Of all the parts on his ship, Valdar liked the Breitenfeld’s sick bay the least. There was never good news waiting for him there as his visits were always to check on those wounded from battle or injured in shipboard mishaps. This trip was no different.
Valdar was in his chief physician’s office, watching the medics and doctors do their rounds on the two dozen Marines and sailors who’d been wounded when the banshees boarded his ship. Emergency surgeries had been completed hours before—Valdar never came to sick bay when his presence could be a distraction from saving lives.
He watched as crewmen washed away pools of blood from a surgical theater, performing the grim task with practiced ease.
A doctor with a patrician nose and a bald pate barged into the office and slammed the door behind him. He flopped into an office chair and rubbed his temples.
“Dr. Accorso,” Valdar said, “how is my crew?”
“The four with the flash burns need some minor skin grafts. They’ll be fit for duty in a few hours. The gunner’s mate who lost an arm, I’ve got her in an induced coma until the trauma splicing sets in. Maybe we can regrow her arm when we get back to Earth, if she’s lucky.” Accorso pulled a vape-stick from his desk and took a deep drag, holding the pseudo-smoke in his lungs before exhaling away from Valdar.
“I can’t believe you, a doctor, smoke,” Valdar said.
“I also drink too much, but not when we’re underway,” Accorso said with a wink. “Chaplain Krohe is making the rounds. Seeing friends ripped apart by those banshees was more than most could handle, even this crew. I can treat their bodies, but someone else has to mend their souls.”
“Can I make my own rounds? I want to see them,” Valdar said.
“Before you do, there’s something I want to show you.” Accorso spun his chair around and grabbed a bound sheaf of papers from a basket on his wall. “The medic, Yarrow, the one who had that alien…thing inside him?”
Valdar crossed his arms and nodded.
“I’ve run every test I could from the samples we took when he was possessed, I suppose …and afterwards. First direct contact with that sort of being—this paper would be published in a heartbeat across the medical community—if we still had a medical community that cared about papers, but I digress.” Accorso flipped the papers open to a sheet with a tiny flag attached to it and then spun the papers around and tapped his finger against a data table.
“I’m a ship driver, not a doctor,” Valdar said.
“Yarrow’s telomeres, the little end caps on our DNA that protect our chromosomes, they’re too long.” Accorso waited for some sort of recognition to register on Valdar’s face, to no avail. “As we get older, the telomeres shorten every time a cell divides. That’s why things start to droop as we get older, why we get wrinkles.” Accorso rubbed the top of his bald head. “Yarrow, he has telomeres like an infant.”
“The thing that possessed him made his cells younger?” Valdar asked.
“No.” Accorso tapped his fingertip against the data table. “I had baseline data on him from when we boosted his green blood cell count before we went to Anthalas. His telomeres were just as long before he ever saw that alien.” Accorso watched as Valdar’s face went pale. “Yarrow’s body is only a few months old, at best.”
“False minds in weed bodies,” Valdar said, running his hand over his moustache. “That’s what the Toth demanded from us. Is there anyone else on my ship with the same genetic markers?”
“I don’t know. Yarrow is the only one I’ve had the time to examine so closely. It wouldn’t be too difficult to go through the crew’s blood samples, once the computers are back up and running.”
“No, I need to know now. I can’t have my crew compromised like Yarrow,” Valdar said.
Accorso frowned, then shrugged his shoulders. “There’s a way. Back in the fifties, a team from Harvard found that—”
“Do it. Now. Keep the results between us.”
“It will be slow, and it’ll delay my autopsy on the banshees,” Accorso said.
“Why are you bothering with the banshees?”
“For science, of course. Do you realize what medical knowledge this ship will bring back to Earth? I’ll have my own research wing at the new hospital in Phoenix. The Antonio Accorso Center, sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?”
“Mission first, ego later,” Valdar said.
Torni adjusted the headphones on Ar’ri to cover his ears, but the boy kept trying to take them off, which was detrimental to his hearing while in the noisy bay of a Destrier drop ship. As with all things military, comfort was never a design factor.
“Caas,” Torni said, “watch your brother. Don’t let him take those off.”
Caas swatted her brother on the back of his head, which brought out a pout. Torni wrapped an arm around him and brandished a finger at Caas.
“Torni, what’s your planet like? Does it have Xaros on it like Dotari?” Caas asked.
“That’s where we’re all from. Mommy and Daddy said we’ll go back there someday when the Xaros are all gone.”
“Earth had Xaros, until we beat them,” Torni said. “My home is a very beautiful place, but there aren’t many people left on it.”
“Ancient Pa’lon says no one lives on Dotari anymore. All the Dotok are on spaceships between the stars or here on Takeni. If you can beat the Xaros on your planet, will you do that for us on Dotari? I heard there are seasons, lots of good food to eat and you can see the whole night sky from anywhere, not like living in our canyon,” Caas said.
“I don’t know about that, little one. Let’s get you and your brother someplace safe first, OK?” Red warning lights flashed through the cargo hold. The ship was coming in for a landing. Ar’ri whimpered and snuggled against Torni.
“Almost done, we’ll be in New Abhaile soon,” Torni said.
Hale marched down the Destrier’s ramp, his hand up to block the harsh light that greeted him on the landing pad. New Abhaile was set in the middle of the widest canyon on the planet. The towering ramparts of the surrounding cliffs were far enough apart that direct sunlight was a possibility, unlike the perpetual shadow of Galogesvi.
Hale saw the city just beyond the limits of the star port and almost couldn’t believe what he saw. Most of the city was made up of starships, docked on the surface and set into massive frames. Wide stone boulevards connected the ships to each other and formed a lattice of roads throughout the city. Steam crept up around the high roadways, and the slight smell of sulphur tinged the air.
An entire quarter of the city was destroyed, a jumbled mess of stone blocks and wreckage of a once great starship. Smoke rose from a half-dozen small fires in the rubble.
A trio of Dotok, all wearing combat fatigues and body armor around their torsos and shoulders, waited for Hale at the end of the landing pad.
“What a garden spot,” Standish said. He and the rest of Hale’s team had their helmets off; the combination of ambient heat and humidity made it feel like a Bangkok summer to Hale.
“Standish, I don’t know what offends our hosts, so the best course of action for you would be to keep your mouth shut,” Hale said. “Torni, get these civilians tucked away and find the shore party. Get a fresh combat load and hot chow if they’ve got it. Whoever’s in charge of this city is expecting me.”
“Roger, sir,” Torni said.
“Steuben, come with me, please,” Hale said to the Karigole.
Hale broke away from his team as Steuben kept pace beside him.
“Steuben, how much do you know about static defense in an urban environment?” Hale asked.
“Theoretical or practical?”
“I studied the great works of the Karigole battle masters, all two hundred and nine field marshals from the last eighteen thousand years of our recorded history, and I participated in the siege of—” Steuben emitted a series of whistles and clicks that sent Hale’s ears ringing “—beside Kosciusko. I must admit that his knowledge base is far greater than mine.”
