I sat away from the rest of the Marines, my hands shaking as the fear I’d kept pent up for the past few hours suddenly hit me. The adrenaline boosts my C-400 had provided me with were running out and I was getting the shakes as I always did. I’d tried one of Tarken’s cigars once, but it never did for me what it seemed to do for him. Nope, for me it was the shakes, every time. Every damn battle left me a wreck of nerves. But hell, while I was fighting, I was something else…
All those hours I spent in the practice ranges paid off. I never missed a shot. Maya would have been proud of me, I guess, I didn’t know. I’d never know. And while I’d ‘encountered’ a few women here and there on our squad’s little adventure, I hadn’t loved any of them like I’d loved her. I s’pose, at the end of day, they were just whores, and I was just a customer. It was about release, nothing else. Still, whatever you needed to get by, that was my motto. Stimms and crap that like that were banned for good reasons by Fearless, so I kept the same rule with the rest of my men. But anything that didn’t hurt themselves or anybody else was fine.
I kicked the shattered Zealot corpse away. Some held on for a while before they burnt up with that blue fire, but I knew that one was gonna go soon. I couldn’t quite get my head around the rebellion – some of those bastards that tried to gut me had been training my men with their combat expertise. I’d sat with six of them and played them at chess. Sometimes even discussed that religion of theirs with them – had ‘em in stitches ‘cause my views were so different. They were good people. And dammit, I’d just rammed spikes through their skulls. It didn’t matter that they had tried to kill me, no matter what anyone said. The last Zealot I’d killed was Dassatul. He’d shown me holo-recordings of his young ones, playing with sticks and pretending to be Fenix or one of the other Protoss heroes. And I’d taken their parents from them. Me. Gods, I’d killed my fair share of folk… between me, Fearless and Tarken we’d probably killed off a whole city’s worth of enemies. And Kadra? He’d seen worlds burn. But I’d always been able to put away the feeling of guilt, box it up with little walls of duty and necessity. Then again, it’s a different thing killing a faceless guy you don’t know than it is killing someone who used to be a comrade – maybe even a friend, as much as that was possible with the Protoss.
I heard someone inside my head shouting my name. Now I had the damn visions to look forward to. It was like some twisted part of my mind had decided that living through some of the things I’d seen once wasn’t enough and that it would show flashes of the terrible images to me time and again. And when it got really bad I might get properly lost in one of my little dreams. Stannich knew, as did Fearless, Mitchell and Tarken. They kept it quiet – it was only after an engagement, and I could hold it off if really necessary – but I’d learnt to let it happen whenever I could. And the bulkhead blurred before my eyes.
Suddenly I’m moving through tepid jungle undergrowth, boiling hot because my power armour’s filters and aircon are down. Leafy fronds brush against my visor. I swing up my gauss rifle toward some movement but I’m chasing shadows among the vivid greeny-brown tangle of roots and vegetation. Ionic interference from the planet’s rings is playing hell with our suit sensors. And there are Bengaalas around here, transplanted by Terran settlers from the colony. They thought the animals were pretty – but they massed as much as two men in C-400. A Bengaalas can kill an unprotected human with a single swipe of its massive claws. I’ve seen flashes of purple fur amidst the giant ferns, but nothing has come my way.
Moving stealthily in a suit is exceptionally hard – but then I’m an exceptional soldier. The negative feedback from the control systems make it feel like I’m a giant – well over two metres, hulking, bestial. At the same time, I can feel everything my metal gauntlets touch – transmitted through the micro-optic fibres in the empty cover down the length of the cybernetic hand and to the controls grips where my actual hands rest, midway down the wrist. The fingers, though large, can extend miniature grips and pick up any single needle from a whole stack of the things. They can caress a women, or they can crush a man’s skull like a porcelain cup.
I see a patch of churned earth a few hundred metres away – none of the others have spotted it, but then they don’t have my skills. This reminds me of the day Maya died, but I bury these feelings behind rock hard duty. I had a job to do here, and no feeling of depression was going to get in the way of that.
