The refugees from Usonvi took shelter in the shadow of a small hill. A dry riverbed, nothing but a wide swath of sand and silt, cut into the side of the hill. Millennia of erosion from when the riverbed carried water had worn into the side of the rock, cutting a path through and creating an overhang in the rock, like a cave with only one side.
The adults sat in tight circles, letting their children loose to play within the makeshift corrals. What little food and water they had, they shared with each other.
Hale, standing guard at one end of the overhang, checked the timer on his gauntlet. The nuclear demolition of Ghostwind Pass was two minutes away. He turned his attention back to the route they’d come from, eyes scanning for any sign of the tide of banshees headed in their direction.
“Sir,” Torni said, trotting up to him, “the civilians know the nuke’s coming. It’s still the end of the world, but the quake we’re about to feel isn’t it.”
“Good work, how’re they doing?”
“Better. I told them to eat the food they were carrying for the highers. It should give them more strength to get the last couple miles,” she said.
“No, Nil’jo’s decided to stop bitching and start brooding, which is fine by me.”
A cold mass of air blew into their shelter. Children cried and went running for their parents. Dotok wrapped their robes around the children and sat them between their legs. The sky darkened as a roiling mass of snow and dust blew across the top of the canyon. A thick fog descended into the canyon, like a cloud was charging straight for them.
A whistle blew twice. “Storm!” Nil’jo shouted. He repeated the whistle and the warning once more before Standish yanked the whistle from the Chosen’s mouth and proceeded to lecture him on noise discipline. The banshees could’ve heard that whistle.
The storm cloud hit the ground and enveloped them all like fog. Fine dust and particulate snow and ice struck Hale’s armor with the sound of a rain shower against glass.
“Great…a mud storm,” Standish said over the IR as his next words washed out in the interference.
Hale called out to Bailey, Yarrow and Standish; the three marines emerged from the blowing dust seconds later.
“Try to form a line at the edge of the overhang,” Hale said. “I don’t want anyone wandering off in this mess.”
“Don’t think that’ll be a problem, look,” Bailey said.
The Dotok were still in their circles, hunkered against one another. Children poked at the robes covering them, but none tried to get free.
“I don’t think this is their first rodeo,” Standish said. A windblown pebble bounced off his helmet.
The ground quaked and Hale had to grab on to Torni to keep his balance. A clash of thunder announced the detonation of the nuclear device. A constant tremor kept up for almost a minute as the sound of a distant avalanche rumbled through their shelter.
“I think it worked,” Standish said.
“We’re all kinds of screwed if the birds don’t come back for us,” Yarrow said. “There’ll be radiation from that nuke. Not much for us in our suits, but all of them are unprotected.”
“And the civvies are down to almost nothing for food or water,” Torni said. “Not as much of a concern. I figure the banshees will kill us all before we starve, or die of rad poisoning.”
“We can treat radiation exposure on the Breit,” Hale said. “This mission’s a bit of a Hail Mary. Thank you all for being with me.”
“No place I’d rather be,” Torni said. “This is something I can feel proud of—better than sitting back on Earth for the next fourteen years, waiting around for the Xaros to show up again.”
“Sir,” Standish raised a hand, “do you think we’ll ever get to go someplace nice? Anthalas was this big swamp full of corpses and giant lizards trying to eat us. This place is about as pleasant as taking a shower with a sand blaster, plus monsters. Just once I want the Corps to send us to someplace pleasant…maybe with a bunch of Polynesian women that want to rub our feet and feed us grapes.”
“Don’t tell me you believe the legend,” Bailey said with a shake of her head.
“What legend?” Yarrow asked.
“It’s not a legend. The Island of Fiki-Fiki is a real place,” Standish said. “My father heard about it from a cellmate whose uncle was best friends with someone who was there.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Yarrow said.
“Listen up, new guy. Not every Marine gets to hear about the island of Fiki-Fiki. When the Chinese blew that big EMP over the Pacific and knocked out every ship in the fleet, an American torpedo boat went adrift and ended up on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. The natives hadn’t seen a Westerner since the Second World War and thought the crew of that torpedo boat were gods come to walk the Earth. Those sailors sat out the rest of the war, had like a dozen wives each and their own little island kingdom…until they were ‘rescued.’ Then they had a party with the five years of back pay.”
“No way,” Yarrow said, awe in his voice.