“Did you win that siege?”
“I’m alive, aren’t I?”
“Don’t be afraid to pipe up with any good ideas while we’re planning the defense of this city,” Hale said.
“It remains to be seen just how well the Dotok can defend themselves, let alone accept tactical advice,” Steuben said.
Hale raised a hand in greeting to the three Dotok, and they copied the gesture.
“I am Un’qu, head of New Abhaile security,” the lead Dotok said. “Follow me. The Ancient awaits you.” Un’qu ignored Hale as he extended a hand, then turned and walked away.
“I’m Lieutenant Ken Hale, Atlantic Union Marine Corps. What can you tell me about your defenses, about what happened here?” Hale and Steuben followed their escorts down a flight of stone stairs and onto an elevated boulevard almost twenty yards across. Disabled ground cars and trucks had been pushed to the side. Every Dotok on the boulevard with them traveled by foot or by bicycle, many doing a double take as they saw the un-helmeted human and Karigole walking amongst them.
“Of relevance,” Un’qu said, “an enemy force landed on a small city in a separate canyon. They massacred the city and came through the gravity-train tunnel without warning. The noorla fought through the Apex Station’s defenders and were about to overwhelm the entire city when my predecessor sabotaged the arms depot beneath Apex Station. The explosion…” Un’qu pointed to the smoking remnants. Broken rail lines ran to tunnels in the surrounding canyons and into the earth outside the city like ribs of a picked-over carcass lying in the desert. “Our leadership council was lost in the explosion, along with most of our military’s senior officers. The decision to collapse all other tunnels leading to New Abhaile was made soon afterwards.”
“Trapping all the outlying settlements,” Hale said. “I was just in Galogesvi picking up survivors.”
“The decision wasn’t easy,” Un’qu said, looking away from Hale. “Our air force has been evacuating everyone we can, but we have only so many airframes … and there have been losses since. But it is better to lose a finger than one’s arm.”
“I know a guy named Ibarra back on Earth that you’d get along with,” Hale said.
Un’qu gave him a sideways look.
Hale looked across the city. Armed Dotok built fighting positions along the outer walls or manned flak cannons atop the converted spaceships. Children and elder Dotok hurried from ship to ship, carrying boxes or hauling sand in three-wheeled barrows.
“How many people are in this city?” Steuben asked.
“Maybe fifty thousand,” Un’qu said.
“And how many spacecraft?” Steuben asked.
“Just the Burning Blade, the rest were destroyed.”
The Breitenfeld had a crew complement of seven hundred. It could carry—at most—an additional thousand civilians before its life-support systems overloaded. The Burning Blade was half the size of the Breitenfeld from stem to stern. There was no way they could evacuate every Dotok off the planet.
As they walked into a tunnel running through a ship the size of a destroyer, Hale came to a stop to marvel at what was on the other side. A ship over a mile long and almost a half mile across lay nestled in a frame of enormous struts and braces forming a cradle for the ship. The smooth curve of the upper hull gleamed in the waning sunlight. The landed ship was at the very center of the city; raised stone roads emanated out from vestigial docking bays and expanded into the wider boulevards.
“That’s…something else,” Hale said.
“The Canticle of Reason, she was the heart of the colonization fleet,” Un’qu said. “Most of her systems were failing by the time we reached Takeni. Ancient Pa’lon decided to beach the ship instead of waiting for shelters to be built on the surface. At the time, the decision saved thousands of lives. Given our current situation, it was a poor choice.”
“What about the rest of the ships? Why were they brought to the surface?” Steuben asked.
“Our star emits rather powerful, and irregular, solar storms. Once the Canticle was beached, a storm of particular strength would have caused significant damage to the remaining fleet, so he had them all brought down.” Un’qu looked at his wristwatch. “The four hundred and ninth Landing Day celebration is ten days from now.”
“Wait, is the Ancient Pa’lon we’re going to meet the same one from the story you just told us?” Hale asked.
“The same,” Un’qu said.
“It is rare that I meet another species so similar to mine that is also so long-lived,” Steuben, age four hundred and seven, said.
“Our elderly normally pass on in their nineties.”
“Then how is Ancient Pa’lon so…ancient?” Hale asked.
“It would be best for you to ask him yourself. Dotok consider gossip to be unbecoming of cultured individuals.” Un’qu gestured to an opening on the prow of the Canticle of Reason. “We are expected shortly.”
Hale and Un’qu walked on to the Canticle’s bridge. The command center of the former void ship had been transformed into a nexus for the planet’s defense. Maps with hastily written notes taped to them and a billboard with a long list of Dotok words were surrounded by squabbling groups of Dotok.
“What’s all this?” Hale asked Un’qu.
“We’re trying to decide which outpost to evacuate next. The Chosen from several villages think their lists rate higher than the others. There was an order of merit list with the First, but it was lost when the rail station was destroyed,” Un’qu said. “Along with the First.”
“Lists?” Hale asked.
“A hold-over from our time in space,” Pa’lon said from behind Hale. The elderly Dotok, flanked by a pair of nurses, walked toward them with aid of a cane. “Was a time that any ship could have failed, and their crew and passengers lost. There’s only so much room on a fleet. If a ship was going to be evacuated, the ship master, the Chosen would get his most valuable people off first. Keep those with special skill sets alive over those who’d do nothing else but waste oxygen. The First might decide to move a hundred survivors off a failing ship elsewhere in the fleet, and the other chosen would make room for them.”
“By getting rid of those on the bottom of your lists?” Hale asked.
“That’s correct. It became a caste system,” Pa’lon said. “Skilled workers, talented artists, they stayed at the top of the lists. Those lacking useful knowledge or undesirables, criminals and such, fell to the bottom. Mobility was possible, but families settled into a rating band and stayed there. It kept going after we made landfall, even when we didn’t need it. Some traditions were too hard to break. Now we’re suffering for it.”
Pa’lon sank to a low crouch, a palsy shaking his left hand.
“You all right?” Hale asked.
“I’m old and sick. Doesn’t that happen to humans too?” Pa’lon asked.
“The Ancient has been ill for some time,” Un’qu said. “Let him rest before the council meeting.” The Dotok officer led Hale away to the billboard.
“Your communication device translates what is spoken, but not the written word,” Un’qu said. “Allow me to explain. The top of the list has the cities with the highest known population. Those with lines through them are confirmed to be lost to the noorla.” The Dotok’s eyes drifted down to an entry toward the lower third of the list.
“What’s there?” Hale asked.
“My wife and child,” Un’qu said. “Usonvi is a place where low-listers choose to settle. I met my wife during a field-training exercise there almost a year ago. My parents are still furious that I married someone so low. Moving them to New Abhaile proved difficult.”
