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This is the third in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events of the first two stories, Incident at Ko'Grappa and Incident at Avalon. It is followed by: Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu, The Council of Chozanti, and The Battle of the Jade Mirror. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.

Part OneEdit

Cai Rui let the pack roar at full burn for ninety seconds before he relented. The HUD said that he had traveled nearly two thousand meters. Slowly he throttled back on the fuel, letting himself sail in a low, pulsing arc over the ice-torn plateau. Scanning for a clearing in the rubble below, he finally let himself land on the curving lip of a lateral moraine with a view of the surrounding plain. He would have at least a few seconds to react, even if they encircled him — or so he hoped.

He toggled his microphone. “Barnswallow, this is Gold Five. We are under attack. Prepare for launch. All units: scramble for evac immediately.”

The response was slow in coming, shredded by bursts of static, but it was still possible to make out the pilot’s western hemisphere drawl. “Roger on sitrep, Gold Five,” she said. “But that’s a nega–tory on lift–off. Repeat, nega–tory on lift–off.”

Cai Rui switched to the private channel irritably. “What do you mean, negative? We need to get the hell out of here!”

“Yep. Sin loi for us, chief. Barn is on fire. Been tryin’ to get through to you for the last ten minutes, but our long-range comm is jammed from above. We’ve got two eagles in the sky, weapons hot. Judgin’ by the fireworks I’d say they got gauss PD and grasslights at the least.”

Cai Rui looked up, sweeping the palms of his gloves over the smeared face-plate of his helmet, clearing the thin film of red ice. Through the turbulent morning sandstorm he could see the faint flicker of green and blue light as ships above exchanged fire. “An orbital attack?” he said, incredulous. “But we had the latest scan. There were no other ships in this quadrant. No one could have reached us that fast. It’s impossible—“

The pilot’s voice broke in again, ironically amused. “I ain’t sayin’ it’s possible. Just that it’s happenin’. I got the message when our friends turned up. Two birds, cruiser size — they’re nkc. Maybe some smaller support vessels, too. Don’t know. That’s all I got before they started jamming us.” She paused. “Can’t get a word back from the barn, but I don’t think they can take that kind of punishment for—“

The fireball cut off her words, the unmistakable spreading lotus of oxygen–nitrogen aflame. For a long moment his earbuds hissed and moaned in silence. “Yeah,” she said at last. “Guess that’s that.”

Cai Rui turned toward the east. In the distance he could see the dark shapes moving, indistinct but swift, loping around the boulders. They covered ground at appalling speed. There were at least a hundred, moving in clumps of five or six — squads, perhaps.

His mind moved swiftly, thoughts sliding into position like the beads of the abacus. Two cruisers. No known configuration. Employing either an unknown means of propulsion or an unknown method of avoiding detection — possibly both.

A distress signal sent as bait, drawing out a small Sol Force contingent to a distant, peripheral planet. For months, there had not been a single message on the SolForce wire which was not filtered by his office for the requested keywords. He had eyes and ears within Tarkasian space as well — combing reports, listening to stories at the stardocks and ports, collecting tales from frightened colonists, drunken traders, taciturn smugglers and black marketeers.

He could still remember the words on the wire: “Calling all SolForce vessels. Slaver attack at Avalon. Please assist.” Nothing more, but it was the first solid lead he had been given since Ko’Grappa. Of course he had gone to check it out personally.

And stepped into the waiting arms of a demon that knew his name.

He toggled the comm. “Barnswallow, prepare for lift–off.” He set his scope to maximum zoom, trying to make out the shape of the enemy approaching — at 500 meters they were still moving too fast from one patch of cover to the next to get a solid image. The one thing he could say for certain was that they ran on all fours, a predatory leaping gallop that sent a shiver down his spine.

Her voice carried the edge of angry frustration. “We got nowhere to go, sir. Soon as I fire up these engines, we’re gonna be visible from orbit. We’ll be the only duck in a shootin’ gallery.”

