Barghest II – Chapter 6

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Year 2152, Day 129, Hour 1000

Ministry of Defense. In 2084, with the ratification of the Sol Confederation, the authority and responsibility of Earth’s defense was removed from the then defunct United Nations to the new Sol Confederation. The Minister of Defense is appointed by the President and affirmed by Congress. Undeniably the most powerful member of the Presidential Cabinet, the Minister of Defense directly oversees the Sol Coalition, led by the General of the Army and the Fleet Admiral, and the Sol Intelligence Service.

Twelve years before Malak had been removed from an artificial womb, a small corporation made a bold foray from asteroid mining to terraforming. Their attempt to establish outposts for trading and colonization had been a financial disaster. When the private sector turned out to be uninterested in the product, the company had turned to the military who picked up the best of the offered sites at a bargain. The locations that couldn’t be sold were written off in bankruptcy.

Thomas had purchased one such site using black funds for the purpose of establishing a base of operations for Keres Legion. It was the only remaining terraforming project that had appropriately high levels of gravity and oxygen and a climate that, while survivable, was unattractive to humans. Legally, the tiny moon was owned by a non-profit corporation that had a mission statement of “protecting current and future natural phenomena for scientific and historical purposes”. In reality, Malak had set foot in the derelict trading post in a barely breathable atmosphere in 2136 with orders to do what was necessary to make an undetectable base of operations for the newly formed Legion. Extensive excavations and a few billion credits had produced results under schedule. Twenty-two years later he stood outside the only structure on the surface, carefully regulating his breathing in the thin atmosphere, and watching as the Lead Belly lifted off. Thomas stood at his side, stamping his feet to keep warm.

“Not all of us find negative temperatures invigorating, Malak. Can we move this inside?”

Malak nodded and picked up the Colonel’s small bag. He traveled light. There was no need to pack much as his quarters at the base were fully furnished and stocked with uniforms and necessities. Upon entering the building, the pre-recorded greeting started.

“Welcome to JII-8332-4C. This moon has historical significance in the creation of the Milky Way Galaxy. Your interest in the geological timeline of planetary accretion is to be commended. Please listen as the exciting story of-”

The Falcon on duty rolled out from the office area and pressed a command behind the main counter. Malak nodded to her as he walked through the displays on planetary formation and gravitational interactions of solar systems. They were all accurate, technical, and designed to be as uninteresting as possible. A museum and historical marker made a good cover for a secret military instillation. Despite being listed in plain sight on maps of the sector, Malak could count on one hand the number of uninvited guests he had received.

“You know,” Thomas said as they walked toward the storage room and the lift hidden there, “I actually recall signing the order to have that tourist crap recorded, but I don’t think I have ever listened to it all the way through,”

“It is informative, if a bit outdated now.” Malak shrugged at Thomas’ surprised stare. “We had a colony transport stop here several years ago. They needed to cool their engine for some minor repairs. The children with them played through the whole tour several times.” Thomas was still staring. “It was in my regular report on base security.”

“I remember the report, but I don’t think there was anything in there about you wandering through the fake display we set up to hide the base while it was full of civilians.”

“That would have been counterproductive.” Malak pressed the control and waited a moment for the computer to recognize his palm print and request voice authorization. “Malak, 2116-K6B3-0272M, Alpha-Niner-niner-zeta.” The lift doors opened and he stepped inside with Thomas right behind him. “Almaut spent a great deal of time watching the security feeds.”  Malak did not mention how many of the Legionnaires had stopped in at Almaut’s office to listen and watch the humans wander around the little surface station. It had brought up a great many concerns for him at the time, given the extreme interest many of his pack had taken in the humans. More than one lethal soldier had been fascinated, asking questions and studying the children closely. Malak wasn’t exactly satisfied with how the matter had been settled, but it was done and nothing good would come of discussing it again with Thomas.

