<== ==>


“Presenting Private Herod Makkaba,” said Zabda. “Private, this is Legata Lucifera Humol.”

Herod bowed her head in deference. “An honor, ma’am.”

“At ease,” said Lucifera with a wave of her hand. “Good to meet you, kid. I’ve been reading the debriefs. It’s all pretty routine stuff ‘cept for what you did. The one oversight in Amalek’s strategy, and you corrected it perfectly.”

“It wasn’t an oversight,” Amalek huffed. “I was already in the midst of implementing a countermeasure when the private went all cowgirl.” Ah. That was why he disliked her. Entirely by accident, she had stolen his spotlight.

“Nothing wrong with that. Saved a bunch of ours, killed a bunch of theirs.” Lucifera gestured Herod to approach her desk. “Amalek tells me you have an interesting file.”

Herod said nothing. Neither did Lucifera, until she grinned casually. “Can’t say I care one way or another. So long as you weren’t sent to kill me in my sleep.”

“Not in your sleep ma’am, no.” Herod paused. “Or while awake.”

“Great! Then we’ll leave it at that.” Lucifera snort-laughed. “Happy, Amalek?’

“Not even a little.” Neither Amalek nor Zabda seemed particularly enthused by the legata. Amalek’s brow was set in frustration, while Zabda refused to look directly at the legion’s leader.

“Well, what else is new?” With a clap of her hands, Lucifera returned her attentions to Herod. “Do you have any questions for me, legionnaire?”

“Only one, ma’am. What are we doing on this planet?’

“Fighting for the future of mankind, of course.” Her delivery was so deadpan that it was impossible to tell when she was joking.

“I mean more specifically, ma’am,” Herod said. “When BEACON lands on a Neighbors-held planet, it’s to obliterate the leadership, place the native population under our protection, and start working on shaping the planet to human use.”

“Straight from the textbook.”

“But Kra-ki-wa has no Neighbor leadership, as far as we can tell. There are scattered groups, such as this one. The planet is altogether thinly populated, and there is no known native population.” Herod cocked her head. She had been meaning to ask someone this since she was briefed on the mission. “Are we just here to slaughter Romeo, ma’am?”

“Good question. To answer .. we don’t know much about Kra-ki-wa, and the planet’s got Romeos. They’re never up to anything good. We’re here to pacify them, hold territory, and let the science and xenoanthropologists do the rest.” Lucifera idly cracked her knuckles.

A vague, wishy-washy answer… little better than the legata simply saying she had no clue. “We don’t know why the Neighbors are here?” Herod asked.

“We don’t know why there are so few of them,” said Lucifera ruefully. “Amalek, what’s the estimate?”

“Less than three million,” Amalek replied. “Spread out over two hundred clades at last count. On a planet this big, with these kind of natural resources… I dunno, we’d expect at least thirty or forty million and possibly far more. No clue why.”

The Neighbors were not ones to let such an opportunity pass them by. They didn’t so much colonize worlds as infest them, devouring every iota of resources they could until all that remained was a barren, broken rock. Herod was no expert on Romeo, but it did strike her as odd. She had more questions, but decided to just nod. “Thank you, legata.”

“You don’t have to be so formal if you don’t want to.” Lucifera waved her hand. “You can just call me Lucy if you like.”

“How about Lightning Lucy?”

Lucifera smirked as she sat up in her chair. “Where’d you hear that?”

“In perfect honesty, while sphere-searching you after I was assigned to the 119th.” said Herod. “I hadn’t heard of you before that, ma’am.”

“Ha.” The legata stood up ponderously. She had a heavy limp, favoring her right leg as as she made her way over to Herod. “What are they writing about me these days?”

“A fearless and decisive soldier whose legion has been prominent in some of BEACON‘s greatest campaigns,” said Herod. “‘Lightning’ comes from your penchant for effective offense. Nobody has ever led the 119th but you, and its reputation as one of BEACON’s finest is the result of your leadership.” Herod met the legata’ eyes. “Is there any truth to that, ma’am?”

Lucifera shrugged. She was slightly taller than Zabda but shorter than Herod- although that limp of hers probably reduced her height by an inch or two. “Eh. Don’t believe everything you read. Which is why I called for you, incidentally. I hear you did the work of two platoons today and suffered nothing worse than a few boo boos. That true?”

“An exaggeration. I was simply in the right place at the right time, ma’am.”

“Common misconception, that’s not luck- that’s talent.” Lucifera glanced at Amalek. “The reason I called you here is because my bodyguard Hilary died in battle. Freak accident. Killed by a one in a million shot.”

“Oh.” Amalek frowned. “That’s not good.”

“Poor Hil,” Zabda said sadly. She looked as though she wanted to say more, but bit her lip.

“So I looked around at the people who I always see in my retinue and I thought, ‘wow, these are all old old faces.’ Nobody new. I thought I’d mix things up a bit, keep everyone on their toes.” Lucifera smiled without showing her teeth or moving her eyes. “How’d you like to be my new bodyguard, private?”

Herod let Amalek protest. “Hold on, that’s insane. This is her second day. We know almost nothing about her-”

“Except that she kicks ass,” said the legata lightly.

“-Except that she may be capable. I can find a candidate who’s just as capable and who’s a known commodity, legata.”

“Sure you could. But I have a good feeling about Herod. And I always try to listen to my gut- besides, your protests are premature. It’s a moot point if she says no.” Lucifera glanced at Herod. “What do you say? Comes with a promotion to corporal and a pay raise.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Herod after a moment’s thought. “I accept. And colonel, I fully understand your reservations. I assure you that-”

“I’ll have no complaints?” Amalek asked dryly. Herod merely nodded. “Legata, how do we know she’s even qualified to be a bodyguard? If Captain Miriam’s report is to be trusted, she went ahead of her platoon to fight on her lonesome.”

“You wanna test her some?” Lucifera laughed hollowly. “That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? I want you to be cool with this, Amalek, and I’m confident in Herod. Why don’t you see what she can do?”

“How do you test someone as a bodyguard?” Zabda asked.

Amalek’s smile was mischievous, like a kid with a devilish new toy. “I have the perfect set-up in mind.”

<== ==>

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