“Trust me, lieutenant. We will all be happier in the air. My eta is 3 minutes.” He turned and leaped from the moraine, augmenting his bounds with occasional bursts of the jetpack — trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and the voice that had crawled like a beetle within the folds of his brain.

Along the way, he muttered to his personal computer. “Cicero. Mappa strategia Avalonae.” Obligingly, the suit laid a transparency over his view, assets marked in red. He had always been a careful man, but there were many worlds in the empire, and he had viewed so many schematics for so many missions that just this once, he had to re–check — if only to be certain that desperation had not supplied him with a false hope.

His last bound carried him to within 20 meters of the shuttle — his support platoon had taken up a circle of firing positions around the craft. “Good to see you in one piece, Gold Five.” Gardner’s voice, rising from his crouch with a hand raised in greeting. “Thought we might lose you back there.”

He looked into the boy’s eyes and nodded. “Gold Six is gone,” he said quietly. He put his glove to his blood–spattered chestplate. “She saved my life. Fall out, Nineteen. Everyone into the shuttle.” He stood on the ramp and waited until all six Marines had entered before he stepped inside and dropped the hatch.

The pilot was already strapped into her cockpit. She hadn’t yet fired the engine. He dropped into the co-pilot’s seat beside her, and she looked across at him. “You sure about this, commander—?”

“Yes.” He took the data line from the armrest beside him and plugged it into his suit, downloading his map into her console. The site he had selected was already tagged in red. “This is a strategic map of the system. It is, of course, highly classified. We need to reach these coordinates.” He tapped her navigation screen with his fingertip. “In one piece. We may be fired upon, from orbit and possibly from the ground. I assume you know the maximum elevation we can attain and still avoid laser lock from space.”

She paled. “It’s fifty meters. Maybe a hundred, in this storm?”

“Then I would suggest you fly the nap, unless you care to bet our lives on the weather.”

She grinned, reaching for the ignition. “Saddle up, soldiers,” she said, looking over her shoulder to the Marines in the back. “We’re in for a sporty flight!”

The men hurried into their flight webs, and Cai Rui quickly buckled himself into the seat. The woman was mad, of course, like all pilots. She looked forward to a potentially lethal rush at hundreds of miles an hour over the skin of the planet’s surface, buffeted by savage cross winds and blowing sand and ice, dodging unpredictable formations of rock and fusillades of gauss flack from above. This would be her idea of a “good time”.

Cai Rui, although he preferred to err on the side of her madness, was not nearly so certain that all of these dangerous precautions were necessary. There were other, darker possibilities. As the shuttle rose from the ground, he switched his comm to ground channel and picked a random scramble. “All units. This is Gold Five. It is time for a debriefing. Acknowledge transmission NV.”

He waited for all six lights on the HUD to blink affirmative. “Information on this mission is delivered on a Need–to–Know basis. Here are the things that you officially Need to Know.

“One: our support vessel in orbit has been attacked and probably destroyed. Long-range communications are being jammed at the system level. Even if the Hyperion managed to send out a distress call to SolForce before they were jammed, reinforcements could not arrive here for several days. We have to assume that we are on our own.

“Two: We are about to become the first SolForce personnel ever to survive contact with a new alien race. The creatures we are up against are not Hivers, Tarka or Liir. We don’t know much about them — but today we’ve discovered that they don’t need a spacesuit in ground conditions like these. And they have ships capable of taking down a SolForce cruiser with all hands.”

He let this sink in for a moment before he continued. “Those of you who have been with me on previous missions have probably already begun to put two and two together yourselves. We don’t know what this race calls itself, but you have probably heard them called ‘slavers’. The few who have seen the aftermath of their attacks call them 'Rippers' — today I found out why. Whatever they are, they’ve got huge claws. Very strong, very fast. And big.”

One of the lights on the HUD flashed twice. “Yes, Black Fifteen?”

