BEACON #30

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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 #29

<== ==> 

Herod left the cave, Anna holding her in silence. The Mater’s grip certainly felt solid, but they were about to move extremely fast. Herod activated her thrusters. Blue flames slammed into the ground and lifted her off, over the cave entrance and into the air.

The dragon riders took notice of her. “Fly away,” Anna murmured. “It’d be a pain if they give chase.” Herod certainly agreed, so she made her way for the open air past the mesa. The g-forces of zipping through the sky at around 400 miles an hour should have knocked Anna off right away, but the Mater didn’t seem to have the slightest trouble hanging on.

As far as Herod knew, the Isis AEGIS didn’t amplify strength. Was Anna simply that athletic of her own accord…?

To her relief, the riders didn’t follow. She flew out until the Mater told her to stop- almost eight miles from the mesa. “Great, now go up,” Anna instructed. “And raise your leg for me if you will.”

Herod kicked upwards, and Anna grabbed the rifle as it swung close. She unhooked it from Herod’s ankle. “Everything seems good,” she said, running her hands along its surface. Like a spider monkey, Anna clambered up Herod’s torso and sat on her shoulders, the Mater’s thighs on either side of her head. “Herod, sweetie, mind sticking your arm out for me? Yeah, just like that.” a tripod rested in Herod’s outstretched palm. “Try not to move.”

“This is stupid,” Herod said. “We’re way out of range.” The best snipers could make shots at about five miles away. Three was a tenuous proposition for all but the absolute best, and that was under ideal circumstances. Sitting on a stranger’s shoulders, using their hand as a tripod, was nowhere near ideal.

“Talking makes you move. Now let’s see. Fail-Not, how fast does this planet spin?”

“Fast,” the Verbena said through their comms. “It has no moon… 1581.04 mph.”

“Mmm. Send me the numbers for wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, and temperature, please.” Anna was silent for several moments. “Herod, can you move exactly 60 feet to the right, 12 feet forward, and five feet up?”

Herod’s display showed the spot. With a sigh, she floated over from one patch of empty sky to another. “Ohhhh yeah. Much better.” Anna was silent again.

For five straight minutes. Herod could do nothing but stand there with her arm out like an idiot, watching her fuel dwindle and the Romeos drop payload after payload on the tunnels. “Mater,” she said through gritted teeth, “Are we going to shoo-“

“Shh. When you talk you move- and you ruin my concentration. Sniping is about patience, dude. I account for a million things, double and triple check my work, and then I move my finger. And I told you to call me Anna.”

Herod would have liked nothing better than to shake Anna off of her. Instead, like a good soldier, she floated in silence as Anna continued to do nothing.

Then the gun fired.

The shot sounded like thunder striking a tree. A depleted uranium bullet the size of a combat knife skimmed through the air. It missed the outer riders, the ones behind them, the flesh-dragons, every one of the hundred things between it and its mark. Its destiny was the leader, with his cropped ears and dark robes and impressive drake.

The bullet didn’t just hit him. It pierced his sternum, and like an old building robbed of its central support, he crumbled. His top half went forward while his bottom half fell backwards.

All of this happened in less than one second.

True to her word, the shot knocked Anna off of Herod’s shoulders. The Mater fell in complete peace, her arms folded over her stomach and her ankles touching. Herod swore and flew down after her, outpacing the force of gravity with her jetpack and grabbing Anna from out of mid-air.

“That went well,” said Anna cheerfully from between Herod’s arms. “Hey Loose Lucy. I got their boss. You wanna…?”

“What?” Lucifera was silent. “Damn it, of course you did. Okay. While they’re in disarray! 119th Legion, strike with everything you have!”

Hundreds upon hundreds of Gawain-clad legionnaires emerged from the tunnels, raining rockets and machine gun fire upon the Neighbors- who, without their master, looked as helpless as children lost at the mall. Herod veered towards the mesa to join the fight. “That was…” She was silent. “That shouldn’t have been possible. How did you do it?”

“Normally. There’s nothing special about me, Herod,” said Anna. “I’m normal. I’m just a Mater.”

Mater. Not too many letters away from “monster”, was it?

<== ==> 

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 #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 #24

<== ==>

Herod opened her mouth to speak, but Amalek grasped the situation a quarter-second quicker. “Everybody into the tunnels!” he screamed. “Now, now, now!”

It was havoc. Hundreds of girls ran as fast as their legs would carry them. A few went airborne. Herod kept pace with Lucifera, who moved well for a woman with a limp. 

Everyone made it in… except for the injured, and the few women good-hearted and foolish enough to carry an injured bird. Zabda tried to push her way through, but Amalek blocked her. “We have to help them!” she screamed.

