Year 2152, Day 364, Hour 0900
Cicuta. Noun. A classification of medium-size military vessels with a crew complement of 25, space for 100 ground troops and 12 combat pilots in single-manned ships. Although the Cicuta was taken out of production in 2146, older ships are still routinely retrofitted due to their speed and durability. The Pale Horse was modified to carry two Runa class, including the Scythe, and a deep-attack small vessel, such as the Viper, instead of combat fighters.
“This information is three months old.”
Almaut visibly stiffened at Kapziel’s accusing tone. Malak could smell the testosterone and epinephrine in the air. The sweet ammonia in his nose and lungs caused his hair to stand up, prickling along his scalp in a warning that in his more primitive ancestors would have foretold violence. Although his pack was capable of sensing and interpreting the signals that he was not pleased, they had to be paying attention in order to do so.
“If you think you can do better, Kapziel – go ahead and try.”
“The humans could do better.” The insult was obvious, both to the humans and Almaut, and uncharacteristic. Kapziel often spoke without thinking, but he was honest, blunt. Not malicious.
Skoll defended the Falcons with a growl, “Careful with your words.” He had always reminded the other Legionnaires to respect humans, but he had become more protective recently. Whether it was due to the nearing birth of a human-Legion child, or Giltine’s death, or both Malak could not say. They had all felt her loss keenly. One of their own, capable of becoming an alpha in her own right. An individual that had chosen to submit to Malak’s authority, and one who had protected the pack and the Falcons she had adopted into it fiercely. They missed her leadership, cool head, and deadly skill. Malak missed her counsel. Grief was not an excuse for division, and Malak recognized that he had allowed his lieutenants to wallow for too long. Tensions within their group were growing in magnitude and spilling over to the rest of the pack. Their continued mourning was edging into destructive behavior.
“Words are the problem – too many of them and not enough action!”
“Action without intelligence will get us all killed!”
“Enough.” Malak did not raise his voice. He did not have to, no matter how he might wish to, and losing his control would only exacerbate the situation. He would have ordered everyone to spar to work out their frustrations if he didn’t think they were all too angry for that tactic. If they stepped onto the mats it was more likely someone would end up losing their lives instead of their hostility. He caught the eye of each of his lieutenants in turn. “This ends now.” The rumble of speech, like broken glass and gravel tumbling together, brought silence. “You will each rotate – three days of leave, starting today. When you return to duty, you will be focused.” It did not have to be said the consequences for failure would be better avoided. Almaut looked ready to argue, Kapziel scowled. Skoll stubbornly clenched his jaw and said nothing. They did not have to agree, only to obey.
Thomas entered the room then. If it had been another man, Malak would have thought he did not notice the pressure, given his easy stride and the casual way he dropped his tablet on the table and took his chair. Thomas had worked with the Legion for too long, and taken part in hundreds of missions before that. He was too intelligent not to notice what was happening to the soldiers, and too wise to mention it. Malak spared a moment to appreciate that the Colonel trusted him to deal with issues on his own.
“I just got off of comms with Batma. We are a go to move on Operation Main Ring.”
“Any word on why SIS is shutting out the Coalition?” Almaut spoke stiffly, but his question was valid.
“None yet. I’m heading to Titan after this to start looking into it. What we do know is that the mission reports and resulting data from the Raider assignments were subverted by SIS and banked for their own assessment. Unfortunately, it looks like some of the parameters we sent the Raiders were also withheld before they started on their end. A lot of lives were lost, with less than a 50% success rate for tracker insertion.”
Almaut brought a map up on the wall display. “These were the Culler ships that we targeted for tracking. And here,” faint blue lines appeared for each ship, crisscrossing over the map, “were their projected courses and destinations.” Darker blue dots blinked onto the screen, one for each ship.
“SIS took it upon themselves to hold back the recommended insertion times and locations for some ships, but not all. Others they modified before forwarding the intelligence on to the Coalition Special Forces commanders.” Thomas sighed. He looked older, more tired than angry about the situation. “Several thousand good soldiers died needlessly, and I still haven’t got a straight answer about why SIS was allowed to review our transmissions before the Raider units.”
Malak would pursue the issue with Thomas at another time, but the continued interference of the SIS was not the most pressing matter at hand. “We have narrowed down likely targets.”
In response to Malak’s flat statement, Almaut highlighted three Culler ships. The others faded. “These are probable carriers for the wormhole devices. What we have been able to decode from the limited transmitted data suggested a pattern of stops and dark space exchanges with other ships that would be necessary to gather the amount of specialized equipment necessary. Each ship has made multiple visits to a single location that matches the base requirements for a wormhole site.” Two moons and one planet, all hundreds of light years from each other, were circled in red. “The timeline is fluid, and an estimation from what SAR has sent us, but we are looking at two weeks to three months.” Dates appeared above each of the locations, indicating the order in which they were scheduled to receive devices.
“Have they been scouted?”
“Units were sent out this morning,” Malak stated.
“We modified some of the beacons sent over from SAR.” Almaut added. “We should know as soon as a Culler ship gets within sublight-distance of one of the targets – even if the ship isn’t one we are tracking.”