“How big is ‘big’, sir?” The Marine’s voice had lifted half an octave with tension. “Are we talking bigger than a Daddy Croc or a Warbug?”

Cai Rui hesitated. “I didn’t ask it to step onto the scales, private. It looked about the size of a Hiver Warrior or a Changed Tarka, yes. But I will admit that I couldn’t see very well, with my helmet covered in blood.”

The boat was accelerating now, spires of ice and rock flying by at terrifying speed. In the distance behind them, there was a series of deep, reverberating thuds.

“Holy moly,” someone said. “What are they doing back there? Did you see those things hit? They were the size of a truck at lea—”

The only warning was the quick tilt of her helmet; suddenly the shuttle slammed into a bank. It shuddered with the nearness of the collision as something the size of a destroyer passed within inches of the stern.

“JEE–susmaryandjoe!”

The boom of impact rocked the shuttle. Cai Rui, his portside seat suddenly parallel to the ground, winced as his window was hammered by the upward plume of debris.

“What the HELL did they just throw at us!? What the HELL kind of weapon is that!?” The pilot continued her turning circle, engines screaming with strain.

Cai Rui looked down through the billowing sand, rapidly clearing before the onslaught of the wind. There was a significant impact crater below, but it was clear that the missile, whatever it was, had not hit at full terminal velocity. It had been some sort of ship or vessel, reduced now to a circular deposit of scrap — the colorful contents of the hold scattered over the icy plain.

Something within him seemed to go very still. “Lieutenant, make another pass.”

“Why, so they can throw another damn building at me? Are you crazy?”

“Do as I say,” Cai Rui said quietly.

With an inarticulate cry of frustration, the pilot banked again, circling back over the impact crater.

“Hold steady,” he said. “Camera on.” The image panned over the interior of his face–plate, linked to the flight recorder of the shuttle. “Magnify.”

There was silence for a few moments, finally broken by a horrified whisper. “My God. Look at all the people.”

It was Gardner’s voice — Cai Rui had forgotten that his suit was broadcasting. All six Marines and the pilot were looking down on the strewn field of corpses — the naked dead of a dozen worlds.

Scattered among the wreckage there were Hivers, Humans and Tarka together — looking more closely, he could even see a few pitiful Liir. The stunned pilot had slowed, without orders, pausing at a hover. The cameras panned over the carnage, slowly zooming in, clarifying, steadying the image. Even in death, these gaunt bodies and haunted faces were eloquent of a vast and prolonged suffering.

Slaves.

Deus misereatur,” he murmured softly.

Something stirred among the dead. “Follow motion,” he said, having the camera track the dark shape that feebly crawled among the broken flesh and steel. There in the wreckage was a twisted, shattered form, dragging itself by one heavy claw toward the shelter of a rock to die. Four limbs. Covered with hair. Broken jaws hanging wide in agony — equipped with ferocious rending fangs. A large predator, born to kill.

“Behold the enemy,” he said. “We’re not seeing him at his best, but—“

The creature rolled over onto its back, its body convulsing in pain. “Seeing her at her best, sir,” one of the women said. “That one’s a female.”

The beast was now still, its massive chest no longer rising — and still the pilot hovered, her face rapt with horrified fascination. “Her belly is still movin’,” she croaked. “There’s something inside her.”

Cai Rui frowned. “Maximum magnification.” Something indeed seemed to be stirring under the skin of the slaver female — there was some kind of slit in her abdomen, filled with restless lumps.

“Gah!” The Marines flinched as the worms burst forth, two bloody heads emerging from twin holes in the hairy carcass. They retreated rapidly into the bloody tunnels they had made, as if to flee the cold.

Cai Rui swallowed his gorge, nauseated. “I believe we’ve seen enough. Camera off. Move on, lieutenant. We won’t have much time.”

The pilot leveled off, her face bathed with sweat. “They weren’t really trying to hit us, were they. That wasn’t about us at all.”

