4,400 hours since the fall of Oram Prime
Seventy-five starships hung in the black, only the faint starlight reflecting off their hulls. Ahead, the star designated Trakan on most starmaps was little more than a slightly brighter pinpoint of light amid dazzling myriads.
The largest formation of ships was made up of angular, chisel-nosed battlecruisers, painted a bright blue, with the wreathed Sigma emblem of the Sparatan Space Force only dimly visible in the star glow.
Nearby floated two dozen broad, dumbbell-shaped star cruisers, their hulls a deep red that almost looked black in the dimness of deep space. The characters etched on their flanks were alien; tehud symbols spelled out each ship’s name and its place in the Vergsegeilith Task Fleet, out of Bilbissari.
Two ships didn’t fit with either group. The three-sided, coppery arrowhead bore no markings whatsoever, but was immediately identifiable as belonging to the Order of Shufa, one of the most secretive and rarely seen of the galaxy’s Military Brotherhoods. The silvery spindle-shape of the Reliant bore the four-pointed star and crossed beam rifles on a blue shield of the Caractacan Brotherhood.
Aboard the largest of the Sparatan battlecruisers, the Ollianus, the command deck was a bustle of activity. It looked calm, with each of the command officers strapped into his acceleration couch set around the central holo tank, but each man was absorbed in his tasks, preparing the mighty ship for combat.
An extra such couch was placed just behind the ship’s captain’s, where the task force’s strategos could observe the command deck and the holo tank where it hung from the overhead.
“Status?” the olive-skinned man in the strategos’ chair asked. He was young, visibly younger than the thickset man in the captain’s chair, his lean, bullet head shaved bald and gleaming in the multicolored glow from the holo tank. Most of the rest of the command deck lighting, a soft yellow, had been muted to allow clear visibility of the holographic symbols.
“All ships report vector-matching maneuvers completed, weapons checks hot, and green across the board to attack, Strategos Vakolo,” the comm officer reported.
“Good,” Geretesk Vakolo replied. He looked up at the holo. “Open a channel to the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath.” He had no idea which of the two sounds was the Bilbissarii commander’s name and which was her rank. So, he just used them both.
A window opened in the holo tank, revealing the long-nosed, horned visage of a tehud. He was fairly sure she was the commander. “All Sparatan ships report ready, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath,” he said. “What is the Bilbissarii’s status?”
“The Gestiaaghieth is reporting a minor fault in its point-defense system,” the Bilbissarii commander said. The tehud’s voice was strangely musical. It was a sound that would have been soothing to anyone but Vakolo at that moment.
“Estimated time to correct it?” he asked tightly.
“Unknown,” she replied. Her calmness grated on his nerves.
Trakan was deep in the only sketchily-explored parts of the Tyrus Cluster. And it was smack-dab in the middle of the sphere that loosely circumscribed the last six M’tait attacks, which had been mounting in savagery since they’d appeared out of nowhere to ravage Oram Prime.
Oram Prime had not been the first appearance of the mysterious, powerful raiders in their strange, stone-like ships. But it had been the first attack in this part of the galaxy. And things were only getting worse.
Vakolo drummed his fingers on the armrest of his acceleration couch. He’d had to spend thousands of hours traveling from system to system, planet to planet, arguing with other strategoi, generals, admirals, and other alien and offworlder ranks he couldn’t even pronounce, not to mention diplomats, politicians, and even interstellar traders, to put this attack together. And now that they were staged, it seemed that delay after delay was leaving them sitting still, twenty AU out from their target, while their emissions raced inward at the speed of light.
“Please inform me when you and your task force are ready,” he said stiffly. “Vakolo out.” He blew out an angry sigh.
“Such mechanical problems are common, Strategos,” Captain Doran Koillako said from his own acceleration couch. He did not look back at Vakolo, but kept his own eyes on the holo tank. “We are a great distance from the target, yet, which means that there is a great deal of space for our emissions to attenuate.” The Ollianos’ captain kept his voice low, intended only for his strategos. He was repeating what Vakolo already knew, but the two of them had already served together long enough that he knew he could do so, when his strategos needed the reminder.
