<== ==>  

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.”

<== ==>  


<== ==>

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.

<== ==>


<== ==>

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.

<== ==>


<== ==>


Tamar then turned on her thrusters and lifted up through the hole she had created, firing expanding rounds into the hallway. The shots started as pea-sized until they were fired, starting a chemical reaction that enlarged them to the size of a fist in seconds. The tiny cannonballs not only ripped through the Neighbors close to Tamar, they went through their bodies and ripped through those standing behind them.

Come on!” she screamed. “Is that all you have?! Ahahahaha!” Tamar fired round after round in both directions, turning the hallway into a killing floor. All the while, she laughed like a hyena as five, ten, fifteen xenos fell dead.

Herod grabbed Zabda and flew up after the colonel, diving through the open doorway to avoid Tamar’s wild gunfire. The Neighbors tried to mount a defense, firing their spears at the gigantic woman- but while the bolts of superhot plasma were enough to melt through the Gawain, they sizzled against the reinforced plate of the Beowulf.

Nothing!” Tamar screamed. “You can’t hurt me! You have nothing! Ahahaha!

Tamar ducked her head like a linebacker and ran forward, grabbing a Neighbor by the snout and effortlessly crushing its skull into jelly. She stopped and threw her weight to the side, sandwiching a Neighbor between herself and the wall and obliterating its body. A few Neighbors went to flee in the opposite direction, but Tamar pivoted and killed all three with a trio of expanding shots.

In less than ten seconds, Tamar had reduced around two dozen Neighbor warriors to piles of meat, entrails, and viscera. “So?” she asked Herod breathlessly. “How does that stack up to your best, private?”

Herod considered the question. “You could kill me with precious little effort,” she said finally. “There really is no substitute for experience, colonel. Would you teach me some of your techniques sometime?”

“I host advanced combat seminars sometime,” Tamar replied. “Would love to see you there. Centurion, how’s it going with the fan?”

Zabda turned around from the faintly pulsating mass of flesh in the corner of the room- a Neighbor biocomputer. “It’s… something is strange here,” Zabda murmured. “I don’t understand.”

“What?” asked Tamar.

“This citadel… I’m trying to parse the readouts… if I’m reading this right, they narrowly fended off our attack but are in bad shape. Another hit will finish them.”

“Rather over-optimistic,” Herod commented. “…Hold on. Fended off? We landed here earlier today.”

Zabda nodded. “I can’t read any of the Neighbors language, but there are some numbers here. Just about the only thing I can figure out is that these Neighbors were in bad shape long before we arrived…”

The one who had grabbed Herod outside, like he had something to tell her. Something urgent. A black pit formed in Herod’s stomach. “But-“

“Look, this is really interesting, but we gotta go,” barked Tamar. “Reinforcements will be here soon, we didn’t exactly come in quietly.”

Herod chose not to mention that it was Tamar who had come in screaming. They left the way they came, and before they were out, the shooting abruptly stopped. The tailored virus had worked its awful magic on their enemies.

The trio rejoined Amalek at the launching ground. “I saw everything through Zabda’s display,” he said, removing his helmet. “Not bad, private. An adequate performance considering your lack of experience.”

“Aw, be nice to the kid. She’s got a bright future.” Tamar mussed Herod’s hair with one of her skillet-sized hands. “Say, why don’t you transfer her to my cohort? She’d fit right in with the vanguard.”

“No can do. She’s all mine.” Amalek put a hand on his chin. “Where’d you learn to fight like that, private? Advanced hand-to-hand, complex martial arts, all applied with butter smoothness. Let me guess, you picked it up in your classified assignment?”

Herod sighed. She was already tired of this line of questioning. “Something like that. Was my performance to your satisfaction, colonel?”

“Hmph.” Amalek’s eyes were dark, almost insectoid as he scrutinized her. “For now. I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Welcome to the 119th… corporal.”

