Lafayette ran through the landing zone, his cybernetic feet and legs carrying him at a pace his old body of flesh and blood could never have hoped to match. He leaped over a pallet of ammunition coming off a Destrier and earned several choice human insults he’d have to cross-reference with MacDougall for their proper meaning.
He skidded around an idling Mule and found Elias waiting at the end of the ramp, a lumpy canvas sack at the suit’s feet.
“Elias, I see you’re ready to go. Thank you for volunteering for this mission,” Lafayette said.
“Valdar ordered us back to the Breitenfeld. Consider us volun-told.” Elias pointed to the sack, which had an unctuous odor so strong that Lafayette lowered the sensitivity of his nasal sensors. “You will make us shields.”
“I…don’t follow,” Lafayette said.
Elias described how the banshee armor proved resistant to the Xaros disintegration beams.
“That’s fascinating. I once experimented with armor capable of nullifying the Xaros beams.” Lafayette waved a hand over his cybernetic body. “My invention was…found wanting. Am I to understand that you’ve got dead banshees in that sack?”
“We stripped off armor plates,” Elias said.
“That’s rather morbid yet a real time-saver for me,” Lafayette said. “I have to build a bomb, but then I’ll make you and Kallen your shields. For science. Imagine if it works,” he rubbed his metal hands together, “and we survive this mission to tell everyone!”
Dr. Accorso, wearing a full surgical gown beneath a flack vest, waved his hands beneath a sterile field generator and slapped on a pair of gloves. Shor wore a set of Dotok surgical gear: tight wraps of magenta cloth around her body and scrubs and a mask over her mouth, sent over from the Burning Blade.
“Ready to make history?” Accorso asked.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said.
Accorso held his sterile hands in the air and backed into the surgical ward. The banshee lay on a ramp that had once been attached to a Mule, its limbs splayed out and fastened with double lengths of carbon-fiber cable used to lift Eagles off the flight deck. A vice held its head parallel to the ramp.
Wires snaked out from beneath armor plates, leading into Dotok medical equipment. A pair of crewmen holding gauss carbines and piston hammers watched from along the bulkhead.
Accorso squinted at the readings and shrugged his shoulders.
“Is the patient sedated?” he asked.
“I pumped her full of enough sedatives to kill a dozen adults. Whatever is in her head is overloading her lymphatic system. The sedative drip I’ve got her on is on par with what her system can negate. Let’s get going before she goes into organ shutdown or breaks loose,” Shor said.
“Our females have different blood types from the males. She’s a she.”
“Interesting.” Accorso picked up a set of pneumatic jaws the flight crews used to pry open cockpits of wrecked ships. “No time for finesse, I’m afraid.” He jammed the wedge end of the jaws against the base of the banshee’s skull and pressed a button. The jaws widened, separating armor plates with a sickening crack.
“Surgical scars to the base of the skull,” Shor said. “Looks only a few years old.”
“Consistent with the other specimens, the foreign object was likely introduced after maturity,” Accorso said. “Now that we’ve got a clear look, perhaps an ultrasound?”
He picked up a wand and pressed it against the bare flesh. Sound pulses formed a 3-D image on a handheld screen. A dense mass was attached to the banshee’s brain stem, its tendrils woven into the brain and spinal column.
“What do you think?” Accorso asked.
“I think brain surgery on a Dotok with such highly modified physiology is a mistake,” she said.
The banshee quivered and let out a low moan. One of the crewmen fumbled with his carbine as the other raised a hammer.
“Settle down, boys. I’ve had patients sing an opera while they’ve been under,” Accorso said. “Normally,” he said to Shor, “I’d agree with you. But … needs must.” He picked up a sonic scalpel and cut an incision across the mass at the base of the skull. Gray blood seeped from the wound.
Shor and Accorso spent the next ten minutes exposing the nodule, an oblong lump of gray metal with swirls and fractals dancing across its surface.
“Looks like a Xaros drone,” Accorso thought out loud. “Let’s remove it. Tray,” Shor gave Accorso a dirty look.
