Barghest III – Chapter 4

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Sting Like A Bee

Year 2156. Day 127. Hour 1230.

Dummy Bar. n. Daily Meal Enhancement (DME) Bar. Dense nutrient supplement designed to provide one soldier with necessary calories for active duty along with essential vitamins, minerals, and immune system boosters. Nicknamed after the soldiers who willingly consume the Coalition’s version of hard tack.

It wasn’t the alarm that woke her, but the slam of her shoulder into the floor of the break room that yanked Maker from sleep. In the hours since her shift on the bridge had ended, there had been too many alarms for her to pay attention unless it affected the Communications and Encryption offices. ISG malfunctions, gravity repairs, incaporeal leaks, hull breaches, and a million other life and death issues that Engineering had been dealing with while the rest of the crew repaired individual stations and prepped the transports and fighters for battle. Maker had spent most of the first shift sorting out the comms staff. The C&E Chief had been injured during the fight with the two Culler ships, and was still confined to the infirmary. Half of the remaining crew were sporting concussions, broken bones, and contusions; they had all reported for duty.

Maker was proud of them for that. Communications officers were cross trained as technicians and could supplant engineers and mechanics on smaller jobs throughout the ship. With the Chief out, Maker took command, ignoring the more senior second shift officer who was more than willing to shirk his responsibilities. She split her people into repairs and their regular duties translating and encrypting data packets to be sent back to Sol. Information from the fleet at Navi came in short trickles through the radiation interference, but each new update brought worse news than the last. The Coalition was outnumbered and barely holding the line around the most populated planet. Hundreds of thousands of private contractors and civilians were trapped there, fighting Cullers on the ground, and only a small contingent of soldiers had made it to the surface to defend and organize an evacuation. The Coalition desperately needed the Kahlid to help turn things around.

Maker snorted to herself as she pushed off the floor and tried to focus her vision on her bracer. They desperately need the Rear Admiral and a dozen more ships. Fat chance of getting that. A notification was blinking, ordering Maker to the bridge. She acknowledged it and pushed to her feet. A wave of dizziness hit her as soon as she was vertical and Maker had to close her eyes and lean against the wall until she steadied. Too many hours without real sleep and not enough time to find a meal were catching up with her.

“Lieutenant.” Maker looked up to see one of the new privates, less than two months out of basic, standing before her with a forehead wrinkled from worry and a cup of coffee. “We finished the secondary dish alignment, and there is a new data packet coming in. Ma’am, can I…can I get you anything?”

“Is there any more coffee?”

A more seasoned officer, one who had instigated the initial prank war against Maker when she was first stationed on the Kahlid, held out a full cup and a nutrient bar. “Extra salt, just like you like it,” he said with a straight face.

Maker took a sip. There was almost enough sugar in it to cover the bitter taste of the coffee, and it was wet enough to make the nutrient bar digestible. She smacked her lips and replied with an equally dry tone, “Needs pepper.” The private looked confused, and Maker took pity. “Inside joke, Fuzz. Don’t worry about it. Sergeant,” the older man nodded and walked beside her on her way through the comms stations, “make that data packet a priority. Pull a crew off tertiary repairs if you have to, but the Captain is going to need that ASAP.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Do you want us to keep pinging the relay system?”

“Your call. You know the stress levels better than anyone else. Just note it for the records if you decide to forgo procedure and I’ll sign off on it later. I’ll be on the Bridge if you need anything.” She hit the door control and stepped into the corridor.

“Let us know if you need anything, ma’am,” he nodded seriously, and a few others who had been on the Kahlid while she was a supervisor in comms looked up from their stations and did the same.