<== ==>


<== ==>


All four descended upon her- and that was when Zabda fired her rocket. It was an electrofield shrapnel shell that embedded itself into whatever it hit and sprayed bits of metal everywhere, each of which connnecting back to the rocket via invisible microfilaments that conducted powerful electrical charges.

Herod was protected by the rubble, but all four Neighbors were instantly fried by a powerful shock radiating from a tiny rocket none of them had seen fire. They fell twitching to the ground. The Gawain’s olfactory sensors detected the smell of burning flesh.

Herod pulled herself to her feet and gave Zabda a thumbs up. “Good shot, ma’am.”

“Not really,” said Zabda, unable to hide her pleasure from the compliment. “You did all the hard stuff.”

“Hey, that wasn’t half bad,” said Tamar, barreling forward. “You’ve got good reflexes, Herod. But you rely too much on the element of surprise- so you got caught flat-footed against these guys.”

“How do you win without it?” Herod asked.

“Simple! I’ll demonstrate inside.” Tamar casually stepped on the head of one of the downed Neighbors, crushing it to pulp under her half-ton weight. “Finish them off, will you?”

Herod nodded, walking over to slit the throats of the other three. “Is that really necessary?” Zabda asked with a shudder as Herod slashed through the first one’s scaly throat.

“Yes ma’am,” said Herod. “Spare their lives and they’ll get back up. Then they’ll keep trying to kill us.”

“Only good Romeo is a dead Romeo,” said Tamar cheerfully.

But as Herod went to finish off another one, its talons wrapped around her leg and it looked up at her with its bloodshot yellow eyes. The Neighbor let out a wet gurgle… it was trying to say something.

Herod pushed it off, then glanced up at the others. “Do either of you have a translation module?”

Neither replied. There was nothing else to do then but finish what she had meant to do.

“That was weird,” Tamar said as Herod caught up and wiped the blood from her sword. “I’ve killed more of those things than I can count… they’ve never tried to talk to me before. They don’t even talk much to one another, best as I can tell.”

Herod thought. “It was difficult to tell but it seemed… urgent. I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It probably doesn’t matter.”

They made their way inside. A BEACON rocket had collapsed a section of the tower, in the process forming a rubble staircase leading up to the third floor. The hallway was unnerving in a way that was difficult to describe… it didn’t look like something made by somebody, but it also didn’t seem natural either. The walls were smooth and carefully rounded, but they also led nowhere. A whole tower comprised of nothing but dead ends.

The sounds of fighting beneath them were impossible to ignore. Gunfire and screams from the birds, the slick wet sound of organic spearfire from the Neighbors. The damn reptiles didn’t make any noise while they were fighting, or really at all… so why had that one tried to talk to her?

“Amalek,” said Zabda into her comms. “We’re in.”

“Good, syncing with your optics.” Amalek’s voice sounded in Herod’s ear. “According to spectrometer readouts, there’s a mass of Neighbors on the floor above you. I think they’re guarding the fan room.”

“My time to shine!” said Tamar happily. “Can you guide us to directly beneath them?”

“Sure.” A few moments of silence. “Go down the hall and take the second left, then the third left.”

They followed Amalek’s instructions, although this hallway looked the same as all the others. “Let me show you two how it’s done,” said Tamar. “Herod, guard the door while Zabda works her magic. I’ll handle Romeo.”

The colonel raised one powerful arm and fired. Her heavy gun tore through the ceiling like it was paper, sending chunks of debris- and Neighbors- raining down.

<== ==>


<== ==>

Scouts had already marked several points of structural weakness in the tower from which small units could enter. The Neighbors had assigned cursory forces to defend them, assuming (thus far correctly) that BEACON forces would rather fight them head-on.

The three of them crouched behind a bus-sized chunk of rubble, surveying their entry point: a collapsed section of wall on the tower’s right side. Herod’s infrared display marked four Neighbors guards. These were elites, tall and powerful with scales like armor.

Even so, the issue wasn’t taking them out. It was taking them out quietly, to not draw any attention to themselves. “Do either of your suits have subsonic weapons?” she asked Tamar and Zabda.