“I don’t think so, no,” Cai Rui said — somewhat reluctantly. “I don’t believe they would deliberately fire on this vessel.”

She shuddered. “What the hell did they crash all those ships for? It must have been at least four went down — that can’t have been an accident.”

“I don’t know, lieutenant.” But in his mind, the chorus of dead women was loud, words rising up in his consciousness and tumbling together.

The Rippers are back.

My God, they’re everywhere.

We had no idea what they were, until they started working together.

The local rats really make short work of anything that’s just lying around — they’ll eat anything that resembles food or garbage.

Nasty things, like weasels.

My God, they’ve gotten so big…

Jimmy, no. Don’t open the…hatch.

Because…he…won’t…let…go.

Part TwoEdit

The hatch was covered with a layered blanket of ice. In the dark channel of this valley, periodic melts had brought successive flows of water down the face of the rock wall. Cai Rui tapped the surface again with his probe and then stepped back. “Once more should do it. Very, very thin.”

The Marine stepped forward again with the hot gun, re–tracing the same square over the control panel with a quick, precise hand. His trigger finger was so delicate that only a pencil–slim line of the thermal foam was released. Within seconds of completion the lines began to smoke, scoring the ice even more deeply — when the reaction stopped, they had burned down to the metal. Cai Rui slipped the tip of his probe beneath the square cake and levered it away, revealing the old control panel.

Quickly he patched his suit into the lock. “Command override one–nine–nine–eight–zulu. Commander Cai Rui, authorization code Charlie–India–Charlie–Echo–Romeo–Oscar–four–three–Bravo–Charlie.”

For a moment the mechanism was silent, and Cai Rui's stomach twisted in nauseating fear. Then, at last, the machinery within the mountain groaned. The ice trembled, and Cai Rui hastily backed away, signaling the rest of the unit to retreat. There was a sharp crack! from the overhang above, followed by a sound like a burst of small arms fire — the ice began to fall, dropping from the high cliffs to shatter on the stone floor of the cul de sac in massive sheets and chunks. The troops waited, tense and silent, until the tremor ceased, and then moved in quickly to clear a path through the debris.

When Cai Rui placed his hand on the hatch it rolled back, revealing a hole in the side of the mountain. “Black Twelve, Fourteen, take point. See if you can get the lights on.” He switched to the secondary channel as the two Marines moved in, stepping in through the hatch with pit-lamps on. “Barnswallow, how is the job coming?”

There was a moment's hesitation before the reply. “Doin' m'best, Gold Five. I just don't see how you're going to make this work. You won't be able to get a signal to this thing at all past 500 meters. Atmo is just too thick.”

“The atmosphere will not be a problem, lieutenant. Keep working.”

He switched back to primary channel, turned and followed the second pair of Marines into the hatch, leaving the third pair to guard the entrance. “Twelve, is the generator functional?”

“Yes sir. It looks fine. We just need to juice it.”

Cai Rui frowned — one of the two Marines would be giving up a fuel cell from his suit. “Do it in one shot if you can.”

“Roger, Gold Five.”

His escort moved cautiously into the tunnels ahead, probing the darkness with their restless beams of light. “Looks like another hatch, sir.” One of them held up a hand. “High security.”

Cai Rui moved to the front and patched his suit into the second lock, repeating his command override and adding the code for Q clearance. The hatch slid aside, and he stepped through ahead of his companions. A niche had opened in the far wall — he walked to it swiftly and put the hand of his suit into it, fitting the fingers into the rough slots for a five–digit extremity. There was a brief sting at the tip of each finger as the system inserted its probes, connecting with his suit system and tasting him with its five needle tongues. A third hatch slid open in the far wall.

“Command override acknowledged.” The smooth feminine voice sounded in his earbuds. “Commander Cai Rui, authorized to proceed.”

He exhaled at last, feeling a wave of relief wash over him. “All right. We're in. We're going to have to move fast.”

A second channel cut into his comm line. “Gold Five, we've powered the generator. Going to try to fire it up.”