“Stop.” I say through the comm, bringing my rifle to rest against my shoulder and reaching to my belt to retrieve a directional grenade. I’m the only one in this squad who can chuck the things well enough – when I was a kid I was a bowler for the Chau Sara Cheetahs cricket team, and the skill translated straight over. I wonder occasionally if all the old Confederate-sponsored sports programmes had really been covert military training. The grenade flies through the air and thuds down on the muddy ground. The muddy soil churns for a moment as whatever horror lies buried beneath it tries to rise, but then the grenade’s impact sensor counts three and detonates the munition, mashing the insides of the monster. That still doesn’t stop it – its carapace is tough enough not to be blown apart by the force of the blast – and it rises up, revealing the characteristic hooded head and oversized jaws of a hydralisk. Its carapace is mottled with the emerald splendour of the jungle, its texture somewhere between leather, snakeskin and insect chitin. I’m on it in seconds, the suit carrying me rapidly across the intervening three hundred metres. My fists smash into its face, stunning it long enough for me to get my massive arms around its neck and savagely jerk its neck with strength that would have sent a couple of hundred kilos of steel flying hundreds of metres through the air. Instead it is the hydralisk’s head that goes spinning away into the jungle, spraying the leafy foliage with red ichor. We stay quiet, listening to the sounds coming through our external microphones. But we’ve already attracted unwanted attention.
The dreadful chug-chug-raaark sounds ripple out from the trees and in seconds the zerglings are upon us. Gauss rifle fire booms over the jungle noises as we blow chunks out of them, but they keep coming at us. Before I know what is happening, Gordons, Findler and Carrasson suddenly seem to turn into red blooms. Out of the shatter hulks of their torsos, trailing shreds of entrails and doused by blood come tiny broodlings, their spikes flicking out against my armour and denting the neo-steel. I fall back, my huge feet gouging the earth as I struggle for purchase. Then I hear a roar – the roar of an over-sized chainblade, the weapon scaled up to be useable with an armour suit. Fearless comes crashing through the jungle and hurls the chainsaw at the nearest zergling. It spins through the air and cuts right through the little xeno, burying itself in one of the massive trees. In a matter of moments he’s killed all the other zerglings with his gauss rifle. Then he retrieves the chainsaw and hoists me to my feet. There’s a flash as my vision turns blurry again, and suddenly instead of Fearless I’m looking at Tarken, and I’m back on the Nevermore.
I leaned back against the bulkhead, blinking a few times until one of the rollers in my helmet pressed down and soaked up the sweat on my brow. Tarken lets go of the arm he pulled me up with.
“You okay, kid?” He’d put out his cigar, but his breath still smelled of it. Still, there was something about him that put me at ease – did the same for all of us, and I think even Fearless felt it.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Wanna talk about it?” For a moment I longed to take him up on his offer, but my soldiers needed to see backbone.
“Any time. Alright, Corso, get your men sorted, then get thee gone back to your quarters for some rest.” He patted me gently on the thick shoulder covering. His hand might have been more than two feet away from my own flesh and separated by complex mechanical joints and input jacks for my augmented skeleton, but the gesture felt sincere.
“Sir.” I saluted and stood up straight. A slouch was very noticeable when your shoulders were taller than most men. He saluted back and headed off down the corridor to one of the armouries.
The process of removing armour was very much one of release – both of my limbs and of my mind. When I wasn’t wearing amour, that was when the battles, firefights and skirmishes truly ended for me. Gauss rifles weighed a ton and though I was big and muscular, they weighed my arms down after a few minutes of carrying one. And the recoil was almost impossible to brace. In powered armour, the augmetic systems plugged into the mechanised parts of my spine would arrange my limbs, while the shock-absorbent layer of crystalline material sandwiched between titanium weave and neo-steel plating worked to lessen the impact and steady the weapon itself. Mitchell took to wearing the suit’s exoskeleton, but forgoing the heavier armour. He looked odd, going around in the gleaming brass and steel contraption, but it took half the time for him to get ready and half the time to take the damn thing off again – for starters the welding didn’t have to be undone, and it avoided some of the more uncomfortable links to Marine cybernetic endoskeletons. For all people claimed to hate cyborgs and augmented people like the old Cerberus operatives and the new Chimeric force we’d seen cropping up everywhere, many of them failed to realise that Marines were just as cyberneticised as they were – only our input jacks and other implants weren’t as visible as theirs. Most of our stuff was buried beneath our flesh. Even without the armour’s brute force servos I could send a baseline human flying through the air with a casual backhand blow. Of course. even with the armour we were nowhere near as strong as a Protoss. They could pick up a man in a full suit and toss him around like a rag doll.