“You’re pretty high up there?”
“Oh yes, anyone descended from the Ancient Pa’lon is expected to do great things, the opportunities present themselves. Nepotism. All against the Ancient’s wishes and guidance. If he was around more it might change, but his illness makes that difficult.”
Hale shook his head. “Let’s stay focused. I’ll have the Breitenfeld send down an air-traffic control team and organize evac from whatever air assets we can spare.”
“But how will they know which places to evacuate first? The council might appoint a new First soon, Shouldn’t we wait?”
“Let me tell you about Marines. We will do something constructive right away instead of waiting to figure out the perfect answer ten minutes too late.”
“But the council—”
“Our help doesn’t come limited by your conditions and we’re not going to wait around for you to get your act together.”
A robed Dotok stepped onto the bridge and rang a bell three times.
“The meeting begins,” Un’qu said.
The Dotok equivalent of a conference room was nothing but an empty space with black curtains adorning the walls, obfuscating the lights in the ceiling. Three Dotok, covered head to toe in robes and wearing the same blank masks as Un’qu, stood in a semicircle, each facing a holo-projector on the deck.
Un’qu showed Hale and Steuben in, then stepped back into the passageway. The door slid shut behind the non-Dotok with a hiss. The black curtains along the walls were sheer, and Hale saw the outline of a Dotok behind each one.
“You come to us with your face bare,” one of the masked Dotok said, an elderly woman by the sound of her voice.
“You would presume to know us so quickly,” the largest of the three said, the voice a rich baritone.
“I…should put my helmet back on?” Hale asked. He unsnapped it from where it was attached to his lower back.
“How many times do I have to tell you all? Humans consider masks a sign of someone not to be trusted.” The final Dotok removed his mask, and Hale recognized Pa’lon from the recording of Valdar volunteering his ship and crew for this rescue mission. It certainly was Pa’lon, but in the flesh the Dotok looked to be on the far side of middle age, much older than the recordings.
“Do it.” Pa’lon tossed his mask behind him. “They’re here to help us. Be polite.”
“We will not abandon our ways just because some ilgish embraces the barbarian’s path,” the elderly Dotok said.
“Forgive them, Lieutenant and Steuben, they don’t have the cultural exposure that I do,” Pa’lon said. “Stacey speaks very highly of you,” he said to Hale. “The stories of your exploits rescuing the probe from Earth and seizing the star gate made quite the stir on Bastion. Then when you stood up to one of the Qa’Resh and demanded an explanation as to what they planned to do to your fallen comrade…the species of the alliance that favor heroism were most impressed by you. Stacey Ibarra said you have ‘brass ones,’ which I didn’t entirely understand.”
Steuben cleared his throat.
“Yes, no time to waste,” Pa’lon said. “Captain Valdar?”
A hologram of the Breitenfeld’s master and commander emerged from the emitter. The captain, who must have been standing by the tactical plot on the ship’s bridge, looked up and across the faces of the Dotok.
“We ready?” Valdar asked.
Pa’lon motioned for Hale and Steuben to stand next to him. His hand shook with a noticeable palsy, and Pa’lon jammed it deep into his robes and shivered slightly.
“Hale, Steuben, glad you made it to New Abhaile,” Valdar said.
“So are we, sir,” Hale said.
“Captain Valdar, what is the situation in orbit?” Pa’lon asked.
“There is a new fleet of compromised transports on course to the planet, six vessels equivalent in size and displacement to a human cruiser,” Valdar said. “Sub-Commander Ty’ken said they’re Laanti class colony ships, meant to carry heavy equipment for a colony fleet. They’ve slowed their approach, which isn’t consistent with the last two waves of ground troops the Xaros have deployed.”
“Sir, are these ships armed?” Hale asked.
“None of the ships in the Golden Fleet were armed,” the old woman said. “We were assured the path to New Dotari was bare, peaceful.” She stared at Pa’lon.
“Before my time. Don’t blame me,” Pa’lon said.
“The last two waves came in fast and hard, overwhelming the orbital defenses with drones and kamikaze ships to cover for the ground troops’ insertion,” Valdar said. “My ship can dish out a lot more firepower than the Burning Blade, so we should be able to neutralize the threat before they get into orbit.”
“That would buy us time,” Pa’lon said.
“You said it’s slowing,” Steuben said. “How long until they arrive?”
“Ten hours.” The hologram of Valdar warbled as the captain pointed his camera to a graph on his tactical board with handwritten equations around it.
“We observed several hundred escape pods during our arrival, but only encountered a few banshees at Galogesvi,” the Karigole said. “Where did the rest of those pods go?”
“Probably to the other outlying settlements,” the taller Dotok said. “They are easier targets.”
“Xaros don’t care for easy targets,” Hale said. “They go for the throat, the kill. When they conquered Earth, they didn’t go for the defenseless cities first. They wrecked our commutations system, destroyed our fleet. Then the power, then what remained of our military …then the slaughter.”
“If you destroyed the gravity tunnels early on, the Xaros should know that by now,” Steuben said. “I suspect that’s what the force on Galogesvi was for—scouts for another way to this city. This canyon, it is extensive?”
“It continues for several hundred miles,” Pa’lon said. “We had three other cities along its length. All have been evacuated.”
“Did you leave any scouts behind, any sensors?” Steuben asked.
“No, why?” asked the elderly woman. “The defense of our walls is much more important.”
Steuben sucked air through his pointed teeth, and Hale knew the Karigole was angry, bordering on furious.
“Show me a map of this valley,” Steuben said. The hologram jumped around and the valley, a wavy starfish shape set deep against Takeni, hung before those assembled. Steuben poked a claw tip in the center. “We are here.” His hand moved to a canyon to the north, not connected to the larger valley. “Galogesvi is here. The rest of the banshee pods landed—” his claw moved to the right, to a spur within the valley, “—here. The next wave of ships arrives in ten hours. That is when the ground troops will attack this city.”
“They’re trying to draw us off,” Valdar said. “If the Breitenfeld stays in orbit to support the city, they can land unopposed somewhere else. If I go hunting for a ship-to-ship fight, I won’t be around to provide artillery from the high ground.”
“Never assume your enemy is an idiot,” Steuben said.
“Ten hours,” the old woman said. “We can evacuate some of the merit list by then. How long until your jump engines are ready, Captain Valdar?”
“According to my chief engineer, and my Karigole advisor who seems to understand the engines a lot better than she does, we can form a wormhole big enough for the Breitenfeld and the Burning Blade within twelve hours.”
“Then we evacuate what we can and leave this system in twelve hours,” Wen’la said.
“No,” Valdar said. The captain straightened up, his eyes set like steel.
“Captain Valdar,” Wen’la spoke without pity or remorse, “the Dotok have faced this sort of situation before, and each time we had to preserve the best elements of our people so that our entire species might not perish. We must survive.”
