Squad Sergeant Jules Ncube crossed himself as the dropship began its final braking maneuver, gee forces pressing his armored form deeper into his acceleration couch. He had not yet faced the M’tait in combat, and while the initial scans of the planetoid below had led Centurion Waylander to believe that there were no actual M’tait present, he had seen enough combat to know that the initial orbital reconnaissance was rarely to be relied upon entirely. There were always things below that the radar, lidar, and thermal and optic telescopes couldn’t quite see.
The dropship began to shudder a little, and in the visual feed on the flatscreen in front of his face, Ncube could see the faintest trace of an orange nimbus start to flicker around the truncated, conical hull. It was nowhere near some of the fiery displays he’d seen on hot drops; the nameless planetoid known only as Trakan Target One had only barely enough of a trace atmosphere to warm the hull a little. Almost as soon as it had formed, the nimbus was gone, as the dropship’s drive accomplished more to slow its descent than any aerobraking could hope to.
The horizon was a golden line ahead, hazed by the faint atmosphere, though plenty of stars were still visible. They were just over the terminator; the sun would be setting within the next fifty hours. The planetoid didn’t have much of a rotation.
The sky was full of dropships. The silvery, truncated cones of the Caractacan dropships were vastly outnumbered by the larger, faintly boxy Sparatan shuttles and the three-quarter globe Bilbissarii landers.
The Order of Shufa hadn’t deployed dropships, not the same way the others had. They had fired what had looked initially like missiles at the surface. It had taken Ncube a moment to realize that those “missiles” were in fact drop pods, little more than retro-rockets and ablative shielding wrapped around an individual Cataphract’s power armor.
“Thirty seconds,” Brother Aganami, the dropship’s pilot, announced. Aganami was ensconced in the small, cramped cockpit in the dropship’s nose, directly above the troop compartment.
Touchdown was surprisingly light. The absence of surface fire meant that the dropships could descend at a somewhat more leisurely pace, shedding enough velocity for a soft landing, instead of the brutally hard controlled crash that often characterized a combat drop.
The sides folded out, forming ramps all the way around the dropship. Ncube had already hit the harness release as soon as they’d touched down, and he surged off his acceleration couch, snatching his BR-18 powergun out of its cradle as he bounded down the ramp.
He had to move carefully; the planetoid’s gravity was low, and a single bound carried him several meters. He settled to the flat, rocky ground in what felt like slow motion, carefully taking a knee and scanning his surroundings while he fought to bring his equilibrium in line with the gravity and keep his balance.
The landing zone was on a plain, dotted in several places by craters, bordered by a towering mountain range on one side and a deep chasm on the other. The entire plateau was now dotted with dropships, shuttles, and rounded landers. Several of the lagging Bilbissarii landers were still descending on bright yellow drive plumes.
There was an eerie beauty to the scene, the plain lit with golden sunlight while the stars still burned in a deep indigo sky overhead. There was even something to be said for the equally eerie profile of the base ahead, perched on the shoulder of the tallest peak of the mountain range.
Even from that distance—which was deceptively short on such a tiny dwarf world—it was clearly of M’tait design. The spires rising above the sheered-off mountainside had the same strangely irregular, rough-hewn look about them as Hunterships, and were a non-reflective slate gray, unlike the lighter-colored rock that made up most of the visible parts of the planetoid’s surface.
Whether it was as truly abandoned as the fleet’s commanders thought it was had yet to be seen.
Ncube looked around at the rest of his twenty-man squad. They were all on the ground and ready to fight, even though no resistance had materialized since the pirate starship had surrendered. The plain was utterly still, aside from the activity around the landers.
In the distance, he could see the Sparatans debarking in good order and forming up around their shuttles. The Bilbissarii were rather more disorganized; they hadn’t landed in much of any formation that he could identify, and the troops getting off the landers were milling about, some visibly struggling with the low gravity, while their leaders tried to get them sorted out.
He glanced ahead. The lumbering, ape-like hulks of the Order of Shufa’s power armored Cataphracts were already formed up and moving toward the installation, apparently not bothering to wait for the rest. They moved in longer bounds than an unaugmented human could manage; there were some serious pistons in the power armor’s legs. Ncube had never encountered any of the Order of Shufa before, but the blithe disregard for what anyone else was doing seemed in line with their reputation.
