Barghest II – Chapter 1

Back to Barghest, Part II

Portent

Hour 0230, Day 075, Year 2152

Lightfoot, noun. A person born in space, rather than on a planet or planetary satellite. So called because most spaceships and stations are set with gravity slightly lower than Earth’s.

    Ex. John is a real lightfoot, he knows all the trade routes like the back of his hand.

“Beware the Ides of March.”

Malak looked up from his console on the bridge of the Scythe and raised a brow at Smierc. His second-in-command had completed her systems check and was combing one hand through her red hair, her green eyes unfocused. When she did not continue, he went back to his own task. In a few hours he would pilot the Scythe out of the transport bay of the Lead Belly and inside a gas giant. It was the first mission for the new Runa class short-range vessel, and Malak had insisted on double-checking all of the systems himself.

Four years earlier, after the mission at VK10, Thomas had promised the Legion many things, and he had delivered on most of them. Malak had been promoted to Major; Smierc and the other betas were all given officer ranks. New uniforms and body armor had been issued, which had exceed Malak’s demands for increased mobility, durability, and operating limitations. The Sica class deep-attack vessels used by the Legion had been overhauled and upgraded, and a new line, the Runa, designed and put into production. Several other designs that Almaut had worked on were still being revised before consideration. Funding was plentiful and supplies, resources, and authority followed. Malak was cautious. He did not like the generosity of the Coalition. Although Thomas seemed to think it was fantastic, a sign that the military was moving into a more efficient view of the Culler war, Malak knew there would be a price. None of his dealings with the government had led him to believe that there would not be something asked of the Legion – commensurate to what they received. No matter what lip service might be paid to their successes and value to the security of the Sol Confederation, they were still not given the same considerations as other soldiers.

The status of the Legion as valued tools – rather than people – was confirmed when his recommendations for insignia and names of the new ships were rejected as too low-profile. Malak had suggested a variation of the same badge used by other Special Forces units, and ship designations of Keres One, Two, Three, and so on.  The Colonel came back with decisions from Batma’s staff. All of the ships were given names intended to inspire fear. Scythe. Garrote. Pale Horse. Malak, as usual, kept his thoughts to himself, but he found the idea ridiculous. The Cullers knew nothing of human culture, so the names had little meaning. If there would be anyone that would be frightened, it would be the very soldiers the Legion was fighting with and for.

His thoughts made him shake his head, and he glanced away from the console to the badge on the black sleeve of his jacket. A black crow’s wing, picked out in silver, backed a white eight-sided star. Opposite the wing were three curved lines – stylized blades. It was a stark contrast to the yellow star and green laurel of the regular Coalition troops. Theatrics, Malak thought with a resigned frown.

“It’s today, you know. The Ides.” Smierc flicked her hair over her shoulder and focused on him. “The twins think it is an ominous sign.” Malak snorted. Af and Hemah had learned about superstition from some of the humans in Falcon Company and had taken it quite seriously. As long as their nonsense did not affect their ability to carry out orders and kill the enemy, Malak let it go. The twins were very, very good at killing Cullers. “A king of the Roman Empire was killed on the Ides. A prophet told him to be cautious, but he ignored the warning and was stabbed twenty-three times.”

“Only twenty-three?” Malak murmured, hoping Smierc would come to a point soon. She would have only used his silence as an excuse to draw out her explanation longer.

Smierc frowned, “I know, politicians…” She shrugged, “The killers were led by his best friend, so they must have known his weaknesses.”

Malak adjusted the internal air recyclers; a higher oxygen content would be better during short combat runs. “Are you suggesting that I should watch my back?”

Smierc burst into laughter. “You’re Alpha – not King!” She sobered quickly, “And no member of this pack would betray you.”

Malak locked his console and turned his seat, focusing his full attention on Smierc. She had hung one leg over the arm of her chair. She lounged the same way she moved – with a feline grace that disguised the strength and will to end lives. “What,” he asked quietly, “are you suggesting?”

