Barghest – Chapter 18

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Evening Constitutional

 Hour 1200, Day 113, Year 2148

Black, adj.: As used by the government, specifically military, to describe operations, budgets, and files that have the highest top secret classification. Only those individuals directly involved (writing the budget, carrying out the operation, etc.) and a single superior officer are aware of the situation. Those involved may be disavowed at any time.

Blackout, adj.: A level above black for classified information. Individuals who gain any knowledge about the situation may be terminated by those authorized to have knowledge. Those involved do not exist.

Malak barely contained a snarl. He had relied on the Coalition to do one thing – follow protocol. It was a simple task, but apparently beyond the capabilities of Captain Yamamoto of the Ferox class destroyer, the Perry. He hoped she was proud of her initiative, because it was most likely going to get her, her crew, and thousands of other soldiers killed. Giltine stood at his side in his ready room, and it was to her credit that she did not flinch at the low rumble of displeasure in his chest.

“How did they get around the Gravitron Apples?” She asked Parshav.

“Patience,” he responded. There was a note of respect in his voice that, at another time, Malak might have echoed. As it was, he was too irritated that the rank-and-file of the Coalition had stumbled into his plan and made an enormous mess of it. “Captain Yamamoto came to a halt here,” he highlighted coordinates on the wall display, just outside of VK10 sector, “and then sent a comm to her superior. The condensed version is that she requested permission to investigate some unusual readings and was given the go ahead, as long as she maintained her schedule. Yamamoto spent two weeks at sublight dodging the gravity wells I created. Her pilot must be a genius,” he muttered, “or completely crazy.”

“What about the other ship?” Giltine prodded.

“The Pershing received a distress call from Yamamoto. Almaut and I had a comm block in place. The signal shouldn’t have gotten out to them, but for some reason the Pershing was scanning deeper frequencies that the SC normally does. Her captain is definitely crazy. Pershing changed coordinates during interstellar travel, and came out of ISG drive within 150,000 kilometers of the planet. A Culler ship was crushed in her disruption wave, but there were plenty of others waiting for her. Comms between the two SC ships show that they both took significant damage, but were able to destroy the enemy.”

“Is there a ‘however’ coming, Parshav?” Malak was glad she had asked, he would not have been able to sound so calm if he had to question the soldier himself. After taking the trainees to base, Malak and Giltine had boarded a Sica class deep-attack vessel and headed back toward VK10. He had been preparing to fight Cullers and investigate their base, not save an army from slaughter. Malak did not often have his plans thwarted. He did not like it.

“Oh, a big ‘however’.” Parshav frowned seriously. “Pershing deployed every battalion they had, including their rookies, to the surface. They lost about a quarter of the transports before they hit atmosphere. Neither ship is currently able to land, due to damage, and their ship-to-surface comms are still being repaired. Our comm block is still in place, so they can’t call for reinforcements. The battalions that survived entry have been pinned down by Culler forces here,” he zoomed in on a map of the surface and highlighted an area along the southern edge of a massive crater, “for the last two weeks.” Parshav continued to describe the Culler defenses and situation with the Coalition forces, but Malak listened with only one ear. Most of his concentration was focused on the aerial images. He scrolled in on four dark openings inside the crater.

“Noticed those, did you?” Parshav smiled tightly at his Alpha and pulled up another, composite sensor scan of the crater. “This should look familiar too. It has a nearly identical chemical signature as on our training mission. The same high concentrations of zinc and lead in the rock – preventing deep thermal or radar scans. And it gets worse.” Malak clenched his jaw and waited for news he would not enjoy hearing. “I’ve picked up some local chatter, several hours old at this point. It sounds like there is a really observant soldier down there who thinks the Cullers might be cutting tunnels under the crater.”

Giltine swore. Malak felt his adrenaline pick up slightly. It was not that he thought the Coalition forces were incapable of fighting the enemy. He had read reports and watched recordings of some respectable battle tactics and fighting techniques by humans. But the Coalition relied on superior numbers and technology for their victories. They were not prepared to fight such overwhelming odds. The Legion was. There was also a high probability that if VK10 did have the technology he had been looking for – clues to what the Cullers were doing – the Coalition infantry would end up destroying it before it could be examined. Or worse, turning it over to the SIS.