Maker waved her unopened nutrient bar. “Anyone who can find one of these that tastes like steak and won’t break my teeth gets an extra day off this week.” There was laughter from her crew, and Maker felt some of her tension ease. They needed a break, even for a few minutes, before they arrived at Navi. The doors closed and Maker straightened her shoulders and forced herself into a brisk walk. She had choked down a third of the hard, dry bar and most of her coffee by the time she entered the bridge. The primary crew were in the middle of first shift, and Jones was still in her chair, deep in conversation with Ben-Zvi. Maker went to stand at attention and wait her turn, and realized belatedly that she was still holding her cup and food – both banned from the bridge. If I’m this tired now, I’ll need stims to make it another eighteen hours. A mechanic working on the console closest to the door opened her tool box and gestured. Maker quickly disposed of her contraband with a nod of thanks. The ship shuddered again and she had to brace one hand on an auxiliary station to keep from falling.

“Comms,” Jones looked up from the tablet Ben-Zvi was holding, “get me a status update from Engineering. I want those tremors locked down before we exit ISG.”

“Captain,” Soon spoke up from his station. “I would suggest we focus instead on the secondary hull fissures. From the latest data, it looks like we’ll have a few hours once we enter the system before we’ll be in firing range of the enemy. We can use that time to repair the gravity drive.”

“I respectfully disagree, Captain,” Giradot interjected from his place at the ancillary engineering console along the rear wall of the bridge. He looked irritated, as if the debate was inconveniencing his day. Get in line, asshole, Maker thought. “Waiting at the edge of the system until we have orders from Sol is our best course of action. Until communications has received confirmation that we are to enter this conflict, it is better to reserve the Kahlid to protect this sector should the fleet fail at Navi.”

“Your input is noted, gentlemen,”Jones replied. Her voice gave nothing away, and Maker could only wait and stare at the back of her neat blonde braid, until she was called upon. “However, we have no way of knowing if Sol has even received our latest update – is that correct, Lieutenant Maker?”

Maker startled, surprised to find herself involved in the debate. She had taken over repairs in the Chief’s absence, but she wasn’t the ranking officer. She glanced at the Lt. Commander manning the primary comms station, he had seniority. He nodded for her to go ahead. “Ehm, yes, ma’am. C&E has sent the packet twice and continues to ping the closest relay, but radiation interference is high and repairs to the tertiary comms dish are not yet complete.”

“But if they were, you could boost the signal and reach Sol, could you not?” Giradot was pressing her for an answer, and Maker knew he wouldn’t like what she had to say.

“It is possible, sir, but the tertiary repairs will not be completed before we reach Navi.”

“How long would you need?” This came from Ben-Zvi, who shifted her weight with impatience.

“Time is not an issue, ma’am. We don’t have the parts. Engineering could probably scavenge what we need, but they are on other priorities and – my best guess – they’d have to take circuit boards from the external sensors to make it work.”

“Flying blind puts us at a disadvantage, ma’am.” The primary tactical officer was older than Ben-Zvi or Jones, and he looked like he had seen every battle since the invasion. His prosthetic hand twitched over the console, allowing him quicker reaction times. It wasn’t good form to disagree with the Chief of Intelligence in front of the Captain, but from the look of tactical, Maker doubted he gave a shit.

“Agreed.” Jones tapped out a few commands on the console to her right and the main display was overlaid with the most recent update from the fleet. The twin globes of blue light representing Navi’s binary stars pulsed with radiation; twelve planets, four within the wide habitable zone, rotated around the suns. The outer three planets and an icy disc of dust were devoid of activity. Closer in, the number of ships was so dense that Jones had to magnify the view to allow individual objects to be discerned. “As you can see, the Cullers continue to grind down the fleet. We are holding for now, but losses are high and eventual defeat inevitable. Assuming the Rear Admiral received my request for additional resources, we should obtain reinforcements in twelve to fifteen hours.”

“Even if they can last that long, the casualties – have they been calculated?”

Ben-Zvi answered Soon, “Losses among the fleet will mean little to the ground troops. With the civilians to evacuate, they are taking enormous losses. I estimate three hours until the Cullers break defenses on the surface.” She listed numbers for civilians and soldiers that would die. Maker swallowed hard. It wouldn’t be the largest single defeat the Coalition had ever taken, but it would be substantial.