“It’s a myth to get stupid Marines to re-enlist for float assignments,” Torni said. “Don’t believe it.”
“We don’t have to go to the island of Fiki-Fiki, sir,” Standish said. “Maybe we drop on someplace that has a forecast of partly cloudy instead of mud storms and a ninety-five percent chance of genocide. I’d like to believe that there are some nice places in the galaxy, that not everything is horror and murder.”
“Maybe once the Xaros are gone,” Hale said, “we can use the Crucible to find someplace reasonably nice.” Wind buffeted the Marines. Hale turned around and looked into the storm. “But not today.”
Orozco tested his anchors’ hold against the deck plates for the umpteenth time. His boots were locked tight, still. Same as they’d been for the past two hours. He brushed sand away from his Gustav and stared at the blank bulkhead in front of him.
Waiting. He hated waiting.
“So, I said to the guy, ‘How do you know there’s no teeth in there?’” Lance Corporal Rock said. Another Marine, Sergeant Holt, chuckled at the punchline. Each heavy-gunner Marine was anchored to the deck, their Gustavs’ primed and ready for a fight that could start at any moment. Each hated waiting a little more than the next.
A text message came across Orozco’s gauntlet.
“All right, stow it,” Orozco said. “Sentries report movement out beyond the wall.”
“They going to tell us when this fight starts?” Rock asked.
“Just wait to hear some shooting. That’s a pretty good clue,” Holt said.
“What part of ‘stow it’ wasn’t in English?” Orozco snapped. “Remember the plan. We provide covering fire for the front-lines as they fall back. Soon as the first hostile gets to the road in front of us, we un-ass this position and fall back to the next one. Got it?”
“Sure, Sarge. Who came up with this plan? Gunney, or that big ugly you’ve been palling around with?” Holt asked.
“Which one do you want to look in the eye and say, ‘Your plan sucks’?”
“I didn’t say it sucked,” Holt said sheepishly. “Just curious is all.”
“Devastators, this is Gunney. You ready?” Cortaro asked over the IR.
“Hey, IR’s back up,” Rock said.
“Don’t worry. It’ll go down soon as we really need it,” Holt said with a chuckle.
“Devastators ready,” Orozco said.
“Who picked ‘devastators’? I like ‘havocs’ better,” Rock said.
“I swear, if I wasn’t bolted to this deck, I’d come over there and jam my fist right down your throat,” Orozco said. He powered up his Gustav, twin electric whines joined his as the other Marines followed suit.
The snap of gauss rifle fire tapped against the bulkhead like driven rain.
“Case of beer says I get more kills,” Holt said.
“Deal,” Rock said.
“Deal,” Orozco said. His mind wandered to the can of sardines he’d carried around for months. But he’d finally eaten them. He could die with one less regret.
Tiny explosive bolts rippled across the bulkhead. The heavy metal plating groaned and fell away. The three heavy gunners, drawn from the surviving Marine squads, now had a commanding over watch of the final battle for New Abhaile city. Their firing position was in the upper deck of a landed starship, with direct line of sight to the eastern walls.
Banshees scaled the outer wall like a horde of locusts coming for the harvest. Banshees struggled through the electrified wires strung between the welded cross-bars, creating a bottleneck behind them. The Devastators had a massed infantry target, every machine gunner’s dream since the Western Front stalled out in France almost two hundred years before.
“Light ‘em up!” Orozco let loose a peal of heavy cannon blasts that tore through the packed banshees like a scythe through wheat. Combined with Rock and Holt’s fire, they made short work of the first banshee push over the wall.
“Cover your sectors of fire,” Orozco ordered. The other gunners shifted their attention to the flanks, hitting banshees that came over the walls in ones and twos. His Gustav barked with short bursts, sending a small swarm of high-velocity slugs at each target. Orozco blew a leg off a banshee as it crested the wall and felt a smile cross his face as it tumbled back.
He scanned to his left, then right. No targets.
“Clear,” Holt said.
“Same,” Rock added.
“Gunney, it’s gone quiet on the wall. Doesn’t make me feel better, for some reason,” Orozco transmitted.
A banshee’s howl wilted over the battlements.
“Maybe they’re retreating,” Holt said.
Howls rose from the dusty fog beyond the walls. Shrieks combined to a fever pitch, so loud that the sonic dampeners in Orozco’s helmet kicked on to tamp down the aural assault.
