Barghest II – Chapter 18

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Timing

 

Year 2153 Day 006 Hour 0300

 Wormhole. Noun. A connection between two positions that crosses both space and time, e.g. Einstein-Rosen Bridge, Ellis Wormhole. The first traversable wormhole was discovered by Andrae-Scott-Zurek in 2029. It was too small for human use, but numerous probes studied the phenomena and its destination in another galaxy before its practical collapse in 2036.

 See Jane enter a wormhole. See Dick travel through normal space. Dick waits for many years, but Jane does not arrive. Jane has travelled through time and space, arriving centuries after Dick’s death. Whoops.

Malak waited a second longer than he needed to take his shot, and the Culler closed the distance and struck. A heavy talon hit his forearm, dragging his Klim down and directing the projectile into the dirt. Malak took the blow with an accepting grunt. The Culler shrieked, and another two aliens emerged from the swirling storm. They had taken his bait, converging to finish him off. He was not as vulnerable as he appeared.

Malak stepped back as the alien pushed forward. It dragged a free claw against his armor, looking for a weak point. Malak let the ceramic weave of his suit protect him and reached for his secondary melee weapon. He grasped the steel alloy handle and tugged sharply. The motion released the catch at his belt and flowed into an arcing swing that went around the Culler’s back and buried a narrow, flat blade at the intersection of two pieces of chitin. The alien’s legs buckled, scrabbling back and flailing uselessly to dislodge the weapon. Malak did not hesitate but fired two slag rounds into each of his advancing enemies – taking them both down. The one in front of him was still screaming, its chest chitin gaping in pain and anger, when he snap-kicked it in the abdomen. It fell onto its wound and was abruptly silenced. Split open from back to front. Malak rolled it over with his boot so that he could pull his tomahawk from the body.

“Team Leader, here.” He rumbled into his comm. The signal bounced off of the old tower he had just passed and was relayed to the Pale Horse. “Report.”

Crackling filled the silence while he waited for a response. “Papa-Hotel niner, here. Team Two has cleared the ship. First device is in route to us.”

“Status of others.”

“Second device under guard and awaiting transport. Possible location for third has been established, sending you coordinates now.”

A new map appeared on Malak’s display, and he noted that the heat blooms of the Cullers he and Team One had been tracking were continuing to move in the same direction. West – towards the third device. A subgroup had broken off and were moving northwest, angling away from the device and the rest of their kind. Malak brought up the kill stats for the mission. Easily three quarters of the aliens on the planet were confirmed dead or incapacitated. Malak needed the final device, but that almost-tingle in the center of his back was itching. He wanted to know what had the Cullers breaking from their primary goal. If there was something on that moon that interested them enough to draw their forces away from protecting the devices, it could be invaluable to the Legion.

“Team One.” Malak left the comm open to the Pale Horse while he addressed his soldiers. “Hanako, Waldeburg, Sephtis. On me.” Shadows moved through the storm to fan out behind and beside him. “Hanako, you have the rest.” He waited for her affirmative response and then sent her the map, pinging the likely location of the device. “Leave nothing alive.”

“Yes, sir.”

He wiped his tomahawk on the lower leg of his suit and re-sheathed it as he found his service knife – still buried in the hip of a dead Culler. Hanako had taken Team One fifty meters before he spoke to his smaller unit. “Follow. Assess objective. Leave one for questioning.” He drew a line on his map and sent the coordinates to the three Legionnaires remaining with him. “Wide spread. Keep up.” Then he began to run.

He could hear the grin in Waldeburg’s voice over the proximity comm. “Better leave more than one alive. I’m too excited to interrogate slowly.”

Malak ignored him, but he understood the sentiment. Adrenaline coursed through his blood, flushing his muscles and enhancing his reaction time. They quickly left the range of the old communications tower – and with it means to reach the Pale Horse, but it had little effect on his mood. Two devices taken. A third, the final, soon to be in his possession. And the enemy running away. It was like the old days, at the research station. Tracking. Hunting. The kill and the prize at the end. No outsiders in his way or consequences outside his control and training.

Three Cullers went down in front of his gun without him even pausing his stride. Hanako took a hit to the chest, but the damage was stabilized with her med kit and the female was running at his left again quickly. Waldeburg took two down. Sephtis hit another two and then called for Malak to halt.

“There’s tracks here.” He took an image with his tech and sent it to the others. “With this wind, they are already degrading. Maybe an hour old, at most.”