“We will exit ISG within the system, here,” Jones painted a dot on the map and continued talking as if she had proposed one of the riskiest maneuvers a Sidus-class was capable of. Too long serving with Yardley, Maker thought. “The majority of the fleet is on the distal side of the planet. We’ll approach the attacking ships from the proximal side in order to drive a wedge in their formation and give our ground transports the opportunity to launch before they can react to our presence. I anticipate heavy damage to the Kahlid, and want every fighter out of the docks within twenty minutes of interstellar travel. Lieutenant Maker,” Jones waved her forward and Maker stepped up beside the Captain’s chair. “I reviewed the comms logs, you translated and anticipated the Culler action with a minimum thirteen second lead on the James. Can you do that again?”

Maker could feel sweat starting to bead under her arms. No pressure. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Pull up comms on the ancillary console and provide support to the Lt. Commander and his second. We have one opportunity to surprise the enemy, do not disappoint me, Lieutenant.” The weight of Jones’ gaze was heavy, and Maker felt for a moment as if every life on the Kahlid rested there.

“Yes, Captain.”

Jones turned back to the main display and addressed the entire bridge. “Get to work.”

The ancillary console needed a few more repairs, and Maker did them herself so that the mechanic could move on to more complicated work. She was grateful for the distraction. There were few situations when anyone had viewed her ability with the Culler language as an asset, and Maker had a very short list of the number of times when she had come out of combat no worse off than she had gone in. Since she had been promoted to serve on the bridge, there had been many skirmishes, countless number of orbital support missions while ground troops had deployed, but never had she been asked to track and listen to so much alien chatter during combat. Her head was unusually clear, but she knew it was only a matter of time before it began to ache.

Her prediction became true within minutes of exiting ISG. A stray shot, intended for another target, sailed through what had been empty space to collide with the suddenly appearing Kahlid.

“Friendly fire,” Soon announced calmly as the impact alarm sounded. “Rail projectile to hull plating, exterior measures holding.” At her back, Maker could hear the two comm officers, and beyond them the rest of the bridge crew.

“Transports three, five, seven, and nine away. Docking bays fully open in eight seconds.”

Emici squadrons two and six prepped and ready. Ictus one through four have launched. Targeting enemy now.” A display to the side of Maker’s main screen reflected the primary display. A flood of blue and green dots representing the Kahlid’s fighter craft swarmed into the empty space between the ship and the rest of the fleet. Culler ships lit up in yellow as weapons were locked in on them. Purple dots representing the transports moved toward the planet, bringing support troops to the ground battle.

“Two Citrine are turning, Captain.”

“Aft guns prepped.”

“The nearest Red first,” Jones ordered. “Let’s give that Khutura-class and the Saladin some breathing room. Fire.” Maker pushed away the urge to open the Saladin’s comms and check on her cousin’s ship. Instead, she restricted her comm bands, isolating the frequencies the Cullers used. With a brush of her hands, the fringe frequencies – used during emergencies and for restricted communications – were pulled out and set to background noise. Everything else she closed down, leaving the two bridge officers to monitor those.

The chatter was not as overwhelming as she had anticipated. Although multiple ships were sending out communications at the same time, they followed a logical pattern, rather than the jumble of voices and data packets each Coalition ship emitted. Still, the familiar shriek and grate started a throb at the base of her skull. Whether it was actual pain or anticipatory, it hurt all the same.

Human reinforcements have arrived.

Where there is one, there will be more.

Retask to destroy?

Maintain pressure on the defenses.

Target the refineries. Maximum casualties.

On the surface, Culler troops spoke less, but their conversation was more chilling.

Leave the dead. Not fit to eat.

Humans moving ahead, some have survived.

Flank them, disable the young to slow the herd.

For two hours Maker did her best to keep the Kahlid a step ahead of the Culler movements. Aside from two persistent Citrine that the Ictus kept busy, they were mostly ignored by the enemy who only increased their efforts to break through the Coalition line. Jones continued to order aggressive attacks, but the only gains the Kahlid made were the successful launch of troop transports. Maker’s eyes were beginning to feel the strain, the pressure in her head was building, but she grit her teeth and focused. Thousands of her ship mates would die, hundreds had already died, in a single day. Her headache was nothing in comparison. She turned down the volume on the enemy comms, just for a moment to give her ears a break. Maker pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead, willing the pain away so that she could concentrate again.