“It’s too late,” Amalek shouted, holding her by the waist.

It was. Seconds after he spoke, pieces of the Isaiah rained down on the mesa like an orbital bombardment.

Chunks of metal the size of a person, a refrigerator, a stallion, a car, a house, all pounded the surface. Deafening roars sounded with every impact. The pieces were endless, a barrage that would have killed absolutely anything standing on the mesa. The cave mouth shook and rattled, but the stone held.

It ended as quickly as it began. 250,000 tons of what was once a proud warship of BEACON’s 9th Strike Group lay scattered across the mesa like a graveyard. There was no way any of the wounded, or anyone aboard, could have survived.

It was an eternity and a half before anyone broke the stunned silence. “Wh-what just happened?” muttered Amalek, the first to overcome shock enough to speak. “The sky… came to life? But that’s impossible.”

Herod looked at Lucifera, who was trembling in her armor. “Orders, legata?” Herod asked firmly. This was not the time to freeze up. 

“Y-yeah… orders. Uh… okay.” Lucifera shook her head. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a ship go down… Astra’s Heart, there was an entire legion aboard…”

“Yes indeed,” said a voice thoughtfully. “A real tragedy has befallen BEACON.” It was Anna. When had she gotten here?

“Do you know something about this?” Herod asked sharply, rounding on the Mater Sicario.

Anna replied with a shrug. “I know that this mesa isn’t a safe place. Soon those riders will be back- with a force much bigger than the one they attacked with.” She pointed to the cave mouth. “They’ll come from the sky, in numbers enough to block out the sun. Plasma will fly so thickly that none of you will be able to squeeze through. You’ll fight bravely, you’ll kill many of theirs… but the 119th Lightning Legion will fall, one after another.” She was loose and casual, detached, like it didn’t matter in the slightest what happened to them. Maybe it didn’t.

Herod snarled and grabbed the Mater’s collar. “Then help us,” she breathed. “I don’t know what your game is, but you’re BEACON too. Unless we’re so well and truly screwed that not even you can do anything.”

Anna’s sole sleepy eye rounded on Herod and she grinned. “Remove your hand. You’ll need it in the battle to come.”

The threat was delivered so plainly that it simply had to be credible. Herod obliged and Anna chuckled. “Legata. Call a meeting of your legion’s leadership.”

“S-sure.” Lucifera glanced at the girls, still crowded in the cave’s entrance. “There’s a large antechamber below- Sheba, set up camp and tend to personnel. Ruth, account for what the dead and wounded. Amalek, set up a system of alerts and defenses around the entrances to the tunnel complexes. I want as much notice as possible that the enemy is about to hit us. Tamar, send your scouts to learn what they can outside, but tell them not to range too far.” Her voice gained confidence as she spoke. “After that, the four of you will meet with me and we’ll discuss our next move.”

“C-capem, legata,” stuttered Amalek.

<== ==>

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 #17

<== ==>

“Loose Lucy!” Anna exclaimed happily. “Man, it’s been years, hasn’t it? When was the last time we met?”

“Gabros-1, I think. A quarter-century ago.” Lucifera paused. “I’m a bit surprised you remember me.”

“You kidding? I never forget a face- especially not a cute one like yours.” She glanced at Ruth. “You were there too, but I don’t remember your name.”

“Colonel R-ruth Lakham.” All the color had drained out of her face. “I-it’s an honor, Mater.”

“Just Anna, please. I mean, you technically outrank me.” Anna winked… or maybe she blinked. It was hard to tell as she only had the one eye. “And lastly would be… you.”

Herod met Anna’s curious gaze. “Corporal Herod Makkaba,” she said. “I’m the colonel’s personal protection detail. Pleased to meet you, Mater.”

“Interesting.” Anna scratched her nose. “Well, I’m the Mater Sicario, but you can call me Anna too.”

The Mater Sicario… the amount of stories about her were staggering and generally hard to believe. She didn’t seem stuck-up like Berenice, but the friendliness was somehow worse. “It’s an honor,” Herod said automatically. “That’s the Isis AEGIS, isn’t it? That’s how you turn invisible?”

“Colonel!” Ruth hissed. “M-Mater, please forgive her impudence. She’s very new to the legion, she doesn’t know-”

“Ruthy baby, chill your tits.” Anna flapped her hand. Ruth shut up instantly. “I’m as far removed from that sort of thing as I can. And you got it in one, Herod.” Anna did a little pivot, showing off how the catsuit hugged her whip-handle-lean thighs. “AEGIS Mark XVII. Isis. It doesn’t have all the weapons from the Gawain, and barely any armor, and it can’t fly. But it has some fun tricks.”