Centurion Ignatev loped toward him, identifiable by the stripes on his shoulder pauldrons, his powergun held muzzle-high as he bounded through the thin air. The atmosphere was so tenuous that Ncube couldn’t even hear the Centurion’s footfalls.
“Is Second Squad ready, Ncube?” Ignatev asked.
“Yes, Centurion,” Ncube replied. “We were ready as soon as we hit dirt.”
He could sense, if not see, Ignatev’s wry smile behind his visor. Ignatev liked his Squad Sergeants to be eager and aggressive. “Well, given the party that the Bilbissarii seem to be throwing, let’s go ahead and move out,” the Centurion said. “I think the Sparatans will be close behind us, but I’d rather not get too entangled in that mess.”
Ncube wasn’t sure exactly which mess his Centurion was talking about, but he knew that Ignatev and Captain Redding had been privy to some of the tensions between their allies, and he wasn’t going to argue.
“Just tell me where you want us, sir,” was all he said.
“First will take point,” Ignatev said. “Echelon right, on the Cataphracts’ flank. And Squad Sergeant?”
“Yes, Centurion?” Ncube asked, as he carefully rose to his feet, trying not to bounce himself several meters in the air by pushing too hard.
“Keep some distance from the Cataphracts,” Ignatev said quietly. “Not that I don’t trust them, but…the Order of Shufa isn’t always entirely predictable.”
“Understood, Centurion,” Ncube replied. He’d heard the stories, too. He switched to the broad channel with a tap on his gauntlet. “Second Squad! On your feet, echelon right, combat dispersion! We are on First’s flank, so let’s get formed up before they do!”
Ignatev clapped him on the shoulder pauldron, almost bowling him over. He was still adjusting to the low gravity. Then the Centurion was past him, resuming his easy lope over the yellowish ground.
Brother Uetan was on his feet and moving forward, taking his customary position at the point of the squad formation. The plus side to the low gravity was that, as long as they kept control, the Brothers could maneuver much more quickly. Ncube wryly remembered one of their last operations, on Pvaash, a world with an average surface gravity of 2.1 gees. That had been difficult.
In minutes, they were formed up and moving across the plain, the squad leapfrogging forward, staying alert and maintaining security despite the utter, dead stillness of the planetoid’s surface.
The first surprise came halfway to the first M’tait spire.
The drone exploded out of the ground in a billowing cloud of yellowish dust. Four-legged, with a blocky central body that housed a single machinegun, it spun around and opened fire on the closest of the Cataphracts from a bare thirty meters.
It could hardly miss at that range, and bullets hammered at the thick power armor, gouging pits in the hardened titanium-iridium sandwich with bright flashes. The Cataphract was knocked off his feet by the impacts, and his first answering burst of flechette fire went wild, the projectiles soaring off into space, moving at well over the planetoid’s escape velocity. The machinegun tracked his strange, slow-motion fall, and he shuddered as a round found a joint. A second burst cracked into his chest plastron, the relentless assault penetrating even the Cataphract’s heavy armor. A brief spasm nearly bounced the Cataphract off the ground, and for a moment, it looked like he was going to get to his feet. But it was only a feedback loop in the power armor’s control system, reacting to his death throes.
It had all taken less than three seconds. Another second later, a dozen powergun bolts, flashing brilliant blue- and green-tinged white lines between muzzles and target, transfixed the drone, blowing it into a cloud of slowly tumbling scrap.
A strangely flat, sepulchral voice echoed across the joint tactical net. “Old model. Brezhdan TK-88. Be on the lookout for more.” It took Ncube a moment to realize the voice came from one of the Cataphracts. He’d never heard one of them speak before.
He turned to scan the plain around them again. The Sparatans and Bilbissarii were advancing now, already half a kilometer behind the two Military Brotherhoods’ troops. The Sparatans were moving quickly, too, as if they thought it was a race to beat the Bilbissarii to the installation.
Maybe it is. These joint operations are always messy that way.
Even as he watched, two more puffs of dust announced the appearance of two more of the TK-88 drones, this time on the Bilbissarii’s flanks. The Bilbissarii didn’t fare nearly as well, losing over a dozen tehud infantry and a crawler before they managed to disable the antique drones.