“This feels like an ambush,” she burst out. Her posture did not change, but her voice was hard and serious. “The ships, the armor – hell, I just received the upgrades to the heavy gun ammunition I asked for – it is like a trail of candy, leading us right to the oven.”

“I think you are mixing up your stories,” Malak stated. He did not say it, but he was both relieved and concerned that he was not the only one made uneasy by the continued generosity of the Coalition.

She continued as if she hadn’t heard him. “It’s like when Parshav saves up meal bars and gives them to Ondrea, right before he asks for a favor she won’t want to give.” Her face turned toward him, her lower fangs peeking out from her open mouth. “Are we being fattened up for slaughter?”

Malak was silent for a while, considering his options. He did not wish to lie to Smierc. He had never lied to his pack. Sharing his concerns, however, would not ease hers. He spoke carefully, “Assessment?”

“General Batma, and Thomas, they trust us,” she answered slowly. “They respect you. I don’t think they would issue orders that we wouldn’t follow.” A frown line appeared between her dark brows. “But they answer to someone else.”

“General Pool. Admiral Tsang.”

“Yes, but…” Smierc tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “According to everything we’ve heard, Pool makes her own decisions. But Tsang doesn’t get out of bed without consulting his political liaison.” Malak didn’t have to respond, Smierc met his gaze and shook her head, speaking what he was thinking. “He’s not a puppet. I’ve read his file, along with every other brief you’ve ever sent out. He’s too smart and skilled to follow blind orders.”

“Then what?” Malak waited patiently, but Smierc only growled in frustration.

“I don’t know, and that bothers me. I haven’t been this irritated since we were in training and going through the Catch-22 exercises. All this largesse from the Coalition doesn’t feel right – but it would be stupid to go into battle without the best equipment we can get.” She stood and crossed her arms, “What do you think?”

“Hn,” Malak grunted. Smierc rolled her eyes, unimpressed, but she did not push for an answer. Malak did not have one to give – not that would satisfy his beta or himself. “The mission should be over in less than three hours. Be ready with the Lead Belly.”

“Of course,” Smierc muttered, heading for the back of the command room and the ship exit.

Eyes open, Malak chuffed in the language they had used as children. He heard Smierc pause, but he did not turn, instead continuing to stare out the view panel into the Lead Belly’s transport bay. She made a sound of submission, a low whine, and then left. Malak felt the same itch between his shoulders that Smierc spoke of, that feeling that he was being played in some way, but there was nothing he could do about it. To refuse the ships, supplies, and armor would be wasteful and stupid. He intended to continue to pursue the Cullers, and his people would be in harm’s way. Any opportunity to reduce their risk needed to be seized. At the same time, their position within the SC was precarious. Perhaps more than any of his pack realized. They had been created to protect human lives, to defeat an enemy. Malak would ensure it was done. When it was over, however, when there was no more enemy but only the humans and the soldiers they had created…that would be a day of reckoning.

The best Malak could hope for was that the humans did the worst they were capable of. He could prepare for that, plan for it. And it would make what his responsibilities to his people easier to carry out. Malak did not like killing without provocation.

Until that day, he had many more challenges and issues that needed his attention. He stood, leaving the Scythe and heading to his private cabin on the Lead Belly. He had reports that needed reviewed, requests that needed approval or denial. Weeks’ worth of backlogs of mission data that he had only skimmed, but which should be thoroughly reviewed and analyzed. There were personnel disputes which required his attention. Four, at last count, among the packs. They were the easiest to settle. A simple hearing to determine fault or recompense and if his word did not satisfy the two parties could fight it out. A little blood often cleared minds and disagreements. More challenging were issues arising between humans assigned to his command, the Falcons, and his people. Or among the Falcons themselves. Those were far more paperwork. He shuddered to think of a time long ago when it would have been actual paper stacked on his desk. It would have reached the ceiling. Occasionally, he found himself thinking fondly of the death-soaked gauntlet he had run on VK10. He was designed to be a warrior. Trained to be a leader. Circumstance and necessity were making him a bureaucrat. He did not like it.