“I’m a walking tank,” Tamar replied. “The quietest thing I can do is punch, and that still makes a shitload of noise.”

Zabda held up her arm to show off the missile launcher around her wrist. “I have nonlethal electromagnetic disruptors,” she said. “But I’m not a very good shot. I’d need to get close.”

“Hmm.” Herod looked back at the guards. “Colonel, what are the odds they’ll run from me?”

“Low. Neighbors don’t retreat unless they’re facing overwhelming odds.” Tamar grunted. “Although they’re scared of heavies like me cuz their weapons aren’t much good.”

Herod was happy to receive orders because making decisions wasn’t her forte. She couldn’t even decide what she wanted to eat most of the time. But when it came to battle… she saw everything so clearly. “I’ll move in by myself and try to group them together,” she said. “While I have their attention, centurion, you should get as close you dare and wait for an opening. Colonel, can you stand by?”

“I’ll be watching,” Tamar said. Herod could hear her grinning from behind her helmet.

The commandos were positioned around the entrance, all in one another’s line of sight. There was no way for Herod to take them out one by one… better to bunch them together. One piece of rubble was tall and flat, forming a sheer wall. The right side was open, while the left was blocked by a pile of broken earth.

That’d work. Herod crept forward until she was near the rubble, then burst forward. She opened fire on the guards, who instantly dove for cover. They were expecting her.

Herod veered to the side, her feet skimming mere inches off the ground as she attacked the rightmost guard. He was ready, and thrust his organic spear at her neck- but she managed to duck.

Herod went to slash his belly open with her pneumatic blade, but the Romeo leaped back. Another one tried to line up a shot at her with its own spear. Herod sent it diving for cover with a burst of gunfire from her shoulder minigun.

This wasn’t good. She was going to get boxed in. Herod leaped in the air and rocketed towards a third Neighbor, planting her foot into its chest. The Neighbor fell backwards into one of its fellows, knocking its shot sideways.

They were too well-organized. There were no chances for her to take out one of them, not without the others interfering. Instead, Herod took to the air, zig-zagging as a bolt of plasma nearly melted her leg off. She hit the sheer wall hard, the shock of impact rattling her bones, then let gravity take her down behind a pile of rubble.

Hitting the ground hurt, especially her already-injured right arm. Herod gritted her teeth and propped herself up against the rubble. They were converging on her. They thought she was alone and cornered, so they could finish her off… and while the Neighbors were cold and ruthless combatants, they were known to forget their formations when victory was in sight.

<== ==>


<== ==>

Three-quarters of the legion had disengaged. Only one cohort still fought: the vanguard that had been the first ones to land. Amalek led Herod and Zabda to the base of the tower, where rough-looking birds waited for their turn to take a crack at the enemy within.

After a few minutes, a gigantic woman in heavy armor presented herself. “Hey Amalek!” she said cheerfully, removing her helmet to reveal a shock of aquamarine hair. “How’s Kra-ki-wa treating you?”

Colonel Tamar was a monster of a woman, towering over the entire crowd. Her body was a dense brick of muscle stuffed into a massive AEGIS. Unlike most 119th girls, who wore the light Mark XII Vishnus or the multipurpose Mark XIV Gawains, Tamar wore the heavy Mark XV Beowulf AEGIS. The helmet was rounded and formed an arch along her bulging shoulders, while the armor around her forearms was thicker than most girls’ thighs. The thing was so heavy that it couldn’t fly- the pilot just activated thrusters on the back to slow down for a landing.

Herod had worn the Beowulf before and found it almost impossible to move in it… Tamar must have been absurdly strong even outside of her AEGIS. A long, ugly scar bisected her face, sweaty and confident. Everything about her communicated power and control… Herod could see why she was well-liked.

“Same as any other sub-class-E Neighbor shithole treats us, Tamar,” Amalek said coolly. “Have you met Private Herod Makkaba?”

“Our heroic gunbuster?” Tamar grinned at her. “You saved me and my birds a lot of trouble, babe- I do appreciate it.”

