BEACON #22

<== ==> (Coming 8/19/2019)

Herod moved to the right, corkscrewing as she did so to face the dragon above. It moved as soon as she did, talons out, ready to rip her apart.

No way to hurt it with her hands full. No time to dodge. Only one thing to do.

Herod dropped the wounded woman and raised her rocket launcher, firing a trio of missiles at the diving drake. She was too far away for a lethal hit, but she was at least able to drive it off.

The dragon below caught the wounded legionnaire in its gaping, rubbery mouth. The poor girl let out a choked cry and then was silenced as the monster crunched through her armor to brutally rend the flesh underneath.

Nothing left to do. Herod flew past, her attention still on the ground. Some of the dropships were still intact: a defensive line of Beowulfs had been erected around them. Tamar, unmistakably larger than any of the others, rained bloody death on any dragon stupid enough to get close.

Tamar! She might be able to help. She would have access to a boosted officer’s comm channel. “Colonel,” Herod said with as much urgency as she could muster. “I’ve lost track of the legata.”

“Bit busy here!” came Tamar’s frantic reply as she pumped round after round into the air. Most of them missed- but the pressure was crucial. The dragons swarmed around the dropships, eager to destroy them. Only Tamar’s savagery kept them at bay.

“A quick message to her, please colonel!” Herod pled.

“Ugh, okay!” Tamar was silent for a moment. “Above you! Just below the clouds! I’ll paint her for ya!”

“Thank you,” Herod replied, flying upwards as fast as she could. Tamar’s intel was good: there was Lucifera… drifting blankly through the air as though she were asleep.

A dragon was heading straight for her. As it reared its head back to tear her apart, Herod slammed into it at speed. Even a 190-pound woman wearing 40 pounds of armor became a lethal projectile at 800 mph.

Again, though, Herod didn’t kill the damn thing. She knocked it aside, but by the time she got her rocket launcher up to blow the dragon apart, it was retreating. The rider thought better of a two-on-two fight. 

“Good timing,” Lucifera observed. “You’re better at guarding my body than I thought you’d be.”

“Thank you? Ma’am, this isn’t sustainable.” Herod gestured below.

The legata nodded calmly. “I’ve seen that, yeah. Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan. 119th!,” she cried, switching to the universal channel to speak to the entire legion. “I’m above the fighting and I can see that we’re screwed. All legionnaires, converge on the marked point and I’ll call for air support.”

The 119th disengaged and fell back to around the dropships. As the dragons surged in, Lucifera connected to BEACON’s fleet orbiting above. “This is Legata Lucifera Humol, 119th legion,” she yelled. “Requesting fleet support. I repeat, we are under attack and require fleet support!”

A cool woman’s voice answered. “Request granted, legata. Be advised that heavy rainfall has reduced the efficacy of orbital disruption attacks.”

“Fine, sure, just kill the bastards!”

There was a surreal moment of quiet, and then the sky caught on fire. Pillars of light and flame flew past Herod and Lucifera, then curved and changed direction in mid-air. The air was filled with these beams, which avoided BEACON birds like they had the plague but instead went straight for the dragon riders.

Upon contact, the dragons and the Neighbors on their back simply ceased to be. They vanished, leaving behind nothing but a cloud of pinkish vapor.

Herod watched in horrified awe. Death was omnipresent, thousands of riders turned to nothingness instantly. To her shock though, there were many survivors. The beams only killed about half of the dragon riders- the others broke into a hasty retreat. 

“Superheated replicating plasma filament with nanotargeted guidance,” Lucifera said softly as she watched the carnage from high above. “When only the Wrath of God will do.”

“A choosy god,” said Herod, pointing at the survivors.

“That’s this damn rain’s fault. Where did it come from? Scanners said drizzles, not this.”

At least a hundred prone BEACON birds lay dead or wounded across the mesa, along with many more dragons. Those still breathing were safe… for now.

<== ==> (Coming 8/19/2019)

BEACON #21

<== ==>

 

The rain was now a torrential downpour, so thick and heavy that things ten feet away were barely visible. Plumes of black smoke choked the sky- after a moment, Herod realized they were fireballs around the destroyed hovercraft. The air was thick with battle, Gawain-clad legionnaires like airborne shadows as they fought… they fought…

Dragons. No- Neighbors, riding aboard fleshy winged serpents the size of buses. There had to be thousands of riders, and the air was positively thick with rocketfire and bolts of sickly blue plasma. Bodies fell from the sky and slammed into the mesa.

