Hale and Torni carried a stretcher up a Mule ramp, bearing a wounded Marine. The left half of his face was covered in bloody bandages and he had a compression stump over his left hand. He’d lost most of his hand to a banshee’s bite, but had kept fighting until Yarrow caught up to him.
Two more walking wounded sat in the Mule’s cargo hold, both with broken bones and concussions. Hale and Torni lifted the stretcher onto a rack and helped the crew chief secure it for the long, bumpy ride back up to the Breitenfeld.
Bodel was already onboard, locked in a tube filled with the same fluid as his armor’s womb. A mask over his face fed him air; his severed plug wires wrapped around the tube, connecting him to his life-support systems. Bodel twitched, like a drug addict in the throes of withdrawal.
Hale had gone through armor selection, passing all the tests but the last where he’d panicked in an isolation chamber. He’d come so close to earning his plugs and joining the ranks of the mechanized armor. Failing had gnawed at him for years, driving him to become a Strike Marine, the elite of the Atlantic Union’s spaceborne infantry. Now, seeing Bodel suffer erased all regret he’d once had. A Marine’s death on the battlefield would be quick. Bodel might suffer for months before succumbing to his injuries, or end up trapped in a suit like Elias.
“We’re wheels up in three minutes, sir,” the crew chief said to Hale.
“How’s he?” Hale motioned to Bodel.
“Sedated. Stable. I’m not allowed to do anything else for him. These guys are fragile little snowflakes when you get them out of their suits. We’ve got specialists on the Breit that might be able to keep him alive.”
“Pass on to Dr. Accorso that I want regular updates on everyone,” Hale said.
“No problem, doc’s good about stuff like that anyway,” the crew chief said.
Hale gave the injured a reassuring touch and words of encouragement before he stepped away; most were so drugged up with painkillers they could barely register Hale’s presence.
Torni pointed to a shelter set up at the end of the landing zone with a Marine standing guard at the door. Hale steeled himself. There were many tasks as a leader he didn’t enjoy, and this was the worst.
Within the shelter were six matte-black body bags, and all but one held a dead Marine. The last had a single small lump within it. Hale zipped each open to look at the face of the departed within. All his Marines, all dead under his command. His emotions had been worn to nothing in the past few months, but he could still feel sorrow for the loss of good men and women.
“Cittern and Huey are still missing,” Torni said. “They went down in the rubble from the second big hit. Dotok and the armor are picking through the area now.”
“And Vogelaar?” He pointed at the mostly empty body bag, the only one he hadn’t opened.
“We found her helmet…with her in it.” Torni looked away. “We’re looking for the rest. She’s Jewish—being whole is important for the funeral.”
“Have them sent up on the next transport,” Hale said.
“Sir, they need you on the Canticle, ASAP,” Cortaro said over the IR.
“On my way.” Hale slid his new helmet over his head and left the makeshift morgue.
Hale felt like a barbarian when he got to the conference room. His armor was dented and scuffed, stained with gray banshee blood. The three Dotok council members were as pristine as ever. Even Un’qu sported new fatigues to go with the bandages wrapped around his forehead.
Lafayette and Steuben stood along the walls.
Valdar’s hologram flickered to life.
“Ken, you look like hell,” Valdar said.
“The situation was in doubt for a few minutes, captain,” Hale said.
“Here’s the situation in orbit,” Valdar said. A Dotok map of the Great Expanse, with English translations of landmarks written next to the Dotok alphabet, replaced his image. “The compromised ships managed to drop their escape pods at two points.” Red pins popped up at the end of two tendrils snaking away from the New Abhaile’s valley. “They managed to do it at just the right, or wrong, time—one of the hemisphere-wide dust storms is coming in. It’s already covered landing site Alpha. It’ll be over New Abhaile and Bravo in a few more hours. Orbital bombardment is useless so long as the dust storms are up. Can’t see what we’re shooting at.”
“How long do we have until they get here?” Hale asked.
“Nineteen hours, depending on how long, or even if, the banshees stop for the storm. Both groups will arrive at roughly the same time,” Valdar said.
“It will take us another twenty-two hours to have the Canticle ready for liftoff,” Lafayette said.
“And how many banshees are we looking at?”
“Each drop site had roughly three times as many banshees as the last assault,” Valdar said.
Hale kept his face devoid of expression as he heard the devastating news.
“The defense of this city will be impossible,” Wen’la said. “We suggest evacuating every Dotok that the Breitenfeld can carry and leave the system immediately.”
“What about the Burning Blade?” Hale asked.
“That fire in the sky you saw was the Burning Blade ramming the last cruiser. Ty’ken had the choice of letting that cruiser hit New Abhaile or him,” Valdar said. “We’ve got one ship left in orbit, and we’ve got our own problems to handle.”
“Wen’la is correct,” Pa’lon said. “We save what we can and we leave. It is a hard decision to make, but necessary.”
Hale looked over the map. He leaned toward it and pressed his lips together in concentration. There was a chokepoint along one of the routes the invaders had to take to reach New Abhaile.
“Zoom in on…Ghostwind Pass, that the name?” Hale asked. The map shifted and enlarged on the pass. “You see this spur, this line of mountains jutting into the pass?” Hale asked. “We could blow the cliff face, bring it down on the berserkers or at least block the pass. They couldn’t climb over it without suffocating in the thin air, right?”
“How would you destroy the cliff?” Taal asked.
“Operation Yalu,” Valdar said.
“Before the Xaros invasion,” Hale said, “the Atlantic Union had a plan to liberate Korea from the Chinese occupation. Beating what they had on the peninsula was never too much of a challenge. Keeping Chinese reinforcements out of the battle was the difference between victory and defeat. The plan was to nuke the mountain passes north of the Yalu River, block the heavy equipment like tanks and artillery from ever reaching the fight. My team and I trained for that exact mission for months before we got assigned to the Saturn colonial fleet.”
