Sáclair didn't know what to make of hyperspace. He understood the warp, how it felt against the ship’s hull, the dangerous creatures perpetually clawing at its wards. It was familiar territory to him. But on the urging of his Navigators he'd permitted the Centauri and Narn ships to lead the Endless Bounty through the forgotten paths of hyperspace, so that performance tests could be conducted under controlled conditions.
The potential boon of avoiding the warp was too tempting to ignore. Yet had he realized the vast emptiness of the endless red sea, he might have reconsidered. It was maddeningly empty. No life, no sound, no light, no dangers, it was just an endless sea of shifting color and black. If the warp was hell, hyperspace was most certainly purgatory. According to the Narn Ambassador, if one were to become cast adrift they would spend eternity without ever encountering another living soul.
A ship lost in hyperspace was lost forever, never to return.
In a very real way, it was more nightmarish than the warp. He'd removed his mind from the ship an hour into the maddening silence, the absence of sensation made him too dizzy to function. One could not spend eternity stumbling through darkness like a man plummeting through empty air. If not for the braille-like abrasions of astropathic signals from hyperspace gates, he might have believed there was no exit from the void.
The sockets in his arms itched painfully, begging for the sensation of swimming through space that he'd ignored for weeks. But there was no reprieve in the silver filament, nor was there release to be found in drink. The bastard of an Inquisitor had, in his infinite wisdom, decided that there would be no drinking for anyone prior to battle. Aided and abetted by an standing order to the serving staff left by his wife, he'd not touched a drop of anything stronger than recaf in three days.
It was insufferable. Deprived of wife, concubines, children, his ship, and even a stiff drink; how in the blazes did they expect a man to live like that? His only companion at home was David, his bastard. And David spend the majority of his time pining after a girl far above his station.
“Sir,” Donat approached the great throne, data-slate in hand, “The Jan'kir reports that we are ten minutes from our destination.”
“Finally,” Sálcair exhaled in relief, cracking fingers between interlocking palms as he stretched out his arms, “What do the forward scouts report?”
“Nothing good sir,” Donat tapped his hololith with his quill, prompting the massive hololithic display in the hall to switch to a map of the Akdor. A disjointed connection of friend and foe markers darted about the orbiting moons, advancing and retreating from the planet's southern continent, “As you can see, the Alliance military has already launched an offensive on the rebel fortress... Matok I believe. The ships marked in green are of Earth Alliance and Sh'Lassen make, and the yellow dots are rebel ships.”
He twisted his stylus and zoomed in on an section of space that distorted slightly from second to second, occasional burst of energy firing from seemingly nowhere, “These are what we believe to be the ships sent by Faust. It fits the sort of sensor interference we encountered from the ship above Belzafest. Thankfully, it’s seemingly less efficient.”
“They're Throne well efficient enough,” Sáclair swore, “Get the Astropaths to work on some sort of solution to this. We can't keep using our own pilots for targets when we need to shoot someone.”
“I don't think we'll need to; there is enough of a sensor ghost for us to triangulate a rough approximation of where the shots are coming from,” Donat chewed his lip, his expressionless face contrasting with the slight worry in his voice, “My worry is that we aren't going to be able to do it unless we get someone firing at us.”
“Donat, we're a good half kilometer longer than the next closest ship and we're flying under the banner of the double eagle. Of all the things I fear, 'not enough people are shooting at us' doesn't even make my top twenty,” Sáclair inserted the silver filament from his throne into his arm, gagging at the cloying nothingness, “Throne ,that is sodding frigid! How the devil do the xenos travel through this?”
“The Navigators share your sentiments. They've been rotating in and out of their trances at twenty minute intervals for fear they might lose their minds in the vast emptiness,” Donat growled in hatred, “My understanding is that the xenos... the xenos use... they use thinking machines to achieve the same effect.”
Sáclair wished he could have some wine to settle his stomach at the thought of that many thinking machines. The fall of the first great and bountiful human society came at the hands of the Men of Iron, nearly bringing about their destruction. The Emperor had, in his boundless wisdom, decreed that no thinking machines should be allowed in his Imperium. To be so wholly reliant upon such technological devilry was unthinkable, “We're certain that the thinking machines aren't taking us to an ambush?”
“As sure as we may be,” Donat absently scratched at the back of his head with his finger, “Heresy though it may be do admit it sir... I don't suspect the xenos of betrayal.”
“Nor do I, Mr. Enzo, which is part of what troubles me.” Sáclair's fingers traced over the firing controls of his weapons ports, realizing idly that he hadn't even considered passively targeting them, “But we are under the writ of Inquisitorial mandate of Hilder ,and will act as such. If he's determined to toss himself headlong into a warzone, who am I to disagree?”
