Barghest – Chapter 20

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Choice

Hour 2230, Day 134, Year 2148

Tuber, noun. Slang. Offensive.: An individual who received non-human DNA during embryonic gene therapy.

Ex. This bar has really gone downhill, they even let tubers in.

Peppermint, noun. Slang. Offensive.: An individual who did not receive embryonic genetic therapy to remove non-desirable aesthetic or minor health concerns. Often shortened to ‘mint’, or ‘minty’.

Ex. He’s handsome, for a peppermint.

“You don’t seem pleased.”

Malak controlled his expression while he watched the view screen. Colonel Thomas sat back in an office chair in the Sol System, a hundred light years away, crossing his arms over his dress uniform.

“Any feelings I might have are inconsequential.” Malak’s voice came out cool and even, but his jaw was beginning to cramp from being clenched tightly. Thomas was supposed to meet him at the base to debrief on the mission, as they had done hundreds of times. It had surprised Malak when the comm came through just before they docked. A change in routine rarely brought good news, and Malak was vindicated as Thomas explained why he couldn’t do the debrief in person.

“Cut the bullshit,” the Colonel barked. His frown made the deep lines around his mouth more prominent. “You want to control your own destiny? Fine – but the Legion exists because administration says it does. You’ve got two choices, soldier,” Malak could feel his spine straightening involuntarily at Thomas’ authoritative voice. Any other Legionnaire might have lowered their eyes – but Malak was Alpha. Neither Thomas nor any other Coalition officer were to be obeyed unless he consciously decided to do so. “You can get with the program, and maybe make some headway towards your goals,” Thomas continued, “or you can fight this and spend the rest of your unnatural life cleaning up someone else’s mess.”

In twenty years, Malak and Thomas had gained a relationship of mutual respect and honesty. At least, as honest as Malak ever was outside the pack, which meant that he didn’t speak very often. Although they had never discussed the morality of the Legion’s creation and quasi-employment, they shared an intense disgust for the manner in which the Sol Confederation was running the war. Over two decades, the SIS had become a more powerful voice whispering in the ears of Congressional Representatives, Senators, and at least half of the military establishment. Combined with the lobbyists, they had an agenda that seemed to include extending the fighting. The amount of money to be made in a war, and the power derived from it, played a large part in that strategy. It ran against Malak’s instincts not to seek out and utterly destroy his enemy as quickly as possible. It irritated his logical mindset.

Thomas had always stated things more bluntly. “You like that burr in your ass, Malak? No? Then do something about it.” He sat forward, leaning his elbows on his desk. The small window behind him exposed a scenic view of one of Europa’s more active cryogysers. Light reflected off of Jupiter and streamed through the water vapor and ice crystals to make faint rainbows. The beautiful image was a sharp contrast to the Colonel’s weathered face. “The SIS is currently the only game in town. This is an opportunity – if you can stop looking down your nose at it.”

Malak repressed a sigh. He could not deny that there was some truth to what Thomas had said. The Legion was completely blacked out – which made bringing new support to their plans difficult. The SIS – although secretive – was an acknowledged organization. They had the upper hand when it came time to sway the Defense Minister, or Congress, toward a strategy. Malak hated acting, but he could admit it had utility.

“I agree that a new fleet will greatly improve the Legion’s efficacy.” Thomas began to grin, and Malak nearly cracked a tooth trying not to frown. “However, I do not see the point of insignia.” That was perhaps the most surprising change, and Malak was not certain how he felt about it. Or what it meant for the future of the Legion. For his entire life, and long before that, the government had worked extremely hard to make certain there were no traces of Project Hellhound or the Legion. That anonymity chafed at many of his people who disliked the idea of hiding from the humans they protected. Malak had no misconceptions, however. He was aware that while the shadows were a form of control over the Legion, they were also a layer of protection. If humanity was not aware of the Legion, they could not hate or fear them. A sudden disappearance of a blackout group would not be noticed by the public, should the Coalition ever decide they no longer needed the Legion. It would also be more difficult to organize, if Malak put up a resistance. The biggest advantage the Coalition had over the Legion, if they ever became at odds, was size. It would be impossible to utilize that advantage and remain hidden – placing Malak on nearly even footing with the government. Insignia would identify the Legion simply by their uniforms, eliminating the anonymity they had used to advantage for twenty years.

In a contracted battle staged in the shadows, his people would win every time. He wasn’t certain he was prepared to give up that advantage.

“Propaganda,” Thomas stated simply, as if that one word made sense of a complete change in protocol. “There is no taking back your own actions, Malak. There are recordings-”

“Not for much longer,” Malak interrupted.

“-witnesses,” Thomas went on as though he hadn’t heard, “soldiers who heard your voice on VK10. Who heard the name – Legion. Hell, once SIS gets a hold of the tech, we might even find an aerial image or two of you – running along that crater ridge like a one-man death squad.”

“I did not say that in my report,” Malak’s forehead creased in a scowl. He had enjoyed his mission on VK10, at least the end of it. Having Thomas recount it muddied the experience.

