The 119th made themselves busy in the tunnels: they built fortifications out of loose stone, repaired damage to their AEGIS’, swapped armaments, treated their wounds. Bit by bit, the shock of the Isaiah‘s destruction faded and a sense of normalcy was cobbled together.
But if what Anna said was right then they were already dead, and all of these preparations were meaningless. And yet it felt right: simple mechanical tasks created order in their surroundings, and that brought order back to their minds.
The colonels were all still shaken, though. Ruth especially was ghastly pale, and Tamar comforted her with a pair of big hands on the little colonel’s shoulders. Sheba tried to laugh and joke with one of her legionnaires, but it came off as hollow. Amalek stared at the ground with his hand on his lips, his eyes lost in thought.
Anna was the only person totally unaffected by the horror. Fail-Not was at her side, writing something on a holographic keyboard displaying from her watch. “Eat something,” the Verbena said- although it sounded like an order. “You’ve gone without for too long, you’ll begin to get fatigued.”
“After the meeting,” Anna said, stretching her back like a cat.
“No, now. Otherwise your insulin will dip.” Fail-Not handed Anna an energy bar. “Fatigue and hunger reduce combat efficacy.”
With a roll of her eye, Anna took a bite. “Ugh. So chewy.”
Lucifera cleared her throat. “I want to start the meeting. Um. Joining us for now is the honorable Mater Sicario, Anna Rahok.”
“Hi.” Anna’s mouth was full of energy bar. “I doubt I’ll say much. Just act like I wasn’t here.”
“Well first, I’d like to pose a question,” said Sheba, running her hand through her yellow-green hair. “Namely, what in the love of sweet, merciful, ever-loving fuck just happened?”
Tamar’s face was a mask. “I’d like to know that too, but I get the feeling it’s not something we can just… figure out.”
Lucifera nodded faintly. “Decades and decades of campaign experience. I’ve never once seen the sky come to life to destroy a ship. It’s either magic or some type of superweapon. Being that these are Romeos, I’d wager the former.”
“Romeo can do some tricks, legata, but nothing like that.” Sheba shivered. “Their shamans are all about tinkering with biology, yeah? So was that cloud alive?”
“It looked like water vapor to me,” whispered Ruth, resting her head against Tamar’s armored shoulder. “It moved like it was alive but I’d wager it was being, um, controlled by a shaman.”
Ruth cleared her throat. All the color was gone from her face and her eyes wavered, but at least she kept her voice calm. “I estimated 100 dead and almost twice that wounded,” she said quietly. “The dead including one centurion- mine, Orpah- and four captains. Oh… and that LUX xenopologist. Chryse. She didn’t make it.”
Chryse… Herod had only met her briefly and knew nothing about her, but there was something admirable about her. Chryse smoldered with passion when she talked about the Neighbors, she lost herself in the love of her study. How nice it must be to choose a destiny and then become that destiny.
Herod shook her head. Strange thoughts. She needed to focus.
“You’re being uncharacteristically quiet,” Lucifera said with a glance at Amalek.
“Yeah.” Amalek didn’t look up. “Just thinking… the how isn’t important for now. It happened.”
Tamar nodded. “Little fellow’s got the right of it. The much bigger concern are those riders. If they hit us again, we might not come out on top.”
“Then we retreat,” said Sheba. “Get the birds together and make a dash back to the citadel. We may not have dropships, but we do have our jetpacks-”
“Not all of us,” said Tamar sharply. “It won’t work, unfortunately. The rainstorm has moved to behind the mesa. It’s huge, it’s heavy. The dropships might have stood a chance, but without them? We’d be like leaves in a hurricane- and that’s if the sky doesn’t decide to just kill us.”
Lucifera nodded grimly. “No aerial movement,” she said. “No guarantee that whatever destroyed the Isaiah doesn’t destroy us too. If we change locations, we do it by foot- and we can’t do that with dragons at our backs.”
“Can we request additional air support?” Ruth asked. “Wrath of God was highly effective the first time…”
“Not with the clouds deflecting our disruptor lasers,” Amalek sighed. “Legata, any luck contacting the fleet?”
“Nope. The storm is blocking the signal- which is nonsense, by the by. Those clouds are like a shell around us. I wouldn’t be surprised if the fleet launched a kinetic rod and the clouds bounced it right back.” Lucifera’s voice dripped with disdain for the fleet- even now, the rivalry between BEACON‘s two main branches shone through. “Knowing them, they’re in complete disarray. Fleet does the flying, they expect us to do the dying. We shouldn’t rely on them to help.”
Sheba groaned like she had been stabbed in the guts. “So to sum up. We can’t fly away. We can’t get help. We can’t wait it out. What does that leave us?”
Silence overtook the leadership of the 119th Lightning Legion. Herod looked around confusedly. “How is that a hard question?” she asked. “We fight.”
Tamar pounded her fist into her palm. “Yes! I love your guts!”
“Guts alone will get us killed, colonel.” Amalek removed his hand from his chin and smiled. “We need brains instead. Fortunately, I have a plan.”
Sheba rolled her eyes, Anna smiled with all her teeth. Everyone else looked at Amalek expectantly, and he began to speak. “This whole time, I’ve been thinking about why the riders’ ambush did so much damage to us. Ordinarily, Neighbors fight with great autonomy. They have little loyalty to their comrades which is a strength and a weakness- you can’t beat them by killing their commander, but you also don’t have to worry about them using complex multilateral tactics against you.”
Amalek paused to hear objections, and continued when there were none. “But these riders struck as one. That level of moment-to-moment organization is unprecedented for the Neighbors. In effect, they fought like a BEACON legion. And what allows a BEACON legion to fight so effectively?”
“A chain of command,” said Ruth. “A legata to make decisions for the entire legion, but she delegates to her colonels, who delegate to their centurions, who delegate to their captains, who delegate to their sergeants, who delegate to their corporals and privates.”
“And at the top of any chain of command is a commander.” Amalek shone his flashlight up at one of the engravings that Chryse had pointed out: the one of the Neighbors worshipping a robed figure at the altar. “Somewhere in that force is that commander. Kill him, and I’ll bet you that their formation will crumble instantly.”
“How do you know the airstrike or the battle didn’t already kill him?” Sheba asked.
“You saw their retreat, didn’t you? Orderly, fast, purposeful. Not the panicked flight of soldiers in disarray. A tactical maneuver.” Amalek smiled. “I want to turn those same tactics against them. Here’s how we’re going to do it.”