<== ==>


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.”


“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.

<== ==>


<==  ==>

“That’s suicide,” the Squad 2 sergeant called. “Even if you can land on that roof, they’ll have you surrounded.”

“Then you’ll lose the most junior bird in the platoon. I’m already the closest, captain.”
“…Fine!” Miriam cried. “Squad 1, veer to the side! Squad 2, cover the private! Squads 3 and 4, launch and be sure to spread out! Go go go!”

Herod traveled out of the safe vector and into dangerous territory. For several moments she was effectively defenseless to incoming fire- but her gamble had paid off. Squad 1’s maneuver had opened a hole in Neighbor fire big enough for her to squeeze through.

Now directly over the rooftop, Herod increased speed with her thrusters. The mounted guns turned to face her but it was too late, she was too close to hit.

Now she had to land without using her retrorockets to slow herself- impossible. She’d splatter against the rooftop… unless…

Herod extended her right arm and deployed the wrist-mounted rocket launcher. A projectile no larger than a deck of cards spat forth and collided with the center of the roof, kicking up a cloud of dust and smoke that obscured her view of the landing. She flew into the cloud-

And broke free inside the tower. The rocket had made a hole, just as she wanted. Deploying her retrorockets and wings, Herod slowed herself down to a smooth, controlled descent.

The inside of the tower was packed with Neighbor activity too, but Herod didn’t care about that. She maneuvered towards the staircase that led to the roof, gracefully landing on her feet and rushing through the access shunt.

The onboard computer reacted faster than she did, painting several targets standing close to the roof access. Herod deployed her shoulder-mounted minigun and trained it on the sinuous, twisting figures. The rounds shredded two, three, four of them and scattered the others.

There were far too many for Herod to kill on her own, but she could create enough chaos to let the rest of her platoon land. Already she had torn a wide hole in their defenses, one that her sisters in the air could rush through.

She ducked as a blue round streaked over her head, and returned fire with a rocket that blew the shooter apart. Herod kept low and kept moving, firing rockets and rounds with reckless abandon. She didn’t care about kills, she cared about drawing as much attention as possible- and she was drawing plenty. Dozens or hundreds of defenders had stepped away from their guns to focus on the chaotic whirlwind girl.

When she sensed she was being boxed in, Herod flew over their heads, firing more and more beneath her. Enemy fire perforated the wings and damaged the jetpack, but Herod was unharmed and landed in a roll.

She quickly sprang to her feet, just in time for one of the Neighbors to leap at her with spear drawn. It was slinky by human standards, tall and long-limbed and covered in glistening scales. Its flesh spear swelled with the same explosive blue matter- if it jabbed her with it, she’d melt.

Herod went low, ducking the thrust. She deployed her pneumatic blade, dove in, and slashed in a horizontal arc. The metallic glass sheared through the tough hide, stringy meat, and hard bone of the Neighbor’s waist, slicing it in two in one fluid motion.

Moments later, the cavalry arrived. Squads 3 and 4, having taken advantage of her big stupid distraction, began to descend and add their gunfire to her own. Captain Miriam blasted three Neighbors to mist with a disruptor grenade. One bird- Sergeant Yocheved- took a silver bolt to the head. Not even her AEGIS could save her skull from being reduced to pulp.

Already in disarray and attacked from all sides, the Neighbors broke formation and began to retreat into the same shunt she had come through. As was their protocol, BEACON allowed for those fleeing to do so. Those who stayed to fight died where they stood.

They took a moment to regroup, destroy the artillery, and let the rest of the platoon catch up. “We gotta get to the ground,” one of the sergeants roared as she launched a rocket at a mounted gun. “Fight’s still heavy down there.”

“We’re already here, let’s take out the orbital cannon,” Captain Miriam replied. “Otherwise it’ll be pounding the next waves just like it pounded us.”

“Not the kinda pounding I want,” said Sergeant Asiya. “We got the birds for it? They got Yocheved…”

Herod, Miriam, and a dozen others were what remained of the platoon. “We’re plenty,” Miriam said sharply. “Cannon is on a balcony a few floors down, nobody else’s gonna get an opportunity like this. No time to hesitate, we gotta move, move!”

As though they had rehearsed, the platoon took off together to attack the balcony. The Neighbors crewing the orbitcal cannon would have heard the fighting above and would be ready for them, so she flew ahead of the others. She had done a good job of drawing their fire once, why not twice?

They were indeed waiting for her: Herod was met with a barrage of gunfire the second she burst into view. She detached her already-damaged thrust pack and grabbed onto the ledge, holding tight with her augmented strength. While Herod drew attention to the left side, the rest of the platoon poured in from the right, raining fire and supersonic metal spikes upon them.

When she saw her moment, Herod pulled herself up. A Neighbor thrust at her with its spear, but she dodged, impaled it through the chest, then yanked it over the side.

Pulling herself up, Herod drew her pneumatic blade and started hacking away. She slashed and slashed and slashed at their backs, felling them one after another.