“Gunney, I think we’re about to have a problem out here,” Orozco said. The screams fell away and the sound of thousands of tree branches breaking filled the air.
Banshees swarmed over the wall, so numerous and densely packed that they looked like a black tide.
The gunners opened up, but they had about as much chance of stemming the swarm as a torch had of beating back a blizzard. Banshees threw themselves into the obstacles, using their bodies to breach the defenses for those behind them.
“Gunney! Phase two! Phase two!” Orozco slapped a new belt of ammunition into his Gustav and kept firing.
Unseen explosions sent quakes through their firing position. Pulverized rock and dust blew up the front and back of the outer wall. The tide of banshees relented. The snap of gauss rifles from the defenders mixed with the banshee howls.
“Wasn’t the wall supposed to do something?” Holt asked as he reloaded.
The outer wall dropped several feet as damaged stones crumpled beneath the weight of the wall above it. The wall groaned and tipped away from the city, like a great tree finally felled by an axe’s bite.
Orozco wasn’t sure how many banshees died in the fall or beneath the tons of rocks. He concentrated on whittling down the hundreds that made it to the raised roadways leading to the next line of defenses.
Banshees charged over the fallen wall…and into the muddy hot springs between the honeycombed sections of the city. The banshee advance faltered as they sank up to their knees in the muck. Many, too many, made it to the side of the connecting roadways and clambered up to the road.
Orozco leaned forward and raised his weapon to fire over the edge of the deck at the enemy warriors running into defilade. They’d made it to the next line of defenses.
A steady thump-thump-thump of the Gremlin launchers sounded from behind Orozco.
“That’s our cue.” Orozco took his hand off his weapon’s grip and slapped it against his control gauntlet. He twisted fore and back, and the spikes anchoring him to the deck snapped back against his boots.
A beam of light the color of fresh blood stabbed into the firing position. Orozco’s reflexes drove him to the floor.
Orozco watched as Rock dropped his weapon and slumped to the side. Orozco reached up and grabbed the other gunner by the arm, Rock’s armor plates collapsed against each other beneath his grip. Rock flopped back, red smoke poured from a gash in his chest plate out of his empty armor.
Another bolt of searing light cut into the firing position.
Holt grabbed Orozco by his shoulder armor and hauled him deeper into the ship. Banshees pounded at the sealed door of the ship’s cargo bay.
“I don’t think we can take the stairs,” Holt said. The crump of exploding mortars echoed across the battlefield, sending a constant tremor through the deck as the explosions came in faster and faster. The Gremlins pounded the banshees slowed by the mud flats and those still struggling over the ruined walls, but the banshees pounding against the doors didn’t seem to notice.
“Then we go the hard way.” Orozco got to his feet and ran to the opposite side of the cargo bay from their former firing positions. He grabbed a lever bolted to the wall and pulled it down. A section of the hull fell away. The remnants of the passing storm mixed with smoke and dust from the fallen walls into a haze that drowned out the roadways leading back to the Canticle of Reason. Bright flashes from gauss rifles lit up the haze.
“This is a bad idea,” Holt said. “I can’t even see where we’re supposed to land.”
“You want to wait here until you think of something better? Aim for a spot just behind the line of fire.” Orozco attached his Gustav to his armor and backed away from the edge. He deactivated the safety overrides on his grav-linings and took a deep breath.
“Gott mit uns!” Orozco ran and leaped into the air. He swung his feet forward and hoped that God heard his prayer. The gravity/anti-gravity linings in his boots were meant for zero and micro-g environments. Their fixed battery life was greatly curtailed anywhere with Earth-normal gravity or stronger. Overriding the safeties was a sure way to burn out the linings and get in a whole mess of trouble with the chain of command for destroying military equipment.
Orozco fired the anti-grav linings just enough to direct his slowed fall toward a mass of silver flashes in the haze. Controlled descents to asteroids and void ships was something he’d trained for as part of being a strike Marine, doing the same in Takeni’s gravity was much faster than he’d anticipated.
A hunk of brick flew past his head, the banshees making a difficult task nigh impossible with their added interference.
Orozco used the linings again, arcing him higher in the air. The vibrations in his boots stopped suddenly, and the Marine found himself in free fall.