Herod bowed her head respectfully. “Just doing my job, ma’am.”

“She’s the modest, quiet sort,” Zabda chirped. “Perhaps you could take a lesson or two, colonel.”

“Ha! What good is strength if you hide it?” Tamar glanced back at Amalek. “So what’s the story? Happy as I am to meet Herod here, I’ve got a tower to take. We’ve been pounding away at their defenses for an hour now, but they ain’t budging.”

“I figured so much,” said Amalek, rolling his neck. “Which is why I’ve come to help redirect your energies. Your cohort has muscle power to spare, so let’s use it to crack the enemy open.”

“What did you have in mind?”

Amalek pointed at the twisted tower. “Romeo has concentrated their defenses along the two points of ingress, right? The top and bottom of the tower. They can mount a strong enough defense along those two fronts that we can’t break them by just smashing our forces into theirs, can we?”

Tamar grunted in agreement. “But I’m gonna keep trying until they do break- and they will break. Their position is strong but they’re soft. My birds can do this all day, wear them down and break ’em to bits.”

“So they can- but the legata wants this tower taken an hour ago. She also wants minimal casualties. I say you fight smarter, not harder.” Amalek produced a dark green sphere from a pocket in his AEGIS. “This is a hyper-aggressive tailored virus that kills Neighbors within instants, while being harmless to us. It comes in an aerosol form. A one-one trillionth share of it is fatal. I want you to put it into the ventilation system.”

“Poison gas?” Tamar’s face fell. “You know how I feel about that. Weak, cowardly, honorless fighting. If we’re going to slaughter these guys, they deserve a chance to at least protect themselves.”

“Not to mention inhumane,” said Zabda. “The way it kills is… unpleasant.”

Herod had never heard anyone express that opinion before. “How does it kill, ma’am?”

“It’s not actually a virus, but a genetically engineered fungus… if a single spore enters the body of a Neighbor, then it reproduces at incredible speed. Huge masses of the fungus form in their body, crushing bones and organs. Death is quick but painful- and the body left behind is barely recognizable.” Zabda shivered. “I really don’t like using it.”  

Amalek crossed his arms skeptically. “They’re Neighbors. ‘Honor’ is as alien to them as good hygiene. In any case, BEACON sanctions its use.”

BEACON sanctions everything’s use,” Zabda said. “We used to avoid using things like this.”

“It’s the fastest way to clear the tower,” insisted Amalek. “They’re all going to die today anyways- what does it matter how they die? This will save us time and lives.”

“Urgh, fine.” Tamar took the tailored virus orb from the much smaller colonel. “Where’s the ventilation?”

Amalek’s finger moved to the side of the tower. “Neighbors need strong fans to reduce the temperature so they can sleep. It’s usually close to but not at the ground, second or third story.”

“Except the first story is infested with maybe a thousand Romeos.”

Amalek gestured to Herod. “That’s where she comes in. Herod here, along with one or two specialists of your choosing, are going to sneak past the main enemy force and detonate the tailored virus grenade inside the central ventilation.”

Herod glanced at Amalek. The plan was sound… she thought. “Yes ma’am. But I don’t know how to administer a virus,” she said.

“I do,” said Zabda. “I’m not much of a soldier, but I know my way around a BEACON bioweapon.”

Amalek’s eyes went wide. “Sergeant, you’re a medic, not a commando.”

“If you’re throwing poor Herod here into the belly of the beast, then the least I can do is give her a hand,” Zabda insisted.

Tamar grinned. “Small unit tactics? Sounds like fun. I’m in.”

“What?” Amalek sighed. “Colonel, please, take one of my best birds to-”

“Hey! This is my tower to take. You’re just advising me.” Tamar pounded her fist into her palm. “I wanna see Herod here in action… plus, this sounds like a hard mission. I’m not just a colonel, I’m the best ass-kicker in the legion and you both know it.”

“She is,” Zabda said. “I have no objections. Herod?”

“Ready and able, ma’am.”

Amalek pinched his temple. “Just try not to die, I suppose,” he sighed. “Of the three of you, only Herod is expendable.”