“The Colonel is in position,” the lead comms officer said behind her. “Captain, she is requesting a direct channel.”

“Go ahead.”

Maker watched out of the corner of her eye as Jones took the call on the main display. Ben-Zvi looked tough enough to chew glass, but her backdrop was chaos. Hastily erected medical structures were overflowing with wounded. Coalition soldiers huddled in groups, dirty and slumped with exhaustion. Those that had made it to the surface before the blockade were a sharp contrast to the fresh troops Ben-Zvi commanded. Her companies were setting up new defenses and organizing attack groups.

“The Cullers knew just were to hit,” Ben-Zvi began without greeting. “Estimated death toll on the residents is at four hundred thousand. Preliminary numbers put the refugees from the moons at twenty thousand.” No one dared to interrupt, but there were several sharp inhales among those listening. Navi-2 and its moons had a population of almost three quarters of a million civilians. Nearly half were dead. “We are currently hemmed in at the rally point. To the west is our extraction location. I can defend it with what I have – even if we loose orbital defense – until reinforcements arrive from Sol. But it will mean abandoning the pass and the technetium stockpiles and refineries on the other side. If there are any more survivors, they’ll never make it through the Cullers in those mountains.”

“You have ground command, Colonel. Be advised, the Kahlid will continue to try to break the line, but we are making little headway. Do not anticipate any ships becoming available for evac. If you need an airstrike, we will do our best, but consider the Kahlid and your forces to be on their own.”

“Very good. My decision stands, Captain. Coordinates…”

Through the muffled screams of Cullers, a whisper, a regular crackle of static caught Maker’s attention. She sorted through the comm lines, looking for it. It could have been interference, the computer wasn’t identifying it as anything else, but it didn’t sound right to her. The fuzz and pulse of the signal was smoother. Predictable. She muted all but the wide-band Culler comms and pulled apart each of the ancillary frequencies, her fingers dancing across the display as she worked.

There. Found you.

Right on the edge of the Coalition spectrum was a single ship to surface comm. It was encrypted, but the code looked familiar. The Kahlid shook with a direct impact from a laser cannon. Maker needed to get back to monitoring the enemy, but the back of her neck was tingling.

“Maker to C&E,” she opened the line even as she turned up the other channels. The new signal she held open as well, passively listening.

“C&E Lead here, go ahead.” Maker recognized the voice and double checked it against the computer’s notification.

“Sergeant, I am sending you a signal that needs cleaned up. Break it using the attached cryp file. This is a top priority.”

He hesitated, “Data packages?”

Maker knew what she was asking. The coded information from the rest of the fleet was always the first priority for the department. It was what the Captain based decisions on regarding which ships to support and which to write off as too costly to save. Overriding that directive could be a court marshal offense. The ache behind her eyes dulled; the hairs on the back of her neck rose.

“On my authorization. Maker-Four-Zero-Seven-Tango-One. I need a clean signal yesterday, Sergeant.”

“You’ll have it.” He closed the comm, and she went back to her own job.

“Tactical! Urchin squad turning on our port side, one hundred thirty thousand clicks! They’re covering an Amber – re-positioning to coordinates – sending to you now.” Maker fed the information to the weapons and comms stations. Comms re-tasked Ictus to intercept the Amber while tactical focused on the new enemy fighters coming at the Kahlid.

“Lieutenant Maker,” Soon sent updated maps to her display, “I need a read on these two ships. Picking up increased heat signatures.”

Maker focused on the signals coming from those ships. “Reserve soldiers…Transports repaired…” She closed all but a single ship comm and the ancillary line to get rid of background noise.

…distract. Maximum devastation. Complete loss acceptable.

Enemy command identified. Destroy.

“They’re sending more troops to the surface.”