“Oh, it doesn’t end there.” Parshav sounded disgusted. “That soldier with the good eye? Sent into the crater on a recon and destroy mission. Half a squadron.” Giltine’s vocabulary became more creative. Malak wanted to crush something, preferably the idiot in charge on the surface. Half a squadron. Six weak-boned little humans infiltrating a secret Culler research station. Suicide, he thought darkly. If his own existence wasn’t proof otherwise, he would have thought the Coalition leaders cared nothing for the lives of soldiers.

Malak opened a comm to the bridge. “Smierc, my ready room.” As soon as she had joined them he gave orders. “Parshav, you have the ship. Giltine, Smierc, and I will each take a squad to the surface. We land here,” he marked the location, “out of sensor range, and make for the north side of the crater on foot.”

“The Coalition forces won’t know we’re even there,” Giltine murmured, already drafting potential attack routes on her tablet.

Smierc stated the obvious, “The ground troops will be decimated without support. Even if we take out the Culler base, without reinforcements they won’t make it off of the surface.”

Giltine pointed out needlessly, “We’re in a blackout.” Since before we first woke, Malak finished the thought. The responsibility of that designation weighed almost as heavily on him as that of his pack. On a blackout mission, he had the authority to terminate anyone, civilian or military, who discovered his existence, or anything to do with his objectives. He could order a wide-band missile strike on the trenches, wiping out two thousand soldiers, and no one would ever know except Colonel Thomas. As long as he gained actionable intel and killed every Culler on the planet, he would face no repercussions.

Smierc seemed to read his thoughts, “The paperwork would be miserable.”

It was true, and as good as any other reason he was willing to admit. “Parshav, loosen the block on their comms.”

“They’ll send out a distress signal,” Giltine warned.

“I think the Alpha knows that,” Smierc said with an eye roll.

“You want the Gravitron Apples disabled too?” Parshav asked.

“Hn,” Malak pulled up a map showing nearby sectors. There were several ships that would be able to respond to the call. “Go ahead.” He turned to leave. “Smierc, Giltine, transport bay in fifteen minutes.”  Alone in the corridor as he strode to his quarters to change, Malak allowed the scowl he had been repressing to surface. It was unlikely he would ever encounter Captain Yamamoto again, but if he did, he hoped he could see her face to face. He would have liked to scare some common sense into the woman. Her, and the idiot soldier investigating the crater too. Curiosity and cats, he thought with a frustrated growl.

***

Giltine piloted the transport with the same easy finesse she used for everything. Her voice came over the comm, clear and collected in the confines of his helmet. “We are solid. Engines spooling down.”

“If you have enjoyed your flight on Air-Giltine, please fill out a comment card,” Smierc said, causing a few chuckles to break out in the squads. Malak determined she had been spending too much time with Almaut.

“Silent running,” Malak ordered flatly and his Legionaries immediately fell quiet. They had all read the mission brief compiled by Parshav. It was twilight on the surface. The time between day and night was exceptionally long, due to an odd rotational axis. The semi-darkness would only aid them in avoiding detection. From Cullers and humans. “Keep it fast. Execute the enemy on sight. Go.”

The scents that came through his air circulation system were dulled, but he could still make out the musk of his pack. The dry, metallic odor of the ship. The doors opened and he was flooded with wet, muddy smell of an unfamiliar planet. Vegetation, reedy and a bit spicy, nearly overpowered the faint traces of munitions on the air.  The Coalition had been busy.

Malak left the transport at a quick jog, his squad behind him. A forest of grass lay between them and the crater. The clumps were huge, soaring several meters above him before the weight of their seeds bent the stalks over. The thick purplish-green plants grew close together. In some places he had to turn sideways in order to move forward. They still made acceptable time, reaching the wall of the ridge a few minutes ahead of schedule. According to the map, the crater was more than six kilometers across. The faint sound of heavy guns and the hot tang of laser cannons was carried to him on a breeze. Coalition forces were fighting a losing battle, but they made an excellent distraction. Not a single Culler patrol walked the ridge or the barren ring of dirt that lay between the grasses and the rock. One laser cannon, the muzzle hanging forlornly over the edge, had been abandoned. Either the humans were presenting more of a challenge to the Cullers than Malak would have expected, or the aliens had not defended their base as well as they should have.  Malak hoped it was the former. Strong defenses meant something worth protecting. He wanted to see that something.

