Ready alert for pilots was an exercise in constant tension. The fighters maintained a full combat load and stayed on a battery feed, ready to launch in thirty seconds, which meant the pilot stayed in the cockpit the entire time, bored but hypervigilant for the go signal. The Eagles farther back in the queue had to launch within two to five minutes of the ready-alert craft, which gave the pilots time to afford such luxuries as bathroom breaks and eating at the base of their fighters.
Durand walked the line of fighters, a mix of human Eagles and Dotok fighters, chatting with pilots and answering last-minute questions about their mission. She did it to calm her nerves as well as theirs.
“Gall,” Bar’en asked, “this mission is … unorthodox. Do human military planners look at a situation, ask what is the worst plausible idea, then try to make that happen?”
“That’s just how Captain Valdar works,” Durand said. “I once rode into battle strapped to a luxury liner that was going to be used as a battering ram. Watched a trillion dollars in hardware squished against a Xaros weapons platform to buy our fleet just a little more time. This isn’t so bad.”
Bar’en rapped his fingertips against his helmet and shook his head.
“All hear this! All hear this!” the ship’s intercom sounded. Pilots snapped on helmets and climbed into their fighters. They knew what was coming.
“Battle stations! All hands to battle stations and prepare for acceleration.”
Durand donned her helmet and felt it pull airtight against her flight suit. She shimmied up the ladder to her Eagle and jumped into the seat. Hers was the first Eagle to launch, as was her right and responsibility as the squadron commander.
A single Mule sat on the flight deck. The passengers were already in place, but there was no crew. Nothing but the android Karigole and the two armor soldiers inside could survive the maneuver planned for its future.
“All right, 103rd,” Durand said to her squadron, “we clear a path and then we get them home. Good hunting.”
A rumble grew through the ship, and Durand felt g-forces grow to match the ship’s acceleration.
“Lafayette, you all OK over there?” Durand sent to the Mule.
“Everything is within specified parameters,” the Karigole answered. “Are you aware of a new variable?”
“No…just checking,” she said.
“I suspect you are attempting conversation to compensate for anxiety,” Lafayette said.
“You should’ve been a shrink, not an engineer,” she said.
“I don’t understand your worry. I’m the one riding a bomb at twenty times the force of gravity into the heart of an incomplete Crucible potentially full of Xaros. You just have to shoot things,” Lafayette said.
“Are you attempting conversation to compensate for anxiety?” Durand asked.
The gravity pressing Durand against her cockpit increased, and she lost all interest in talking.
Lafayette, at the controls of the Mule, watched as a timer ran down to zero.
“Prepare for launch,” he said.
Rocket assist motors on the Mule blossomed, hurling it into space. Acceleration almost twenty times the force of gravity shook the ship like it was a failing fault line. The tolerances of human air and spacecraft had outstripped their bodies’ capabilities over a century ago. The weakest part of any flight system forever remained the squishy human bodies that couldn’t handle extreme maneuvers and that demanded air, stable temperatures and sleep.
A human sitting in the copilot’s seat would have died minutes ago. Lafayette had been forced to rebuild himself after being struck by a Xaros disintegration beam many years ago. He’d eliminated every limitation he could. The flesh was weak, as he’d learned the hard way.
“Elias, Kallen, doing well?” he asked.
“Shut up and drive,” Elias grunted.
Lafayette’s fake lips pulled into a smile. Maybe he was a bit tougher than the armor in one regard.
The rocket assist boosters burnt out and Lafayette jettisoned them. The acceleration and its corresponding g-forces faded away, but the speed remained.
The proto-Crucible was dead ahead with four enormous generation ships arrayed around its outer edge. His cyborg eyes focused in on the Crucible’s hull as drones emerged from around the surface and sped toward him. More came from around the generation ships, but the dark lines of the Xaros corrupting their hulls remained.
“Breitenfeld, total drones in the upper nineties. More than we’d anticipated,” Lafayette said.