“Roger, B–Twelve. Proceed.” A distant thrum reverberated through the cement floor, and the lighting system stuttered to life in a series of fitful flashes. The Marines waited for several seconds to see if the glowing tubes in the ceiling would die and then flicked off their scope beams. Cai Rui smiled. “Well done, Twelve. We've gotten through here. Come on down.”

He turned and loped into the curving labyrinth of tunnels, breaking a thick layer of red dust with every step. The last curve opened up into a bunker, its circular walls paneled by information screens and broken by five hatches.

Only one of the control boards was live, signaling its distress with a single flashing light. He forced a command through the circuits, trying to open the hatch doors. The mechanism would not respond.

He sighed. “Burn one. We have no time.”

He paced restlessly as the team torched the hinges and the locks. After some struggle they at last managed to pull the heavy secondary blast door from one of the tunnels. He stepped in, looking for another security panel, and found another place to patch in, forcing open the hatches all the way to the pit below. The HUD count–down gave him twenty minutes before they would enter the danger zone.

He turned to find all four Marines standing behind him. “All right. We're going to have to do this right the first time — there won't be a second chance. Twelve, Sixteen — find us a gravbed and get it up to the top of the gantry. Fourteen, get down to the second level and hack the telemetry — I want to know where this thing was supposed to go, and whether it can be re–routed. Gardner — you're with me.”

He turned and ran into the twisting stone tunnel, following a branch which led up a steep incline. The final hatch had only half-opened, its mechanism wheezing faintly in the dust; he gave it a push and stepped out onto a steel grate.

Even in a spacesuit he felt a tremor of reaction as he looked down — the walkway was suspended over a drop of nearly 400 feet to the bottom of this massive stone tube, and the echoing clang of his footsteps was magnified. The side of the rocket gleamed in the wan glow of the automatic lighting — he was now just a few feet away from many megatons of explosive force.

Gardner stepped in beside him — Cai Rui turned in time to see the Marine grin. “Hello, beautiful.” The boy reached out and stroked the panel almost sensuously with his glove, clearing a film of dust from the smooth heads of the magnetic screws. He glanced at the commander. “Sorry. Looking forward to this — I've never seen one up close before.”

“It's all right. Just be careful.”

Gardner went to work immediately, releasing the seals to peel back an accordion of titanium steel. Cai Rui looked down again, hammering his brief spasm of vertigo into submission. “Fourteen, do you read?”

“Yes sir,” came the voice from below. “Just pulling the coordinates. This bird is pointed at a planet in Tarka space — ninety–point twenty–one–sixty–point zero–zero–three.”

“Ke'Vanthu.” He closed his eyes. “Can it be re-routed?”

“Afraid not, Gold. The engine is just too primitive. It'll come up short if we point it anywhere else.”

He hesitated. “All right. Get the launch sequence started.”

“Roger, Gold.” He switched to the broadcast. “All units — look alive. I'm going to fire the charges to clear the silo doors. Acknowledge transmission NV.”

Cai Rui sent his silent acknowledgment and braced himself on the gantry — Gardner paused and took a firm grip on the panel he was working on. Seconds later a series of deep percussive thumps sounded overhead, as the clearing charges went off on the mountain peak above.

It was an old silo, built more than twenty years before the founding of the colony on Avalon. Secret installations like this were hidden on a number of obscure rocks in open space, during a period when the limited range of node drives made it difficult to get within throwing distance of enemy systems. A base like this would house up to six of the deadly old drones, ready to be launched by heavy lifters into orbit and targeted on strategic systems nearby. Modern advances had rendered the old fission–based drives obsolete, and throughout the empire they had been replaced. Now the hidden silos were officially decommissioned...but in reality, SolForce never “decommissioned” a weapons system. The security codes were kept up to date, even when other types of maintenance were allowed to slide.

Some lessons are impossible to forget, Cai Rui thought. Even a rusting sword can save your life.

