BEACON #31

<== ==> (Coming 10/21/19)

Ruth, who had moved closer to Tamar, pulled up a hard light screen. “I sent a couple birds to scout out avenues of retreat,” she said. “And it’s not what I wanted to see. The storm that attacked us has migrated southwest, towards the citadels the other legions hold.”

“What?” Lucifera shook her head. “We gotta warn them.”

“Can’t,” said Ruth. “I already tried and that’s jammed too, as is our connection to the fleet. This storm… it’s like a living thing. It knows how we talk to one another across long distances and it’s stopping us.”

Lucifera threw up her hands. “Well, fuck! I guess we’re all screwed!” 

Not necessarily,” said Amalek. “Remember the shape of the citadels. They have strong air defenses, to the point that even our orbital bombardment barely rattled them. I’ve been wondering that this whole time… why did the citadel Neighbors have such weak infantry and yet such stiff air defenses? And now we know.”

Comprehension dawned on Lucifera’s weathered face. “The storm attacked them too. They were hiding in there from it. The dragon riders, the cult- they’re the enemies of the ones we killed yesterday.”

Amalek nodded. “So it seems. But while the legions should be safe if they take cover inside the citadels… they can’t retreat. If the storm is magic, it will simply park itself above them for as long as it takes. Any ship that tries to rescue them will be destroyed. Eventually the citadels will be worn down, and then…”

Silence. “How many legions are on this planet?” Herod asked quietly.

“Fifteen combat legions, including us.” Ruth’s face was pale. “And another ten support legions. 50,000 women.”

“They’ll all die,” said Amalek. “Unless whoever is creating this storm is stopped.”

“AKA we find the shaman and stick our boot down its ass so far that it tastes the metal of our AEGIS’s,” said Tamar with a mean grin.

Lucifera considered this. “You’re probably right, but how can we possibly find them?” she asked. “We can’t access the geolocation grid, and the shaman hasn’t exactly marked itself with a locator.”

“…Haven’t they?” Sheba walked a few steps forwards and pointed into the distance. “Follow the clouds and the answer is clear.”

The skies of Kra-ki-wa had turned a foreboding jet black. They were thickest behind the mesa, before tapering off thinner and thinner in the direction of…

The mountain.

“That’s where the summoner is- and the rest of cult,” said Sheba confidently. “If we can get there, we can kill him.”

The four colonels, one legata, and sole corporal took a moment to wrap their minds around the implications of this. “Well, it was nice knowing you all,” Lucifera said cheerfully. “The 119th had a good run, but now we’re screwed. I’ll tell the girls to prepare their death confessions.”

Herod was inclined to agree. Between the mesa and the mountain was over 100 miles of enemy territory- and as they had no vehicles, they would have to march all the way there on foot. Most of their supplies had been destroyed with the dropships, so they’d have to rely on salvage from the Isaiah and whatever they could forage on an uncharted alien world. 

Untold enemies would outnumber them many times over in every encounter, and even if some of them managed to survive the march, the mountain base was an impenetrable fortification and likely the home of an enormous force. Plus, the enemy could control the weather- who knew what else they had up their sleeves?

It was suicide, plain and simple. And all of the colonels knew it.

Amalek broke the silence. “It’s… risky. And yet, I don’t see any alternatives. We can’t march backwards without getting caught in the storm. And we can’t stay here, they know we’re here and will keep hitting us. Our only hope is to undergo a forced march to the mountain, find the shaman and kill it. As a bonus, the mountain would also make an excellent extraction point once we’ve gotten to the top.”

“So we gotta climb it too,” said Lucifera wearily. “Great. We march in the morning.”

“…That’s it?” asked Ruth disbelievingly. “We’re just going to… do it? Legata, it’s futile. We won’t even make it halfway.”

“Eh. It doesn’t seem that difficult.” Anna materialized between Sheba and Ruth, sending both of them leaping back. God damn it, did she love scaring them like that. “Hey Loose Lucy. I’m tagging along, right?”

Lucifera had geared up to leave, but she turned back around. She looked to have aged five years in the last few minutes. “Yeah.”

“Neat. It’ll be fun, I dunno what you guys are so worried about. We’ll make campfires, sing songs, it’ll be like the old days.” There wasn’t an ounce of worry on Anna’s face. She was either completely insane, fearless, or she knew something they didn’t. Maybe all three. “Oh, don’t worry about accommodating me. I’ll find my own places to sleep.”

“Sure,” Lucifera sighed, and turned to leave. “Sheba, get your girls on salvage. Ruth, set up camp. Amalek, with me. Tamar, I want you to break to the girls what the plan is.”

Tamar nodded. “Sure ma’am. No problem. But, uh, shouldn’t you do it…?”

Lucifera just limped off, Herod and Amalek in tow.

<== ==> (Coming 10/21/19)

BEACON #30

<== ==>  

By the time Herod set Anna down on the mesa, the fighting was mostly over. Much like the Neighbors at the citadel, the leaderless dragon riders were brave but disorganized. With strong discipline and expert coordination, the 119th made short work of the enemy.

A few hundred dragon riders managed to escape into the distance. Most did not. The mesa was now dotted with debris from both the BV Isaiah and the decapitated bodies of the flesh-dragons. The legionnaires were bloody and tired from hours of hard fighting, but only a few had fallen.

When it was clear the battle was over, the 119th spread out across the mesa to rebuild. There were massive piles of salvage left over from the Isaiah, plus a camp to set up and wounded and dead to tend to. Most importantly, the battle-weary women desperately needed to rest.

Herod flew overhead until she located Lucifera, who was huddled over another legionnaire. This woman hadn’t fought quite as well: a bolt of burning plasma had taken off her right arm and leg, leaving behind only charred strands of twisted flesh and melted metal. The girl’s breathing was labored and her skin flushed.

“Bad day,” Lucifera sighed, nodding sadly at the landing Herod. “Bad fucking day.”

“Could be worse, ma’am,” Herod replied. “We’re still alive.”

“Mmm.” Lucifera touched her own lips. “That girl on the ground is Centurion Tiglath. I’ve known her for decades. She fought in The Cenotaph War, all the feuds against the Neighbors. Decorated for heroism on Nemesis and Haeton. There are less than a hundred survivors of the original 119th, and she’s one of them. Big fan of, uh… what was it?”

“Candles,” said Zabda, who had Tiglath’s head in her lap, stroking the dying girl’s hair. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. “She made candles in her spare time.”

“Fucking weirdo.” Lucifera laughed hollowly. “So fucking dumb. Fight like a hero for decade upon decade, and then make one little mistake and, whoops, there goes half your body. We dunno what to do with her.”