“Hey!” Zabda scolded. “Be nice. Herod is as valuable as any of us-”

Herod shook her head. “Beg pardon, centurion. But I must respectfully disagree. I am entirely expendable.”

<== ==>


<== ==>


“Presenting Private Herod Makkaba,” said Zabda. “Private, this is Legata Lucifera Humol.”

Herod bowed her head in deference. “An honor, ma’am.”

“At ease,” said Lucifera with a wave of her hand. “Good to meet you, kid. I’ve been reading the debriefs. It’s all pretty routine stuff ‘cept for what you did. The one oversight in Amalek’s strategy, and you corrected it perfectly.”

“It wasn’t an oversight,” Amalek huffed. “I was already in the midst of implementing a countermeasure when the private went all cowgirl.” Ah. That was why he disliked her. Entirely by accident, she had stolen his spotlight.

“Nothing wrong with that. Saved a bunch of ours, killed a bunch of theirs.” Lucifera gestured Herod to approach her desk. “Amalek tells me you have an interesting file.”

Herod said nothing. Neither did Lucifera, until she grinned casually. “Can’t say I care one way or another. So long as you weren’t sent to kill me in my sleep.”

“Not in your sleep ma’am, no.” Herod paused. “Or while awake.”

“Great! Then we’ll leave it at that.” Lucifera snort-laughed. “Happy, Amalek?’

“Not even a little.” Neither Amalek nor Zabda seemed particularly enthused by the legata. Amalek’s brow was set in frustration, while Zabda refused to look directly at the legion’s leader.

“Well, what else is new?” With a clap of her hands, Lucifera returned her attentions to Herod. “Do you have any questions for me, legionnaire?”

“Only one, ma’am. What are we doing on this planet?’

“Fighting for the future of mankind, of course.” Her delivery was so deadpan that it was impossible to tell when she was joking.

“I mean more specifically, ma’am,” Herod said. “When BEACON lands on a Neighbors-held planet, it’s to obliterate the leadership, place the native population under our protection, and start working on shaping the planet to human use.”

“Straight from the textbook.”

“But Kra-ki-wa has no Neighbor leadership, as far as we can tell. There are scattered groups, such as this one. The planet is altogether thinly populated, and there is no known native population.” Herod cocked her head. She had been meaning to ask someone this since she was briefed on the mission. “Are we just here to slaughter Romeo, ma’am?”

“Good question. To answer .. we don’t know much about Kra-ki-wa, and the planet’s got Romeos. They’re never up to anything good. We’re here to pacify them, hold territory, and let the science and xenoanthropologists do the rest.” Lucifera idly cracked her knuckles.

A vague, wishy-washy answer… little better than the legata simply saying she had no clue. “We don’t know why the Neighbors are here?” Herod asked.

“We don’t know why there are so few of them,” said Lucifera ruefully. “Amalek, what’s the estimate?”

“Less than three million,” Amalek replied. “Spread out over two hundred clades at last count. On a planet this big, with these kind of natural resources… I dunno, we’d expect at least thirty or forty million and possibly far more. No clue why.”

The Neighbors were not ones to let such an opportunity pass them by. They didn’t so much colonize worlds as infest them, devouring every iota of resources they could until all that remained was a barren, broken rock. Herod was no expert on Romeo, but it did strike her as odd. She had more questions, but decided to just nod. “Thank you, legata.”

“You don’t have to be so formal if you don’t want to.” Lucifera waved her hand. “You can just call me Lucy if you like.”

“How about Lightning Lucy?”

Lucifera smirked as she sat up in her chair. “Where’d you hear that?”

“In perfect honesty, while sphere-searching you after I was assigned to the 119th.” said Herod. “I hadn’t heard of you before that, ma’am.”

“Ha.” The legata stood up ponderously. She had a heavy limp, favoring her right leg as as she made her way over to Herod. “What are they writing about me these days?”