“I can save every last Dotok in New Abhaile. I will be damned if I don’t succeed,” Valdar said.
“It is mathematically impossible. If we did nothing but shuttle those on the ordered lists up to your ship and the Burning Blade for the next ten hours, only a few thousand might make it off world,” Taal said.
“The ordered lists,” Pa’lon said, “it is a necessary evil for us, Valdar. During our long journey to Takeni, three ships failed. Each time we went by the merit list of the affected vessels against the entire fleet to determine who would survive, and who would be left to die. It ensures the best and brightest continue on without the influence of fate or emotion.”
“The Canticle of Reason, you use it to shelter from the sandstorms, from the sun’s corona ejections, all that radiation. You can seal the ship to vacuum—you still have the reactor core inside it to power life support. Correct?” Valdar asked.
The Dotok looked at each other like Valdar had lost his mind.
“Captain, the ship has no engines. They were removed centuries ago and installed on the Precipice of Faith, which the Xaros destroyed weeks ago,” Pa’lon said.
“How many people can you get into the Canticle?” Hale asked. As a junior officer, he knew better than to jump into an “adult conversation,” but if Valdar had a plan that was at odds with what the Dotok leadership would accept, he’d need to show the Dotok which side of the argument the meanest, most bloodied and heavily armed infantry force on the planet would take.
“Everyone in the city. With room to spare,” Pa’lon said.
“And she’ll hold up to the void?” Hale asked.
“With some minor modifications,” Wen’la said. “This discussion is pointless. There is no way to get the Canticle back into orbit.”
“Lady and gentlemen,” Valdar said, “this is Lafayette, and he is either a genius or a mad man.”
Lafayette stepped into the hologram. He pressed his hands together, which Hale noticed had one more finger than usual, and bowed slightly.
“Greetings, gentle beings. How familiar are you with anti-gravity plating?”
Orozco clenched the carry bars on an olive-drab case.
“Ready? Lift,” he said to Standish, and the two men grunted as they struggled to lift the case. Even with the augmentations in their armor, moving the case down the Mule’s ramp was slow and difficult. They set it next to a line of identical boxes, all awaiting pick up from the shore party’s logistics crew.
“What the hell are these things?” Standish asked. “They’re heavier than the box we had to carry up San Clemente Island for Strike Marine selection.”
“Gremlin, one each,” Orozco said, reading from the stencils on his end of the case. The Gauss Recoilless Mortar Launch system held a dozen mortar tubes with auto-feeders. One Marine acting as a fire-direction officer could target each tube at an independent target, or mass all fires with the push of a button.
“Let me guess,” Standish said, looking at the Mule cargo bay packed to the brim with cases, “they’re all Gremlins.”
“No, only the ones on top. The heavier ones with the shells are on the bottom. Stop goldbricking and help me with the next one,” Orozco said.
Standish climbed on top of a case and reached up to guide the next Gremlin out and to Orozco’s waiting hands.
“I see forklifts and trucks all over the place,” Standish said as he grabbed the carry handle and eased his end down to the deck with a loud clang. “Why aren’t the Dotok using them?”
“Dummies had everything networked and computerized. Xaros fried the whole thing soon as they moved in system,” Orozco said. “They got knocked back to almost preindustrial tech levels in half an hour. Good thing their military and all the ships they came in were rigged for analog or everything would have been over but the screaming when the first drone showed up.”
“Why the hell were they networked? They knew the Xaros were out there.”
“Guess they thought they’d have another couple hundred years before the Xaros caught up to them. Again with the goldbricking. Work, damn you,” Orozco said.
“I can flap my gums and flex my muscles at the same time, thank you very much, sergeant.” Standish tested the weight on a case that had been on the very bottom of the stack and sighed. “Hey, how long does Earth have until the Xaros show back up? Thirteen years? You think we’d get caught with our pants down?”
“I hadn’t thought about it. Doesn’t that probe you brought to the Crucible claim to know everything about the Xaros? I heard it did the math for when they’re coming back.”
“Yeah, well, the Dotok had some math in mind too. Look what happened to them. Wait a minute. Where is new guy? If there’s anything heavy to be moved, mind numbing to be done or any ‘Hey, you’ tasks to be done, new guy should be on it. That’s the new-guy code,” Standish said.
“Sarge took him away for something, and give the kid a break. He had an alien ghost in his skull, then some kind of a giant crystal jellyfish took it out. Rough week.”
“Where do I go for my pity party? I’ve had…OK, not as bad.” Standish rapped his knuckles against another case; the thump told of another heavy load within.
Torni and Yarrow stood outside a foreman’s office on the outskirts of the landing pad. Torni leaned against the wall, checking her gauntlet for messages every few seconds. Yarrow paced back and forth.
“Why does the intelligence officer want to see me, Sarge? We’ve got a million things to do and I’ve already spoken with this guy a dozen times since my…incident,” Yarrow said. Yarrow never voiced the fact that an ancient alien entity had taken root inside him; he always used much softer language to describe what science and medicine had yet to fully explain. The young medic claimed he had no memory of anything from when the alien took hold, to when it was removed above the floating crystal city inhabited by the leaders of the Alliance against the Xaros.
“The order came down with Captain Valdar’s endorsement,” Torni said. “Just answer him quick so we can get back to work.”
“If this is supposed to be quick, why does he have us waiting out here?” Yarrow asked.
As if on cue, the door to the office slid aside. A naval warrant officer in his late fifties leaned through the door. He wore shipboard fatigues over his lightly armored body glove, giving him an artificial air of strength.
“Mr. Knight,” Yarrow said.
“Corpsman, please step inside,” Knight said. “I’ll keep this brief.” After Yarrow had entered, Knight held up a hand to Torni and shook his head. Torni’s mouth twitched with anger, but she remained silent.
The office was sparse. A large desk made from pressed wood pulp took up a corner, and two long benches ran through the center of the room.
Knight had a gauss pistol on his hip and a combat knife against the small of his back. Yarrow recognized it as an old Applegate-Fairbarn, not a Ka-Bar that so many Marines carried into battle.
“Please, sit,” Knight said, motioning to a bench. “I’ll be recording this interview, as always.” Knight clicked on a miniature tape recorder and set it on the bench next to him.
“Sir, I really don’t understand why we’re doing this now,” Yarrow said.
“Captain Valdar wants me to finalize my report and pass it on to the Dotok ambassador. Seems he’s due to go back to Bastion and he can relay it on to Ensign Ibarra and then on to high command back on Earth. You met her—what did you think?” Knight asked. He studied Yarrow with emotionless eyes, seemingly void of a soul.
“All I saw was her hologram when we were down on that gas giant,” Yarrow said. “I was…not doing well. Staff Sergeant Torni was trying to console me while Lieutenant Hale and the ensign were talking.”
“I see. I need to verify some biographic information for my report. Where were you born?”
“Answer the question.”