Malak pulled out a grappling kit and attached it to his sidearm. His shot sank into the rock just a meter over the edge. Others followed suit, and soon there were six ropes dangling from the top of the crater. Each of them could have scaled the surface without the assistance of climbing gear, but the ropes made the ascent faster. If necessary, they could also speed a descent. He reached as high as he could with one gloved hand and pulled himself up before getting another hand hold. He could not keep a weapon out as he did so. Soldiers at the bottom would stand guard until Malak and five others reached the top and secured the position. His biceps and shoulders were heated by the time he swung over the edge. He crouched, bringing his rifle into a ready position. “Clear,” he said quietly.

“Clear,” Smierc repeated as completed her own scan of their surroundings. Four others echoed the statement and Malak gave the signal for the rest of the team to ascend. The fine hairs on the tips of his ears tingled. There was some sound just out of his range, and it set him on edge not be able to identify it. A particularly poorly aimed cannon projectile soared over the far edge of the crater and crashed into the dusty bed. A cloud of pale dirt rose, obscuring Malak’s view of the four shafts. The distant battle could be heard, faintly, but not seen, except for that one shot. Instinct rose inside him, whispering, something here, something here, pay attention.

Giltine was the last to climb up, and she quickly organized a rear guard while Smierc lead a scouting team for the nearest entrance underground. Malak was hit with a sense of deja vu. It was eerily similar to the tunnels from eighteen years ago – right down to the grooves of melted slag on the walls. Energy swelled under his skin, eager for action. Malak would not voice his feelings, but he knew they were close to answers. The stats for his team glowed on the edge of his display, adrenaline higher than it should be. They might have been eager for a fight. More likely Malak had not controlled himself well enough and they sensed his excitement. Where the Alpha goes, the pack follows. With each step, Malak took a deep breath, willing his body to settle down. He flexed his muscles, releasing any tension that was not necessary to speed his response time. He slowed his breathing and heart rate. His team, unconsciously or not, followed his example until they were all within optimal parameters.

“Divergence, ahead,” Smierc stated sharply. Malak brought his team to a halt and then continued on, past Smierc’s squadron, to where she crouched close to the ground. Her weapon was ready, her attention trained on the curve in the wall just ahead. He waited to speak until Giltine silently squatted beside him.

“Assess,” he ordered. After nearly two decades of missions together, the command wasn’t really necessary, but Malak still gave it.

“Y-intersection, eight meters around the bend. Another twelve meters off of the main branch is a second Y. All three tunnels descend.”

Giltine cocked her head to the side, and Malak knew what she was sensing, but waited for her to speak. “Cullers. Two on the left. At least four down the center. Dragging…” she trailed off.

Smierc picked up, “It’s human. Or it was.”

Malak nodded shortly in agreement. The scent of human flesh, sweat, and blood was a stark contrast to the rotten-saccharine smell of the Cullers. He had never known them to collect trophies, but the body they were dragging was either dead, or had been so frightened and injured that it defecated. If he or she was still alive, it would be a kindness to end things. Malak pulled up his display, checking the countdown timer that estimated when Coalition reinforcements would arrive. The Legion needed to be off the surface and preferably out of the system before then.

“Find those devices. Shut them down, if you can. Set detonations to block them in – we’ll come back and dig out after the Coalition has left. Kill the enemy on sight.” He adjusted his display again, keeping the instructions from Almaut regarding the device ready in case he should need them. “I’ll take center. Team Two, you have left. Team Three, you have right. Run silent. If you see any humans, stay low.  Weapons hot.” He started his timer. “Crater blows in T minus forty minutes. Legionnaires, keep your-”

“Team leader,” a breathless voice interrupted him over the comm. Malak was so surprised he did not immediately respond. “This is Zulu-actual.” Malak held up a fist, signaling all of the soldiers behind him to remain silent. A woman was broadcasting on his team frequency, so they could all hear her. The soldier on the other end of the line, how did she get comms through the rock, punched in an identification code. It did not mean much to Malak, beyond being authentic. He had no contact with other units, and so call signs were not a priority for him. “There are friendlies in the crater. I repeat, there is an SC unit in the crater, be advised. Over.” The curious cat survived, Malak thought. He found the corners of his mouth trying to curl up into a smirk. It was rare to find a human so difficult for Cullers to kill. Perhaps she is exceptionally skilled.