Vakolo, however, wasn’t convinced he did at that point. “The M’tait are not likely to miss the neutrino signatures of seventy-five warships,” he retorted, “no matter how far out we are. Time is running out quickly. If we don’t launch soon, we will lose the element of surprise, and then the attack may as well be suicide.”
“We don’t actually know anything about the M’tait’s detection capabilities,” Koillako replied. And he was right. In fact, what was unknown about the M’tait composed a far longer list than what was known. “M’tait” was not even their name for themselves; no one knew what they called themselves. It was a sefkhit Jaihenese word, meaning “unreasoning predators.”
“Hail the Reliant,” Vakolo said.
Captain Samuel Redding was already in his armor, his face hidden behind the ridged visor of his helmet. Unlike the Caractacan Infantry Brothers, his armor did not have the chameleonic coating, and was a spotless white. It did, however, bear several scars, visible even in the small window, that bore testament to combat that had seen the captain’s ship holed, possibly even clear to the command deck.
“Yes, Strategos?” Redding asked.
No report, simply a, “What do you want?” But I should have expected that; none of the Brotherhoods have yet accepted direct command from an outsider. “We are ready to launch, Captain,” he said. “Is the Reliant ready?”
“The Reliant and Century XVII are prepped and battle ready, Strategos,” Redding said blandly. “We can launch at any time.”
Vakolo’s lips thinned, but he nodded sharply. “We appear to be waiting on the Bilbissarii,” he said.
“Yes, I know,” Redding replied. “Sengseighelith Vallosgiath informed me of their technical difficulties.”
Vakolo briefly wondered if the Caractacan captain knew the difference between the tehud’s rank and her name. He dismissed the thought as irrelevant. He probably does. The oh-so-perfect Brotherhoods take such pride in knowing those sorts of things.
“We will be in contact again when everyone is ready,” he said. “Vakolo out.” He stabbed irritably at the control on his own armrest, and Redding’s helmeted head disappeared from the holo tank.
He hesitated to hail the Order of Shufa’s ship. He wasn’t even sure how they’d found out about the mission; he’d never communicated with any representatives of the Order; in fact, he didn’t know of anyone who had. They had simply arrived at the staging point, taken up station on the other side of the Reliant, and waited.
But he supposed he had better try. “Hail the…” he paused, staring at the readout. No, he had no idea how to pronounce that. “Hail the Order of Shufa ship.”
“Hailing,” the comms officer replied. After a few moments, he said, “No reply, sir.”
He heard Koillako grunt. Well, what does one really expect from them? If the Caractacans are aloof, the Order of Shufa is downright alien.
Wishing that they were under acceleration so that he could unstrap and pace, Vakolo settled back in his acceleration couch with a frustrated sigh and waited.
A surprisingly short time later, the Gestiaaghieth reported the fault corrected, or at least corrected for. It was hard to tell with the tehud. While the Bilbissarii included ekuz among them, as well, the majority were tehud, and thus their quirks tended to color whatever the Bilbissarii did.
Almost as one, the seventy-five disparate warships activated their Bergenholm fields, nullifying their inertia, and darted inward toward Trakan at a substantial fraction of the speed of light.
“Going inert in five, four, three, two…one.” There was little sensation when the Bergenholm switched off, and what there was had been roundly put down to psychosomatic effects. The crew had been in effective freefall during the inertialess approach, and they still were. But the star had seemingly rushed toward them as they’d raced into the system, along with the dark sphere of their target, that now hung bare light-seconds away.
The target was a planetoid about one thousand seven hundred fifty kilometers in radius, its size putting it somewhere in the classification charts between an asteroid and a rogue moon. It had an atmosphere, though a thin one, unbreathable by any known sapients.
There was also a source of low-level M’tait emissions somewhere on its surface. They’d picked that up from the edge of the system, and it had led them all the way in.
“Two starships in orbit,” the tactical officer snapped. “They are firing their drives and maneuvering.”