A nightmare. Without hesitation, Herod put on her helmet and turned on her thermal sensors, highlighting the battle. She went to join the fray- but a hand grabbed her shoulder. It was Sheba. “Your job is to protect the legata,” she yelled. “Stay by her side, no matter what happens!”

To their credit, the expeditionary force jumped into action. More than half of them were airborne before Sheba finished her sentence. Herod doubled back and found Lucifera, who was watching the scene with a flat look on her face. “Your orders, legata?” Herod asked, keeping her voice steady.

“I need to direct my girls,” Lucifera replied. “With me, Herod.” Her visor covered her face and she took off, her protection detail half a second behind.

It wasn’t hard to stay close to Lucifera. Herod flew beneath her and used her onboard lock-on to keep track of the legata’s position relative to herself. The rain made it hard to draw a bead on her enemies with her free-mounted weaponry, but her left wrist rocket was guided. She took a shot at a Neighbor rider aboard one of the flesh-dragons.

There was an explosion and the dragon let out a bloodcurdling shriek- but it didn’t fall. Instead, it was blown backwards and left with a garbage can lid-sized hole in its torso… a hole that rapidly began to close. Hyper-accelerated cellular regeneration. Very bad.

The Neighbor shot a bolt at Herod, who flew underneath it. She rushed towards the dragon, dodged a swipe from its flabby unfurled claws, and fired another rocket directly into its underside.

The good news was, this blew the dragon and rider apart. The bad news was the explosion knocked Herod herself backwards, and by the time she righted herself she lost track of Lucifera. Fuck. 

Herod looked around, but even with enhanced 360 degree vision she couldn’t find the legata. She scanned the ground frantically, looking for the broken body of the legata. 

What if the worst had happened? Stupid, stupid, stupid! Getting distracted like that when her sole responsibility was Lucifera’s safety.

Mentally she told her onboard computer to tag everything she looked at as either “Lucifera” or “Not Lucifera” based off the signature from the legata’s own armor. It didn’t seem like Lucifera was anywhere in the battlespace. Legionnaires met the dragons without hesitation, but the monsters had the advantage: they were vastly larger and nearly impossible to hurt. The only advantage the birds had was maneuverability, and that would only take one so far under torrential rain.

Not even something as advanced as the Gawain could fully overcome this rain. Drops the size of Herod’s fist pounded away, a rainfall strong enough to wipe away whole cities. Wind speeds were beginning to rise too: if they reached gale force then flight would become ten times harder.

Herod flew low, only to nearly collide with another legionnaire. If Herod had been a half-second slower with her retro thrusters, they would both be dead. The other legionnaire had taken a shot to her jetpack and was flying erratically. “Get it off me!” she screamed. “It’s melting, it’s melting, get it off!”

Herod hesitated. She had to find Lucifera, not help this girl- what if the time spent here cost the legata her life? No time to further deliberate. She flew in close and slid her hand into the emergency release slot. The girl’s jetpack detached to reveal a blackened mass of charred, blasted skin that sizzled as rain drummed against it.

Herod caught the wounded girl, who screamed in incoherent agony. “Medic!” Herod bellowed into the local comm as she went to land-

And was waylaid by two more dragons. One directly below her, its gullet swelling, and one up and to the right preparing to dive bomb. No way to use her rocket launcher or sword with her arms full. Herod peppered the one beneath her with minigun fire from her shoulder.

That didn’t stop it. The dragon spat a glob of fire at her, a shocking blue and oily flame. Nowhere to dodge except to the right- where the other dragon was waiting.

Clever.

<== ==>

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 #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.

<== ==>

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.”

<== ==>

BEACON #13

<== ==>

 

“The last thing I’d like to mention is that I’ve noticed some friction between the hatchlings and the older birds,” said Ruth. “BEACON_Command saw fit to fill almost every slot opened on Ambys with a textbook-fresh Academy grunt, and their attitudes have led to some complaints.”

All the eyes in the room went to Herod, who shrugged. “What kind of complaints?” Lucifera asked slowly.

“Not their battle prowess, they all fight well- I had the opportunity to discuss training with some of the women at the Proving Ground as of late, and the new curriculum has been turning in splendid results.” Ruth sniffed. “The issue is more in the vein of disrespect, haughtiness, ears closed and mouths open. A few were heard making remarks about the Mater Protectoris that upset some of the older birds- myself included, in the interest of full disclosure.”