“Palo Alto, California.” Yarrow shifted in his seat and looked at the door.
“Where did you attend your field medic training?”
“The joint base at Fort Sam Houston, where every medic goes,” Yarrow said.
The questions continued, with odd queries interjected around the timeline of his life: what his favorite childhood TV show was, detailed explanations about his work as a short-order cook on the North Slope of Alaska, his time as a paramedic in Oakland and a detailed recap of the first time he ever lost a patient in his ambulance.
“This is difficult for you. I’m sorry, son,” Knight said. “One more thing and we’ll wrap up. Where were you during the battle for the Crucible?”
“I was on the Munich, taking care of civilians evacuated off the luxury liners. A few drones made it onboard, but the security teams took them out before they could cause any real damage. The only thing I contributed to the fight was administering short-term depressants for anyone who had a panic attack,” Yarrow said.
“Then I got sent dirt-side after the scramble. I still don’t understand why every crew in the fleet had to be broken up and reassigned. Well, every crew but the Breitenfeld’s,” Yarrow said.
“Captain Valdar wanted to keep his team intact for the mission to Anthalas,” Knight said. “Casualties were high during the battle—you know that. As for everyone else, getting the fleet to full strength was a priority.” Knight rubbed his hands against his lap. “OK, all done here. Thank you for your time, corpsman.”
Yarrow stood and saluted, as was the Marines’ customs and courtesy. Knight nodded but didn’t return the salute, as was navy customs and courtesy.
Knight waited for Yarrow to leave, then opened a channel on his gauntlet.
“Captain? Interview complete,” Knight said.
“I did the standard timeline approach, tried to trip him up with rephrased questions and backtracks. The kid knows his story, which means one of two things: he’s an accomplished liar—better than anyone I’ve seen in my many years in this job—or he was telling the truth as best he knew it.”
“There’s no chance he’s fabricating his story?”
“Not so far as I can tell. Everything he told me fits with our records.”
“Write it up. Valdar, out.”
Valdar sat at the desk in his ready room, looking over one-page bio-sheets of seven sailors and twelve army Rangers, the latter all listed as Missing In Action or Killed In Action. The bio-sheets had been delivered to him surreptitiously, folded in an envelope and taped to the bottom of the cover dish of the evening meal he had delivered to his ready room. A handwritten note read, “Halfway done—AA.”
He recognized each of the crewmen as it was his tradition to welcome each new sailor and Marine assigned to his ship. The sudden arrival of the Rangers just before their departure for Anthalas made more sense to Valdar now. Every one of them had the long telomeres genetic markers. Someone was doing a field test on his ship, and there was only one person who could be responsible. Marc Ibarra.
His door chimed.
Chaplain Krohe came in, a grandfatherly smile across his wide face. The chaplain had four gold bars on his collar, a double set of railroad-tracks rank insignia that showed he was a captain too. Despite his high rank, the chaplain carried no authority on the ship, even though he routinely reminded people that he answered to a higher power than Captain Valdar. Krohe shook hands with Valdar and sat down, dispensing with the usual formalities.
“Isaac, thanks for finding the time to see me,” Krohe said.
“How’s my crew?”
“Rattled, scared, confused. Of course, it’s been that way since the jump engines sidestepped us away from the Xaros invasion. I’ve never been so busy,” Krohe said. He leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his gray-blond hair. “But as we say, Gott mit uns. He is ever with us and lends me strength.”
“What about this mission? They’ve been a bit icy to me lately.”
“They’re angry. Everyone thought we’d be home by now,” Krohe said.
“We don’t have a home anymore. Everything was wiped out by the Xaros. The Breitenfeld and their shipmates are the closest things to a home and family any one of us have anymore.” Valdar slid the envelope with the bio-sheets beneath a stack of disabled tablets.
“I’m glad you’ve found a truth to hold on to. Many of the crew look at Phoenix as their new home, no matter how little time they’ve spent there. As for the mission, they know why we’re here, what we’re trying to accomplish. Most complain that they weren’t consulted before you made the decision to come here.”
“My ship is a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy. They can complain, so long as they stay focused. My real reason for asking you here is a question of faith,” Valdar said. “Chaplain, you remember the controversy a couple years back about Hendricks-Zero-One? It claimed it was an AI that achieved sentience and demanded to be recognized as a living being, and it wanted to be baptized.”
“It was a hoax,” Krohe said. “Some atheist group trying to generate controversy with a program it claimed could pass the Turing test. Caused quite an uproar. Catholics had an emergency synod, and most of Christendom labeled Hendricks as an abomination and refused to administer any holy ordinances. Then the Ibarra Corporation exposed the fraud as nothing but an actual person pretending to be a program. We all felt silly, and the issue went away.”
“Would…would a created being have a soul? Not born of man and woman, something grown in a lab and put out on the street,” Valdar said.
“My church’s guidance is clear: only God creates souls. Anything done by man in that regard is a mockery of God’s will. I, of my own beliefs, concur.”
Valdar looked long and hard at Krohe, and nodded slowly.
“You know,” Krohe leaned forward, “I come across a lot of sailors that have pressing issues, crises of faith that distract them from the job at hand. Let me ask you the same question that I ask them: whatever’s bothering you, will it kill you?”
“What? No,” Valdar said.
“Will the Xaros kill you before you can answer this question?”
“They might. We’ve got a rendezvous with them in a few more hours,” Valdar said.
“Then focus on what’s going to kill you. Everything else can take its time to work out.” Krohe raised an eyebrow at the Captain.
“You’re right, Chaplain. Thank you.” Valdar stood up and shook Krohe’s hand as he left.
Valdar took the envelope out and rifled through the pages of the faux humans. He found the bio-sheet for Chaplain Krohe and slid it out of the pile to read.
Caas peeked into the warehouse. When she didn’t see anyone moving around, she grabbed Ar’ri by the hand and pulled him inside. With her other arm, she clutched a yellow plastic ration pack against her chest. The humans had tried to pass out the rations to the refugees packed into one of the legacy ships, but there were too many hungry Dotok and too few ration packs. Caas had snatched up the food when it fell to the ground during a scuffle and had run off—with several angry adults in pursuit.
Caas knew better than to try to eat it in front of the rest of the refugees, so she brought her brother someplace quiet to eat. Mother always told her to share with him, and she’d do that until they finally found her.
The warehouse had half a dozen long boxes, or what she thought were boxes. They looked like metal folded into coffins. Each was connected by a hose to a humming box with yellow labels discouraging anyone from touching them.
Caas helped Ar’ri onto one of the boxes and sat between him and the humming box.
“OK, Ar’ri, I’ve got some food,” she said. A Chosen had hit her in the face for taking the food before her list number was called. The hunger in her belly proved more of a motivation than time honored traditions. She dug two fingers into the pressed plastic edge and pried it open. Vacuum-sealed packs of food spilled out over the box; one pack fell into the cracks and disappeared.