Malak signaled the others to slow to a walk and reviewed the tracks on his display. A vehicle, clearly Sol design, but past that he could not identify it. While he considered the possibility that there might have been unauthorized colonists or stranded traders – even illegal corporate speculation – on the moon, Sephtis was already analyzing the scene.

“Double axel. Light-armor SC ground transport. Frame’s been wrenched. Not carrying much weight.” Malak watched a live feed as Sephtis followed the tire pattern on the ground. It ended at a rough patch of rocks that made up the edge of a dry creek. Sephtis easily jumped the ten meters to the other side. “Picks up again here. He was moving fast.” Purple lightning cracked overhead, illuminating the disturbed ground.

“Could have been more than one,” Waldeburg suggested.

“Not enough weight.”

“Humans,” Hanako reminded them all hat Legionnaires were designed to be larger and denser than their makers. “Could be two – but not for long.” The fuzzy outline of her through the blowing dirt motioned them closer. “They are being followed.” Malak saw the first body at Hanako’s feet. Heavy rifle fire had entered in the lower right torso and exploded out the back, leaving a cone of gloppy blood and flesh that was already coated with pale dust. The second body had been grazed twice, but must have fallen hard. A sharp rock protruded through the jaw and disappeared into the head. Fifty meters northwest lay part of a Culler arm and talon, the end mutilated and torn as though it had been ripped off.

Malak ground his teeth together. There had been no lifeforms on the moon less than a week ago. His reconnaissance team had confirmed it. There were no ships in orbit and no engines on the surface, other than the Cullers’, that were large enough to register a heat signal. The Coalition could not seem to help but interfere where they were not wanted nor needed. They did not seem to care if they threw away human lives. Malak should not either.  He would have cursed the behavioral programming that drove him to protect the foolish species if it would have done any good. He could ignore the instinct – had on more than one occasion – but it wouldn’t be necessary if the weak little soldiers would stay on their ships and leave the killing to professionals. His irritation was pushed aside in favor of a larger question. Why would the Cullers be interested in one or two humans when their wormhole project was at stake?

“Orders stand,” he growled. “Move out.”

They moved, but saw only traces of the enemy, and a few more tracks from the Coalition transport. The storm grew worse around them, wind making it a challenge to keep their feet on the ground. Malak had the group drop down to a jog, then an agonizingly slow walk. The low gravity turned any forceful step into a jump, which could become a loss of control.

Heat signatures appeared on his proximity map before he could see any figures. Malak signaled a stop. His tech noted twenty-one lifeforms making a loose ring in the storm ahead. A smaller knot – too dense to count the number – revealed several were clumped slightly off center. Activity was minimal.

“Fan out.” The vibrations of his vocal cords were picked up by his transmitter and relayed to the others. “Form a perimeter. Weapons hot.” He watched on his display as his pack angled away from the targets and circled around before moving closer again. Once they were in position, he began to move. A secondary target, or perhaps a component for the devices that his researchers were not aware of, could be in play. If the Cullers had such a crucial element – he had to retrieve it. The humans, if that was what had been in the transport and if they were still alive, were unfortunate casualties. In the wrong place at the wrong time. No one life was worth what information could be gleaned from the success of his mission. And he had already lost too much time.

He regulated his breathing, stepping slowly, cautiously, so as not to trigger any sensors the Cullers might have with them. Scientists had never confirmed it, but Malak believed the theories that the aliens had a sort of echo-location or vibration-sense that kept them aware of their surroundings even in the dark. Even in a dust storm. The shriek of their language, garbled by the wind, reached him before he could make out their figures. On his right, two Cullers were hunched over electric lances, their weight shifting and bracing against the wind. They faced outward, as though guarding something. Or someone. Another Culler stood off to his left. It was far enough away that he could barely identify the shadowy outline. The sky was growing darker overhead; the debris in the air was thickening. Electrical discharges in the distance boomed loudly. A gust of wind buffeted him; his tech warned it exceeded two hundred kilometers per hour. Malak took three more sliding steps.

Ten meters directly ahead was the cluster of heat. Five Cullers stood over a sixth, sheltering the one on the ground from the wind. A boxy shape, more reflective than alien skin or dirt, was on the opposite side from Malak. He stepped closer, sinking lower until he was almost kneeling, trying to get a look at the metallic object. His eyes scanned over the enemy. Left was holding position – face turned away. Both guards on the right were equally distracted. The group straight ahead was focused with an intent he had never seen before. Malak glanced down to catch a glimpse of what had their attention.

Boots. Black. Worn. Small.

