This is a draft of Chapter 20 of IN HER NAME: RED LEGION. If you have any feedback on it, feel free to leave a comment(s).
Enjoy!! – MRH
The platoon leaders and sergeants gathered around Ortiz and Stalin after their return from the battalion briefing. Reza was there, too, at Ortiz’s order. They occupied one of the corners of Marine Country where the Marines bunked down, while the rest of the company was arming up.
“Okay, folks,” Ortiz began. “This one is a little more nuts than what we’re used to, if you can believe that.”
“Sign me up!” Davis said with idiotic enthusiasm. Walker threw him a look, and he clamped his mouth shut.
“Here’s the situation,” Ortiz continued. “A miner was going about his business out in the system’s asteroid belt, and came across a bunch of enemy warriors clustered around a big hunk of rock. No ships, mind you: just warriors. The miner wasn’t sure what they were doing, but his best guess was that they were digging for something. There was definitely some sort of below-surface facility there.” She looked at Reza. “Any ideas?”
Reza paused a moment, then said, “That is indeed strange.” That was true, as far as it went. It was not a lie, but it also was not the full truth. Two possibilities had instantly flashed through his mind. The first, that his sisters were converting the asteroid to the black matrix material used by the builders, he quickly dismissed: the Empress would never risk builders near an enemy, and there was no reason for them to come this far from the heart of the Empire to do it. Plenty of lifeless rocks were strewn throughout the Empire that could more easily serve as fodder for the mysterious black substance that was at the core of the builders’ art.
The second possibility was only slightly more likely: that some clue had led a group of warriors to that asteroid in hopes of finding the tomb of the First Empress. But had such a clue been any more substantial than a breath of wind, the Empress would have sent an entire fleet of the Empire’s most powerful warships, not a group of warriors.
He could think of no reason the fleet would deposit a war party and then depart, leaving them with no ships. Even the most far-flung garrisons and outposts, even the worlds that were hostile hunting preserves, had at least one ship attending them.
It made no sense to him. Unless…
“It is a trap.” The words passed from his lips as soon as his mind made the connection.
“For who?” Asked one of the platoon leaders in a tone of undiluted skepticism. She was from one of the other tattered detachments that had been scraped together to form the company, and was not well known to Ortiz’s people.
“For whom,” Davis said quietly, following his remark with a long-suffering sigh.
Walker hissed a curse through bared teeth.
“Us, of course,” Stalin answered, his eyes locked on Reza. “But why? Why make a trap when they could just as easily land warriors like they normally do? Why not just attack this planet?”
“I do not know,” Reza said, and that was the complete truth. It puzzled him. Why would a leader of warriors set a trap, using her own warriors as bait? Why not just attack? He knew they did not attack every human planet, nor were the attacks random, although they often appeared so from the perspective of the humans. The human core worlds, like Earth, were sacrosanct, as were worlds like Quantico where young warriors were trained. But beyond that, even he did not know the reasoning behind which worlds were attacked and which were left alone: that was determined by the warrior priestesses in the name of the Empress.
This was different somehow. But why?
“It doesn’t matter why,” Ortiz made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “What matters is that we’re going out there to kick their asses. If it’s a trap, we’ll spring it, then we’ll still kick their asses.”
“How many warriors are out there?” Walker asked.
Ortiz shrugged. “The info the miner provided was sketchy, but battalion intel estimates a company’s worth, maybe more. It doesn’t really matter so much, as we’ll be backed up by the guns of the Pegasus and two tin cans.” The cruiser currently had two destroyers in company. “The entire Marine detachment in all three ships, plus a reinforced company from the surface, will be coming to our little party, so we shouldn’t be short on firepower.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” the leader of the third platoon interjected. “Why don’t the ships just cream the asteroid? Why do we have to go in at all?”
“Because the task force commander and our battalion commander, both, want to answer that little question of ‘why.’ The brass doesn’t like it when the enemy doesn’t do what they’re supposed to.” She frowned. “I don’t like it, either. For what it’s worth, I asked the same question, and I’m going to tell you what the brass told me: gear up and get ready for battle.”