“What is a ‘Yalu’?” Wen’la asked.
“And a ‘Korea’?” Taal asked.
Hale ignored them. “Captain, have you got a nuke onboard? Couple kiloton yield should be enough.”
“I left for Anthalas prepared for most every contingency. I have strategic terrain nukes for you,” Valdar said. “I’m looking at the avenue of approach for the landing site at Alpha. No place for us to replicate what you’ve got in mind for Bravo?”
“Why don’t you use your nuclear weapons against the invaders now? I am aware of the storm overhead, but nuclear weapons tend to be somewhat forgiving if you miss, correct?” Wen’la asked.
Pa’lon cleared his throat. “Across many, many instances of the Xaros encountering species with nuclear weapons, the weapons proved useless. The Xaros emit some sort of dampening field that retards the fission or fusion properties of radioactive materials. The accepted hypothesis is that whoever controls the Xaros drones doesn’t want to live on an irradiated wasteland, so nuclear strikes against them are rendered useless.”
“There were nukes used during the defense of Earth,” Hale said. “There’s still fallout in the atmosphere.”
“There’s a limit to the dampening field, a few hundred miles from any drone.” Pa’lon folded his hands over the top of his cane. “I think you’ll succeed.”
“What about the rest? All the noorla coming from site Alpha,” Wen’la said.
“We either leave sooner or beat them at the gates,” Hale said.
“Leaving sooner is possible,” Lafayette said. “The Dotok technicians are quite adept. They’re installing the anti-gravity plates four percent faster than I’d anticipated. Captain Valdar, if you can spare some crew, we can have the Canticle ready almost thirty minutes before the next wave of invaders are anticipated.”
“Thirty minutes?” Valdar asked, his tone skeptical.
“We only need to beat them by one minute,” Lafayette said.
“I’ll send down everyone I can spare along with Hale’s nuke,” Valdar said. “Daylight is burning. Best you all get back to work.” His hologram sputtered out.
Hale went to the two Karigole. “Steuben, the only other Marine trained to lead a nuclear demolition mission is Vogelaar, and she’s…so just me. I’m going to take my team and a Mule to Ghostwind Pass and solve one of our problems. I’m leaving you in charge of the defense of this city,” Hale said.
“A worthy strategy,” Steuben said.
“If anything goes wrong, get my Marines and the Dotok off this rock,” Hale said.
Steuben nodded, then enveloped Hale in a bear hug so tight Hale struggled to breathe.
“Steuben…” Hale slapped at the Karigole’s arms. “Steub—”
He released Hale and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Is that the traditional way human friends say farewell to each other?” Steuben asked.
“Things were a lot easier when you were just a stick in the mud,” Hale said. “How do Karigole warriors say good-bye?”
Steuben pressed the middle knuckle of his fingers against Hale’s left temple. Hale returned the gesture, then left the conference room.
“Don’t humans also slap each other on the buttocks?” Lafayette asked.
“That is reserved for athletic accomplishments, I believe. I will attempt that form of nonverbal communication when I see Gunney Cortaro again,” Steuben said.
Valdar stepped into the morgue, a frigid room cold enough to be a meat locker. Space ships weren’t meant to carry significant numbers of their own dead with them. Under combat conditions, Valdar had the authority to either cremate or consign the dead to the void. Out of combat, he was expected to preserve fatalities for investigations and proper burials.
Three dead banshees lay on wheeled tables bolted to the deck. Dr. Accorso, wearing a lab coat stained gray up to the elbows, stood next to the head of a corpse and waved a bloody hand at Valdar.
“Captain, glad you could join me,” Accorso said.
“Smells like roadkill during an Alabama summer, doctor. What am I doing in here?” Valdar asked.
“I found something very interesting in these banshee corpses. Rather, it’s what I didn’t find that’s interesting.” Accorso pointed to a pile of X-rays on a shelf. “See for yourself.”
Valdar held the X-rays up to the ceiling lights. Each was a cross section of the banshees’ craniums, one a ruined mess from whatever killed it.
“What am I looking at?” Valdar asked.
“There’s a void in their heads, captain. Something was in there, connected to their spinal columns and their brain stems,” There was a sickening crack as Accorso pried the banshee’s head open and peered into it with a small flashlight. “And there’s no trace of it. Sound familiar?”
“Precisely. The Marines encountered banshees with Xaros technology incorporated into their bodies, the D-beams. Reason stands that there could be something else in them. I doubt a fleet full of the Dotok’s best and brightest decided that this…” he gave the banshee’s armor a pat, “was a great idea. My hypothesis is that there’s a control chip in their brains and it disintegrates when they die. Hmm, yes, definitely an invasive foreign body in the brain stem. I see the scarring around the nervous tissue.”
“Great, doctor, save it for a research paper. I have a ship to fight.” Valdar went for the door.
“You don’t want a Xaros radio?” The question halted Valdar in his tracks. “These banshees aren’t mindless berserkers. They act with purpose and direction.”
“Where are you going to get a…the prisoner.” Valdar said.
“Yes, the banshee that’s been pounding away on the walls of its cage for the past many hours. My new assistant and I could remove the implant, if we could get it to hold still,” Accorso said.
“How are you going to do that? Promise it a sticker and a lollypop if it gets its shots without crying?” Valdar asked.
“I’m just a doctor, captain, not an animal tamer,” Accorso said.
“What will happen to the banshee when you take the implant out?” Valdar asked.
“We shall see. Science requires experimentation,” Accorso smiled, and Valdar felt a chill in his heart that had nothing to do with the cold air in the morgue.