“This is Zulu, I am sending you our coordinates.” Or incredibly lucky, he realized, reviewing the map and comparing it to the aerial images. Zulu was directly under one of the shafts, right next to a device he needed. She had marked the other three shafts as well, clearly she knew, or had a good idea, what was there. It was his mission to retrieve the device – and to keep its existence a secret. She had most likely seen it, recorded it with her tech. If any of her team were still alive, they were witnesses as well. She continued speaking. Although her tone was calm, she rushed her words, implying anxiety. Understandable, given her position. “Do not, I repeat, do not fire upon the targets. There is unknown tech – extremely volatile.” That observation gave Malak pause. Although the one he had seen so long ago had emitted radiation, there had been nothing to indicate it shouldn’t be destroyed. Almaut had not mentioned anything about the possibility either. “Confirm receipt. Over.” The command in her tone was obvious, but still laced with tension. Malak waited to hear if she would share any other pertinent information. “Team leader, do you copy. Over.”

The scent of Cullers and dead human was moving closer. “Team leader,” Zulu said again, more insistently, “This is Zulu. Do you copy. Ov-” Malak cut the transmission and rekeyed their comm channel so she could not break in again. The Cullers were on the move, he needed to be as well. That did not explain why he did not discard her authorization code or comms signature, but he did not have time to examine his reasons.

“Reset countdown,” he said coolly. “T-minus sixty minutes. Go.” Each team split up, and Malak lead his squadron down the center. If Thomas asked, he would state that Zulu’s information warranted additional time to check over the devices before detonations were set. Privately, in a far corner of his mind that still held on to old lessons, he felt she deserved an extra ten minutes. Although Malak understood his conditioning, and actively chose to fight for the humans even though they had intended to force him to that end, he still believed they should be protected. For the most part, humans were not unlike weak, frightened children. They had been wrong to think they could control the Legion, but they were not wrong to try to develop a weapon against their enemy. Zulu had beaten long odds. She had lead an undermanned team deep into enemy territory and gathered valuable data about their resources. A soldier with that kind of skill and dedication, that fearlessness, deserved the chance to live.

As the tunnel flattened out, he began to feel a vibration in the floor. He discarded any thoughts of Zulu to concentrate on the obstacle ahead. Five Cullers were moving slowly towards him; one dragged a human body in its wake. He switched off the night vision provided by his helmet and relied on his own dark sight. The body was still wearing Coalition armor – although it had been shredded in places. Blood – thick, dark, and sluggish without a heart to pump it out – left a wet trail in the dirt. The Cullers spoke to one another, and Malak was briefly frustrated by his reliance on the translator program built into his tech.

The body is cold.

It does not speak.

My order is the same. Take it back and then get another.

We have plenty.

Malak listened hard, holding back the signal to attack. He waited for more information.

Fine. I am not good enough to eat.

Useless program, he snarled internally, cursing whoever had designed it. Malak made a low-pitched sound in the back of his throat and his squad moved as one. Two legionnaires dropped to their knees, back-to-back guarding the tunnel. One raced past the enemy, dragging his knife along the wall to throw out sparks. Two soldiers attacked each of the first four Cullers, leaving the last one for Malak. He crossed the ten meters between them before the aliens realized what was happening. With a leap he stretched out one leg and flew over the dead body. His booted foot hit the last Culler high on the chest, knocking it to the ground and temporarily incapacitating its voice. He landed on his other foot, and continued his motion, swinging around with his blade drawn. The sharp edge caught the Culler just under the knees as it stumbled backward, and it fell to the side, fetching up against the wall. Malak was on it in an instant. One talon glanced off of his helmet, another snagged in the reinforced mesh of his suit, but did not puncture. His knife found the split in the center of the chest carapace. With quick, arching jab he sliced the nervous system. The Culler fell, and Malak turned to face his team.

One soldier was still pulling his weapon free, but the others were all ready and at attention. Not a single enemy had managed to make a sound. Good, Malak chuffed into his comm. It was rare he gave in to the urge to speak in the primitive language that Bee had taught them all. A kill always brought the need to the surface. An easy relaxation came over the squad. Pleased to have pleased. Feeling still the excitement of a mission, of prey ahead of them. Feeling pride that they followed their Alpha into battle. Malak faced back toward the direction the Cullers had been coming from, and gestured for the others to follow.

After another five minutes, Malak was irritated to note that they had not made adequate headway. It seemed that they had just finished dispatching one Culler patrol when another lone alien or small group would stumble upon them. Perplexing as well as frustrating. The enemy did not seem to be seeking them out – were not aware of the presence of the Legion in their base until they crashed into suppressed guns, hard helmets, or quick fists. Malak flicked his knife to rid it of a stubborn layer of mucus and Culler blood. They needed to pick up the pace.