“Of course, milord,” Donat manipulated the map again, focusing upon the hyperspace gate, “Post-hyperspace combat is highly limiting due to the bottleneck inherently derivative of gate use. The enemy knows exactly where we're going to come from.”
“But the shields will be up before we leave correct?” Sáclair grinned in anticipation, watching the chronometer count down to zero, “And our assault forces are all prepared to head to the front lines?”
“Yes sir,” Donat nodded, “But I need to remind you that we're at half stock of ammunition and have precious few cyclonic torpedoes left. We have the lances, but they are hamstrung due to the targeting errors caused by Faust's ECM.”
“We'll make due with what we have,” Sáclair said, virtually seething with anticipation. So close, his reprieve from the emptiness was just out of reach.He thumbed the shipwide intercom and barked out, “All hands to battle-stations.”
The lights dimmed and his crew scurried about the hall below, moving to their battle stations. The atmosphere was tense, but curiously expectant. Having been so regularly bloodied in since the assault of Belzafest, their hearts were hardened to the danger. They knew what the Lord Sáclair expected from them, and would do so without question.
A pregnant minute of utter silence passed before the hiccuping chirrup of an incoming transmission echoed through the hall. A young officer's appeared on the hololith to address his captain, “My Lord Sáclair. We've received a hail from the G'Noa's Fury. They say it's time.”
“Then we shan't disappoint them, shall we?” Sáclair leaned back in his throne. “I say it's high time we repaid Faust for Belzafest. To Victory!”
“To Victory!” Echoed every voice on the hall, chanting again and again, “For the Emperor! To Victory!”
Sáclair closed his eyes and sunk into the nothingness. The titanic form of the Endless Bounty swam in open air, followed by a school of smaller crescent and angular xenos craft. Straight ahead of them was a puncture in the nothing, a brief window into sensation and existence. Two large Earth Alliance ships, though smaller still than the Endless Bounty, sat on either side of the puncture, wedging it open.
The nimble Narn and Centauri fighter craft exited the puncture first, the rest of the fleet following soon after into the light and warmth of realspace. Sáclair squirmed in pleasure even as the irritating pinpricks of weapons registered across the void-shields.
The battlefield was bedlam; the still-smoldering hulls of a thousand Sh'lassen ships littered the outer belts of asteroids, confusing sensors with ghosts of weapons-fire as the unused munitions in their magazines detonated. He could vaguely sense weapons-fire in the distance, his limited mind registering the ongoing dogfighting as the sharp sound of a cracking whip.
“Finally,” Sáclair growled in eagerness, “Engines to full! We need to get to the drop point.”
“Incoming fighters!” Sacomér barked in earnest surprise as dozen blurry shapes rocketed towards the fleet, appearing from the radiation. They swarmed a Centauri warship, pelting it with laser fire before swooping away as it exploded in a spectacular ball of radioactive flame.
A second Centauri warship broke formation to chase the fighter craft only to get crippled by a second fighter wing. It spun helplessly in the air as the escort fighters scrambled to protect it from bombardment.
“I've had enough of this,” Sáclair hissed in irritation, “Launch all fighters. Weapons-free. Let's bring the fight to them. And Mr. Andrews! Give them a taste of their own medicine.”
The forward gun batteries belched atomic death into the asteroid belt, firing irregular staccato bursts of fury into the sensor ghosts. The ghosts fled, dropping low to avoid his assault, straight into the closing jaws of the Narn fighter wings.
It was over in seconds. However, the destruction of the enemy fighter wings was only a brief respite for their assault force. Larger shapes were approaching, cruisers less able to conceal themselves from the sensors of the Endless Bounty.
“Sir, the enemy ships will reach firing distance within two minutes,” Donat manipulated his quill across his data slate, “It seems that the Earth Alliance weren't able to distract all enemies from the jump-gate.”
“Best not to be here when they come then,” Sáclair whooped in amusement, “Drop our surprise and advance. This was not an unforeseen possibility.”
The enemy ships controlled the space both above and below the asteroid field, with the exception of a narrow spearhead of space controlled by the Earth Alliance too far to the planet's southern pole for them to feasibly reach. According to G'Kar, the asteroid field was considered to be too hazardous for any ship larger than a one man fighter to safely navigate, which was partly why the gate was put on the other side of it by the Sh'lassen. They could control the rate of enemy advance.
Just as well that the Empire made their ships of sterner stuff than the average Alliance cruiser. Trusting in the competence of the Narn to destroy the enemy fighters, Sáclair pushed forward, leading the cruisers through the asteroid field. The massive armored prow of the Endless Bounty smashed through the massive stones, shoving forward though the space debris with ease as he fired the forward lance batteries into the field.
The fleet filed down the narrow path, ships keeping close together to travel in the Endless Bounty's wake. Sáclair counted down from fifty, tapping his finger on the arm of his throne and watching the sensor map of the asteroid belt. As the last friendly cruiser darted to a safe distance from their egress into the asteroid field he flipped the switch to his left, activating a series of proximity mines loaded with vortex bombs.
