…Wag the Dog
Year 2156. Day 127. Hour 1030.
ResQFoamTM. Noun. An expanding medical foam designed to stabilize wounds and allow continued activity after trauma-induced hemorrhage. Generic versions issued to Coalition troops are often pejoratively called WuSS Foam i.e. Wound Stabilization System.
More than twenty-four hours had passed since the Garrote and the Scythe had landed on Navi-2. An entire day, and all Malak had to show for it was a hole in his calf, a dislocated knee, and eighteen thousand human civilians. Seven kilometers. He snarled to himself in his helmet, knowing Hanako was the only person close enough to hear on the proximity comm. Seven kilometers in twenty-four hours. The humans moved at a snail’s pace, limping along with injured and children, easily frightened. It was everything the Legion could do to keep them from scattering completely whenever an Urchin strike or Culler-lead attack came too close.
Malak snarled again and braced his leg against the crumbled wall of a building. His people had taken out nearly ten thousand Cullers during that time, without a single casualty, but injuries were mounting and ammunition running low. He had been forced twice to resort to calling in an air strike from the Pale Horse. Although Smierc had successfully carried out his orders without drawing the attention of the Coalition fleet, the Cullers had noticed and responded. She had taken fire during the second orbital support run, and technicians were still making repairs to the Cicuta-class.
Malak pressed one hand against each side of his knee and forced his weight onto the joint. The ball of his lower leg slammed into the socket on his femur with jarring intensity. He ground his teeth through the pain, ignoring it in favor of sheer frustration. Twenty-four hours and he had moved seven kilometers. There was another thirteen to go to reach the pass. It was disgraceful. Disgusting. Damned infuriating. Hanako offered him an injection from her med kit, and he waved her off. His own stims and meds had already been spent on civilians to keep them alert and moving. Wasteful.
If this latest mission to protect humans had taught him anything, it was that they were desperately in need of assistance, and probably not worth the cost. Malak checked his display for the next target. He plotted out a course that would take Hanako and himself through a thick band of the enemy, relieving pressure from the forward line, but the Cullers were once again gaining ground and surging out ahead of the Legion advance. It was to be expected, considering their sheer numbers and physical adaptations to run over rough terrain. That did not mean Malak had to accept it.
“This is Team Leader. Papa-Hotel, come in.” He sent the attack plan to Hanako and reloaded his Klim with additional slag rounds.
“This is Papa-Hotel-actual. Team Leader, go ahead.”
“Orbital support requested. Sending coordinates now.” He began to run, ignoring the one-lane road that lead into the forested area and instead utilizing the destroyed buildings at the edge of the settlement to conceal his movements.
“This is Papa-Hotel. Coordinates received.”
“Fire at will.”
A jagged line of Cullers was moving through the debris, searching for survivors and killing anything they found. Malak slammed bodily into the first in the row, catching it by surprise and forcing it into the next one, five meters away. He toggled for incendiary rounds and fired while he remained in position, his bruised knee on the ground and his other foot braced for support. Hanako followed him at a run. She carried a salvaged Culler shock staff, and she braced the butt in the ground even as one booted foot connected with his thigh. She pole vaulted through the air, feet first, and met the fifth enemy with the soles of her shoes. Malak came after her, using one projectile to end Cullers one and two, and ignoring the next two that had been caught in the incendiary blast. Hanako had already moved on as he passed the crushed remains of a Culler skull. She had braced her own knee in the dirt, and was providing cover fire as Malak approached; he used her for a springboard just as she had done with him, sailing through the air to topple the Culler line.
A high-pitched whistle, nearly painful to his ears, was the only warning before heavy artillery from the Pale Horse impacted the surface. A wide swath of buildings and a large section of a mountain collapsed into a crater. Four more strikes followed, each punctuated by the maddened, pained shrieks of dying Cullers. Two additional missiles should have hit, but did not.
Malak launched his service blade at a Culler that broke formation to charge him, but kept his position on one knee waiting for Hanako to repeat the leap frog across the enemy. He shot two more before her boot pushed off against his thigh.
“This is Papa-Hotel. Team Leader, come in.” There was background noise on the comm signal. Malak rolled to dodge a Culler that had crawled over the roof of the northern most building to drop down on his position. One talon slashed at the dirt where his head had been moments before.