She looked around at the others, her gaze lingering a bit longer on Reza, before she went on. “Looking on the bright side, the op is fairly straightforward. We’ll be divided up into four roughly equal companies, dropped by assault boats on the far side of the asteroid, and then we’ll come at the bitches from four different directions, with us bounding ahead of the other three companies. We have the job of drawing the enemy’s attention and hopefully enticing them out of their little hole. Once that happens, the other three companies will come at them from the flanks and rear and wipe them out. Or so the theory goes.”
“Jesus,” someone muttered.
“Hey, don’t bitch,” Ortiz snapped. “The other companies have to send some poor assholes downstairs to explore that base, or whatever it is. I was just as happy we didn’t draw that particular straw. I’d rather have a stand-up fight on the surface in near zero-gee any day.”
“Any chance of getting some powered combat suits for this one?” Walker asked.
Ortiz nodded. “Oddly enough, yes.”
There were hoots of joy. The powered suits were a godsend in battle, but they were so expensive that only a handful of regular Marine units had them. They were almost never available to detachments of the Red Legion.
“Don’t get too excited,” Ortiz said, and the others fell silent. “The garrison dirt-side has some. But each company is only being allocated two suits.”
Walker stared at her. “Two suits? Per company?”
“You heard me right,” Ortiz told her. “Two.”
“So how are you going to decide who gets them?” One of the newcomers asked.
“I’ll do all your laundry for the rest of your life if you let me have one,” Davis interjected before Ortiz could answer. Walker punched him in the shoulder.
“I’ve already decided who’ll get them,” Ortiz said. “One’s going to the Marine who’s logged the most combat time in one.” She nodded toward Stalin. “The other…” She turned to look at Reza, “…is going to the other Marine I think may be able to make the best use of it.”
“I am honored,” Reza said, bowing his head.
A few mouths hung open at that, but only among those who had joined Ortiz after Carillon. The old hands who had come to know Reza well wore satisfied looks on their faces. None of them were happy that they wouldn’t be getting a powered suit, but every one of them knew that Ortiz had chosen the best Marines to use the ones they would have.
“Any questions?” There were none. “All right, then. We’ll be getting a final intel pass-down on the boats on the way out. We’ll be boarding at fourteen-hundred, so we don’t have time to screw around. Get your people briefed and ready, then let’s get this shit done.”
While the suits were a godsend, they were also something of a curse in terms of tactical operations when used in a hybrid unit where not every Marine had one. Much more heavily armored than the standard Marine combat vacuum armor, the powered suits carried more weaponry and were fitted with maneuvering jets that could be used both in zero gee and on a planet’s surface. Battles had been fought where a single Marine in a powered suit had held off a small army of enemy warriors, but the suits were not invulnerable. Even if not damaged or destroyed by enemy fire (or by sword: the devilish Kreelan blades could cut through the joints of the suits), the suits did not have an endless supply of ammunition or power.
After discussing the matter with Stalin while Reza listened, Ortiz took Stalin’s suggestion to keep him and Reza together as a strike team, rather than portion them out to the platoons.
“You must keep the powered armor together,” Stalin had said, holding up his hand and curling in his fingers, “like a fist. Individually they are powerful. Together, much more so. Let the other Marines do most of the killing. We,” he nodded to Reza, “will kill any that bunch up or try to flank us.”
“And if they do spring a trap,” Reza added, “we will be ready.”
Again, Stalin nodded.
Now, the two men stood in their armored hides, massive shoulder to massive shoulder, in front of the rear ramp of the assault boat as it maneuvered through the field of rocks, great and small, toward the asteroid that was their target. Stalin and Reza would be the first out.
“I heard you were almost killed in your only drop in one of these,” Stalin said on a closed circuit that only Reza could hear.
“Yes,” Reza told him. “I believe my academy company commander sabotaged it, although that was never proven. Eustus and a mutual friend of ours saved my life.”
