“Rare earth minerals, several fortunes in heavy metals, and more M’tait artifacts than anyone has ever seen, let alone had a chance to get their hands on without them turning explosive,” Troop Captain Nikoilo said. “No wonder they tried fighting us over it.”
“It was still stupid,” Vakolo growled. They were standing in the entry chamber that the Caractacans had cleared. It was now the Sparatan groundside command post, with Sparatan troops on security at the various openings, some descending into the pits to explore the nether regions of the base. Vakolo himself was in combat armor, standing next to the troop commander at their hasty command and control station where a portable holo tank had been set up, updating the base layout and troop dispositions as reports came in. “They were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. They should have had the wit to surrender immediately.”
“I have yet to meet a pirate who would qualify as a great thinker, Strategos,” Nikoilo said dryly.
Vakolo just looked at him, but the Troop Captain’s helmet was as faceless as his own. He just shook his head. He should take the man to task for the remark, but if any of his men had earned the right to make it, it was Nikoilo. The Troop Captain had been his first Section Leader, after all.
“The Sengseighelith Vallosgiath is arriving, Strategos,” Nikoilo pointed out. Vakolo glanced at the holo tank and saw that the Bilbissarii shuttle with the commander’s identifier code was indeed landing. Hidden by his helmet, his lip curled. He’d made sure that he had been on the ground with his troops. He was a Strategos; his place was on the battlefield. He was not on the front lines, certainly, but he had made certain that he had been in a position to observe and direct his forces. Something that he could not have done in orbit.
“Instruct her to meet us here,” Vakolo said curtly. He certainly was not going to leave his command post to greet the tehud. He had more important things to do than stroke a Bilbissarii’s ego.
Even as the rounded lander set down, and the comm specialist reported that the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath was requesting a meeting, Vakolo kept his eyes on the main holo, displaying the layout of the complex. “Have Section Fifteen move up there,” he said, pointing. “The Caractacans have already gotten too far ahead.”
He could feel Nikoilo’s eyes on him. “You think the Caractacan Brotherhood might be trying to beat us to some of the technology, Strategos?” he asked quietly.
“They answer only to their own Brotherhood, Troop Captain,” Vakolo said. “They are under no obligation to share anything they find with their allies. I would rather keep an eye on them.” He stared at the holo, and the gold sparks that marked the Caractacan Brothers and the Order’s Cataphracts. “One can never entirely trust someone who lives strictly by a code rather than an allegiance.”
“One would think that such a strict adherence to a code would make them more stable, more predictable,” Nikoilo said.
“Oh, yes, quite,” Vakolo replied, still studying the holo. “But also rigid and uncompromising. Stray too far from their code of ethics, regardless of how justified you may be in doing so, and they’ll turn on you.” He glanced up at Nikoilo. “Trust me, Troop Captain. Loyalty is far more useful than a code.”
Nikoilo had no further comment, but turned his attention back to the holo map.
For a long time, both men simply watched, occasionally calling out for a report or directing a section somewhere else. As time stretched on, Vakolo’s frown deepened, and judging by Nikoilo’s silence, the Troop Captain was mirroring the expression.
He was about to sound an all-call when a bustle of movement entering the command post interrupted him.
The Sengseighelith Vallosgiath was identifiable within her entourage of tehud by the high crest on her helmet. The Bilbissarii tended to opt for such crests as emblems of rank rather than the painted stripes or emblems that the Sparatans or the Military Brotherhoods used. She was also wearing full armor and carrying no weapon, while her guards were in lightly armored spacesuits with gleaming, parade-ground-spotless rifles held at port arms.
“Strategos Vakolo!” the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath called out, her voice blaring over their joint comm channel. That she was a bit perturbed was more than obvious. “I asked for a meeting when I landed!”
Vakolo looked up at her. His own faceplate was armored and blank, the tint of his eyepieces hiding even his gaze. “And you have been allowed one,” he said. “What do you want?”
“This is a joint operation, Strategos,” she said, demonstrating a greater grasp of Sparatan rank and name structures than Vakolo had of Bilbissarii. Not that he cared that much. “I should not have to beg an audience to speak to my joint unit commander.”
