<== ==>

“Discussing my previous assignment would contradict my orders, ma’am,” said Herod calmly. “You won’t have any complaints.”

Amalek stared at her with such intensity that she felt a bit uncomfortable, but the centurion came to her rescue. “Oh, be nice!” she scolded. “What does it matter where she was? She’s part of the family now, isn’t she?”

“If the 119th is a family, it’s the most incestuous, fucked-up family in history,” Amalek replied.

“Right- so what does it matter if the private was a bit naughty? She’s already shown how useful she can be, hasn’t she?” The centurion offered her hand. “I’m Zabda- Centurion Zabda Sagax. I’m the leader of the combat medics across all four cohorts. My prickly friend is Colonel Amalek Kavod.”

Sagax… Herod tried to remember where she had heard that last name before. She accepted the handshake. Zabda’s hand was warm and well-moisturized. “She good to go?” Zabda asked Sosana, who nodded. “The legata wants to see her.”

Herod stood up and followed Zabda and Amalek through the medical tent. What could the legata want with her? The battle was still ongoing as BEACON sought a way to dig the enemy from the tower. Surely the leader of the legion had better things to do than interrogate Herod about the irrelevant details of her past?

They walked past the dead, dying, and wounded- but not many of them. The 119th’s medical corps was tremendously efficient. Even the girls with minor wounds, like Herod’s, received ample treatment. Considering the size and intensity of the fighting, it should have been worse.

Amalek caught her glancing around. “Let me guess: you’re wondering why so few of ours are hurt. Less than twenty dead and less than fifty injured- very acceptable casualties for an operation of this size. Something like that?”

Herod nodded, surprised. How had he done that? Her face gave very little away.

“Fact is, the only reason we have this many wounded at all is because the enemy hid their anti-aero in the tower. The first wave to land, that being Colonel Tamar’s cohort, threw the enemy outside into disarray. This let the subsequent wave- mine- to consolidate control around the citadel and break enemy defenses. Now we can take our time to shred the tower.” Amalek’s voice was still cold towards her, but he warmed up the more he talked about the battle. Like it was something terribly interesting. “If I were leading this legion, I’d take them out in one fell swoop with a tailored virus or a memetic kill agent.”

There were almost no BEACON birds who showed any sympathy to the Neighbors, the eternal arch-rival of humanity. Brutal as BEACON’s tactics could be, they were a grim necessity- the Neighbors would do far worse if given the chance.

However, Amalek’s attitude was slightly different. He didn’t see the xenos as enemies to destroy. He saw the xenos as pieces on a game board, and he spoke of destroying them like he spoke of winning a game.

Zabda, on the other hand, looked uncomfortable. “We could still offer terms,” she said. “There’s hundreds of them in the tower… they can’t all be soldiers.”

“But they are all Romeos. What are the alternatives, Zab? To take them captive, so they can kill their jailors and plot their escape? To let them go, so they can regroup and counterattack? No, this was the only option. A quick, painless death- the best the enemies of the 119th can ask for.”

The three of them kept walking through the Neighbors’ citadel, now held by the 119th. There was something profoundly disturbing about the architecture, as all the buildings looked like they had been shaped by a giant, clumsy hand. To Herod, it looked like the Neighbors had intentionally made their structures ugly, impractical, and difficult to build.

Neighbors dead were left where they fell, and there were quite a few of them. Some were better than eight feet tall, their lithe bodies contorted as they lay on the ground or slumped against walls. It seemed this particular clade had short, wide, and concave tails by Neighbors standards. That seemed more disadvantageous than anything: typical Neighbors had tails both longer and stronger than either of their legs, and it made for a deadly fifth limb in close-range combat. At least one clade could hold a kind of firearm with their tail too.

If BEACON was leaving the corpses out, they wouldn’t be staying long. The free meals would draw scavenging animals- including other Neighbors, who had no cannibalism taboo and were happy to devour their fallen fellows.

Nobody else paid the dead much mind. Herod only did because she had never seen a dead Neighbor with her own two eyes before today.

The command tent stood at the base of the tower, close enough to hear gunfire and shouting from the raging fight within. Several armed guards protected the entrance but made no moves to stop Amalek.

Another woman left as they arrived. She was solidly built, a beauty with dark features. Her Gawain was strange… it only had a left arm. “Colonel,” she said curtly before walking straight past them.

Zabda glared at Amalek, who had totally ignored the woman. “Did you two squabble again?” she demanded.

“Listen, it’s not my fault that I come up with magnificent strategies that bring us glory and victory, and Sheba comes up with piles of mental dogshit clumsily shaped into plans,” said Amalek. “If she wants to avoid arguing with me, she’d either need to think more or talk less.”


“Fine, I’ll apologize, mother.” He was smiling, and Zabda was trying not to. “Just don’t make me eat my veggies too.”

“I’d settle for you eating anything at this point.”

“It’s a hunger strike against you, my subordinate, thinking you can boss me around.”

Zabda grinned. “Someone has to. If I let you do as you please, your ego gets so large it needs its own suit of armor.”

The trio entered the command tent. It was a utilitarian room with a circular table and folding chairs in the center, a map of the surrounding areas projected on a hardlight screen, and a collapsible desk.

Legata Lucifera sat behind it, her feet on the table. She was average height, an oily and smoky woman, earthy and comfortable in her Gawain AEGIS. She wore her forest-green hair in a ponytail, and a portion of her scalp was bald- a battle scar. Herod met her eyes and saw that they were weary. Not the sort of exhaustion cured by a week of relaxation. The sort of exhaustion that sank into one’s bones and became a part of their DNA.

<== ==>

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