His sensors flashed every warning imaginable as a massive section of space became engulfed in a maelstrom of extra-dimensional energies. Vortex bombs were not explosives per-se; they opened a hole into the warp that sucked in any unshielded fighters or men unfortunate enough to be within their radius for the few seconds it could be maintained. They were deviously simple to make: a warp engine large enough to be fitted into a fighter was set into critical overload and left on some sort of pressure trigger or proximity sensor. If they had them, larger ships might activate their hexegrammic wards in time to avoid destruction, but by the time the enemy ships made it back to the battlefield he'd be long gone.
The Endless Bounty tore through the inner ring of asteroids and into the orbit of Akdor, directly into a conflagration between the Earth Alliance and Sh'lassen rebel forces. Laughing like a madman, Sáclair pushed the ship's engines to their limits, passing the performance red line as he smashed the Bounty's prow through one of the oblong rebel ships, bursting it in half before spinning the Bounty in an upward pirouette and shouting, “Port batteries, full salvo in three, two, one, fire!”
Three ships were smashed into atoms under the massive salvo. The Earth Alliance Starfuries swung in through the atomic flames, using the cloak of the salvo to mask their advance on a fourth ship. Sáclair smiled contentedly as his consul chirruped eagerly, heralding an incoming transmission. He idly activated it, whooping with glee as the Centauri Primus wing shot past him and into the Sh'lassen rebel fleet.
The sour, almond-eyed face of Captain Xingjian popped up on his screen. The Alliance Captain growled in begrudging thanks, his slurred l's and r's exacerbated by his irritation. The automated translation servitor droned in it's seductive lilt, “What are you doing here 該死?”
“Charming as always Xingjian,” Sáclair smiled, twirling his fingers and firing a lance shot into a fighter wing that was straying too close to a Narn Cruiser for his liking. The fighters scattered. “A simple ‘thank you’ will suffice in future.”
“Answer the question,” Xingjian's eyes popped with fury even as his ship's lights flickered from the impact of enemy fire, “Or I will consider you an enemy combatant.”
The man was completely mental. Sáclair rolled his eyes in exasperation and wordlessly sent a message to the aft weapons batteries to target Xingjian's ships as a precautionary measure, “Captain, I'm here as part of the council relief fleet on behalf of the Non-Aligned Worlds. Now, if you’d be so kind as to remove your head from where you've so readily wedged it up your own ass and get back to fighting the enemy rather than wasting my time, I would take it kindness.”
Xingjiang's face boiled with apoplectic rage as Sáclair deactivated their transmission in disinterest. Xingjiang was under orders not to fire on Non-Aligned Worlds ships, and he could be trusted to obey it. If not, that was why the Emperor gave the Imperium void shields.
“Tactical report, Mr. Enzo.”
His second chewed his lip in thought, “Faust's fleet seems to have been driven back to the second moon of the planet by the Earth Alliance and Sh'lassen government forces, though by all reports they're regrouping rather than retreating. Early chatter is commenting that they're retrofitted military surplus from a recent war with shields and Faust's xenotech rather than proper Imperial military standard.”
“Well that's something at least,” Sáclair smiled in pleased surprise as a Centauri cruiser interposed itself between a damaged Narn ship and it's attacker, taking the brunt of the attack before a second Centauri Primus could destroy the rebel warship. “Is this rabble the entire rebel fleet?”
“Near as I can tell sir,” Donat sighed, “But I don't even pretend to have a complete understanding of the tactical situation, Faust's ECM makes me far from confident in the astropathic sensors.”
“Best to act sooner rather than later,” Sáclair remarked as he spun the Endless Bounty back towards the planet. Sáclair plowed forwards, aiming to punch through the rebel blockade and reach the Earth Alliance beachhead, “Donat, send a message to Hilder and the ground assault forces. We launch the Golan transports as soon as they're close enough to reach the planet's atmosphere safely. I don't want to spend too much time stationary in this maelstrom.”
Sáclair winced in pain as a lucky shot from an Sh'lassen rebel missile cruiser burst through the ship's forward shields, bursting against the ship's armored hull, “ I feel the need to register my abject displeasure with these Sh'lassen traitors in the most direct of terms.”
“Of course, milord. Lance batteries are ready on your command.”
Daul stood sat impassively in the Golan transport as it plummeted earthwards, counting down from a thousand as angry, black thunderclouds whipped past its tiny viewport. Not in the mood for the Lionhearts’ good-willed round of insults, he only half listened as they accused each other of the vilest of perversions and misdeeds. A nagging feeling of dread tugged at the back of his mind, a fear that this battle might be his undoing.