“That is good. I just hope you remember how to use it. It is a complicated weapon.”
Behind his reflective armored faceplate, Reza smiled. He had inherited the ability of Kreelan warriors to understand weapons on a near-instinctive level. While he did not care for the suit, much preferring his Kreelan armor, he knew everything about it, probably more than Stalin. “I remember well.”
“I hope so. Neither of us must die today. You and I have unfinished business.”
Reza wished he could have looked the older man in the eyes. “Our business, as you say, was concluded the moment you saved my life on Carillon. You could have killed me then. If you wanted me dead, that was your time to act.”
Stalin snorted. “To kill an opponent who is unconscious, helpless? No. That would not do. When I kill you, I want to watch the life fade from your eyes, which I suspect will be wide with surprise.”
“I do not understand you,” Reza told him, his heart heavy with frustration. “I am not your enemy, and I do not want to kill you.”
“Your understanding is not necessary, and not wanting to kill me will prove your undoing. Just stay alive today.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the boat’s loadmaster on the override channel. “Ten seconds!”
The ramp opened, revealing a rock-strewn star field that whirled as the boat’s pilot twisted his craft in flight, pointing its stern at the target. The boats would not actually be setting down for this assault, but would be sending the Marines on their way using momentum.
Together, the two enemies leaped from the ramp, their suit jets flaring, followed by the rest of the company.
“They come.” Hayan-Tir, the leader of the warriors who were the bait for the trap Syr-Kesh had set, watched the human attack craft as they wheeled overhead. While warriors normally gave an enemy even terms or better, this particular battle was intended to draw out the Desh-Ka warrior priest, Reza. As on the Homeworld when hunting a genoth, warriors were granted the right by honor to stalk and trap such a mighty beast. While sacrifice was in the code by which Her Children lived, sacrifice without honor was an empty waste. A scout ship had followed the human cruiser from the planet where the landing party had encountered Reza; Syr-Kesh had known it was him by the intensity of their Bloodsong when they faced him and died by his sword. He was far more powerful than any genoth, and she would give her own warriors fair advantage against him and his human companions in a battle.
Not knowing how the humans might attack, Hayan-Tir had spread small war parties across the surface of the asteroid, in addition to the main force in the underground cavern that had been hastily converted into a temporary garrison. She had fully expected the humans to simply launch a bombardment from their ships, but Syr-Kesh’s intuition had been prophetic: the humans were victims of their own curiosity, and could not help but investigate what they could only perceive as anomalous behavior on the part of their enemies.
While she could not sense Reza in her blood, Hayan-Tir knew that he must be among the attackers that were now falling like rain among her concealed warriors. Surely the humans would not leave the most powerful among them behind?
She would know soon enough. “Be prepared, my sisters,” she said through the communications device of her suit. She despised the primitive apparatus in which she and her warriors were encased, a relic that the keepers of the Books of Time had found that approximated the level of technology of the humans, and which the builders had in turn replicated. But to use anything more advanced would take unfair advantage, and that would simply not do. “Let them land, then let us see what they would do.”
Silence was her only answer over the communications channel. But she did not need to hear any of their voices; the ferocious anticipation in their Bloodsong told her all she needed to know.
“Alpha Company, in position,” Ortiz reported to the battalion commander, who was with one of the other companies.
“Proceed,” came the terse reply.
Ortiz scanned the visual display in her helmet, noting with satisfaction that her platoons were all where they were supposed to be. “Company,” she ordered on the unit channel, “in wedge formation, advance.”
Response indicators winked on her display from each platoon and from Reza and Stalin. The platoon on point, led by Walker, moved out, with the two other regular platoons moving out to the flanks of the wedge. Ortiz, who was at the center of the formation, kept abreast of them. Behind her came the heavy weapons platoon, with Reza and Stalin bringing up the rear.
