Barghest III – Chapter 2

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 The Tail…

 

Hour, Day, Year 2156.

Judicial Equity. Proper Noun. Refers to a series of bills passed from 2088-2092 allowing criminals accused of avoiding mandatory military service or violent crimes, and later some non-violent crimes, to serve a reduced sentence through labor. Although the Confederation and some member nations still operate prisons and work sites, most individuals found guilty of felonies or repeat misdemeanors are ordered to one of the many contracted labor sites run off world by corporations.

An explosion, large enough to be heard through his proximity comm, the blast wave impacting the Scythe and rocking its trajectory, went off in the upper atmosphere below. It was followed by three more in rapid succession.

“Primary touch-down site is untenable. Switching to secondary site.” Hemah’s calm pronouncement coincided with the abrupt swerve of the Runa vessel, and Malak followed their progress on his own screen.

On Navi-2, Coalition forces were pinned down in a narrow valley, Culler forces advancing from the southwest. To the north, two mountain ranges ran parallel to each other, drawing closer and closer until three soldiers could walk abreast, but no more. It continued that way for eight kilometers before slowly widening again. It was a terrible route for withdrawal and offered multiple points for enemy ambush. On his way to the strategic system, Malak had read the mission reports. The primary and secondary retreat plans for the Coalition had been heavily bombed, casualties were enormous, leaving only the undesirable hike through the narrow mountains for what was left of three battalions to meet up with the rest of the army. The Cullers had already reinforced their lines with an additional hundred thousand, and had a fleet in the system keeping the Coalition too busy to send their own reinforcements to the planet.

Although the bulk of the Legion was creating a wedge to drive through Culler occupied space on the opposite side of CSNS, Malak had been less than ten light years away from Navi when the comm came from Thomas. He was ordered to abandon his mission of destroying strategic resupply posts and instead provide support to the Coalition under attack. The orders had not given him any pause, until the Pale Horse was leaving ISG and data from the planet became available. Navi was a heavily occupied system. No specifics had been given to Malak; with twenty-five years of experience he was expected to be able to assess any situation and plan his own mission. Navi-2 was enough of a test to those skills that he felt justified in comm-ing back to Thomas.

“Are you telling me it can’t be done? That we should write off three thousand as KIA? And that is on just the southern continent!” His irritation was palpable, even across hundreds of light years. “Navi has four different corporations doing resource extraction. Seven hundred thousand civilians in-system – and bombing runs on the moons already killed most of the hard-labor workers. Should we lose the researchers and techs too?”

“No,” Malak said sharply. More sharply than he intended. “The situation is salvageable, but our presence will not remain clandestine.”

Thomas had snorted, leaning back in his chair and rolling his eyes. When Malak did not react, he said “That horse has left the barn – don’t you think?” Malak could feel his jaw tensing. He disliked metaphors, and Thomas knew it. “You seem to enjoy ignoring blackout protocol – if your frequency in doing so is any indication. You may not want to come out of the shadows, Major – it may be the end of you. But it is too late for that. You showed the brass what happens when you make your own rules, and they have taken a keen interest in the results. You have the authority to do whatever it takes to complete your mission. Keep your face off the news feeds and the Coalition will take care of the rest.”

Malak had not pointed out that never before had his mission been to directly save humans, and the comm line was closed without any satisfaction. Although Thomas had not skirted the issue – had been adamant on more than one occasion that he was disappointed and disapproving of Malak’s decision on RB14, Malak did not see the similarities. Then, he had only considered the lives of those Coalition on the ground once he was certain he had done everything possible to meet his objectives and secure his own people. The entire mission on Navi was saving humans. Malak wasn’t certain it was the highest and best use of the Legion’s skills.

“Legionnaires, battle-ready.” On Malak’s order every soldier not already in full armor snapped on their helmets and readied their weapons, copying their commander. He did not voice his irritation or concern to his subordinates, and Smierc’s voice came through on a direct comm from the Pale Horse to the Scythe as Hemah began a descent into the atmosphere, “Papa-Hotel is in position. Waiting for orders.”

