to fight and had found themselves spending their first mission without any chance of action. In the quiet of the tunnel, Malak picked up the increased heart and breathing rates. He glanced back at his team and saw red eyes flashing in the darkness. His nose almost itched from the adrenaline seeping into the air. Thomas would have told the soldiers to settle the fuck down, or ‘stay frosty’ if he was in a good mood. Malak let it go. His own body chemistry was beginning to tick up; so as long as the others remained still and silent, he didn’t feel a reprimand was in order.

Kapziel’s beta and eleven other green dots appeared at the edge of his proximity map, so Malak ordered his team to move with him.  It took nearly thirty minutes for him, walking slowly and stopping frequently to check his surroundings, to reach Almaut’s position. The pale-skinned soldier was waiting for him, helmet off.

“There are two main channels here,” he said quietly gesturing to an opening at the far end of the wide corridor where his team was grouped. The subdermal transmitters echoed his voice, despite their proximity. The devices were not programmed to take non-human hearing into consideration. “Sonar indicates this one,” Almaut tapped the command pad on his sleeve and the right tunnel was painted yellow on Malak’s display, “splits again in another two hundred meters, about sixty meters down. Past that, we can’t get a read with all of the zinc and lead in the rock.”

Malak turned off his display and removed his helmet for a moment so that he could take a look at the walls without any digital overlays on his vision. Midway down the tunnel, the ceiling took on a lined appearance, as though a corkscrew had been pressed against it and turned. After another five meters, the walls alternated the same pattern- sometimes on both, in other places on just one. Where the tunnel diverged in a ‘Y’ junction, every surface was grooved rather than smoothly uneven like the natural tunnels behind him. Malak compared the dimensions to what he had been crouching in for for the last two hours. Where the soldiers had entered the system, rock had been cleared away by some ancient river hundreds of thousands of years ago and remained approximately four meters in diameter, sometimes much larger. Where the grooves began, the walls had narrowed. Malak ran his gloved fingers across the stone. The resulting shafts that had been cut were a symmetrical three and a half meters.

“Three-point-eight meters,” Almaut corrected him, without having to hear a question. “Down to the millimeter. Parshav measured four times.” Malak crouched down, keeping his weight balanced on the balls of his feet, to stare down the steeply sloping floor of the artificial passage. Almaut continued to speak quietly, regarding the composition of the rock, the microscopic filings left in the floor grooves. The traces of slag melted during laser cutting. The potential for increasing levels of lead and other elements that would block communication signals as well as the sonar and other mapping tech. A slow breeze moved through the air, bringing with it scents from deeper in the ground. Mica and iron. The tang of zinc and the musty, damp smell of old wetness. Rot with a sickening sweetness – Cullers.

“What,” Malak asked slowly, as Almaut began to wind down, “is 3.8 meters in diameter?” The pale soldier blinked in surprise, and then his brow furrowed. The Alpha let him think about it as long as he wanted, sure that he would come up with a response. Malak had already run through a few possibilities. Cullers were driven by a single motivation – to eradicate humans -but they could be surprisingly inventive in their tactics. Never though, had they undertaken terraforming or base building. They lived on ships, leaving only to fight the Sol Coalition forces or to trade supplies and equipment with each other. They were not stupid or wasteful. Cullers would not spend valuable resources on such an extensive project without justification – a rationale that would result in a loss of human lives. There was only one reason to make a tunnel: to go through it. So the question remained, what, or who, did the Cullers need to transport under the surface of an out-of-the way, nearly abandoned planet that had no readily available natural resources?

“A TUNA is 3.7 meters,” Almaut said slowly. Malak kept his face carefully blank, but his brain was sifting through possible reasons for an obsolete aquatic vehicle to be on a planet with no liquid water. The Cullers had used TUNA’s in Earth’s oceans during the Repulsion, and a few had been found abandoned on other liquid ocean planets in nearby space. Almaut gestured with his helmet, the matte black face shield turning to face each surface. “It is the right shape, wider on the sides.” Malak followed Almaut’s gaze to the ceiling, “Ridgeline…the propulsion system would be hot enough to create zinc sphalerite slag…” His voice faded away, and he alternately nodded and frowned to himself.