Three and a half hours later he was relieved to be suited up and preparing the Scythe for departure. It did occur to him, as Smierc acknowledged his order and the transport doors opened, that the humans would most likely find it strange that he was far more comfortable plunging a new, untried ship into a gas giant and certain weapons fire than he was writing personnel evaluations. Not that anyone but his closest pack mates, like Smierc, would have been able to tell how he felt about either. Malak had spent his entire life cultivating his natural tendency toward brevity into an iron mask that concealed thoughts and emotions. From enemies seeking weakness. From political adversaries and allies seeking insight and advantage. From his pack that looked for the direction and strength better offered by a cool head than an emotional one.

It was no surprise to the crew of the Scythe, then, when his response to a sudden, unprovoked attack just inside the gas giant’s atmosphere was to calmly order return fire. Malak directed that the smaller ships be crippled, not destroyed, and for the life support to be avoided if possible. He wanted to know why the mining station was guarded by a squadron of old-model short-range fighters – he did not want to provoke an inquiry into the area by the Sol Intelligence Service. Violent civilian deaths tended to attract attention.

“Shall I open a line, Major?” Ondrea sat at the communications and sensors console.

“No,” Malak responded. A fighter, moving sluggishly – as though it had taken a hit years ago and never been properly repaired – lined up for a firing run. Its weapons did not have the range of the Scythe.  “Engines,” Malak directed the Af at tactical. Two quick shots were fired before the enemy could close the distance. Without being ordered, Hemah, Af’s twin, turned the Scythe expertly, allowing the fighter to glide past.

“Second bird, closing in,” Ondrea reported.

“On it,” Af replied. The enemy ship dropped suddenly, causing Af’s shot to go wide. The charge detonated on time – in a cloud of hydrocarbons. The resulting explosion sent tremors through the Scythe and flipped the local fighter into a spin.

“Evading,” Hemah called out just as she drove the nose of the Scythe straight down. Malak watched on his display as they cleared the out-of-control fighter with less than a meter to spare. A third ship – an out-of-date Runa class – appeared from behind the distant mining platform. Unlike the fighters, the Runa looked to be in better condition. It was certainly better armed.

“Rail gun, targeting our forward array.” With a quick motion Ondrea brought the exterior cameras up on the main screen. She focused in on the Runa. “Charging in eight.”

Hemah was beginning to level out, skimming the denser, deeper layers of the atmosphere. The mining platform existed to collect rich hydrocarbons and other valuable compounds from those cloud deposits. “Lower,” Malak ordered. “Three hundred meters. Come up under the station.”

“Yes, sir,” Hemah answered. Malak could feel Ondrea’s eyes on him. He had no doubt that she was calculating the crush point for the new Scythe, and that of a twenty-year old Runa rail projectile.

“We’ll be 100 units above recommended limits,” she cautioned. “More if we hit any storm formations.”

“Acknowledged,” Malak replied. He pulled up the proximity sensors on his display. Hemah pressed the ship into a dive, cutting through the thick cloud layer like a blade through warm flesh. The Runa was turning to keep a weapons lock on the Scythe.

“Four,” Ondrea warned. “Three.” Pressure rose, hitting the maximum rated limits for the Coalition-built ship. The soft chime was distracting. Malak glanced at Ondrea and she cut the sound as she spoke, “Two.” Malak’s display showed a climbing meter. Dense gas flowed around the hull of the ship, battling against reinforced steel alloys and the thin layer of suspension liquid that insulated the Scythe. Faint, even to Malak’s ears, was the sound of compaction. The slight, wet squish of plasma against metal signaled that the Scythe had passed the redline for pressurization. “One.”