Overhead the doors slid back, and a shower of ice and grit showered down into the pit. The howling wind was immediately audible above, and the empty tube of the silo moaned with resonance like the hollow body of a massive flute. When at last the roof above was clear, the stormy blood–red sky of Avalon boiled above. Two Marines rose from the floor of the silo, standing on a gravbed — Cai Rui tossed them the hooks from the gantry and helped them tie up the levitating platform.

The two women worked swiftly, helping Gardner remove the protective paneling from the rocket's payload and disconnecting the massive warhead and liquid boosters from the missile. By the end of the job, all five suits and the gravbed itself were groaning from overstrain. The team rode together to the entrance and navigated the platform carefully over the broken ice and stone of the chasm. The pilot and her shuttle were waiting, along with the two guards he had left.

“Load as much as you can,” he said tersely. “The warhead is the priority.”

The pilot looked over his shoulder at the payload he had brought — behind the glass of her helmet, she paled visibly. “That's a whole lotta boom, sir.”

“Yes it is. If the extra fuel tanks are too heavy, drop them there.” He pointed to a notch in the rocks, the last narrow point before the chasm opened into a broader canyon. “They may come in handy.”

Cai Rui recorded a crystal as the Marines went to work. When it was finished he ducked back into the shuttle. The pilot was still there, sitting in the cockpit — watching the screens for any sign of movement.

“Upload this to the comm,” he said. “I'll program the lift–off myself, if you don't mind.”

With a silent nod she slotted the crystal into the communications array, transferring command to the co–pilot's seat in the process. Quickly he programmed the auto–pilot sequence — a simple lift–off, followed by rapid rise as quickly as possible into orbit. The message he had recorded would be broadcast repeatedly...for as long as the shuttle was intact.

“All right, people.” The door of the shuttle sealed behind him, the thrum of its warming engines blending with the howl of the storm. “Let's fall back. We need to get into the silo and—”

My, my. What a merry chase you lead, Cai Rui.

He reached for his weapon, dropping into a silent crouch and searching the surrounding rocks. All of the Marines reacted instantly to his movement, assuming defensive positions, rifles at the ready.

His broadcast was brief. “Fall back in pairs. Get back inside the entrance. Now.”

No, no, no. That will never do.

The flicker of a shadow was the only warning. The rippers dropped from above: only one of the two Marines to the rear managed to dodge, throwing himself to the side just an instant before his attacker struck. The other man had time only for a brief bark of fright before he was crushed beneath the weight of his opponent.

She landed on all fours, her two huge foreclaws buried in his torso. There was a horrendous crunch as she dropped her head and quickly crushed his helmet in her jaws.

The squad turned and opened fire, pouring a torrent of steel into the two massive bodies. One of the rippers collapsed, her flattened skull riddled with holes — the other staggered forward, snarling, fangs still festooned with torn cloth and rags of flesh. Cai Rui spared only a single backward glance before turning the other direction — in time to see a second pair of rippers slinking through the narrow entrance.

There was only a moment to react. The shuttle was already rising from the valley floor, its maneuvering thrusters firing to maintain safe distance from the jagged rock walls. Cai Rui fired a short burst into the nearest, eliciting a shriek of rage as it fell, writhing in the ice to bite at the stinging wounds in its side. The pilot dropped to one knee beside him, ready to fire — but the second attacker had taken cover behind an outcropping.

Cai Rui looked up as the fifth ripper sprang, high above. Without hesitation he fired, a quick precise burst of three shots into the torso. It screamed, body twisting in midair, and missed its leap onto the wing of the shuttle — instead it thudded into the cliff face and tumbled helpless to the rocks below, landing with an audible snap of shattering bone.

The shuttle cleared the clifftops, rising steadily into the turbulent sky. Its recorded message began to play — his own voice torn apart by bursts of howling static. “Attention...—mander Cai Rui...mber 4320....”

Fight all you like, little monkey, the sinuous voice snarled in his mind. I will take you in the end.