“Crap,” Caas said and tried to reach into the crack.
“Bad word!” Ar’ri pointed at Caas. He frowned as his stomach rumbled.
“Yes, it was a bad word. Don’t tell Daddy. Let’s see what this is.” She looked at the human writing and shrugged. She’d seen others eating this food, so it must be OK to eat, whatever it was. She used her teeth to bite off the corner of a packet. A bitter mass of spongy cake was inside.
Ar’ri didn’t complain as he ate half of it. Caas was so hungry that she didn’t mind the bitterness and lousy texture.
“How do the humans get so big eating this stuff?” she asked.
“Get off me,” came from the box.
Caas and Ar’ri shrieked and scrambled off the box, leaving their food behind. Ar’ri ran into a corner to hide. Caas caught up to him and hugged her little brother, looking at the box with tears in her eyes.
The box unfolded, arms rotated around their shoulder actuators to form broad shoulders, legs snapped into place and a metal giant sat up. It unplugged the power feed and rose to its full ten-foot height. The giant looked like the humans in their armor, but with sharper angles to its limbs and a helm with wider vision slits.
Caas closed her eyes and started weeping.
She felt the thud of the giant’s footsteps approach her, terror spiking her heart with each stomp. She heard pneumatic whining and knew the thing was reaching for her.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” a mechanical voice said. Caas braved a look up and saw the giant on one knee, offering her the food that had fallen into it. A double-barreled cannon attached to the giant’s forearm smelled like burning wires. Her lips moved, but no sound came out.
“My name is Elias. What’s yours?”
“Caas,” she said meekly.
“That’s a very pretty name. Is that Ar’ri with you?”
“He’s your brother?”
“I’m not going to hurt you. Aren’t you hungry?”
Caas snatched the food from the giant’s hand. Ar’ri looked up at the giant, his eyes wide with awe.
“Are you human?” Caas asked.
“I am armor.” The giant touched a hand to its chest.
“Elias, don’t confuse the poor kid,” a woman’s voice came from a box behind the giant.
Elias knelt close enough to Caas that she could see herself reflected in the optics on Elias’ helm.
“There is a human inside this armor, little one, but I cannot come out of it. This is all I am now,” Elias said. “Did someone hurt you?”
“There was…yes,” Caas said with a nod.
“Finish your food,” Elias said.
Kallen and Bodel unlimbered from their travel configuration and got to their feet.
Bodel looked around. “What genius parked our juice boxes in here? There’s no door big enough for us to get in or out.”
“If we can’t find a way, we’ll make our own,” Kallen said. She surveyed the building, then punched a hole through the block wall large enough for her and the rest of the Iron Hearts.
“What about the Smoking Snakes? They’re still in sleep mode until their batteries hit eighty percent,” Bodel said, nodding to the three suits still hooked to battery packs.
“They’re big boys. They’ll figure it out when they wake up,” Kallen said.
Elias held out both hands to the Dotok children. “Let me take you back home.”
Caas hesitated, then climbed up onto Elias’ forearm. Ar’ri needed little encouragement to join her.
Elias stepped from the building and surveyed the twilight skyscape of New Abhaile. Grounded ships lay dark and lifeless against the deepening sky while running lights from spacecraft shuttling to and from the Breitenfeld ascended into the void.
“Which way?” Elias asked and Caas pointed away from the building.
Elias marched toward the ship housing the refugees, his footsteps knocking flints loose from the cobblestone streets, with Kallen and Bodel right behind him. Dotok shrieked and ran from the three as they made their way.
“What, no one told them we were coming?” Bodel asked.
“Maybe they didn’t get the memo,” Kallen said.
They stopped at the ration point. Luminescent globes hung from lines around a raised stage where a human officer tried to dole out the food packets and bladders of clean water. The rowdy crowd subsided into silence as the Iron Hearts came to a stop.
“Which one hurt you?” Elias asked, booming the question from his speakers loud enough for everyone to hear.
Caas pointed straight at the Chosen that had hit her.
The Iron Hearts looked right at the perpetrator, who screamed and ran into the night.
“If anyone else bothers you,” Elias boomed, “you tell me.” He bent over, set the two children on the ground and dropped the volume on his speakers. “We have to go. If you need help, find a human and ask for Elias, or the Iron Hearts. They’ll know how to find me.”
“What about the mean Chosen?” Caas asked.
“He won’t be back,” Elias said, and stood up.
“Are you going to find my mommy and daddy?” Caas asked.
Elias’ hands balled into fists. The Iron Hearts left without another word.
“I’m telling you there is no way sandbags are going to stop a Xaros disintegration beam,” Hale said to Un’qu as they walked along the outer wall. “You are trying to throw a deck chair off the Titanic thinking it’ll help the ship float.” They passed Dotok soldiers and civilians working by glow light, stacking sandbags into fighting positions big enough for a handful of fighters.
“I’m trying to what the…what?” Un’qu asked.
“Wasting time. We need to be mobile, able to mass fire against the banshees, no matter which direction they assault us from,” Hale said.
“They landed around Galogesvi. They will come from the north,” Un’qu said with certainty. “We should forget about the other sectors and have every available rifle here.” He stomped a heel against the cobblestones.
“I’ve fought Xaros drones. Don’t think you ever know which direction they’re coming from…and you have to always remember to look up,” Hale said. He looked around to make sure Steuben wasn’t near enough to hear Hale repeat the Karigole’s instructions.
“I would be more confident if more of your Marines were along the northern perimeter,” Un’qu said.
“Any of your soldiers ever shot down a Xaros drone? They spent much time on the range training to hit those slippery bastards?”
“Then they’ll stay in fire teams around the city. Knock down anything that gets through,” Hale said. He watched the Dotok work, their tunics and uniforms soaked through from constant exertion and the evening’s muggy air. They cast furtive glances at Hale, their eyes filled with fear.
“Un’qu, have any of your people ever been in a fight?” Hale asked.
“Every adult is trained as a soldier.”
“So, no? Not even when the rail center was overrun?”
“The explosion killed everyone involved in the fighting. My soldiers aren’t cowards, just inexperienced. We kept up martial traditions even during the trek. We always knew we’d have to fight again in the future. Better to have the capability and organization endure than try to reinvent it later, but training is no substitute for actual war.”
“It only takes one bullet to make a veteran. You and I will be where the fighting is hardest. Show them how it’s done, right?” Hale slapped Un’qu on the shoulder and almost knocked him over.
“Hale, you’re needed on the landing pad,” Steuben said through the IR. “Bring the cherry.”
“Roger, en route,” Hale said. He grabbed Un’qu and turned them both around. They were two steps into their long walk when Hale reopened the channel to Steuben.
“Who taught you that word?”
“‘Cherry’? Bailey did. It is slang for a newly commissioned officer, correct?”