He turned forward, focusing on their own immediate surroundings. The Bilbissarii would have to take care of their own security. It bothered him a little, as well it might. The Code mandated that a Brother always act to protect the weak and defenseless. The Bilbissarii were by no means defenseless, but they were clearly less organized, and less capable than his own Brothers.
But sometimes even a Caractacan Brother had to pick his battles.
They were getting closer to the first of the spires. It was even more obviously out of place the closer they got; the black, rocky material looked even weirder in contrast to the yellow, orange, and red minerals that made up the ridgeline. The ridge itself was considerably smaller than it had initially appeared, but again, distances were deceptive on such a small body.
He could already see where the pirates had made entry; there was an open door or gate at the base of the spire. Crawler tracks led straight for it, and a number of empty equipment cases were strewn around outside. From their size, they might have been the transport crates for the TK-88 drones. If that was the case, Ncube decided, counting the cases, they’d already accounted for all but one. And if there was still one left, and they were already that close to the entrance…
He already had his powergun up and pointed at the low mound ahead of First Squad when the drone bounded up out of the dust. Squad Sergeant Orakus was no fool; he’d been ready for it, too. First and Second Squads opened fire at almost the same moment, before the drone had even settled back on the ground. A blizzard of powergun bolts scorched through the flying dust, causing brilliant secondary explosions as the dust was fused into molten shrapnel by the passage of the sun-hot bolts of ionized copper. The drone never even got a shot off before it was scattered in glowing shards across fifty meters of ground.
As before, it had all happened in eerie quiet, only the faintest suggestion of the powergun bolts’ thunderous reports making it through the trace atmosphere. Ncube’s own breath was louder in his ears than the plasma discharges, or the explosion as they blew the machine apart.
“Cataphract Commander,” Ignatev called over the joint circuit. “Let us take point going inside. My Brothers’ combat armor might fit in spaces yours cannot.”
“Acknowledged,” was the only reply. The Cataphracts spread out and took up covering positions around the gate, their own flechette launchers and shoulder-mounted heavy powerguns pointed into the dimness inside.
Ignatev did not need to give his own Century more than the most cursory direction. The Brothers had all completed their novitiates, the flow of combat maneuvers ingrained into their very bones. They worked like a well-oiled machine, each man finding a place in the formation with practiced ease. First Squad flowed through the gate, powerguns up and tracking toward any danger area they encountered as they disappeared into the opening chamber, with Second Squad right behind them.
The chamber was huge; it looked like it took up the entire base of the spire. A central column appeared to be a lift or stair leading up to the ceiling, which looked like a cluster of columnar rock, various blocky stalactites hanging down into the vast space below. The floor was pocked with pits, placed irregularly around the chamber. As he passed one, Ncube pointed his powergun down it, just in case, and saw what looked like a platform hanging a few meters down. It might have been a lift, itself.
Cables were scattered around the floor, and a portable generator was set up in the middle of the chamber, near the central column. Several cables ran down into one of the pits; the others snaked through another irregular-shaped gateway on the far side. If Ncube remembered what he’d seen from space on the way down right, that would lead to one of the faintly twisted connecting ridges between the spires. The whole complex was laid out in an asymmetrical pattern, almost as if the spires had been blasted into the planetoid’s surface with a shotgun. The M’tait had always seemed to eschew symmetry. As with everything else about them, no one knew why.
First Squad was moving on the first pit, so Ncube pointed to the far gateway. With Second Squad maintaining a tight formation, powerguns tracking toward every opening in sight, they started to move across the chamber.
Like the rest of the chamber, the opening was bigger than it looked, though the entryway was shortened by the jagged turn it took, off to the right. With half a dozen BR-18 muzzles pointed at it, Ncube and Uetan stepped through the gate.
The passage was dark, but their helmets’ light enhancement took over automatically. The view was simply a paler version of what it would have been in open light, and it prevented the necessity of showing lights themselves, presenting an enemy with a potential target. Slowly, stepping carefully to avoid bouncing into the ceiling, they moved down the passage, the entry chamber quickly disappearing around the turn behind them.