Whatever the Cullers were doing on that planet, it needed to be investigated. Malak stood and replaced his helmet, Almaut a beat behind him. He flipped over to the command channel. “Team Three and I are going deeper, communication range is limited. Remain at your positions. In six hours, execute the mission objective and evac to the extraction site.”

“Confirmed,” Kapziel responded without hesitation, although his voice sounded irritated. Malak assumed the older, brasher soldier would have preferred exploring rather than continuing to wait.

“Secondary extraction?” Giltine asked.

“None,” Malak responded. To his credit, Almaut did not flinch at the news that if he and his team could not make it back out by the deadline, they would be left behind.

Giltine was silent for a long moment, and Malak knew her instinct to obey was fighting with her desire to tell him how stupid she thought his plan was. “Confirmed,” she finally responded.

“Count begins now,” he started a timer on his display that would be represented for the rest of the command staff as well. “Malak out.” He turned to Almaut, “Split your teams. You take the left, Smierc and I will take the right and divide up at the fork. Comm silence unless you hit trouble, or find the end.”

“Yes, sir,” Almaut said. His helmet concealed his face, but Malak was sure he was grinning. Everyone wanted to test themselves, do and see something new, and Almaut was no exception.

Malak led twenty-four others, including Smierc, down the steep grade of the right-hand channel. Where it split, he and Smierc divided as well, exploring with their weapons leading the way. His tech continued to map the area around him, long after he lost the signals from the rest of his people. Something he had not felt before trickled down his spine in that moment. Fear, he recognized belatedly. Malak – all of the subjects from the research station at Erasmus – were put through isolation tests, but never had he actually been separated from his pack. He could not see, hear, or smell any but the twelve soldiers behind him. The knowledge that they were, actually, out of reach – not just in the next lab, room, or training facility – stopped him cold for a moment. Like a ripple on a pond, he could feel his temporary unease moving through the others. Malak shook himself. He was the Alpha; they were his responsibility, and if he could not overcome his own mind, he could not expect them to do the same.

“Nose up,” he ordered quietly, and then began to move again. There were several audible inhales, which had the effect Malak had desired. The familiar scents of the comrades with them made each soldier feel more secure. They walked for close to three hours. A six hour deadline meant that they could only go so far before they would not be able to return in time to make the extraction. What ground they covered in four hours at a cautious walk, they could retrace in two hours at a jog, or 45 minutes if they ran flat out, but that would leave them open to attack.  Malak wanted desperately to find something. The end of the tunnels, a secret Culler munitions stockpile, even a breeding den that would vastly outnumber his team. Anything would be better than the constant, pressing decision of whether to turn back or keep going. With each step, his boots felt heavier. The armor across his shoulders was tight, his back and neck strained with tension. The three-hour mark came and went. His timer display changed from green to red. Still, the tunnel continued down.

They had just passed the four hour mark, and Malak was about to call for a ten minute rest, when he noticed a sharp drop ahead. He held up one fist, signaling the group to halt, then crept forward silently. A hole in the floor, the same size as the tunnel itself, plunged into a darkness unrelieved by the faint glow of the microscopic trails in the rest of the rock. After about fifty meters, it lightened considerably. Where there was a light source, there was something worth looking at. Malak gestured two soldiers forward, and between the three of them they quickly drove pitons in a triangle around the lip of the hole. Malak used hand signals to let them know he would go first, and half of the group would follow after a count of twenty-five. The other half would remain to guard the rear.