External monitors picked up the reverberations of the rail gun as the Runa fired. Malak ignored the stare of Af, irritated that she had not been ordered to shoot down the Runa. Instead he focused on his display. “One point two kilometers,” Af announced.

“Pressure is 75 units above maximum,” Ondrea stated. Malak did not need either female to tell him as he had his own display, but Hemah acknowledged it with a grunt as she focused on the helm. The Scythe continued to drive deeper.

“Nine hundred meters,” Af pushed her display up to the main screen and worked furiously to maintain weapons locks on both the projectile and the Runa. With a soft hiss a door – fifteen centimeters of metal encased plasma – descended between the command center and the crew compartment in the rear. Twelve soldiers, secured in their harnesses, were sealed off.

“Pressure at +100 and rising. Emergency protocols enacted.” Ondrea’s hands flew across her display. They were nearly under the mining station. Malak could easily make out the docking platform for equipment and the shielded section where gas was initially stored and processed before it would pass up into the main refinery.

Af routed power from the crew compartment gravity generators into reinforcing the structural integrity of the inner hull. “Seven hundred meters,” she said. Her voice was tense, not with fear but with excitement.

“Compartmentalization complete. Breeches eminent. Major,” Ondrea lifted her gaze in an attempt to catch Malak’s attention, but he ignored her. “Major, breeches-” Malak silenced her with a lifted hand.

“Five hundred meters,” Af stated. Malak judged the distance to the docking platform and began to count. A faint groan rippled across the hull. Responsive shielding gel, intended to absorb the impact of weapons fire, was flexing between the inner and outer ship plating. “Three hundred meters.”

“Slow by fifteen percent.” As Malak spoke, they could all see clear images of the docking platform. Workers in heavy exoskeletons and environmental suits were fleeing the lower levels of the mining station. One even seized a short-range transport and began moving away at a ridiculously slow speed.

“Two hundred meters, brace for impact.”

“Major,” Hemah called out through gritted teeth. Her palms were white where she pressed them against the controls, struggling against the dense atmosphere that was slowly crushing the Scythe. “Maneuverability nearing zero.”

“Fifty meters – Major?”

Forty-eight, forty-seven. Malak breathed out forcefully through his nose. “Pull up.”

Hemah reacted immediately. The Scythe, despite her warning that it would not respond, moved swiftly, if not as smoothly as the helm officer would have liked. Seconds behind them, the projectile slammed into a dense cloud formation. Pressure split the weapon casing like a boot to the skull. Rear cameras caught a single still of the weapon payload oozing out through cracks in the metal. Upon contact with the gasses in the atmosphere, it exploded. The shock wave pushed the Scythe up along the hull of the station even as a chain reaction began in the lower atmosphere. Tendrils of orange lightning spidered out from the detonation. Each pocket of combustible materials that was hit erupted with heat and light before sending more lightning racing away. Malak nodded to himself, focusing on the next task, as Hemah brought them to the habitation level.

“The disturbances are causing the station to shift – I’ll have to dock manually.” Hemah did not wait for confirmation, but slid her chair over to man another set of controls. Malak stood as she guided the Scythe in close.

“Ondrea,” Malak rumbled. “You have the ship.” He turned and hit the door console, which warned him of potential breeches before it would open. All twelve soldiers were unstrapped and waiting in two lines for him to lead the squad. The door slid closed behind him. Malak pulled his helmet from a storage compartment and put it on as he waked to the rear. The Scythe trembled, almost imperceptibly, as the docking ring sealed. “Team One, secure this level. Copy and destroy any intel. Team Two,” Malak repeated orders he had already given before they had left the Lead Belly, “with me. Kill on your judgement.” With that, he hit the controls and stepped onto the mining station.

