Barghest II – Chapter 8

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Shoot and Scoot

Year 2152, Day  225, Hour 1500     

InterStellar Gravity (ISG) Drive: Primary long-range engines in human ships. Reverse engineered from similar technology in Culler ships, the newest models of ISG Drives allow ships to cross Close Space Near Sol in 2-3 days, and the local arm of the Milky Way in 5-6 weeks (assuming a straight path).  ISG Drives require precise calculations regarding the gravitational pulls of objects in space and miscalculations can disrupt operation, resulting in sudden stops, hull breeches, and loss of life.  Sublight engines have a maximum speed of less than 1% of ISG Drives.

 Thick liquid sprayed across Malak’s helmet, completely obscuring his vision. His nose was full of the saccharine-sweet rot of Culler flesh. The shriek of the alien language and the whir of talons cutting through thick atmosphere was warning enough for him to drop to the ground.  He rolled forward, accepting the impact of bony legs against his ribs and making his enemy stumble forward. Malak held his breath, listening for the sound of movement. The sticky mucus on his faceplate was curtesy of the alien on the ground behind him – its abdomen lanced open from hip to shoulder. Malak had lost his service knife to give that wound, the blade had become lodged in chitin and he could not remove it before his current opponent attacked. The first Culler was still struggling, its limbs flailing against the hard rock ground, but the sounds were growing weaker. Malak circled, crouching, unwilling to waste the motion to wipe off his helmet.

His Klim was out of ammunition; alien corpses were thick on the ground because of it. Grenades had been in low supply for two days, so what few remained were reserved for strategic hits. An hour into the fight he had lost the use of his right arm. The tech in his suit warned him that the limb needed immediate medical attention, but Malak did not have time to do more than inject a field coagulant and pain suppressant. Weaponless, with only one hand, he wished he had taken the tomahawk from his training room. Even a blunted weapon could kill – if he held it.

The whisper of a footstep on rock focused his attention on his right. Through his helmet he could not make out more than a shadow against the distant sun in the sky, but it was enough. Malak surged forward, using the strength of his legs to slam his right shoulder into the Culler. Talons raked across his back, but without adequate force to cut through his armor. The impact sent them both falling over a low ridge with the Culler on the bottom. Malak locked his thighs around its chest, taking the impact of his knees against the rock with gritted teeth. The kinetic plasma in his suit absorbed only enough energy to keep his joints from shattering. His left hand gripped the closest slimy arm. For all of their strength and natural armor, Cullers were thin, bony creatures. Malak’s fingers wrapped all the way around the limb; the shoulder joint was tucked into the space between his thumb and first finger. Fully leveraging the muscles of his back and legs, Malak threw his weight against the joint and it snapped. Shrieks of pain rang in his ears, but he did not stop. With a twist and a hard yank, he pulled the arm free and used the Culler’s talon to stab it in the chest.

Silence was a relief to his ears. During the pause in battle he cleaned off his faceplate and refocused on his tech. Two more Legionnaires in his half of the company had fallen and been hauled back to the ship for treatment. Sensors reported no Culler activity in his area, except for the few individuals his people were quickly finishing off. He opened a comm line.

“Report.”

“Hold.” There was the distant sound of a shriek, gunfire, and then an explosion before Almaut spoke again. “I have thirteen wounded. One critical, but this side is clear.”

“Assessment?”

“They hit us hard – I’d say with everything they had. There wasn’t anyone left to retreat. With the shots Af made to their propulsion systems, they are grounded and on a skeleton crew.”

“Regroup here,” Malak set a ping on his area map and sent it to Almaut. “We are taking the ship.”

There was a moment of silence before Almaut responded. “You want me to bring another med kit along with more ammunition?”

Malak bit off a growl. He was not in the mood for Almaut’s concern, no matter how he disguised it with humor. “Forty rounds, each. You have twenty minutes.” He overrode the medical system in his suit to make certain neither his lieutenant nor any other member of his pack would be checking his vitals and worrying over him. His knees protested loudly as he got to his feet and climbed up the incline to where he had abandoned his knife.  If he had been anyone else, he would have spent a few minutes letting exhaustion sweep over him. He would have said – or at least thought – several choice words for the leadership that had concocted the strategy that put him on a barren asteroid two months from CSNS. He would have swore and kicked the Culler corpse that had damaged his arm. He might have ordered his people back to the ship. He might have disobeyed orders. He might have left the Coalition to fight their war alone.