The cable attached to his gear belt whispered as he lowered himself without touching the rock around him. As he drew closer to the end, he could see that the shaft opened into a larger cavern, but nothing was visible directly below him. Cautiously, he utilized his tech to map the room with sonar and heat. There were massive concentrations of thermal mass, but nothing moving in the space below him. He relayed the information to the rest of his team and then released, dropping the last five meters to the stone below. Malak rolled to cushion the blow and came to a stop in a crouch. His back was to the wall, which curved around in a rough oval shape randomly dotted with small piles of rubble and the occasional massive piece of stone. Several other shafts dropped from the ceiling, and a large opening had been cut in the center of the floor. Evenly spaced around that hole where three large machines glowing bright white in his night vision. Malak blinked and forced his eyes to switch perception. The space was dark, except for the machines which gave off a subtle red luminosity. His tech alerted him that they were also producing low-levels of radiation that would be harmful if he remained there too long. Malak tried to come up with a comparison, but they resembled antique jet engines more than anything he had ever seen. The propulsion end was secured to the rock; slag melted the metal casing directly into the stone. The intake end faced toward the ceiling. Each one was directed toward a larger central shaft above them – for venting or fuel, he wasn’t certain.

Another soldier dropped down beside him, and Malak gestured for him to secure the area. The Alpha moved closer, making certain he was recording everything he saw. He approached the closest machine and focused on the exposed circuitry near what looked like a terminal panel. Upon closer inspection, the center of the room was a meter deep depression shallowly filled with water from an unseen source. Piping led from the water to each machine, possibly for cooling. Responsibility for his soldiers, his pack, was warring with his duty to his makers – the Sol Coalition.  A grinding, scraping sound echoed into the room, and Malak glanced back at his men. All six had taken up position along the wall, near a large hunk of stone that appeared to be a remnant from the excavation. Moisture was seeping through the rock, making the wall shine in the low light. Malak felt exposed as the sound grew louder. He dropped to the floor and backed against the machine between two thick support struts. The heat against his back, even through his temperature regulating armor, was intense.

The grinding sound stopped suddenly, and the clicking, screeching language of the Cullers took its place. Although no one on his team had managed to be able to replicate the sounds, they all understood enough Culler to get an idea of the discussion.

Test. Deaths. More fuel. Stage two. Transport.

What else they might have said was lost as one of them screamed and then shots rang out. Malak’s display bloomed to life – the signals for Almaut and his team flashed up on the screen, showing their positions grouping together on the far side of the cavern. Malak ran around the machine in a crouch. Four Cullers had been towing a TUNA, the hull dented and in disrepair. They had abandoned it and attacked Almaut’s team as they descended from another ceiling tunnel.

“Support fire,” Malak ordered his team. The Cullers were quickly caught between the two squads, and when it was over, there were only minor injuries reported on his display.

“What the hell are those?” Almaut asked, quickly tying off an arm wound and gesturing at the machines.

“Get whatever information you want, then set detonations,” Malak ordered. “We need to-”

Another screech, this one louder and longer and peppered with gunfire, reached his ears. Seconds later, Smierc’s location showed up on his map. “Coming in hot,” she breathed heavily into her comm. “At least sixteen behind me, and more joining. Seems I stumbled into a party.”

“You, you,” Malak gestured to two of his soldiers, “Positions, either side of the tunnel, prepare for a siege.” His heart was beating in double-time, but rather than anxious, Malak felt exhilarated. His mind was clear and focused, his body ready to act. He ordered the six that had remained above to run back to the tunnel complex entrance and meet up with Kapziel’s team. “Report to him, we’re right behind you.”

“Yes, sir,” they echoed, and then were gone.

“Almaut,” Malak barked. The soldier was directing three of his men to set up explosives while another two rapidly scanned the machines for data. White hair was exposed as he removed his helmet and jogged over to his alpha. “Find me an exit, fast.”