Only when her shoulder was throbbing and her forearm felt ready to shatter did Herod realize there were no enemies left for her to fight. She sat down, panting, acutely aware that she was absolutely soaked in the slippery, greasy translucent blood of the Neighbors.

Miriam approached her. “No time to rest,” she said breathlessly, offering Herod a steel hand. “We’ve planted the charges, now it’s time to get gone before more Romeos show up.”

Herod accepted the help up. “My flight module’s gone,” she said. “And I can’t feel my right arm.”

“I’ll carry you.” Miriam’s face was hidden behind the mask, but she seemed happy. Probably just the exhilaration of hard fighting. The rush of adrenaline could be enormously addictive. “You fight like a hellcat for a hatchling fresh from the Proving Ground.”

The private saw no need to correct the captain as she lifted Herod onto her back and flew from the balcony. The heat of the explosive destroying the orbital cannon was intense enough that the Gawain alerted Herod of potential fire risk.

<==  ==>


<==   ==>

Captain Miriam frowned at Herod- but then she was thrown to the side, and half the platoon with her, as the ship veered to the left. “Shit!” the pilot cried through the intercom. “They’ve got anti-orbital artillery!”

“Since when?!” Miriam disentangled herself from the wall. “First wave didn’t mention that! Ugh- helmets on and prepare to drop!”

Herod complied, pressing a button on the back of her neck to deploy her helmet. It was vaguely reminiscent of a knight’s helm but sleek and modern, with fins behind the temples. Like the rest of the AEGIS, the helmet was the midnight blue with shocking yellow trim of the 119th “Lightning” Legion. With it deployed, her entire body was covered.

The helmet augmented Herod’s sight with 360 degree vision, as well as options to access infrared and UV and several other frequencies, automatic ballistics computation for incoming projectiles, vitals readings and automatic diagnostics, battlefield analysis, targeting guidance, multilateral echolocation, superfine olfactory augmentation, spectrographic chemical composition, automatic imaging based off networked data from other AEGIS’s in the vicinity, and a direct line to the comm systems of every other AEGIS in a certain distance. The sensors in the helmet interfaced with her brain, allowing her to activate any of the hundred-plus gadgets in the suit with a thought.

Herod disliked wearing it: it was a huge amount of information to process and the addition of dozens of new senses was always jarring. It also made her face sweaty. She did however like the satisfying sound of the helmet hydraulically locking into place, its computers interfacing with the ones in the body armor.

The ship rocked again, but this time they were ready. Captain Miriam, now clad in her own helmet and tightly holding onto one of the handles hanging from the roof, spoke through the platoon’s shared communication channel. “Squads 1 and 2 will drop first, going left and right respectively. I’ve already painted the landing ground for you, get as close as you can but remember not to bunch together. Squads 3 and 4, wait for my signal- I’ll drop with 4. Remember not to deploy your retrorockets until you’re 100 meters away, I don’t wanna see any of you floating in the clouds while Romeo takes his time shooting you out of the sky. Capem?”


Herod was Squad 2, although she didn’t know the name of anyone else in it. She had arrived just yesterday and hadn’t the opportunity to introduce herself.

The pod doors opened, revealing a sickly yellow sky with long, wispy clouds that reminded her of worms. As the most junior, Herod stood at the back, her right hand on the left shoulder of the pear-shaped private in front of her. The sergeant jumped, then the corporal, then the senior private, then the pear-shaped woman.

Then Herod.

Vibrant sky all around her except below. Down there was nothing but blasted desert and enemies in need of killing. A lumpy, malformed tower stood at the center of the battleground. BEACON legionnaires buzzed the skies or fought on at the tower’s base against tall, serpentine devils.

Herod tucked her head down until it was facing the rapidly-approaching ground, then locked her heels and pressed her arms to her side. No need to deploy her wings until she got lower. “I’ve got the orbital cannon,” cried someone in her earpiece. “It’s mounted on the tower’s side. It’s gonna fire!”

It did indeed, a screaming blue comet burst from the crooked gun and flew past them. There was no time to look back and see what it hit.

There was something eye-catching on the tower’s roof… long, fleshy spears attached to the floor. “Mounted guns,” Herod said, quickly syncing her view with the others so they would see it too. “Aimed at us.”

“Evasive action!” Herod had noticed a moment too late, because the guns were already surging death towards them. A silvery-blue round the size of a basketball came straight at her.

Herod twisted aside, but a second blast collided with the pear-shaped woman. Her Gawain AEGIS absorbed much of the impact, but her right side was still engulfed in smoke and flames. With a curse, the pear-shaped woman deployed her wings and veered to the side for an emergency landing.

Calculations complete,” the ballistics computer said in a discordantly calm woman’s voice. “Please follow these vectors to minimize risk of exposure to mounted gunfire.” Her vision lit up with crimson pathways. Herod selected one, swerving down and to the right, away from the plasma bolts.

“It’s a trap!” a woman from Squad 1 yelled. “We’ve got two down- shit! Three down!”
Herod thought quickly. Squad 1 was down to two girls. “Pull off and let us handle it,” she said. “I’m going to land on the rooftop.”