“As long as they didn’t tell their friends about what a great time they had here, it’s fine.” He removed the gloves and protective coat that had been necessary for the short walk on the surface. He sighed, shifting gears. “We have more important issues to discuss. Not the least of which is the SIS.”

The lift doors opened again and two Legion soldiers were waiting in the corridor. Malak handed over the bag to one of them and motioned for Thomas to do the same with his coat. “I am scheduled to perform a visual inspection.”

“I need the exercise, after that trip.” Thomas fell into step beside Malak, who shortened his stride to allow the human to walk at a more leisurely pace. “I’m concerned that I haven’t heard anything from our friends in the Sol Intelligence Service for several months.”

If it was a report from one of his own people, Malak would have simply waited for them to continue. Thomas liked verbal responses, even when they weren’t necessary, and he was Malak’s superior officer. “That is a change.”

Thomas snorted, “After these last few years where they have been dogging our every step, I should be grateful for the reprieve, but I can’t imagine there is anything good coming from this new tactic. What’s going on here?” Thomas paused at a corridor that had been blocked off for construction. “Isn’t this a future expansion wing? Are you planning on having guests?”

“No,” Malak answered in his usual cool tone. “These will be the upgraded quarters you approved.”

“You don’t need any more, do you?” Thomas had a hard look in his eyes and an unreadable expression. Malak resorted to dissecting his scent to determine his mood. Tired. Irritated. There was no hint of anger or anything unusual.

“No.”

“Good.” Thomas started moving again and Malak fell into step. “The last twenty months have been a political tug-of-war with Admiral Tsang. The SIS has his ear, and they have been sweet-talking him so hard I’m surprised he doesn’t have cavities.  Every time I turn around his staff is throwing up roadblocks for Batma or sending over inquiries on action reports. And don’t even get me started on this new Chairman for the Budget Committee. If she thinks she can get a better position in her party by stirring up the black budgets, she has a hell of a lot more coming her way than just me. That is a shit storm no Congressional Representative is ready for.”

“You feel Congress will pull our funding?”

Thomas snorted, “That is the least of my concerns. Special Forces allocations are all lumped together, and the more legitimate divisions under General Pool will be crying foul before anyone really gets to our money. Having decorated veterans from the Raiders sitting in a hearing will make it difficult to deny budget requests. Those soldiers will do the public work there, but it does mean our spending needs to stay thin until next fiscal year. I don’t want anything unusual to stand out to anyone that might be looking.”

“Would the Raiders side with the SIS, if they knew of the existence of the Legion?” Malak turned another corner and stepped out onto a narrow balcony. The space was enclosed in plastiglass, and looked out over a three story botanical system. It had been under construction for several years, with improvements being made whenever he had the funding available. It was nearly finished, but the last few stages would have to wait given Thomas’ concerns.

“This looks good. Seems like it is already being put to use, too.” Thomas pointed out the few soldiers and researchers wandering through the vegetation. “It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”

“It is the regulation 35 square meters per individual.”

“I wasn’t questioning you, Malak,” Thomas responded mildly. “I was just saying the space was designed well. Let Laureaux know his people did a good job.”  Malak nodded and they continued in a looping route towards the warren of offices, conference and work rooms, and research labs that made up the core of the base. “The SIS wouldn’t even cause me one night of missed sleep, if it weren’t for their sudden silence. General Pool has supported the Legion from the beginning – she likes results and you demonstrate that. She is also particularly pleased with the reenlistment numbers, which have shown a significant jump since the rumors about the Legion began to spread. Soldiers have developed this idea of a bunch of cowboys out in the dark blowing up whole planets just to kill Cullers. Not exactly what we had in mind after VK10, but it gets the job done.”

“Hn.” Malak didn’t need to voice his disagreement, he had already done so on multiple occasions. Humans might be reinvigorated to fight based on stories that were almost entirely fiction of a special forces group slaughtering the enemy. He doubted they would feel the same if they knew Keres Legion were not also humans.

