BEACON #31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucifera just limped off, Herod and Amalek in tow.

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

BEACON #30

<== ==>  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucifera cocked an eyebrow. “Go on.”

<== ==>  

BEACON #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 #27

<== ==>

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And like lightning, the 119th struck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did so many escape?” Lucifera grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

BEACON #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 #23

<== ==>  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And broke them right off.

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

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

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

Towards the 119th Legion.

<== ==>  

BEACON #22

<== ==> 

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.

<== ==> 

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 #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.”

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