He managed a scream that was half-warning, half-fear, and squeezed his feet and knees together. He fell through the haze and slammed feetfirst into the cobblestones. The rest of his body hit with all the grace of a thrown sack of potatoes. He rolled several times before bumping into the sidewalls.
Orozco’s ears rang and his lower back was killing him. He pulled himself to his feet, coughing. A pair of Dotok soldiers stared at him, jaws slack.
“What?” Orozco asked them.
A streak of light above the haze pointed to Holt’s descent. Dark lumps of rock pelted Holt, then the light from his anti-grav linings warbled as a hit threw him off balance. Orozco watched as Holt came into view and dipped lower. He wouldn’t make it. Orozco ran for the other side of the walkway. He unslung his Gustav and thrust the barrel out to Holt.
Holt’s fingertips clawed at the barrel. One hand managed a grip, then the other. Then Holt’s anti-grav linings died. Orozco found himself with the full armored weight of a Marine attached to the end of his Gustav. Holt slammed against the side of the wall and Orozco bent over the side wall, his suit struggling to hold onto Holt and keep himself from going over the edge, a long fall into burning mud and plenty of banshees waiting for him if his strength failed.
Orozco pulled his arms back and tried to stand. He was one of the few Marines that could lift his Gustav without the aid of his suit—he would be damned if he’d let Holt’s weight beat him. He grunted and felt Holt inch up the side. Hands grabbed him by the belt and around the shoulders, pulling him backwards.
Orozco got a step back, then dragged Holt over the side. The two Marines fell to the ground. Orozco looked up and saw a pair of Dotok soldiers, the ones who’d helped him, giving him a thumbs up.
“Magic fingers…” Orozco muttered. He lifted his Gustav in front of his face. The end of the barrel was mangled by Holt’s desperate grip. Orozco got up and gave the prone Holt a gentle kick to the stomach.
“Look what you did to my weapon!” Orozco attached it to his back and un-holstered his gauss pistol. He shook his head in disgust.
“I regret nothing,” Holt said.
“Get up.” Orozco pointed his pistol at a mud-covered banshee that found its way to the top of the wall. He drilled a bullet into its eye slit and it went slack. The dead banshee hung from where its talons had gripped into the wall. Orozco pried the hand loose and sent the banshee back into the murk below.
“This fight ain’t over yet.”
The ground shook, and a suit of armor stomped through the haze toward the front lines.
Cortaro reached his stick into the mockup of the city and knocked over another grounded starship. The last transmission from the ship was a panicked alert about banshees climbing up the ship’s cradle. That was five minutes ago, no response since. The inner lines still held, but the banshee advance through the city was going much faster than he and Steuben had anticipated.
Pa’lon sat against a wall, his arms folded into his robes.
Cortaro opened a channel to the Canticle’s engineering deck. “MacDougall, what’s the status on the anti-grav plates?”
“Everything’s wired together with tape and spit. We’re running the final tests now,” MacDougall said.
“Thirty minutes to make sure it’ll work, longer if something’s off.”
Cortaro looked up at Steuben, who was leaning over the mockup, his clawed hands gripping the sides.
“We don’t have twenty minutes,” Steuben said.
“MacDougall, can we launch now?”
“I can’t guarantee she’ll hold together. But yeah, we can. It’s a chance between amazing success and total failure. Fifty-fifty if you ask me.”
Cortaro rapped his knuckles against the mock up to get Pa’lon’s attention.
“If you’re going to leave, Ancient. Now’s the time,” Cortaro said.
“I’ll go to my gate and return to Bastion,” Pa’lon said. “I’ll relay the situation to Ambassador Ibarra. Gott mit uns, my friends.” He struggled to his feet and left the command center.
“MacDougall, get ready. We’re almost done with this planet,” Cortaro said, looking at the mockup. Banshees were reported on two roadways leading to a nexus that was a straight shot to the Canticle.
“We can’t pull them all back,” Steuben said. “We can get the two nearest defense lines in the ship, the rest will have to hold in place.”
“You mean die in place,” Cortaro said.
“We lose a part, or we lose the whole,” Steuben said. He looked up at Cortaro, and the Marine knew there was no room for negotiation.
Cortaro opened a city-wide channel and wished Hale was there instead of him to make this decision. “All units, defense lines alpha and beta are ordered back to the Canticle. We are wheels up in ten minutes. I repeat, ten minutes. Get back to the ship.” He repeated the order, leaving almost a thousand good Marines and Dotok to buy time with their lives.