Warning indicators flashed at regular intervals along the corridor. The gravity was set lower than Earth-standard, and Malak had to check his stride to prevent bounding forward. To his left, the hall curved away out of sight. Shouts for emergency pressure and containment fields echoed toward him. To his right, the corridor was silent except for the distant sound of boots. A map of the station, studied in detail while he was planning the mission, overlaid on his display. Glowing in blue was the route to their target. Malak signaled for his team to follow him and began an even, measured walk. His knees were slightly bent, his arms loose at his sides. About half of the team had their weapons out and ready, but Malak preferred to use his body in close range. If the intelligence Almaut and the Falcons had dug up was correct, the target would resist. Malak looked forward to it.

Two-thirds of the way down the corridor, his tech picked up a heat signature. It was emanating through the wall. Smierc would have called the station a dinosaur, with its thin inner construction and outdated technology, but even shoddy construction should have shielded normal heat sources in a residential level. Malak signaled to Gunnar and Hanako, the last two soldiers in line, “Assess and report.” He painted the door on the display image to indicate the thermal anomaly and continued onward. They would wait until the team had moved around the next bend, then break into the room. Malak expected it to be inconsequential, but his pack had not survived a life of war because he let strange circumstances go unexplained.

“Team Leader, this is Team One,” there was a hard breath over the comms and Malak pulled up the health stats for the six soldiers he had left to guard the Scythe. Their adrenaline was high, but otherwise they appeared normal.

“Go,” his voice was too low to be picked up as sound, but the transmitter in his neck relayed the vibrations over the comms.

“We have contact. Three locals, all down.” There was a long pause. “Armed guards are approaching our position.”

“Hold position, orders stand.” Acceptance was murmured and the communication ended. Malak had killed before – more Cullers than he could count. More Nicks than should have been necessary, if the greedy aliens were capable of staying away from a war and the less savory lucrative opportunities it provided. He had killed humans. Humans that were traitors. Humans that had broken the law. Humans that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He did not take pleasure in it – those that had died at his hands had not personally threatened his pack – but he did not grieve over the action.

They approached the end of the blue trail on Malak’s display, and he quietly ordered his team into position. He took point, at the trailing edge of a scuffed metal door. The designated technician for the mission knelt on the floor in front of an access panel. The meter-wide alcove felt tiny with two Legionnaires crammed into it. Malak reviewed his thermal scanner, and after confirming the target he nodded to the tech. Soundlessly, the panel was removed to exposed the cabling that hardwired the station’s security and physical systems. Almaut had provided them with a small black box, the size of a meal bar, specifically for this purpose.  The black box opened, then snapped around the main cable. Malak watched the feed that the tech received, and then pressed his back against the wall as new codes were entered into the system. Suddenly, the gravity shifted, pulling Malak firmly to the floor. A force nearly one and a half times the strength of Earth was a minor irritation to him, but could be almost crippling to lightfoots. A shout was heard on the other side of the door. It slid open, and Malak was through the entrance, cataloging the occupants, checking for threats and then seizing the man closest to the door and wrenching the weapon from his fingers. His team was right behind him, and the other two humans were subdued so easily it was laughable.  One of them, a bulky man who was dressed as a sort of armored guard, got off a single shot. The projectile grazed one of Malak’s people, gouging an ugly dent in his new shoulder plating, before burying in the wall.

“What the hell!” The shooter got out before he was forced to the ground with a boot on his spine.

“My men will be up here in minutes,” spit the guard. He rolled his eyes up to glare at Malak. The Alpha could see the reflection of his black helmet in the dark pupils. “You’re dead.” Malak did not respond, but applied enough pressure to push the wrist he was holding five centimeters further. The pop of the elbow joint was loud. So was the man’s scream. Malak tossed him to the floor, leaving another Legionnaire to watch the cursing guard. With one easy stride he was before his target. The director of the station looked younger than his file had stated. Genetic therapy, no doubt, played a part. Malak could also make out the faint, subdermal bruising around the eyes and mouth that indicated treatments to reduce sagging and wrinkles. His light brown skin was damp with sweat, but his jaw was hardened in anger. Malak could smell the chemicals sloughing off the man. Adrenaline. Noradrenaline. Cloying salt and sharp ammonia.