Herod frowned. “I’m not sure I understand, ma’am.”

“Ordinarily, a girl loses limbs, we send her back to the fleet and they give her prosthetics.” Lucifera pointed to a legionnaire Herod didn’t know who had two metal arms. “But we can’t get to the fleet, now can we?”

They couldn’t. Herod joined the silence that was only interrupted by Tiglath’s heavy breathing. Lucifera finally turned around. “Zabda, do what you can to make her comfortable. We’ll figure it out later.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The four colonels were together in the midst of a hushed but intense argument. Sheba was in Amalek’s face, waving her finger in his face. “Arrogant, reckless little brat!” she snarled. “The fuck were you thinking?”

“That I was the only one here with a plan,” Amalek replied, his gaze steely and unwavering. “A successful plan, mind you.”

“Your ‘successful plan’ left four thousand lizards and their mounts alive. If we didn’t have that demon of a Mater, we’d be the ones strewn dead across this mesa, not Romeo.”

Ruth tried to interject herself between the two of them. “Let’s all cool down,” she said softly. “Amalek did his best, and none of us had a better suggestion. It may well be that there was no tactic that could have won the day.”

Amalek stared at Ruth. “What is that supposed to mean?” he demanded.

“J-just that it was a desperate situation. And your plan, um, it was good- but Sheba’s right, it didn’t… completely work.”

Amalek’s face turned red. “And what did you do that was so useful in this battle, colonel?”

Ruth pursed her lips and looked away nervously. Tamar intervened. “Careful, runt,” she rumbled. “Don’t take your frustration with your own failure out on Ruthy.”

“That’s rich,” Amalek snorted. “Considering your job was to coordinate the offensive, Colonel Tamar. And yet your offensive was only half as effective as you swore it’d be- and that’s my fault?”

“It is your fault!” Sheba shot. “What did you do, exactly? Ruth’s no ace in her armor, but neither are you- hell, you’re the worst in the entire legion.”

“This legion has two thousand meatheads, it needs at least one person to do some thinking,” Amalek growled. “That’s fine- but what I find odious are stupid people who’ve tricked themselves into thinking they’re smart like you, Sheba.”

“Hey,” said Lucifera exhaustedly. “Can you four chill the hell out?”

The four colonels looked at the boss and bowed their heads in apology. “Sorry ma’am,” said Tamar. “We’re just, uh, stressed. Got some bad news.”

Lucifera cocked an eyebrow. “Go on.”

<== ==>  

BEACON #28

<== ==> 

There was no time to set up a new ambush. Herod had no clue what they could do, tactics weren’t her forte, but it seemed there was only one thing they could do: a frontal assault. They would be heavily outnumbered, though… defeat was nearly certain. Maybe a few would make it, but the 119th would be finished.

Herod sighed and prepared to die. It was a full minute of heavy rumbling later that a new voice spoke up. Anna.

“I can help,” she said calmly. “But I have some conditions.”

“What sort of help can you provide-” started Amalek, but he was cut off midsentence. According to the display, Lucifera had muted him.

“What are they?” the legata asked.

“Just two. First, I want to be attached to this legion. You guys will be my escorts for the foreseeable future. That shouldn’t be an issue, should it?”

What a curious request. As a Mater, Anna could order them around however she liked- so why was she asking permission?

Lucifera grunted an agreement. “And the second?”

“Herod has to help me. I have need of her skills.”

Herod’s arm still ached from the heavy fighting outside. “I’d rather not,” she said icily.

“Okay. Die down here. Come on Fail-Not, we’re leaving.”

Damn it. Anna was right: they were screwed. Amalek’s plan had thinned the numbers of the enemy but they were just too damn numerous. Whatever the Mater had in mind, it was probably the 119th’s best chance at survival. “Fine,” breathed Herod. “What do you need?”

“Come meet me at the tunnel entrance,” said Anna happily. “Lucy, get your girls ready for a strike on my signal.” She went off-comms before anyone could reply.

“Do as she says, Herod,” Lucifera sighed, unmuting Amalek long enough for him to sputter a protest. “I don’t know what’s going through Anna’s mind but she probably means what she says when she claims to want to help us.”

Herod gritted her teeth. She had absolutely no interest in being used as a pawn by a Mater, but there seemed to be precious little other choice. She flew towards the cave mouth, surveying the scene outside.

Most of the surviving flyers were still clustered in the air, but some broke away to fly to the caverns. Once overhead, the dragons’ throats horrifically distended and they vomited fridge-sized loads of plasma that exploded on slimy contact. Each shook the tunnels, and a new load was dropped every second.

Anna and Fail-Not were at the cave entrance, busied with some sort of long briefcase. “Hey Herod,” said Anna without looking. “How’s it going?”

“Fine,” she said suspiciously, floating over to them. “What is this?”

Anna turned her body to show Herod what they had: a sniper rifle almost six feet long, as tall as Anna and nearly as wide. There were dozens of components, and Mater and Verbena were hard at work assembling it.

Herod had never seen one so big before. “You’re going to use that?” she asked. “Assassinate the leader?”

“Yep! You got it!” Anna grinned at her like a little kid. “Pop his head like a water balloon, it ought to solve our problem if the mouthy one has got the right idea about how these things operate. Kill the leader, throw the rest into disarray.”

The leader must have been the one on the large, magnificent dragon… the one who was impossible to attack as he was surrounded at all times by hundreds of other riders. “How are you going to do that?”

“Well, the old girl here has a ridiculous amount of kick.” Anna patted the rifle affectionately. “As I lack the time to set up a nest and the terrain to climb a vantage point, I’m going to be using you instead.”

Herod stared at the Mater, not comprehending. Anna sighed. “I’m gonna climb onto your shoulders,” she explained. “You’re gonna fly up high. I’m gonna shoot the boss. The recoil is gonna throw me off your shoulders. You’re gonna catch me.”

Ah. That explained it. Herod finally had proof of what she suspected since she met Anna. “You’re completely insane.”

Anna laughed. “Ha, aren’t I? But I can guarantee success. Don’t they teach you anything about the Mater Sicario in school? What do they say about me?”

“You never miss,” said Herod quietly.

“I neh-vah-miss. So long as you catch me, everything will be gravy.”

“And if I don’t catch you?”

Anna stared with that lazy smile of hers. She was completely relaxed, like she was talking about her plans for a day at the spa. “You’ll catch me.” She patted the metallic cheek of Herod’s helmet. “Come on, time’s wasting. Fail-Not?”

“Prepared with diagnostics, Mater,” said the Verbena, pulling up her wrist computer.