“Go ahead,” he grunted. He fired a slag round, but the enemy slipped in the blood of Malak’s previous kill. Pink juices mixed with the pale dirt and stuck to his armor suit, interfering with some of the sensors.
“Taking enemy fire. Long-range weapons down. ISG down. Short range weapons at sixty-two percent.”
“Pull back,” he ordered, even as he met the screeching Culler’s upraised talon with the muzzle of his Klim. He pulled the trigger point blank against the joint between talon and arm. The projectile blew through exoskeleton, sinew, and bone to explode out the back of the limb and burrow into the torso. The Culler thrashed wildly, catching the curve of Malak’s helmet with the opposite talon and trowing him off balance. Malak moved with the force, gripping the shoulder on the injured side of the alien and using it as a fulcrum to swing around. As the Culler fell he let go, focusing on his next target.
“Engage the enemy and prioritize engine repairs. Send notification when complete.”
“Understood. Papa-Hotel out.”
Hanako had cleared the rest of the line, and she rejoined him as he collected his knife and cleaned it. One side of her suit was tacky with grayish pink ichor.
“Sensors are malfunctioning,” he noted. “Yours?”
“Spotty. We’re out of high ground, sir. The orbital support has given us some breathing room, and the clearance team is currently circling back around to regroup and move again. Orders?”
Malak toggled back to his map. He and Hanako were between the forest and the settlement, while the clearance team had been sweeping along the northern edge, just below the mountains. Cullers had infiltrated the rocky terrain, using their agility to their advantage. They couldn’t move in very large groups, but the high ground combined with the element of surprise was dangerous to the humans plodding along just to the south. Team One was giving up ground to the advancing main force, but they were making the Cullers pay for every step. Every fifty meters that the enemy advanced, they lost dozens to pressure sensitive mines and precision strike Legionaries. At the rate the humans were moving, it would take another three days to hit the pass. Malak’s people were good, but even they needed ammo and a few hours rest to keep up a defense against those numbers.
“Call in Team One. I want them back here double time and setting up a perimeter defense system at the edge of this forest. We’ll use the cover to our advantage and buy Smierc time to make repairs.”
At the top of the hour, Malak and Hanako circled to meet with Team One, providing relief as they set traps for the pursuing Cullers, then returned to the rear guard for the humans. Relief from the blackness under the leafy canopy was just beginning as Malak threaded through the tall white columns.
“Report.” He paused at the knoll of a small hill, looking down over the retreating mass of engineers and technicians, geologists, metallurgists, chemists, and what was left of their families. The dulled black of Af’s helmet was visible in the distance, a sharp contrast to the bare heads and shorter stature of those around her. Hanako fell to one knee at his side, protecting his back.
“We’ve lost twenty-three more to injuries. The ground here is too soft; each time we have to dip into a valley they are sinking into swamp. What the bacteria in the water isn’t infecting, the fishing are biting into. I estimate we have dropped our pace again.”
Malak was aware of the problem. His own boots and his suit up to the knees were coated in slimy muck. Only the sporadic, small hills gave relief from the exhausting work of trudging through the mud. He braced one palm against a column. The sensors in his suit were only half-functioning, but they projected an analysis of the structure onto his display. Oydroxapatite, calcium, phosphate, potassium chlorate. Trace amounts of magnesium, sodium, cesium, technetium. Composition analysis suggests organic osseous tissue.
Bone. Columns he had assumed were stone or petrified wood were actually bone. Malak surveyed the area again. Their placement wasn’t random, but in what might have been curved rows, interrupted only where another row intersected, as though one enormous animal had fallen on top of another and they had been left in place to decay. Plant matter had taken over at some point, utilizing the structures to climb toward the sun, creating a grave of leaves.
“Suggestions for faster movement?”
It was Hemah who responded with a sigh. “Unless we can get on firmer ground, they aren’t going to move faster. I could carry a human quicker than they walk.”
Malak pulled up the map on his display while Af spoke, “They can’t take another night under here, sir. Their clothing can’t compete against the lower temperatures.”
Another six kilometers ahead, the bone forest had been cleared to make room for refineries and storage units. The area would provide cover and allow the humans to rest and regroup before pushing the final distance to the pass. It pained Malak to even think it, but he needed more soldiers. Even a few human companies would have been an enormous help in securing the exit for the civilians. Gunnar’s comm line activated.