“Concentrate all fire on those ships,” Vakolo commanded. If they were Hunterships, they could be in trouble. Those monstrosities were terrifically hard to kill, and the few that had been destroyed had left dozens of destroyed ships in their wake before they’d finally been beaten into fragments.
Information flowed through the holo tank as the computer caught up with the sudden influx of emissions that had been picked up as they’d suddenly closed in. The deep thrum of the spinal mount particle beam cannon warming up was joined by the faint vibrations of the powergun turrets deploying and the deeper thunks of the missiles and X-ray laser pods deploying.
There was a fine line to be trod when deploying for space combat. All but directed energy weapons, such as the X-ray lasers, tended to be ineffective while inertialess; they reverted to their earlier vector as soon as they cleared the Bergenholm field, often leaving them far behind the ship that fired them. That counted for the X-ray laser pods, as well; since they were powered by thermonuclear explosions, they were deployed as far from the ship’s hull as possible, meaning they were subject to some of the same limitations as missiles.
Therefore, the trick lay in determining just how close to get before going inert and deploying weapons. Even over the vast distances involved, decision times measured in seconds—or less—could have lethal consequences.
“Higher ship is launching missiles,” the tactical officer reported, as a swarm of tiny red sparks appeared in the holo display. “Cascade launch; it looks like she’s emptied her launch cells. Count is…fifty five Mark V class ship-to-ship shots. And…she’s going inertialess.” The ship that had fired was suddenly accelerating away from the planet at hundreds of gees; without the Bergenholm, that kind of acceleration would have destroyed the ship, never mind crushing everyone aboard into a fine red paste.
“Deploy countermeasures,” Koillako snapped. “And make sure the point defense grid is up.”
Along four tracks that ran the length of the Ollianos’ hull, laser turrets opened fire, pulsing beams of coherent light at distant specks assigned by the computer. There were too many missiles in the sky for the individual tactical officers to pick out one by one, and they were closing at over fifty gees.
In the visual holo, tiny flares began to sparkle across the face of the planetoid as the point defense lasers found their marks. The task force had more ships than there were missiles in the sky, and against that concentrated web of point defenses, there was no chance of a shot getting through. The Sparatan ships had gone inert in a slightly concave formation facing the planetoid, and every single ship’s weapons were being brought to bear.
“Get an X-ray laser solution on that ship,” Vakolo snapped. “Before it’s out of range.”
“It’s accelerating awfully fast, Strategos,” Koillako said. “It will have to be a snap shot.”
“Do it,” Vakolo replied grimly. “I don’t want them escaping.”
By that time, it had become clear that the ships in orbit over the planetoid were no M’tait Hunterships. The fleeing lighter was a slightly convex cone, its hull scarred and scorched from too many hot atmospheric entries without refitting. The cruiser still in orbit was a long, segmented cylinder, even more battered and streaked, its hull pitted by decades of micrometeorite impacts.
Vakolo didn’t care. They had fired on his ships, so they would die. His own frustration at finding pirates or scavengers—whichever they were did not matter to him—instead of the enemy he’d come looking for only intensified his determination not to let them escape.
The tactical officer’s fingers danced over the controls, running the necessary calculations. Somewhere in the depths of the gap between the Ollianos and the Scarroko, one of the pods fired its attitude thrusters, turning and bringing its emitter to bear on the vector the tactical officer had input. With an actinic flash, the pod detonated its thermonuclear explosive, immolating itself and funneling most of the energy into a collimated beam of X-rays.
The target ship was already nearly a light minute away. Vakolo turned his attention back to the remaining ship.
Off in the distance, a brilliant flare announced the death of the fleeing pirate. It had taken nearly two minutes for the laser to strike, and another two for the light from the explosion to get back to the task force.
The cylindrical pirate ship had already cut its drive, even before the X-ray laser had struck its sister ship. It had still attained escape velocity, and was moving away from the planetoid, but not quickly. A surrender message was being blasted on every imaginable frequency in Trade Cant.