“Double time,” he ordered quietly. “Kill on the move.” It meant leaving a trail of bodies, in piles of one or two, behind them. Any enemy with eyes could have easily followed it right to Malak, but the pace did get him back on schedule. They arrived at their destination to the sound of heavy guns growing louder.  A small group of Cullers were surrounding one of the devices. It looked slightly different than he remembered, but Malak waited until his team had dealt with the paltry defenses before he took a closer look. Two of his team chased down a runner while he approached the device. The technician on his team stayed right beside him.

It was taller and sleeker than the earlier version, and no cooling pond was visible. It expelled heat and radiation, but in far greater quantities than what had been recorded before. Malak identified the access panel, in almost the same location, and pried it open. The technician had his tools out, but took one look at the gauges inside and halted.

“Exotic matter,” he stated. “Maybe…” Malak waited while the soldier pulled a tablet out of his bag and synced it with his tools. Slowly and carefully he tested a few connections inside the panel. “Probably Souriau particles, can’t say for certain without a sample, and I’m not qualified to take one.”

“Hn.” Malak tipped his head up to look over the device, conscious of the vibration that had grown stronger the closer they got to it. Or as time moved forward, he wondered.

“Even if I had the equipment, this is something that Almaut – or maybe one of the Falcons – should do. If I go poking around in there, I may start a reaction.”

“This?” Malak pointed to a rising meter.

The technician glanced at it as he took a few more readings. “It is definitely measuring the particles. Maybe charging them, somehow? Or filling up a space? I don’t-”

An impact shook the crater. Malak held his ground, but a few of the soldiers stumbled. Air support, he thought. The Coalition is here faster than expected. “How much time?”

“At the current rate, I’d say 30-50 minutes.” Malak leveled a glare at the technician. Although the male couldn’t see his expression through their helmets, he understood perfectly. “I’d be more specific if I could, but the rate is fluctuating.”

Malak had been given a brief overview on exotic matter as part of his physics lessons, but that had been years ago. From what he remembered, any amount of the rare particles could contain tremendous energy. If pressurized and then detonated, the blast radius would encompass the Coalition trenches. Maybe the entire hemisphere.  He could not leave the devices unattended if he could not shut them off. Whatever the meter was counting down, Malak wanted to stop it. Without Almaut and the Falcon scientists, he only knew one way to do that. It would mean lives. Many, many lives. The end of them.

He summoned his two fastest soldiers. “Get to Smierc and Giltine. Don’t waste time killing, just run.” He outlined his message and then turned on the technician. “Get all the data you can, then take these three,” he pointed out soldiers, “with you to the transport. Transmit everything to Parshav. We’ll follow you out.”  He directed the remaining soldiers to set ordinance and timers around the device, then continued on alone, toward the southern edge of the crater. He estimated he was halfway up, and was twisting the head off of a Culler, when the airstrikes began. They were close, but not yet to the crater.

Malak continued to run, nearly sprinting down the tunnel. He struck as quickly as he could, but the sheer numbers of Cullers he encountered were slowing him down. He resorted to incapacitating them whenever it was faster. It infuriated him to leave living enemies behind, but his schedule was too tight to allow the luxury of finishing every fight cleanly. The devices had to be destroyed before they could complete whatever task they were performing. Malak had the authority – the duty – to make certain it was done. No matter what the cost.

Around the last corner, dim light seeped into the tunnel. Two Cullers were silhouetted against the entrance, one holding a large gauge missile launcher. The sound of transport engines and rapid artillery fire was deafening. Malak drew his sidearm and fired without slowing down. His weapon had no standard projectiles. Instead that magazine was filled with specialized armor-piercing rounds which only the Legion used.  The tantalum rounds entered the armed Culler before either alien knew Malak was there. One pierced the back of his head, boring through the chitin and into the soft tissue. A second round hit the upper back, directly over the spine. Thicker plating there slowed down the projectile, but it still managed to hit the central nerve cluster. Malak’s enemy collapsed into a pile of moist, grey flesh. The grenade launcher crunched down on the body as it fell.