Anna handed the gigantic rifle to Herod. “Here, attach this to your leg with the cable,” she said, before walking towards the cave mouth.

Unable to disobey a direct order, Herod attached the gun to her ankle via a telescoping cable. “I see one major flaw in this plan,” she said, jogging after Anna. “The moment we fly out of here, they’re going to attack us.”

“We’re not flying towards them, dummy,” said Anna cheerfully. “We’re flying away from them.” She deployed her own helmet, although on the unarmored Isis it was more like a mask. Anna’s face vanished, replaced by a black cowl with no features besides three glowing red eyes.

“And how am I going to carry you?” Herod asked. “I don’t have a kangaroo pouch module.”

“Does that exist?”

“I have no idea-” Herod nearly dove backwards as Anna sprang towards her with catlike agility. The Mater wrapped her legs around Herod’s ribs, then wrapped her arms under Herod’s armpits. 

“There. That comfortable?” she asked.

Physically, no. There was a lot of steel and circuitry separating Anna’s lithe torso from Herod. Still, having the Mater rest her head on her shoulder was… strange. “It’s workable,” Herod replied flatly. “Let’s go.”

<== ==> 

BEACON #27

<== ==>

 

A pair of dragon riders got behind Herod, boxing her in. She fired rockets behind her, but they went wide. With a grunt, Herod deactivated her thruster, hanging in the air for a moment before falling.

The dragons dove after her, getting closer… and closer… and closer… until Herod reactivated her booster and zipped upwards. The dragons were moving so fast they couldn’t turn. Her sword met the left dragon’s neck and she lopped its head off. The second snapped at her, so she turned 90 degrees and ran her blade along its side, leaving a deep gash along the side.

The second dragon would recover, but not instantly. Herod ignored it, instead rocketing upwards as fast as she could towards a red target. The rider was locked in battle with another legionnaire- untiil she flew straight into a bolt of plasma. The bird was killed instantly, the superheated goo eating through her armor and liquefying her flesh.

Snarling, Herod surmounted the dragon and jabbed her sword deep into the rider’s back. The Neighbor gasped and convulsed, then went still. She followed up by beheading the dragon from behind.

The pnuematic blade was sharp enough to cut through whatever you wanted it to cut, but each attack sent shockwaves through her arm. Her already-injured arm was bothering her more with every swing. 

Nevertheless she fought on. She killed two more riders before spotting a unique rider at the center of the swarm. He wore dark robes and his flesh dragon was larger than the others, covered in elaborate ritualistic markings. A sheer mass of flesh served as an impenetrable barrier around him, hundreds of other riders flying in circles to protect him.

That had to be the leader. Herod considered risking an attack. If it worked she’d save the legion, and if it failed nothing of value would be lost. Before she could make a decision, her intercom lit up. “Good work,” Amalek’s calm voice said in her ear. “All legionnaires retreat and prepare for stage two.” Veteran birds had expected this announcement and were already at the peripheries of the sky battle. Herod was a talented amateur- she was right in the thick of it.

She ducked and weaved around draconic attacks and bolts of plasma. Others fell around her: a legionnaire got her leg seared off by a plasma bolt. Another got her flight module bitten off and she helplessly plunged to the ground. A third took plasma to the stomach and had enough time to scream in agony before she was incinerated.

Herod made her way out, and fired a few rockets to cover the escapees behind her. The dragon riders were coming after them in force, thousands of them. She and the others hadn’t put even a dent in their numbers.

But of the three hundred that Amalek had painted red, less than a hundred remained. They had done what they were sent to do. Now it was up to the might of the 119th proper.

Herod flew down as quickly as she could, dragon riders in hot pursuit. The Gawain was faster than the flyers, but only just. They glided into the caverns, the dragons in hot pursuit.

The tunnels were only large enough for dragons to comfortably enter in ones or twos. The enemy’s order of battle had grown fragile, the riders frenzied by the loss of their leaders. The disturbingly human cries of the monsters reverberated off the walls. The tunnels began to diverge into dozens of different passageways, and the legionnaires took whichever they could reach. Herod took the third from the left, flying over a line on the ground that only existed in her display.

The line was there to tell them where the trap was.

BEACON war camps were protected with perimeter grids. Anyone without the proper biometric signature would trigger an alarm. The grids could even deploy walls of hard light to trap intruders.

The moment a dragon flew over the line, a hardlight wall appeared instantaneously and vertically bisected it. The other riders slammed into the wall, dragons piling atop one another in a horrific twisting mass of flesh. Riders were crushed under the weight of their own mounts. The order that the enemy enjoyed disintegrated in a flash. Herod landed next to Lucifera, who was waiting at the base of the tunnel. “The trap is sprung, ma’am,” she said.

“Good,” replied Lucifera. “All units, attack!”

And like lightning, the 119th struck.

They had been camped out in the antechamber with all the carvings, waiting for the order to deploy. The hard light walls went down, and within an instant a barrage of rockets hit the massed flyers. Smoke and rubble rained down, as did chunks of the blown-apart bodies of flesh-dragons and Romeo riders.

The rockets stopped, and within an instant were followed with expanding rounds from Tamar and her Beowulfs. The high-speed bolts tore holes in the enemy like knives through sponge.

The riders had rushed into the caverns in great numbers, and again that worked against them in the enclosed space of the tunnels. There had crowded themselves out of a retreat, and the only direction they could possibly advance was towards certain death. Hundreds upon hundreds of riders were killed within seconds.

Amalek had deduced it. The ones he painted red were the ones with clipped ears, the leaders of the cult. Without these representatives of their living god present, the rest of the riders were little more than a frothing rabble.

Thousands of dragons and as many riders were turned to paste against the full force of the 119th’s weaponry. Herod kept close to Lucifera, who watched the scene intently from behind her expressionless helmet.

At last, there was a cry of “Cease fire!” and the cacophony ended. The smoke cleared to reveal that the tunnels were positively smothered in gore. There were no enemies left to shoot.

All this at the cost of a couple dozen legionnaires. “I’m running simulations now,” Amalek said through the comms thoughtfully. “The numbers show that we killed… between 4 and 5,000 riders. That means there are still thousands more outside.”

“But they can’t be more than a disorganized riffraff at this point,” said Sheba. “We ought to be able to clean them up without issue.”

“Not necessarily. We didn’t get the commander. They’ll soon reorganize and attack again- and this time they won’t fall for the same trick.” Amalek snarled in frustration. “Damn it. Damn it!”

“How did so many escape?” Lucifera grunted.

“It seemed most that followed us into the tunnel died- but a large contingent didn’t.” Amalek sighed. “I need to think of a new solution and quickly. They’ll hit us again within an hour.”