“A fearless and decisive soldier whose legion has been prominent in some of BEACON‘s greatest campaigns,” said Herod. “‘Lightning’ comes from your penchant for effective offense. Nobody has ever led the 119th but you, and its reputation as one of BEACON’s finest is the result of your leadership.” Herod met the legata’ eyes. “Is there any truth to that, ma’am?”

Lucifera shrugged. She was slightly taller than Zabda but shorter than Herod- although that limp of hers probably reduced her height by an inch or two. “Eh. Don’t believe everything you read. Which is why I called for you, incidentally. I hear you did the work of two platoons today and suffered nothing worse than a few boo boos. That true?”

“An exaggeration. I was simply in the right place at the right time, ma’am.”

“Common misconception, that’s not luck- that’s talent.” Lucifera glanced at Amalek. “The reason I called you here is because my bodyguard Hilary died in battle. Freak accident. Killed by a one in a million shot.”

“Oh.” Amalek frowned. “That’s not good.”

“Poor Hil,” Zabda said sadly. She looked as though she wanted to say more, but bit her lip.

“So I looked around at the people who I always see in my retinue and I thought, ‘wow, these are all old old faces.’ Nobody new. I thought I’d mix things up a bit, keep everyone on their toes.” Lucifera smiled without showing her teeth or moving her eyes. “How’d you like to be my new bodyguard, private?”

Herod let Amalek protest. “Hold on, that’s insane. This is her second day. We know almost nothing about her-”

“Except that she kicks ass,” said the legata lightly.

“-Except that she may be capable. I can find a candidate who’s just as capable and who’s a known commodity, legata.”

“Sure you could. But I have a good feeling about Herod. And I always try to listen to my gut- besides, your protests are premature. It’s a moot point if she says no.” Lucifera glanced at Herod. “What do you say? Comes with a promotion to corporal and a pay raise.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Herod after a moment’s thought. “I accept. And colonel, I fully understand your reservations. I assure you that-”

“I’ll have no complaints?” Amalek asked dryly. Herod merely nodded. “Legata, how do we know she’s even qualified to be a bodyguard? If Captain Miriam’s report is to be trusted, she went ahead of her platoon to fight on her lonesome.”

“You wanna test her some?” Lucifera laughed hollowly. “That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? I want you to be cool with this, Amalek, and I’m confident in Herod. Why don’t you see what she can do?”

“How do you test someone as a bodyguard?” Zabda asked.

Amalek’s smile was mischievous, like a kid with a devilish new toy. “I have the perfect set-up in mind.”

<== ==>


<== ==>

“Discussing my previous assignment would contradict my orders, ma’am,” said Herod calmly. “You won’t have any complaints.”

Amalek stared at her with such intensity that she felt a bit uncomfortable, but the centurion came to her rescue. “Oh, be nice!” she scolded. “What does it matter where she was? She’s part of the family now, isn’t she?”

“If the 119th is a family, it’s the most incestuous, fucked-up family in history,” Amalek replied.

“Right- so what does it matter if the private was a bit naughty? She’s already shown how useful she can be, hasn’t she?” The centurion offered her hand. “I’m Zabda- Centurion Zabda Sagax. I’m the leader of the combat medics across all four cohorts. My prickly friend is Colonel Amalek Kavod.”

Sagax… Herod tried to remember where she had heard that last name before. She accepted the handshake. Zabda’s hand was warm and well-moisturized. “She good to go?” Zabda asked Sosana, who nodded. “The legata wants to see her.”

Herod stood up and followed Zabda and Amalek through the medical tent. What could the legata want with her? The battle was still ongoing as BEACON sought a way to dig the enemy from the tower. Surely the leader of the legion had better things to do than interrogate Herod about the irrelevant details of her past?

They walked past the dead, dying, and wounded- but not many of them. The 119th’s medical corps was tremendously efficient. Even the girls with minor wounds, like Herod’s, received ample treatment. Considering the size and intensity of the fighting, it should have been worse.

Amalek caught her glancing around. “Let me guess: you’re wondering why so few of ours are hurt. Less than twenty dead and less than fifty injured- very acceptable casualties for an operation of this size. Something like that?”

