Barghest II – Chapter 16

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Morally Reprehensible but Economically Acceptable

Year 2153, Day 005, Hour 0900

Unobjectionable Forfeit. Euphemism. The intentional loss, harm, damage to friendly targets in pursuit of a larger goal which is determined to be more important.

 See Jane use Dick as a living shield. See Jane maneuver and destroy the enemy. See Dick exsanguinate. Dick was an unobjectionable forfeit.

“They’re keeping up.” Ondrea stood still at her station. She had been on duty for  the majority of the previous five days – since their standoff outside the Alnitak system began.  Malak doubted she had gotten much rest even when he had ordered her off of the bridge. He certainly hadn’t.

Every hour they had spent trying to waylay Culler ships that were enroute to Alnitak had meant more ammunition used. More fuel spent. More holes in the hull of the Pale Horse. Every Culler ship they destroyed had been another obstacle cleared between him and his mission. Each ship that escaped sent more. By the time Skoll had arrived to relieve them he had been down to his last bullet.  Skoll had armed himself for a prolonged battle, and Malak barely took the time to replenish minimal munitions before he ordered Hemah into ISG. It wasn’t just the anger over defending Coalition soldiers that seemed to throw away their lives every chance they got. It wasn’t just lack of sleep and constant tension. He was built for that. Thrived on it.

It was the shiver between his shoulder blades. One that never seemed to happen. Always just about to race across his skin. He was failing. He could see it. Taste it in the air. Smell it on his own skin. One task, one purpose. End the war. Every time he was close to making progress, it was ripped out of his hands. The SIS, sabotaging his plans by withholding intelligence. The Coalition, pressing into battles where they were more hindrance than help. Confederation politics, leaving a sticky tar on him that limited his options and slowed his movements. He was hampered by his second objective. End the war. Save the humans. It would all have been so much easier if they would get out of his way. A whisper of breath, a coolness, brushed across his back and was gone before his skin could do more than clench. If he did not make it to RB14-7b2 before the Cullers had installed the wormhole device, months of waiting – over two years of planning – would be wasted. All so that he could save a few hundred thousand soldiers that were more likely to die that make it home anyway.

Malak shrugged his shoulders, willing the ghost of inertia away, and glanced at the display on the railing in front of him. “Gain.”

“None, sir.”

Hemah chose to give her opinion, although it hadn’t been solicited. “We could push the ISG harder and probably outrun them, but with the damage to-”

Malak cut her off with a growl that he swallowed before it became more than a single harsh note. He could feel Ondrea’s eyes on him, his own tension coiling around the command room and setting them all on edge. He swallowed again, forcing his emotions down. His crew, his pack, didn’t deserve his wrath and they would function better without it. The blame for the years he had spent watching his own people die while he saved the Coalition lay nowhere near Hemah or anyone else on the Pale Horse.

“Broad sensor sweep,” he finally managed to say in a voice that did not sound any more irritated than usual. “Drop to sublight in fifteen minutes. Tactical-”

“Sir.” It was Ondrea who interrupted him, and he met her green gaze with his own and breathed in the scent of her. Respect. Loyalty. Obedience. “I have a transport caravan within a hundred thousand clicks of that location. Civilian. And an Ennead exploration vessel. They are stationary – low heat bloom.”

One or more of the small vessels most likely had mechanical trouble, so the entire caravan had stopped in the Deep Dark while the issue was resolved. The Coalition had strict orders against taking a fight into civilian occupied territory. They had also given him blackout status. Authority to kill anything that stood between him and his objective. He doubted, when Batma had passed down the order, that anyone suspected that to fully utilize that power he would have had to take out most of the Sol Intelligence Service. And a good portion of the government hierarchy. And foolhardy Coalition captains that took their ships off course. And reckless soldiers that interfered when they should have left the war to those who were far better prepared to win.

“Calque it,” he ordered quickly, before he could have a chance to change his mind. “Come out right on top of them. Weapons hot.”

There was a brief pause, and then a chorus of yes, sir’s as they followed orders. Malak braced his arms, fists gripping the railing harder than necessary, and watched the forward display. The Pale Horse hurtled through space in silence, the layers of plastiglass between him and the vacuum of the universe black.