I pushed the thought away and stepped into the circular chamber, wafting clouds of steam out of my face. Everything was oily and worn with use, the room dark and dank. The noise of the machinery whirring up to speed was almost deafening. I slotted the suit’s boots into the recesses in the floor and raised my arms up to where the robotic grips lowered from the ceilings could grasp them. More grimy appendages hissed out of the walls, various tools grasped in the manipulators. The outer layers of neo-steel, crystalline matrix and titanium were subjected to the narrow beam of a fusion cutter. They were removed and stored in the racks beneath the chamber. Then followed the separate pieces of exoskeleton. For a few seconds after they’d been disengaged I sagged until I remembered how to operate my own nervous system. Then the pieces were removed, cleaned and stored away. There was a nasty cranking sound and a whine as the automatic systems reached the restraining stage. Most Marines were criminals, our company differed in that Fearless only accepted those rare enlisted members to fight with him. But when we took over the battlecruiser we’d had to modify the armouring chambers to stop them putting all our off-duty warriors in chains. Finally the override kicked in and the robotic arms stopped straining, stowing themselves in the evenly-spaced alcoves.
I slept well that night. Usually I woke up four or five times, but this time I only had two nightmares.
Over the next three days we cleaned up the ship and received some new Protoss to safeguard their gadgets and gizmos. Along with the Dragoons, we now had a small squad of Zealots and a new High Templar we hadn’t met yet. There was also some hints from Kadra that a powerful force of new Protoss ships would be banding together to raid the staging ground Mitchell had identified. Tempests, he called them. I shivered whenever I heard the Zealots talking about them. Much like the now-obsolete Carriers, from their descriptions, but deadlier by an order of magnitude. And with them the Phoenixes that I’d glimpsed from afar during one of our little trysts with Protoss fleets. I’d seen some of the reports coming from distant colonies – Dominion forces attacked by deadly vessels, while they struggled to upgrade their own heavier ship classes. I’d seen Zerg colonies that had been blasted from orbit by immensely powerful weaponry. Not like the glassing of Mar Sara, but something much more frightening.
Right now we were holding position alongside a wing of sleek Protoss craft. Warp Rays – some of the newer weapons in the already-extensive Protoss arsenal. Their Scouts and Phoenixes were only a match for a battlecruiser in large numbers, and one with as many extra guns as the Nevermore – and its own not-inconsiderable plasma shielding – was incredibly dangerous. But the Warp Rays were excellent weapons to use against heavily armoured targets like the Nevermore. Their fusion reactors would charge up the beams and in the time it took for use to kill the others, at least one of them would reach full power, overloading our shields and ripping a great wound into the hull. To put it another way, I was glad they were on our side. Kadra had had to argue for quite a long time with the Praetors of the Force for Righteous Justice even as we approached the main mass of the fleet.
Currently we were waiting for Kadra to come back from the command ship Iailanthanus, having given the fleet their orders. He wanted to give them in person so he could gauge the mood of the Praetors. As we’d just seen, the Protoss were running high on tension. He had to reassure them that they were doing what was best for the species. Once he came back with an escort of two Phoenix fighters, we’d head on over to a small moon where Tarken told us we’d get a helping hand. Although what help we could possibly get from a rock like Shathal I had no idea. Tarken had mentioned an old friend of his. Hopefully this old friend would have a cache of advanced Confederate weapons – maybe even a vehicle or two. Or if we were really lucky, some of that UED stuff they’d left behind. Suits, walkers, tanks, wraiths – anything we could put operators in. The Nevermore was full of men itching to pull their triggers and fill something full of lead – or depleted uranium, in this case. But most of our ground engagements were more like guerrilla actions than battles. We’d drop behind the lines and sabotage things, blow stuff up, wreak havoc and generally avoid frontal conflict wherever we could – unless we absolutely had to, in which case we went for full-spectrum dominance and threw everything we had at our enemies. Usually they would have been chasing our shadows for weeks beforehand, so when we went all-out they never quite expected us to be as competent and deadly as we were.