“I don’t see the big deal,” said Sheba. “We’re dug in and ready to be hit again, aren’t we? We’ll just-“

She didn’t get to finish her sentence, as a rumbling interrupted her. Then another. Then a third. “What the hell is going on?” Sheba demanded.

“They’re shelling us,” Amalek said hushedly as pebbles fell from the ceiling and clouds of dust were kicked up. “Dropping huge heaps of plasma on top of the caverns. In a few minutes they’ll begin to crumble, and then collapse, and then we’ll be trapped down here.”

“With no way out except directly into them,” added Ruth. “Fiendishly clever… if they can’t pull us out then they’ll make these caverns our tomb.”

“Then what do we do?” asked Lucifera. “Opening the door to suggestions.”

<== ==>

BEACON #26

<== ==>

The entirety of the 119th had made their way back onto the mesa and busied themselves with salvaging anything usable. Food, water, medical supplies, and fuel for their jetpacks were of the highest priority. Little of the Isaiah remained besides scrap metal, but not everything. Several industrial refrigerator carrying emergency food supplies had survived, and literal tons of meals were intact inside. That would keep them fed… assuming they lived through the day.

The searching was half-hearted, as the 119th weren’t really here to scavenge. They were here to lure the enemy into attacking.

Herod hated this plan. It was risky and full of uncertainties. It was far too dependent on the enemy’s actions. It could go catastrophically wrong at almost any step.

It was probably their best hope.

She approached Sheba, who was using the scanner on her watch to determine what was under a pile of rubble the size of a house. “Colonel,” Herod said. “A word?”

“Sure, so long as it’s just one,” Sheba said distractedly.

“I know that you and Colonel Amalek aren’t on the best terms. I wanted to hear what you thought of his strategy, ma’am.”

“Feh. CHAMP’s got Lucy’s ear, of course. She treats every turd that falls out of his mouth like a bar of gold.” Sheba sighed heavily. “That said, I can’t think of a better plan. We’re screwed, I’m pretty sure- but we can’t retreat.”

“We could stay in the tunnels,” Herod suggested. “Shore up the defenses and wait for circumstances to change, ma’am.”

“Even if that’d work, we wouldn’t do it.” Sheba looked up, her smoky eyes dark with disapproval. “C’mon recruit. We’re a fucking BEACON legion- the most deadly fighting force in the galaxy by virtue of sheer bitchiness. And we’re the doublefucking one-one-ninth! We didn’t get nicknamed the lightning legion as a PR stunt, we’re called that because we’re fast and means. We don’t hide our heads from goddamn xenos and hope that they’ll leave us alone. A tactical retreat is one thing, but we’d rather die than hide.”

“Oh.” Herod looked at the girls scavenging through piles of metal and rubble. “That seems imprudent, ma’am.”

“If we were smart, do you think we’d be stranded on this hellhole?” Sheba grinned. “C’mon, back to work.”

Herod nodded and kept listlessly scanning the ground for potential valuables. It was five or six minutes later that the riders burst from above the clouds. 

Just as Anna said: it was like they materialized from thin air, thousands and thousands of them. Enough to block out the sky with their fleshy bodies, enough to drown out all other noise besides the cruel beating of their wings and their horrible screams. They sounded almost human.

Sheba glanced at Herod and nodded. “Good luck,” she called, her helmet climbing the back of the head and covering her face. “Make them glad to be in hell, so that they’ll be away from you.”

The colonel made her way for the tunnels, but Herod didn’t. Instead she and about a hundred others dove for nearby piles of rubble. It wasn’t comfortable to go prone in the Gawain, but Herod lay on her belly anyways.

The riders circled above. “Hold position,” Amalek murmured in her comms. “All units, be ready to strike, but only on my signal.”

Using her infrared, Herod monitored the area around the rubble. Most of the riders continued to circle above, but some buzzed the entrances to the tunnel complexes. The first shots rung out, the distinct pneumatic thonk of the Beowulf’s expanding rounds. Tamar and her heavies were covering the retreat into the tunnels.

“What are we waiting for, ma’am?” someone asked over the comms. “The fight’s starting.”

“For them to make a mistake,” Amalek replied. “Hold position.”

Herod was under the rubble for what felt like hours when Amalek spoke next. “There you are, you scaly bastard. Soldiers, I’m going to mark targets for you now. Engage the ones in red- they’re the leaders, I want at least half of them dead. Don’t waste your time on any of the ones I haven’t marked. Attack on my signal.” The longest second of Herod’s life passed. “Now.”

Herod rolled out from under the rubble pile and spotted a rider flying low. She had a clear shot and she took it, her rocket blowing the rider apart. The mount turned and screeched at her, its flabby throat ululating. But it was too slow- Herod had already closed the gap, pneumatic blade drawn.

In one swift motion, she beheaded the beast. Its head hit the ground, flopped and wiggled like a fish, and then grew still. 

That was how to kill to dragon. Cut off its head. 

Herod increased her angle of ascent until she was moving directly up into the thick of it. Amalek had assembled one hundred of the best fliers in the 119th for this strategy. 100 birds against 8,000 or 9,000 dragon-riding Romeos.

Herod targeted the nearest dragon painted red by her display. She dodged a bolt from the rider’s spear, then went to drive her blade into the dragon’s gullet. It weaved to the side, and its head snapped at her, getting a mouth full of her shoulder. 

Herod grunted at the pressure as the monstrous jaws tried to tear her arm off. She deployed her shoulder-mounted minigun and superheated high-speed rounds burst out the back of the dragon’s head. It still wasn’t dead, so she decapitated it for good measure. Its corpse- and its rider- went plummeting for the ground.

The other legionnaires acquitted themselves well. A girl with a sword on either arm hacked away at a big dragon. One bird fired a rocket into the side of a pursuing drake, and another followed up by slashing the beast’s head off.

They were killing and killing and killing. Now the great numbers of the dragon riders worked against them, they couldn’t coordinate against the swarming legionnaires. Herod and the others were like wasps buzzing around the head of a great beast, using their smaller size and fewer numbers to their advantage. The overwhelming strength of the enemy was no good against such small and mobile targets.

Amalek was pretty smart after all.

<== ==>

BEACON #25

<== ==>

 

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.”

<== ==>

BEACON #23

<== ==>  

“Tamar, what in the name of fuck is going on?” Lucifera asked as she and Herod descended.