“Belay that!” the captain yelled. “We’re landing on the ground, not the tower! Stay on course!”

“Ma’am, the Neighbors are mounting a stiff resistance. We’ll be shredded if we continue.”

“What are you going to do about it, private?” Miriam’s voice was sarcastic, but Herod paid her no mind.

“I spot a hole in their coverage ma’am,” said Herod. “Big enough for one at most. Squad 1 is drawing their fire, I can get in through the opening.”

There was indeed a hole. The mounted guns on the rooftop provided excellent cover along the perimeter, but not the air directly over the roof. Someone very stupid could maybe get past the guns and land right in the middle of the enemy encampment.

Fortunately, Herod was very stupid.

<==   ==>





The dropship roiled and shook like it was moments away from tearing apart. Herod was told that this was normal.

She sat calmly in the dark, narrow pod, her shoulders pressed against the girls sitting next to her. There was precious little talking, probably because nobody could hear a thing over the incessant blare of a shrill siren. The noise made Herod angry enough to kill someone- which she supposed was the point..

Every so often, a cool woman’s voice would interrupt the roils with a time update. “Eight minutes to orbital entry. Seven minutes to orbital entry. Six minutes to orbital entry.” Herod could also have done without that.

About one minute after “one minute to orbital entry,” the rattling stopped and was replaced with a low whistling noise.

Captain Miriam, whose hair was the color of sapphires and had lips and cheekbones much too fine for the front lines, stood up. She was clad in the same armor that Herod wore, the Mark XIV Gawain Armored Exoskeleton Guided & Integrated Systems (AEGIS). The captain opted for the telescoping rifle and elbow-mounted grenade launcher over the improved pneumatic blade that Herod used. “Listen up,” she said, her voice a little too loud. “This isn’t a debutante ball, so get ready for a deep and heavy landing. I don’t want anyone pissing her panties out there, I wanna see stiff lips and firm backs. Capem?”

Capem!” There were over twenty women in the craft, so Herod figured she could get away with just mouthing the words.

“Good. We’re second wave, first wave has already landed and gotten their stupid asses pinned by enemy fire. Our job is to take the pressure off ‘em. Carve our way into the landing ground, split Romeo’s attention, and leave it to the third wave to break ’em. Yes, Sergeant Asiya?”

A lanky and bug-eyed woman near the front of the dropship had her hand up. “What’s the biome of this planet?” she asked.

“Biome? It ain’t a pond behind grandma’s house! Kra-ki-wa’s an Earth-sized planet with rivers and deserts and mountains and swamps and oceans and salt flats. It’s got everything Mama Earth has, except instead of people, it’s got awful lizard folk.” Miriam grunted. “As for our landing, it’s in the red desert zone. Chain of fortresses built atop of a major rock formation. A defensive tower and a small citadel around it. The job for today’s to take it!”

“The fleet bombed the hell out of this place,” complained the bug-eyed sergeant. “But it sounds like all they did was muss the Neighbors’ hair and give them a warm kiss.”

“Yeah, fucked up ain’t it?” Miriam grinned darkly. “Bombardment concentrated their forces into this citadel, where their shields protected them. We can’t proceed until we’ve cleaned the place out, unless we want Romeo nibbling at our asses for the rest of our stay. Sergeant Yocheved, something to add?”

“Real quick, captain,” said another woman, this one squat and big-hipped. “How much resistance should we expect? I got a sweetie at home.”

“Tell your sweetie to keep the bed warm for you, because I don’t expect much. Eyes forward, stick to the book, and things oughta be fine.” The captain raised her eyes. “I see a few new faces here. Hopefully they’re not sending Proving Ground-fresh hatchlings into heavy combat and you all have some field experience. Raise your hand if you don’t.”

Slowly, Herod raised her hand. Nobody else did. “What’s the story, morning glory?” Miriam asked her.

Herod made eye contact. “This legionnaire has never been in a dropship outside of a sim before, ma’am,” she said.

“What’s your name again?”

“Private Herod Makkaba, ma’am.”

“And what is your green-as-goose-shit ass doing on my ship?”

“Participating in a landing, ma’am.”

“Says who?”

“Princepa First Class Sethur, ma’am.”

Miriam stiffened her back. The princepa was so high above her rank that Herod may as well have been attached to her platoon by God. “You funning me, private?”

“No ma’am. I have ample simulation experience, ma’am.” Herod ignored the chortles of the more experienced girls. “And I come highly rated, ma’am. You won’t have any complaints, ma’am.”

“Fucking… just one ma’am would be enough. The last thing I need after Ambys is some goody-goody who thinks good written exam scores means good soldiering attached to my platoon.”

Herod glowered. Nothing the captain had said about her was remotely true. She had done poorly on all her writtens, she wasn’t fresh, and she certainly wasn’t a “goody-goody”. But there was no need to be confrontational either. “There’s no need for concern,” she said through gritted teeth. “I promise I won’t disappoint you… ma’am.”