Year 2156, Day 134, Hour 0900
Smierc looked up, surprise evident in her scent and expression, when Malak entered the conference room. Almaut only nodded deferentially, listening to a communication and typing on his tablet. Skoll and Kapeziel hadn’t arrived yet, but Thomas was pouring himself a coffee and standing behind his usual chair.
“How’s the back?” Thomas asked by way of greeting.
Upon arrival at the base, seventy-six excruciating hours after they had left the Navi system, Malak had undergone multiple skin and bone grafts, nerve generation treatments and stem transfusions to repair the damage to his spine. The scarring was likely permanent, but he had full range of motion and with therapy would regain his former strength. The scattered patches of extreme sensitivity and numbness were less than ideal, and his entire body still ached as if he had been hit by a Khutura class, but he wasn’t dead. And his head had stopped aching once they had entered ISG, so at least he didn’t have to deal with treating a concussion.
“Fine,” he grunted. Smierc used her foot to push out the seat between her and Thomas, but Malak only caught and held it in place. After days lying on his stomach he preferred to stand. And the pressure of the chair back against his skin would have made him want to howl. Most of his injuries were covered by his uniform or already healed, which was fortunate given the curious and furtive inspections he had received from every member of his pack and most of the Falcons. He didn’t need to add to the speculation on his recovery by proving he wasn’t unaffected.
“Well, isn’t that a relief,” Smierc drawled. “Now we can add to your legend. The thirties are already gossiping about your supposed rise from the ashes. To see you wholly uninjured-”
Skoll entered behind Malak and swiftly clapped him on the back in greeting. Malak flinched and bit off a snarl and a curse. Skoll blinked in surprise. Smierc laughed.
“Our untouchable leader. Great Alpha,” she chuffed. Malak clenched his jaw, but didn’t bother reprimanding her for deviating from English Standard during a meeting. Smierc did what Smierc wanted, and it was not as if Thomas wasn’t aware the pack had another language. Skoll looked apologetic, but Kapeziel came in behind him and frowned at Smierc.
“We could shove some ammo down your back and light you on fire, see how you fare.”
“You do know how to show a girl a good time.” Smierc laughed at the look of disgust on Kapeziel’s face. While the two weren’t genetically related – as members of the same series were, but they might as well have been cousins, and Kapeziel reacted accordingly to the suggestion of intimacy.
“You’ve spent too long in Deep Dark, it’s affected your brain. Not that you had much to start with.” Kapeziel followed up with a reprimanding hiss, and Smierc nodded shallowly in acknowledgment of his superior rank, but she never lost her grin. It was good to see her in a pleasant mood. Malak’s beta had taken on more solo missions and other responsibilities since Giltine had been lost; having her back on base and at his side was a comfort he would never openly admit.
“Good news first,” Thomas began to forestall any further arguments. “SAR is sending us the new stealth equipment, and with it a ship that it has been installed on.” Malak raised an eyebrow, but when Thomas met his gaze the Major kept his thoughts to himself. Such generosity always had a price.
“Another Cicuta?” Kapeziel looked pleased. Sharing the Pale Horse among the five divisions of the Legion made for complicated logistics and often less than ideal weapons deployment.
“Yes, the newest model. Coalition forces won’t see this one for another six months to a year. The Han is the concept ship. Specs say she’ll run eight percent more fuel efficient and with a twelve percent reduction in water loss. There are upgrades to the impacoral compound, outer plating, ventilation, and core systems siloing. And SAR was gracious enough to instruct the shipyard at Europa to bump up the standard crew sizing by a half meter. They’re playing it off as a misunderstanding that won’t be a part of the mass specs, but I toured the ship before I left the station. Legionaries will finally have to stop complaining about stooping for doorways and contorting to fit in bunks.”
“I won’t know how to sleep without my elbows touching my knees,” Skoll said good-naturedly. The scar tissue on his cheek gave his smile a feral look.
“The stealth tech hasn’t been tested on this model yet, for obvious reasons. But they are eager for you to put it through its paces and see how it holds up over a larger ship. Since we have a little breathing room after the Culler retreat from Navi, I’ve reassigned a few downgraded threats to the Raiders so you have plenty of time to-”
“The bad news?”
Thomas acted as if he hadn’t heard Malak. “This technology worked so well on Legion Emici, SAR is going to deploy with the Raiders in the next year, and after that the rest of the fleet will see stealth fighters. SAR also submitted another request for test data on the kids-” Malak stiffened, his spine protesting, and both Skoll and Smierc opened their mouths with ready protests, “-but I took the liberty of telling them where they could shove it. Hope you don’t have a problem with that?”