“Have the Drogonok rendezvous with that ship and put a prize crew aboard,” Vakolo ordered. The comms officer immediately moved to relay the message. Vakolo was watching the holo tank carefully; with the immediate danger presently averted, he could take a moment to develop a more detailed version of the situation on the target.
That they had miscalculated was clear. If the planetoid had been a M’tait base, there would not have been pirates anywhere near it. Even the most desperate stayed as clear of M’tait presence as possible.
And yet…there was that signal to consider.
The Sparatan ships were rapidly closing in on the planetoid and beginning to brake, turning their drives toward the darkened sphere with the yellow-orange star behind it, maneuvering for orbital insertion. The Bilbissarii ships had apparently gone inert before the Sparatans had; they were still several light seconds behind.
“Keep all weapons deployed and ready for action,” Vakolo finally ordered. “And commence a detailed scan of the planetoid’s surface. I want to know what’s down there, and I want to be prepared if this whole thing turns out to have been a M’tait trap.”
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.
“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.
The comms were suddenly a storm of incoherent reports and calls for help. Whatever was happening, the holo tank was alive with distress signals. All hell had broken loose in the installation. Whatever had triggered the change in emissions seemed to have triggered some kind of security system as well.
“I told you,” Vakolo said, staring daggers at the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath, which she couldn’t see because of his helmet.
The Sengseighelith Vallosgiath was staring at the holo tank, frozen for a long moment. But when she looked up, what could be seen of her face through her visor was flat and blank. “No,” she said, her voice as dead as her expression. “This is a trick. An elaborate one, but a trick nonetheless. There were no signs of this kind of security even under the deep scans. I always knew that you Sparatans could never be trusted as allies. A Sparatan is always looking for an advantage for himself and his government.” She pointed an accusing finger. “This is why you rushed so quickly to outpace us, why you refused to meet with me. You were setting this elaborate charade up so that we would be frightened off, leaving all the tech to you.”
She stopped speaking abruptly, then flinched. She reached for her own sidearm. “The charade wasn’t enough?” she demanded. “You set an ambush for my people, too?”
“It was an ambush, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath,” Vakolo said through clenched teeth. “But it wasn’t one that we set. Has your greed really blinded you to what’s going on here?”
Abruptly, the holo tank fuzzed and jumped. The displays inside Vakolo’s helmet did the same thing at the same instant. Whatever had been awakened inside the depths of the installation, it was getting close. “This is the M’tait we are talking about,” Nikoilo snapped. “Are you truly that surprised that you couldn’t pick out their constructs even through a deep scan?”
Something hit the lift column in the center of the chamber. The ground shook from the impact, and every display and light blinked out for a split second.
Just as they did, Vakolo drew his own pistol and shot the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath’s chief bodyguard through the helmet.
The rest of his men didn’t need any other signal. By the time the distortion cleared, all but the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath herself, along with three of her staff officers, were falling in slow motion toward the floor, scorched blood falling in sticky droplets at the same rate.
“You leave me no choice, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath,” Vakolo growled, his sidearm pointed unwaveringly at her helmet. “Call your people and sound recall. We are abandoning this installation and returning to orbit. While there are still any of us left alive.”
Even as the spire shook again, the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath stared venomously at him. “I won’t forget this,” she promised him.
“I wouldn’t want you to,” Vakolo replied. “Now move.”
The lead elements had already gotten out of the M’tait base and were halfway to the landing zone when the first of the nightmare constructs came out into the open after them.
Most of the fleeing soldiers were Bilbissarii or Sparatans. The Caractacan Brothers and the Order of Shufa Cataphracts were holding the line where they could, engaging the constructs up close, slowing them down as much as possible even as they were cut down in the process. From his own shuttle, with the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath still held at gunpoint, Vakolo watched the situation continue to deteriorate.
The constructs, or cybernetically enhanced guard dogs, or whatever they were, were still hard to see in the open. Their constant whirling, writhing motion kicked up vast, billowing clouds of yellowish dust that was slow to settle in the low gravity and thin atmosphere, obscuring their shapes as they rapidly closed on the fleeing elements, that were still trying to lay down cover fire as they leapfrogged back to the landers and shuttles. The covering fire was largely ineffective, and even as he watched the status holo, Vakolo saw one of the things tear into a halted element that was trying to pour coilgun and laser fire into it. The soldiers vanished into the cloud, and the fire ceased.