“Team Leader, enemy is congregating in mountains to your north. Appear to be staging for an assault. Permission to engage?”
“Negative.” Malak had to bite off a snarl. He knew Gunnar wanted to go after the Cullers and kill them where they stood. Malak wanted the same, but if the Legion was drawn further from the forest, they wouldn’t be able to maintain a secure perimeter. “Maintain distance. Paint targets and set munitions for assault defense.” A data packet, patchy and too encrypted to have been sent from the Pale Horse, was received by his comm unit. Malak verified its security and ran decryption. New orders from Thomas. There were three scientists among the civilians that were to be protected at all costs. Images of two were included, but the third had been corrupted by the radiation from the system star. Malak spit out a curse in his helmet, and growled as well. Thomas’ tone implied he wasn’t happy about the directive or having it issued so late into the mission. That did not console Malak.
He should have known. The Coaltion had lied, to Thomas, to the Legion – to him. They would not have sent their most elite units just to save civilians – no matter the number. No, the Coalition had risked Malak’s people to save three humans. This was why the Cullers were poised to win the war. The Coalition cared less for their survival and success than they did for petty politics.
“Sir,” to her credit Hanako did not flinch at his growl, “I’m picking up movement behind our position. Estimated time until Culler engagement, two hours.”
He signaled to Af and Hemah. “Get them up,” he bit out. “Get them moving along this line.” Malak sent new coordinates that would lead the group to the firm ground at the edge of the bone forest – within range of strikes from the mountains. “Double time.” He stalked though the crowds of humans, ignoring the way so many flinched from his path – and so many more called out thanks and sought reassurance. He did not respond to any of them. His display flashed when he pinged the personal communicator of one of the three scientists. He recognized another next to her from the photos.
“Where is Dr. Patay?” His low question had nearby humans pulling away from him. One of the scientists answered in a trembling voice.
“He was still in the lab when the first strike hit. I thought he got out, but we haven’t seen him.”
Malak breathed deeply through the filtration system in his helmet. The damp mud and rotted vegetation of the swampy ground reminded him of Culler flesh. The stink of unwashed, frightened humans. The female scientist was sweating, despite the chill in the air. She smelled bitter, like cortisol and epinephrine. Lies. It didn’t matter; it was no more than Malak should have expected. He spun away, grinding his back teeth together in an effort not to turn and snap at the weak little woman. He considered, for a brief, enjoyable moment, turning and shooting her. No more lies. No more orders.
“Team Leader, this is Papa-Hotel. We are secure, but there is increased Coalition activity in the near vicinity. The hull has been moderately damaged. Still 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 at your location. Connect me to Falcon support.” He reached Hanako at the same time that the humans began to move. With a signal, she followed him back toward the Culler line.
“Team Leader, this is Falcon support. Go ahead.”
Malak transmitted the chemical composition of the bone forest and what his sensors had identified about the area. “Suggestions?”
There was a long pause while the tech looked through the data. “Suggestions for what?”
“Oh. Ah. Just a…”
A stray Culler emerged from over a small hill twenty meters away. Malak did not hesitate to launch his tomahawk, separating the jaw from the chest and dropping the alien. Hanako had already moved ahead, taking out another scout, before the technician spoke again.
“Definitely flammable,” the tech finally confirmed. Malak retrieved his weapon and skirted around Hanako, moving in alternating sweeps with her to poke holes in the Culler offense. “I’d estimate one hit from an orbital cannon would take out about a kilometer radius on initial impact – within the first ninety seconds. Secondary fires and structural collapse would increase the damage significantly over time. Depending on local wind and-” Malak cut the comm and checked his map. The brief rest had helped the civilians, they were moving faster and didn’t have far to go before they would all be in the narrow band of rocky ground between the mountains and the forest. His sensors blinked out, and then on again and he silently cursed the sticky cling of Culler fluids and mud that interfered with his technology.
With additional soldiers – another hundred Legionnaires or three hundred humans – he could draw the Cullers deeper into the forest and maintain adequate protection for the escaping civilians. He didn’t have another hundred Legionnaires. He didn’t have even one to spare – and he certainly wasn’t going to waste any of his people on protecting the Coalition’s scared scientists. Every one of his soldiers would be necessary for the mission to be successful. Malak knew that, and understood the ramifications.