Thomas scrubbed one hand across his face. “Pool is behind us, but she didn’t become the General of the Army by playing her hand openly. The GA may yet shut us down if she has another alternative that gets results and keeps the Director of the SIS from camping outside her office. She’ll keep her options open for now, but I’m worried that if the SIS shows her actionable intelligence that discredits us she may act on it.”

“You said she is loyal to Batma.” Malak didn’t growl, but he wanted to. He could not abide the political maneuvering that General Batma and, more frequently, Thomas had to perform. Although he had taken on responsibilities far in excess of his training as a field soldier, he could imagine that any meeting where an ally betrayed him to his enemies – physical or political – would end in a throat being ripped out. Malak did not particularly like the feel of human skin under his nails.

“Loyalty has its limits. We share the same goals, and Pool will do whatever it takes to end this war – which is why we have her support now. But she has enemies too. And her first loyalty is to the Coalition and the Confederation. We may even have to submit to an on-site visit. Goddamn brass.” The last part was muttered, more out of resignation than actual anger.

“Your orders?”

“You keep doing the same. Track the devices, find out for certain what the hell they do. Kill Cullers. I’ll deal with the SIS.” They reached a more heavily trafficked corridor and both fell silent. Soldiers and researchers stopped to salute as the two men walked. “How is the new assistant working out?”

“Fine.” Malak did not say anything else, even when Thomas chuckled. The colonel had brought a clerical staffer with him on his last visit, and then left the man behind, saying that Malak should be able to catch up on his administrative duties with some help. While it was true that Malak despised filling out forms and reports, and the assistant had proved excellent at taking care of such issues, it was also true that he couldn’t meet Malak’s eye and stank of fear if they had to be alone for more than two minutes. For the time being, Malak was willing to avoid his office whenever possible if that meant paperwork disappeared while he was gone. As a result, he had made a lot of “visual inspections” of the base and conducted more than one meeting walking through corridors.

As they stepped into the outer office, the assistant stood, accidentally dropping his tablet and erasing at least a paragraph of information. Malak held back a wince, grateful he would not be the one reentering that report.

“Colonel, sir,” he saluted, then dropped his eyes, “Major.”

“At ease, Staff Sergeant,” Thomas replied. “Send the monthly stats to my office, and see if you can find me a cup of coffee, please.”

“Yes, sir.” He moved at a near jog to circle around Malak and escape.  Thomas rolled his eyes and stepped into his own office, ignoring Malak’s. He picked up their conversation again.

“I don’t know what the Director has been eating these days, but SIS is growing a real pair of balls. They submitted a formal request for mission logs relating to Legion activity. It’s a bold move, but one Batma has been able to block – so far. What I can’t figure out is why they did that, practically announcing their own private feud with us, and then fell silent for the past couple of months. It doesn’t add up, and that gives me a ulcer. I don’t like ulcers, Malak. The pills give me gas. Maybe I am getting too old to deal with this shit.” He sat down at his desk and ran his hand over his face again. “When I started out as a foot soldier, I shot Cullers, and that felt like I was doing something good. Then I became an officer, and I took men and women into battle, and I think a few of them lived because of me. That was good. And the Legion.” He sighed, and leaned back in his chair. Malak watched the sheen of the overhead light move across his hair. It was more silver than blonde, and the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, across his forehead, were deeper. “I didn’t trust you when I first found out what SAR was doing on the Hellhound Project, I never made any secret about that.”

“Rottweilers, you called us.”

“I –“ Thomas blinked. “I guess I did. But I got over it. Whether I agreed with the methods or not – the Legion has done good. You have done good, Malak. I’ve been proud to serve with you.”

Malak could smell something in the air. It was salty and a bit tart. The Colonel’s face relaxed, for just a moment, and he truly looked old. Then the moment passed and he was hard like armor plating and sharp like a service knife – just as always. “I won’t let this bullshit end that. Not when we have come so far.”