“Of course not,” Thomas sat back again, huffing. “Your reports are so brief they wouldn’t make decent toilet paper. Smierc does not have that problem. And at least one Coalition pilot caught sight of you. Batma has blacked out comms for the Pershing and Perry until they reach CSNS and dock for secure data transfer, but the cat is out of the bag.” The Colonel smiled, and it had the sharp edge of a hard lesson in it. “You haven’t served on a cruiser or destroyer, so let me explain this to you. Five thousand humans stuck in a small space together don’t have much to do but gossip and fuck. Science saved us from overpopulation with infertility implants, but they have yet to figure out a way to keep people from talking. Within a month of crew reassignments, every soldier in the Coalition is going to have heard some wildly exaggerated story about you and the Legion. Batma is going to use that to our advantage – get ahead of it and start building more credibility and trust for what we are doing.”

Malak understood, he could accept the decision. He still was not pleased. “Hn,” he responded.

“I’ll take that as a ‘sir, yes, sir’,” Thomas said dryly. He glanced down and tapped the tablet on his desk, the office lighting glinted on new strands of silver in his hair. Time had aged him far more than it had Malak. “I’ve already submitted the recommendations for promotions. You should be a Major by the end of the month. Forward your requests for the others as soon as possible so we can start the process. Although,” he looked up and narrowed his eyes, “if you recommend anything higher than Ensign for Almaut, I might deny it. His ego is large enough already.” Malak nodded in acknowledgement. “Get some Falcons started on a work order for the new body armor and uniforms. I’ll see you in a few weeks, after these emergency meetings are over.”

“Agreed.” Malak reached forward to shut down the link, but Thomas’ voice stopped him.

“You did good work out there, Malak,” he said quietly. “You saved thousands of lives.”

He heard what Thomas didn’t say: good boy and thank you. The former remained unspoken out of respect for Malak and his role as a soldier, not a research subject. The latter did not have to be said. It was his duty. His responsibility.

“Hn,” he grunted, then turned off the comm.

The Viper, a Sica class deep-attack vessel, had docked at the base by the time his meeting with Thomas concluded. Most of the crew had already left to repair their gear, find a hot shower, or visit the infirmary. It had taken nearly three weeks to make the return trip from VK10 to the Legion base – more than twice as long as it normally would have. Unfortunately, the Viper had to take a circuitous route. First, dodging Coalition sensor sweeps and reinforcements. Then, to meet up with another ship and drop off Smierc with new orders. The Viper ran into a few Culler short-range ships as well, leading them off course, but resulting in some intel that would need to be examined by techs. And a few dozen dead enemy combatants. All those aboard the Viper were eager to stretch their legs and leave the small ship.

Malak did the same, grabbing his bag and helmet and striding through the empty corridors. With all of the delays, Smierc had returned before him. She had requested he meet with her in Almaut’s office as soon as he arrived. Malak was still reviewing the propaganda and other changes Thomas had described as he stowed his gear and walked deeper into the base, towards the research center. Activity picked up as he neared the work area for the few humans that had security clearance to work with Keres Legion. The Falcons, as their squad was designated, were mostly scientists, engineers, and technicians. They were invaluable to Malak, whose people had been designed and educated to end life – not to explore motives of their enemies. Although some, like Almaut, had taken to new information and tasks easily, most of the Legionnaires found it difficult to master skills so far outside their original programming.

The few soldiers he passed stood at attention and nodded sharply or tilted their heads at him. Humans were equally respectful in their own way; murmurs of ‘sir’ and ‘Lieutenant’ and salutes greeted him along with a smile or two. The hallway became more crowded the closer he came to Almaut’s office, and the reason was obvious.

Every member of Keres Legion had excellent hearing. It was one of the priorities listed by the Erasmus Station research team when they first began experimenting with non-human DNA recombination. It surprised Malak though, that many of his own soldiers often seemed to forget about their enhanced senses. Perhaps they had spent too much time with human scientists. They simply didn’t expect anyone outside of a combat situation to be eavesdropping. Not that Malak intended to eavesdrop, but Smierc, Almaut, and one of the Falcons were speaking too loudly for it to be avoided.

“Has Malak seen this yet?” Almaut sounded both serious and excited. A deadly combination for the highly intelligent and overly curious soldier.

“No,” Smierc answered. “I ordered the engineers you sent to leave the data alone until we got back here.”

Malak stared intently on the most senior Legionnaire lingering in the corridor. She took the hint quickly and ushered the other curious soldiers and scientists away from Almaut’s closed door. The humans wouldn’t have been able to hear anything, but Malak had no doubt that they would soon know the details of anything that had been gleaned by superior ears.

“And you didn’t have any issues getting on and off the Pershing?” Almaut asked.

“We’re not exactly trained for covert ops, boss.” Malak did not immediately place the voice, and so paused in the corridor and inhaled. A human male, one who smelled of standard issue detergent, excitement and the stale, pressurized atmosphere used in data storage rooms, was in Almaut’s office. The Alpha mentally scrolled through the members of Falcon Company.

“Really, Lauraux?” Smierc sounded amused. “I would have never guessed.”

“Sarcasm is the humor of a slow mind.” Lauraux, a computer engineer, Malak remembered, did not sound offended.