Cai Rui smiled coldly. Tu et quis exercitus, canicula?

What army? The anger in the voice was unmistakable. Yours, slave.

The sudden roar of gunfire was nearly deafening — the pilot's rifle blazed only inches from his helmet. Cai Rui reeled, his earbuds shrieking with feedback for the split second before they mercifully died. He threw himself to the side, seeking cover, and looked back just in time to see her body jump and shiver as a dozen rounds ripped into her. Her chest an open ruin, she was dead on her feet several seconds before she hit the ground.

Cai Rui rolled, putting his faceplate to the ground and wrapping his arms around the helmet protectively. The rocks and ice all around him had come alive, ricochets of shattered stone and steel bounding from every surface. His HUD lit up in a dozen places, red flashes to signal the breaches in his environment suit.

At last the hail of death stopped and he rolled over, looking back into the valley behind. The last Marine was still standing, blood and air leaking from a dozen holes. His rifle chattered, hammer falling over and over on the last chamber of an empty clip, his finger still locked tight on the trigger.

The rest of the squad lay still, torn apart by the guns that they had turned upon each other.

Cai Rui crawled toward the man who stood alone, his blood steaming and freezing black in the deep red shade. The Marine suddenly stiffened and dropped, falling to his knees and collapsing onto his side like a puppet with its strings cut. Cai Rui reached his side just as he rolled painfully onto his back.

It was Gardner. His eyes were wide, pupils reduced to pinpricks, his breath coming in swift shallow pants of shock and imminent death. The faceplate of his helmet was already cracked, the warmth of his breath staining the cold glass with pink frost.

The wide blue eyes blinked, and somehow seemed to sharpen — the boy's lips moved. Cai Rui tapped the side of his helm to indicate the broken earbuds. He lowered his head, letting his faceplate kiss the glass of the boy's helmet so that the sound of his last words would carry.

“Wha'd I do that for, boss?” Gardner said, his dying voice high and plaintive. “Wha'd I do...?”

“It wasn't your fault.” The commander closed his eyes for a moment, fighting down a surge of grief. When he opened them again, the Marine's chest had stopped moving.

You are alone now, the voice said. Surrender.

Cai Rui dropped onto his belly, sighting down the barrel of his rifle. Never.

Even as he thought the word, the first fuel tank exploded. The second ignited a split second later. A tower of flame rose at the mouth of the valley, shrapnel whistling in every direction at the speed of sound. Cai Rui screamed with the fire, letting the blast of heat and light wash over him. It would have been meaningless, if the suit was intact — as it was he was burned through every breach. The pain on the left side was particularly intense. When he turned his head, he saw a shred of twisted steel buried in his blackened shoulder.

Ice and stone crashed into the canyon, the walls on either side of the valley mouth collapsing inward with a roar. Cai Rui forced himself up to his feet and staggered back the way he had come through clouds of dust and ice, moving toward the hatch in the side of the mountain. His HUD was a mass of red lights — the breaches in his armor, the movement of his foes. He felt rather than heard the heavy bodies dropping into the canyon behind him, moving forward cautiously in case he had set some other trap.

He stepped in through the hatch and closed it behind him. There was no time to jam it shut.

The voice came again — amused, though less vibrant through several feet of rock and steel. Where are you going, Cai Rui? You cannot hide in the mountain. My women will dig you out like a grub if they must.

Bracing himself on the wall, he bent and opened the emergency repair kit on his left calf. Dominus pascit me, et nihil mihi deerit. In his mind the words were chanted aloud, echoing in the space of a humble chapel on Luna.

I am your master, Cai Rui. The voice deepened, and a slow chill crept down his spine, spreading into his limbs. You will obey me.

He remembered Fletcher's scream. Fighting the icy grip closing slowly to crush his will, Cai Rui reached up to the metal shard in his shoulder. Gritting his teeth, exerting the full force of his will, he gave the jagged spear of steel a quick, brutal twist. The pain was astonishing, so intense that it burst behind his eyes as an explosion of light. For a moment, everything went black — but when the light returned, the invisible hand crushing his soul was gone.