Grace, the Mater Protectoris and the Marshal of BEACON. Well-known to be all-but-deified by the rank-and-file for her courage and integrity- or at least, that was how it used to be. There were three universal laws of legion life: make sure nobody leaves any equipment behind, never completely trust somebody of a higher rank than you, and never speak ill of the Mater Protectoris.

Tamar shook her head. “Wasn’t so long ago that disrespecting the Mater would get you a month of latrine duty. The hell are they teaching them at the Proving Ground these days?”

“It’s not the school’s fault, it’s the SPRING-owned newsphere treating her like the devil’s shitty kid sister,” said Sheba, absently clutching her stump. “I think we ought to give the hatchlings a history lesson or two. Not right for any bird to talk shit about the Mater.”

“It strikes me as terrifically low on our list of priorities,” said Amalek.

“Well, that’s why we keep you far away from the rank-and-file,” Sheba replied. “You might know everything about guns and vehicles and formations, but you wouldn’t know a woman from a wanigan.”

“A what?” Amalek asked.

“I have no idea. Point being, the 119th is a unit. People can think and say and wear what they want- in peace. In war, we’re all on one team, and we can’t tolerate resentment or insubordination.”

“I agree,” said Lucifera. Now it was Amalek’s turn to redden in embarrassment. “Sheba, Ruth, you two figure out something to do about it. Amalek, what do you got for us?”

Recovering, Amalek projected a large map with his watch. “The points on this map represent the eleven BEACON vanguard legions that have landed on Kra-ki-wa. This one’s us.” One of the dots turned red. “There are no major cities that we can see on this planet. Most of the settlements appear to be armored citadels like the ones we’ve taken, or entirely underground as our friends in the 106th Legion discovered.”

“That’s not right,” said Tamar with a frown. “Romeo builds these citadels only in wartime- and it surrounds them with outlying villages. This is a planet with no war and no villages. Who the hell are they fighting?”

“Could it be us?” asked Ruth, stroking her narrow chin. “Mayhaps the leaders of the great houses were security-minded or paranoid and planned for our invasion long before we did?”

“We’ve never seen that sort of mass organization from Romeo before,” replied Amalek. “And if that were the case, they did a terrible job of it. As Tamar pointed out, their defenses are laughable. More of a rabble than a true warband.”

“Maybe some nasty local wildlife?” Tamar asked.

“It’s not impossible.” Amalek didn’t sound convinced. “In any case, this chain of citadels was the second-largest area of concentration for the enemy that our sensors have detected. The biggest is…” He traced upwards and pointed at a gigantic cone on the 2.5D map. “…this mountain.”

“I’m guessing we’ll be marching on it soon enough,” said Lucifera. “Wonder why they didn’t just land us there.”

Amalek smirked. “I know why. We’d have to land at the foot of it and fight our way up, it’s too well-defended to land directly over. This would put our backs to the citadels, which would let the enemy encircle us. This way, we can turn the citadels into a staging ground and take our time to pry Romeo out of his mountain fort.”

“Well, we’ve got plenty of muscle,” said Tamar, rolling her shoulders. “Should be a good fight. Toughen these hatchlings up some. How long a march is it?”

“On foot, about ten days- five if we really push it. With vehicles, a day.” Amalek nodded at Ruth. “My main concern is terrain. Kra-ki-wa is unusually diverse… it’s far from desert all the way to the mountain.”

“I can make tweaks and changes accordingly,” said Ruth softly.

“Of course. But it’s not just logistics, it’s fighting prowess. Heat aside, a desert’s an easy place to fight. Good visibility outside a sandstorm, simple geography, clear night skies for low-tech navigation.” Amalek gestured to the biomes between them and the desert. “But these are swamps, tundras, mountains, and those can be different stories.”

“We’ll kick those asses when we come to them,” said Lucifera. “But thanks for bringing it to our attention. Tamar, you got anything-”

Lucifera’s watch buzzed and rang, interrupting her. “LEGATUS LUCIFERA HUMOL. YOU ARE RECEIVING A CALL FROM LEGATUS BERENICE SOREK, THE MATER BELLUM. DO YOU ACCEPT?

A pall overtook the room. Nobody spoke, nobody so much as breathed. Herod could hear the wind stirring the sand at their feet. It was like the watch had told them they were about to be hit with a nuclear bomb and there was no potential for escape. “P-patch her through,” Lucifera spat out.

<== ==>

BEACON #12

<== ==>

Hey, can you two just fuck already?” asked Lucifera, taking a seat at her desk. “Cuz I hope you didn’t gather us to watch you two flirt, Amalek.”