“Hn.” Malak agreed.

“To hell with it. Enough about politics – tell me about something useful.”

“The beacons SAR gave to the Raiders went online two weeks ago. Skoll has been following, and Kapziel is standing by to hit targets.”

“Chomping at the bit, more like,” Thomas snorted.

Malak ignored him. “Almaut’s plan to leak the maps to a known criminal has been effective.”

“No one noticed that you had tampered with the information?”

Malak shook his head. “No. And Giltine has had no difficulty in tracking the maps. She went silent this morning. I am expecting a report in the next hour.”

“Giltine is not what I would call an Oscar-worthy actress, Malak. Do you think she can pull this off?”

“Intelligence that is bought with blood is held in higher regard.”

“Yes,” Thomas answered dryly. “And while it is nice to know you listened to at least some of my lessons, the question remains, can she make it look like she is trying her hardest to stop the deal, without actually doing so?”

“She knows her mission.”

A soft knock preceded the assistant into Thomas’ office. “Sirs, a communication is coming in.” He tapped in a command on his bracer and a wall display flared to life. Malak gave his voice code as the staffer excused himself.

“Malak,” Giltine’s low, smoky voice was broadcast into the office before any image appeared. The display focused, short bands of subspace interference rippling across the picture. Malak saw what Giltine saw. Her helmet display, with the stats of her team and area map. An ammo indicator. Her own health status – she was wounded, but not seriously.

“Go,” Malak rumbled.

“Targets have taken the data, the go-between was terminated. We have lost-” Weapons fire cut off her report and Malak forced himself to stand still while he watched her return fire. She issued orders – the same he would have given in her place – and took down a knot of enemy combatants that were trying to cut off her exit.  It had become a large part of his responsibility, watching missions and redirecting his pact from the safety of his office. It ate at him, burned like acid under his skin to see them in harm’s way and be unable to do anything but trust their skills. Worse than his thwarted instinct to protect was his envy. He vastly preferred charging into an enemy stronghold over strategy meetings and budget decisions. His hands flexed involuntarily.

Giltine was running down a corridor, the pounding of her boots muffled by the soft surfaces of the Culler ship. “Hanako, Taisto! Left flank!” The two soldiers, nearly indistinguishable in their black armor and opaque helmets, moved into position.  Hanako, slightly taller, dropped one knee to the ground and planted her opposite foot. Taisto approached her at a dead sprint. His boot hit her thigh and springboarded him up into the tangled mass of cabling and organic ductwork high overhead. Hanako fired a careful burst of rounds into the darkness. Screeches, painful to Malak even across hundreds of light-years and comms software, echoed from the corridor. Taisto’s service knife connected with the ceiling, slicing through a meter of infrastructure before he landed gracefully in front of Hanako – his heavy rifle aimed and firing. The ship shuddered around them. Plasma, glowing bright yellow in the heat vision on Giltine’s camera, spurted from the severed cables. A door dropped into place, cutting of the corridor centimeters from Taisto’s rifle.

Giltine’s head snapped forward just in time to impact her helmet with a Culler talon that had come at her from the opposite side. The helmet held, barely, but it stunned the alien which took a step back. Giltine fired with her rifle at point blank range into the chest plate. The recoil off of the chitin pushed her back a full meter, but the resulting hole in the Culler was satisfying. She made a snarling sound of approval. “Retreat!” Giltine barked at her team. ”Kill anything that moves.”

Giltine began her report once they were moving again. “We lost two when we breached.” Malak felt the words like a physical blow. Two. That made nine in total. Nine soldiers, nine pack members, which had been killed under his command. That left only 493 legionnaires. Fewer, if Giltine made even a single mistake. His nails bit into his palms and he ground his teeth together to keep from speaking in anger.