Malak worked his knife free with a twist and a jerk, his boot providing leverage against mangled chitin. He wiped it against his leg and re-sheathed it. Gravity on the asteroid was slightly lower than Earth Standard; all of his joints and limbs seemed to be working, with the exception of his right arm, but the true test would be when his bones and muscles were subjected to more force. The rest of his squad was slowly regrouping. They reloaded, administered meds, and shook out the aches and pains of battle. Malak paced slowly while he performed a systems check and waited for Almaut. His suit was undamaged. Oxygen recyclers and temperature regulation were working normally. He did not recall exactly how his arm had been hit – there had been several minutes where he was completely surrounded by Cullers that had passed in a blur of shots, kicks, and blood and ended in an explosion. Fluid was drying on his helmet, leaving his vision cloudy. In contrast, his tech was sharp and clear displayed directly onto his eyes.

The red dot of the Culler ship pulsed slowly on his map, just under ten kilometers away. He had ordered Hemah to pursue and Af to shoot it down as part of his mission to distract and harass the enemy – Operation Sideshow. It was the third Culler destroyer they had gone after in as many weeks. Given the number of support vessels that Ondrea was tracking – all coming for the asteroid – the distraction was successful. The Legion was the primary target in two sectors. No Coalition engagements had been reported during that time. Malak wasn’t sure if he would say the harassment was as successful. Regardless of how many times it was explained, stressed, and ordered to him, he could not willingly let the enemy go. It grated against every nerve in his body to wound but leave alive the creatures that he had been fighting for more than half of his life. Thomas excused his behavior to Batma, on more than one occasion Malak knew, as part of his conditioning. Something that the Legionnaires did not have complete control over.

That wasn’t true. Malak could leave Cullers alive. He had done so on VK10 and other missions where quick strikes had been necessary. That didn’t mean he liked it. And it certainly did not mean he was going to walk away from a kill shot if he had it. His people had taken casualties, and he wasn’t of a mind to let a single Culler live.  The last image he had seen of Giltine, from her own tech, fighting against nearly impossible odds, flashed across his mind. He suppressed it ruthlessly. He was doing everything he could to find her body – far more than the Coalition would have done for one of theirs. He had Almaut sweeping all communications channels. A beacon had been deployed at her last known location, and every Culler ship the Legion encountered would be hit with a wide-band comm pulse to try to activate her tech.

She was dead. Even if Cullers had tried to interrogate or torture her, she would never have given them any information. Fifteen days was too long to keep a combative, non-compliant prisoner alive. He would find her, eventually. He would take her body back and he would destroy every Culler in the galaxy to do so. That commitment did not lessen his responsibility. Giltine was one of his. She was dead. Her death was his fault.

Malak snarled in the confines of his helmet, forcing those thoughts away so he could focus on the problem at hand. The Culler destroyer would have intelligence on it that they could use to plan additional attacks. With information to guide them, he could take the Legion on more precise missions resulting in fewer losses to his people and resulting in more time for the Coalition forces to carry out their part. He would have preferred to do it all himself. His people were quicker and more deadly than human soldiers, but he understood the utility. There were less than five hundred Legionnaires. There were almost three billion Coalition soldiers. Raiders, the special forces units that were working with him through Batma, numbered 600,000. Not all of them were assigned to Operation Sideshow, but a significant force was working to take advantage of the Legion’s attacks. Malak couldn’t be everywhere at once, so he needed to depend on the Raiders to do their part. That did not mean he liked it.

It seemed there were a lot of things lately, or perhaps always and he was just beginning to lose tolerance for it, that he didn’t like. Paramount of most was the asinine strategy he had been handed. If he had been given the time or opportunity to plan the missions himself, he was confident he could have done better. Picked better ground than an airless asteroid so far in the dark it might as well have been in another galaxy.

He opened a comm to Ondrea. “Status.”

“Kapziel has checked in, his third phase is complete. No loss of life. He broke out three squadrons and is performing strafing runs on the targets you recommended. Some return fire, but the enemy appears too disorganized to mount a counter-attack.” For now, Malak thought sourly. Ondrea continued, “Smierc has finished phase two. The twenty-eights took heavy casualties. One KIA. She is limping home – the Viper and the Lynx have both taken damage to their ISG drives.” She paused, and Malak could easily imagine how the hesitation would look on her face. A slight twist of her mouth, raised brows, closed eyes. Ondrea was enjoying herself and wanted to savor the moment. He didn’t blame her, they all needed something to savor. A victory, a pleasure, a moment of peace. It had been so long for him he couldn’t help but snap his teeth in envy. The sound was too quiet to transmit, thankfully.

“Skoll took your meeting with General Pool. He has sent three comm requests for you.”