“I don’t know, legata! We were on guard and then they just… appeared! Came from the skies like they had popped into existence- none of our sensors picked up on them until they were on top of us.” Tamar had still managed to down several flesh-dragons, their bodies lying around her. Her armor was soaked in sticky blue blood. “The rain is so heavy that the dropships can’t ascend quickly. We’ll be sitting ducks in the air and they can hit us again.”

Amalek landed next to them. “Then we need to evacuate,” he said quickly. “We have wounded too- Zabda and the rest of the medics are doing what they can but… it isn’t enough. We need a ship’s medical suite.” He turned to Lucifera. “Legata, I suggest we request immediate extraction. We aren’t prepared for combat this heavy.”

Lucifera paused, then nodded. “Fleet Command, this is Legata Lucifera Humol, 119th Legion,” she said into her headset. “We just came under heavy attack and suffered significant casualties. Heavy rain is impeding a retreat and multiple dropships were lost. Requesting immediate evacuation from our position, over.”

“Copy that legata. Patching your request through… request granted. Pick-up will arrive in T-minus nine minutes. Over and out.”

Lucifera switched to the colonel frequency. “Amalek set up a perimeter, I want to know if we’re about to get hit again,” she ordered. “Ruth, get me a count of the wounded and dead, get the former to Zabda and load the latter into a dropship. Tamar, find the Mater Sicario and tell her what we’re doing. Sheba, your girls are on clean-up duty- finish off any enemy wounded.”

While everyone got to work, Herod did the only useful thing she could: prepare for the next battle. She walked over to one of the flesh-dragons. The head and neck almost resembled a viper, a huge-mouthed pit snake with rows of gleaming teeth. Its body was lumpy and shapeless, with almost bat-like wings and a long, coiling tail. It was the color of vomit. Its flesh was so spongy that most of the rain that hit it bounced right off.

Amalek walked over to the dragon and ran a mailed finger along its slashed-open head. “This is… not a natural lifeform,” he muttered. “This is a result of Neighbors’ genetic engineering. The flesh is malleable and has a great deal of give to it… and it regenerates when damaged.”

“I killed one from point-blank with a rocket,” Herod offered.

“Mmm. Looks like Tamar took this one out with a high velocity spike to the dome.” Amalek peered inside the split skull. “But the head is small and constantly moving, not an easy shot even with a guidance system. Most lack the skill for either of those methods, there has to be an easier way…”

While Amalek pondered, Herod jogged away to meet back up with Lucifera. The legata was talking to Ruth, who had taken a minor wound to her left shoulder. “68 dead,” the colonel said, clutching her arm. “Another 117 severely injured, and hundreds more with minor wounds. This was a devastating attack, legata. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the enemy strike with such speed and coordination. It was like they were expecting us to land here.”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Lucifera replied. “How are the wounded doing?”

“Zabda has it in hand, and I have as many birds as I can spare helping them… legata, what if they come back?” Ruth swallowed dryly.

Lucifera shook her head. “Whatever happens, we have got a mighty fleet and they have not. They show their faces again and I’ll paint them with another Wrath of God.”

“The weather is getting worse though,” said Ruth. “Soon the clouds will be impenetrable… what’s happening? Things don’t go like this normally.”

“Relax. Look, there’s our ride.” Lucifera pointed up. Sure enough, a massive BEACON frigate hovered overhead. It was the BV Isaiah: 2,000 feet long and shaped like a sunflower seed, large enough to easily carry five legions. The ship bristled with weaponry: mighty cannons that could fracture a planet’s crust, a battery of laser weaponry to reduce any number of small craft to atoms, and long-range precision artillery to take out pinpoint targets on the surface. It and ships like it had spent days pounding everything that even vaguely resembled a military position on Kra-Ki-Wa into mist, until all that remained were a few straggler positions that small unit tactics were better-suited to neutralizing.

It was the 119th’s home, the ship from which they had deployed for decades. The interior contained not only battle stations but also comfortable lodgings for its thousands of passengers, including a spa and three swimming pools.

The Isaiah slowly descended on the mesa, and through the rain a cheer went up. Of course it was heartening to see the true might of BEACON, one of its jaw-droppingly expensive and cataclysmically powerful capital ships. No number of reptilian savages would ever be a match for it.

The clouds intensified as the ship descended, though. Slowly, the Azariah was ensconced in dark clouds… odd. It had gone from clearly visible through the rain to nearly impossible to spot.

It seemed impossible, and yet it was happening right before their eyes. The heavy dark clouds coiled around the Isaiah, shrouding the ship in a shifting, billowing mass. The clouds pulsed and coiled almost sensually, moving like flesh, like they were alive.

White flames hissed from the bottom as the Isaiah shifted to a strong upward thrust- it was trying to escape. But no luck, the clouds surrounded the thrusters and…

And broke them right off.

Chunks of debris fell from the Isaiah and slammed into the ground a half-mile below, shaking the mesa. Several girls covered their mouths in horror. “W-what’s happening?” someone asked over the global channel. Nobody answered her.

The clouds had now completely engulfed the Isaiah, to the point that no part of the ship was in view. Horrific cracks and crunches sounded, and more pieces of debris slipped through the mass.

The bloated black cloud then began to lazily drift, leaking pieces of ship behind it. It was moving… towards the mesa. 

Towards the 119th Legion.

<== ==>  

BEACON #20

<== ==>

 

She next shone her light on a nearby carving of a Neighbor on its knees while another stood behind it with a knife. “Is it being… executed?” Amalek asked with a frown.

“That was my first thought too. But no. That’s not a weapon- it’s a ritual dagger.” Chryse shone the light at the head of the kneeling Neighbor. “Look, its ears have been removed. And if you look back at the first carving, the ones kneeling closest to the podium are similarly missing their ears.”

“Ritualistic self-mutilation,” said Amalek. “I imagine they wouldn’t do that normally?”

“They would not.” Chryse shone her flashlight on a third drawing. Two Neighbors, one atop the other, their snouts touching. A robed Neighbor stood behind them, observing. “There are over a hundred carvings, but these three were the most interesting to me. This is a drawing of reproduction- the one on top is fertilizing the one beneath.” Her voice was breathy and far-away.

“What’s the big deal?” asked Sheba.

Chryse shot her a glance. “Ropinqa… ah… don’t have a concept of consent,” she said. “Reproduction is a battle for dominance for them, everything is. But here… there’s no violence. Both parties are willing, because they’re being instructed by the priest. I have occasionally observed consensual sex between Ropinqa before, but when combined with these other engravings…”

“Something fucky is going on here,” said Sheba. “This doesn’t add up. The defenders at the citadel, they were perfectly ordinary.”