“Silent running until further notice.”  He noted another two Culler ships dropping out of ISG and heading for Navi-2. “Emergency intervention is your call. Out.” He re-tasked his display to focus on ground troop movements and his two Runa, relegating the battle in the space surrounding Navi to the Coalition. There would be nothing he could do about that combat once they landed. Smierc would ideally be able to remain hidden from both sides of the conflict until he was ready to withdraw, but if the fighting drew to close to the Pale Horse, she could engage as she saw fit. It would not surprise him if it came to that. Although the SC had formed a reasonably adequate defensive line around the planet and its three moons, Culler forces had already been attacking on the surface for twenty-eight hours by the time they arrived. Two moons were completely dead, and more than a hundred thousand of the enemy had reportedly landed for ground maneuvers on the planet. That was where the Legion would have the largest impact.

Legionnaires selected for pilot and ship’s tactical systems were excellent at their duties, but they were not trained for fleet maneuvers. Malak was honest enough with himself to also admit that humans were often better at ship to ship battle. His people had been bred primarily to fight on the ground, and he preferred to play to their strengths. Once the Legion shifted the odds on Navi-2 in the Coalition’s favor, it would be up to the captains orbiting the planet to take control of the skies.

“Prep for landing,” Hemah’s voice came over the comm. A high-pitched whistle preceded an impact to the hull, knocking the transport off course until she could correct. “Coming in hot.” Malak secured the straps on his jump seat a second before the next impact. A Third. Fourth. Then a hail of debris that cracked against the plastisteel viewing window in the helm. He raised the blast shield himself so that Hemah could remain focused. It blinded their physical eyes, but sensors gave them all the data they needed.

Urchins had entered the planet’s atmosphere, pursued by a squadron of Ictus. The two-man coalition fighters outgunned the Culler ships, but they could not compete for maneuverability. The Urchins were outnumbered, but they were making deep inroads with bombing runs on a research settlement and the Coalition forces that were trying to evacuate civilians. Any ship an Ictus hit that was not completely destroyed was piloted into the buildings and people below. Some of the Cullers ejected to fight in melee combat; most sacrificed themselves and their damaged ships to kill as many humans as possible. For each Culler that was killed, dozens of humans died as well. If not more.

The secondary landing site was a few clicks from the besieged settlement, on flat clifftop littered with mining equipment. It would take Malak and his team at least fifteen minutes to get from their transport down to a position where they could begin defending the Coalition retreat. And then they would need to backtrack to reach their original intended target. He panned out the map on his display and assessed the casualty and munitions figures that the troops on the ground were streaming up to the fleet.

“Scrap secondary site. Proceed to new coordinates.” Malak pinged his map and transmitted to Hemah’s station. “Tactical, engage at will.” Af bared her teeth in feral anticipation and began targeting Urchins. Malak switched to comms to reach the Garrote. “Team two, proceed to new tertiary site and primary target.”  On his display, he followed the path of the other ship as it changed course.

Hanako’s voice responded from the Garrote. “Shock and awe, sir?”

“As you will.”

That was the end of conversation until after the Scythe had made a rough landing, a laser cannon grazed the hull and destroyed the stabilizers. Af and the tactical officer under Hanako’s command on the Garrote cleared a two hundred meter radius around Malak’s coordinates. Five Urchins were strategically downed, and where they fell the burning debris created a shelter from advancing Culler ground troops.  Af targeted a large group, taking a last few strategic shots to clear a path for the Runa to disembark. Malak used the time to unstrap from the jump seat and overlay the transport’s sensor data onto his display.

Malak’s goal was to take pressure off of the Coalition so that they could round up the civilians and move through a narrow pass in the mountains to a secure position. The data Thomas had sent him was nearly two days old; communications from the system were complicated by significant radiation from the blue star. The situation on the ground was not as dire as reported. It was much, much worse.

Af and Hanako had brought both transports down at the edge of the security wall separating corporate facilities from the bulk of the printed concrete buildings designed for housing and local industry. Clumped in makeshift bunkers and scattered, hiding, in the settlement were fifteen thousand civilians. They were waiting for Coalition saviors that would never come. A wide swath of bodies to the west was swiftly cooling to sensor sweeps, crushed into the mud by bony Culler talons as they advanced on the settlement and the retreating line of soldiers.