The image was so out of place, it took a moment for him to register what he was seeing. The Cullers had a human captive. A corpse captive, he corrected himself. And that was the truth, because there was no reason for Cullers to keep a human alive. They did not imprison or interrogate. They killed. Malak began painting targets on his display, planning his attack. His left hand wrapped around his tomahawk. A surprise throw would take one out of commission before they knew he was there, giving him time to close the distance. He could shoot at least two more before they were in melee range, but no more. He had to be careful that no stray fire would hit the technology behind them. He would be left with only three – one of them in a prone position. It was feasible. He slipped the tomahawk out and breathed a command,

“Go.”

His brain processed inputs from multiple sources as the small axe spun end over end through the air. His muscles tensed, flooded with tension before he sprang forward, Klim drawn. On his display, the rest of the team took action. Two Culler heat signatures on the opposite side of the circle went down as his tomahawk connected with thick, grey skin and he fired his first shot. Small black boots twitched, and he fired again. Two aliens fell to the ground before him, but the third jerked away, dodging the projectile. Malak snarled even as he aimed again and reached for his knife. His proximity comm activated and the translation software kicked in a beat behind the grating shrieks of the Cullers.

Kill it!

No! Take it!

Get it out!

The Culler on the ground reared back suddenly, and flung itself backward into Malak’s path. He had to twist and jump awkwardly to avoid the thrashing talons. Malak landed five meters away, bent over and digging his blade into the dirt to secure him to the ground and create a pivot point. He raised his weapon and fired – but it took his original target in the back. The thing was running from him. It jerked forward from the impact, but the hit was off center. Instead of going straight through the jaw, it had shattered the plating over the shoulder and buried into the stringy muscle there. The Culler did not stop. Two dead. One fled. Three remaining.

Enemy here!

The largest Culler was still on the ground, bent over the human and screaming – either too quickly for the software to translate or the sounds were of pain without meaning. Its lidless eyes flashed silver in the fading light. Its talons were folded back; fingers extended and clutching at its open chest cavity. The other two aliens were on him before he could toggle to rounds that would inflict more severe damage. The one on his left jumped and latched onto him, wrapping bony arms around his neck and digging the serrated inner edges of its talons into his back. His knife was trapped between their bodies, but his Klim was free. He fired as the Culler to his right lifted a spear and lunged. Malak grit his teeth and took the hit – letting the electricity pass through him and into the enemy trying to strangle him. The moment the shock relaxed, the alien clinging to him did as well. Malak refused his muscles any reprieve and forced himself to act. His knife twisted, taking advantage of the new centimeters between their bodies. He thrust in and up, finding the seam between its hip and abdomen and twisting. The Culler shrieked and shoved him away. Malak braced himself and stayed on his feet, but his knife was slippery with blood. Gelatinous fluid poured from the wound.

Garbled translations – Out! Out! No! We serve-! – were mixed up with the screams and shrieks of aliens and the howl of the wind. Malak had no time to mute his tech. He fired a slag round, the projectile pushing the enemy on his right back as it was shaking off the first glancing hit. It was mortally wounded, but still advancing. Two more emerged from the blowing dust as he turned to face them. He couldn’t see further than an arm’s length away. It was difficult to aim and plan, as the lighter Cullers were effected far more by the wind – being pulled unpredictably out of reach by a strong gust before assaulting again. Malak missed twice before holstering his Klim and moving in again with his knife.

His foot snapped out, catching a knee and sending one to the ground and then he was grappling with the last uninjured enemy from the group. He could feel a talon digging into his back, between his shoulder blades. The Culler he had hit but not killed was on him. Under his skin that almost-shiver tensed, clenching. A warning. An instinct. His knife drove in, hitting the nerve cluster, but it was too late. He wasn’t fast enough. Behind him, the Culler had already pierced his suit. Broken the skin. It was digging into muscle and in another moment would breach the space between his vertebrae and sever his spinal cord.

Then the weight was gone. Malak fired again, into the last enemy around him, before turning to finish off the one that had cut into his armor. No alien stood there. A human. A Coalition soldier too small – too weak, was panting and squinting through the dust. Her face was streaked with blood. Black hair, coated with grime, whipped around her. Her helmet was off, clenched in her hand. He examined the broken faceplate and dented exterior while he checked his tech. It was rebooting after the electrical charge. Malak took a step forward, ashamed that his self-control slipped and he whispered his surprise into the confines of his own helmet.