“Were they?” Amalek had his hand on his chin and his eyes on the floor. “Mostly, yes… but didn’t they seem poorly-armed and equipped? Didn’t we beat them a bit too easily?”

Sheba nodded. “I thought that too,” she said. “Thought we caught them off-guard… but they could have also been weakened already.”

“And the defenses around the citadel. They weren’t facing southwest, towards the frontier. They were facing northeast, towards the mountain. Towards this very mesa.” Amalek swallowed dryly. “Could there be multiple Neighbor factions fighting on this planet? The ordinary ones we’re used to and this… cult?”

“It’s very possible… Ropinqa factions are constantly at war with one another. It’s one of the reasons why BEACON has been so successful against them: they once outnumbered us a thousand to one, but we fought with unity while they could not coordinate their massive numbers and amazing technology.” Chryse glanced at the engravings. “I’ve just never seen this behavior before.”

Herod stared at the multitude of engravings. The longer she looked, the more she found them loathsome. Ordinary Neighbors were bad enough, slithering and unctuous monsters. These carvings suggested something vaguely resembling humanity… but that touch of empathy only served to accentuate how fundamentally wretched the monsters were.

The Neighbors couldn’t help being born monsters. But a monster should not wear the skin of a real person.

“Legata, we’ve secured the Mater and her retinue,” Herod said to Lucifera, who hadn’t said a word since they came in. “Shall we return topside?”

“I need another hour or two,” said Chryse. “Once I finish my notation, we can-”

A siren filled the tunnel, the shriek bouncing off the walls and drowning out all other noise. An urgent-priority message… only a colonel or higher could send one of those. Lucifera silenced it with a press of her watch. “Tamar, what’s going on?” she asked in the colonels’ frequency.

“We’re fucked, that’s what’s up!” the voice of Tamar yelled back. “We’ve got an entire air cavalry bearing down on our heads! Thousands! We’re surrounded!”

“Fuck,” Lucifera groaned. “We’re on our way.”

“Hurry! They’re moving in and- shit! I gotta go! Over and out!”

There were no words. The expeditionary force turned around and rushed topside as fast as their feet would carry them. They dashed madly to the tunnel entrance and ran out into hell.

<== ==>

BEACON #19

<== ==>

“The quiet woman with us is Chryse,” Fail-Not said. “She’s a LUX Senior Fellow- one of the foremost xenopologists in all of TORCH. She primarily studies the Neighbors.”

“Hello,” said the woman to Anna’s left. Anna was lean and Fail-Not skinny, but Chryse was full-figured and rotund. Her small eyes glimmered with something strange from behind her spectacles. She didn’t wear any armor, rather she was clad in durable canvas clothes. A major risk indeed, although a scientist wouldn’t know how to pilot an AEGIS.

“She doesn’t talk much,” said Anna, “but she’s great at what she does. Don’t pay her too much mind, she’s focused on her research.”

“Why’d you bring her?” Lucifera asked.

Chryse shifted her weight uncomfortably and stared at the floor. “Interesting phenomena on this planet.” Her voice was soft and thin.

“Any particular reason why you brought a scientist into a warzone?” said Amalek, who along with Zabda had come to the front to join them. “Mater. Colonel Amalek Kavod.”

Anna grinned enthusiastically. “Kavod! Sapiens, I haven’t seen one of you in foreeever. You look just like Ziklag Kavod. He had bright red hair, though. Yours is the same as Fail-Not’s.”

Amalek blinked stupidly. “You… knew Ziklag?”

“Knew him? I worked side-by-side with him for years! He tended to draw a lot of attention to himself… the only male on Astra’s entire executive committee. He might have even succeeded Astra instead of Grace, were it not for that thing between his legs.” Her smile flickered for just a moment. “But that was so, so long ago- before there was even a TORCH. You look exactly the same as him, down to that big ole chip on your shoulder.”

“I don’t have a chip-” Amalek stopped himself. “You didn’t answer my question, Mater.”

“So I didn’t.” Anna turned around. “Chryse, mind briefing the legata and her staff on what we’ve found? That should take care of most of their annoying questions.”

“Yes Anna,” said Chryse obediently. “But it’d be easier to demonstrate. Legata, would you and your commanders follow me?”

“Sure. Uhhh, Sheba, come here,” Lucifera said into her watch. Tamar and Ruth had remained topside.

The legata, two of her colonels, and her corporal bodyguard followed Chryse over to one of the walls at the back of the chamber. “It’s very subtle,” Chryse said, pointing her light at the the wall, “to the point that you wouldn’t notice it. But the moment the ground curves downward, the room also widens and widens. This tunnel complex has a hub- and we’re standing in it.”

The walls were covered in painted carvings: hundreds of them, too many scenes for Herod’s eyes to follow all at once. They all depicted tall, skinny, long-necked creatures- Neighbors- in a variety of scenes.

“My area of study is the Ropinqa,” said Chryse. She straightened out her posture and squared her shoulders… at last, she was back in her element. “You call them Neighbors or Romeos. A-as soldiers, your primary concern is how best to fight and kill them… but I seek to understand the way they think and behave.” She couldn’t fully suppress the bitterness in her voice. “I-I have never seen carvings like these before.”

“I’ve never seen Romeo art before,” said Amalek wondrously. “The lizards don’t seem to have much of a mind for beauty.”

Chryse nodded in almost worshipful fascination. “They are far more utilitarian than us… usually. Um, so that’s the first strange thing. Art for art’s sake is… much rarer among their kind.”

She shined her light on one of the scenes. A Neighbor wearing a skirt and cape standing on an elevated platform. A few dozen others surrounded it, kneeling in prostration. “Ropinqa culture is high individualistic. Mass action is only observed with the promise of money, prestige, a choice of mates… they don’t have cults of personality or spiritual leaders. A Ropinqa is loyal to themselves, their close blood relatives, material gain. The stories we tell ourselves to justify our ideals hold little sway with them. Mass action comes at the doing of some exceptional Ropinqa who cultivates admiration for their abilities. Which makes this engraving truly baffling.”

“They’re… worshipping,” said Sheba, her lip curled in disgust. “The one in the middle is a… god or a prophet or something.”

“Those clothes are not known to me,” said Chryse softly. “I’ve been to twenty different Ropinqa-occupied worlds, including their homeworld. Never once have I seen them wear such garments. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to ascertain what is being worshipped. But yes, it seems religious in nature- we don’t understand their faith well, but we’ve never seen this type of behavior before.”

<== ==>

BEACON #18

<== ==>

They had deployed the flashlights attached to the Gawain and Vishnu’s collarbone. 500 women with powerful flashlights made for queer shadows on the roofs and walls.