That was the bulk of the Culler army. Several hundred thousand of the enemy had already landed on the planet at a few locations before the fleet arrived. Approximately half had been fighting the Coalition on the southern continent, destroying their opportunities to retreat and gaining ground. Their number was too large and their heat signatures to close together to get an accurate count. The main SC forces were to the north of Malak’s landing site. They had fortified positions along the ridge of a mountain range with heavy gun and air support, as well as anti-Urchin missiles. As long as the fleet held, civilians and soldiers alike could survive there. More importantly to Confederation political concerns, the water processing facility that was the backbone of industry in the Navi system, and one of the largest suppliers to Coalition ships, would remain intact. With planning, they could even a stage retaliation and chew through the remains of the Culler forces if the fleet maintained the blockade. In order to reach that secure location, the humans would have to survive the twenty-five kilometer march through a forest. Cullers on the west and south, and ocean to the east, and the mountain range along the north. The forest vegetation was too dense for sensor penetration, so there was no telling what surprises might be waiting there. Malak did not particularly care for surprises.

“Clear!” Af shouted.

Malak was already at the rear hatch, hitting the controls to open it.  “Sweep in maneuver teams. Collect and protect.” It was a testament to the discipline of the Legion that not a murmur was heard in response to that order – the first time he had ever given it. “Drive survivors to these coordinates and create a wedge line between them and the enemy.” He pinged a location on the map, in a clearing two-thirds of the way through the forest. A red line, the hold line, he drew between the Culler advancement and that spot. The hatch opened fully, hitting the ground hard enough to send mud splattering into the air. “Go.”

He stood aside as his team surged out, a perfectly coordinated line of soldiers fanning to positions behind the downed Urchins and moving under cover of fire from there. The Garrote was emptying as well, and Hanako stepped towards him as she followed the soldiers out.

Scythe, Garrote,” his voice rumbled over the comms. Through the thick, humid aid filtering into his helmet he could smell the sudden, sharp anticipation of Af and Hemah behind him. Their voices blended with the tactical and helm officers under Hanako.

“Yes, sir.”

“Scuttle and move out.” They all responded in the affirmative, with an extra growl of satisfaction from Af. Within a minute, both Runa were locked down tight, their hatches closed as their crews followed the rest of the Legionnaires.

“Major.” Hanako didn’t ask questions as she took up his flank, but Malak knew what she wanted to know without words. She wasn’t a 27-series, but she was still pack. Still one of his.

“We’ll draw fire away from them,” he said, meaning the Runa, “but if they are destroyed, it will not matter.”

“Smierc will land the Pale Horse.” It went unsaid that if she couldn’t, both Malak and Hanako and every other Legionnaire would be dead. It was an unlikely outcome.  “After you, sir.”

Malak tracked the two-person maneuver teams as they moved through the rubble and the few buildings that were still intact. Just as in training exercises, they formed a staggered line moving north and west. A secondary line followed behind, moving north and east.  The first killed Cullers and painted survivors. The second collected the humans and pushed them further from the fighting. Malak moved quickly, slipping though the rear line and into the empty zone between his people. Hanako followed silently. Cullers, their yellow smudges on his display thick and fast, were painted and fell in quick succession. Each time a maneuver team moved around the shelter of a rubble pile or shelled wall more of the enemy fell. Pale yellow faded as they died and the Legion continued onward. Malak and Hanako had nearly caught up to the forward position when new Urchins circled around from other locations to buzz the settlement.

He crouched, and Hanako flipped an anti-fighter gun off of her back and onto his shoulder. She used him as a tripod to steady her shot. Bombs dropped, exploding in a rain of mud and shrapnel as more buildings collapsed. The door of the closest structure flew open, and a ragged wave of humans surged out – but not fast enough. Hanako fired, smoke curling in Malak’s peripheral vision. A projectile fell, hurtling end over end as the ship that had released it exploded in the air. The missile crashed through the roof. Humans screamed, throwing themselves to the ground. An older man at the rear of the group braced open the door and physically pulled another two out behind him before throwing his arms over his head.

Malak remained motionless, the anti-fighter still on his shoulder. He waited.

Nothing happened.