Before the battle of Belzafest, he'd been prepared to die. After losing so much at the hands of Faust, ending it all in a blaze of honor and duty had been perversely appealing. But there would be little profit in his death on the Sh'lassen world of Akdor, not unless Faust lay dead and on the ground. And there was a part of his heart, an honest part, that admitted he did not want to risk the lives of those who fought at his side. Well, those who fought at his side and weren't Vira'capac; the dour Kroot just utterly refused to die.
It perched on top of a Chimera with its talons wrapped around the gun barrel, entirely disinterested in sitting in a safety harness. After spending so much time in a cell on the Endless Bounty, it seemed that the xenos had developed an acute distaste for confinement. The Chimera's drivers, a pair pale-skinned Belzafesters, stared murderously at the Kroot as it luxuriated on top of their transport.
The entire surviving Belzafest PDF had volunteered for the mission, resulting in a bizarre situation where they'd had to have ship security guarding the transports to prevent soldiers stowing away to be part of the military engagement. Hatred still burned strong in the hearts of Belzafest for the destroyers of their ancestral homeland. Gaer Tiber's men would do their duty or die trying.
Daul's “personal guard” consisted of a half dozen men led by Gaer's most trusted Lieutenant Cynry Shan, a bellicose man of few words and deliberate actions. They were all men who'd lost their entire families to Faust, men who could be trusted to obey without question. And after months in the deserts of Belzafest, their skill was without question. They prayed in silence, ignoring the boisterous good humor of the Lionhearts.
“I can hear it,” whispered a soft feminine presence to his left. Susan Ivanova stared at the deck plates in concentration as though trying to see through them, “The warp - I can hear it... rumbling. Something is very wrong.”
“As can I,” Daul agreed, “Witchfire and sorcery is being used in great quantities on the planet. It leaves a stain upon the material world. It does not belong. Practice what I taught you. Clear your mind. Embrace the calm within. The hatred, the dying, and even the suffering: block them from your thoughts."
Susan closed her eyes and steadied her breathing, inhaling and exhaling whilst whispering words in the language of her pagan faith to focus herself. She was only a few weeks into her training but she'd advanced as far as Daul might have expected an apprentice to achieve ten years along the way thanks to the borrowed memories. She wasn't remotely close to his own talent, but she was a force to reckon with in her own right.
She hated him, to be sure, but they'd reached a functioning relationship out of necessity since he'd cut off the possibility of her returning to the Earth Alliance by publicly declaring her a telepath and ward of the Empire to the Narn and Centauri. Returning to the Alliance would mean arrest and capture by the Psi-corps to probe her for knowledge of Imperial sorcery, and she knew it.
“That's it,” Daul said soothingly, “Clear out your mind and find your place of calm. You control it. It does not control you.”
Cair warbled twice, twittering at their imminent arrival as the elephantine transport bucked upwards from anti-gravity pads meeting ground level. The Skitarii hefted an oversized bolt-gun with an extended barrel magazine and flexed sharp taloned fingers.
“Throne, Cairn,” Danzig eyed the array of odd devices around his belts, satchels, and bandolier, “You were never for lack of gear but even I can't think of a reason for some of that... Is that an Ulumethi plasma syphon? Where the devil did you even- you know what? I don't actually want to know.”
“Better prepared than deprived,” the dour Lieutenant Shan whispered, his voice raspy and high pitched through a breath mask.
“Masks on,” Daul ordered as the front doors to the transport opened, thick ash and soot billowing into the cool air of the transport, “Mount up.”
The collective mass of Lionhearts and Belzafester soldiers entered their respective Chimera transports. The clanking of boots on the light transport tanks mingled with the activating rumble of burning promethium engines. Daul climbed into the front Chimera of the column with Susan, Danzig, Carin, Vira’capac, and his personal guard of Belzafesters, surveying the men in approval.
The Inquisitor tapped the radio on his skull-like helmet to talk with the transport's pilot, “Report, soldier. How many of our forces made it to the planet?”
“Sir,” the eager Belzafester replied, “We lost two Golan transports to anti-aircraft fire, sections B and D, but G and R companies were forced to redirect to the southern ridge before unloading their packages.”
“To the pit of the Eye,” Daul swore angrily, “You mean that the Leman Russ tanks are two hundred miles off target?”
“At least,” The pilot agreed, “And their transport is grounded till they can patch a reactor leak. Our air support is coming but they've been delayed by Faust's aircraft to the north. Apparently they have to take out an earth to space laser battery before the Narn can land their tanks.”
“Of course they are.” Danzig sighed, massaging the frustration out of his temples in resigned irritation, “Are the rest of our transports on target, at least?”
“Yes sir,” The officer said before correcting himself, “Or at least... I believe so. We're having trouble communicating with anything longer range than twenty miles.”