“I have been busy directing the ground operation, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath,” Vakolo answered curtly. “I could not abandon my command post to make you feel like an equal by meeting you outside.”
“Feel like an equal?!” she all but exploded. Her bodyguards had stepped aside, their weapons still held carefully in parade-ground manual of arms. The Sparatan killers surrounding the command post weren’t nearly so stiff, and their attention was clearly zeroed in on the tehud soldiers. “As I said, this is a joint operation, Strategos. We are equals.”
“Really?” Vakolo said, straightening from the holo tank, irritation threatening to turn to rage. “Then why am I down here, commanding my troops on the ground, while you waited until you thought the danger was past before descending to the surface?”
That seemed to bring her up short. She stared at him, incredulity plain on even her alien face. But then the expression, though only dimly visible through her faceplate, changed.
“Is that truly it?” she asked quietly. “I think that the real reason you didn’t want to come meet me is that you are trying to gather as much of the loot from this place as you can, before my people and I have a chance at marking out our fair share.”
Vakolo simply turned his attention back to the holo. “If you truly came here for loot, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath, then you are even less my equal than I had thought,” he said.
“I have seen the reports, Strategos!” she exclaimed. “This installation is a treasure-house, and the M’tait are nowhere to be found! We have struck at the perfect time! This operation is a resounding success, and we can enrich our worlds while at the same time denying the M’tait the resources!”
Vakolo looked up at her. “No,” he said flatly. “My men are searching for the command center even now, with instructions to seize anything that looks like it might be a data core. Then we are leaving and bombarding this installation from orbit until it is nothing but dust.”
“Are you insane?” the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath protested, trotting closer to the holo. “The sheer amount of resources, not to mention the artifacts, the M’tait tech…”
“I don’t care,” Vakolo hissed. “The mission was to locate the system the M’tait are using as a staging area and hopefully hurt them while their guard is down. If possible, we hoped to gather intelligence. We’ve found a supply dump. The hub is still out there somewhere. So, rather than waste time here, we will find any intelligence that we can take with us quickly, deny the supplies to the enemy, and then continue the mission.”
For a long moment, the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath simply stared at him. Then she straightened up, regally. “And I am sure that once the commanders from the Caractacan Brotherhood and the Order of Shufa join us, we will take your desired course of action under advisement, Strategos,” she said.
“What?” Vakolo asked dangerously. But she appeared to neither notice nor care about his tone.
“As I said, this is a joint operation, Strategos,” she said blithely. “No one commander is going to determine the entire fleet’s course of action. We will consult and decide. Jointly.”
Vakolo glared at her, apparently without effect. “In the meantime,” she continued, “my people will join yours, so as to make sure that we are not shortchanged when the division of materiel and tech happens.” She motioned to one of her entourage, who touched a key on his gauntlet and began to speak, his voice silent behind his helmet’s faceplate.
Vakolo was about to launch himself at the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath, but Nikoilo grabbed him by the arm. The average tehud male outmassed a human by nearly a hundred kilograms, and the females by another twenty.
But the Troop Captain hadn’t seized his commander’s arm just to restrain him. Touching helmets, Nikoilo hissed, “Look, Strategos!”
Vakolo followed his Troop Captain’s gaze to an alert blinking at the bottom of the holo. It took him a moment to identify what it was saying.
They had located the installation by its faint but identifiable pattern of emissions, emissions that had maintained a certain bizarre pattern since detection…a pattern that had held until forty-five seconds ago.
What the transmission said—presuming it was a transmission at all—was impossible to know. No one besides the M’tait knew anything about their language; no one had ever heard it and lived to tell about it. Those transmissions that had been intercepted had been heavily encoded, and there was not a computer anywhere in the galaxy that had ever managed to crack a M’tait encryption. But that it had changed was a matter for alarm to Vakolo’s mind.
Nikoilo pointed to the flashing alert. “This is all a moot point, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath,” he said. “We need to leave. Now.”
“Really?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm, even speaking Trade Cant.
“The emissions the base has been putting out since before we arrived just changed,” he explained. Vakolo bristled a little, but let his Troop Captain speak. “Something must have been triggered, some trap or automatic distress signal. We need to get clear as quickly as possible.”