“Then you’d better make it quick in there,” Valdar said.
“Roger, Breitenfeld, breaking maneuver on your signal.” Lafayette turned on the rear-facing cameras and put his hand on the maneuver thrusters.
“Firing the last of our Q-shells,” Valdar said.
Lafayette waited until four silver streaks overtook his Mule and watched as they blossomed into electrical storms in the midst of the oncoming drones, knocking them offline. He hit the maneuver thrusters and the ship flipped over, its tail now pointed at the Crucible. Lafayette made slight adjustments until the Mule was on course for the control module, a rounded dome against the exposed rock of the asteroid the Crucible was cannibalizing, and readied the drop ship’s thrusters.
Disabled drones tumbled through space. Utterly helpless, and harmless, for several more minutes. The small Q-shells fired by Marine gauss rifles or the Eagle’s rail guns might knock a drone out for several seconds. The power within the much larger Q-shells of the Breitenfeld’s main guns was enough to destroy some drones and knock most offline for up to ten minutes, in theory. Ten minutes was almost enough time for him to complete his mission.
Lafayette fired the Mule’s thrusters, which robbed the ship of its forward momentum, slowing it down. He kept his ship on course to the control module as his relative speed fell to almost nothing. He was rather perplexed that his human allies couldn’t do the equations to calculate his exact landing velocity and location. It was only rocket science.
He nudged the Mule parallel to the control node, cut the speed, and fired the docking harpoons. Spikes dug into the surface of the control node, and graphene ropes pulled taut, setting the Mule against the surface with a jarring crunch.
“Almost perfect,” Lafayette said. He unstrapped himself from the seat and floated into the cargo bay, the ramp lowering to reveal the smooth domed roof of the control node.
The straps securing Elias and Kallen to the Mule popped off. Lafayette grabbed a bulkhead and pushed them both out of the Mule with his legs. The armor unfolded to their humanoid configuration. Elias pushed jet packs to them and opened an ammunition case bolted to the floor.
He took out a beat-up pouch containing his tools, and a satchel holding several pounds of quadrium and the bomb components.
“This the right spot?” Elias asked. The two soldiers stood on the surface of the control node, left hands replaced by cutting lasers.
“I was off by almost ten feet, but if you make us an entrance there, it will get us to the bridge,” Lafayette said. “The Xaros are consistent in their construction projects.”
The soldiers set their lasers against the dome and sliced through the basalt material. They had a hatch cut out in seconds. Elias tossed the hull piece behind him and pulled himself inside.
“There’s gravity and atmo,” he reported.
The edges of the hatch glittered with light as it began repairing itself.
“Hurry up,” Kallen said.
Lafayette pushed off from the Mule and floated to Kallen. She caught him and pushed the cyborg into the opening.
She grabbed the edge of the hatch and followed. Gravity pulled her down. Her feet had almost hit the ground when she came to an abrupt halt. Her hand was stuck inside the edge of the hatch. It had regrown around her fingers, incorporating her into the hull. Kallen tugged at her hand, but it remained fast.
She swore, bent at the waist to bring her feet against the roof and pushed against it with all the strength her actuators could muster. Her hand burst free of the hull and she fell against the deck.
“You OK?” Elias asked.
Kallen got to her feet and looked at her hand. Sparks shot through where three fingers had once been.
“Write that down for next time,” she said.
They were in a command center, identical to the Crucible near Earth. Stairs meant for something much taller than the average human ran from a central plinth toward the outside wall. Rings of control stations emanated out from the same plinth.
“Get to it, professor,” Elias said.
“Yes, against the bulkhead will do nicely.” Lafayette ran up the too-tall steps and set the satchel against the wall. It would take him two minutes to reassemble the bomb, another three for it to be fully operational.
“What’s that thing going to do?” Kallen asked.
“This ‘thing’ will form a singularity for several nanoseconds, causing severe damage to this structure and redirecting its momentum back along its intersection path,” Lafayette said.