The Isis AEGIS was worn mostly by BEACON_Unorthodox, who handled guerrilla, counterrevolutionary, sabotage, and other black operations. Herod had never tried it on herself. It didn’t fit her problem-solving style. “Are you the VIP that we’ve been sent to guard, Mater?” Herod asked, keeping her voice polite.

“I said to just call me Anna. And yeah, that’s me! Well, one of three. But the other two are kinda my groupies.” Anna pointed at the ground. “They’re down below right now.”

Lucifera cocked an eyebrow. “In the tunnels? Mater Si-”

Anna.” There was some firmness behind it that time.

“…Anna, what are you doing on this planet? It’s… well.” Lucifera hesitated. “Kra-ki-wa isn’t exactly the shining center of TORCH space. About as far removed from that as you can get..”

“Well, that’s the great thing about being a Mater. I can do pretty much whatever I like. So I thought this would be a nice place to go, and now I’m here.” Anna showed her teeth. “Don’t worry your pretty green head about it too much, Loose Lucy. You know me- I can take care of myself.”

“Then why do you need an entire legion as an escort?” asked Herod.

Anna turned her attentions back to her. Herod finally realized what was so disturbing about the way she moved… it was clipped. Most people would turn their entire upper body to face her, but all Anna did was move her head a few degrees to the right. “Great question. I don’t know. Is that why you guys are here?”

Herod stared. “You’re telling me you didn’t requisition our support, Ma- Anna?”

Without a word, Anna turned invisible once more. Her body shimmered momentarily before vanishing from sight.

“Anna! Shit.” Lucifera pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why did it have to be her? Ruth, tell Amalek, Sheba, and Tamar that the VIP is the Mater Sicario.”

“Y-yes ma’am,” said Ruth. “B-but I want to say… I’m not comfortable with this. We aren’t bodyguards… and it’s the Mater Sicario. You know her reputation.”

“The operative word is Mater. As in, we do what she says.” Lucifera grunted. “Anna’s not how some people think she is, but you’re right to be wary. Just… give her space and do as she asks. If it seems really sketchy, come to me. Tell the other colonels the same. Capem?”

“…Capem, legata.” Ruth staggered away.

Lucifera limped towards the tunnels, favoring her left leg more than she had before. “Ruth seemed intimidated,” said Herod, keeping her voice neutral. “But you weren’t, legata. Do you and the Mater have some history?”

“Nothing so fanciful.” Lucifera smiled wistfully. “She and I go way back. All we old biddies have been around for such a long time that our paths have crossed once or twice. Anna… well, there’s not many people like her in this galaxy. Maybe she’s the only one. Hope so- one of her is enough.”

“Are, err, the stories true about her, ma’am?” Herod dropped her voice to a hush. “Did she really kill 200 Neighbors death commandos in an evening without any weapons?”

“Ask her that one. I do have it on good authority that the one about her standing still for seventy hours straight is true. Let me put it like this: a Mater is the best, the absolute best, at whatever her little niche is. For example, Berenice is the Mater Bellum because she’s bar none the best soldier in TORCH- a lot of people might hate her, but nobody knows how to fight a war like she can.”

“And Anna is the Mater Sicario,” said Herod. “The Mother of Assassins.”

“So she’s the best professional murderer in TORCH. Try to stay on her good side.” Lucifera picked up the pace. “C’mon. I don’t like tunnels so I don’t want to spend any more time in there than I have to.”

<== ==>

BEACON #16

<== ==>

 

The dropships skimmed through the crisp orange-grey sky in silence. The citadel became tiny in the distance as the clouds finally made good on their threats of rain with a light drizzle. The raindrops pattered against the dropship, bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu.

Herod was back in the same dropship she landed in, this time without her armor. She looked around Platoon Miriam and found it full of new faces. Miriam’s command had suffered heavier losses than any other platoon in the 119th, so reservists had been called down from the capital ships orbiting Kra-ki-wa to replace them. Fresh-faced hatchlings, round-cheeked and bright-eyed, lacking the hardness or the frailty of women that were lost in the landing.

“It’s bullshit,” Miriam complained, her cheekbones jutting in frustration. The bags under her eyes were deep- she hadn’t slept much. Mourning her lost subordinates, no doubt. “I have you for one mission and now you’re being transferred away from me.”

Herod bowed her head in apology. “I’m sorry, captain,” she said. Part of the issue with her lack of inflection was that it was impossible for others to tell when she was sincere. “I know that it’s been difficult for you.”