Case-in-point – I trained all my men by running wargames in some sectioned-off corridors of the Nevermore, using simulated laser weapons and suits with appropriate apparatus. I made sure to win all of the games through stealth and cunning – and I always did win. I rubbed in my superiority so they’d hate me more than they hated the enemy. That way, what little praise I did give them was valued and genuine. But a group of new recruits we rescued from an overrun outpost got it into their heads that I only had tricks. So when I challenged five of them in hand-to-hand combat, sans C-400s, they thought they’d be able to beat me easily. That made them overconfident, and also enabled me to defeat them all within seconds. I never had any complaints after that.
Shathal was home to a small facility buried beneath the moon’s icy surface. The Nevermore took up low orbit while the two Phoenixes moved into positions where they could survey the rest of the system with their long-range sensors. As standard procedure, Fearless led the drop. We crammed our bulky forms into the pods and white shock-resistant foam began to spray out from nozzles in the sides. The armoured hatches closed with a hiss, leaving me in womb-like darkness. Right now the others would probably be shaking – apart from Fearless, of course – but I was probably just as calm as he was right now. The moments before dropping into a possible combat zone were pretty much taken over by planning and inevitability. Through comm link I was talking tactics with a few of the men, in the event of something… untoward taking place. Not that I expected it to, I’d trust Tarken with my life. But there was trust, and then there was allowing for people to make errors they didn’t know they’d made. I’d heard tales of this moon from some Dominion Navy pilots in a starport bar a year back. Tales of how they’d all been too terrified to investigate fully– some strange, unaccountable fear seizing them the moment they set foot on the precipitous terrain. Well, we weren’t about to let fear get in the way of our jobs – and if all else failed, Fearless would just laugh it off.
The steady pulse of the ship’s power core filled the pod as the delivery systems charged up with enough force to fling us down to Shathal. The trick with a pod drop was to burn as hard as you could as late as was physically possible. That way you spent the minimum amount of time in a place where you were vulnerable to enemy ground defences. I’d managed to get both actions wrong at various times – once I fired the reaction thrusters and braked far too early, and the raid was done by the time I got to the ground. Another time I waited too long and smashed into the ground with enough force to break both my legs. But now I was as close to being a pro as you could get. It was an odd method of insertion – something Tarken had apparently picked up from reading one of Fearless’ old e-books, along with some weird stuff about how crap democracy was – but the concept was sound and it had served us well on a number of occasions.
Suddenly it felt like the pod’s floor was trying to compress me into a thin paste between it and the ceiling. I blacked out twice, despite the armour’s neural coil suppressing the areas responsible, but I came too in time to see the green indicator bar in my Heads-Up Display turn orange. The moment it went red I clenched my fist and fired the thrusters, blacking out again as I decelerated, blood pounding in my ears. Then suddenly the HUD was glowing a soft blue and the pod was opening, disgorging me onto Shathal’s surface. It was eerily beautiful, covered in hundreds of jagged icicles that tinkled into shards as I strode through them, eyes on the sky for anyone in trouble. First rule of pod insertion – once you’re down on the ground, look for anyone in the air you can help. But there was no AA fire, no missiles streaking up to detonate amongst the falling Marines. The fifteen of us landed safely and followed Tarken as he headed along a narrow stalactite-lined precipice.
I heard an odd whispering and adjusted my suit’s comm unit to eliminate any stray signal trace. A common occurrence, and one which had given rise to ghost stories all across the Dominion. I continued on, didn’t give it a second thought. We crossed a crevice along a narrow bridge of rock that looked too narrow to support normal Terrans, never mind ones in C-400. But it held. When we got to the middle, I froze on the spot – I’d just seen something moving in the fractal shadows over to the left.