“It will have to do.” sighed Shan in resignation, “The Earth Alliance will send them aid as soon as feasible to get them into position.”
“Just once, I would like to have the support forces in position beforehand,” Daul sighed, “Never mind. We're only ten miles from the Earth Alliance forward outpost. Begrudging our lack of artillery won't make more appear.”
Taking that as a queue, Cairn banged twice on the door to the cockpit, whistling sharply to the driver. With a lurch of motion the Chimera zoomed headlong into the Akdor badlands, bouncing its way over the rough terrain of the planet. Daul rocked forward uncomfortably against his harness at every rock and divot, to the point where he started to wonder if the Chimera's shocks had been intentionally tampered with out of spite.
“Throne almighty,” the voice of Sergei cracked across the radio from the end of the column, “Are we aiming for the worst terrain? Gazan is threatening to sew the eyes of our driver open so that he'll properly watch the road.”
“The road isn't ideal,” replied the irritated voice of Daul's chimera driver, “But if we go on any other paths our treads will get stuck in the ash piles or die when we ignite the methane geysers. Belzafest was a garden paradise compared to this hellhole. The planet itself is a minefield, and I don't like the idea of blowing up.”
“Inquisitor, you always do take me to the loveliest places,” Snorted Danzig in amusement, “Perhaps next time we can skip the foreplay and just light ourselves on fire.”
“That can still be arranged,” Daul replied dry amusement as they hit another bump, yanking him in his chair uncomfortably, “Throne almighty that's uncomfortable.”
The Kroot crooned in agreement. Vira'capac licked his left eyeball with his tongue nervously as he preened himself, softly muttering in his own singsong language. The constant motion irritated the Kroot more than anyone else, doubtlessly agitating the gas bladder between the creature's nose and lungs which it used to filter out toxins.
The chain of Chimeras jerked and jostled their way across the inhospitable Akdor landscape, driving across rocky outcroppings and past deep ravines. One of the chimeras turned too soon and disturbed an underground pocket of methane, bursting it and flinging the transport head over heels into a pool of chemical runoff. Daul ordered the vox casters to be switched to another channel to save them from having to listen to the Lionhearts’ agonized final screams before giving the order to continue their march.
It was just as well that Danzig decided to do so, apparently the forward scout sentinels had their vox units set to two units above what they were supposed to be broadcasting. The Lionheart growled in irritation, "Throne, has anyone read the void-born mission parameters beyond the summary? It's a miracle they had their vox units active at all."
"I wouldn't blame them," Shan intoned in his raspy near whisper, smoothing his yellow and black checkered tunic. He took special care to brush off the patch embroidered with Daul's personal crest, Shan's symbol of fealty. "The magnetic rock formations will be paying hell with our equipment. We were equipped for the climate of Belzafest, not Akdor. We're ruggedized and air tight, but the magnetic interference of Belzafest was not as pronounced. Communication will be shorter ranged than we'd hoped."
"We're just going to have to operate on the assumption that the individual units reach their intended positions by the time we hit the rendezvous point," Daul sighed in exasperation, "The military aid of our allies ought to compensate for the delays, Emperor willing. They're no Adeptus Astrates, but they'll have to do."
"You have several thousand ground-pounders backed up by tanks and air support. They're as good or better than whatever else is out there," Commander Ivanova interjected irritatedly, "And as good as any other military in service."
Cain tweeted incredulously, eying Susan with a mix of confusion and bemused interest as he scratched his forehead with a long metal talon.
Daul couldn't help himself, he burst into a fit of giggles that drove the commander into frigid silence. Taking a moment to compose himself and sending a minor psychic suggestion to the other soldiers to stifle their own sniggers, he addressed the commander, "Commander Ivanova, the Adeptus Astartes are our…. specialty soldiers. They’re monastic warrior orders, bred specifically for the purposes of excelling at warfare. I'm certain that the "Gropos" are admirable soldiersm but the Space Marines are… more than that. An individual Space Marine is equal to any ten of the Lionhearts, and that is being generous."
"You can't be…" the commander trailed off, her eyes glazing over slightly in borrowed memory. She blinked twice to reorient herself before continuing, "Ok, so you are serious. But we don't have them and the ground pounders will do the job. They're good at what they do."
"We shall certainly see," Daul replied indecisively, "Faust will give them more than ample chances."
The transport echoed slightly with the sound of small arms fire against the hull as the driver shouted orders to the gunner. The multi-laser turret swiveled on its axis with a grinding of shifting gears and the hiss of pneumatic pistons, and the echoing buzz-crack of a dozen high powered streams of weaponized energy seared some unseen target. A brilliant burst of flame flashed through the tiny slitted view ports on the transport's sides, braying screams of agony howling in time with the blast.
"All clear," chimed the driver over the intercom before kicking the transport back into gear, "Be on the lookout. Sh'lassen rebel forces are setting ambushes along the path."