Malak nodded sharply. There were three children that had been born to human and Legion couples. A pair of twins and a recent addition that was less than a year old. They integrated well with the few pure humans children that had accompanied their Falcon parents to the base, but there was no denying their parentage – or the interest of the few Coalition scientists that knew of their existence.
Thomas reviewed several potential missions that were in a holding pattern until new intel could be confirmed. He was ready to dismiss the group when Almaut finally disconnected the comm he had been on and spoke up.
“What about the wormhole generators?”
“What about them?” Thomas didn’t blink, his expression gave nothing away, but Malak knew his scent. Irritation, resignation, frustration. There was something going unsaid.
“It has been long enough, they should have cracked it by now,” Almaut complained, then added as an afterthought, “Sir.”
“As of last week, they didn’t have an update for me.”
“If SAR can’t figure it out, we should take another crack at it,” Almaut turned to Malak – clearly trying to convince his Alpha rather than ask permission from the senior officer in the room. “Laureaux and I have been going over the data we took after the devices were retrieved. The new guy-”
“Halver,” Skoll supplied.
“Halver,” Almaut continued smoothly, “has done some work in applied subspace insertion and I think if we commit serious time to-”
“SAR is working on it.” Thomas didn’t say to drop it. He didn’t growl or bear his teeth, but he might as well have with the tense set of his shoulders and jaw. Almaut glanced from the Colonel to Malak.
“Hn.” Malak changed the subject by reaching forward, biting back a wince as skin stretched, and flicking his tablet to send data to the wall screen. A dark-skinned man, of late middle age or perhaps in his early sixties, was captured in an unflattering government ID photo. “This is the man SC wanted specifically protected during the retreat. Hanako said he tried to break away from the group before they reached safety.”
Almaut pivoted with the conversation smoothly. “Dr. Patay. I started some digging. I haven’t done anything overt yet – nothing to catch unwelcome eyes or ears, but you should know whatever he was doing at Navi – it goes high. Maybe even higher than our cover. To get much beyond his bare bones service record, I may have to access a few secure systems.”
At the head of the table, Thomas clenched his jaw, but did not countermand Malak’s orders. The rest of the meeting went smoothly enough, breaking only when Johnson, the clerk Thomas had foisted onto Malak, interrupted with stammering apologies that there was a priority communication for the Colonel. Malak let the rest of the group go; first shift had already ended and his lieutenants had more duties to complete before they could return to their quarters. Only Smierc, with less formal responsibility for supervision of the Legion and the paperwork that went with it, left with a grin and a pointed comment about getting in some relaxing exercise. Skoll voiced his envy. Kapeziel frowned. Almaut tried to bribe her to take some of his workload.
Malak slipped out before he could be drawn into the discussion or, far worse, approached by the clerk that was still far too frightened of him considering how long he had been stationed on the base. As had become his custom, he found that he could get a great deal of work done while walking the long corridors.
Patay, the scientist that the Coalition had been so insistent on protecting, concerned Malak. He had to wonder what could possibly make one man so valuable that orders – from General Batma personally – would be issued to put the Legion into direct engagement alongside regular SC troops. The existence of the Legion had been an open secret since VK10. That much was obvious given the speculation on the news feeds and the gossip the Falcons brought to base after every leave. Until Navi, however, it had been a secret that was ripe for denial, twisting, or spinning however would best serve the needs of the war. And the politicians. Always the damned politicians, Malak grumbled to himself. In his decades of service, and even the years he spent as a research subject before that, Malak had seen nothing that made him believe that the Coalition leadership would give up a secret – or advantage – unless they absolutely had to. And even then, it would be grudgingly and with maximum cursing and threatening.
It stood to reason then, that whatever Patay knew or was capable of, it was more valuable to the war effort than the Legion.
Malak paused at a corridor intersection and reconsidered that thought. It wasn’t pride, but simple mathematics that led him to believe that the Legion was an incomparable method for not just deterring Culler advances but dislodging the aliens’ hold on systems lost to the Coalition in the early years of the war. There was no doubt in his mind that Keres Legion was the single most effective weapon humanity had ever wielded.
Anything that the Coalition valued so highly was dangerous to the Legion. Exposure made them vulnerable to what history proved was fickle human opinion, while at the same time making it harder for the government to terminate Malak and his people should they become a liability. That would make the people in power nervous, even paranoid, and more eager to take a chance and cover up their illegal genetic experiments at the first hint of bad press. Malak could imagine very few uses for Patay that would make him so important. None of them were appealing. All of them were unbelievable. And it seemed to be an unlikely coincidence that the Cullers had happened to pick Navi, out of all of the border systems, to attack just when such an important target was vulnerable there.
Malak needed information.