His third shot went in through the side of the other Culler’s head as the thing was turning to face him. The sensory organs just under its eyes were ripped apart, spraying out through the exit wound. Malak was on his opponent then, leading with his weapon. He did not bother firing, but whipped the heavy barrel across large black eyes. The Culler shrieked, striking out blindly with his talons. Movements that would have been difficult for a human to follow seemed almost slow to Malak. He shackled one arm in his fist and allowed the other talon to sweep across his ribs. The armor weave of his suit held, but the pressure caused him to grunt. Without allowing another opportunity for attack, Malak used his free hand to find the upper edge of the chest plate. It was loose where it met the skin of the jaw, and he worked his fingers underneath it. Then he pulled.

One booted foot braced on the ground, the other on the Culler’s lower body, Malak gritted his teeth and ripped back as hard as he could. Shrieks, high-pitched and agonized, echoed down the tunnel. The Culler fell to the ground. Soft, vulnerable skin exposed. Pink-grey mucus bubbling up from the massive wounds where the chitin had been attached. Ripped out like a toenail from the root. Malak hefted the meter-long scale between his hands and brought it down hard where jaw met body. Abruptly, the screams stopped.

The air support vehicle outside was beginning to move away as Malak stepped out of the tunnel. He crouched, searching the battlefield below. More than a thousand glistening grey bodies were engaged in a fight to the death – with more pouring down from other positions along the ridge. Coalition forces had previously dug trenches to protect them from laser cannon fire. The trenches were rapidly becoming graves. They made excellent cover for long range guns, but as the Cullers closed the distance, they had the high ground and the human troops – already smaller and weaker, fought at a disadvantage. Wind was gaining strength, and it brought to him the smell of decomposing plant matter and hot, iron-sharp blood. One third of the distance from the furthest end of the trenches, a small bunker had been constructed of printed blocks. The crushed, dark rocks that had been used to as raw materials allowed the structure to blend in with the surroundings.

Malak removed a comm unit from an outer compartment on his pack. It was a matter of seconds to sync it with his own tech. The air transport was flying high, dodging cannon fire as though the pilot had been drinking before he turned on the engines. A line of similar transports made a black haze in the distance. Malak estimated they were only a minute or two out. With line of sight on the bunker, which was the most likely location for headquarters, Malak used Zulu’s authorization code.

“Hotel-Quebec, Hotel-Quebec, Hotel-Quebec,” he repeated rapidly. “You are ordered to disengage the enemy and bug-out immediately. Repeat, bug-out. Over.”  He did not wait for a response, but contacted the incoming transports as well.  He ordered half of them to descend as close as possible behind the trench and take on passengers, while the other half provided air support. “This is a priority-one command. Do not engage. You are rescue and retreat. Over.”

“This Hotel-Quebec-actual,” a female voice brimming with authority and anger spoke. “That is not your authorization code. Over.”

Malak ignored the question. “Hotel-Quebec. Disengage and retreat. Immediately. Over.” The transports were chattering over their comm line as well, and trying to contact headquarters. Malak snarled to himself. It was a perfect example of why the Coalition had needed to create the Legion. The humans couldn’t follow simple orders.

“This is Hotel-” the woman in charge said at the same time as,

“This is Transport One. I have-”

“Pan-Pan,” and emergency call sign came over all frequencies, bringing a halt to the arguments in Malak’s ears. “This is Transport One-Seven. I have Zulu-actual onboard with – ah, hell,” another curse followed as the pilot of the closet transport dodged a more accurate laser cannon. Malak watched him execute a barrel roll and narrowly avoid becoming a fast moving briquette. “This is Zulu-actual.” Malak recognized her voice. He tracked the transport she was in with his eyes while on his display he painted a small group of Cullers a hundred meters away that had spotted him. She sounded far more confident than she had only minutes earlier. Malak purposefully did not focus on the countdown in his vision. Time was at a premium, but if the ground troop commander did not believe him, Zulu was the only thing standing between the humans and death. Anger welled up inside him along with frustration. He could not stop the detonation, not for an angry commander. Not for curious Zulu. Not for a thousand Coalition soldiers.

“Transmitting to you now, H-Q.” Zulu must have taken her helmet off, because he could hear the wind – no doubt through the open door of the transport, the crackle of cannon fire, and the heavy thrum of the transport engines. “Recommend immediate bug-out and bombardment of the surface. Coordinates for missile launch are as follows.” She read off and then repeated the exact locations of all four devices. Malak was grudgingly impressed. “Repeat, bug-out and immediate bombardment. Over.”