“You mean it’ll create a black hole and turn this whole thing around?” she asked.
“Then just say that!”
“Hush, child.” Lafayette attached a graviton emitter to a bundle of silvery quadrium shells. “The master must work.”
A low thrum filled the chamber.
“Master better work a hell of a lot faster,” Kallen said. She cycled rounds into her forearm blaster and fired up the cutting laser.
Hale’s boots slipped against a wet rock and kicked a stone loose. It bounced down the path and struck an old Dotok woman on the thigh. She looked at Hale and made a hand gesture that he was sure wasn’t meant to be kind.
The original settlers had cut a rudimentary path up the mountain leading to the mesa Hale planned to use as their evacuation point. What the Dotok had intended to be a radio relay site could prove to be the salvation for hundreds. The path ran through a narrow valley between peaks, blocking the view from the rest of the canyon.
They were a mile from the mesa, almost there.
“Sir,” Bailey said through the IR, “I’ve got movement.” The sniper was at the rear of the column where the old path began at the foot of the mountains.
“On my way,” he said to her. “Standish, keep them moving. Yarrow, meet me at the base of the mountain. Act casual.”
Hale made his way through the throng of refugees, his pace purposeful but not an all-out run. The Dotok’s nerves were on the edge of a knife since the storm; any indication of a serious problem might send them into a panic.
A few Dotok men had pulled back from the edge of the group, watching as Bailey looked through the scope of her sniper rifle.
“Torni, get them moving,” Hale said. “Then keep them moving.”
The sergeant barked commands and pointed up the mountain with a knife hand gesture. The Dotok shied away and caught up to the rest of the group.
“What’ve you got?” Hale asked Bailey, her helmet off and attached to her belt. She pressed her eye against the scope of her rail rifle and her face hardened.
“Straggler,” she said. “Woman carrying a baby. Running hard.”
“Must have made it out of the city then got lost from the group before we found them,” Yarrow said.
“That’s not all,” Bailey said. A video feed from her optics popped on Hale’s visor. The woman was there, clutching an infant to her breast, running barefoot across open ground. The feed panned down the canyon and showed a single banshee chasing after the woman.
“She’s not going to make it,” Bailey whispered. “Let me take the shot.”
Hale looked at the canyon around them. The rail rifle was not a subtle weapon. The sound of the recoil would travel for miles up and down the canyon, and there was no way that was the only banshee out there.
“Sir, we shoot and the banshees will be all over us,” Yarrow said. “We’re almost there.”
“Let me take it,” Bailey said. A tear rolled down her cheek. “That’s my little girl, my Abbie, out there. Please let me take it.”
“Do it,” Hale said. It was the wrong tactical solution. He knew in his head he was making a mistake. This was a decision from his heart.
The bullet left the barrel with a sonic boom, kicking up a plume of dust and sending a crack through the canyon. The round vaporized the banshee from the waist up and shattered a boulder behind it.
“Yarrow, with me.” Hale sprinted out of the mountain pass, leaping over rocks and using his augmented armor to propel him to speeds no un-suited human could ever achieve.
The mother froze as she saw the two alien Marines coming for her, weapons in hand. She looked back at the dead banshee, then closed her eyes and squeezed her squalling baby to her chest.
“Nil’jo and the rest of your village are with us,” Hale said.
The name got the woman to open her eyes.
“We’re humans, here to help. We’ll explain the rest later,” Yarrow said. “Come with us.” The medic pointed to the pathway leading up into the mountains.
A banshee howl echoed through the canyon. More joined, creating a hellish chorus. A half dozen rounded a bend, tearing up the dead riverbed with their feet and claws as they ran.
“Take them,” Hale said. He dropped to a knee and aimed at the nearest banshee.
Yarrow scooped the Dotok up in his arms and ran off.
Hale fired a single shot, hitting a banshee in the shoulder and sending it to the ground. His next shot hit a banshee square in the chest, killing its forward momentum like it had run into a wall.