“In five,” Hemah announced. “Three, two, one. Disengaging ISG.”  The Pale Horse shuddered and the windows glowed as they entered into sublight travel before dimming to allow a view. Hemah had been incredibly precise. A half-kilometer below them and slightly ahead was a trio of human transport ships. A smaller Ennead vessel was docked with the center ship. Malak focused and picked out two small figures, tethered to the hull and inspecting some minor breaches.

The Cullers would be less than a minute behind. “Use the convoy for cover. Af, fire at will.” There was another pause, and the Falcon assisting at the weapons station opened his mouth, even made a noise of concern before Af silenced him with a look.

“Two Citrine. Exiting ISG in twenty.” Ondrea spoke calmly, but Malak could smell her reaction. Low, faint, and smoky with the hormones preparing to release cortisol and epinephrine.

“We are being hailed by the lead transport,” the Communications officer spoke from behind him. Malak ignored him and glanced at his own display. A small tab on the side showed numbers, in red, for how far overdue his schedule was. They had no idea how long it would take to install a wormhole device. It might already be finished.

“Fifteen,” Ondrea updated.

“Both rail guns primed and ready,” Af stated.

“Sir,” the soldier at comms cursed lightly under his breath, “the Ennead is pinging us as well.”

“Ten seconds, and I am tracking a Sidus class.” The main display was overlaid with a map of the sector, showing a Coalition ship in ISG – most likely on its way to Alnitak. It had enough firepower to relieve Skoll and take over protecting the vulnerable colony system. If the convoy sent out a distress signal, the Sidus might veer off course – delaying their arrival and increasing the number of enemies Skoll would have to take out. “Five.”

Malak tuned out the rest of her count and watched the display. With a burst of darkness, the Culler ships entered sublight travel – firing before they had weapons locks. The third convoy ship was hit with a stray burst of laser cannon fire. The central mass was torn in two, leaking fuel, red-hot slag, and anything else that had been inside.  Af’s second entered a firing solution in less time than it took the civilians to realize what was happening. Projectiles ripped through the lead Citrine class as the comms officer tore swore again. A communications line had been forced through, and Malak heard a few terrified screams and a man begging for the Pale Horse to protect them. The soldier stationed along the back wall of the command room shut down the comm before anything else could be said.

The first Citrine fractured and exploded as carefully aimed shots ripped through the outer hull. Urchins launched from the second ship as it fired. Light bloomed on the main display. Culler fire slammed into the central transport, the force pushing the ship back and closer to the Pale Horse. It partially blocked the view of the enemy, making firing difficult. But it also protected Malak’s crew.

“Launch Emici,” Malak ordered. “Ignore the fighters, focus on the Citrine.”

The orders were being carried out even before he finished speaking. Malak stood immobile as Ondrea reported positions and comms repeated information from the Emici ships that engaged the enemy. Two of the single-man craft approached the Citrine at top speed, out running any attempts at weapons locks. At the last moment the broke, reveling two more ships riding in their wake – concealed from Culler sensors by the heat bloom of the engines from the first ships running full bore.

“Getting crowded back here,” Hemah warned. Debris from the third transport was drifting out fast and unpredictably. Bouncing off the hulls of other ships that were far to close for combat maneuverability. The Emici fired, strafing along the sides of their target and peppering it with hits.

“Direct hits,” Af stated. “I need a clear shot to finish it. The Emici had drawn the Cullers’ attention away from the damaged Pale Horse.

Malak nodded to Hemah, although her full attention was on the controls. “Move into position.” The Pale Horse slid out from behind the transport and brought the Citrine into direct view.

“One cannon still operational,” Ondrea warned.

“Locked,” Af announced with satisfaction. The high-energy blast of laser fire cut into the hull of the Pale Horse even as projectiles were launched from both rail guns.  Emici turned, passing in the opposite direction as charged ammunition pierced the Citrine. Malak braced his feet as the floor bucked under him.

“Kinetic gel reacting,” Ondrea shouted over the hiss of atmosphere leaking. Upper deck,” the hiss cut off abruptly, “has been sealed.” The delayed charges detonated, ripping the Culler ship apart in a fiery display that blocked out the light of distant stars. Flammable matter and atmosphere were ejected, colliding with the remains of the other enemy ship and causing a reactionary explosion. “Wounded reports incoming,” she hesitated, “no casualties.”

