<== ==>

Three-quarters of the legion had disengaged. Only one cohort still fought: the vanguard that had been the first ones to land. Amalek led Herod and Zabda to the base of the tower, where rough-looking birds waited for their turn to take a crack at the enemy within.

After a few minutes, a gigantic woman in heavy armor presented herself. “Hey Amalek!” she said cheerfully, removing her helmet to reveal a shock of aquamarine hair. “How’s Kra-ki-wa treating you?”

Colonel Tamar was a monster of a woman, towering over the entire crowd. Her body was a dense brick of muscle stuffed into a massive AEGIS. Unlike most 119th girls, who wore the light Mark XII Vishnus or the multipurpose Mark XIV Gawains, Tamar wore the heavy Mark XV Beowulf AEGIS. The helmet was rounded and formed an arch along her bulging shoulders, while the armor around her forearms was thicker than most girls’ thighs. The thing was so heavy that it couldn’t fly- the pilot just activated thrusters on the back to slow down for a landing.

Herod had worn the Beowulf before and found it almost impossible to move in it… Tamar must have been absurdly strong even outside of her AEGIS. A long, ugly scar bisected her face, sweaty and confident. Everything about her communicated power and control… Herod could see why she was well-liked.

“Same as any other sub-class-E Neighbor shithole treats us, Tamar,” Amalek said coolly. “Have you met Private Herod Makkaba?”

“Our heroic gunbuster?” Tamar grinned at her. “You saved me and my birds a lot of trouble, babe- I do appreciate it.”

Herod bowed her head respectfully. “Just doing my job, ma’am.”

“She’s the modest, quiet sort,” Zabda chirped. “Perhaps you could take a lesson or two, colonel.”

“Ha! What good is strength if you hide it?” Tamar glanced back at Amalek. “So what’s the story? Happy as I am to meet Herod here, I’ve got a tower to take. We’ve been pounding away at their defenses for an hour now, but they ain’t budging.”

“I figured so much,” said Amalek, rolling his neck. “Which is why I’ve come to help redirect your energies. Your cohort has muscle power to spare, so let’s use it to crack the enemy open.”

“What did you have in mind?”

Amalek pointed at the twisted tower. “Romeo has concentrated their defenses along the two points of ingress, right? The top and bottom of the tower. They can mount a strong enough defense along those two fronts that we can’t break them by just smashing our forces into theirs, can we?”

Tamar grunted in agreement. “But I’m gonna keep trying until they do break- and they will break. Their position is strong but they’re soft. My birds can do this all day, wear them down and break ’em to bits.”

“So they can- but the legata wants this tower taken an hour ago. She also wants minimal casualties. I say you fight smarter, not harder.” Amalek produced a dark green sphere from a pocket in his AEGIS. “This is a hyper-aggressive tailored virus that kills Neighbors within instants, while being harmless to us. It comes in an aerosol form. A one-one trillionth share of it is fatal. I want you to put it into the ventilation system.”

“Poison gas?” Tamar’s face fell. “You know how I feel about that. Weak, cowardly, honorless fighting. If we’re going to slaughter these guys, they deserve a chance to at least protect themselves.”

“Not to mention inhumane,” said Zabda. “The way it kills is… unpleasant.”

Herod had never heard anyone express that opinion before. “How does it kill, ma’am?”

“It’s not actually a virus, but a genetically engineered fungus… if a single spore enters the body of a Neighbor, then it reproduces at incredible speed. Huge masses of the fungus form in their body, crushing bones and organs. Death is quick but painful- and the body left behind is barely recognizable.” Zabda shivered. “I really don’t like using it.”  

Amalek crossed his arms skeptically. “They’re Neighbors. ‘Honor’ is as alien to them as good hygiene. In any case, BEACON sanctions its use.”

BEACON sanctions everything’s use,” Zabda said. “We used to avoid using things like this.”

“It’s the fastest way to clear the tower,” insisted Amalek. “They’re all going to die today anyways- what does it matter how they die? This will save us time and lives.”

“Urgh, fine.” Tamar took the tailored virus orb from the much smaller colonel. “Where’s the ventilation?”

Amalek’s finger moved to the side of the tower. “Neighbors need strong fans to reduce the temperature so they can sleep. It’s usually close to but not at the ground, second or third story.”

“Except the first story is infested with maybe a thousand Romeos.”

Amalek gestured to Herod. “That’s where she comes in. Herod here, along with one or two specialists of your choosing, are going to sneak past the main enemy force and detonate the tailored virus grenade inside the central ventilation.”

Herod glanced at Amalek. The plan was sound… she thought. “Yes ma’am. But I don’t know how to administer a virus,” she said.

“I do,” said Zabda. “I’m not much of a soldier, but I know my way around a BEACON bioweapon.”

Amalek’s eyes went wide. “Sergeant, you’re a medic, not a commando.”

“If you’re throwing poor Herod here into the belly of the beast, then the least I can do is give her a hand,” Zabda insisted.

Tamar grinned. “Small unit tactics? Sounds like fun. I’m in.”

“What?” Amalek sighed. “Colonel, please, take one of my best birds to-”

“Hey! This is my tower to take. You’re just advising me.” Tamar pounded her fist into her palm. “I wanna see Herod here in action… plus, this sounds like a hard mission. I’m not just a colonel, I’m the best ass-kicker in the legion and you both know it.”

“She is,” Zabda said. “I have no objections. Herod?”

“Ready and able, ma’am.”

Amalek pinched his temple. “Just try not to die, I suppose,” he sighed. “Of the three of you, only Herod is expendable.”

“Hey!” Zabda scolded. “Be nice. Herod is as valuable as any of us-”

Herod shook her head. “Beg pardon, centurion. But I must respectfully disagree. I am entirely expendable.”

<== ==>

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