Vakolo made a decision. “Launch,” he ordered. “Get us off this rock before those things get to the shuttles.”
“I still have troops down there,” the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath protested, though less forcefully than she might have had Vakolo not ordered two of his personal guard to keep her at gunpoint.
“They’re already dead,” Vakolo said. “If those things get to the shuttles, we’re going to lose far more.” He turned toward the pilot. “I said launch! And call the fleet and tell them to commence bombardment of the base!”
“Yes, Strategos!” the young man barked in reply. “You should know, Strategos, that Fleet Captain Koillako reports ten Hunterships are inbound from the outer system. They appear to have been waiting near the gas giant.”
Vakolo could only grunt in reply, because rather than wait for an answer, the pilot kicked in the shuttle’s thrusters, accelerating off the ground at six gees. He was pushing the limits of the shuttle’s capabilities, but the situation was desperate.
Even as his vision blurred from the gee forces, Vakolo could see the holo display above his acceleration couch. The shuttles and landers were rising off Trakan Target One in a ragged exodus, not even attempting to get in any kind of formation. Even as one of the stragglers, a rounded Bilbissarii lander, started to rise, one of the constructs leapt high off the surface and slammed into the hull. The lander was too heavy to be jarred too much by the impact, but even as Vakolo watched, the thing ripped open the outer hull and disappeared inside. A moment later, the lander was arcing back down toward the surface, its drive hammering it into the plain below at four gees.
But it was joined by dozens of missiles and powergun bolts arrowing down from the sky. In moments, the base was obscured from view by the massive plumes of dust and debris kicked up by the impacts, even as more green-white bolts flashed down into the billowing clouds.
The weight on his chest did not ease until they were well above the surface, the horizon sharply curved below, the faint line of atmosphere already falling away beneath them.
Finally able to look up and around, he glanced toward the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath. She was lying limp on the acceleration couch, her limbs splayed in unnatural angles. He frowned behind his helmet, then grimaced. Even as he turned to order one of his men to check, he knew she was dead. Human acceleration couches weren’t designed for tehud physiology. As tough as tehud females were supposed to be, the acceleration must have broken something vital.
They had reached just over orbital velocity, and were closing rapidly with the fleet above. It was going to take some tricky flying to make rendezvous safely before the M’tait were on top of them.
Or maybe it was already too late. In the distance, he could see the flickers of light that heralded the first shots exchanged with the Hunterships.
It was not going well.
Able to speak for the first time since leaving the surface, he keyed his fleetwide comm. “This is Strategos Vakolo,” he croaked. “All ships, retrieve any landers or shuttles that you can, then form up in cone of battle, facing the Hunterships. We have them outnumbered; we will win this yet.”
But the words were already turning to ashes in his mouth as he watched, even as the shuttle rose higher, curving over the limb of the planetoid below toward the Ollianos. Faced with the necessity of screening the rest of the fleet and retrieving the shuttles and landers, there was no concerted effort to engage the Hunterships in formation. The fleet wasn’t fighting the battle; individual starships were.
And they were being cut to pieces individually.
He fumed, helpless, as the Ollianos loomed dark ahead of them, silhouetted against the distant star Trakan. He could send to most of the fleet, but without the detailed command console aboard his flagship, he’d probably do more harm than good.
The pilot braked hard but precisely, bringing the shuttle’s velocity relative to the Ollianos down to a handful of meters per second, and drifted into the towering ship’s docking bay. No sooner were the magnetic clamps engaged than Vakolo was pounding on the hatch release and diving through, throwing himself toward the central spine and the lifts leading up to the command deck.
The lift moved achingly slowly, and he remained in zero gravity, which told him that the Ollianos was still in orbit. He keyed the comm for the command deck. “Why have we not broken orbit, Fleet Captain?” he demanded.