“Re-calque coordinates and return to ISG immediately.”  Hemah responded to Malak in the affirmative, but the comms officer was standing, the rustle of his movement loud in the new silence.

“Major, we are still being hailed. By the Ennead and the two remaining Sol ships.”

“Their status.”

Ondrea performed a quick scan. “Sublight only, for the lead ship. The other one has no propulsion and is losing critical support systems.”

“The Ennead doesn’t have room for passengers, sir,” comms pointed out. “They’re too far out to make it back by themselves.” The question was unspoken, but obvious. Should we help them?

“Get on mission,” Malak ground out, finally pushing away from the railing and heading to his ready room. His answer was equally unspoken but understood. Not our job. That shiver was tapping against his spine again, and he halted in the doorway. “Wide-band communication. Coalition signal.”

“Just the signal, sir?” Comms was frowning.

Malak nodded once. Confirming his order to blast the static transmission that announced a Coalition military asset. His fists tightened again, forcing the blood out of his joints and turning his knuckles white. “Let them know who is here.”  The decision was made. He couldn’t take it back – wouldn’t have even if he could. The Coalition had got themselves into the bloody bind of their current war situation because they did not know the difference between sacrifice and survival. Malak knew all too well.  Comms hit the command on his console, and Malak watched as the signal reached the two human ships and the Ennead. Their insistent communication requests fell silent. The hum of engines spooling up was faint.

“New arrival time estimated,” Ondrea sent the information out to the command crew, and Malak’s bracer vibrated. He didn’t bother looking at it. It was still too late. And his priorities were no more resolved.

***

Hour 2130

“Transmitting in three. Two. One.” The planet orbiting below them disappeared from view as the main display was taken over by an incoming transmission. Behind Malak, the comms officer worked to clear up the signal. “Booster has landed intact. Data routing to sensors.” Malak breathed as evenly as possible while he waited for Ondrea’s assessment. They were days behind schedule and there was a Culler ship somewhere below them, but without landing they could not get any details. A storm raged across the southern hemisphere. From above, huge cloud systems whorled and massed, battling for supremacy.

“Amber class. Heat blooms indicate…six to six hundred fifty life forms outside.  Two large metallic objects are positioned inside the ship.”

“The third?” Malak needed all three devices. If the Falcons and SAR were going to determine the Cullers’ intentions, he had to give them the most information possible. He needed all three.

“If it is down there, it isn’t in range, sir.” There was no way to tell if the third device had already been moved to another location on the planet, or if it had not yet arrived. “But we do have movement.” She dragged a topographical map onto the display and highlighted two large groups of Cullers that were moving slowly away from the Amber.

 “Comms,” Malak said in a low voice. He refused to allow his frustration to bleed through. There would be time for that later. On the surface. When he could take out his irritation on the enemy and watch them bleed through. “Have both Runa prepped. Double complements.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ondrea, the Pale Horse is yours.”

“Yes, Major.” She summoned a replacement for the sensors station and stepped up beside Malak. “Good hunting.” She was absolutely serious, but a grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. He could understand the sentiment, but his only response was a grunt as he pushed away from the railing and headed for the transport bay.

Entry into the atmosphere was rough. Wind sheers in excess of three hundred kilometers per hour slowed as they descended, but conflicting charges picked up. Lightning flashed around the ship, liming twenty-four black helmets in purple. He opened a comm to both ships once they landed, utilizing the deployed sensor buoy as a booster for the signal. “Team Two, converge on the enemy at your coordinates and take the ship. Team One will provide external support.” Malak could have taken charge of the boarding party and personally seized the devices. His people were good, they didn’t need him to cleave a path through a hundred or so Cullers and take a ship that was sparsely crewed.

The real battle would be with the two larger groups of enemy. One dividing into defensive positions around the Amber, the other following the path of the storm to the west. Twenty-five to one had been poor odds in the close confines of the Pale Horse. On open ground, the numbers he was facing were challenging, but not insurmountable. Malak’s adrenaline began to pump, making it easier to ignore the ghosting tingle on his back. He rechecked his ammunition and weapon and moved to the rear of the transport, waiting for the ramp to drop. He was alive for this moment.

“Go.”