“Your lack of appreciation wounds me deeply,” Smierc laughed.

Almaut disregarded the exchange between the human and Smierc. “Ignore her,” Almaut ordered. “Tell me about the retrieval.”

Malak hit the door control and stepped into the office. Almaut and Smierc both nodded and tipped their jaws for a split second, exposing their necks. Lauraux straightened as though he had been hit with a tasing weapon, gave a half-hearted salute, and broke out in a sweat.  Malak was used to the reaction. “Continue,” he said quietly.

“Yes, well, uh,” Lauraux cleared his throat and averted his eyes. Prey, Malak noted to himself. It was an instinctual reaction for the human, to avoid the attention of a more dangerous animal. “Ondrea piloted us to the Pershing, and their security officer accepted the codes Parshav gave them with no problem. There was a little bit of an argument, when Smierc told them to clear the deck between our docking bay and the data core, but they sorted it out. Just me and a tech went on board. The security crew seemed like maybe they share your feelings about the SIS, because they didn’t even speak to us.” Gradually, Lauraux’s voice relaxed as he began to pull up files on his tablet and toss them onto the wall screen. “There was a technician waiting for us in the core, and he had all kinds of questions, but I ignored him just like Smierc said to. As soon as he opened up the ports, I kicked him out and we got to work. There was a lot more data there than we thought, and some stuff that had been recorded from orbit that might lead to questions about the Legion. We cleaned out the systems after we copied everything – even remoted into the suit tech that was still on board. The only information SIS is going to get is what the soldiers on the ground can remember.”

“How much?” Malak directed his question at Lauraux, but Almaut answered.

“A lot – but no need for concern. We got this three days before SIS was scheduled to arrive, and memory is a tricky thing. With that much space between the actual event and the debriefing, and with all of the talk among the crew, half of what they will recall won’t be the truth, and only a fraction of the truth will sound believable.”

Lauraux pulled up a video file. The playback was only a few seconds, but it clearly showed an unusually large soldier, moving too quickly to be human, draw a knife and slice the arm off of a Culler. Malak briefly enjoyed the memory. “This was taken from one of the transport ships, ah, number seventeen.” Zulu’s ship, Malak thought. “It looks like there are a few more, from different angles, and some aerial still images. None that show the Viper, thankfully. Although there was some sensor data that we had to scrub before someone realized they had proof of another Coalition ship in the area.”

“Your exit?” Malak asked.

“Clean,” Smierc said, at the same time Lauraux rubbed the back of his neck. He was nervous enough that Malak could taste the salt of his sweat in the air, see it beading on his temple.

“There might have been a little confusion.” The engineer glanced over at Almaut, who was rolling his eyes. “In order to get the security codes, we intercepted all of the communications from the SIS to the Pershing. Those soldiers that were inside the crater were supposed to be on lockdown until their debriefing, but the order was never received by Captain Yardley.”

Malak did not see the problem, and Almaut filled him in. “Normally a captain would have isolated Zulu and her team, without the SIS involvement, until they were debriefed. But as you noted, Captain Yardley doesn’t seem interested in doing things by the book. With the minor delay that SIS encountered-”

Smierc grinned at Almaut’s words. “We diverted a subspace satellite station into normal space directly into the path of the SIS. They were lucky their ship was still able to make sublight speeds.”

Almaut went on, “It looks like the ten-day window passed.”

Malak raised his brows. The Coalition only certified intelligence gained from eye witnesses if it was recorded within ten days – to reduce error. Anything that Zulu’s team could remember about the devices would be inadmissible in requests for intelligence funding or resource allocation. “Good,” Malak said. Lauraux visibly relaxed. Almaut grinned and Malak continued, “Show me what they saw.”

“This is my favorite part,” Almaut said with relish. He tapped away on his tablet and the wall screen separated into six sections, each labeled with a name and service number. “I have been wondering what they saw that we didn’t.” The playback began, and Almaut muted the audio and began a commentary. “So, I already listened to them from the Coalition HQ to this location. It was mostly routine checks and some chitchat. This one,” Almaut frowned and highlighted the video labeled, Rodriguez SC2148-E009-00425, “is the mechanic. Not sure why he was selected for the mission. Apparently he is the second most junior soldier on Zulu’s team.”

“Is that a basebot?” Smierc asked. Malak felt as surprised as she sounded. Almaut sped up the video.

“Yeah,” Almaut whistled.

“That would take a bit of field rigging,” Lauraux added, “and they’re lucky that dinosaur of a robot didn’t completely fall apart on them.”

“Slow it down,” Malak ordered.

“There is a few hours of this,” Lauraux cautioned. Malak turned a hard gaze on the engineer. Lauraux smiled weakly.

“I should have brought popcorn,” Almaut said, leaning against his desk and allowing Lauraux to sink into the office chair. Smierc pulled a stool over from a work bench and Malak remained standing, watching intently. A bulky soldier, Kerry SC2144-T001-00001, led them into the tunnels. Malak assumed that was Zulu-actual, until the darkness closed around the group and Kerry removed his helmet. Even in the unnatural green lighting of the night vision lenses, Kerry was clearly male. It was also obvious that he was not entirely human. Almaut and Smierc immediately began discussing it. Their interest in the GMH was understandable. Although it was popular for the nonregulated tubers, as the humans called them, to enter military service, it was strange to see one in any position of authority. And it was clear from the body language of the rest of the team that Kerry was respected.