“This is H-Q-” the absolute fury in the commanding officer’s voice was tangible, “Zulu you are not authorized to-” Authorization codes and communication lines flashed on Malak’s display. He focused on them instead of the gentle reminder of his clock. T minus Fourteen minutes. Malak’s personal best time for five kilometers was just under nine minutes. The distance back to his transport was closer to seven kilometers. Over rough ground. With two descents and a climb, if he took the shortest route with the fewest enemies.

An encoded transmission overrode headquarters, “Pan-Pan. Calling all Coalition forces in VK10. This is General Batma.” Malak allowed a small smile to creep over his face. Almaut sounded nothing like Batma, but it was a good bluff if the Coalition officers had not met the General. An authorization followed that matched Batma’s.  Enemies on the ridge were beginning to pay more attention to Malak. The beta continued, “Ground Forces, you have twelve minutes to bug-out. Perry, you will begin aerial bombardment at that time.” Another coded transmission, to authorize the commands to retreat and fire upon a planet, was sent directly to headquarters and the Perry. “Batma, out.”  Malak drew his weapon again, toggling it for a gravity net. Almaut had been smart to not allow any questions from the officers in charge. They were left with the decision to follow orders that had been verified by a soldier on the ground, or disobey.

He fired, taking down two Cullers that began to move toward him and knocking a third off balance. It struggled on the edge of the ridge for a moment, then artillery fire destroyed the ground under its feet, leaving it to fall to the rock below.  New communications lines lit his screen, although Malak did not have the equipment or training to follow more than two at once. What was said mattered little, activity behind the trenches assured him that the Coalition would do as they had been ordered. Zulu’s transport touched down, and Malak could barely make out the small, armored figures that jumped out to help load injured into the ship.

He turned away, satisfied but without time to examine why. Measuring around the crater edge, he was one hundred and twenty degrees from where his team had scaled the wall. T-minus thirteen minutes glowed on his display. Malak began to run. He was fast enough, and the Cullers distracted by fire from approaching support craft, that he was not slowed at first. A few well-placed armor piercing rounds cleared his path. His lungs breathed in and out steadily. His legs pumped, the muscles heating and responding easily to his demands. His boots stirred up a fine cloud of dust in his wake. One-two-one-two-aim-fire-kick. A Culler body, bleeding but still thrashing fell into the crater. One-two-one-two.  He continued to listen to the comm chatter as he ran. Transport One-Seven was full and took off toward the Pershing. Headquarters organized a retreat, using cover fire from the transports and well-placed frag artillery to hold off the Culler advance. He did not hear Zulu on the long-range bands.

T minus ten minutes. Malak was nearing the end of the Culler defensive positions. One creature rushed him, and he turned to the side, gripping the slashing talon as it came down and using the Culler’s momentum to swing it around in a circle. Malak had the alien in front of him, one razor sharp claw twisted between their bodies, just as a second enemy raked both of its talons across the space where Malak had just stood. Shrieks of pain. Clicks and screams that his translator program tried to interpret but Malak muted. He wedged one boot against the lower carapace of his captive and released with a kick, throwing it into the other alien. The two tumbled to the ground, and Malak continued his run, firing an incendiary round into their heads almost as an afterthought. One. He dug his left foot into the ground. Two. He planted his right, bending his knee. One. He sprang forward, arching over a laser cannon position. Two. He fired twice into the center of mass. One. His left foot touched down. Two-one-two-one-two. Only the sound of heavy guns, growing more distant, followed him as he continued to run.