“Comms, get me the reserves. I want the remaining Emici launched and those transports brought down. Full-”

“Wait!” Maker spun around and interrupted Jones, but she didn’t have time to second guess the outburst. “They’ve isolated the Saladin and intend to take her out.”

“You’re certain?”

“They’ve been looking for the command ship – they say they’ve found it and are targeting it now. Expecting heavy losses on their side.”

“Helm,” Jones snapped, “find me a course through this mess to the Saladin. Comms, notify Captain Eumaeus to prepare for assault. Tactical-”

A tone in her ear notified Maker of a waiting message. The Sergeant had come through. She opened the file and read through the transcript as decryption ran on the active ancillary line.

“…damaged. Require repairs to short range weapons.”

“Papa-Hotel this is Team Leader. What is your position status?”

“Undetected, Team Leader. Do you require immediate assistance?”

“Negative, Papa-Hotel. Remain-”

The recording cut out with the sound of heavy artillery and the dissonant screams of humans and Cullers. Maker watched the signal in real time even as she opened a link to the sensors station. Soon and his second chair had not been scanning for additional Coalition signatures, but a broad system sweep when the Kahlid first exited ISG would have been performed automatically. She raced through readouts searching for anything out of place. The enemy ships were still ordering new positions, but Maker downgraded those feeds to text only so she could concentrate – relying instead on the James to alert her to threats.

Navi-2 had three moons. Two were on the distal side of the planet. One of those had been immolated, the atmosphere set on fire by the Cullers – killing everyone on the surface. The other was barely holding its orbit after intense bombing and would need artificial stabilization to keep from breaking apart over the next few years. The third moon was currently between the planet and its suns. It was tapped out for resource extraction, and the small outpost there had been evacuated early in the invasion – leaving it mostly untouched by enemy fire. On the opposite side of the moon from the Kahlid was a nearly dark heat signature. Maker highjacked a small portion of sensors, praying Soon wouldn’t notice, and ran a new scan even as the ancillary line came to life again.

“Papa-Hotel, this is Team Leader.” Gravel and glass tumbling over themselves. A deep voice that demanded obedience. Maker would have recognized it anywhere. “Break position and provide orbital support to these coordinates.” Numbers flashed across her display, and Maker began decoding reflexively. “Full spread.”

“Team Leader this is Papa-Hotel. Coordinates received,” there was a pause, “appears to localize on your signal, Team Leader.” Sensors confirmed it was a Coalition ship, a Cicuta class. It did not have any match in the registry.

He ignored the question and Maker felt her stomach flip uncomfortably. If the a Cicuta fired where he directed, he would be targeted as well. That class didn’t have the precision of a gun ship. “Papa-Hotel. Begin count of ten minutes on my mark. Mark.”

Maker redirected the sensors to the planet’s surface, looking for the coordinates of the air strike. It was covered in dense vegetation. A few miles to the West, a massive heat signature was closing. The speed and movement could only indicate Cullers. Maker focused on the coordinates again. It required a lot of processing power, too much to go unnoticed by an officer as perceptive as Soon, but she had to know. The computer picked up anomalies in the vegetation and stripped away the image to see what was underneath. Maker had to dig her fingers into the console to keep from falling in shock. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people were hiding in that forest. The Team Leader would be with them.

He was Legion. She knew that, had known it since RB-14 when he saved her during the sand storm. Known it since she heard his voice over the comms. Cold. Professional. Efficient. She had seen his unit do incredible things – things no other Coalition soldiers could have done. Things not even the Raiders could have pulled off. They had destroyed the Culler base on VK10 and given the ground troops enough time to pull out. They had defeated a hoard of attacking enemies on RB-14 and saved her people.

Ben-Zvi and the Coalition were going to abandon the pass. The civilians stranded on the other side, cowering under the cover of a forest, would be left to face the Cullers alone. They would be slaughtered.

Unless…unless the Legion could save them. It wouldn’t be enough to merit support from the Kahlid, but the technetium stockpiles would be. The element was incredibly rare in the Sol system and essential in the processing and manufacture of plastisteele and ship plating. Losses would be in the trillions – worth more to the Coalition than civilian lives.