“I am the doctor and expert in Dotok physiology and neurology. You hold the tray.” She elbowed Accorso aside and picked up a set of pliers. “The wires can remain. I’m cutting away the Xaros device.” She snipped a wire where it connected to the device. Nothing happened for a moment, then the cut wire disintegrated. The banshee grunted.
“That was unexpected,” she said.
“Suggest you hurry.”
Shor snipped the rest of the wires with the same effect. She lifted up the device with the edge of the pliers.
“There’s a mass of wires attached to the brain stem. Angle it up so I can remove them,” Shor said. Accorso lifted the device with the edge of a pair of clamps and Shor cut away the remaining wires.
Accorso grabbed the device with the clamps and transferred it to a metal tray. He spun away from the surgical table and examined it beneath a light.
“Hello, my darling. What have we here?” Accorso watched as the patterns along the surface shifted…then went still. A burning ember crept across the surface as the device broke apart and collapsed into ash.
“No, no, no! God damn it!” Accorso slammed the empty tray to the deck and mashed it with his foot.
The monitoring equipment buzzed and a double chime sounded.
“Blood pressure fading, neural activity just went off the charts,” Shor said. “I think we’re losing her.”
“Gohrnah,” said the banshee.
Shor ran to the other side of the table and ripped her mask off.
“Gohrnah,” it said again.
“Is it…talking?” Accorso asked.
“It’s an old dialect, but I understand. It’s ‘help.’ She’s asking for help.” Shor touched the banshee’s face and spoke words Accorso’s translator didn’t recognize.
The banshee spoke again, guttural words that reverberated off the walls. Its speech trailed away as Shor, tears in her eyes, nodded furiously.
Flat lines cut across the monitoring display and stayed steady. Accorso switched it off.
Shor closed the banshee’s eyes and pressed two fingers to her lips. “We are less without you, old mother.”
“What did she say?”
“She spoke of a vile stone, an old story from Dotari Prime. A noorla lived inside a mountain and used its powers to force a city to do horrible things. Then…she asked to be forgiven. Asked me to pray at a shrine to lessen the weight of sins she’d carry to heaven.”
“The captain will want to know about this ‘vile stone.’” He opened the door back to the med bay. “You coming?”
“I must stay with her for a while, until her spirit has left,” Shor said. She folded her arms across the banshee’s chest and laid her head against the armor.
Cortaro limped down the stone walkway, carefully measuring each step with his prosthetic. His peg had a nasty habit of jamming into the nooks and crannies of the cobblestone surface, twisting it against the tender stump of what remained of his leg. There were times he could almost feel his missing foot, a phantom pain the doctor swore was a good thing. It meant his body would accept a vat-grown replacement easier.
The peg jabbed into a puddle and slipped. Cortaro went wheeling forward and would have fallen, had Steuben not grabbed him by the shoulder to steady him.
“Are you OK?” Steuben asked.
“No, Steuben, someone blew my leg off and now I’m trying to get around like a damned cripple,” Cortaro said. He tightened the strap lashing his prosthetic to his flesh and blood and continued down the road.
“I’m the one who shot your leg. Did you forget?”
“No—I,” he pointed a knife hand at Steuben. “Are you messing with me?”
“This topic does not seem to be one that strikes much humor with you.”
Cortaro continued on, taking longer steps that Steuben had no trouble keeping pace with. Dotok soldiers and human Marines worked together along the eastern walls, setting spikes and welded-together crossbeams from cannibalized starships and bolting them to the road.
Steuben grabbed a Dotok by the shoulder and pointed to the roll of wire in the Dotok’s trembling hands. “Do not run wires until after the obstacles are set. Keep our lanes of retreat open until we are done with the eastern approaches.”
The Dotok nodded his head rapidly and dropped the wire at his feet.
“You scare them,” Cortaro said.
“How? I am only here to help and I am most pleasant to be around,” Steuben said. He stretched out his jaw, distending it and revealing double rows of needle-sharp teeth.