There was no way that Neighbors carved these tunnels. It had absolutely nothing in common with the citadel from yesterday that wound and widened, shrunk and stopped abruptly.

The architecture was ten times more disturbing than the citadel, but for a completely different reason. It was too perfectly precise. Every single corridor ended in a right angle, every wall smoothed out with geometric rigor and a hint of obsession.

She stuck close to Amalek. Even in the lighter Vishnu AEGIS, he was awkward and ungainly. “Not much for armor, are you ma’am?” she asked him.

Amalek’s helmet betrayed no emotion but she could easily imagine his scowl. “Not all of us are meatheaded jocks like you, Corporal,” he shot. “My contribution to this legion is the massive brain between my ears that turns your hands and feet into a productive tool of destruction. Thank me later.”

“He’s insecure about it,” whispered Zabda, who had been walking a few steps behind. “Corporal, please don’t bully your commanding officer. Treat him gently.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Herod. “I was wondering what our highly intelligent and gifted colonel thought of these tunnels.”

Amalek seemed mollified by the compliment. He ran his hand along the wall experimentally. “Something’s strange,” he muttered. “The architecture’s all wrong. So, did the Neighbors even carve these tunnels?”

“Who else?” asked Zabda with a shrug. “We haven’t seen any locals.”

“Isn’t that weird too?” Amalek asked. “Look at this planet. Sure, this is a drier part of it, but it’s lush and verdant, fifty percent water, well within its star’s habitable zone. It should be teeming with life. All we’ve seen though are the Neighbors. Where did the natives go?”

“Extinct?” asked Herod. “Wiped out by the Neighbors, perhaps?”

“It’s possible. I’m not an xenopologist, so I can’t-” Amalek tripped over his feet and nearly went down in a heap, but he quickly righted himself. “Don’t laugh!” he snapped.

Herod didn’t laugh. “So colonel, you have no idea about these tunnels?”

“No- nor am I sure what we’re even doing here.” Amalek grunted. “I’d like a word with the Mater. Playing hide-and-seek down here is stupid- we have a war to fight.”

Zabda shook her head vigorously. “Amalek, you successfully managed to piss off the second-scariest woman in BEACON. Can you at least try not to also make an enemy of the first-scariest in the same day?”

Amalek didn’t reply. He was too busy navigating the downward sloping ground. Then without warning, the entire expedition stopped.

Herod made her way to the front and found Lucifera with two other women. One was Anna, who gave her a happy little wave. “Hey, hey Herod!” she cried. “Come here, I want you to meet someone!”

“A friend of yours, Anna?” crisply asked one of the strangers, a tiny, delicate thing at the Mater’s side. Like Anna, she wore an Isis AEGIS. Unlike Anna, she was small and girlish, with heavy bags under her eyes. “This is what you were wasting time on? Annoying the rank-and-file?”

Herod stood at Lucifera’s side. “Who might you be?” she asked.

“Fail-Not,” said the short woman. “I’m a-”

“-Verbena,” Herod finished, her gaze darkening. “You’re the Mater’s Verbena. Her assistant.”

Fail-Not cocked an eyebrow. “Not many of you meathead soldiers who know about us. Do you have a problem with Verbena?”

“…No,” said Herod, sincerely. “I used to be acquainted with one of yours, that’s all.” Herod was careful to keep emotion out of her voice, although she didn’t entirely succeed.

“Herod’s mysteeerious,” said Anna, wiggling her fingers dramatically. “Cool, right? She’s kinda like Loose Lucy’s Verbena.”

“I am not.” Herod rounded on the Mater. “I’m her bodyguard, voluntarily.”

“Oof, touchy. Sorry, it was just a dumb joke.” Anna put up her hands innocently. The colonels gaped at Herod, who had gotten in the Mater’s face without realizing it.

“…My apologies,” Herod muttered, shrinking back.

Fail-Not glared. “Anna, what did you say to this woman?”

“Nothing. Just spooked her a little with the invisibility.” Anna grinned. “Fail-Not’s the brains of my operation. She keeps everything in order for me. I wouldn’t be shit without her.”

“And don’t you forget it,” said the small woman. “Please forgive Anna if she gave any offense.”

Lucifera looked between the two women. “I’ve never seen a Verbena treat her Mater the way you treat yours, Fail-Not,” she said.

“Well, the little squirt was trained to my specifications,” said Anna cheerfully. “I can get kinda lazy if nobody’s lighting a fire under my ass.” She affectionately ruffled Fail-Not’s short dark blue hair. “Ain’t she cute, though?”

Fail-Not’s face gave nothing away, but the moment Anna removed her hand she smoothed her hair out.

<== ==>

BEACON #15

<== ==>

The tent was dead silent again after Tamar’s speech. Ruth especially stared at Tamar with concern and confusion. “Why is she tolerated then?” Herod asked, knowing the answer. “If you all hate and fear her so much?”

“She’s earned her stripes,” Lucifera replied. “Berenice is… dangerous, sure. But she’s fucking effective. The 1st is BEACON’s most elite legion, we could be here all day listing what they’ve accomplished. Ever heard of the Nibiru Campaign? The Blue Sands War? Hell, how about the Scourging of Gabros-1?”

“No, no, and no,” said Herod, feeling a bit stupid. “Sorry ma’am. I am not knowledgeable on BEACON‘s history.”

Ruth sighed heavily, Sheba gave Herod a wincing look, and Amalek stared at her with something like interest. Tamar was the only one who didn’t seem upset by what she had said. “Basically, she’s the second-scariest woman in all of BEACON. There’s a reason why the 1st are called The Bitches- and why Berenice is the ‘Head Bitch in Charge’. I guess picture a legion of two thousand mes, all of which are completely without mercy or compassion, and you’d be on the right track. But our big-brained colonel here saw fit to piss her off.”

“I’m not going to live in fear of her,” Amalek snapped. “The 119th are a damn fine legion, and yet all of you act like whipped schoolgirls at the sight of Berenice. It’s embarrassing.”

“What good does it do to piss her off?” Sheba asked, having regained her powers of speech. “Now she’s mad, wonderful- we still have to do what she says. You don’t refuse a Mater.”

“Glad we didn’t unpack too much,” Lucifera grumbled. “Tell the birds to get ready to leave. We’re marching. Dismissed!”

Tamar, Ruth and Sheba filed out of the command tent, but Amalek stayed behind. “Herod,” he said. “A word?”

“You stealing my bodyguard?” Lucifera asked wearily. “I know what you’re gonna say. You can say it in front of me.”

“All right.” Amalek frowned at Herod, as though there was some crucial bit of information he was trying to pick up on but hadn’t quite understood. “Did the Mater Bellum have anything to do with your appointment to the 119th?”