Unfortunately, that seemed to be the commodity in shortest supply for the Major. The list of questions in his mind was growing, but answers were elusive. He still had no confirmation on the purpose of the Culler devices that had cost his people so much. Unlike Almaut, who was always pushing for details and research and, as Thomas would say, the limits of his patience, or Kapeziel who would have torn the Director of the SIS limb from limb if they were ever in the same room together for the tangential part she had played in the misinformation that lead to the deaths of so many – including Giltine. Malak still grieved for her. He still reviewed weekly automated reports from the beacon relay left in the sector where she had been killed, although he did not discuss them with anyone and none but Almaut knew he was still waiting, still looking for a signal that had no hope be being sent. Malak had larger concerns than the death of one Legionnaire – much as it hurt him to admit it. It was embedded in his very genes, in the first word, first action, that had shaped his entire life, to protect humanity. Whatever the purpose of the wormhole devices, it would be the end of the minor squabbles and general stalemate between the two warring forces. Regardless of their intended use, the Cullers would have technology that could change the course of the war and make the Coalition long for the days where causalities could be counted in the millions. But without knowing the exact purpose, there was no way to know when or where it was likely to be used – or how to defeat it.
The stealth technology, and another ship under his command, had the stench of a primed gun aimed at his kidney. It wouldn’t kill him, but when the shot came it would leave him angry and sick and in need of immediate medical assistance. The Coalition did not give resources without expectations, and the bigger the gift, the higher the repayment. Malak wanted the new Cicuta, and the stealth to go with it, but he wasn’t sure he was willing to take the gut wound he was sure would follow behind it.
What about Maker, his traitorous mind asked slyly. The unbidden image of her pale face, streaked with blood and dirt, as she swayed on her feet and ordered him to save her squad, pulled his face into a scowl. He had done his best to ignore her, and the lapse in judgment that had compelled him to save her the last time they met, but hearing her voice at Navi had brought all of his indecision about the reckless human to the forefront again. She was everything a human wasn’t supposed to be. Smaller, weaker, lacking the basic combat skills every soldier needed to survive. She was also braver and more selfless, more determined to protect those who were her responsibility than he had ever expected. Bravery, he questioned, or stupidity? Malak snorted and turned toward the nearest lift, traveling down to a storage level where he ran less risk of being interrupted.
Whether she knew the potential consequences for her actions, the danger she repeatedly put herself in, or not, Maker posed a larger enigma for Malak. She had known his name. He had reviewed her record, again, while he was trapped in the small infirmary bay on the Pale Horse. For hours while the medic had supervised his grafts, Malak had lain on his stomach and read through every line of information Almaut had dug up on the communications officer. There was nothing in her file that indicated she would have the clearance or contacts to know anything about the Legion. Malak was willing to allow that she was intelligent enough to break into their comms – more than once, but no sensitive or identifying information was ever repeated on even an encrypted line. Still, somehow she had learned not only his name but his plan to destroy the forest on Navi.
A warmth bloomed at the base of his skull, threatening a headache, and he was reminded of the pain during his time on the surface, after he had blacked out. Maker had known he was on Navi, had used his name and likely revealed the presence of the Legion to her commanding officer, if not the entire bridge crew. Possibly the Coalition fleet now knew that Keres Legion had undeniably saved the civilian population and most of the technetium stores, and provided essential support to the main surface forces. Malak had revealed himself to that Colonel, Ben-Zvi, because Maker had already pulled back the obscurity of the Legion. The only secret that might still remain was that more than just Malak were unsanctioned genetic experiments. Assuming she hasn’t already learned of that as well, he thought. He did not understand how she could know, or the scope of her knowledge, or what she would do with it. And yet, he was irritated by his own lack of concern over that. Without ever having spoken more than ten words to her, he was certain she would not give away any of his secrets unless it was necessary to keep them from danger. Or protect her own people. His mind circled back around to the question of who she was and what kind of human could so radically depart from every lesson, formal or in the field, he had learned about the species.
“It can’t be stuck. Unstick it!”
“We are in so much trouble.”
High-pitched voices, barely held to a semblance of whispering, broke into Malak’s thoughts. He slowed his step and pulled in a deep breath. Three. Two Pack. One Adopted pack. The sweet, mild scent of children was not hard to place since there were few on the base. Lata. Winnifred. Babasheb. It could be certain that where Lata and Winnifred were, trouble was not far behind. Followed by Babasheb trying to hide the mess.
“Baba, we’re only in trouble if we get caught.” Malak recognized Lata’s bossy direction of her twin brother. “So keep you nose up and let us know if anyone is coming.”
“Lata-” Babasheb began but was cut off.
“We’ll fix it, Baba, don’t worry.”
“Winnie, hand me the static shield, I think I almost got it.”