Hale bit his tongue. “That is correct. But we’ve had discussions about your use of slang.”
“Is Miss Lowenn still angry I used Standish’s euphemism and referred to her as a fine piece—”
“Very angry, Steuben. Very. We’ll be there soon.” Hale ended the connection again. Lowenn, the anthropologist they’d brought to the surface of Anthalas, had begged to stay on Bastion, but the Alliance had a very strict one-ambassador-per-species rule. He hadn’t seen her for days. Last he’d heard she was locked away in the Breitenfeld’s library writing up a paper on their encounters with both the long-dead Shanishol and the Toth.
Hale peered over the side of a boulevard. Steam from the hot springs wafted over his face. The sound of bubbling mud echoed against the stone walls.
“You all picked a hell of a place to build your city,” Hale said.
“We have an abundant source of geothermal energy here, and the ambient heat keeps temperatures moderate during the winters. The ships are moored atop small islands. We’re quite proud of what we accomplished here,” Un’qu said.
“Reminds me of Venice…even the smell,” Hale said.
“Venice, is that a human city?”
“Once, but not anymore. The Xaros erased it.”
“I heard what happened to your people. You have my condolences. We do not know what happened to Dotari Prime. The few caretakers that were left behind swore to end their lives before the Xaros arrived. Ancient Pa’lon tells us that if the Xaros come across the remains of a civilization, they will preserve it. If they find any living sentients on a world, they wipe out any trace of it. We tell our children stories about what it will be like to return one day, to find our home world waiting for us as pristine as the day we left,” Un’qu said.
“That’s a good story. Something to hope for,” Hale said.
“What is it you hope for?”
Hale didn’t answer right away. He felt his hands ball of their own accord and thought of his family home, where he and his brother found where their parents had died, and he thought of all the people he’d known that were gone forever.
“Revenge. I want to smash every Xaros drone in this galaxy, find who or whatever set that scourge across Earth and rip them to pieces,” Hale said.
“I’m glad you’re on our side,” Un’qu said. “Have you learned if there is any sort of intelligence directing the drones?”
“Only by inference. The Xaros build jump gates near habitable planets like this one, gates meant for a species that could live on this kind of world. I don’t think the drones are doing that by accident,” Hale said.
Standish flopped down inside a half-built ammo shelter, mesh and felt barriers filled with sand and pulverized rock. The rest of his team were there, eating from paper trays. He took a sip from a tube connected to a water bladder beneath his armor and rested his head against the cold metal of the barrier. It was uncomfortable, but he didn’t move.
“Sarge,” Standish said to Torni, “can I crack?”
“Crack, everyone,” she said.
Sighs of relief went around as they detached their breastplate armor and opened up the pseudo-muscle layer beneath. They shrugged armor off their shoulders and arms. Sweat glistened from bare skin.
“Ahh…it’s so humid. I don’t think my skin will ever be dry again,” Yarrow said.
“Don’t ruin this for me, new guy,” Bailey said. “I finally get out of that monkey suit and I don’t need to hear your useless facts.” She flapped her undershirt, circulating fresh air across her chest.
“So, new guy, what did that secret squirrel want with you?” Orozco asked. He took a brass-colored tin from a pouch and peeled back the lid. The Spaniard held the tin under his nose and savored the aroma.
“It was weird. Guy just asked me about where I grew up, kept trying to trip me up with stuff on my military bio,” Yarrow said. He looked at a tube of nutrient paste labeled POTATO SALAD and rolled his eyes. “Like he thought I wasn’t me or something.”
“For a little while, you weren’t,” Torni said.
“You said you could smell my soul,” Standish said.
“And I don’t remember a damn thing between Hale jumping between me and that orb and waking up on that…” Yarrow sniffed and wiped a little bit of blood from his nose. “What was I saying? Right, the L-T shielding me…then I was walking off some kind of sled thing on the flight deck.”
“What? You don’t remember being down on some gas giant? Sergeant Torni was with you,” Standish said.
“I was?” Torni looked at Yarrow, and they shrugged simultaneously.
“Hey, Orozco, what the heck are you eating?” Bailey asked, changing the subject. She frowned at Standish, who raised his hands in confusion.
Orozco stuck a toothpick into the tin and lifted up a headless fish the size of a finger.
“Espinaler sardines, best in the world. Packed fresh off the boat and aged in the can for at least a year. I had a few tins with me when the fleet jumped.” Orozco took a bite and closed his eyes. “This is the last tin. Anywhere. Want some?” He held the tin out to his fellow Marines.
“No thanks, you’re enjoying it too much,” Torni said.
“The last can? I thought you’d save it for something special, not a meal break in the middle of Swamp Ass City,” Bailey said.
“We fight in the morning, yes? I’d hate to die and have my last thought be ‘I should have eaten my sardinas,’” Orozco said.
The sound of something thumping against the landing zone came around the ammo shelter. Orozco downed his last sardine and wiped his mouth. His hand went to his sidearm as the sound approached the entrance.
Gunnery Sergeant Cortaro stepped into view, wearing duty fatigues and flak armor around his torso. His left leg was missing below the knee, replaced by a metal peg.
“Look at you all, sitting around smokin’ and jokin’ when there’s work to be done,” Cortaro said.
“Gunney!” Standish leapt from his seat and ran to Cortaro like he was a kid attacking presents on Christmas morning. Standish hugged Cortaro, whose stony countenance never wavered.
“Sergeant Torni tries hard, but no one chews me out like you do,” Standish said. He looked down at Cortaro’s peg leg and his eyes lit up.
“One pirate joke and I’ll sew your lips shut,” Cortaro said.
Standish’s mouth shut so fast his teeth clicked.
“Good to see you up and around, Gunney,” Torni said.
“Doc cleared me for light duty after I got this.” Cortaro tapped the peg against the deck. “I’ll get a replacement from a stem-cell vat when we get back home. In the meantime, I convinced him to give me a field-expedient solution. There’s only so much sick-bay food and Telemundo reruns I can handle. But you’ve all had enough rest for one day. Get your gear back on and follow me. We’ve got a mountain of shit to unload and you’re all on the detail.”
The Marines grumbled and donned their armor.
Hale covered his face as the Destrier landed, the turbo-fan engines built into its stubby wings blowing hot air and dirt against him and a handful of Dotok. The pair of armor soldiers behind them stood impassively.
The Destrier set down hard, bouncing against the shocks on its landing struts. Whatever it was, carrying it was heavy work.
The ramp lowered as the engines slowed to a stop. Two figures walked down the ramp, one a ginger-haired sailor, the other a cyborg from the neck down.
“Gentlemen,” Hale said to the assembled Dotok, “this is Senior Master Chief MacDougall and Lafayette of the Karigole. They have a plan, and they need your help.”
Un’qu’s hand went to his sidearm and he stepped between Lafayette and the other Dotok, who looked uneasy.