Malak could not think of anything the General had to say that he would have cared about at that moment, short of telling him that the Legion’s funding and status had been pulled. And if that were the case, Skoll would have broken long-range comm restrictions and contacted him directly. A dark figure appeared over a ridge, moving in quickly. The distant starlight was enough for Malak to pick out the company behind his lieutenant. The Pale Horse had left Keres Base with only a half-complement, and now there were only four full squadrons that Malak felt comfortable putting into the field. With the replacements Almaut was bringing from the Pale Horse, they would each have twelve soldiers under their command. The remainder would defend the ship and rest for the next battle.

“Time until Culler reinforcements?

“Approximately four hours, Major.”

“Emergency comms only,” Malak ordered. He forced his right hand to make a fist, watched it obey but felt nothing. Not the flexing of his muscles nor the pressure of his own fingers against his palm. The Coalition had set the parameters for Operation Sideshow, but Malak was not satisfied with the results. If he was going to be taking losses, they would mean something. One Legionnaire was worth a countless number of Culler lives, and he would exact that payment. A plan was formulating and he felt a surge of adrenaline. He was made for battle, not cat-and-mouse games, and if the Coalition wanted a distraction, he could come up with something much better than picking off one enemy ship a week.

“Almaut,” he spoke into their direct comm.

His voice came out smoothly despite what Malak could see was a brutal pace, “Yes, sir.”

“Hit them hard, take anything of value. I want to be on the Pale Horse and engines spooling in eighty minutes.”

“You want me to build you a new ship too?” The sarcasm was expected, but it had a sharper note than ever before. They were all feeling Giltine’s loss. “That isn’t enough time to crack the terminals and sort through the data.”

“If you can’t get it, blow it,” Malak responded. “Eighty minutes, or less.”

Almaut didn’t speak again until he was nearly on top of Malak’s position. “Seems like you’re in a rush. Do we have a new target?”

Malak grunted.

“Okay, keep your surprise. I have one for you.” He slowed to a jog, then a walk for the last few meters. Almaut reached into the pack on his back and pulled out a package of high-yield explosives. “They were at the back of the munitions locker – must have been overlooked on the inventory. We can blow the whole ship with these, and have some left over. No need to use the last of the grenades.”

“Save them,” Malak replied, double checking his gear and turning towards his objective. “And work on a way to increase the damage.” He ordered across the general comm for the squad to fall into line and began a moderate run.

“Increase?” For the first time in days Malak could hear Almaut’s smile in his words. “Finally. This assignment was getting boring.”

***

Three weeks later.

“Thomas is not happy.” Skoll’s scarred face was brightly illuminated by the lights in his office on Keres Base; each ridge and line clearly transmitted across light years to Malak’s ready room on the Pale Horse.

“Hn.”

“Of course, General Pool is right next door to ecstatic – or as close as that woman seems to get to it. You’d like her, she has her emotions locked down almost as tight as yours. Uncomfortable as all hell when she arrived and met me, and then pretty pissed when she found out I wasn’t you, but I never would have known if not for her smell. She was still here when your report came in.” Skoll leaned forward, and his easy expression hardened into a rare frown of anger. Alpha, he growled in a low voice that bordered on reprimand. “Next time you want to leapfrog across enemy lines and blow up half an armada, take someone with you.”

“And what am I?” Almaut’s tired smile flashed across the table from Malak. The camera picked it up and transmitted it as part of their weekly meeting.

“Desk jockey,” Kapziel snorted. Then he grinned, “With one hell of a kill record. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a real soldier.”

“And your report stated you discovered a new Culler encryption method. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a technician.”

“Shut. It.” Kapziel pulled back his lips – filling the display with shiny white teeth and fangs.

Skoll ignored their banter. “The risks-”

“Were deemed acceptable,” Malak interrupted. Skoll looked ready to argue, and Malak prepared to put him in his place.

The lieutenant relaxed. “The results speak for themselves. You cut a swath through Culler-controlled space that has the Coalition and the SIS scrambling to take advantage of.” He glanced down at his tablet. “Confirmed eighteen ships damaged, four destroyed, and two enemy refueling stations out of commission. Batma has backtracked and told Pool he gave you free reign to change the parameters of Operation Sideshow, and Pool is pleased enough with the outcome that she isn’t listening to SIS’s demands for investigation.”

“What about the humans?”