Sheba’s cheeks turned scarlet, but Amalek rolled past it. “I think it’d be prudent to pool our knowledge now,” he said. “New orders could come down at any time, so we must be prepared.”

“Fine.” Lucifera looked around. “Ehhh… any volunteers to start?”

“I’ll go,” said Tamar, beating her chest a few times. “Landing was rough, but in expected parameters. We quickly regrouped, especially once the second and third waves were in, and began search-and-destroy operations. Enemy armament was limited and they didn’t have any shamans so it was a walk in the park.”

“No surprises at all?”

“Biggest surprise was the lack of surprises. You know how much Romeo loves to fuck us in the ass, but these guys seemed distracted, disoriented.”

“I pity the stupid bastard who tries to fuck your ass, Tamar,” said Sheba playfully. “You’d crush their dick flat between those cheeks.”

Now it was Ruth’s turn to grow red- why her? Tamar just smiled. “Oh, yeah, one other thing. When Zabda, Herod and I were inside the tower, we found something kinda strange. Apparently, Romeo had been fighting someone else before us.”

“How is that strange?” Amalek asked. “These creatures fight and kill one another all the time, for countless reasons. Clashes over territory, succession crises, garnering of prestige, or just good old-fashioned dislike. They probably fight each other more than humans do.”

Tamar nodded. “You’re the expert… but it felt different. Like their backs were really against the wall. I dunno, it shouldn’t matter much- only that we should keep on our toes.” That was all the attention Zabda’s discovery would get, it seemed. “Anything for us, Sheeb? The birds seem in good spirits.”

“Sheba’s already a nickname, I don’t need it shortened- and the birds are perky and raring to go, maybe a little too much. We’ve had a few fistfights and pranks. May want to put together a barbeque or a field day or something to help them turn that energy to something productive.”

“They gotta blow off steam,” agreed Lucifera. “The fighting isn’t the hard part, it’s the waiting between battles. Keep the birds loose and lubed up so we can stick ‘em up Romeo’s ass whenever we please.”

“When I called this meeting, I didn’t expect it to be so anal-focused,” said Amalek. “Speaking of anal, I’d like to hear Ruth’s report.” Tamar scowled at him, but he put up his hands. “Anal as in her attention to detail. That’s what I meant. Detail-oriented.”

“All the same, it’s not appreciated,” said Ruth patiently. “You all sound Academy-fresh, thinking of nothing more than sticking things in your various orifices. Can the officer corps show even a modicum of professionalism?”

“Sorry, mom,” said everyone in the room but Herod and Lucifera.

With a clearing of her throat, Ruth pressed a few buttons on her watch and brought up a hard light display. Every TORCH agent wore a watch, the devices were so ubiquitous that the AEGIS was built to accommodate it. “Numerous AEGIS’s were damaged in the landing. The engineering corps is on double time to get them back in fighting shape, but I ordered my cohort to do whatever they could for their own armor. I encourage you all to do the same.” As she spoke, Ruth gained enthusiasm. Herod had never seen anyone seem so interested in the logistical minutiae of a BEACON legion before. “Food supplies are ample, and if need be we can hopefully forage once we get out of the desert. We still have all our dropships, we’ll likely be flying to our next objective.”

“I wish they’d give us bikes again,” said Tamar. “Man, I love those things.”

“Me too,” said Ruth with a shy smile. “My main concern is the heat. The Gawain’s battery is prone to overheating, especially when the thrusters are overused. I recommend a coolant replacement for any Gawain that’s been in use for more than a year, just to be safe. We happen to already have extra.”

“Happen to?” Lucifera asked.

“I thought ahead and ordered more from the dispensary,” Ruth said coyly. Herod knew Ruth’s type: too passive to take the credit they deserved, but nonetheless the glue that held legions together. 

Everyone seemed to have their place… except Lucifera. The legata felt almost extraneous with four gifted, diverse colonels.

<== ==>

BEACON #11

<== ==>

To indicate her higher rank, Herod received a blue stripe that went on the shoulder of both her uniform and her armor. There was also a pay-raise that would be of absolutely no use to her.

In exchange, she woke up half an hour before everyone else to run a security check. It was all very routine and straightforward, she just walked the perimeter to check the hard light trip wires. Once finished, she showered in the mobile bathroom and met Legata Lucifera for breakfast.