“And what makes you so certain that this emissions change means anything?” the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath demanded. “It could simply be a meaningless shift due to the time.”
“Nothing related to the M’tait is ever meaningless,” Vakolo said grimly. “We can’t take the chance. Not for this nothing of a target. We launch, bombard the installation from orbit, and get out of the system.”
“I remind you again, Strategos,” the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath said archly, “that is not your decision to make. And I will not have you cheat my people out of our fair share.” She motioned abruptly, and her entourage moved. In a heartbeat, every Sparatan soldier in the command post was being covered by a Bilbissarii rifle. Vakolo and Nikoilo each had two weapons trained on them. “We will stay here until I am satisfied that we are ready to leave.”
“You are a fool, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath,” Vakolo spat. “And if we get off this rock alive, I’m going to make sure you pay for this.”
“I am sure that you will try,” she said dismissively, stepping closer to the holo to get a better look. She started to issue orders over her comms in Bilbissarese. At her direction, several groups of battle-armored tehud and a few ekuz trotted through the command post, heading deeper into the installation. Several of them were controlling small, wheeled “mules” with deep cargo beds.
Vakolo, his fists clenched, watched them go, even as the alert in the holo tank blinked even more urgently. Whatever the change in emissions meant, the new pattern was getting faster.
Deblesgheiensh Esiellekesh was new to commanding his own sub-impi, new enough that he was still exulting in the promotion rather than feeling the burden. He raced ahead of the rest of his unit, leading the way through passageways that the navigational display in his helmet told him had already been cleared by the Sparatans and the Military Brotherhoods.
He wasn’t exactly comfortable in this environment; tehud were best adapted to wide open plains. Even their ships were generally considerably larger than equivalent class human ships, because tehud needed large living and working spaces to avoid getting dangerously claustrophobic. Running around down in what felt like close tunnels underground was not his idea of a good time.
But he had his orders, and he would carry them out. The glory that would accrue to the tehud who managed to collect the greatest prize from a M’tait target, the first one ever taken, was going to be considerable. Especially if that tehud was a male. High status with the female hierarchy could only follow.
Esiellekesh—“Deblesgheiensh” was his rank—was too lost in daydreams of awards to come, made too complacent by the fact that the corridor had already been cleared, to notice the faint vibration and the scrape behind him. When a sudden, piercing scream suddenly hammered his ears through his comm, though, he suddenly stopped and turned, staring dumbly, his weapon pointed uselessly at the ceiling.
The corridor floor just behind him had opened up, and something was climbing out, something like a nightmare conglomeration of black stone and equally black cables. He couldn’t get a good look at it; the light enhancement display in his helmet was fuzzing and blinking out.
But he could see enough that the image of Joeislleghis getting torn to pieces was indelibly etched into his mind for the handful of seconds before something lashed out at his head and everything went dark.
The choked-off screams had all been on the Bilbissarii internal net, so the first warning Ncube got that something was very, very wrong was when his helmet’s heads-up display flickered. But it was enough.
“Stay sharp,” he called out in Latin. The two hulking Cataphracts still pacing the Caractacan squad as they explored the tallest spire on the north side might not understand the language, but he couldn’t understand the handful of words they’d spoken between themselves, either. “Something’s up.”
The rest of his Brothers had hardly needed the warning; they’d all seen the same disruption. The handful of Sparatan troops that had hurried to catch up with them almost an hour before, however, hadn’t seemed to notice it, or had simply dismissed it as just one more part of the weirdness that was the M’tait base.
And maybe it was. But something was nagging at the back of Ncube’s mind. He knew, somehow, that this wasn’t just the usual passing distortion that they’d started to get used to over the last couple of hours. This was something else.
The Cataphracts seemed to sense it, too. Both of them turned ponderously, levelling their heavy weapons, another tri-barrel laser and a 3cm powergun, at the lift doors in the big central column running from floor to ceiling. That was when Ncube thought he could feel the strange vibration under his boots. Not the odd, almost living thrum that had run through the installation since they’d first entered it. The new vibration was different. Like some massive creature was climbing the spire.