“Hn.” Her helmet was dented, and covered with a sticky residue of pinkish-grey blood and skin. Flakes of chitin were embedded in the black surface. The Culler on the ground, its talon still stained with Malak’s blood and ripped threads of black ceramic fiber, had a crushed head. One entire side was caved in, the plating splintered and oozing. On that side the eye had burst, the bony socket around it crushed. He looked back to the soldier in disbelief.  His tech came online as she spoke.

“The base…air support…” Her voice was thready and her breathing fast. Oxygen levels on the moon were lower than standard – too low for human aerobic activity. His display alerted him that all of his team were still alive, and only a few Cullers remained that way. The Legionnaires would take care of matters quickly. He turned his sensors to the woman. Her own suit was not functioning, so he could determine only her external vitals. Breathing irregular. Temperature dropping. She favored one leg; the cloth over her calf was blackened and frayed around a burned hole that exposed charred skin. One glove was missing, the other shredded and caked with blood that smeared across the helmet she held. He stepped closer.  Her eyes were dilated so wide they were nearly black. Blood, thick and dark, was dripping sluggishly from her nose, staining her upper lip and mouth. She lifted one foot, but didn’t manage to clear the corpse at her feet. She tripped. Automatically he moved to catch and stabilize her, but she gripped his forearm with surprising strength.

“Help them,” she wheezed. His comms came online.

“Clear,” Waldeberg stated cheerfully.

Sephtis’s response was more professional. “Clear. One bagged and ready for transport.”

Hanako elaborated, “Clear. There is another comm tower here, non-active.”

Malak shook off the human and turned on his heel. He had come for the devices, and had them all in hand, as well as a new acquisition. The metallic object was under a meter square, with a twisted band around the center to carry it by. It had no obvious openings, nor did it give off a heat signature. He scanned it quickly, ignoring the shuffling steps behind him.

“Damnit.” The expletive lost some impact when her voice faded out on the last syllable. A small part of him wondered how she had ended up so alone – so far from a Coalition presence. That was information to be considered at a more convenient time. Her status was irrelevant to his mission. He buried the concern and focused on more pressing matters. Malak picked up the box. It was heavier than it looked – at least thirty kilograms. It was useless to even speculate what could be inside without more sensitive equipment to take readings. There was always the possibility that it was a trap. A bomb, or some other weapon intended for the Legion to collect so that it could destroy them. The possibility was low, given the secrecy of the Cullers’ objectives and Malak’s own blackout status.

The human lunged – more likely fell – towards him and another gust of wind swept her legs out from under her. Malak hefted the box with one hand, holding it against his hip. He snatched her elbow with his right hand, pulling her in close and forcing her feet back to the ground. Hanako was requesting orders over the comm, but Malak focused on the human soldier. She looked close to death. Blood smeared across her face. Eyes glassy, the thin ring of blue almost swallowed up by the pupils. Temperatures and atmosphere would result in death from exposure for a human like her. Stranded. Alone. Skin bare to the elements.

“You…came on a ship. Call it.” When he didn’t respond she gripped his shoulder and the chest pocket on his suit. She pulled, trying to force him down to her level. He did not have to put any effort into remaining unaffected. Her breathing was growing shallower, but her expression was fierce. Her voice was pointed and sharp like a blade behind the ear. “Call. In. Support.”

Humans died. Every day. Every minute. Some by Malak’s own hand. One more soldier that succumbed to the fragility of her DNA and the stupidity of her government would not affect him or the Legion in the slightest. He turned away and began to walk. She stumbled, unable to keep up and her nails dragged against his suit, catching on the torn seams as she fell behind. The crackle of an electrical weapon made him pause and glance over his shoulder. She had picked up a Culler lance and somehow activated it. The blood from her nose was running freely, spilling onto her chin and splattering against her collar. Her skin had gone grey from blood loss and oxygen deprivation.

“Call in an air strike.” She sucked in a deep breath. “Support the base – or – I’ll…kill…you…” She collapsed, eyes rolling back in her head and a slurred sound.”Mmmm.” He stood over the heap of her body for a moment. The spear rolled out of her open hand and shut down.

“Major,” Hanako’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Your orders.”

“Rendezvous with Runa One. Double time.”

Malak hefted the box onto one shoulder, prepared to jog. If there were any more Cullers in the vicinity, the unconscious soldier would not stand a chance. Assuming she didn’t die of hypothermia or blood loss before she was discovered by anyone. Friend or Foe.  He stepped over her and brought up the route to the transport ship on his proximity map. His back no longer itched with the shiver that had plagued him for days, and he had what he came for.

The Coalition had no concern for their soldiers; a creation like him should have even less.

He growled into the comm line, “Move out.”

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