For that you will suffer, the voice snarled.

Cai Rui smiled. The first heavy thump sounded on the door behind him: his hands shook as he peeled the backing from a patch and fitted it over an ugly gash in the chest of the suit.

In pascuis virentibus me collocavit... One of the HUD lights stopped blinking, and he clumsily peeled the backing from a second patch. Super aquas quietis eduxit me.

A second impact hit the door, deeper and more confident. Cai Rui limped down the tunnel, seeking the second hatch. With every step he recited another word of the psalm — using it as a rope to drag himself through the dimly lit hall. “He restoreth my soul,” he gasped aloud, in English. Animam meam refecit. Deduxit me super semitas iustitiae propter nomen suum...

You cannot hide from me, Cai Rui. The voice said. Its touch upon his mind was light, caressing. I feel your pain. You will not last long, with such an injury. I will find you wher—.

When the second hatch slid shut, the voice was abruptly cut short. Some part of him noted the range, even as he stumbled toward the emergency flood room and opened the storage compartment. The atmosphere leaking steadily from his suit was making him increasingly lightheaded — even with the two largest holes covered there was no way to maintain the pressure.

He nearly wept with frustration when he pulled out the spare suit — a clumsy old monstrosity nearly thirty years out of date, impossible to mate with the modern command and control of his own. It was only when he looked at the name and the height/mass tolerance label that he grinned.

Lieutenant Shoney, saints be praised, had been a fat man. Cai Rui pulled the body of his suit over the leaking remains of his own, and quickly mated the collar to his own helmet with a ring of sticky patches. He stumbled the rest of the way to the gantry holding a spare tank in his arms, loading it into the empty missile tube before he crawled inside.

The accordion panels folded back into place, magnetic screws spinning in the suddenly dark chamber. “Commander Cai Rui,” he said aloud. “Emergency command override. Activate launch sequence.”

He closed his eyes. He lay on his side, arms wrapped tight around his spare oxygen in the dark. There was no other way to secure or brace himself — as the rocket began first to rumble and then to roar, he simply tried to tighten every possible muscle to avoid losing consciousness.

The sound was unbelievably loud, all–consuming, thunderous. The acceleration crushed him to the curving floor of the chamber. A single line of verse echoed in his mind, over and over, as the booster soared toward the the roof of the sky.

Nam et si ambulavero in valle umbrae mortis, no timebo mala, quoniam tu mecum es.

At last the divine fire ended, the empty booster dropping away into endless night. He heard and felt rather than saw the protective panels peeling back from the drone all around him, releasing the missile for its secondary stage. His body rose from the floor of the chamber in freefall, his suit inflating in vacuum.

His temples were pounding as he clumsily opened the channel to the shuttle. The recording he had made sounded tinnily in his ears as he activated the flight cameras. “Attention enemy vessel,” his recorded voice said. “This is SolForce Commander Cai Rui...”

The ripper ship loomed closer than he had expected. It was an ugly thing, a massive conglomeration of mismatching parts, its engines bleeding a trail of red light.

“...returning from the surface of Avalon. Please hold your fire. Repeat: please hold your fire.”

As he watched, the enemy launched a hook toward the shuttle. The camera rocked with impact, listing to the side as the larger ship reeled it in.

“My shuttle is not armed. My crew and I wish to surrender.”

The engines of the missile thrummed beneath him as the node drive engaged.

Cai Rui smiled.

“Acalanthis,” he said. “Ignis.”

His camera view disappeared in a final flash of light as the warhead aboard the shuttle detonated. Cai Rui closed his eyes. Eripuit me de inimicis meis fortissimis, et ab his qui oderunt me: quoniam confortati sunt super me.

“Thank you,” he whispered, and finally lost consciousness.

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