Far off in the distance the shrieks of Cullers and the dull repeat of weapons fire continued. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh from explosions and laser cannons was acrid in his nose. The humans were beginning to stand, but Malak waited until his display confirmed: the missile was active, but undetonated, inside the building. Along with eighty-three heat signatures.

“Secure the entrance,” he ordered Hanako. As soon as she lifted the gun from his shoulder he was moving toward the doorway. The man there was prepared to go back inside. His misguided attempt at rescue was deplorable. And ill-advised. Structural integrity of the building was poor, and if the explosive detonated, his civilian clothing would offer no protection. Malak casually shoved him aside, ignoring the pleas as he scanned the building.

“Coalition! Thank god! We thought the fleet had abandoned us!”

Near enough, Malak thought. Certainly, the Legion was the best chance at survival the researchers had, but there was nothing stopping Malak from declaring the mission a scrub and leaving the humans to die. He did not share the same sympathies as the Coalition soldiers. Tears and thanks from civilians did not play on his emotions. If the Legion did not succeed, there would be no backup mission.

It took nearly twenty minutes to clear the building. He left the dead; it would have been a waste of time to dig out the corpses and foolhardy with undetonated munitions so close. The missile itself was half buried in the floor, indicator lights blinking and protective case cracked. Like a herd of animals, the researchers stumbled out ahead of Malak, falling into the tight groups of survivors already huddled behind Hanako. She had taken position near the remains of a ground transport, her Klim out and ready. Cullers were drawing closer, their shrieks interrupted only by the sounds of projectiles shattering chitin. Hanako anticipated Malak’s order and as soon as the last human cleared the building she holstered her side arm and singled out the older man that had begun the evacuation. She sent coordinates to his personal tech. He glanced at his bracer, wide-eyed.

“You can’t mean for us to head there alone? There are hundreds of Cullers already on the outskirts of the settlement!”

“Thousands,” Hanako corrected, “conservatively. Follow the route. Your retreat will be covered.”

Malak positioned himself in front of the transport shell, Klim ready while he tracked the movements of his team and the enemy. They were getting closer. It was time to move.

“Covered?” Out of the corner of his eye, Malak saw the man’s jaw drop open. “By one soldier? Is that guy nuts?”

“No.” Hanako paused, head tilted to the side. Malak heard what she heard, the crunch of boot on bone. Rapid fire from two separate firearms. Two standard projectiles. Three slag rounds. An abruptly silenced shriek and the snap of a talon. Hemah popped over the top of a low-slung building, her back to him and firing behind her. Af followed, the severed arm of a Culler clutched in one hand. She flipped feet first onto the surface and slid to one knee firing with one hand and slashing at an unseen enemy with the bloody claw.  Hemah holstered her Klim and pulled two pommels from her pack. With the push of a button blades extended, the gently curved arcs gleaming in the sunshine. Despite Af’s precision work, three Cullers vaulted onto the roof, advancing on Hemah. Malak aimed carefully and took out the middle position. Hemah made quick work of the other two. Her blades met in an x, carving the shoulder and jaw off of her first opponent. She used his falling corpse to push herself into the air in a leap that brought one heavy boot down on an upraised talon and the other into the wide black eyes of her opponent. Her right blade sliced through exoskeleton and bone. One talon clattered to the roof a second before the back of the Culler’s head. Followed by Hemah’s boot and a splatter of ichor.

“He is not here to defend you.” Hanako gestured with her Klim. “They are.”  Af fired twice more and then took a running leap, crossing the narrow street filled with survivors and the burned out transport. She had turned and aimed again before her feet touched down, and Hemah dropped down to the ground. The man was still staring in awe.

“Forty-seven down,” Hemah reported on a direct comm to Malak and Hanako. “This area has been cleared, but fighting is increasing further north. Orders, sir?”

“Move the humans. We will relieve the line and send more back to you. Contact with them is to be minimized.” Hemah nodded her acknowledgement to Malak and took off skirting and backtracking along the ragged group to get them moving while Af covered them from the rooftops. Hanako motioned for the human leader to follow.