“The beacon was damaged, and is non-functional. But the enemy remains unaware of its existence. We have also recovered some new tech- Gunnar! Down!” Gunnar dropped into a summersault and both he and Giltine fired into a pack of Cullers. The lead alien cut through the air where Gunnar’s neck had been only moments before, then found his own head removed from his body. Hanako was dripping with ichor, but she slid across the floor, using the slickness to her advantage. Three Cullers fell in rapid succession as their hip tendons were cut. Another legionnaire took them out with shots to the chest. Malak glanced at Giltine’s map. She was another hundred meters from her ship. The six soldiers left to guard her exit were still intact, but they were under heavy fire.

“This is going to be tight, Malak.” Giltine was breathing heavily, her low voice threaded with grim intent. “There were twice as many Cullers on the ship as we anticipated. The intel was bad.” She rounded a corner and the rest of the team came into view. Forty meters away, six soldiers were in position, defending the hull breech that led to the Pale Horse. Beyond them, closing quickly, was a seething mass of Cullers. They filled the corridor and screamed, clicking and screeching in fury. The map showed a heat mass growing behind Giltine as well. Cullers. Hundreds of them. There was almost no chance that her team would make it out alive.

“Blow it,” Malak ordered.

“The maps will be lost-”

“Not worth it,” he interrupted her. “Blow the ship.”

Giltine snarled, but a frag grenade was activated and she launched it in a perfect spiral as she ran. It detonated in the center of the Cullers, sending limbs scattering down the corridor. “Team Two, fall back!” The soldiers at the breech point disappeared back into the Pale Horse and Giltine formed a perimeter to allow the remaining soldiers, some wounded, some carrying the dead, to retreat. She set detonation charges in the corridor and tossed another grenade to keep the aliens from getting too close.

“Lieutenant,” Giltine’s pilot broke into the comm, “We have another ship closing. Culler. Class Red.”

“Excellent,” Giltine grunted. “Go in five!”  She hit the timer and fired off two rounds into a Culler that had broken free of the mess of destroyed corpses. It carried one of the electric spears that Malak had seen on VK10. Giltine dodged the swipe of a talon, but the spear impacted her armor. The resulting shock cut off the transmission abruptly.

The office was silent for several long moments. Malak waited for the communication to come back in. He breathed deeply, once. Twice. In. Out. Nine dead. Nine of his family, his pack that could never be replaced. None but those on Keres Station and the Legion would ever know their names. Giltine was the best of them. She was his challenger, his strongest, most intelligent beta. She was destined to lead the Legion once he was gone. Not to die before him. Not yet. He could not allow that number to be ten. Nine was too many. Ten was unthinkable.

“The pack comes first, or I’ll take your place.”

It had been a promise all those years ago, when Malak became the alpha for the twenty-seven series. Giltine had meant it. The weight that was always on his shoulders, on his mind, now dragged down his heart and lungs until he was certain his blood had stopped flowing. He could not loose another.

“Malak,” the communication cracked back to life and Hanako’s face appeared on the display wall. Her short, dark hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat. There was blood smeared across her cheek. Her helmet was sitting on the control panel in front of her, dripping grey-pink Culler blood onto the surface. Green eyes met his. Her voice cracked, “We lost her.”

***

Almaut gave his assessment to his terminal, his eyes staring unseeing at data and reports rather than look at his Alpha. “I can’t reactivate it. Not remotely.”

“We don’t leave our own,” Smierc was Almaut’s opposite. Where he slouched as if the life had been drained from him, she paced the room, cracking her knuckles and biting off her words with a promise of vengeance. “We find her, we bring her back, even if it’s just- even-”

“Keep the line open,” Malak ordered quietly. “Pull back the patrols.”

“You can’t!” Smierc was in front of him in an instant, all gleaming eyes and bared teeth. “Not yet, she’s still out there, we could-’

“No.”