“Maker!” Soon’s voice whipped across the bridge like a physical knife, cutting into her thoughts. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get out of my sensors!” He tried to lock her out, but Maker sprang into action, capturing the data at her station.

“Lieutenant,” Jones began with a scowl.

“Captain, there are-” Her defense was cut off by Soon.

“Urchins six hundred thousand clicks and closing! Coming around the far side of the planet. Tactical, conf- Coalition ship! Cicuta class, maneuvering from behind the moon.”

“Comms, notify them of the incoming Urchins. Sensors, sweep the battle again. Helm, I want to be moving in five, the Saladin-”

“Captain,” Maker interrupted again, “That Cicuta has no short-range weapons.”

“Are you questioning the Captain’s orders, Lieutenant?” Giradot was the one to ask, and Maker barely managed not to snarl at him. She was nearly certain he had interfered with the array outside Alnitak – or at least knew who had. Falling in behind an Intelligence officer who was shadier than most was the last thing she wanted to do.

“Yes,” she spat. The bridge fell quiet, despite the battle raging around the Kahlid. Maker felt the blood drain from her face as the Captain slowly turned her chair. “There is additional intel, Captain,” she spoke as quickly as she could. “Special ops units are on the ground, opposite the Colonel on the pass. They have the opportunity to evacuate twelve thousand civilians and protect the technetium reserves, but are awaiting air support from that Cicuta. Without it, the reserves will be lost.”

“Sensors,” Jones spoke quietly, eyes narrow. “Verify.”

A bead of sweat rolled down Maker’s chest, making her twitch. Urchins were closing on the Cicuta; the clock was running down to the air strike.

“Verified.” Soon reported. Maker exhaled. “Between ten and fifteen thousand signatures are trapped between the pass and a rapidly approaching front of Cullers.”

“How many?” Jones’ eyes never left Maker’s.

“Too closely grouped for accuracy. Computer estimates forty thousand.”

Tactical let out a startled huff of shock, but it was Giradot who spoke, “Even if the Lieutenant is correct, no unit will survive against that number. It is a waste of our resources.”

“They will.” Maker ignored the stares and sidelong glances from the rest of the bridge crew and focused on the Captain.

“Urchins will make contact in four minutes.” No one responded to Soon’s update. That leaves another four minutes for Papa-Hotel to wipe them out with weapons they don’t have and provide the air strike that won’t be accurate enough, Maker thought desperately.

“Are you clairvoyant as well as a translator, Lieutenant? You have no way to back that claim.” Giradot dismissed her. “Captain, the Saladin?”

“Two Ambers and a Red have targeted the Saladin!”

“Signals have be blocked. Saladin is out of contact!”

“Course plotted, Captain. Ready on your order.” The primary helmsman remained focused, but the secondary turned to wait for the Captain’s acknowledgment. Jones was still staring at Maker.

Maker had no idea if she could convince Jones, but she had to try. “That unit is black ops, ma’am. Give them the assist and they will succeed.”

“What unit?” Giradot’s eyes snapped to Maker, his posture tightening with anticipation.

“Ma’am,” Maker scrambled for anything that could persuade her, “it’s classified, but-”

“What unit?” Giradot demanded.

Saladin is taking fire! Hull holding, for now.”

“Course plotted is closing, Captain,” the helm warned. “Two minutes!”

“Give me something, Lieutenant,” Jones said softly.

“I-May I speak to you privately, Captain?”

Giradot made a sound of disbelief. Soon growled in fury. Jones ignored them both and surged out of her chair. She snapped out as she walked to her ready room, “You have sixty seconds, Lieutenant.”

Maker barely remembered to secure her station before she ran after the Captain. The door closed behind her with a hiss of the lock. Jones crossed behind the conference table and poured herself a glass of water. “Fifty-one seconds, Lieutenant.”