“Belay that order,” came over the channel. “This is Chief Cruz of the Smoking Snakes. Souza and I will hold the junction. Order everyone back. Everyone.”
“They could do it,” Steuben said. He moved two miniature suits of armor to the junction on the mock up.
“All units,” Cortaro said, “stampede. I repeat, stampede.”
Orozco had an arm wrapped under Holt’s back, helping the other Marine balance as he tried to limp back to the ship. Blood stained Holt’s right leg from the thigh down, victim of a banshee’s talon. Their defensive position had been almost overrun; only one of the Smoking Snakes managed to keep the banshees off their heels.
Orozco looked up and saw three golden star clusters falling from the sky, military pyrotechnics used to send signals when communications were out or degraded. Three golden stars meant one thing; retreat with all possible speed to the Canticle of Reason.
“That’s the ‘run away,’ isn’t it?” Holt asked through grit teeth.
He pried a gauss rifle from the hands of a fallen Dotok and looked back over his shoulder. Amber rays of Xaros disintegration beams lit up the haze where they’d left the armor.
“It is,” Orozco said.
“We won’t make it,” Holt said, “not with me slowing you down. Get out of here.”
“Fuck you, Holt. I’m not that pissed about what you did to my Gustav. Limp faster,” Orozco said.
A mechanical whine came from the haze. A Smoking Snake, his legs in their tracked travel form, raced toward them. The armor swept them up, holding both Marines beneath one giant arm like they were a football.
“Goddamn slow-ass Marines,” Cruz said over his speakers. “Always need the Army to bail them out of trouble.” Cruz rolled over barricades and wove around fleeing Dotok soldiers. Cruz got them to one of the Canticle’s open bays as Dotok raced into the ship.
Cruz set the Marines down. His massive hand gripped Orozco by the shoulder.
“You tell the Iron Hearts,” Cruz said, “you tell them this is what we wanted.”
“What’re you talking about?” Orozco asked. Cruz spun around and rolled back to the front-lines. “Where are you going?” he yelled after him.
“Oro…it’s bleeding again,” Holt said. He held up blood covered-hands and faltered.
Orozco caught him before he could fall.
Cruz rolled up to Souza at the nexus. A severed banshee claw stuck out from his back, fluid from his punctured tank leaked out like blood. Shrieks filled the distance.
“How bad are you?” Cruz asked, rising onto his feet.
“Bad,” Souza said. Cruz stepped in front of him and saw Souza’s chest piece dented and scratched. “But I can hold on for a bit longer.” His words were laced with pain.
“I think Silva would be proud,” Cruz said.
“He would. He was a good soldier. I’m glad to die on the same rock as him.”
“Cobras Fumantes,” Cruz said, speaking the Brazilian words for their name.
The Smoking Snakes heard the chittering of banshees coming for them. They raised their arm cannons and opened fire as the first enemy came through the haze. A sane foe might have pulled back from the withering fire, but the banshees pressed forward, losing hundreds as the gauss cannons blew them into bloody ribbons. Banshees threw their dead over the walls to clear the way for those behind them.
Cruz ran out of ammo first. Twin slithering bands of smoke rose from the red-hot barrels.
Souza held them back for another thirty seconds before he ran dry.
The soldiers roared, the battle cry from their speakers drowning out the banshees shrieks, and charged.
Cruz smashed his fists into the banshees, bashing their bodies into pulp with each swing. Three banshees wrapped their talons around his right arm, dragging it down. He stabbed fingers into one, flinging it over the side of the wall. He slammed his right arm to the ground and stomped the life out of the pair of foes.
Souza went down under a press of bodies. Cruz fought toward his comrade, knocking banshees aside. A weight hit his back and drove him to his knees. Pain stabbed through his legs as talons ripped the treads out of his armor.
A rumble shook the air, and the Canticle of Reason rose from its centuries-old cradle. Cruz saw it float into the clouds, and knew he’d won this battle.
He made it to Souza and beat aside a banshee peeling aside the fallen soldier’s chest plate. Banshees piled on top of Cruz. His helm was ripped away and the feeds to his tank went dark. He swung his arms blindly, feeling every impact against his armor until a talon pierced his tank and he fell onto Souza.