“Find it fast – or make the exit fast?” Malak growled, his carefully cultivated expression of calm slipping. Almaut didn’t lose his attitude, but he obeyed. “Both – got it,” Almaut grinned and spun away. The excitement of finally seeing action, even if, or perhaps because, it threatened their lives, was affecting nearly everyone. Even Malak was aware of the pump of blood in his veins and the way smells seemed sharper than usual. The Alpha organized the rest of the soldiers to watch the other ground-level entrance and prepare to assist Smierc. She entered, as Malak expected, with a shower of explosions. Four soldiers proceeded her, running flat out and their stats signaling that they were wounded. Smierc was in the middle of a carefully ordered retreat. She and seven other soldiers pivoted gracefully, making up a moving wheel of firing weapons and occasional melee attacks. Those that rotated toward the front would toss carefully aimed grenades behind the group – into a swarming mass of Cullers.

Malak had never seen so many in one space. Even in video footage of ground attacks, where thousands of Cullers would engage the Sol Coalition infantry, they did not look so numerous. Long, knobby limbs moved with surprising speed along the ground. They were so close together, some were pushed up against the walls, their claws digging into the stone so that they could run perpendicular to gravity’s pull. The sound was deafening; even past the bursts of percussive explosions, there was a constant screech and grinding gnash of their language. One alien surged forward and caught its hooked claw in the armor of a soldier. She was yanked backward, toward the mass of the enemy. Malak aimed with precision. As the second claw moved up to pierce the soldier’s torso, he fired. An incendiary round exited the back of the creature’s head and then ignited. The force threw the injured soldier and several splatters of ichor and tissue over Smierc’s head and into the chamber. Malak’s team were ready. As soon as they had clear shots, they began to take down Cullers. Each death slowed their advance – enough that Almaut’s team could prepare their detonators.

“Clear!”

Soldiers dove for cover and the ground shook as the tunnel collapsed over the Cullers. A few managed to propel themselves past the debris – straight into the waiting line of soldiers. They were dealt with quickly, freeing Malak to order emergency first aid and perimeter security before checking in with Almaut. The Alpha did not have to ask for a progress report.

“Smierc is going to love this – you, not so much.” Almaut gestured toward the center of the room. “I still don’t know the purpose of the things, but at least part of it is an exhaust system. With enough pressure, it will make a decent cannon to get us out of here.”

“Those,” Malak said calmly, even while the soldiers close enough to overhear laughed or snorted with disbelief, “are radioactive. And we are not circus performers.”

“Okay,” Almaut continued. He turned to the closest machine and with a spring leaped up onto the primary structure. He seized a access panel with both hands and ripped it away with a grunt. “Bad analogy. I’m going to force air out through this thing with enough pressure to blow a hole straight to the surface. I estimate I only need to get through about a hundred meters – give or take twenty-five – of solid rock. Then we can climb out, detonations are on a timer. Culler base will be destroyed, we’ll be free and clear. Everyone can have a nice meal supplement bar before Thomas picks us up.”

“I believe you may have left out some pertinent details,” Malak said dryly. The plan was not impossible. It was not ideal, but it wasn’t impossible. He calculated the amount of time it would take him to free climb several hundred meters. Not all of the soldiers were as strong as him, and some had been injured. Malak’s eyes roved over the chamber, assessing each individual, counting the remains of the enemy, before finally coming to rest on the damaged TUNA. “How much water is behind that wall?”  Both men glanced at the wet stone, dripping moisture onto the floor, then at the TUNA.

Almaut’s eyes widened, “You want to-”

“Check it out, but do the math quickly.” Malak reached for his gun again as shifting rocks alerted him that the Cullers were trying to dig through the cave-in. The TUNA, named by the North American scientists that had reverse engineered the technology on those used in 2056 during the assault on Earth, were Tactical Unit Nautical Assault vehicles. They could carry 25 Cullers from splashdown sites to port cities and up onto beaches and docks. Even the smallest of Malak’s people had at least twice the mass of a Culler, but their bodies were better designed for compact spaces – fewer hard shells and splayed joints. Responsibility and duty, instinct and reason were tangling inside of him. Their weight was like an albatross trying to pull him down. With decent handholds, he could probably free climb to the surface in fifty minutes. But there was no possibility that the injured could keep up at that speed, and the Cullers would be able to dig into the chamber and disarm any explosives before Malak and his teams could get clear of the blast. Malak tried to determine how they could get thirty-six soldiers into the one available TUNA.