“You have no right-”

“I have every right.” Malak spoke slowly, carefully, so that his proximity comm would transmit every deep, harsh syllable. It had the desired effect. The man paled. Vessels stood out prominently on his forehead and neck. “Where is the map?”

The man’s eyes flared wide, “I don’t know what-” Malak grabbed his hand and snapped the wrist. A long scream bounced around the room. The target would have fallen to his knees, clutching his broken hand if one of Malak’s people hadn’t been holding him up.

A woman, her chest pressed against the wall by a Legionnaire, spoke up, “The Confederation has no legal-” She stopped speaking when her front teeth broke as her head was knocked against the wall.

“It’s there!” The target nodded frantically toward a tablet, half concealed under an expensive leather bag. Clothing and personal items spilled from the hastily packed tote.

The technician picked it up, quickly scanning through the information. He spoke through a dedicated comm, directly to Malak. “We’ve got it.” Disgust was evident in his tone, if not his posture, “It wasn’t even properly encoded. Either he’s an idiot, or he is proud of what he’s done.”

He had betrayed his species. He deserved far worse than what the Legion would do. Instead of giving voice to his low opinion, Malak asked, “Has it been copied?”

The technician connected a narrow, combat-grade pad to the tablet and scanned through the readings. “Not from this device, but there may have been others.”

“I can make it worth your while.” The target was still sweating, and the smell had soured from anger to fear. “Maybe the Coalition got here too late, eh?” He smiled, but the way his lips stretched across his teeth was not reassuring or even threatening. Pathetic. “Maybe you found that tablet, but I was long gone. Maybe there is something else you might find,” he looked meaningfully at a sealed storage container against one wall. The box was nearly two meters long, and a half meter deep. “No one else has to know about it.”

“Major,” Hanako sent him a direct communication. She sounded strained.

“Speak.” While he considered if it would be worth his time to break the target’s other hand to make certain he wasn’t holding back any information, Malak ran through different possibilities for what might have been giving off heat that would cause Hanako to conceal her report from the rest of the squad. “There is equipment in here. Gunnar found an unlocked terminal and – Malak, they were selling more than maps.” She sent him a video feed of her own display. As he watched, he could feel his heart rate increasing, his blood pressure rising. It was the shifting of his team around him that made him aware of how angry he had become. The disgust he felt for the actions of a human man was unfortunately familiar. Willing action. For credits. For wealth. Malak breathed out slowly and planned out his next action. “Hold,” he told  Hanako. She did not respond, but the video feed ended.

Malak grabbed the target by the back of the neck, careful not to squeeze so hard that the delicate chain of vertebrae might be crushed. He tossed the man against the storage container and stood, wide-legged, towering over him. The scent of his own anger was strong in Malak’s nose, and it was putting his pack on edge. He did not bother to try and tamp it down.

“Open it,” he growled. The man smiled.

“Moron,” the tech whispered over the unit’s proximity comm. Grunts and snorts echoed the assessment of the target.

“You won’t regret this, not on a soldier’s salary.” His broken limb still cradled against his chest, the target used his good hand to punch in a security code. The container opened with a hiss. Cold air streamed over the edge, creating a waterfall of white vapor. He breathed heavily with the effort of throwing the lid back against the wall. “Just give me five minutes to get to my transport, and you can take whatever you want, and let your superiors know you got the maps.”

Malak reviewed the contents, his blood still pounding in his ears. It was worth enough to give the target good reason to think he could bribe a Coalition officer with it. The half-dozen bars of platinum stacked on the bottom were the least valuable items. There was a cryo-canister of purple flowers with long, red centers. At least a liter of artificial dopamine – worth a fortune for medical uses and even more for illegal recreation. A reverse-gravity gyro-sphere was carefully suspended inside a metal frame. It likely contained anti-matter. Malak estimated there was a billion credits in a single storage container on a back-system, unaffiliated mining station.