“Hanako,” he spoke through the proximity comm and she severed the nerve core of another Culler before giving him her full attention. “Maintain rear patrol, within three hundred meters of the retreat.” He double checked his ammo stores and pulled his tomahawk and service knife. “On my signal, order Af and Hemah to break cover and make for the refineries. Team One will meet you there and work with Team Two as you continue to the pass.”
“Sir,” she began, but he cut her off by opening a line to the rest of the Legion ground forces.
“Hanako has command until further notice. Team Leader out.” He nodded to her, and she returned the gesture before crouching and gracefully leaping to the next hill, continuing northeast to follow the civilians. Malak turned the opposite direction.
It was dark under the thick canopy, and the setting sun made the shadows longer and heavier. Malak breathed deeply, controlled. Cullers used shadows to their advantage. Their quick movements and uncanny ability to sense their enemy scared human soldiers. The fear was born from the humans’ personal experience, but the Legion – they had been created in the minds of men. And the mind was capable of producing terrors far greater than existed in the universe. Malak was everything that human beings found frightening. They had named his ancestors from their oldest fears.
Hellhounds. Barghest. Grim. Death.
This was his purpose. Malak let the responsibilities of his position slide away. The fury over the Coalition’s obfuscation, the disgust at the wasteful tactics of the military. The weight of his duty to protect his own. He rolled his shoulders, adjusted his grip on his weapons. This was his purpose. To kill.
Adrenaline began to pump through his veins as he ran. Sensors picked up a cluster of the enemy seconds before he was upon them. They were moving along a narrow stream of water, picking their way through the mud on limbs well suited to difficult terrain. Malak jumped straight down, bringing his boot into the eye socket of the middle Culler in the group of five. He used the body as firm ground, planting his heel and kicking out with his other foot to knock aside a shock staff. That one stumbled backward, running into the last enemy in the line. The Cullers shrieked. Malak spun, hearing the crunch of exoskeleton under his boot. He planted his weight again and then lunged forward, his momentum carrying his service knife in a slashing motion up the inner thigh of the creature. It screamed and fell, talons thrashing, but Malak met the closest elbow joint with his tomahawk, severing it cleanly.
He pushed forward again, digging his knee into its chest – directly above the nerve cluster. It went limp and Malak rolled with it, landing in water but keeping to his feet and managing to duck under the swing of another shock weapon. He used the weight of the small axe to balance himself and flicked up his right hand, lancing the alien at the hip socket. Once the tip of his blade was under the outer shell, he twisted and pulled up, slicing through the thick artery there and cracking the bony covering until the lower portion ripped away. Pink ichor sprayed across his faceplate.
Malak did not wait to watch it collapse, but turned again. The last two Cullers had regained their footing and were charging; their shrieks echoed by other groups further away. Malak’s James reported that they were calling for reinforcements. He sheathed his tomahawk and met the shock staff with his gloved hand, grasping it near the center of the shaft throwing his weight into it. The Culler predictably lifted the weapon to try and shake him off, and Malak jumped to follow the movement. As he flipped over the Culler’s head, he slammed his knife into its eye. The last Culler ducked Malak’s boots, but was too slow to turn around before he had landed behind it. He threaded his arm around the Culler’s bicepm under the arm and and behind its back, gripping under the edge of its opposite jaw in a modified arm bar. It struggled, slashing out with its free talon, but Malak stepped onto the reverse knee joint and used the additional height to fling himself to the side, tearing the arm loose and cracking a portion of the bony covering on its face. As it fell, it cast the attached talon wide, seeking to stab Malak. Instead it sank into the still breathing chest of the Culler than had been directly in front of it. Both were mortally injured.
Malak retrieved his knife and surged up the further bank of the stream, deeper into the Culler lines. He didn’t stop to rest, didn’t pause except to verify position and approaching heat signatures, just killed. For thirty minutes he moved further from the rest of the Legion, the shrieks of dying and angry Cullers in his wake. His James confirmed they were flooding the forest, homing in on his location and swarming to surround him. His sensors continued to short out, made worse by additional damage he had taken. Between eight thousand and twenty-five thousand Cullers had packed into the forest, encompassing him. He crouched behind the protection of a moss-covered fallen bone and one of the standing structures.