One Culler arm punched through the loose rubble and was quickly removed by a standard-issue service knife before another controlled detonation sealed the chamber off again. Malak monitored Smierc’s progress in securing a secondary tunnel while he waited for Almaut to report.

“This is, quite possibly, the coolest thing I have ever done,” Almaut announced through the comm system. Malak glanced up to see him standing in the center of the room, supervising a small group that relocated the TUNA to the cooling pond. “When they replay this footage, I hope Thomas notices how completely amazing this is. I deserve a promotion. Or a raise. Maybe a handshake and thanks – from the President.”

“You don’t have a rank,” Smierc noted over the comm from her position on the front line of the tunnel. “You don’t get a paycheck, and the President probably doesn’t know you exist.”

Almaut signaled to a soldier near the dripping wall, and he secured two rolls of det cord to either side of a much more significant charge. “Oh, then the raise takes priority. Definitely.” Metal rubbed against metal, loud in the room, and the rear hatch on the TUNA opened.

“Contacts approaching,” Smierc noted calmly. Her team began to fire down the tunnel.

“All aboard,” Almaut called out. “Keep your helmets on, your hands to yourself, and use your emergency oxygen if your ears start to pop. Or bleed.” Malak stood by at the entrance, making certain everyone squeezed and covering Smierc’s controlled retreat. “If this doesn’t work, we will be sitting ducks.” Almaut scratched at his pale chin with his helmet and then shot at an unfortunate Culler that had broken away from the front line.

Malak ignored the comment. “Give me the detonation code.” He punched it into his tech, and held the activation ready. Instinct and duty. The rotten sweet scent of alien ichor and the familiar musk of his pack flooded his nose. Almaut followed the last soldier onto the TUNA, squeezing in and grabbing the hatch lever. Without another word, Malak spun in a tight circle, slamming the sole of his boot into the exterior of the hatch and quickly shutting the TUNA.

“Wha-” came over the comm.

Smierc’s voice crackled through his transmitter at the same time, “Don’t, Malak.” The two words were tight with anxiety.

Cullers surged out of the unprotected tunnel, snarling and shrieking.  Malak holstered his weapon, secured his helmet, and detonated the charges.

***

The silence was loud in the debriefing room. Dr. Gillian sat off to the side, along with the Chief of Medical, but the procedure was run by the military. Representative Venegas was flanked by Colonel Thomas and a General that had traveled from four star systems away solely for the meeting. The playback from Almaut’s tech was frozen on the image of Malak’s face, set and unyielding, terrifyingly composed without his helmet, his foot outstretched to shut his team into the damaged Culler vehicle they had commandeered. Gillian, even thirty-six hours after the group had returned from the mission, was in shock. The subjects had been programmed for loyalty, quick-thinking under pressure, and dedication to the Sol Coalition and defeat of the Cullers. Decades she had worked toward creating an undefeatable weapon that would save human lives. A soldier that was stronger, faster, and less inclined to allow fear to control decisions. Those children – the twenty-sevens were only fourteen years old, regardless of how mature their bodies were – had found a nest of enemies four times larger than reports had indicated. They had taken it upon themselves to gather intelligence, decimate a secret facility, and completely eliminate all Cullers on the planet, without any loss of allied life.

Except one. Gillian was in shock. Representative Venegas looked furious. The General appeared overwhelmed. Thomas was smiling. It was a little thing, just a tiny quirk at the corner of his mouth, but it made Gillian’s stomach twist.

Venegas continued berating the research subjects, “You put the lives of half of the deployed forces at risk in a non-working, seventy-year old alien vessel and allowed your superior officer-”

Almaut raised his hand, but didn’t wait to be acknowledged. “Actually, it turns out we don’t have ranks.” Venegas’ mouth snapped shut, his face darkening with rage. “I know,” Almaut said easily, as though confiding in an old friend, “I was just as surprised. Did you know we don’t get pai-” Kapziel yanked the other male backwards, making his mouth shut with an audible click.