The passageway seemed to twist strangely, never quite moving in the direction anticipated. It was disorienting, not to mention viscerally disturbing. There was something that most races found deeply wrong about M’tait tech. It could have something to do with the apparent, uncompromisingly predatory nature of the aliens themselves, but no one could spend much time around their constructs without getting a bad feeling.
Ncube didn’t know why. He didn’t believe that any living creature was irredeemably evil, let alone an entire race of them. But there was something eldritch and frightening about the M’tait and everything they touched.
Uetan held up a gauntleted hand, and Ncube halted. He’d seen the same thing. There was a light up ahead. It was still around the corner, visible only as a faint glow against the wall, but it was definitely there. They might have just discovered where the cables led.
He hesitated. They were in a single passageway, with no cover. Whatever was ahead, they would have to go through a chokepoint to get to it. And there was no way that the pirates—it had to be them; the generators and cables clearly were not M’tait tech—were unaware that they were there. Even if the ships in orbit hadn’t alerted them, the destruction of the drones outside should have.
Uetan started to move, slowly easing his way farther down the passage, trying to get a view of what they were up against. He was almost to the glow when he suddenly froze.
Ncube stepped up next to him, leaning in to touch helmets. “What is it?”
Uetan just pointed. Ncube followed his gauntleted finger, spotting the dim glow of a laser tripwire. It wasn’t a visible laser, but his helmet easily highlighted the infrared beam. He scanned the rest of the wall, and quickly spotted the directional charge that had been taped in place and covered with hasty camouflage. It wasn’t the same consistency as the walls’ material, but it might have blended in just enough in the dark.
So, the pirates were expecting company. The drones had only been their first line of defense.
Gripping Uetan by the arm, he slowly backed away, moving until they were around the bend from the booby trap.
It would take time to find another way to get at the pirates. But he had other options, as well. He pulled a grenade from its pouch on his utility belt.
He might have wondered just why they were bothering. After all, the complex was clearly the target, and if the entire objective of this operation was to destroy a M’tait logistical hub, then they could presumably have accomplished that by bombarding the complex from orbit. The pirates had already demonstrated their hostility by firing on the starships. Their deaths in the subsequent bombardment of the alien installation would be no great loss, and with considerably less risk than had already been taken on.
But while his orders said otherwise, and that should have been enough, Ncube knew why they were down there in the bowels of a M’tait structure, caught up in close-quarters combat with pirates and scavengers. Even the possibility that they could gather useful intelligence on the mysterious race that had made itself an implacable enemy of all others for centuries, if not millennia, was worth the risk.
Provided that it didn’t all turn out to be a M’tait trap.
Setting the grenade’s detonator, he skillfully lobbed it down the passageway, bouncing it off the wall. It rolled out of sight, then detonated.
He felt the vibration through his boots more than he heard the crump of the explosion. Even inside, the air was still almost nonexistent. But he hadn’t been counting on a shockwave. He’d been counting on the debris that the explosion would throw out.
The secondary explosion a half a heartbeat later told him his gamble had paid off. If nothing else, the grenade had damaged either the laser emitter or the receiver, and the break in the contact had set off the booby trap.
Uetan was already moving, leaning into his weapon as he forged toward the turn, athletically pushing off the corner between the floor and the wall, effectively bounding from wall to wall. It was a good way to maneuver in low gravity in a confined space; it kept him from inadvertently nailing his helmet into the ceiling.
He suddenly reared back, pushing off in the reverse direction, as a storm of bullets chewed into the wall just ahead of him.
Ncube caught him before he could fall, bracing himself to keep both of them upright, even as a bullet fragment glanced off his helmet with a painful bang. That he’d heard clearly enough.
They were stuck. The pirates clearly had a machinegun or heavy coilgun pointed at the passageway, and without any flanking passages, they could hold that choke point for a long time. They were going to have to backtrack and find another way around. Given the size of the complex, that could take a while.
“Step aside, Brothers,” a deep, flat voice rumbled. A Cataphract was lumbering forward, his bulk filling the entire passage. This one had a heavy laser mounted to one arm. Judging by the bulk of the powerplant on the Cataphract’s back, that laser could probably scorch through hull plating. “I will lead the way.”