Herod nodded, surprised. How had he done that? Her face gave very little away.

“Fact is, the only reason we have this many wounded at all is because the enemy hid their anti-aero in the tower. The first wave to land, that being Colonel Tamar’s cohort, threw the enemy outside into disarray. This let the subsequent wave- mine- to consolidate control around the citadel and break enemy defenses. Now we can take our time to shred the tower.” Amalek’s voice was still cold towards her, but he warmed up the more he talked about the battle. Like it was something terribly interesting. “If I were leading this legion, I’d take them out in one fell swoop with a tailored virus or a memetic kill agent.”

There were almost no BEACON birds who showed any sympathy to the Neighbors, the eternal arch-rival of humanity. Brutal as BEACON’s tactics could be, they were a grim necessity- the Neighbors would do far worse if given the chance.

However, Amalek’s attitude was slightly different. He didn’t see the xenos as enemies to destroy. He saw the xenos as pieces on a game board, and he spoke of destroying them like he spoke of winning a game.

Zabda, on the other hand, looked uncomfortable. “We could still offer terms,” she said. “There’s hundreds of them in the tower… they can’t all be soldiers.”

“But they are all Romeos. What are the alternatives, Zab? To take them captive, so they can kill their jailors and plot their escape? To let them go, so they can regroup and counterattack? No, this was the only option. A quick, painless death- the best the enemies of the 119th can ask for.”

The three of them kept walking through the Neighbors’ citadel, now held by the 119th. There was something profoundly disturbing about the architecture, as all the buildings looked like they had been shaped by a giant, clumsy hand. To Herod, it looked like the Neighbors had intentionally made their structures ugly, impractical, and difficult to build.

Neighbors dead were left where they fell, and there were quite a few of them. Some were better than eight feet tall, their lithe bodies contorted as they lay on the ground or slumped against walls. It seemed this particular clade had short, wide, and concave tails by Neighbors standards. That seemed more disadvantageous than anything: typical Neighbors had tails both longer and stronger than either of their legs, and it made for a deadly fifth limb in close-range combat. At least one clade could hold a kind of firearm with their tail too.

If BEACON was leaving the corpses out, they wouldn’t be staying long. The free meals would draw scavenging animals- including other Neighbors, who had no cannibalism taboo and were happy to devour their fallen fellows.

Nobody else paid the dead much mind. Herod only did because she had never seen a dead Neighbor with her own two eyes before today.

The command tent stood at the base of the tower, close enough to hear gunfire and shouting from the raging fight within. Several armed guards protected the entrance but made no moves to stop Amalek.

Another woman left as they arrived. She was solidly built, a beauty with dark features. Her Gawain was strange… it only had a left arm. “Colonel,” she said curtly before walking straight past them.

Zabda glared at Amalek, who had totally ignored the woman. “Did you two squabble again?” she demanded.

“Listen, it’s not my fault that I come up with magnificent strategies that bring us glory and victory, and Sheba comes up with piles of mental dogshit clumsily shaped into plans,” said Amalek. “If she wants to avoid arguing with me, she’d either need to think more or talk less.”


“Fine, I’ll apologize, mother.” He was smiling, and Zabda was trying not to. “Just don’t make me eat my veggies too.”

“I’d settle for you eating anything at this point.”

“It’s a hunger strike against you, my subordinate, thinking you can boss me around.”

Zabda grinned. “Someone has to. If I let you do as you please, your ego gets so large it needs its own suit of armor.”

The trio entered the command tent. It was a utilitarian room with a circular table and folding chairs in the center, a map of the surrounding areas projected on a hardlight screen, and a collapsible desk.

Legata Lucifera sat behind it, her feet on the table. She was average height, an oily and smoky woman, earthy and comfortable in her Gawain AEGIS. She wore her forest-green hair in a ponytail, and a portion of her scalp was bald- a battle scar. Herod met her eyes and saw that they were weary. Not the sort of exhaustion cured by a week of relaxation. The sort of exhaustion that sank into one’s bones and became a part of their DNA.