“Excuse me, sir,” Giltine smoothly stepped forward. “We followed the Field Manual for Special Operations to the letter, including our exit strategy.”

“And where, young lady,” the General asked, both silvery brows raised, “does the Manual recommend building your own Old Faithful and riding it back to base?”

“Don’t ever march home the same way,” Thomas said quietly. Gillian didn’t recognize the rule, but she had only read through the manual once, prior to designing training exercises for the twenty-two series.

“Section Four: Retreating,” Giltine answered without hesitation, ignoring the colonel’s comment.

“Do not retreat,” Kapziel began.

“But if your position is overwhelmed,” Giltine continued, standing at attention and looking the General in the eye, “utilize surprise and any advantage offered by the surroundings to distract the enemy while moving to higher ground.”

Almaut lost his easy humor and spoke seriously for the first time in Gillian’s memory, “Use any means necessary to ensure the enemy’s losses are greater than your own.”

“Your recall is as impressive as I was lead to believe. However,” the General said, his dark face equally serious, “that section ends with one extremely important command that you seem to have forgotten.”

“Leave no soldier behind.” Malak stood as he spoke, his wheelchair rolling slightly away as he pushed out of it. Even with the plaster on his leg up to the hip and half of his neck discolored and strangely shiny from the skin graft that had not had time to fully take, he looked impressive. At more than two meters, he was taller than anyone else in the room. He had never gained the bulk that Kapziel had, but his shoulders were broad, his thighs and arms corded with muscle. His light brown beard was usually kept shaved, but he had demanded release from the infirmary to attend the debriefing, and his thick stubble and unkempt hair reflected his hasty departure. Gillian’s stomach twisted again. Malak was the pinnacle of her research, the lynchpin to the success of Project Hellhound. He was trillions of dollars, decades of work, and the trust and hope of two generations of government leaders. They had almost lost him. Not to the enemy, she reminded herself, fear still gnawing at the edges of her shock, but to his own moral code. He had sacrificed himself to kill the Cullers and ensure that all of his team made it out alive. If they had taken the conventional route and climbed out of the tunnels, he could have come out with few injuries, and most of his soldiers would have as well – but not all. Malak’s actions flew in the face of conventional training. His behavior was not genetic. It was not programmed by psychological training.

The realization terrified Gillian.

“Malak,” Venegas started, having finally regained a semblance of composure, “you determined to seal your team into a damaged vessel, which you could not be certain would remain intact, and blow them to the surface with a scrambled-together plan, and then face a swarm-”

“A swarm would imply insects,” Almaut interrupted again. “Cullers are categorized as-” Malak made a low noise in the back of his throat and the blonde male abruptly ceased speaking. All three betas stood at attention.

“I trust the judgement of my team,” Malak responded. His deep voice had gained a gravelly note since his neck injury. “If I did not, they would not fight alongside me. Almaut stated the pressure would be sufficient and that the TUNA would hold. It was apparent that it would be under significant strain given our numbers, and chances of success were greater if someone remained outside to properly time the detonation of the initial blast to create an exit and seal the secondary tunnel. Then the subsequent blast to release the water.”

“And if there had not been enough volume to reach the surface?” The General looked fascinated.

“Almaut placed additional charges and an emergency fuel cell on the lower compartment of the TUNA. In such an instance, Smierc would have ignited it to provide enough thrust to crest the shaft entrance.”

“And if you had been incapacitated or killed by Cullers before you could activate the second detonation?” The Representative nearly spit his words.

Malak turned his gaze on Venegas to answer his question. Gillian stared at the cold, green gaze of the Alpha as if she had never seen him before. Perhaps I haven’t, she thought with an anxious realization, not truly. The lack of inflection in his voice made it clear how little he thought of the suggestion, “The possibility was below the parameters set by the Manual for assessing risk.”

“Awfully high opinion of yourself,” Venegas ground out.