With a snarl of rage she threw herself at Malak. Her long red hair swung out and tangled around her collar, and she managed to land a solid blow to his jaw before he clamped his arms around her. He swept out her legs and threw her to the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of her lungs. Smierc would have jumped back up; even without her armor on she was strong enough to withstand a few hits. Malak couldn’t let that happen. She was out for blood, out to replace her Alpha. And it was all done in grief. His boot connected with her windpipe and something cracked. Her efforts to escape, to attack, stilled, but her eyes were wet with unshed tears and her mouth twisted with anger.

“Enough death, for today.” He waited until she was nearly out of air before he let up. He squatted beside her, helping her to sit up and brushing back her hair carefully, but speaking to Almaut. “Pull back the patrols, but keep that ship marked. I want the description out to every ship in the fleet. Make sure the Raider squadrons get the intel also. Anyone who finds it, notifies us immediately.”

“We have a couple of ships that aren’t scheduled for missions or repairs for-”

“Enough,” Malak repeated. He stood again, his spine as straight and hard as ever. “Set up a meeting for tomorrow morning. I want everything in place on the sites we selected. If a Culler gets within a light year of one of those planets, I want to know.”

“Yes, sir,” Almaut replied. His voice sounded as wet as Smierc’s face. She held her bruised trachea in one hand and pulled out a chair with the other. She sat, heavily.

Within days, Malak hoped to see activity in the Culler site that his people were watching. Soon, the aliens would move on the data in the stolen maps. They would select a planet to begin building their devices on. When the enemy moved in with their tech, the Legion would be there to kill them and take the devices before they were activated. It should have felt like victory. It did not.

He did not go back to his office, preferring to ignore the fearful assistant and Thomas’ knowing sympathy. Malak did not want or need sympathy. Giltine was his responsibility. He had failed her. The pack should have come first, but he had let their safety come second to a mission objective. If he had made his decision a few moments earlier, Giltine would have made it to the Pale Horse and the Cullers would be a charred ruin floating in dark space. She was gone, in all likelihood dead, and it was his fault. He knew that, accepted it, had felt the responsibility for the deaths of Legionnaires before. Hers was heavier, harder. Giltine was his beta. His second. She was not as close to him as Smierc whom he had grown with since they first woke. She was not as easy to get along with as Kapziel who knew the heavy burden of leading an entire series, who had the deaths of one of his own directly on his hands. She was not as brilliant as Almaut or easygoing as Skoll. But she was one of his. The most tenacious, the most committed. The most like him, perhaps.

He found himself retracing his steps from the day before, but rather than stop to look out over the garden, he turned away from the balcony toward the expansion wing.  No construction was happening on that shift, so the corridor was empty as he swept aside the heavy plastic that draped over the entrance. The space had been designed for twenty-four single person quarters, but had never been completed. Originally, Thomas had ordered it prepared because he thought Malak would need more than one platoon of Falcons offering support services at the base. Malak argued against bringing in any more personnel than were absolutely necessary. Construction had been put on hold and never resumed, until Giltine had approached him. One of the males from the twenty-eight series had taken a laser cannon to the leg. He was in the infirmary for months growing new tissue and grew close to his doctor. Malak had known, of course, everyone noticed when a Legionnaire and a Falcon became intimate. It was so rare that it tended to draw a great deal of interest.

As always, Malak’s response to Giltine old news was that as long as it did not affect performance and both parties consented, it was none of his business. Mentally, he had added his tally of romantic dalliances up to five. It was more than he had ever wanted to deal with, and he only hoped none of them ended less than amicably. A transfer of personnel was out of the question, no matter how feelings got riled. Then Giltine had surprised him.

“The human is expecting.”

“Falcon,” he reminded her absently. “Expecting what?” It actually took a few moments of her raised eyebrows for him to switch gears from expecting a promotion or expecting mediation to Expecting. “Ho-” He clenched his jaw shut on the obvious question.

A smirk came and went lightning fast on Giltine’s face. “They will need personal quarters. Larger ones.”