His next shot came with the crash of Bailey’s rail rifle. The hypervelocity round sizzled overhead and struck the canyon wall, cracking the rock and sending slabs of dark stone crashing down on more banshees as they emerged from around the bend.
“I don’t need some stinking nuke,” Bailey said through the IR. “Get your ass back here. I’ll cover you,” she said.
Hale hit a charging banshee in the legs. He panned his rifle to the next banshee, but a round hit it in the forehead before he could engage.
“I said I’d cover you! Move!” Bailey shouted.
Hale got up and raced back to the pass. Another of Bailey’s precision shots snapped past his helmet.
“You’re clear, sir, but keep up the pace,” Bailey said. “Lots more on the way.”
“Bailey, rig your batteries for—”
“Already on it!” Her sniper rifle ran on batteries the size of a lunch box. Sabotaging the batteries would produce an explosion strong enough to take out a three-story building.
“Sir,” Torni said. “We’ve got positive contact with the birds. They’re almost here, but they didn’t come with any air support. No Eagles.”
“Torni, you get those civilians loaded up and out of here. Don’t wait for me, you understand?” Hale put iron in his last words; this was no time for a discussion.
“Roger, sir. Just hurry up so we don’t have to wait.” Torni said.
Hale made it to the trail. Bailey took a green cylinder from her belt, attached it to her battery and covered it with dirt and rocks. Yarrow stood over her, taking potshots at the advancing banshees, their howls growing louder and more numerous.
“Ain’t pretty, ain’t much of a charge, but it’ll slow them down,” she said. Hale looked back and saw dozens of banshees clambering over the pile of rocks Bailey sent down.
“Did you set a safety timer?” Hale asked.
“No, figured I’d need to blow this thing pretty damned quick when the time came,” Bailey said. She slung the pack with her disassembled rail rifle over her shoulder and fired her carbine.
“Give me the detonator,” Hale said and took it from Bailey. “Up the mountain, let’s go.”
Hale charged up the steep slope, just behind Bailey and Yarrow. He saw the last of the Dotok vanish over the top of the path and onto the mesa.
He whirled around and fired from the hip at the tide of banshees coming for them, most going for the straight and easy path right to the three Marines. He set his thumb against the detonator trigger.
“Hold on to something.” Hale pressed the detonator…and nothing happened. Tens of banshees poured up the slope. Hale slammed the detonator against his armor and hit the switch again.
The battery exploded with a crack, blowing a cloud of dust and pulverized banshees into the air. A shard of rock moving faster than he could see struck the pathway and skipped into the air. It cut past Hale and struck armor.
Bailey staggered back, her hand pressed against her side. She fell to the ground with a groan.
“Bailey!” Yarrow pulled her hand back. A flint of stone impaled her armor and blood pulsed out of the wound with each heartbeat. Her breathing was short and shallow. “I think it nicked her lung. I’ve got to treat her,” Yarrow said.
“Not here!” Hale shot down a banshee staggering up the pathway. He didn’t see any more of the enemy, but he could hear them in the cloud of dust at the base of the mountain.
Yarrow grabbed Bailey by the carry handle on her armor and dragged her up the mountain, a trail of dark blood staining the ground in her wake.
“Torni, I’ve got injured,” Hale said. “Status on evac?”
“One Destrier transport away, second loading up. Two more Mules waiting to land,” Torni said. “Who’s hit and how bad?”
“Bailey took a—” Black talons arced over the side of the pass and struck Hale in the face. Pain lanced through his neck and shoulders as he slammed into the other side of the pass. He heard shouts and the sound of gauss fire.
A dead banshee lay over the jagged rocks; another flung the corpse away from the wall and came for them. Hale tried to raise his rifle, but his left arm refused to move. He pulled out his pistol and shot the banshee at point-blank range, puncturing the armor on its throat and sending it rearing back. It opened its jaws to scream and Hale sent a bullet through the roof of its mouth and into the brain case.