Cortaro looked across the barren expanse toward the east. A haze of dust preceding the approaching storm would, according to the Dotok, last for hours and leave a fog of disturbed dust in its wake. The haze would conceal the approaching banshee swarm until they were within a few kilometers of the city. Cortaro liked knowing exactly how much time he had left. The longer he had between spotting the banshees and the first banshees to the wall, the better he’d feel.
The gunnery sergeant leaned over the outer wall and saw a Marine anchored against the rocks.
“Pavel, are you done yet?” Cortaro called out to the Marine.
“Few more charges on this section, Gunney. Give me another twenty minutes,” Pavel yelled back.
Cortaro turned around and surveyed the defenses. The roadways from the still-intact outer walls leading to the Canticle of Reason were almost full of welded crossbeams, thin wires ran between most of the obstacles, meant to disrupt advancing banshees. Work crews hung against the inner honeycomb walls, drilling into the massive bricks. Banks of gremlin mortar launchers were deployed at the intersections, their top covers removed.
“Steuben, explain to me again how blowing up the city is the best way to defend it?” Cortaro said.
“We’re abandoning this city, not defending it. Every brick is a potential weapon against our enemy. The Dotok understand this,” Steuben said. “There is little point in leaving anything viable to our enemy as we retreat.”
“Marines don’t retreat, Steuben. We just advance in a different direction,” Cortaro said.
“That sounds like a rationalization to mitigate a tactical shortcoming.”
Cortaro’s face turned red as he queued up a number of insults he’d normally use on army soldiers who’d dare make similar remarks when his gauntlet computers beeped with a priority message.
“Hale’s Mule is coming back, and he’s got civilians with them? Odd. Let’s go get him up to speed,” Cortaro said.
Cortaro looked away from the landing Mule as its turbofans blew hot air and dust around him. The ramp lowered, and the civilians packed inside almost spilled out. Dotok soldiers ran up the ramp and tried to yell directions over the din of the engines.
“There’s no way,” Cortaro said to Steuben, “there’s no way the lieutenant’s in there.”
Un’qu ran around a corner and bumped into Cortaro, not evening offering an apology as he went straight to the civilians. He took a worn photograph from his pocket and held it up to the civilians, all of whom shook their heads at the photo.
Orozco opened the hatch on the bottom turret and stood up. He waved to Cortaro, desperate for his attention.
“Some answers, at least,” Cortaro said. He and Steuben tried to get past the civilians.
“Thank you!” An old female Dotok clasped Cortaro’s hands and pressed them to her forehead. “When can you go back for my grandchildren? They’re still with their mother.”
“Soon as we can miss, excuse us.” Cortaro pulled his hands away, unsure what he’d just promised.
“Gunney,” Orozco said, “the lieutenant’s trying to be a hero again. He’s got a whole column of refugees and he’s walking them to some old landing zone.”
“Please tell me they’re on the right side of the nuke,” Cortaro said.
“Nope.” Orozco looked at the timer on his gauntlet. “He’ll be locked in that valley with all those banshees in another thirty seconds.”
Cortaro rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I thought Hale had outgrown all the gung-ho butter-bar nonsense.”
“Excuse me,” Un’qu came up the ramp, holding the picture toward Orozco like it was a talisman. “You were at Usonvi, right? Did you see them? My wife and newborn son?”
Orozco looked carefully, then shook his head. “But there were a lot of people there, sir. I really didn’t get much of a look at anyone.”
Un’qu tucked the photo back into his uniform. He nodded slowly and turned away.
“Hey, you know the lieutenant, right?” Orozco asked. “If there’s a way to get them out, he’ll find it. We’re Marines. We don’t leave anyone behind if there’s a chance they’re still alive.”
Un’qu glanced over his shoulder, then left.
“Pilot!” Cortaro yelled. “Turn and burn. You need to get back there ASAP.”
Jorgen came around from the cockpit, his flight gloves off and the zipper of his suit half way down his chest.
“Gunney, no one’s going anywhere in that soup,” Jorgen said. He pointed behind Cortaro.
A wall of sand stretched across the horizon, rolling toward them like a tidal wave.
Bells clanged throughout the city, warning of more than just an impending sand storm.