There was little space in the passageway, but Uetan and Ncube flattened themselves against the wall, around the curve from where the stream of high-velocity projectiles was still smashing into the opposite side of the passage. Fragments and grit spat from the impacts, rattling against armor and weapons, but so far nothing had been big enough or moving quite fast enough to present a problem to the Caractacan Brothers’ combat armor. The Cataphract wouldn’t even notice it.
Once he stepped into that stream of fire, though, that might be another matter.
The Cataphract, his armor a dull, burnt bronze color in Ncube’s light-enhanced vision, stumped forward, his weight sufficient to keep him from bouncing much even in the light gravity, the vibrations of his footfalls shaking the ground under Ncube’s feet. Just before he rounded the corner, he lifted his left hand, the one that didn’t have a laser strapped to it. Something shot out of the tube under his armored fist and bounced out into the passageway and around the curve.
A moment later, a fine mist started to fill the passage, and the display in Ncube’s visor started to fizzle a little. An electrostatic screening grenade, then. It pumped out a thick, obscuring mist while blasting out infrared, UV, and electrostatic noise to disrupt scanners and targeting systems. The electromagnetic interference wouldn’t do anything to simple manual sights, but it did present enough obscurant that it would conceal any targets from direct visual observation.
Unfortunately, the pirates didn’t really need to aim; they just had to point the gun down the passageway and hold down the trigger.
Bullets were starting to impact the Cataphract’s front plate as he lumbered around the corner, hitting with tiny sparks, but failing to penetrate. Then he was out of view. A moment later, a strobing, bright red flash filled the corridor ahead, and the machinegun fire suddenly ceased.
The Caractacan Brothers were already moving. Uetan charged through the mist, his powergun up, going through the opening and bounding hard to one side, risking a high bound to get himself out of the line of fire. Ncube did the same in the other direction, even as the rest of the squad flooded into the chamber.
A burst of coilgun fire stitched the wall right where Ncube had been a moment before, and he tracked in on the faint coronal discharge, amplified by his helmet’s display, and fired. The blue-white bolt blew the coilgun in half, along with the shooter’s arm and a good portion of his ribs. He fell in slow motion, smoke drifting up from the side of his pressure suit. The pirates clearly weren’t wearing armor.
Then a panicked voice started yelling in an unfamiliar dialect over a clear channel. A pair of gloved hands appeared around the edge of the big cargo crawler that dominated the middle of the chamber. They were empty.
“Do you wish to surrender?” he asked over the same channel in Trade Cant.
“Yes!” the voice replied, with a vaguely stilted accent. Apparently, the pirates didn’t speak Trade Cant all that often. “Yes, we surrender!” The man didn’t sound any less panicked.
Ncube kept his powergun trained on the extended hands. “Come out slowly, with your hands up,” he commanded. “Any sudden moves can and will be considered an attack.”
“We surrender!” the pirate repeated. He came out from behind the crawler.
The pirate was a velk, identifiable even in his pressure suit by the length of his torso, the shortness of his arms and legs, and his wide, flat head. A human and another velk followed him.
Ncube had taken the inside of the chamber in at a glance as he’d cleared the slowly-dispersing screening mist, but he’d been focused on identifying threats. The surrendering pirates had been busily loading a big, clamshell-hulled cargo crawler, while the machinegun nest had been set up at the crawler’s flank, pointing toward the passage. The machinegun had been reduced to little more than twisted, glowing metal, the gunner a scorched, barely identifiable lump heaped behind it. The Cataphract’s laser did horrifying damage to anything it vented its fury on.
The sides of the chamber were heaped with strangely-shaped ingots, equally odd-looking containers, and what could only be various mechanisms of M’tait design and unknown purpose. The pirates had clearly been frantically piling as much of it into the crawler as possible, presumably hoping to drive it out of the big open gateway in front of the crawler’s nose. Ncube’s best guess was that they’d been hoping to hide it out in the hinterlands somewhere until they could return to retrieve it. They’d simply run out of time.
The fact that they’d tried very hard to kill him and his men to buy time made Ncube quite unsympathetic. With the Cataphract watching, his big tri-barrel pointed at the pirates, the Caractacan Brothers set out to secure the chamber. There weren’t any more cables leading out; the ones they had followed led to actinic work lights set up around the crawler. But that didn’t mean that the pirates hadn’t spread out throughout the complex. There was still a lot of ground to cover and secure.