The banshee fell back. Hale watched it fall and saw more banshees crawling up the side of the mountain.
He pulled a grenade from his belt and hooked the pin against a finger on his useless hand. He got the pin loose and tossed the grenade over the side. Hale looked at his shoulder; a gash rent through his armor, exposing muscle and bone on his shoulder.
The shock of the grenade shaking the mountain sent him to his knees. He pulled out another grenade…and the world started to fade away.
“Sir, you’re hurt!” Yarrow shouted at him from inches away, but his voice was distant, like a half-heard whisper. Hale got the pin pulled on his second grenade, then tossed it over the side.
“Get…her out of here,” Hale said.
The grenade Hale had tossed came back over the wall. It arced through the air and glinted in the sunlight before it exploded.
“Hale? Sir?” No one had answered Torni since the second grenade went off.
“Standish, get in the bottom turret,” she said. “I think we’re going to need you in there.”
“On it.” Standish, standing at the top of the final Mule’s ramp, disappeared into the ship. Jorgen took his place and helped the last of the refugees into his ship.
He called to Torni, but she ignored him as she ran for the pathway leading down the mountain where she found Yarrow, trying to drag Hale and Bailey the last few yards up the path. Yarrow, the armor of his helmet and upper body dented and ripped, had blood running from beneath a shoulder plate. He fell to the ground, never letting go of Hale and Bailey.
“No…” Torni ran to Yarrow and helped him up. She took up his burden and got them over the top of the path.
“Grenade, got us good,” Yarrow said. “Hale’s bad. Bailey’s worse.”
“Shut up and move,” Torni said through gritted teeth. She dragged the injured Marines to the Mule and got them into the cargo hold. Dotok jumped out of the way as she pulled down the stretchers built into the walls. She grabbed the nearest Dotok adult, screamed at him to get the Marines strapped into the stretchers then charged back out of the Mule.
Yarrow still hadn’t made it. He was down to a knee, firing poorly aimed shots as a banshee crawled up the pathway. Torni grabbed Yarrow’s rifle and put a round between the banshee’s temples. She tossed Yarrow over her shoulder and got him back to the Mule.
“How bad are you?” she asked him.
“It hurts, but it could be worse,” he said.
“Do what you can for the others,” she said. Yarrow nodded. She slapped him on the helmet. “Move!”
There were another half-dozen Dotok at the base of the ramp, reaching to Torni.
“What’re we waiting for?” she demanded from Jorgen. “We’ve got room.”
“I don’t have the air!” Jorgen shouted. “New Abhaile is on fire. We’re going to the Breit, no atmo. I take on any more civvies and they all suffocate.”
Torni looked back at the Dotok and saw the woman and child Hale had risked so much to save. She grabbed the two of them and pushed them up the ramp. Torni reached under her armor and detached her O2 tanks. She took off her helmet and shoved them into Jorgen’s hands.
“With my re-breather, that’s four hours of air. Get in the cockpit,” she said to the pilot.
“What about you?”
“I’m staying.” She pointed to the Dotok. “There are five more women and children out there. Who will stay with me so they can live?”
Two Dotok men and Nil’jo came to Torni; one man held a child on his hip. He passed the child to its mother, who pleaded with her husband not to volunteer.
“The little ones don’t breath as much,” a man said. He ran down the ramp and pulled the rest of the women and children up the ramp.
Torni jumped off the ramp, and her volunteers came with her. The ramp rose out of the dirt and closed as the Mule took off, blowing up a cloud of brown dirt.
Torni closed her eyes and listened to the Mule fade away. She took her rifle off her shoulder and looked at the five Dotok men who’d stayed behind. A banshee’s wail echoed up the mountain.
“Sarge, is that you down there?” Standish asked, the IR already breaking up from range.
“Standish, you’re a good Marine. Take care of everyone for me,” she said. Standish’s response was lost in static.
Nil’jo picked up a rock. “I was honored to serve as your Chosen.”