The dark-skinned male was followed by a much shorter, slimmer soldier. Female, Malak guessed from the size. That one, Maker SC2144-E056-00861, looked sub-average – but then, Malak thought a lot of humans looked small. Her movements were clumsy and slow, especially in comparison to Kerry. The mechanic, Rodriguez, followed her. Almaut had stated he was a new recruit, but he carried himself well for it. His service weapon remained loose and ready in his hand, his visual display was clean, orderly, and constantly updated with location data. Another rookie was next, and his inexperience was obvious. Clumsier even that Maker, he stumbled often and his weapon wavered in and out of proper position. His display contained nothing but the location beacons of his team and his own health stats. Bringing up the rear was Gonzales SC2146-M002-07845. Gonzales also moved easily, a practiced sweep of sensor data on the display and routine visual checks to the rear confirmed the status of a more seasoned soldier.

Almaut and Smierc were still quietly debating the possible genetic makeup of Kerry, and Lauraux was studiously taking notes regarding the data feeds, when a Culler stepped around a corner and nearly ran into the point position. Kerry reacted just as quickly as Malak would have. His service weapon was already on repression rounds and in less than a second a projectile entered just under the jaw of the Culler. Surprise quickly morphed into anger and the alien charged. Kerry’s quick action had silenced the enemy while giving the humans on his team time to prepare. Four shots hit the Culler in the upper chest – two from Gonzales’ weapon – as Kerry slammed into its pelvis. The alien crumpled without a sound and Kerry stood, knife dripping with ichor, having cut the deep hip tendon to keep the Culler down while it bled out. Malak was grudgingly impressed.

After that, Maker took point, which was a tactical error. Judging from his exposed head and body language, Kerry had exceptional hearing. He was also faster and stronger than Maker. Malak reminded himself to listen to the audio later to determine who had made such an asinine choice, and why.

It was not too much longer before they found the first device, and conversation in Almaut’s office silenced. Malak easily recognized it as a duplicate of the one his own team had examined. More important was the scans that Rodriguez began to run. His visual display lit up with readings for radiation, geological composition, air quality, and too many other things for Malak to be able to concentrate on them and still take in the action of the other soldiers.

Almaut whistled, “That kid knows something is up.”

“He’s carrying non-standard equipment,” Lauraux added. “Looks like a cannibalized x-ray and maybe some core sampling apparatus.” The engineer’s excitement was obvious. “Skip ahead to see his results.”

“No,” Malak ordered clenching his jaw. Maker’s display focused in on a Culler, manipulating the control screen for the device. Its upper talons were withdrawn against its forearms, exposing the knobby finger-like appendages underneath. Maker dashed, head low, behind a pile of debris. Her health monitor flashed a heart rate that was higher than it should have been for such a short run. Fear, Malak thought, interested, but ignoring it to focus on the action.  In the brief seconds before the Culler attacked, he caught a spike in Maker’s stats. Her brain waves shot nearly off of the chart and appeared to increase in number. Her adrenaline escalated dramatically. Glutamate and dopamine levels rocketed while serotonin decreased radically.  If Malak had not been watching her screen so closely, he would have missed it. Her stats suddenly returned to something close to normal for a combat situation, and then the Culler was on her.

The struggle was brief, and clearly displayed that either Maker was far worse at hand-to-hand combat than most soldiers or whatever had briefly changed her brain chemicals had incapacitated her. It was Kerry that took the alien down.

“He’s good,” Almaut noted.

“I’m better,” Smierc replied.

No one responded to her, as the Zulu team began to examine the Culler device. “Slow it down,” Malak ordered, but Almaut was already doing so. Rodriguez and Maker took readings, even climbing up on the struts to look inside. Rodriguez suddenly stepped away, and Maker moved to jump down.

“Stop,” Lauraux whispered excitedly. Almaut did as requested. Maker’s small form was frozen in mid-air. “Play it back, last thirty seconds, frame by frame.” Almaut did so, and Malak thought he might know what had the engineer worked up.

“What is it?” Smierc asked.

“Pumping,” Malak answered shortly. Almaut leaned forward, running the video through again to confirm it.

Lauraux nodded, “Yes, not just that but, look,” he reached over Almaut and enlarged Rodriguez’s screen. “See here? He confirmed what we were thinking. Souriau particles. It doesn’t look like he has realized that yet, but you can see from the data…” As the video continued to play in slow motion, Lauraux brought up another window full of scientific equations and a diagram of an exotic matter particle. “The device is drilling down under the crust – probably, maybe even deeper, and flooding the planet with Souriau particles. The quantity required – it’s just massive!” Additional notes were quickly scrawled onto the screen. “I’ll need a physicist – someone good, really good – but I think…” His voice faded away into mumbles. “Maybe, but why- only if…”

Almaut and Smierc were staring at the engineer, but Malak kept his eyes on the feed. Rodriguez and Maker were still talking, making small gestures toward the device. The man had removed his helmet. His dark hair was shiny and his lean face serious and worried. He was young. Younger looking than even the thirty-series, who had only recently reached maturity. Malak wondered, not for the first time, why the humans had taken so long to create his people. For nearly a century they had been fighting a costly war, sending their children – like Rodriguez – into battle. To their deaths. Malak also wondered if humans had far less attachment to their family than he did to his pack. He would never have sent a soldier as inexperienced as Rodriguez into the field with so few resources As he watched he came to understand it was Maker who called the shots. She was Zulu-actual. She unclipped her helmet and pulled it off, using one gloved hand to push sweat-slick hair off of her forehead. A few long, black strands clung to her neck above her collar.