“Papa-Hotel, this is Team Leader.” He didn’t wait for acknowledgment. “Break position and provide orbital support to these coordinates.” Malak sent his own location up to Smierc. “Full spread.” If one shot would take out a kilometer radius, a full spread should decimate everything – from the outpost to where the civilians were retreating.
“Team Leader this is Papa-Hotel. Coordinates received,” there was a pause, “appears to localize on your signal, Team Leader.”
Malak knew what Smierc was saying. You won’t survive. He knew the chances were slim. He had already considered it a hundred times since he had left Hanako. It wasn’t suicide. Malak wanted to live, to lead his people in the defeat of their enemy. There was a chance, a very small chance, that he could outrun the blast but it was all he could get with the resources available. “Papa-Hotel. Begin count of ten minutes on my mark. Mark.” Malak cut the transmission and fired two incendiary rounds into the nearest Culler group before standing and moving. His heart beat steadily, his breath came easily. He ignored the pain from the hole in his calf and the strain on his muscles from the prolonged fight. He ignored the stitch in his side from a broken rib and the pull on his forearm from a long, shallow talon cut that his armor had sealed. He needed to move.
“Team Leader, this is Kahlid-niner, come-in.”
Malak’s steps faltered. He knew that voice. The stumble cost him a few precious moments and a Culler closed on his left. He fired his last slag round and regained his footing. She should not be here, he thought. She should not be able to break into our comms. Again. Malak picked up speed to jump across a narrow draw, tossing a frag grenade below him. The explosion and strangled screams followed as he continued to run. He snorted to himself, almost, but not quite, amused. Where else would that fool be but where she doesn’t belong? The Kahlid was a Sidus-class. It would have superior targeting and fire power to the Pale Horse. If the Kahlid performed the bombardment, it would increase his chances by as much as eighteen percent. But he would have to break comm silence.
“Team Leader, this is Kahlid-niner. Papa-Hotel is taking fire. We are moving to assist. Confirm coordinates as requested.”
Malak could hear the snap in her voice, the demand for a response. He pivoted around a dense clump of bones and straight into fourteen Cullers. He was moving too fast to stop and knocked down the closest enemy with his momentum. There was no time to stop and deal with them individually, the countdown on his display reminded him of a definitive deadline. Malak did not wait, but pushed forward, ramming his fist into the elbow joint of the second Culler and shooting a third. He snapped two knees, and lost his tomahawk to a tangle of carapace and talons before he was free, flinging his last grenade over his shoulder and sprinting north east and away from the blast site.
The flashing taste of her frustration ghosted across his tongue before her voice shouted into his comm. “Malak! Confirm the damn coordinates!”
It was the second time she had used his name. Malak skirted two lines of aliens scouting though the forest and had to remind himself that they would die even if it wasn’t at his hand. He wondered how she had come by that information. She had cracked the encryption on his comms; there could have been a number of other security breeches. She is a risk. To herself and the Legion if she had any details about their mission. He could not deny, however, that while she was abysmal at physical combat, she had shown high aptitude with tech and her unusual tactics had worked in the past.
“Kahlid.” Again, he could almost hear her shoulders relaxing, smell the rush of serotonin in her relief. He pulled up the coordinates and resent them, this time to her directly. “This is Team Leader. Sending confirmation now.” He estimated he was still a full click from the outer limits of the bombardment and increased his speed. There was a line of the enemy between him and his destination. Malak altered course, running up a small hill and jumping for a broken shaft of bone sixteen feet off the ground. From there he sprung up to slam his feet into a standing bone, feeling the shudder and give of it beneath him. The Cullers had seen him, were lifting their shock weapons and scrambling to follow him. He turned in midair, pointing his Klim back to the enormous bone that supported the forest canopy overhead, and fired.
He was expected a flash and the collapse of that one structure – enough to hopefully distract and disorganize his pursuit. Instead, a shock wave caught him. His eyes were still open as his back slammed into another bone tree, breaking through it and flinging him further. A wave of fire, white hot and roaring, chewed through the forest. When he hit the next tree his kinetic gel failed and he blacked out to the sounds of Culler screams and the smell of rotten flesh burning.