Miriam scoffed. “Please birdy. This doesn’t faze me. I was on the front lines at Ambys- part of CHAMP’s brilliant idea.”

“CHAMP?”

“Amalek. It’s his code-name.” Miriam wrinkled her nose wryly. “Short for ‘Colonel Has Another Master Plan.’ Our last field deployment was on Ambys. You heard about it?” Herod shook her head. “Well, it turned into a real shitshow. We took it at heavy losses… it was a Neighbors colony, not far from here. Romeo went underground and organized a resistance, so we were sent in as additional muscle to pull them out by the root.”

As she spoke, Miriam’s tough exterior softened and her shoulders slumped. She carried a heavy burden… and the weight had just hit her. “It was chaos. They cut our formation in two and nearly had us surrounded. Hundreds died. Colonel Sheba lost her right arm. We made it out… but the legion’s not been the same since.”

“And you blame Colonel Amalek for this, ma’am?” Herod asked.

“It was his fucking plan to split the legion in half. Stupid.” Miriam grunted, once more donning her invisible armor. “You watch out for that one, Herod. You never know what he’s thinking behind those beady little insect eyes of his.”

Herod glanced through the shuttered window and found that the mesa was clearly in view. It was huge: you could build a small town atop the flat top. “I’ll be transferred away from your platoon when we land, ma’am,” she said. She’d be instead riding alongside Lucifera in a smaller, heavily-armored dropship. “I don’t know when we’ll next speak, captain.”

“You’re moving up in the world, huh?” Miriam smirked. “Keep your head down. You’re too damn tall, you’ll catch a bolt to the face if you don’t crouch.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The dropships circled the mesa and set down one by one. Herod disembarked and headed over to the cargo bay, then pulled out her AEGIS. For storage purposes, the armor took the shape of a smooth chrome ball. The moment Herod touched it, it activated. The ball melted into a liquid metal that snaked up her arms, encased her body, and solidified in moments. To keep her hair from getting wet, Herod deployed her helmet too.

Lucifera was a short ways away, talking to Ruth. “-side of the mesa is narrow tunnels,” the lithe colonel said. “Far too narrow for the entire legion to fit through, especially our birds in Beowulfs. I recommend most of the legion remain topside.”

“Capem,” said Lucifera distractedly. “What do the scanners say about the weather? Oh, hey Herod.”

“Hello legata,” said Herod with a curtsy. “Hello colonel.”

Ruth nodded, then projected a meteorological readout from her watch. “Fleet says that rain will continue at a light drizzle,” she said. “I’ll set up tents to keep our feathers dry. Should we have the dropships circle too?”

“No need,” said Lucifera. “Readouts are clear, no Romeos in miles. Refueling will be tough, I bet. Just have the girls on standby, get Tamar to set up a perimeter.”

Ruth nodded. “Yes ma’am. Who will head down into the tunnels?”

“Me, Amalek, Sheba, and half of their cohorts. 500 birds. I dunno who these MVPs are… I don’t want them to think I’m trying to snub ’em.”

“Five hundred sounds like a good number,” said absolutely nobody. “But just your beautiful face is enough to keep me happy.”

Ruth shrieked and fell to the ground. Lucifera started, whipping around to point her wrist-mounted laser at… nothing. Herod deployed her blade and asserted herself in front of the colonel, ready to fight.

But there was no one there. “The hell…?” Herod murmured.

A smile appeared in the air, then a sharp chin, thin lips, an angular nose, long cheeks, a big forehead… buzzed red hair less than an inch long, and a single almond-colored, heavy-lidded, sleepy eye. The left eye was covered by a circular eyepatch.

Like an object rendering in a simulation, the woman appeared bit by bit. She was tall and willowy, all slinky angles. Her armor was a tight catsuit free of any sort of decoration or insignia… it was an AEGIS, the Mark XVII Isis. Her smile was genial and her posture relaxed, and yet there was something about her. Something that made Herod’s skin crawl.

“Spooked ya, didn’t I?” the stranger asked with a wide grin. “I’m sorry, I really am. I couldn’t resist trying to make you jump.” She looked at Ruth. “Hey sweets, sorry about that. You okay? You look like you just got an assful of dirt.”

Ruth stood up in a hurry, dusting herself off. She scowled at the sinuous woman who had just materialized in front of them. “I-I’m fine,” she said, her cheeks pink.

Lucifera sighed, a rueful smile creeping onto the sides of her mouth. “Hello Anna.”

Anna? Anna Rahok? The name alone sent chills down Herod’s spine. There wasn’t a woman in all of TORCH who didn’t know the name. The Mater Sicario. The Mother of Assassins.

<== ==>