Danzig checked the sights on his hot-shot lasrifle, fiddling with the beam transparency. "ETA to target?"
"Target is imminent," replied the driver, "Forward outpost in five, four, three, two, one, mark."
The Chimera rounded a bend in the magnetic rock formations and turned into a formation of Earth Alliance tanks. The angular war machines’ powerful laser cannons targeted the Chimera even as they hailed requesting the Imperials identify themselves.
Taking the encrypted vox offered to him by Cairn Daul replied with the identification code, fumbling through the Interlac words, "Whiskey, eagle, eagle, two, delta, two, seven, bravo, one, five."
A tired but friendly voice replied over the vox channel, "Glad to have you here, Inquisitor. We could use all the help we could get. General Franklin is waiting for you on the western ridge in the motor pool."
"Very well," Daul replied, nodding to the driver. The Chimera lumbered along past the massive tanks, giving Daul a clear view of them through the tiny window of transparent plastisteel. He let out a low impressed whistle at the sheer mass of them, easily twice the size of a leman russ with a gun to match. It hovered on powerful antigrav struts, nimbly navigating the rocky terrain as though it were open ground.
"Those are new model Odin and Loki," Susan remarked in surprise, "I didn't know that they'd gotten those in service yet."
"Not too shabby," Danzig commented in earnest, "Not projectile weapons I presume?"
"A dumbed down of the plasma cannons used by warships, it packs a heck of a punch," Susan smiled wistfully, prompting Daul to suspect that she'd very much like to fire one. Cairn was veritably watering at the mouth at the new technologies, his facial tentacles frenziedly drawing the machines for future reference.
The Earth Alliance was primitive in many respects, but confusingly advanced in many others. How could a society so backward in even the most basic understanding of both shielding and psychic technologies have managed to develop such advanced anti-gravity and plasma weaponries? It veritably boggled the mind.
The Chimera shuddered to a halt, its wide door yawning outwards and into a frenzied mass of black-armored marines scuttling around the motor pool in blind purpose. Long necked combat hovercraft landed for just long enough to disgorge the wounded and load a fresh load of soldiers destined for the meat grinder.
Dozens of men bearing wounds from familiar imperial las weaponry as well as the deep tooth and claw marks of half-breed savagery lay on cots. A mess of white coated medics did what they could to save the wounded and comfort the dying, though more came with every trip of the flying transports.
"Inquisitor," A domineering, bespectacled black man barked across the mass of men. Though he was several yards from the Imperials somehow his voice managed to carry across ocean of human suffering without any loss of clarity or absolute authority, "Over here."
It wasn't the most impressive command station Daul had ever seen, certainly no Imperial general would be so gauche as to arrive at a battlefield without at least a proper tent and serving staff, but what the Alliance lacked in grandeur it made up in practicality. A rather meager steel fold out table with an aging map and a small hololithic projector displayed the relative locations of enemy and allied positions, standing as the centerpiece to haphazard piles of tactical printouts and early battle reports. The sour-faced general Franklin brandished these reports at his underlings, barking harsh commands with the absolute expectation that they would be followed out.
Daul approached and bowed, interlocking his hands in the symbol of the Aquilla, “General Franklin.”
“Inquisitor Daul Hilder,” replied the General placidly before his eyes settled on Susan and an edge of venom seeped into his voice, “The former Commander Ivanova.”
“Sir?” The Commander blinked as though slapped.
“I'm well aware of your rising status in the Empire Miss Ivanova.” He growled in irritation, “Telepaths cannot serve as an officer of Earthforce, certainly not telepaths who've defected. Consider it an act of mercy that I don't arrest you this instant on behalf of the Psi-corps because I need the Inquisitor's expertise -and don't think for a second an arrest isn't damn tempting.”
“Sir I've done nothing wrong,” The commander pleaded, a look of abject horror on her face, “I'm in-” Susan stopped mid sentence in shock when the General slapped his palm on the table and stared her in the eyes with a look of indomitable resolve. Even as she sputtered trying to explain herself, he wouldn't even begin to listen to her insistent affirmations of innocence.
“Miss Ivanova, it is in your best interests for you to close your mouth this instant. Settling what you did or did not do is a job for the Psi-corps and a board of inquiry if and when you decide to report back to Babylon 5 where you are currently AWOL. And a General hasn't got time for a derelict soldier,” It was cruel of Daul to have forwarded a receipt of the commanders amnesty and new role in Imperial government to the Earth Alliance prior to their departure via Centauri diplomatic channels, but the woman couldn't properly evolve into her new role as long as the hope of returning to her former position abided. Yet another wound inflicted upon his apprentice for her own benefit; she would one day come to appreciate the benefits of what he'd done for her. Not in this century, perhaps, but she would eventually.