Malak did not wait to see if they obeyed, but took off at a slow jog on a course diagonal to that of the humans. He met his first enemy around the corner of the bombed building. It went down easily, his knife sinking into the jaw, just below the armor plate. He drove his fist into the joint of the Culler’s arm, at the intersection of talon, fingers, and muscle. It snapped, and his motion pulled the blade behind him, deepening and circling the nerve cord that ran from the brain up to the eyes. It fell without a sound. A second Culler, too far away for melee, got off a shriek of anger and warning before a piercing round took it in the chest. It fell to one knee, and Malak followed up with a slag round through an eye. It collapsed on the ground, twitching and screaming as the molten copper and tungsten exploded from the projectile and left a poisonous trail as they burned through soft tissue.

His display alerted him to incoming enemies. He and Hanako would have their hands full, but they needed to keep moving, to redirect the Culler’s advance and take pressure off of the Legion’s front line.   Behind him was the bombed building, before him a plaza one hundred meters wide. “Pull them in,” he ordered.

Hanako used his hip as a brace and jumped onto the same roof that the twins had recently defended. Malak did not see where she went, but took down three more Cullers before she reappeared, on the opposite side of the courtyard. A tail of screaming aliens followed her. Malak kicked open the back door of the collapsed building, and then bent on one knee. Hanako jumped from the roof, landing in a neatly tucked roll across the grassy plaza. She was on her feet and running again when the first of the Cullers entered the open space. “Tag,” she called through the comm as she stepped on his bent leg. One foot there, the other on his shoulder. One-hundred-eighty pounds of sleek muscle and deadly intent pushed off of him and onto the side of the building. The twisted supports and broken masonry created excellent handholds on the second and third stories. Malak took down the four lead Cullers, giving Hanako a decent lead, before retreating into the building.

There were stairs to his right, and he took them three at a time. His long legs ate up the distance so that he was nearly to the third landing before they entered the building. Malak did not bother pausing to shoot. A section of the treads had been destroyed, leaving a three meter vertical gap. He jumped, but from somewhere behind him a shock spear was thrown. It hit his legs, and he barely managed to get a handhold on the tangled roots of reinforcing metal bars that protruded from the wall. He swung his body back and forth, quickly building momentum, and fired down the stairs to cover himself. With no easy way to get back onto solid steps, Malak threw himself straight forward, flying through a hole in the wall and into an interior office. Power was off, and the space remained dark. His night vision kicked in as the Cullers realized where he had gone. They shrieked in pursuit.

“At position,” Hanako’s voice wasn’t even winded through the comm. “Status?”

“Move,” Malak ordered.

On his display she did not hesitate, but took off running across the intact portion of the roof, leaping into the air to cross to the next building and repeating. Malak navigated through overturned furniture to the center of the structure, where he reverted to normal vision. The missile had carved a hole roughly two meters across through every floor, leaving cabling and broken bits of masonry raw along the edges. Malak could not get a clear shot at his pursuers, but he fired of a few rounds blindly to give away his location. He holstered his Klim, freeing both of his hands for climbing, and jumped over the hole. Below his feet, in a pile of rubble, was the undetonated missile. He climbed, hand over hand, occasionally swinging to find a more secure grip.

The grating cry of Culler language bit at his ears as their talons bit into the concrete of the building. They were faster climbers – no need for fingers and hands as they drove their serrated, bony appendages directly into the concrete blocks and crawled up the building. As he reached the top, one of the enemy sank a talon into the meat of his calf. His armor kept it from sinking in too far, but as he kicked out and smashed the creature into an exposed metal bar, the wrenching pain in his leg reminded him that the ceramic weave was not impenetrable – merely highly resistant.  His arms strained and burned, with a quick, sharp tug he flipped out onto his back on the roof. Without pause, Malak rolled, pulling his weapon. Eight Cullers had already begun to climb up the hole. His display showed an additional fifteen inside the building and ten more scaling the wall as Hemah had done.  Malak fired.

He pushed up into a running position. There was a quiet crack, barely made out under the distant heavy guns, the screams of his enemy, and the sound of his own breath in his lungs. He pivoted on his left foot, his leg muscle protesting and blood welling out through his suit. One, two steps. A boom, a rumble, more movement than sound and then the building was trembling under his feet. Three, four steps. The roof was collapsing under him, Cullers crying out. Shrieking, screeching, wailing into the sunny sky.