“Raiders,” Skoll corrected Kapziel. “It looks like more than half of the teams were successful. The Falcons are bringing equipment online, and already have some data for you when you get back, Almaut.”  The discussion turned to less imperative topics while Malak considered his next move. Once they had an idea of how well the Raiders had done, then he could plan where to deploy. He only needed one success. If he could track one Culler ship to a new site for a wormhole device, they could take the technology before it was deployed. Then the researchers could assess it without using so much guesswork. Once they knew exactly what they were dealing with, it could be destroyed.  He flexed his right hand, ignoring the pain. The humerus bone had been crushed, but the medic on the Pale Horse had stabilized it and managed to give him back some mobility. It would take a surgery or two, and he might need grafts or implants, but it would be repaired.

Skoll was healing after a similar surgery. He had lost a foot, and refused a prosthesis, despite the doctor’s insistence that he would have better mobility, sooner, and with more control than if they grew him a new appendage. Skoll was willing to wait, even though it meant he was assigned to Base supervision while Almaut took his place in the field.  Malak flexed his hand again. He understood the desire. The Coalition had controlled so much of his life, he didn’t want their technology replacing his body parts as well.

“-wrote several sections already. I think it will be very informative, despite the necessary lower reading level.”

“Pictures may help,” Kapziel suggested.

Malak focused again on the conversation. “Pool has left the Base?”

“Yes, she’s on her way back to Earth. She may have started out uncomfortable, but I don’t know that I liked the look in her eye when she left.”

“Look?” Kapziel snorted.

Skoll continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “Your success gave her some ideas, I think. And I don’t know that they were along the lines of how we could really benefit from an upgraded rec area. That woman is intelligent, and shrewd.”

“She listens to the SIS,” Almaut noted slowly, “but she has ignored their requests on more than one occasion. And she had issued orders that were in opposition to two Administrations. President Sudarshan even informally reprimanded her once.”

“Pool has her own agenda, but it’s not something I think I’ll be figuring out any time soon. You should talk to Thomas about it. He left orders for you to contact him as soon as you were out of enemy territory.”

Malak nodded and the meeting ended. Almaut excused himself to check in with the small group of researchers on board before heading back to his bunk. Malak remained seated in his ready room. Through the window in the door he could see onto the bridge. Ondrea was seated in the command chair, reviewing data while the second shift crew piloted them back to Keres Base. One of the Falcons, a trained mechanic, was sprawled out on the floor, working on an exposed panel. The Pale Horse had taken extensive damage during Operation Sideshow.

Almaut and his techs were working through the data taken from the down Culler vessel on the asteroid. It hadn’t all been decrypted yet, but there were some files that appeared to have similarities to black market goods taken from the mining station. Malak watched the human mechanic laugh at something the pilot said. She waved a calibration instrument in the air and made a face – the pilot responded with a grin that displayed his sharper-than-human teeth.

Cullers had been fighting humans for more than a century. Fighting. Killing. Exterminating. Then, they had taken a sudden interest in human DNA. Malak could think of many reasons to be collecting that kind of information. Bioweapons were the most obvious choice.  But the aliens, although highly advanced in comparison to humans and ruthless, had not ever shown an aptitude or initiative to take the war in that direction. Complicating matters further was the type of genetic material they had collected. Malak studied the man lying on the floor again. He was tall, for a human, and his skin was the color of the rich, silky chocolate. His muscles were well developed and Malak knew, like every human that had been granted security clearance to work with the Legion, that the mechanic excelled in all areas of aptitude tests.  Humans had been manipulating their genetic material, designing procreation, for a hundred years to arrive at what they considered a form of perfection. The ideal muscle mass, dexterity, and intelligence.  Maximized height and senses. Minimized health risks. Valued aesthetics. That was the future, the now, of humanity.

But that was not what interested the Cullers. They had collected unaltered DNA. Genetic material that would be less than ideal, perhaps useless, for bioweapons. The question of it was as irritating as it was intriguing. Concerning, that the enemy considered by the Coalition to be viciously one-dimensional might have unknown motives.

It wasn’t his concern. Malak’s objective was the wormhole devices and killing Cullers. It was not protecting humans from a threat that they were not concerned about and might not even exist. Still. It was better to keep his thoughts occupied than to let them wander. Better to think about unanswered questions than to dwell on the losses that were felt so much more deeply. He leaned back in his chair and watched his crew, humans and Legion. His arm ached.

Human DNA had been found on the mining station, presumably to be sold to Cullers.

Cullers were building a wormhole generation device, either as a weapon or as a form of transportation. Or possibly something else entirely.

The Coalition was fighting a political battle with the SIS, Congress, and the Office of the President.

Not all of those in power, in the administration or the military, were focused on ending the war quickly.

Malak dimmed the lights and darkened the glass that looked out over the bridge. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, breathing in time to the throb of his bones. There were too many unanswered questions and too many enemies still breathing to give him time to find answers.

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