“The unit. It’s the Legion.” Maker felt like a weight had fallen from her. At the same time her stomach heaved and her mouth filled with spit in preparation to vomit. The realization of what she was doing, of all that rode on the next minute, was overwhelming. She reached out and squeezed the back of a chair, leaning on it for support. Jones turned, her expression carefully blank.

“Keres Legion?”

“Yes. Their leader is on the surface, organizing the retreat of the civilians. He called in orbital support from the Cicuta, but their short-range weapons were damaged. They won’t stand a chance against the Urchins, and without the air strike his position will be overwhelmed.”

“How sure are you that it is the Legion?” Her finger tapped against the clear water glass, making the liquid inside ripple from the vibration.

The back of Maker’s neck tingled with a cool brush of air. “Positive.”

“Why?”

That question pulled Maker up short. Because I’ve heard that voice before. Because it was the lifeline I needed when I thought I would die. Because it gave me hope when I would have given up and then it followed through on that promise. Because he saved me. Malak. Because I know. She refused to give voice to those thoughts, the illogical certainty that whispered the truth in her brain. Carefully, she spoke, “I intercepted the Team Leader’s signal on VK-10.”

“This is the person who ordered the evac?”

“Yes. Yardley told me not to report it.” Jones nodded, clearly remembering the farce she and Soon hard participated in. “Then at RB14-”

“It was the Legion?” Jones cut in. “The Legion defended the base there?”

“Not defended. They were there on another mission, I think. Two squadrons. Two. Against all those enemies.”

“No bodies were recovered among the Cullers. Are you saying they took no losses?” Maker nodded and Jones set down her glass with a clink. “Either you are a liar who should be executed for the damage you are trying to cause in this war, or I am to believe that some exceptionally gifted elite operators are capable of working miracles.”

“Only if miracles involve severed spines.” Maker belatedly added a measure of respect, “Ma’am.”

Precious seconds passed and neither woman said anything. Maker was ready to admit defeat when Jones finally moved, stepping around the table and past her. She followed the Captain back out onto the bridge. “Sensors, keep an eye on the Saladin. Helm, plot an intercept course for that Cicuta. Tactical, take down those Urchins.”

“Captain-” Giradot began.

“Lieutenant Maker,” Jones continued as if she hadn’t heard her Chief Intelligence Officer, “Get that ground unit on the line. Confirm coordinates for orbital support.”

“Yes, Captain.” The Kahlid had far superior firepower to a Cicuta and would be able to target with more precision. Maker slipped on her headphones and pulled up the ancillary comm line again. “Team Leader, this is Kahlid-niner, come-in.” Maker waited half the time she normally would for a response, knowing that they were cutting things close. The Kahlid was already re-positioning. Short-range weapons were focused on the Urchins and tactical had locked firing solutions.

“Team Leader, this is Kahlid-niner. Papa-Hotel is taking fire. We are moving to assist. Confirm coordinates as requested.” The line was open and live, but he did not respond. Irrationally, Maker felt anger rising. Twice she had tried to help the Legion. On RB14 she had saved his life. The Culler whose skull she had crushed with her own helmet would have gutted the Team Leader if she hadn’t been there. The least he could do was respond. For fuck’s sake. “Malak! Confirm the damn coordinates!”

She practically shouted into her mic, and she knew the other officers were staring. Her breath was coming fast, fear and adrenaline mixing with the responsibility for changing the Captain’s mind. God, we should have gone to the Saladin. They could be destroyed. Seamus is on board. He could die. The battle-

Kahlid,” his voice rolled over the comm like a dark wave of tumbled stone. Maker closed her eyes for a moment, letting the relief wash through her. “This is Team Leader. Sending confirmation now.”

Maker decrypted the data as quickly as possible and fed it to sensors and tactical. An Urchin crashed into the Kahlid’s hull, making the ship rock slightly as the kinetic shielding reacted.

“Put it on the main display,” Jones ordered. Maker turned to watch an image of the surface, the pale green of the forest where the Legion was protecting civilians was dwarfed by the massive red heat signature of the Culler front. “Fire.”

To Be Continued