Malak’s right boot hit the lip of the roof just as it crumbled away, giving him no traction. Still, he threw himself over the gap between that building and the next. It was lower, and he connected hard with the roof, his shoulder taking the brunt of the impact. Kinetic gel absorbed the worst of it, leaving him with only mild discomfort rather than a broken collarbone. He did not stop moving until he had crossed two more buildings and met up with Hanako, who was sniping Cullers as they broke around the end of the Legion front line. Through the proximity comm, he heard her deep inhale. She smelled his blood, but did not say anything.

“Next objective. Assess.” He sat next to her, pulling out his med kit and sealing the wound before pinching the edges of his suit together and sealing that as well.

“Team One is making progress, but the terrain is holding them up. Urchin air support is utilizing the buildings to block movement and create openings for Culler ground troops.” She pinged a mass of the enemy at the far north of the Legion. “These are moving around our people faster than we can advance. Gunnar is on the line. He reports that another fifty thousand are on the edge of his sensor range. It looks like they are redirecting to intercept here.”

A tone sounded on his display and new information appeared on his map. The Cullers had landed their ships before the fleet could blockade the planet, and three had touched down to the west of the settlement. The mountain range dipped south there, forcing the aliens to come down close to the research buildings before they could move north again through heavy vegetation to the Coalition retreat position. It was a bottleneck for the Cullers, hemmed in by the landscape and the Legion, but they had superior numbers. Malak’s people were equally restricted by the need to defend instead of becoming the aggressors. He turned his back on the urban warfare and faced to the northwest. From above, the vegetation had looked like any thick forest with trees so close together the branches interlocked and created a solid canopy. Although it was still more than a kilometer away, from a side view, Malak could see oddly shaped stone columns, curved and broken in places but still reaching dozens of meters upward. Dense vines snaked up from the ground randomly, before leafing out when they reached the top. Malak studied the shape of the columns, the jagged, broken edges worn smooth over time by the elements.

“Papa-Hotel, this is Team Leader. Over.” There was a long pause after he broke communications silence, and Malak used that time to extract the long-range rifle from his pack. The same make as Hanako’s, the barrel and stock were in four pieces that easily screwed together. Malak only ever loaded armor piercing rounds into his rifle, so there was no need to toggle ammunition. He used the roof ledge as a rest and lined up a Culler in his sights. It would take the Falcon technician on board the Pale Horse a few minutes to verify encryption and secure a new line. He fired and watched through the sight as several hundred meters away a burst of ichor exploded from the back of a Culler and it dropped like a stone.

“Team Leader, this is Papa-Hotel. Go ahead.” Smierc sounded tense, which was at odds with the humor she found in most situations. Malak squeezed the trigger again and another Culler fell, knocking into the one next to it and tripping a third.

“Papa-Hotel, sending coordinates for air support. T-minus one-twenty minutes. Over.”

“Team Leader, position will be compromised. Enemy reinforcements have arrived. Over.”

Malak only hesitated as long as it took him to breathe. Thomas had said the decision was his, that remaining clandestine was not as important as saving the researchers on Navi-2. If the Coalition was finally ready to use the best weapons they had, without restrictions, then Malak was willing to show them what he could do. More importantly, he was ready to take out as many of the enemy as possible. Why they had attacked in the Navi system, so far from the front lines of the war and the bigger shipping lanes was unknown, but the Legion would make their enemy think twice about such a bold move.

“Papa-Hotel, at your discretion. Out.” He fired off two more shots in rapid succession before dismantling his rifle. Hanako had hers put away first.  “Two man sling-shot,” he told her, “give Team Two time to reposition before we draw them in.”

“Yes, sir.” Hanako didn’t relish the combat in quite the same way as Af or Smierc would have, but she was the equal of any in the Legion except himself or his lieutenants. He looked forward to the fight. He gripped her forearm and dropped her over the edge before following, using window sills and broken masonry to lower himself to the ground. The nearest Culler was eighty meters away and moving slowly through a narrow alley. Its shadow moved like an oil spot across the pale stone.

Malak flashed a grin in his helmet. He was most definitely looking forward to it.

To Be Continued…