He felt he had recovered from his surprise in a respectable amount of time. It was one of the many moments that he was grateful Giltine stood beside him. She had cut through the questions of how and why and the statistics that showed possibilities of such an outcome were near zero to deal with the issue at hand. The reality of the situation.

“Pack comes first.”

He had broken the news to Thomas and managed to stoically endure a long lecture on propriety, some inventive curses, and threats of demotion, but when Thomas dared to suggest that things might be halted before they went any further, Malak had taken his superior officer by the throat. Pack came first. There was also a compromise, suggested by Giltine, to protect against future issues, but the Legion had soon become invigorated with the idea that there might be more. That perhaps, there might be something they had been born for other than death.

But Giltine was gone now. And his responsibilities would soon increase. The new burden would be heavier, for all its small size. This child would not be a soldier, not a creation from a lab with a purpose built right into its genes. It was something new. Not fully human. Not research subject. Giltine had been far more excited by the possibilities than Malak. Malak had been cautious. And, he admitted to himself, afraid. He could not protect the lives of those bred and trained to kill, so he could not possibly protect one whose future was completely unknown. Nine – now ten – of his people lost, and one life growing in their place.

He stared at the walls around him. Where twenty-four units had been planned, walls had been raised for eight larger quarters. Eight, because Giltine pointed out that every other permanent Coalition installment had room for families. Because as the Falcons were promoted, they would have the opportunity to bring spouses or children from the Sol system – assuming they could pass security clearances. Because she said if she had to spend another twenty or forty years serving at Keres base she might want a larger room too.

Giltine wouldn’t have to be concerned about that. Twenty or forty years had turned out to be two months. Her poorly disguised reasoning for the opportunity to live near the life that would be born soon was easily seen through. She had put pack first. He had gotten his pack killed. To protect the humans. To protect Sol and the other systems that his creators had spread to in their century long effort to destroy the Culler threat. To kill an enemy that might have cared nothing for him or his life – if he didn’t represent the best defense for humanity. Giltine was dead. She had died for the humans and their war.

Malak snarled and slammed his fist into the exposed framework of a new wall. It crumpled under his strength.

She died because he was too slow to make a decision. To act.

He pulled back and punched again, driving his knuckles right through the thin metal strut and into the next one.

She died because he hadn’t prepared them – hadn’t gotten them reliable intel.

The snarl became a roar and he plowed through the entire wall. It bent and snapped, one metal brace following after another until her had destroyed the entire corridor and buried his hand in the exterior wall at the end. The concrete was cracked. The spider web pattern radiated out from the impact point. Blood began to drip from his hand, filtering into the cracks and tracing them with dark red. The sound of a boot behind him pulled him out of his rage. Malak sniffed the air. Thomas. He didn’t say anything, but straightened slowly and pulled his hand back. The bones were broken, the skin split and embedded with concrete dust and gravel.

“What will you do now? Or did you want to punch through another wall before you put it behind you?”

The words were callous, and they were intended to be, Malak knew. He was the Alpha, the leader, he did not get the luxury of indecision. Of rage. Of uncontrolled action. He smoothed his face, waiting until he was sure it was a blank mask before turning around. Thomas looked smaller, more fragile, then he had only the day before. Malak, not for the first time, considered how easy it would be to kill him. To cut ties with the Coalition. To take his pack beyond the reach of humanity and out of the Cullers line of fire. But there was a new member of his family growing – and it would be more human than not. And Thomas had nothing to do with Giltine’s death. That weight belonged solely to Malak, and the SIS that had collected the intelligence on the Culler ship and its defenses.

“The plan remains the same. Follow the maps. Wait for the device. Kill the enemy.’

“Is that all?” Thomas turned as Malak approached and they walked out into the main corridor together.

He did not speak about the other things on his mind. Destroy the SIS. Free the Legion from the Coalition.

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