The enemy was a hundred yards away, too far to have heard or seen the Runa land through the storm. Malak used that to his advantage. He charged, silent and lethal, two full squadrons of Legionnaires at his back. Gravity was point six Earth standard, and his strides ate up the distance in moments. His boot met the first Culler’s face, crushing the bony shell around the eye sockets. He used the death thrashes of that alien to launch him into a high arc. One. Two. Three. Four armor piercing rounds found targets before gravity took hold of him again, pulling him back down and into the surprised chest of another enemy. Although his weight was reduced on the planet, his downward acceleration made up for the force and he forced the Culler onto its back. His service knife was in his hand, slipping between the chitin and severing the central nervous cluster before it could utter a single sound. In less than one minute, he had killed six. He did not pause to take inventory, his tech notified him that his team had elevated respiration and heart rates, but no injuries.

Malak moved again, heading further from the Amber and his Runa. Two Cullers appeared on his proximity map only moments before he saw them. His nose was useless in the wind and dust, equalizing his senses to his enemies’. They were both armed with long, charged spears – the only melee weapons he had ever seen Cullers use. The one to his right shrieked. Sound was washed away by the storm. It led with the spear, aiming at center of mass. Malak dodged easily, but the left Culler had anticipated the move and swung low to the ground. He jumped, gravity aiding him in clearing the weapon. The action brought him up and over their heads, and Malak fought to turn in the air and keep the Cullers at his front. His Klim was out and he fired once before a heavy weight struck his back. At the same time, his sensors shorted out.

His teeth clenched, his muscles spasmed, and he squeezed the trigger, firing another shot wide of his target. Malak gave into the shock, dropping to the dirt and rolling away. The Culler that had snuck up behind him swung its spear in a wide arc, then crumpled with a scream as Malak buried his service knife in the back of a knee. His momentum rolled him again, but he did not let go of the blade and it sliced clean through the joint, stringy tendons and exoskeleton. Not dead, but significantly incapacitated and hemorrhaging. Malak ignored it to focus on the first two. They were advancing again, more warily. Malak raised his weapon and the left Culler ducked – taking his thrown knife in the lower jaw. He rushed the remaining alien, slamming his helmet into its chest. He took the impact with a grunt, and gritted his teeth against the burning shock of the spear before he could wedge his forearm against the Culler’s bicep and force the weapon away. It raised a free talon, bringing the serrated edge down in a slashing motion that pierced the outer material of his armor suit. It did not stop Malak from pressing his Klim into the unprotected hollow of an armpit and firing. The projectile travelled diagonally across the upper chest and out of the lower jaw – taking most of the skull with it into the air in a spray of bone and ichor.

His tech rebooted and flared to life with a cacophony of voices and proximity alerts as he retrieved his knife. He stomped on the flailing talon of the disabled Culler with one boot, crushing the plating into shards that rent flesh and severed tendons. He holstered his gun and drove his blade deep into the chest rather than waste ammunition.

“Team Leader, here,” he growled into the comm. It was all he could do to not let his satisfaction and eagerness for more battle seep into his tone.

“Team Two has boarded the Amber,” the Comms officer on the Pale Horse updated him. Interference from the storm made his voice crackle. “The enemy is moving. Destination assessment transmitting now.”

Malak waited impatiently as a new map overlaid his vision. The heat bloom of the six hundred or so Cullers he had tasked his own team with destroying was significantly reduced. Notations speculated that a few dozen were still engaged with his squadrons, but another two hundred were rapidly leaving sensor range.

“Device.” Anticipation bubbled under his skin. Wind howled against his helmet, the sound cutting through insulation. Dirt thickened in the air, reducing visibility to less than fifteen meters.

Comms did not keep him waiting. “No indications that it is with that group, but they…west…structures.”  The signal was lost, and his tech unhelpfully informed him that he could not regain a surface to ship line. That was not his priority.

Runa One, reposition.” He sent coordinates to the pilot to get ahead of the storm. “Team One, on me.” Their blue indicators on his proximity map rapidly approached. “Wide echelon formation. Chase and destroy.” There were no more Coalition soldiers to shield, no Sol citizens to consider. No politics. No obstacles between him and his objective but black-eyed shriekers just waiting to have their shells cracked.  Malak hadn’t felt so good in months.

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