Suicide mission, Malak thought with disgust. Maker looked just as young as Rodriguez, although her expression was calm, her pallor was startling and gave the impression that she might have been injured or ill. Malak had never seen such a pale person with such dark hair. Her eyes were bright blue, framed with black lashes, and she narrowed them and wrinkled her nose – no doubt at the smell of dead Culler. Given the opportunity, Malak would have liked to ask the officer in charge on the ground at VK10 what the hell they had been thinking. Two green soldiers, barely adults, with a scared boy, and only Gonzales and Kerry who looked like they knew what they were doing. It was a disgrace.

The boy was attacked, and they all watched as the small group fended off two Cullers. “Jesus,” Lauraux murmured, sounding sick.

“Sloppy,” Smierc commented.

“It’s like watching a PSA for new recruits,” Almaut stated with a fascinated sort of disgust, “Kerry and Gonzales are the ‘right way’. Maker and Rodriguez are going to be dead before the end of the scene.” They hadn’t died, obviously, since Malak knew they were quickly approaching the time of Zulu’s transmission to him, but he almost questioned it. It was sheer luck that Maker wasn’t mortally wounded in the struggle. And Rodriguez was the worst shot he had ever seen. The man was less than six feet from the Culler and still did not hit his intended target. After Maker managed to bring it down, Malak ordered the Almaut to return the video to normal speed. The rookie was a good as dead – back broken. Maker and Gonzales administered first aid, and then Maker began to search frequencies. Malak watched with interest, wondering how she had broken into his comms. The answer was startling and strangely unsurprising, given her actions as he had seen them so far. She shut down the thermal and kinetic armor monitoring functions of her suit and funneled the power to boost her signal. It broke several regulations for operating in enemy territory. Then she utilized a few simple, but effective signals to break past Coalition secured lines. It was like sharpening a stick, and then inserting it between joints of an armored vehicle. Low probability of success, and impossible to see coming.

Zulu team was on its way shortly thereafter, Maker in the lead and Kerry bringing the injured rookie. “Good for them,” Smierc said in low, vicious voice. It was Coalition policy that bringing in bodies, or even mortally injured soldiers, was secondary to mission success. Malak had always ignored the edict – his people were too important to him to leave them behind. His superiors had never questioned him. The Legionnaires were too valuable to waste. But few human soldiers would have risked their own lives, bucking Coalition warfare protocol, to save a man that was most likely going to die anyway.

Almaut sped through the rest of the video, only slowing when Zulu stumbled into the Culler data core and Rodriguez pulled information from one of the terminals. “We got that too,” Almaut noted, glancing at his files. “It will need translation, but I’ll get the Falcon techs on it immediately.” When the playback finished, aboard the Pershing where Zulu team turned off their tech, Almaut stood and began pacing. “This is the breakthrough we have been needing, Malak. I can feel it.”

“This data is going to require a team of physicists,” Lauraux reminded them. “I can give you a list.”

“Do it,” Malak ordered.

“What about the clearances?” Almaut asked.

“It will be taken care of,” Malak replied. He had the same feeling as Almaut, a tingling awareness in the pit of his stomach. They were close to something. The intelligence they had been chasing for twenty years, a key to what the Cullers were doing and how to stop them, was within their grasp. “Whatever you need,” he said to Lauraux. “Tell Almaut and you’ll get it.” The engineer nodded and left, still talking to himself and making notes. “Get a secure copy to Kapziel, Giltine, and Skoll. Review and prepare to discuss at tomorrow’s meeting.”

“On it,” Almaut said, immediately getting to work.

Malak stepped into the corridor, Smierc at his side. He mentally ran through the agenda for the conference with his betas. Almaut needed to update everyone on his attempt to undermine the SIS information blockade. Skoll was still knee deep in Culler corpses, and would be treading water before he was finished in his sector – if the enemy continued to send reinforcements. Giltine had a new mission to brief them on and the results from the latest training exercise with the thirty series. Kapziel was on his way back from the other side of their arm of the Galaxy, and his intel was too sensitive to put on a subspace communication. Then there was the knowledge that the Cullers were filling a planet with exotic matter.

And, of course, the Legion’s new role as a marketing tool for the Coalition. It would be an interesting meeting.

“If you have time, before you rest,” Smierc began, “I still need your approval on those personnel items.” Malak bit back a groan. He disliked staffing issues, and would have preferred to ignore them.