“Sir,” Malak rolled his shoulders slightly, as though throwing off a weight on them, “there were only thirteen intact Cullers that survived the tunnel collapse. Given that the majority of my engagement with them was under water, where their anatomy is poorly suited for movement, it was unlikely I would be unsuccessful.”

The General let out a barking laugh, “So you flooded the room, shot a dozen Cullers, and swam 500 meters to the surface.”

Almaut muttered out of the corner of his mouth as the Representative spoke, “Shot twelve, decapitated one after he ran out of ammo.”

“Not successfully,” Venegas argued, ignoring Almaut’s low commentary, “You were dead when your team found you washed up on the dirt.”

“I would interject, Representative,” the Chief of Medical spoke up, “Malak’s vital signs were only recorded as flat for fifty-seven seconds, and his brain activity did not cease during that time. Even if his team had not gotten to him, the AED in his armor would have auto-energized and restarted his heart.”

“That is not a risk that should be taken with an asset of his value!” Venegas exploded. Gillian barely contained her wince. Although the subjects were all cognizant of their purpose and the circumstances of their creation, she had worked hard to ensure that they were not spoken to as if they were property – regardless of how the Oversight Committee considered their status. It belied the psychological programming she had designed.

“Colonel Thomas,” the General turned to the man who had overseen the final stages of training for the subjects. “Do you feel these individuals, the twenty-six and twenty-seven series of Project Hellhound, are capable of field duty to the full extent expected?”

“Yes, sir,” Thomas nodded his head, “they will exceed it. I am certain.”

“Excellent. Then on your recommendation, the Sol Coalition Forces will take over from here. Project Hellhound is now under the auspices of the military, not the Oversight Committee. No need to interrupt your schedule, or your Congressional budget, anymore, Representative Venegas.”  The Representative did not reply, but his chair scraped loudly on the floor as he pushed it back and stalked out of the room. “Now,” the General glanced down at his tablet, clearly pleased with the results of the test mission, “by the authority granted to me by the Defense Minister, I hereby create the Thirteenth Legion, under the command of Colonel George Thomas, as an Operations and Support Special Access Program. Malak,” the General paused, looking up and frowning at the injured male, “do you have a last name, son?”

“No, sir,” Malak answered coolly, although he must have been confused by both the sudden familiarity from a human officer as well as the insinuation that he should have a family name.

“Hm, well, we’ll consider Malak your surname – makes the paperwork easier. But you should work on that. As I was saying, Malak, I am commissioning you into the Sol Coalition Terra Forces at the rank of Lieutenant 2nd Class with Field Command of the Legion. You will report to Colonel Thomas. Thomas, you have the full authority to commission additional officers below the rank of Lieutenant, as you see fit, from within Legion ranks, and submit requisitions for additional personnel if necessary. A discretionary budget will be transferred to you by the end of the week, and I expect a preliminary operations report and deployment recommendations by the time I get back to Sheng Station.” He pressed his palm against his tablet to sign the order. The General’s smile was bright against his dark skin when he looked up. “Dr. Gillian, I expect that you will prepare a final report for me as well. Until further funding is determined, Erasmus Research Station is on hold. If there is nothing else, I’ll leave you to it.”

Gillian was reeling. Her project was a success – the military was apparently ecstatic with the results. However, she was not. There was something wrong with Malak – with the entire research group. They had not turned out the way she had intended. They weren’t supposed to behave the way that they had.

“Sir,” Thomas stood as the General pushed away from the table. “I would like to inform you that the Legion has adopted a motto.”

“Motto?” He chuckled, “Black ops means it won’t be published anywhere, but go ahead, let’s hear it.”

Gillian stared, wide-eyed, as Thomas glanced to Malak and then back to the General. “Natus at mortem,” he stated. The twist in Gillian’s stomach became a wrenching cramp, the pain making her want to double over. Bile rose in the back of her throat. A fear she had never felt – not even when the twenty-one series became feral and attacked her – froze her joints.

Born for Death.

What have we done?

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