“The Balleiagligash is alongside and demanding that we transfer the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath, Strategos,” Koillako reported.
“That is not going to happen while we are still in the system and being attacked by the M’tait,” Vakolo snarled. “Are they stupid?”
“They are being quite insistent, Strategos,” Koillako said dryly.
The lift doors opened and Vakolo shot out onto the command deck, his eyes immediately going to the tactical display.
The situation had gone from bad to disastrous, just in the few moments that he’d been in the lift.
The Hunterships were being cagey, going inert, striking, and then going inertialess again until they could come back and strike again. They were meeting stiff resistance from the Sparatan ships, that were trying to form some kind of combat formation, but the Bilbissarii ships were getting eaten alive. They simply weren’t reacting quickly enough to the lightning moves the Hunterships were engaged in. Even inert, the M’tait vessels were pulling what had to be dozens of gees to change their vectors.
Even as he watched, half a dozen more Bilbissarii ships fell prey. One was sliced in half by a strange, purplish beam that was only dimly visible in peripheral vision. Another suddenly erupted in gouts of actinic flame before turning into a small star.
“Order the task force to break orbit and form cone of battle,” Vakolo snarled as he strapped himself into his acceleration couch. “And tell those Bilbissarii idiots that their Sengseighelith Vallosgiath is dead, and if they don’t want to end up the same way, they had best join us and fight the real enemy.”
Koillako nodded curtly. “And Fleet Captain?” Vakolo said quietly.
“If they object, or try to obstruct us, you are clear to open fire on the Balleiagligash,” Vakolo said.
“Understood, Strategos,” the Fleet Captain said, after a moment’s hesitation so brief that Vakolo suspected he was the only one on the command deck to have noticed it.
But the Bilbissarii commander didn’t seem inclined to press a fight with her allies, especially in the face of the M’tait. The Balleiagligash fell into formation as the Sparatan ships desperately tried to gain some velocity and claw their way out of the planetoid’s meager gravity well. But they were already at a disadvantage, and even as he clenched the armrests of his acceleration couch, Vakolo knew it.
The M’tait Hunterships were slashing back and forth through the planetoid’s orbitals, going inert, flashing through at terrific velocity, then going inertialess again and disappearing, accelerating at hundreds of gees until they were out of range before going inert and reversing their vectors to do it again. And each time they passed through, ships died.
Vakolo wanted to fight. But even as he watched, and as his comm officer tried to get the remaining Bilbissarii ships to join the ragged cone of battle forming above the planetoid, he knew that this was not the time, nor the place.
If the Bilbissarii had listened, if they had accepted a single, unified command, this might not have happened. If the triple-damned Sengseighelith Vallosgiath hadn’t been such a greedy, short-sighted fool, she might still be alive, along with all the rest of her people who are dying out there.
Another four ships were destroyed in as many heartbeats, the narrow, dark darts of M’tait Hunterships eclipsing the stars for an eyeblink as they raced past, the bright streaks of powergun bolts chasing after them. But the fire was panicked, uncoordinated. And by the time he could get the formation sorted out, they’d be gutted.
“All ships,” he called, the bitterness filling his heart as well as his mouth, “disengage and go tachyonic as soon as possible. Rendezvous at Becort IV.”
He lay in his acceleration couch and watched as the fleet began to disperse, activating their Bergenholm fields to turn their mass effectively negative and outrunning sluggish light, dashing away into the dark beyond the light of Trakan, and hopefully beyond the M’tait’s retribution, at least for a while.
Ten more ships died before the starfield blurred and converged in front of the Ollianos. In freefall, Vakolo sat in his acceleration couch, his fingers steepled in front of him, brooding.
At least we destroyed the base, so far as we can tell. A Pyrrhic victory, but a victory nevertheless. Perhaps the Council can convince the Bilbissarii that their people did not die in vain.
Even though they did. And if I had my way, I’d destroy their entire fleet for the way they botched this operation.
Never again. If I lead another fleet against the M’tait in this cluster, it will be under my command, and that will be final.
Then we will see.
Art by Jack Wylder