It might as well have been empty, in comparison to the final two items. Two clear cases were stacked to one side. The top one was no larger than a tablet and filled with vials of liquid, labeled in detail. The target, the moron, was growing more confident, “Of course, if you’d be willing to let me keep a few of the genetic samples – it would-” Malak ignored him. Under the illegally harvested genetic material, used for treating embryos of desperate human parents, was a larger case that took up almost half of the container. Frozen inside, peacefully sleeping, was a giant turtle. Malak did not recognize the animal, but he felt certain he would find out it was endangered, if not already extinct.  He cleared the lock code, entered a new number, and shut the lid.

“It has been –ah – a pleasure…doing business with you,” the target said, struggling to get to his feet. Malak backhanded him. He had only used a fraction of his strength, but the man’s neck reacted like an undercooked noodle and he stumbled on the corner of the container, falling against the wall. “That’s-” He gasped, his eyes unfocused. “Fine. We’ll just…” He motioned to the door.

“No,” Malak said quietly.

“Oh, well, if you need my colleagues, that’s fine.” The guard and woman began to protest, loudly. Malak’s team quickly silenced them. “Take them prisoner if you want, but you’ll need to make certain they don’t talk about our deal.” Malak motioned to his team. Strangled screams followed the sound of joints breaking as fingers and knees were crushed. The tech and one other soldier picked up the case and moved toward the door. “Fine, fine. We’ll just wait until you leave, and then we’ll depart.”

The door slid shut on the room, and Malak removed the black box, severing the cables and destroying the opening mechanism, before leading his team back the way they had come. He hoped that the guard his target had been so willing to trade for freedom did not get his revenge too quickly. Stats on his display showed Team Two was still running on the fine edge of brain chemicals – instincts – which had their hearts pumping harder and their senses sharpened. Malak made a low moan of warning over the comms, but did not stop or speak until they reached Hanako’s position.

She waited for them outside of the room, Gunnar’s position on Malak’s display showed he was inside. Quickly, Malak sent the soldiers with the container back to the Scythe, while he assisted Gunnar in collecting copies of data and setting charges. When they reached the docking ring Malak found Team One and a scattered line of corpses waiting for him. He tossed two concussive grenades down the corridor to cover their retreat.

Less than thirty minutes after they had docked, Malak was sitting in his chair again, wishing he had two, three, or a dozen Cullers available to kill. He settled for removing his helmet and issuing orders. “Af,” he growled, “fire at will.” She grinned fiercely, displaying her fangs, and the rear cameras on the Scythe caught images of the mining platform as it was riddled with holes. The volatile gases of the planet interacted violently with the escaping atmosphere of the station. The explosion sent a tremor through the ship. The twelve soldiers strapped into the rear compartment did not even sway.

As they cleared the planet, Malak issued orders to return to the Lead Belly. Hemah nodded and set the course, while Ondrea monitored the destruction of the station. Af sat back in her seat, hands falling away from weapons control to cross over her chest.

“The Ides of March,” she said solemnly, to which her twin nodded in agreement. Malak leveled a stare at her, hoping she would drop the subject. He was not in the mood to let comments slide by, and the crew of the Scythe didn’t deserve his temper. Af continued, “Very bad luck.”

“Not sure how much that has to do with your Ides,” Ondrea commented. She glanced at Malak. “I’d say there’ll be a lot more bad luck, regardless of the date, when we find the buyer for those maps.” There was agreement by the rest of the bridge crew, but Malak remained quiet. Once the data was in Almaut’s hands, it would only be a matter of time before they tracked down whomever had put the target in touch with Cullers. That individual would be begging to be stabbed by the time Malak was done with him.

Twenty-three times, Malak thought disgust taking the edge off of his anger. If those Romans had been Legionnaires, instead of Senators, they could have made the death last much longer.

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