General Franklin pulled the stomach of his uniform forwards and straightened his spectacles, tossing a still image across the table towards the inquisitor, “Now Inquisitor, what the devil am I dealing with?”
The image showed a corpse of a bloated and distended creature, that might have been a man if not for its mawkish gait or the thick masses of bony crests and thick tentacles across it' massive mottled black-and-grey flesh. A half breed of Faust's working, to be sure.
Daul cleared his throat. “Nightmares, General. You're fighting monsters and nightmares. They are not creatures of flesh and blood to be reasoned with, they're weapons created with an inscrutable and malevolent purpose.”
“Well, I've got a hundred and fifty miles of trench warfare and bunkers full of the fraggers between us and the Sh'lassen rebels at Matok. We can't get anything airborne close enough to make a significant difference in our advance without passing one of the damned anti-aircraft platforms in the fortress or the methane geysers that are just as bad. The best we've been able to do- General xny'Yih? Can you come over here for a moment?” The bespectacled man waved to a hooded figure some twelve feet away chatting with a number of other hooded men. It hobbled forward as the General continued, “The best we've been able to do is just slow the rate of attrition. The black devils are dug in tight.”
The hooded figure pulled back his cowl to reveal the goat-like face of a Sh'lassen man. The creature swiveled its unnerving golden eyes to Daul and chattered in a braying sneer of annoyance, “The heretics are defiling the place of the Old Gods, the teachings of our forefathers and the only thing standing between us and reclaiming the truth that is ours are these... these... beasts!”
The irony of calling another species a beast was apparently lost upon the harsh voiced longhorn. It stamped its bipedal hooves and pulled at a thick rope of golden fibers, shaking its head in unmistakable exasperation. Daul bowled enough to be respectful, but not so much as to imply obsolescence, “You are of the Triumvirate, I presume.”
“General xny'Yih,” Confirmed the bestial humanoid, “ I've been leading the siege of Matok these past two years to reclaim the truth that belongs to all.”
“What truth?” probed the Commander.
The beast man fixed her with his unnerving gaze, eyes narrowed in irritation, “If I knew it, I wouldn't need to waste two years watching men die. The rebels claim it and our ancestral fortress to be theirs and theirs alone. 'We are not ready' bah. Who are they to judge who may know the nameless' brilliance in battling the nightmares of old.”
“Faust doesn't send his troops en-masse somewhere unless there is something of legitimate value to be taken. Whatever it is that he wants, we cannot allow him to have it. Faust is a war criminal worse than any you've ever seen,” Balefire flickered around Daul in his anger, “He must not succeed.”
“Precisely what is he guilty of doing in the Imperium?” Probed General Franklin in expectant curiosity as he eyed the red shapes moving around the hololithic map. Waves of green flickered into and out of view in the haze of red.
“Much,” whispered Shan in a voice of horrible calm, “He is guilty of murder, torture, slavery, genocide, and the destruction of the Belzafest colony, as well as countless others for well over a century.”
“He destroyed a city?” General Franklin interjected in disbelief.
“Belzafest was a planet,” corrected Daul, “Whatever his goal is here, we must ensure he does not succeed. The crimes on Belzafest were some of his lesser evils. Entire planetary populations have been put to death for fear his half-breeds might poison off-worlders.”
“We've been doing what we can to stop infections. The venomous stinger's entry wound is quite distinctive, but short of amputating the limb we haven't been able to find a way of curing the poison without killing the soldier,” brayed the Sh'lassen general in anger, “But communication with the frontline soldiers is so bad that it's often too late to do anything other than shoot the poor bastard before he goes mad from the venom.”
“I was referring to a more metaphorical poison,” Daul cleared his throat uncomfortably, “The half-breeds are male... they favor the use of other sentient species females for incubating their young. The woman is forcibly implanted with around a dozen pups. The process is slow, so that the mother can attempt to flee back to safety and spread the half-breeds to a new population center they do not yet control.The mother becomes their first meal after they chew their way out. I rather thought it might have come up before now without me needing to say...”
“We do not send our females to war,” brayed xny'Yih in preoccupation, “So it would not have. It may soon become problematic however.”
General Franklin shot one of his underlings a worried look, “Lieutenant Davis, issue an immediate warning to all soldiers. Tell them exactly what the Inquisitor just told me, word for word. Lets not take any chances. And issue an order not to let them take POWs under any circumstances.”
“Easier said than done,” Susan rejoined, puckering her lips inward in shame at the Generals spiteful glare.
The General waited a full minute, staring at her in uncomfortable silence before continuing as though the Commander had never spoken. “They've got the whole inner valley under their control. Environmental conditions prevent air support, so we're going to have to do this one the old fashioned way. Even our air support can't safely operate higher than about thirty stories up. The Narn and Centauri are massing for a combined assault on the northern front with General Andre's troops so that we can cut them off from the west and force them to retreat into the rebel artillery. Your Imperial vehicles are going to need to spearhead that western assault.”