She grimaced at the terrain around them. The asteroid was a huge gray rock that looked like it had originally been blasted from a volcanic furnace. The surface was made up of ridges and spikes of rock that were both uneven beneath their feet and sharp as razor blades. Pillars rose here and there, along with what she could only imagine were the rims of craters where meteors and other asteroids had slammed into the surface. “Watch your suits on this damn stuff,” she cautioned. While the rock could only scrape the armor, she had no doubt it could slice right through the more vulnerable material that made up the flexible joints.
While all of them had trained in both gravity and zero gee environments, movement here was an awkward in-between. The asteroid was large enough to create a perceptible gravity field, but it was so weak that she could have easily launched herself free of it with a modest jump. Moving forward was accomplished with shuffling jumps, each time praying that her feet didn’t snag on something to make her fall face-first into the nest of natural razor blades on the “ground.” The flip side, also not good, was that when the shooting finally started, the Marines wouldn’t be able to dive for cover quickly, like they would on a typical planet.
“Ah…shit. Uh, some help?”
She looked off to her left, toward where the faceplate display indicated the transmission had come from. One of her Marines had jumped too high and was sailing off into space.
“I have him,” Reza’s voice came over the channel before she could tear Chou, who was now tumbling ass over teacups over the formation, a new asshole. Ortiz paused, watching Reza’s powered suit maneuver with economical movements to intercept the hapless Chou, then return him to the ground.
“Watch your footing, everybody,” Ortiz said. “Reza and Stalin have better things to do than wrangle your asses back to the ground. Reza, I assume you didn’t see anything?”
“Negative, captain. I could see what should be the entrance to the enemy mine, or whatever it is, over the next ridge.”
“Roger.” Ortiz was starting to get impatient. It wasn’t like the Kreelans to just let the humans walk into something. “Flankers, keep your eyes peeled. And Reza and Stalin, watch our asses.”
“Affirmative.” Stalin’s gruff reply offered her some reassurance. She knew the old bastard wouldn’t let them be caught unawares from behind.
As they approached the rim of the crater that was the last obstacle obstructing their view of the mine, Ortiz opened a channel to the company and said, “If they —”
She was cut off by a cry from a Marine in the platoon on the left flank.
Reza’s mouth compressed into a hard line as threat icons exploded into life on his helmet display. He instantly understood the enemy’s strategy, for it was one studied by every warrior tresh in the kazhas across the Empire: how to kill a genoth. He and Esah-Zhurah had killed a genoth, from which they had taken the eyestones that were inscribed with the rune of the Desh-Ka and now were affixed to their Collars of Honor. But that had been a fluke; by all rights, the two of them should have died in that horrific battle. In the ancient times, when hunting the genoth had been a necessity of survival, the great beasts were stalked and killed by warriors from ambush. The beast was drawn in by one or more warriors, fleet of foot, who lured the monster into a kill zone where the other warriors would attack. Even then, the contest was hardly even. More times than not, the warriors would be wiped out by the enraged beast.
This, he thought, looking at the numbers on the display, could very well turn out the same. The enemy warriors had been well camouflaged, somehow evading the thermal and radar sensors of the powered suits. Now, breaking from their concealment, he saw there were hundreds of them, with small war parties completely surrounding their formation, as well as some inside the company’s perimeter. Some of the warriors fired weapons similar to the rifles carried by the Marines, but Reza knew this was largely a distraction while the bulk of the warriors closed to sword range. In some cases, that was barely a single leap.
Marines quickly began to die.
“Open fire!” Ortiz’s order boomed over the company channel, although the Marines hadn’t waited for her permission. Crimson and emerald lances of energy already criss-crossed the deadly terrain of the asteroid as the Marines defended themselves.
“Choose your targets wisely,” Stalin cautioned as he and Reza simultaneously opened fire. Stalin blasted a warrior who appeared like magic almost directly beneath him, her sword swinging at his leg, while Reza killed a pair who were sailing at Ortiz. The suits containing their dead bodies tumbled past her.