“Something is coming,” one of the Cataphracts rumbled over the joint net. “Something big.”
Ncube lifted his powergun, the rest of his squad spreading out to cover the lift. The Sparatans seemed to have just noticed that something was wrong. “What’s going on?” their section leader asked, in halting Trade Cant.
“Get your men out of here if you can, Section Leader,” Ncube said. “Blast a hole out through the wall if you have to; the gravity is low enough that you should survive the drop.”
“Why?” the man asked nervously. “What is happening?”
“Just do it, Section Leader,” Ncube replied. The Cataphracts showed no sign that they’d even heard the Sparatan. The vibration through the spire was getting more pronounced.
“I have to report in and request instructions,” the Section Leader said.
“Brother Varash, if you please,” Ncube said with a sigh, as the entire spire suddenly shook as if under a massive hammer blow.
The Sparatans could not have picked Brother Varash out from the rest, except for the extra-large pack on his back. He suddenly knelt, sweeping the pack off his back, and pulled the largest cutting charge he had out, hastily slapping it against the wall and priming it. “I suggest you seek cover,” he said calmly over the joint net. “The shrapnel blowback can be severe.” Without waiting more than a handful of seconds, he triggered the charge.
Even as the cutting charge detonated, blasting a far smaller hole than hoped in the wall while sending a flailing cloud of razor-sharp fragments whickering around the nearly airless room, the lift doors suddenly flew apart in a similar shower of debris, and something came whirling out of it.
Ncube immediately opened fire, even as his brain reeled, trying to encompass the shape of the writhing, threshing monstrosity that came boiling out of the lift shaft. It was huge, easily four times the size of one of the Cataphracts, and was moving its many limbs so fast that it almost seemed to blur in the dimness, unalloyed by the Caractacans’ helmet sensors.
Blinding light flickered as the Caractacan Brothers and the Cataphracts opened fire on the thing, even as it sprang out of the lift, killing Brother Uetan with a single blow, ripping him in half even in his armor. There was some strange, flickering corposant around its limbs, but beyond that, it was moving too fast to see, and the flare of the powergun bolts still failed to reveal much more of it than sudden impressions of stony-appearing M’tait tech.
The powerguns were blowing glowing pits in the thing, pits that seemed to disappear as soon as they were punched into its hide, though that might have simply been because of its constant, multi-layered movement, the same movement that made it hard to focus on. It was still dashing around the chamber like a dervish, and suddenly pounced on Brother Varash, even as the Caractacan launched the last frozen Sparatan trooper out through the hole he’d blasted in the wall. Varash vanished beneath the thing, and when it sprang away, only a mangled, crushed shell of blood-spattered armor, pulped flesh, and shattered bone remained where a man had been.
The Brothers continued pouring ineffective fire into it, even as it carved the first Cataphract up like opening a meal tin. It might have been slowing down as it absorbed bolt after bolt of powergun fire, but the Brothers were all going to be dead by the time they stopped it.
But if they could hold it here… “To anyone in the task fleet who can hear me, this is Squad Sergeant Jules Ncube of the Caractacan Brotherhood,” Ncube called over the joint net. “The installation is guarded, and the M’tait security system has already killed half a dozen of my men. Get clear and destroy this place from orbit. We will attempt to hold as long as possible.”
He lifted his BR-18 and poured a flickering hail of powergun fire into the thing as it leapt away from the jagged remains of the Cataphract, swiping Brother Andar’s head off with a single, leisurely blow. One of the bolts seemed to find a gap in the whirling storm of metallic limbs, and the thing suddenly shuddered, pausing for the first time as it clung to the wall only a few meters away. For the first time, he could almost get a good look at it.
A long, flat, segmented body seemed to be made of the same stony stuff as the installation walls. Far too many limbs had been grafted onto it, equipped with metallic claws and other, nastier weapons. So far, the thing seemed to be content to use its claws.
What might have been eyes seemed to focus on him, though they ran all the way down the thing’s ridged spine. He could feel it looking at him more than see it.
His magazine was empty, the action locked open. He dropped the drum and reached for another, just as the thing suddenly moved again, turning once more into a threshing tangle of deadly limbs as it leapt straight for him.