It was a grey, gloomy day around the benches and chafing dishes that made up the mess hall. Girls generally ate with their platoons, but Herod was with the bleary-eyed and listless Lucifera and the legion’s secretary, Sergeant Mikayla. The legata stirred her rehydrated chicken tikka without energy.

“We gotten the new orders yet?” Lucifera asked, perking up after her second cup of coffee.

“Not yet, ma’am,” said Mikayla, a short and chunky girl with hair the color of red grapes. “Hold the position and await further instruction. Colonel Amalek has requested a meeting with you and the other colonels. What should I tell him?”

“Yeah, fine. Not much else better to do.” Lucifera yawned. “Herod, how’d you sleep?”

“Normally, ma’am,” said Herod, focusing on her food.

“Mmm. You some kind of cyborg or what?”

Herod looked up. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

“You don’t have any emotions, far as I can tell. You just kinda go around with that flat look on your face and do as you’re told. Don’t you ever get tired of being so serious all the time?”

Herod stared at Lucifera for a moment, then smiled as wide as she could, contorting her face into a ghoulish parody of joy. “Is this preferable, ma’am?”

The legata snickered. “Point taken. It’s probably a good thing you’re so uptight. Just try to enjoy yourself when you can, y’know? We had a good day yesterday, but you always gotta be ready for terrible ones.”

“Twenty-one people are dead, ma’am,” Herod replied. Nine outside the tower, twelve in it.

“So they are. Trust me, that’s a good day. Projected casualties had five times that.” Lucifera stretched her arms. “Do I come off as callous? Huh, maybe I am. I’ve been doing this for so long that, yeah, twenty-one of my birds dying doesn’t really bring me pause. I don’t even feel bad. Is that wrong, do you think?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. It’s not my place to decide such a thing. Perhaps the colonels can provide you with moral clarity. All I can provide is protection.”

After breakfast, they left to meet with the four colonels. Lucifera’s limp didn’t have a huge impact on her speed, so it was a brisk walk through the small tent city that had cropped up overnight.

The command tent was in the same place as before, with everyone gathered inside around Lucifera’s desk. Herod already knew Amalek, and they exchanged a nod. Tamar tried to give her a bear hug, which she skillfully ducked. There was Sheba, who Herod had briefly seen yesterday but not spoken to, and one complete stranger.

“So this is the one who’s got the whole legion abuzz, Tamar?” Sheba asked. Herod hadn’t looked carefully at her last time. She was buxom and smoky with long chartreuse hair and small, playful eyes. She wore more make-up than anyone else in the room. Her right arm was indeed missing, the sleeve of her fatigues sewn shut. “She’s got a look to her. Heya hatchling! Nice to meetcha.” She grinned and offered her hand. “You’re all everyone’s talking about in the 119th. Much more interesting than some stinky Romeos.”

“Corporal Herod Makkaba, reporting for duty,” said Herod, accepting the handshake firmly. “I hope to live up to the expectations placed upon me, ma’am.”

“Isn’t she the best?” Tamar beamed. “I’m such a fan. If the typical hatchling was half the woman she is, we’d be the biggest ass-kickers in the galaxy.”

“The best way to ruin a promising young legionnaire is to overburden her,” said the unknown woman calmly. “Herod strikes me as the type who does her best work with little oversight.”

This colonel was of a height with Herod, elegant like a dancer. Her high cheekbones gave her a noble look, as did her thick persimmon hair. She could have been a successful model with little effort and therefore looked grotesquely out of place in a Vishnu AEGIS. “It’s nice to meet you, corporal- I’m Colonel Ruth Lakham. I oversee discipline and battle readiness in the 119th, as well as logistical concerns.”

Herod gave her a respectful curtsy. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.”

“I guess I should also introduce myself,” said Sheba. “Elisheba Pered- just Sheba’s fine. I’m in charge of morale, so if you’re feeling sad or someone breaks up with you, come find me and I’ll kiss your emotional wounds better.” Sheba had this… ease to her. Something about the way she moved and smiled made everything feel a little better. None of the other colonels had that sort of charisma- the closest was Lucifera.

“Realah! Tamar Realah!” The monstrous colonel towered over everyone else in the room. “Colonel of the vanguard. First into the fight, last one out, and look cute doing it.”

“You know who I am,” said Amalek. “First Colonel Amalek Kavod. I oversee coordination between the cohorts as well as grand strategy. Should something happen to the legata, I take her place.”

“God help us,” Sheba muttered darkly.

“You have me,” Amalek replied. “No need for God.”

<== ==>