“Freeze!” I hissed. Instantly my men snapped into position, pointing rifles in all directions. The two scouts I’d posted to take different routes parallel to ours radioed in, asking what was the problem. I waited and watched, but nothing happened. Maybe Tarken was wrong about his friend. Whoever it was must have been alone a long time – just like we were alone, here, on Shathal, without backup – totally alone, with nothing to protect us from any of the terrible monsters that might wish us harm. I tore my thoughts away from that and flicked a hand gesture to my men, ordering them forward. Fearless was silent, and I wondered if something was wrong. At times like this he’d usually be chatting away about anything on his mind. He didn’t worry, as such, but he did get preoccupied with his plans. He had this constant battle between bravery and stupidity. Maybe that was happening now. But what if our leader was crazy? What if the surgery in his head had given him a psychosis the Confederacy had missed in its evaluations? He’d never been put through reconditioning, and neither had I or Tarken. He might be about to blow a fuse and spray us with his rifle. Come to think of it, any of the men might be insane – or traitors. I had to get back to the Nevermore. I had to get away from this rock!
I shook my head. What was I thinking? Tarken said we were only a few hundred metres away from the facility, but we had to enter a maze of craggy stone and methane ice. Fearless was still silent, when I tried to talk to him he just grunted and moved away. This wasn’t like him. I suppressed a few blasts of unaccountable paranoia and approached Tarken again.
“Sarge, something’s up with the Bossman.”
“You noticed too?”
“I don’t think anyone’s missed it.” I said, glancing back at the line of hulking soldiers. Absurd that we could be afraid in these giant cases of neo-steel. But inside the helmets I could see men’s faces glancing nervously left and right. I swung my armoured torso back to face Tarken. “There anything you want to tell me about this friend of yours?”
“He values his privacy.”
“Yeah, I got that from the whole ‘airless moon’ thing. But why is everyone on edge? This is supposed to be friendly territory. Don’t tell me you aren’t feeling it too.”
“Ok, ok.” He stopped and extended a fibre optic cable from one of the apertures at his waist. It slotted into a jack on my chest plate. Now there was no chance of anyone listening in on the conversation. “He’s got a psi emitter. But a special kind. It uses magnetic fields, focussed on specific areas of the brain. It makes you afraid, apprehensive, on edge, paranoid-”
“Yeah, I get the picture. So he uses it to keep folks away from this rock.”
“Got it in one.”
“But it’s working on the Bossman?”
“Yeah. Probably because it works directly, instead of stimulating the bits of the brain that make you afraid. Fearless doesn’t usually get scared ‘cause those bits have been tinkered with so they can’t be stimulated. But the psi emitter is forcing them to work. It’s probably ten times as unsettling for him as it is for us.”
“And you brought him here knowing this might happen? Hell, you brought me?”
“Well I didn’t think it would affect him.” Tarken hissed. “I thought we’d make it there before it got to him.”
“But instead it’s worse.”
“And?” I asked, certain he wasn’t going to just leave it there.
“And what the hell are we going to do about it?” I stopped dead, nearly pulling the cable out of its socket.
“I don’t know, kid.” Tarken said.
“That ain’t good enough, Tarken.” I said emphatically.
“What am I supposed to do?” He asked angrily. “You always come snivelling to me when you can’t figure something out!”
“Snivelling? You bastard… How many wars have we walked into together? How many times have I pulled you away from death? And you call me snivelling?” I pushed his suit, aiming for where the servos were weakest. He took a step back in shock. “Get a grip, Sarge! You’re in control, so I’m not going to let you get away with doing nothing.”
“Hah, I get it, you want to take over!” Tarken came close to me, put his faceplate next to mine. I could see the dangerous glint in his eye – his was the look of a man on the verge of breakdown.
“That’s the paranoia talking, Tarken.” I got a grip on myself, denying the thought that he was about to try and kill me. “Talk to Rico.”
“And say what?”
“Right now, I honestly don’t care!” I trod heavily away, ripping out the fibre optic cable. “Or call your ‘friend’.”
“Corso…” He began, and then came to a halt. I could hardly believe he hadn’t thought of that – it was so blatantly obvious. He must have read my mind, or else guessed what I was thinking. “We’re not perfect, you know. We make mistakes.”
“Yeah. Fix this one and I’ll see about forgiving you.” I turned my back on him and kept walking.