<== ==>


<== ==>

Platoon Miriam sustained four deaths and eleven injuries, making them the most heavily battered unit in the entire legion.

The rest of the battle was almost routine. Without their anti-air, the Neighbors were helpless as 119th sky cavalry ripped their forces apart. The entire settlement was under BEACON control within the hour- save for the tower.

Herod sat in her undershirt as the doc checked her arm. The medical tent was professional and well-run, the medics briskly applying aid as needed. All of the girls who had taken serious wounds had already been tended to, now the triage had turned its eyes to those banged-up in battle.

The medic, Sosana, was doe-eyed and chatty. She was nominally making pleasant small talk with Herod, although the conversation was one-sided.

“I see a lot of birds fuck up their arm from the pneumy, but rarely from kicking too much ass with it!” she tittered. “Oh, but you must have been very brave. I hate getting close to the Romeos, don’t you? Awful slithery things. Flex for me, won’t you?”

Herod complied. Her arms were stringy and tough, but several bruises began to form along the forearm “I was worried you might have a fracture, but I don’t feel anything,” said Sosana. “I’ll apply some reliever to the bruises, unless you want to do it yourself.”

“I do.” Herod looked at the doctor and smiled. “Thank you.”

“Ha! What a gentlelady. You must be a big hit in the barracks- they do love the strong and silent type.” Sosana grinned, then glanced over Herod’s shoulder. “Oh, colonel, centurion! Come meet the hatchling!”

Herod looked over at the newcomers. Instinctively her eyes settled on the more senior of the two, and she was mildly surprised to see that the colonel was male. There were men among the rank and file- one of the privates in Squad 3 was of that persuasion- but it was a rarity to see one in an officerial position.

He was very short, more than a head smaller than she was, and thin and bony to boot. His eyes were a deep blue with a glint that might have been cruelty and might have been playfulness. They were deeply inset in his face, like he didn’t get nearly enough sleep. The rest of him was angles: a pointed chin, an aquiline nose, elfen ears, spiky sky-blue hair. He was smiling just a little. Herod instantly disliked him.

The centurion had a much warmer vibe… actually, she looked familiar. She was voluptuous and busty, carrying her surplus flesh with elegance. She had hair the color of lilacs and a round, heart-shaped face. Her eyes were wide and sincere and her mouth was ripe. On her shoulder was the symbol of the medical corps, suggesting that she was the leader of this field hospital.

Both wore the Mark XII Vishnu suit, the popular choice for support personnel. It was slimmer than the Gawain, and with less armor and firepower- but it made up for it in sheer modularity. The colonel’s Vishnu was equipped with a strategic suite, including an eye-in-the-sky microdrone and a more powerful battlefield analysis computer. The centurion’s was equipped for battlefield medicine, including surgical lasers and a drug dispenser.

“Hey!” the centurion chirped- and she did chirp, her voice was like birdsong. “How’s the 119th treating you so far?”

“Fine, ma’am.” Herod bowed her head in deference. “Private Herod Makkaba, reporting for duty.”

“Ah, to be Proving Grounds fresh,” the centurion sighed happily. “Isn’t she something, Amalek?”

The colonel, Amalek, examined her with cool eyes. He didn’t seem impressed. “Miranda tells me that you’re the reason why the enemy’s anti-aero ist kaput. They teach you that at the Proving Grounds?”

“No, ma’am.”

Amalek’s eye twitched a little. BEACON custom was to call officers “ma’am” regardless of gender. “I didn’t think so either. So I pull up your file and I find that you’ve been on assignment for the last four years. But it won’t tell me where- it’s ultra-top secret classified, nobody below the rank of princepa first class can even sniff it.”

Herod said nothing.

“What I’m wondering is why BEACON saw fit to take someone doing what I can only assume to be classified wetwork, bump her down to private, and then assign her to my cohort.” Amalek raised his chin. “Care to explain, legionnaire?”

<== ==>