“I will get to it today,” he answered instead. Smierc headed to the training section of the base, while Malak continued on toward his office. He had security clearances to request, personnel disputes to settle, and leave to organize. He thought back to his bloody run across the crater on VK10 with something akin to longing before he quashed the feeling. His responsibilities came first.

***

Four months later.

Lauraux was fidgeting, the lead physicist next to him staring openly at Malak and his betas. Malak had ordered his people to remain seated. After working with the Falcons and the new scientists, he was too familiar with their penchant for nerves when confronted with a large group of Legionnaires. Especially the officers. Malak refrained from glancing at the new bars on the cuffs of his grey uniform. The rank of major did not feel any differently than lieutenant had.

“We know what it is,” Almaut announced from his place at the other end of the conference table, opposite Colonel Thomas. His satisfaction was palpable, and Malak could scent the rise in anticipation from the others. The mild smell of serotonin and adrenaline made his own heart rate increase. He breathed deeply and evenly, forcing his body to remain calm. Theories are not knowledge until proven, and not useful until put into practice, he reminded himself.

“We have a good idea,” corrected Lauraux. He did not look excited at all. His expression was, at best, resigned. At worst, horrified.

“Well?” Kapziel asked impatiently. His arm, newly decorated with the bars of a lieutenant, gestured for Lauraux to get on with it.

“Ah, Dr. Jawai can explain our hypothesis best,” Lauraux said. Nerves made his hand shake as he reached for a glass of water.

Colonel Thomas, at Malak’s left, nodded, “We are waiting, Doctor.”

Jawai cleared his throat and tore his eyes away from Skoll’s mangled right ear. Six months of fighting in the Dark had left him with little but a hole in the side of his head and scar tissue that pulled his mouth into a perpetual smirk. “Yes, well,” he cleared his throat again. “As you know, I was brought in to examine the possible purpose of this machine.” He flicked his fingers across the surface of the table and a three dimensional representation of the Culler device from VK10 appeared in the center. It turned slowly as Jawai spoke. “The design is not unlike many other alien technological advancements that have been reverse engineered since the Repulsion. When I began to examine the readings provided and the nature of the matter-”

“Get to the point,” Kapziel growled. Malak issued a warning sound, low in his throat, and his beta settled back into his chair, frown firmly in place.

“Um, yes,” Jawai stumbled, eyes shooting between Malak and Kapziel. “Yes, the point. Eh-em. Well.” Sweat began to bead on his brow. Malak suppressed the urge to let out a growl of his own. Dealing with humans was mildly irritating on the best day. Trying to convince one who had not had time to adjust to the reality of Keres Legion and who also held valuable information was maddening.

“Perhaps you could summarize, Dr. Jawai,” Almaut suggested smoothly.

“Yes, I suppose I, that is-” Skoll shifted in his seat, drawing Jawai’s attention again, and once more his explanation ground to a halt. Malak determined the meeting was going nowhere.

“Lauraux,” he said flatly. The engineer started, as he always did, but Jawai nearly jumped out of his chair at the sound of Malak’s broken rumble. “Escort the doctor back to the lab.” Lauraux looked relieved, and jumped to obey. Jawai turned pale under his dark skin, and did not even remember to take his tablet with him when he left.

The door clicked softly behind them and Giltine muttered, “Good riddance.”

“Almaut.” Malak did not have to say anything else. A small part of his mind noted with relief how much easier communication was with his own people.

“It’s a wormhole generator,” Almaut said simply.

“Was that so fuckin’ hard to say?” Kapziel threw up his hands, exasperated.

At the same time, Giltine asked, “What?” and Skoll said, “What for?”

Almaut reduced the image of the device and zoomed out, showing the general topography of VK10. “This is the planet, and the location of the drills, or pumps, that Zulu noted.” Other tiny crosses appeared within the crater. He zoomed in again, cutting away the surface of the planet to show the side of a device and the geology below it. “You see here? Where we thought it might be some sort of extraction device? A drill for mining resources?” The drill began to move, driving down through the surface, under the planet’s crust. “It was drilling, but, we are pretty sure, not to take anything out – but to put something in.” The drill stopped moving, and a yellow substance began to flow from the device, down the narrow shaft, and then spread out into a thin, pervasive coating.

“Just under the lithosphere-”

“Skip the vocabulary lesson,” Kapziel muttered. He slouched, arms crossed, form dwarfing the small chair. Almaut sighed.

“Are you trying to draw this out?” Giltine asked Almaut, for once agreeing with Kapziel.

“It’s under the tectonic plates,” Skoll said quietly, surprising Kapziel and Giltine into ceasing their complaints. He leaned forward, tracing the holographic image with his finger. “Does it cover the whole planet?”

“We think so, or at least it was supposed to,” Almaut answered. “Based on the readings we have taken of the debris – which has been difficult. VK10-48 lost a lot of mass in the explosion and its orbit is becoming unstable. The particles are dissipating, but Jawai estimates there was enough to create a blanket about two micrometers thick.”