“Faust will have group of a non-half breeds guiding the war effort,” Daul tapped the thickest mass of red on the map, “If we can get to them and kill their leaders we should be able to mop up the remaining troops with relative ease. They're bred for ferocity, not cleverness.”
“I will have a guide assigned to you to guide you through the terrain,” hawed the Sh'lassen general, “There are still a few left who managed to survive the loss of our forward lines who should know some of the secret paths and safe havens.”
“Incoming!” screamed a frenzied ensign as she and everyone else in the encampment dropped to the ground. A whistling thrum sung through the air as an explosive shell collided with the sooty earth half a mile away from where Daul stood, kicking up a brilliant explosive burst of flame and debris. The Inquisitor winced and thumbed the controls to his helmet's audio feed, drowning out the screams of pain from distant soldiers.
Cairn aided Daul in rising to his feet, irritatedly brushing off his Talbard with a brush he'd produced from Throne alone knew were. Daul shoved the brush away in exasperation and chided him in Gothic, “Cairn, the blessed thing will be soaked in blood and all manner of horrible things before the day is through. A bit of soot won't do any more damage.”
His attendant crossed his arms and eyed him irritatedly, the brush quirked to the side and chirruping irritatedly as though to say “well you go and wash it then why don't you?” Putting the sarcastic Skitarii from his mind, he lifted his apprentice to her feet, “Up you get, Commander Ivanova. We haven't got all day.”
“They've moved their artillery closer than your map would indicate,” Danzig flipped up from where he lay back to the ground with acrobatic ease, his wide silk pants flaring over his combat armor, “Or they have equipment that's better than you reported.”
“Assume the latter,” Vira'capac crooned in irritation, “Man things never get better answer. Worse always than plans. Highly irritating that Vira'capac has not died yet. Perhaps get lucky this time. Perhaps not.”
“General.” A woman's voice cracked across the relative silence like a whip, preceding the arrival of a lean woman of dark completion. Her name was just visible behind the long dreadlocks that hung down her uniform, Tonya Wallace. Precisely what rank ISN indicated was lost upon Daul but the brevity and familiarity with which she treated the General left no doubt of her importance. The word “reporter” echoed in his mind vaguely, though it' meaning found no purchase in the Gothic language, “General, I want to know why I haven't been assigned to a military unit yet. I'm supposed to be reporting from the front lines.”
“Miss Wallace,” replied the General in a tone of exhausted repetition, as though having an argument he'd long ago tired of fighting, “The situation is far more volatile than we initially anticipated. Once we have a more solid foothold into the – What are they called Inquisitor?”
“The proper name would be xenodeamonia hälféraza Knyttneve, but 'half-breed' is more than sufficient,” Daul replied, eyeing the silver hovering disks that floated around the woman and wondering as to their purpose.
“Lord Almighty, that is a mouthful,” The General shook his head, “The half-breeds are a lot tougher and more dangerous than we realized.”
“The initial report I got from the Sh'lassen government said that 'the bowels of hell have yawned open to disgorge a mass of the most horrendous creatures from the time of nightmares when death first touched the land.' Was that insufficiently descriptive?” She was a noble of notable standing to be able to afford that sort of device and talk to a general disrespectfully without fear of reprisal. Perhaps he could use this to his advantage.
“If the Lady Wallace desires she could accompany our party,” Daul interjected before the General could open his mouth and say something foolish to the noblewoman, “Provided that she is willing to accept the dangers I face at the forefront.”
Susan stared at Daul in utter disbelief before making a soft “oh” of comprehension with her lips and bursting into a fit of silent giggles. Ivanova really was an odd woman at times. Daul suspected it might be a long term side effect of the combined memories though he couldn't be sure. Ignoring her strange behavior he continued, “The potential for fatal harm is great, but if you are willing to shoulder the risk then you may come.”
The noblewoman veritably salivated at the opportunity, shooting a wry glance at the Alliance general. “Yes, yes that would be entirely OK with me!”
“I can't stop you Miss Wallace,” The General replied irritatedly, covering his ears as another shell burst some sixty yards from the Alliance forward outpost, “But you're going to have to go now. Inquisitor we need to start pressing forward towards the west sooner than I'd planned. If we don't get rid of that damned artillery we're going to lose the forward momentum and they'll have time to regroup.”
“Well we can't very well have that,” Daul nodded looked down at the hololithic display and its sea of red waving around the great spire of Matok. He laughed sharply and clutched the ethereal image in his augmentic fist, red images distorting around the ivory digits, “Cairn, I do believe that it's time for us to pay a visit to our old friends and voice our displeasure.”
The Skitarii growled in agreement, flexing its talons in anticipation of the hunt to come.