T minus eight minutes. Headquarters was recalling the active troops. All the injured and support personnel had been taken back to the ships. Transport One-Seven was on its return flight. Malak’s motion came to an abrupt halt as two Cullers leaped over the side of the ridge from the inner crater. One swung a long, barbed spear that hummed with electricity. Malak had to drop to the ground to avoid being hit. He rolled, absorbing the impact, but the second enemy was waiting for him. It hissed and dug one talon into his armor – directly over his ribs. The tip did not pierce, but the heavy weight of the blow threw him off balance. The spear came around again towards his legs and Malak accepted the hit rather than be forced out of position. He had to grit his teeth to keep from biting his own tongue as electricity coursed through him. His display flickered, then began to flash with warnings for his health status. Malak grabbed the barbed end that had snagged in the armor on his thigh and took another painful jolt. His hands were not as well protected as the rest of him, and the sharp points of metal bit into his right palm. He kicked out to the side, catching the unarmed Culler in the side of the knee and snapping the joint. It fell, but the injury only made it more aggressive. The moment was all Malak needed. With his left hand he brought up his side arm while he yanked the spear towards himself. One round at point blank range dropped the Culler and sent a vapor of cordite and burnt fish to his nose. A talon, from his living opponent, pulled Malak’s feet out from under him. He swung out with a fist. The blow hit the Culler on the shoulder, not even dazing it, but the distraction gave Malak time to aim; a frag round went through the soft tissue at its hip. The stuttering stop of movement and wail alerted the Alpha that the projectile had worked properly.  He rolled to his feet. The second Culler was on its back, clawing at its chitin plates while molten copper, tungsten shavings, and sulfuric acid burst from the bullet and ripped through its organs.

T minus four minutes. Headquarters was ordering a last line to stand firm while the transports exchanged places. A lone Culler fled a tunnel – out into the slowly darkening twilight on the ridge. Malak shot on the run and then took off an arm at the shoulder joint with his knife as he passed.

T minus two minutes. The ropes were just ahead, still secured in place. Laser cannon fire ate through the ridge just behind him. Malak did not look back, but his display alerted him to the approximate position the shot came from. Finally realized I’m here. He grinned in exaltation. There were few things that brought Malak true joy. A moment of freedom. Alone on the ridge it was just him. The power of his own body. The quickness of his mind. Against his enemy. He had no responsibility in that one moment, except to survive. A growl of satisfaction, of challenge, of glory escaped him as a second blast carved a deep channel in the dirt in front of him. The hit was too accurate, too close, for him to escape. Instead he leaped over it. His trailing shin was so close to the energy pulse that his armor began to melt. Three more strides and Malak dropped to his hip, sliding across the surface of the ridge with his arm outstretched. His hand latched onto a rope and he was over the side just as another cannon fired. It was on target, if only a second too late.

Malak’s rope snapped and he fell several meters before he could reach out and touch the rock wall. The friction of his glove against the sharp, glassy stone ripped apart the armor over his palm, but brought him closer to another rope. He seized it. The burn of synthetic fibers as he rapidly descended smelled like cooked meat. Two meters above the ground he let go and dropped into a rolling landing. Without stopping, he came up into a run, dodging through the grass forest.

T minus one minute. There was no more chatter he could pick up from headquarters. Malak burst into the narrow clearing around his Sica class ship. The doors were open and the engines spooled up. His breath was coming hard. “Take off,” Malak ordered into his comm, just as he crossed the threshold. His cheeks hollowed as he gasped for air and his limbs shook with each step. His run was finished, but the mission was not complete.  He nodded to soldiers he passed on his way to the bridge, but did not remove his helmet. Giltine and Parshav were waiting for him. Smierc was at the helm. The planet was already far below them, and indicators on the nearest console signified they were entering the upper atmosphere.

Pershing is fully loaded,” Parshav noted without being asked.

Perry has weapons charged,” Giltine added. As she spoke Parshav brought up the display, sensors showing two Coalition ships nearly on the other side of the planet. Even from a distance, the damage looked bad. Malak was sure it was worse. Giltine continued, “Bombardment should-” A hot glow from the Perry’s forward guns was the only warning before twin streaks of fire broke through the atmosphere. Malak’s ship entered space just as the surface of the planet shuddered, caving in. It happened only a split second before the Perry’s fire could have struck. The crater was obliterated, followed by most of the continent. Shock waves buffeted the ship.

“Deploy a satellite to gather information,” Malak ordered. He spun back the way he had come. “Engage ISG.”

“Something wrong with your helmet?” Giltine asked with one brow raised. Parshav set up the satellite and Smierc spoke over the comm, notifying the crew that interstellar travel would begin. “Clasp get stuck?”

“Hn.” His shin was beginning to burn, as the adrenaline wore off, where his armor had melted against the skin. His muscles were quivering from the exertion of his run. His ribs throbbed, making every breath painful. His palms tingled with lacerations and rope burn. Malak kept his helmet on until he was alone in his quarters. He glanced in the small mirror over his sink as he finally took it off. The feral grin displayed all of his fangs in a manner that would have set instincts on edge all over the ship. He chuckled, a deep and gravelly sound in the stark room.  It had turned out to be a good day.

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