Malak stepped around the corner, directly in front of a wide-eyed Babasheb and less than fifteen meters from the two girls and a partially opened cargo unit. A container clearly marked as ‘Chocolate, 50 grams, Quantity 100’ sat on the corridor floor. Lata had her hand and face inside a control panel, while Winnifred stood behind her with a flashlight and a toolbox that had definitely not been issued to a child. Malak had the strong suspicion that it had been appropriated from the twin’s father. There was absolutely nothing about the situation that any of their parents would approve of. Malak was also fairly certain that they must have skipped out of their lessons early to get all the way to a sub-level and break into a cargo container. Babasheb let out a small, sub-vocal whimper, pleading with his Alpha for mercy.
“Baba, don’t worry so much!”
Lata’s order had Winnie looking over her shoulder to see what was the matter, her human ears not having heard the sound. Green eyes went wide in her pale face, the spring of atrociously orange hair haloing her expression of shock.
“Ma-ma- Major!” she squeaked.
“Majorly annoying,” Lata muttered.
Malak widened his stance, crossing his arms over his chest and narrowing his gaze. “What,” he said quietly, “is going on here?”
A yelp and a hollow smack sounded from the control panel and then Lata was scrambling to stand next to Winnifred, her mouth gaping and moving. Malak could almost hear the excuses tumbling around in her head. He could not help but be amused. And a bit envious. At the age of four he and his entire series spent their waking hours in classrooms learning Culler anatomy and simple battle strategy and in training to turn their bodies into weapons. Although the twins were nearly as physically and mentally mature as Malak had been at the same age, capable of keeping up with nine-year old Winnifred, the similarities ended there. The Legion children knew nothing of killing and fighting and defense beyond the natural instincts to protect those they cared for. Which Lata quickly displayed.
“It’s my fault,” she blurted out. “I’m sorry Major. Winnie and Baba told me not to, please don’t tell on them.”
Malak stalked over to the container of chocolate, flicking the clasps with the toe of his boot and looking at the neatly stacked squares of candy inside. None had been taken yet. He recalled a similar mission, decades ago, where he and Smierc and one other had sneaked out of their dormitory and stolen a case of nutrient bars and the components for their first rudimentary comm system. They hadn’t been caught – but only because Bee had found out before the guards and had covered for them. Malak had taken Bee’s punishment for all of the children: sixty days of extra training sessions. For two months he had fallen into his bunk long after the others were asleep, exhausted.
It had been worth it. If Dr. Gillian had discovered the theft, they all would have suffered worse than merely exercise. And far worse, there would have been new experiments. Malak leaned down and plucked out four chocolate bars, ignoring the pull of new skin on his back.
“For a good plan,” he said, tossing the first bar to Lata. She immediately handed it to Winnifred, confirming Malak’s suspicions that the older girl was the one to figure out where the goods were stored and how best to get at them without getting caught.
“For setting a perimeter.” He tossed her a second chocolate, which she caught. She frowned at it, but then gave it over to her brother – obviously not certain that he deserved it since he hadn’t warned Lata of Malak’s approach.
“For not respecting the skills of your team.” Malak held up the third bar, making certain that all three children were paying attention, then dropped it into the case. Lata, four years old and strong enough to remove a wall panel and smart enough to know how to override the circuits behind it, sucked in her lip. She remained quiet, but her eyes grew damp. It was a hard lesson to learn, responsibility, but Malak’s way of teaching was kind in comparison to his instructors.
He held up the fourth candy. “For returning tools to their proper owner, in like condition.” The parents – excepting the Legionnaire that was the twins’ mother – would probably have required that the children admit their wrongs and apologize. Malak was neither human nor their parent. He was their Alpha. The responsibilities that came with that role were different. “Reward in advance.” He held the chocolate out to Lata, but did not let go until she met his gaze, “Use stealth.” The child nodded, her eyes still wet but a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. All three smelled surprised and a bit more prideful than was probably merited.
“Smierc is training in H7. Go distract her.” He chuffed at them to get them moving quickly, and they ran off down the corridor amid giggles and poorly made purrs of happiness.
Malak sighed to himself. At least Smierc would not have any more time to relax than he did. The knowledge was satisfying. He closed up the container, used his foot to kick it back into the storage room, and then resealed the door. It took only a few moments to clear the security log, but Malak found his steps lighter for the next hour, imagining how the unfortunate soldier assigned to the next inventory would try to explain the shortage of three chocolate bars.
The small indiscretion against Coalition regulations had him eager to avoid more of the useless and time consuming rules and requirements. Before he had returned to his office, Malak decided that he would personally take the new ship on its test run. The reports and forms that were due to his superiors could wait.
Those that could not wait, he could delegate.
Smierc seemed to have time to spare.