“Good. Re-task whatever you need to make certain you have sufficient forces at each location to intercept the Cullers. If you have missions that can be reassigned to a Raider team or Coalition task group, let me know.” Thomas leaned forward, his elbows on the table, and stared at the display. The wrinkle above his nose deepened enough to make his two brows meet in a single, silvery line of angst.
“A list has been prepared.” Malak flicked a file from his own tablet to his senior officer’s. A few operations had been easy to downgrade, but some had required careful consideration. Even then, he was certain that the human forces would take greater losses than the Legion would have. He had suggested in his recommendation that the Coalition triple the amount of soldiers and firepower for each of the tasks that were reassigned.
Thomas’ brows rose in surprise. “Good. I’ll take a look at it right away.”
Malak dismissed the others and waited for them to leave, and for Thomas to pour himself a cup of coffee, before he spoke. “This has to stop.”
“I am aware of your concerns, Malak.” He took a sip. The strongly bitter scent of roasted beans was not tempered by any additives. The smell muddled Thomas’ own odor, making it more difficult for Malak to gauge his mood. Eyes the same pale blue they had always been but far more heavily lined, looked up from the drink. “As you are aware that I don’t care for your bullshit.”
Malak leaned back, carefully interlocking his fingers and regulating the pressure he used so that his knuckles would not turn white. “The only bullshit I see is the interference with my operations. Politics are dragging out this war, and you know it.”
“Knowing something and being able to do something about it are two entirely different circumstances. You know that as well as I do.” Thomas took another sip, then he leaned back too. He allowed his head to tip back over his chair, closing his eyes and sighing. His guard was completely down, his body defenseless. Malak could have killed the older man between breaths. “There are times when I have felt that your kind was a mistake that exemplified humanity’s self-destruction. Tampering with biologic design, the fate of entire species, it is a monumental sin of pride and morality that we can never overcome.” He opened his eyes and tilted his head just enough to catch Malak’s gaze. “There are times when I think we deserve this war.”
Thomas closed his eyes again and Malak swallowed to keep from snarling. There had never been lies between the two of them. From the very beginning, even before he had been introduced to the Colonel, Malak had known the other man’s opinion of the Legion. “I’d sooner handcuff myself to a feral Rottweiler than share a ship with the tubers they have cooked up here. At least I could trust the Rottweiler wouldn’t shoot me.” It wasn’t the questions of the right to create his own people that Malak resented, it was the wavering. His purpose was to end a war. If his own creators did not commit to that future, than his life meant nothing. His actions meant nothing. His people, his pack, were unnecessary. If that was the case, then it might matter if they were truly an abomination – a mistake that humanity regretted. Without purpose in the war, there was nothing to stop Malak from forging his own destiny. One that the humans would not have a place in. He would still crush the alien forces – it would be retribution for the losses his pack had taken. But how Sol and all of the fragile lives that were tied to that indecisive government fared in the aftermath would not be his responsibility. It was the indecision that angered him more than the condemnation.
“Other times,” Thomas continued, “most times, I think about all that you have accomplished. I can imagine a future where hubris doesn’t bite us in the ass but saves us all. Takes us somewhere better than we were before. I have been proud to serve with you, Malak. Proud to be able to say I was wrong about the Legion – back at the beginning. I am almost sorry that I will not get to be there the day you tell Pool or President Yardley or whomever is running things that they can take their back-room-deals and polite news sound bites and shove it right up their asses.” He snorted. “It’s all a bunch of bullshit – and too fucking emotional for me. Sorry.” He sat up again and took another deep drink of coffee.
Malak turned over his words, wondering what had really been said in Thomas’ brief moment of vulnerability. “Hn.”
Thomas snorted again. “That is not something I’ll miss when my retirement rolls around. You make me long for my wife’s ever-running mouth, and that is a real feat, let me tell you.” He set down his cup and his face firmed into a more serious expression. “Of course the politics need to stop, or we aren’t going to get anywhere no matter how many devices we stop or Cullers we kill. But that isn’t a battle for you or I. Not today, not tomorrow, definitely not this month. Let Batma and Pool duke it out while we do what we do best. Now, I have the new incursion reports. I’d like your opinion.”
Malak’s tablet alerted him that he had received new data, and he leaned forward again. Also ready for business. “We still need to discuss the matter of the genetic material.”
“I’ve got someone working on that, but you’ll have to be patient. Going to the SIS is pointless, so our only other option is SAR for data analysis. They don’t like to share much outside of their own hierarchy either, so it’s all off the books and under the radar. I’ll let you know when I have something concrete. You haven’t filed anything about that have you?” Thomas actually looked worried for a moment.
“It was not presented in any reports, and the evidence remains locked down on the base – unregistered.”
“Good. I have a feeling that we are not the only Sol Citizens that know about this, so until we get a better idea of who else does, we are better off keeping it to ourselves.”
Malak agreed. He shared the Colonel’s caution. However, Thomas reminded him of less appealing facets of humanity. Their concern for morality. Their ability to violate those same concerns. And their unimaginable commitment to sacrificing their own in order to defeat the enemy – a sacrifice which might not be necessary if other methods were used.
Politics. Thomas seemed to think the Legion was humanity’s most dangerous creation. Malak disagreed.