“Is it a weapon?” Thomas asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

“We don’t know.” Almaut zoomed out again, and played a reenactment of the last minute of the battle on VK10 – up to the impact of the Perry’s weapons. The image froze, showing the internal release of energy that occurred less than a second before the Perry’s shot hit the surface. “The destructive force is unprecedented – but Jawai has argued that it would not be economical for the Coalition to use such a weapon, given the difficulty of obtaining Souriau particles in anywhere near the quantities necessary.”

“He is still buying the story then?” Thomas asked.

“He hasn’t questioned that this data is theoretical. Lauraeux told him it was retrieved from a Coalition research station that had a catastrophic accident, and he hasn’t indicated that he has any concerns about the validity of our explanation.”

“Good,” Thomas said. His jaw was tight and his eyes hard. “The last thing we need right now is to clean up an information leak. If Jawai thought this could be an attack by the Cullers, we would have to permanently ensure his cooperation. As it is, he’ll have to spend the rest of his career here – or until the war ends.”

Privately, Malak disagreed. He had no desire to start holding Coalition scientists against their will on his base, but he let the matter go. There were more important issues to discuss. “If it isn’t a weapon?”  All eyes turned on the Alpha, but he let the question stand alone.

“That’s the crux of the matter,” Almaut said. It was rare the blonde male was completely serious, but his green eyes were focused and his shoulders tense as he spoke. “This is all guesswork. Really, really logical, founded in science guesswork – but there are no real answers. Not without getting data from another Culler device site for comparison.”  Discussions broke out along the table, and Malak leaned back in his chair to listen.

“If the Cullers are going to start blowing up planets, this is a lot bigger than Keres Legion can handle,” Thomas said quietly.

Malak nodded, once. Not to agree, but to acknowledge that he had heard. Almaut was explaining that the composition of VK10 and other planets, like the one from their training mission so long ago, were similar. They naturally blocked comm signals and were relatively uninteresting – rocky, small planets not suitable for terraforming and far off from any trade routes or military positions. It made them ideal for covert experiments.

“I’m going to have to read in Batma – and probably the GA, Fleet Admiral, and the goddamn Defense Minister.” Thomas scrubbed his face with one hand, something he only did under extreme stress and rarely in front of anyone other than Malak. “What the hell do they even think they’ll accomplish with this? There is no way they can get to Earth, or any other inhabited planet, to set up something like this.”

“They may not have to, sir,” Almaut dropped his explanations to Giltine and quickly brought up a diagram of the VK10 system. “Aside from creating a fantastic trap for nearby Coalition ships that could get hit by debris, or an ambush site for ground troops, the bigger problem is gravity.” He highlighted VK10-48 in red, then showed how its mass had changed since the explosion. “This simulation is sped up a bit, but you can see how it begins to effect other planets in the system, even nearby systems. Given enough time.” In less than a minute, the image showed the planet circling wildly outside of its orbit, destabilizing another planet, and sending six moons cascading off orbit. Two careened into the sun while the others were flung out into the edge of the system.”

“That is a long-term strategy,” Skoll said doubtfully.  Malak had to agree with his sentiment. Cullers did not seem to have a broad plan other than eradicate humans as quickly as possible.

“How does it work?” Giltine asked.

“Wormholes are notoriously unstable. The few that have been observed were incredibly brief – on the scale of seconds – and end rather spectacularly. Jawai says that Einstein and Rosen theorized that an artificial wormhole could be created with exotic matter – and that it might be stable – but that any contact with normal matter would collapse it. In this case – a huge amount of Souriau particles creating a tiny fissure in time-space before almost instantly coming into contact with the normal matter of a planet. Boom.” Almaut made an explosion with his hands.

“Expensive,” Thomas noted.

“Especially when their usual weapons work so well to turn squishy little humans into space debris,” Kapziel added. Discussions broke out again, and Almaut brought another set of diagrams up on the wall screen, adding notes.  Malak kept his eyes on the slowly rotating VK10 system. Except for the remains of planet 48, it rotated slowly and evenly. Although that one planet had left its orbit, the others settled into new, stable rotations around their star.

“Kapziel is right.”

Malak’s statement drew five pairs of surprised eyes his way.

“Obviously,” Kapziel stated after a beat. “About what?”

“Cullers are effective at killing humans,” Malak began slowly.

Giltine interrupted, “Not so good at killing us.”

Her statement was true and obvious, so he didn’t acknowledge it. “They have one goal.”

“Kill humans,” Kapziel filled in.

“And one productive strategy for doing so,” Malak continued as though he had not been interrupted. He fell silent, still staring at the map of VK10. The technicians were getting close on decrypting the data Zulu had taken from the Culler base, hopefully it would have more answers, but Malak could feel that tingling in his gut again. They were close to an answer, but they hadn’t hit on it yet.

“Firepower?” Kapziel questioned.

“Numbers,” said Giltine. “All the big Coalition defeats have been blamed on superior Culler forces. Technology being equal, if the Cullers have at least one of their own for every two or three humans, they win ground.”

Thomas shook his head slowly. “Numbers,” he stated thoughtfully. “In the beginning, before the Coalition was on its feet and we were just getting our heads wrapped around all the tech our scientists were reverse engineering, this war was about superior numbers. We beat the Cullers out of the solar system, then out of Close Space Near Sol, all on sheer numbers.” Thomas glanced over at Malak, then focused on Giltine. “Do you know how many soldiers died in the first decade after we mastered intersteller travel?  One point five billion. Since then, we have barely kept up with population loss. We turned their own plan on its ear.”