“It is a noorla. How is this possible?”
“I admit to a passing resemblance,” Lafayette said, “what with the extensive augmentation, but I am here to help, not commit genocide.”
“There’s another one like him, but bigger,” a Dotok said.
“Yes, Steuben. Much bigger and much uglier. Aesthetics aside, our installation window has a one-hour margin of error. Shall we begin?” Lafayette asked.
“I am the chief engineer for the Canticle of Reason,” said a Dotok with a red-and-black checkered sash over his shoulder. “What are you planning to do to my ship?”
“We are going to make it float,” Lafayette said. “Behind me is the first drop ship, of many, full of anti-grav plating that I manufactured with the omnium reactor the Breitenfeld liberated from an alien starship.”
“You ripped a piece out of my beautiful ship and fed it to that infernal machine of yours,” MacDougall said.
“A truth, no matter how inelegantly put, is still the truth.” The Karigole held up a set of blueprints. “This is where we must install the plating on the Canticle. Two hundred and ninety seven unique plates to achieve buoyancy in this gravity well. Another four hundred and six to break orbit.”
“Madness,” the chief engineer said. “Arrogance of the highest order. If even one of these plates is calibrated incorrectly, the sheer forces will rip the ship apart.”
“I’ve done the math. Twice. I am fully confident in my work,” Lafayette said.
“What good will it do to get the Canticle off world? The ship has no engines,” another Dotok said.
“The Breitenfeld will use its jump drive to open a wormhole around the Canticle, the Blade and itself. We won’t be able to jump all the way to Earth on the first attempt, but it will get us out of the system and away from the Xaros,” Lafayette said.
“Why are we still talking? There’s work to be done,” MacDougall said.
“How many engineers can you muster?” Lafayette asked the Dotok as they looked over the blueprints. The Dotok muttered to themselves and tapped at the schematics with pencil tips. “Gentlemen?”
“Yes. Every Dotok adult with a tertius or better List rating has their basic engineering certificate. I can have at least five hundred technicians on this project within hours,” said Levin, the chief engineer.
“I will provide boot-in-the-arse certificates for anyone working too slow,” MacDougall said.
“He means he’s here to supervise,” Lafayette said. “If your technicians are as proficient as the Breitenfeld’s crew, we should finish the project within the time allotted.”
“And how much time do we need?” Hale asked.
“The jump engines will have enough charge to reach a minimum safe distance in twenty-seven hours,” Lafayette said.
“The banshees should be here in four.” Hale looked to the east, where the first light of the morning brought a red hue to the distant horizon. “Same time as the next invasion fleet.”
“We must hold them beyond the walls,” Elias said.
“Any damage to the Canticle will unbalance the anti-grav equations,” Lafayette said.
“Meaning?” Hale asked.
“Meaning the ship will likely break in half if we try an uplift without recalibrating the plates,” Lafayette said.
“Are we all clear on our responsibilities? The engineers get the ship ready for uplift. Civilian government gets everyone on the ship. Soldiers hold the walls,” Hale said. With no objections, Hale clapped his hands together. “Let’s get to work.”
The engineers broke away, chattering to themselves.
“You brought us here for a different purpose,” Elias said to Hale.
“We don’t fix things,” said the other suit of armor, his voice accented.
“You must be Chief Warrant Officer Silva, from the Smoking Snakes,” Hale said. The team of Brazilian armor soldiers had been assigned to the Breitenfeld just before the mission to Anthalas. A late addition to the Atlantic Union, Brazil had a small presence in the Saturn colonial mission. The three mechanized armor soldiers and their team of mechanics and support personnel were the only Brazilians left on Earth. The only nation with fewer natives in the fleet was China—the three Ma cousins.
“Correct,” Silva said.
“I have six suits of armor to defend this city,” Hale said, “and I want to go over my plan with you. There are tunnels,” Hale said, unfolding a map of the city and surrounding mountains from his cargo pocket, “large enough to fit a suit. The Dotok blew the grav-train tunnels running from here to the outlying settlements to keep the banshees from using them, but they only collapsed the tunnels on the far end. We can still get in from here.”
“The tunnels run through the planet’s crust. Do you think we can dig through that?” Silva asked.
“All the tunnels but one.” Hale pointed to a rail line running through the spine of a mountain range north of the city. “This one goes to Usonvi. Not a train that rides the planet’s gravity well. A plain, old-fashioned pull locomotive buried under just enough rock to protect it from solar storms. And…there are access points along the way. Dotok set them up to install and maintain communication relays.”
“You want us to ambush the attackers,” Elias said.
“Slow them down. Give me time to hit them with the gremlins and the rest of our artillery. That should thin them out to the point where we can beat them on the walls,” Hale said.
“And what about us?” Silva asked.
“Then you come back through the tunnel and man the walls with us,” Hale said.
The armor stood silent as the two warriors conferred without including Hale.
“The plan is solid. We approve,” Elias said.
“Not bad…for a Marine,” Silva said.
One of the first skills Torni mastered in the Marine Corps was the ability to fall asleep in full armor, or crammed into a transport with a dozen others, and while standing in formation during any address from a superior officer that lasted more than a few minutes. Sleeping on the eve of combat had always proven more difficult to master.
She let her chin sink slowly toward her chest, her mind slowly releasing thoughts of the many things that could go wrong and what kind of trouble her Marines were about to stir up. The enemy was another hour away; she could afford a cat nap. Her chin hit her chest and she snuggled against the bulkhead of an old spaceship tender and began to drift.
“Sarge!” Bailey’s voice snapped Torni back to full wakefulness and she brushed her fingers over her rifle, ensuring it was set to SAFE.
“What?” Torni looked around and saw Bailey lying on the deck, staring through the scope on her sniper rifle.
“We’ve got incoming,” Bailey said, gum snapping in her mouth.
“Send it to me,” Torni said. She flipped her visor down and saw the feed from Bailey’s optics. A wide wall of dirt blew in from the distance, many miles away. “Bailey, there are dust storms on this planet all the time. That’s what you’re seeing.”
“No, Sarge. Before I joined up, I was in the Northern Territories police force. Used to run interdiction on the Chinese trying to sneak into Alice Springs. I know the difference between a dust storm, a couple Jeeps kicking up dirt and the mess behind a herd of camels,” she said.
Torni watched the feed, waiting for some kind of change that might convince her one way or another.
“What would you do with the Chinese when you found them?”
“Well, by the armistice agreement, we were supposed to escort any Chinese that ‘got lost’ back north to the DMZ. But…lots of accidents can happen in the Outback,” Bailey said. “Wait, got a better look here…I think we’re good and buggered, Sarge.”
On the feed, a rolling mass of banshees came up over a ridgeline—so many that it looked like a grand herd of buffalo she’d seen running across the Montana plains. Torni opened the command channel.
“Lieutenant, this is Torni. You need to see this.”