“Our families will be less without us,” said the father who gave up his spot, “but they will live, and become greater.” He lifted up a rock with both hands.
The sound of banshees grew louder.
Torni stabbed her pistol into the back of a banshee and fired a round. The banshee reared back and swung an elbow at her. She ducked under the blow and jammed the pistol into its face. The gun clicked empty.
It knocked her pistol away, nearly breaking her fingers with the blow. Torni stumbled back and found her gauss rifle in the dirt. She swung it up like a club and cracked the butt across the banshee’s head. The blow staggered the monster and shattered the stock. She pulled the weapon back to her hip and jammed the jagged edges into the banshee’s throat.
Gray blood splattered across her hands. The banshee lashed out and scored a glancing blow across the top of her head. Torni backpedaled, her world spinning from the concussion. She fell to the ground, the taste of blood and dirt in her mouth.
She rolled onto all fours and spat. She’d taken too many hits for her adrenaline to tamp down the pain of broken bones and a dozen cuts up and down her body from the fight she never had a chance of winning. Her bayonet snapped from the forearm housing and she got up to face the banshees.
Tens of banshees surrounded her, standing over the ruined bodies of the Dotok who’d stayed behind. The monsters stared at her…and did nothing else.
“What is this?” Torni kept her guard up. “What’re you waiting for? Huh?”
“What’re you waiting for!”
A banshee in front rank twitched. Its arms and shoulders rose into the air like a scarecrow’s. The armor on its arms peeled away from the body and floated in the air. More armor ripped away from the banshees, all of it coalescing toward a single point over their heads. The armor swirled inside a vortex; wind rose from it and pressed Torni back. A point of light emerged from the armor, growing so bright Torni had to look away.
Then…it all went silent.
Torni looked up. Plates of red armor formed a humanoid shape in the air, encasing a being of pure light. It looked down on Torni, tendrils of light floating out of the eye slits on a flat mask.
“You…” the word came from the banshees, all of them speaking in unison, “you are known. Your trace was on Anthalas. Now you are here.” The General descended toward the ground, its feet never touching the surface.
“You must be in charge,” Torni said.
“How did your species survive my purge?” the chorus of voices asked. “What did you take from Anthalas?”
Torni felt fear rise in her chest. The General reached toward her, phantom fingers swinging toward her like tentacles of a leviathan.
“Don’t know?” Torni backed away. Her foot hit the edge of the mesa, and she looked back and saw rocks and dirt falling to oblivion. “Let me tell you something about humanity. Gott. Mit. Uns.” She flung herself back and closed her eyes.
A force grabbed her body like an enormous hand had just wrapped around her, pinning her arms and legs against herself.
“You think petty gestures will deny me?” the voices said.
Torni floated toward the General, its eyes burning.
“All corruption will be cleansed. I will burn your species’ existence out of memory. Your fate will be no different.”
Torni spat on the General’s faceplate.
“You will respond to pain.” The General lifted a hand, and Torni felt fire dancing across the bottom of her feet.
She clenched her jaw and fought against the scream begging to be let out. The pain subsided as quickly as it came. The General looked to the sky, then snapped its head back to Torni.
A growl rose from the banshees.
“You are not worthy of this honor,” they said. The General wrapped tendrils of light around Torni’s head. Images from her entire life raced through her mind with the fury of a tempest.
Her head lolled from side to side. When she could look up, she saw swirling motes of light orbiting around the General’s hand. The light within the General’s armor launched into space, leaving an afterglow through its ascent.
The armor collapsed and fell to the ground. The force holding Torni relented and she sprawled in the dirt.
A banshee marched toward her, talons gleaming in the sun. She lashed out with her bayonet, but the blade bounced off the banshee’s armor.
Talons rammed into her chest, piercing her heart. The banshee raised her in the air until Torni went limp then it dropped her to the ground. Torni’s blood dripped from the talons as the banshees moved on, leaving a red trail through the blowing dust.