“So up to now, the Coalition has been winning because they have more feet on the ground to go get killed. So what?” Kapziel crossed his arms in defiance, “That’s what we’re here for, right? To reduce loss of human life.”

“You’re missing the point,” Almaut said. His eyes grew wide as realization dawned. Malak was still considering the possibilities, but he could tell that Almaut’s impressive intellect had already jumped ahead to a conclusion. “Humans surprised the Cullers when they got the technology figured out to allow them to leave Sol. Before that, it would have been easy to overwhelm Earth. All they had to do was wait for the rest of their armada to arrive and then attack en mass. They would have had the numbers necessary for their method of rush-in-talons-waving-battle to overcome any defenses. Humanity jumped the gun. They went looking for the Cullers before they could grow their numbers sufficiently. Ever since then, the enemy has been trying to pick off any outposts, colonies, or ships it can outnumber. They would hit Sol directly if they had enough troops – no matter what the loss would be.”  His mouth moved, but no sound came out.

“What is it?” Thomas demanded.

“A wormhole generator,” Almaut said quietly. His breath came out in a long, uneven sigh.

Kapziel grunted. “You said that already.”

 Almaut was staring into the middle distance, his fingers tapping thoughtfully against his leg. “If they figured out how to do it, they could bring in thousands – millions, if it lasts long enough.”

“What are you talking about?” Kapziel ground out.

“They’ll wash over the Coalition forces in weeks,” Skoll said. His hands fisted on the arms of his chair, nails digging into the plastic.

“Is that what it is for, then?” Thomas leaned forward again, demanding answers. “Did they really build it?”

“I’ll need to have Jawai and the Falcons check it out, but its possible.” Almaut ran a hand through his short yellow hair, jotting down notes on his table with the other. “If it is…”

“If the enemy can create a stable wormhole,” Giltine finished for him, “then they can bring as many soldiers as they want, from anywhere in the universe, without the Coalition even noticing. No more supply depots or repair spots. No more raiding Culler ships that are low on fuel and weapons.”

 Kapziel snarled, understanding the worst possible outcome, “It will be genocide.”

“No,” said Malak quietly. “Extinction.”

The table fell silent, while they each considered the impact of that statement. The intelligence belonged to Keres Legion. Outside of their base, no one knew it existed. No one had any idea of what the Cullers might be capable of. All of Earth, the Sol System, an entire species was a breath away from finality and Malak held that information in his hand. He remembered what Thomas had said to another officer, so many years ago, on Erasmus Station:  “Those aren’t kids, they are killing machines. And if we are very, very lucky, they’ll be somewhere deep, deep in Culler territory when they figure out what we have done to them.” “What’s that? Make them soldiers?” “Make them slaves.” There were few moments, in any life, where a clear choice was presented so perfectly. One action, it would only take a second to twist Thomas’ head – snap it to the side like a dry branch, and then there would be nothing preventing Malak from keeping the information secret. From securing his pack and leaving humanity to their own fate.

Malak thought about his own people. Their purpose. Their creators. The reality that would exist if humanity was wiped out. Inexplicably, Zulu – Maker, he reminded himself – flashed through his thoughts. Her blue eyes too big in her pale face. Her hands shaking as she replaced her helmet after her team was attacked. Her promise to them: Everyone goes home. The Cullers would kill her. Rodriguez. Gonzales. The rookie with the broken back – if he was still alive. Kerry, the GMH who had the respect of his fellow soldiers. The pilot for transport one-seven who dodged enemy fire to save a mere half a squadron. The idiot captain of the Perry, and the even crazier captain of the Pershing. Thomas. Batma. Every researcher from Project Hellhound. The Falcons. They would all die. Keres Legion could live, escape into the Dark and keep away from the Cullers and their hatred of humanity. But everyone else Malak had ever known would die.

His responsibilities, to his pack and to the humans that had made them, had never been so at odds. Choice. The weight of it dragged on him, weighed him down like an albatross, so heavy he had to close his eyes against a terrible, horrible voice that whispered to him what sounded like truths. Even if we could save them, they would not see us as people. Only experiments. Useful technology.

“Guess we’re hoping it’s just a planet-bomb then?” Kapziel asked.

Skoll laughed, “Now there is something I never thought would be the better option.”

The tension eased – just enough that Malak could breathe again and open his eyes. Giltine was staring at him across the table. He had the feeling she knew where his thoughts had gone. “We’re going to stop an entire Culler armada.” She phrased it like a statement, but her green eyes posed a question. Whatever his response, she would follow it. Duty. To the pack. To the Legion. Malak smothered the voice that reminded him of all the suffering he and the others had gone through, in training, on missions. The deaths. At the knowing and unknowing cruelty of nearly every human they encountered. There was more to his life than that. More to his pack that the injustice in their lives.

“Yes,” he said simply. Keres Legion began to plan for a new kind of war.

Barghest, Part II: Depredation