Unlike the Marines in their standard vacuum armor, Reza and Stalin had more than one primary weapon. Leaping high to get a better vantage point, Reza switched from the integrated pulse rifle to a rocket launcher, sending a round into the midst of a group of warriors moving toward the platoon on the left flank. Not wasting any time, Reza used his jets to zoom back to the surface. Remaining exposed like that was deadly, and his suit registered three grazing hits from pulse rifle fire.
“Stay low, you fool,” Stalin growled as he moved close to Ortiz, who was trying to gain control of the chaos.
“Kill the damn warriors inside the company perimeter,” she snapped. “Platoon leaders, square formation!” Ironically, modern warfare against the Kreelans often used tactical formations employed by the Greeks and Romans, thousands of years before.
Reza and Stalin went to work, shooting, lobbing grenades, and sometimes smashing opponents with their armored fists, trying to clear the inside of the defensive formation Ortiz was trying to form.
“There are too many,” Stalin said in a private channel between himself, Reza, and Ortiz. “We need support from battalion.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Ortiz said in a gasping voice. She had been hit twice by pulse rifle fire, and one of the hits had superheated a patch of armor that was now searing her skin through the flexible pressure suit in between. “The rest of the battalion has its hands full.” She paused as she blasted a warrior who was trying to cut Walker’s head off. “Even the battalion reserve was ambushed. And hundreds of these bitches are streaming out of the mine.”
Before Reza could reply, he saw a swarm of warriors closing in on Eustus and the survivors of his squad. “Eustus, beware!” Reza called, but it was too late. The red icons converged on the four blue ones.
Without thinking, Reza launched himself like a missile across the surreal landscape, his jets flaring. Ignoring, Stalin’s curses, he flew toward Eustus’s last position, cutting down warriors left and right as he went. After a moment, he saw that Stalin was following him. Reza’s lips twisted into a grim smile. You must keep the powered armor together, like a fist.
“Back to back!” Eustus cried as he frantically ejected the spent power pack from his rifle and inserted a new one. His squad had become isolated from the rest of Walker’s platoon as it fought its way toward Ortiz’s position. The damn warriors had just appeared out of nowhere, right out of the ground, and must outnumber the Marines by at least ten to one, if not more. Eustus was shocked that any of the Marines, himself included, were still alive.
A warrior slammed into him, sending him cartwheeling across the deadly surface of the asteroid. Both his rifle and the fresh power pack he was trying to ram home went flying into space.
As he tumbled, he saw that the warrior was coming right after him, launching herself from a nearby pillar of rock like some sort of alien acrobat. She flew straight at him, her sword extended like a spear, the tip aimed right at his heart.
Training overcame fear, and he drew his sidearm and shot her in the faceplate, sending fragments of her helmet, gobbets of blood, and other organic bits he didn’t care to dwell on exploding into vacuum.
Before he could savor his victory, the gun was knocked from his hand by a rock outcropping, which also sliced through his pressure suit at the gap between the armor at his wrist. A pressure warning began to blare in his helmet.
“Dammit,” he hissed. He would have liked to grab a patch to seal his suit, but three more Kreelans were coming for him, so he drew his combat knife instead and rolled to his feet. He didn’t have any illusions about the outcome of this coming fight.
Just as the enemy trio came into sword range, three crimson bolts took each of them in the head in the span of half a second. Their bodies, carried by inertia, tumbled and rolled past him as a powered suit set down in front of him.
“Reza,” Eustus breathed as he and Reza knelt down behind the rock, taking cover from the maelstrom around them. With shaking hands, Eustus took out a patch kit and applied it to the tear in the wrist of his suit, then silenced the warning.
“I am sorry I took so long,” Reza told him.
Another suit briefly touched down. “Here.” Stalin shoved a rifle into Eustus’s surprised hands. Then, grabbing hold of the pack on Eustus’s back, he turned to Reza. “We go!” Without another word, the jets of Stalin’s suit ignited, and he hauled Eustus off toward where the rest of the company was still fighting for its life.
Pausing just long enough to kill some warriors who thought to try and hit Stalin and Eustus with their shrekkas, Reza leaped after them, his suit jets flaring.