“No comment, colonel,” said Herod simply.

“… Do your loyalties lie elsewhere than to myself and Legata Lucifera?”

“Yes ma’am,” said Herod. “My loyalties lie firstly with the oaths I took as an agent of TORCH, then the additional oaths I took as a soldier and legionnaire of BEACON. After that, I am loyal to Marshal Grace Diakon, the supreme commander of BEACON. After her, I am loyal to Strategos Yehoshua, then Princepa First Class Sethur, then Princepa Second Class Zilpah, then Princepa Third Class Serah. Then Legata Lucifera, then you, colonel. After you, I have loyalty to Centurion Haman, Captain Miriam, and whoever my sergeant is, in that order. Finally, I have loyalty to myself, my personal judgment and my own standards of duty and honor.”

Lucifera once again ducked her head under the desk to poorly suppress laughter. “And here I thought cyborgs were against the law,” she snickered. “Herod, you are a gas, you know that?”

“Thank you no, legata. I have some bubbles of gas in me, but mostly I’m liquid in a solid vessel.” Herod kept her voice perfectly even. That was actually a joke, but she doubted either of them would appreciate her sense of humor.

Amalek certainly didn’t. “Are you spying on the 119th for anyone?” he demanded.

“No, colonel. Although if I were a spy, I would not admit it to you, so it seems a pointless question to ask.”

Amalek grunted. “Wise-ass. This must be how it feels to talk to me.”

Herod had enough of this conversation. “Colonel, do you intend to keep asking me about the past in the hopes of slowly gleaning information about where I was and what I was doing before I joined the 119th?”

“Whatever gave you that idea?” Amalek asked sweetly.

“Ma’am, I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that it’s irrelevant. I have only one skill: fighting. I have no secret orders or agenda. I am not reporting to anyone outside of the usual chain of command. There’s no profit for either of us if you keep trying to press me.”

“Is that a threat, private?”

“No, ma’am. I am just here to do my job to the best of my abilities. It will be easier for me to do that if you trust me.” She looked at Lucifera, who was staring at her absently. “Permission to disassemble the tent, legata?”

“Granted.”

<== ==>

BEACON #14

<== ==>

A miniaturized hardlight version of Berenice appeared on Lucifera’s wrist. The Mater Bellum was a large woman, although far more sleek and compact than the bulky Tamar. She wore a jet black Gawain AEGIS decorated with a snarling hound. The scarring on her face was intense: chunks missing from her right cheek, a long and deep wound bisecting the left, the tip of her nose slashed off, several smaller scars along her forehead, chin and the sides of her head. Her cropped hair was jet black and her lips were painted red. His small eyes glimmered with a seething hatred.

“119th,” she rasped, her voice rough and deep. “I got a little job for ya. Kinda unorthodox.”

“Of course, Mater,” said Lucifera obediently. “What do you need done?”

“Hmph. It’s not mine, it comes from higher up. They wanted me to do it, but my 1st Legion isn’t even on Kra-ki-wa… and is busy with their own assignment. I figured you guys would make for a passable substitute.”

“Well, we’d love to help,” said Lucifera nervously. “But we’re awaiting orders too. Any minute, command is gonna ask us to advance-”

“Don’t worry. I already talked to Sethur about it.” Sethur was the Princepa First Class, one of the most powerful people in BEACON and three steps above Lucifera- which meant she grotesquely outranked Berenice. But Berenice was a Mater and Sethur was not and that made all the difference. “There’s a mesa northeast of your position. You’re going to be scouting ahead to make sure it’s safe for the main force to advance.”

Lucifera relaxed. “Oh, is that all?”

“Mostly. There’s a twist: a few VIPs are already at that mesa. You’re going to link up with ‘em.” Whoever the VIPs were, Berenice didn’t seem overly fond of them. Then again, she didn’t seem fond of anything.

“Wait, how can there already be TORCH agents there?” asked Amalek with a frown. “I thought we were the first ones to land on this planet.”

Berenice turned her attentions to him. “Who the hell is speaking?”

“Colonel Amalek Kavod,” he replied with faux-deference. “119th Legion. Tell me, Mater, how did these ‘VIPs’ manage to beat us forward legions?”

“That’s on a need-to-know basis, shrimpy. And you don’t need to know.”

Amalek smiled. “At the moment, I’m a lot taller than you are, Mater.”

Berenice smiled back, showing off rows of sharp teeth. She reminded Herod of a wolf in the midst of a debate whether or not to tear some poor deer’s throat out. “Mouthy type, aintcha?”

“Just curious. For that matter… on what authority do you command us to do your work for you?” Amalek asked. “You’re a legata, meaning you only command a single legion- not us.”

Amalek!” Lucifera hissed. “The Mater isn’t commanding us, she’s asking us politely- and we’re saying yes. End of discussion.”

Matres were above the law and outside the chain of command. Most BEACON girls went their entire lives without interacting with one, so it didn’t matter much… but every so often, one of them would butt in with a “special request”. Even Herod knew that they were never good news.

Berenice stared Amalek in the eye. “I’ll remember your face and your name,” she said softly. “And I’ve got a long memory.”

“Good,” said Amalek, beads of sweat forming on his forehead. “They’re a name and face worth remembering. If you wouldn’t mind, Mater, we’re in the midst of a strategic meeting- and you yourself said that you’re dreadfully busy.”

Berenice let out a low, husky laugh, then dropped the call. The instant it was over, Tamar slapped Amalek in the back of the head. “Ow!” he yelped, clutching the point of impact.

“The hell is wrong with you?!” Tamar snapped. Her face was white. “That wasn’t some Chantico bureaucrat or washed-up old-timer. That was Berenice Makkaba, the Head Bitch in Charge!”

“Why are you all so afraid of her?” Herod asked. Sheba panted lightly while all the color had left Ruth’s face. Only Lucifera looked to have her wits about her. “Isn’t the Mater a hero?”

Tamar barked a laugh. “She’s a psycho is what she is. You don’t understand. We’re all killers, aye, but we have our dignity. War is my job- and I enjoy what I do most days. Sometimes, with the adrenaline racing and the hair on my arms stiff, my mind clear and my body weightless, I even love it. But Berenice is in love with war. She buries herself in the killing and the dying, she breathes deeply of the corpse stench. BEACON puts an enemy in front of her and she shares her passion with it- and anything Berenice touches withers and dies.” Tamar shivers. “There’s a lot of scary people in BEACON. Maybe I’m one of them. But I don’t even think Berenice is people. I don’t know what she is.”

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