The Ashes of Empire
By G. Vincent
For Steve and Karyn...
The best of friends and inspiration.
SPACE has no memory, but I do...
The universe, it seems to me in the limited way that anyone can grasp such an infinitely complex system, counts its heartbeats in the birth, life, and death of stars. So vast, so immense, and so far beyond the reach of understanding to mortal creatures that we cannot fathom the insignificance of the existence or the extinction of species to a thing so great- though to us, these considerations are all-important.
We attribute the ascent and decline of cultures and peoples to both acts of men and Fate, never quite sure where to draw the line of distinction.
By an act of Fate, or by a creator who likely gave it no consideration, I was created in a time of transition. The dying of a culture and a race who arguably had never lived in the truest sense- the sense of the word "live" that I now understand. This was the time into which I was created.
Created to serve without question, to die without thought.
That was the predetermined fate of myself, my brothers, and my sisters- my people.
I escaped to the mercy and generosity of those whom I was to unquestioningly call my enemies and found new struggles there. Though looking at it now, I know and find some comfort in that they were my struggles as well, not those of some unseen master. They were mine. And of the people I came to know and love; those who fought, and bled, and laughed, and cried along with me at every step- some alive, some no longer with us- I owe them all the most for my salvation.
I cannot offer a meaning for all that has happened. I cannot render any grand, sweeping wisdom that I have gleaned. Weighing the great quantities of what I have gained and what I have lost, I cannot even be sure always that my benefits balance with my losses.
Though I can say I have lived- fully.
And I can remember, for my part and to my way of thinking, how it began...
- Rear Admiral Pach
21 November 2071
Instruments of Conquest
"Duty is the tribute owed for our creation.
The blood of our enemies, our noblest offering.
We lay victory over all at the feet of The Masters.
Or death, in honorable Service..."
The 1st Pillar of Niko Choh'k
"The Warrior's Code"
The wind sang a thousand shrill and wavering notes over the plain of weather polished rock that stretched from horizon to horizon, rivaling one another on powerful and nearly constant gusts for the attention of no one. The local sun, Tammus, having a name only by the grace of an alien astronomer, shone muted through a sky of dirty, sulphureous yellow. Gossamer ribbons of high clouds glowed rose in the first light, demonstrating that moisture did exist here, even in the thin atmosphere. Frozen into crystals hurled heavenward by volcanoes that had gone dormant with the cooling of the planet's core, the planet's moisture was now a prisoner to the winds without possibility of release. As a fitting demonstration of the world's hostility toward itself, the crystals of sulfuric acid conspired with the wind to grind down all that the volcanoes that had birthed them had built. Lava flows, rocks, boulders, and even the mountain chains found all over the world were slowly being worn away under the constant abrasion of wind, sand, and crystals.
This was Tammus 7: rock, wind, and little else save the battle between the natural elements and features.
-And more recently one that was brought to this world.
Life was not a stranger to the world despite the appearance of the barren plain.
Resolute a force as it is, even with the sustaining components scarcely to be found, life had developed here.
From its shelter in the gulleys and crevices in the rock, a small, six legged creature ascended the sunny side of a rock, finding purchase with specialized spiny toes. A pointed head with large black eyes extended by a short, telescoping neck from a segmented exoskeletal body that bristled with a fine coat of long fibers. Each hair-like strand captured both oxygen and water from the air as the wind combed the filaments, satisfying two needs of life in one evolutionary adaptation.
Crawling along the face of the boulder the creature came upon one of the few fruits of its world's meager garden. Fungus spores feeding on the rock and sunlight stood clinging to the boulder against the prying wind. The small creature approached a spore cautiously, opening a thin, lipless mouth. Three barbed tongues explored the ripe polyp through slits in its tough skin, extracting the vital nutrients from within.
Watchful for predators, there being several that the creature was naturally aware of, the animal ate delicately until the fungus had surrendered all of its nutritional value before moving on to the next.
A vibration through the rock made the creature pause and raise itself slightly to allow its eyes, keen to movement and color patterns, to better scan the area. No visual cues could be seen to trigger an alarm response, but the vibrations grew stronger beneath the creature's feet. The simple instinct of self-preservation caused the creature to scamper off the boulder face and back into the crevices from which it had just emerged as loose pebbles and stones began to vibrate and then dance on the ground.
Brittle volcanic rock was pulverized with pin-sharp crunching sounds beneath massive metallic feet.
Forms not indigenous to Tammus 7 moved with great speed across the plain.
The bipedal war machines at a full run covered nearly twenty meters with each stride of their ostrich-like legs, leaving a high cloud of dust in their wake. Above each pair of powerful legs sat a bulbous body of a uniform, dull grey metal. Central to the front of each, an electronic eye peered across the landscape with an unblinking red glow, giving the machines the appearance of cycloptic metal skulls on legs.
Perhaps this had been the intent centuries back at the time of the machine's original design. Only the engineers, dynamic and creative in the production of the tools of war, long since dead had that insight. Possibly it was they alone who had cared about the question and its answer.
Millions of the Zentraedi race had served in Regult Combat Pods identical to those eight that now galloped the stone field in the Tammus sunrise. Few if any had ever contemplated the Regult in any context save that which applied to its employment and performance on countless alien fields of battle.
The Robotech Masters, the distant lords over the Zentraedi, contemplated their minions little and the machines provided for them even less. The Zentraedi, to that race whose home star was not even visible from the planet on which this battlefield was found, were like their machines; a tool to be used in maintaining control of submissive worlds and crushing the worlds that would not submit.
So it had been for centuries.
Zentraedi by the billions had brought the wars of the Masters to alien worlds so numerous that their names had faded with the dying of the manufactured generations that had fought on them. Only a crudely hewn path of obliterated civilizations and dead worlds stood testimony to the effect of the Zentraedi in the name of the will of the Masters.
All without thought.
As histories are written, so the role of the Zentraedi as conquerors for the Masters was well established. The scope and scale of their conquests, and its affects on the history of the universe that followed were matters of relative fact. Historians would prefer the more interesting question of "why" as the immediately captivating elements of dates and measurable figures lost their luster.
Some would argue that it was the greed and self-perpetuating insolence of power that caused the Masters to send their warrior slaves on an epic rampage of destruction through the stars. Others would argue that these factors of social character would have never had such wide-spread ramifications save the genius and naiveté of a single man whose name had been passed from generation to generation of warrior until it escaped lips with the same reverence afforded by other races only to a god.
Cosmic history is replete with examples of the greedy and the powerful subordinating and perverting genius to their own purposes- but rarely do the consequences cascade far or as broadly as those of the corruption of Zor's gifts. Had the Masters been inclined toward benevolence instead of self-service, or had Zor applied the objective rigors of science he had mastered so well to the motives of those who supported and urged him on in his work- then events would have surely been different. Or perhaps had the Masters not happened across the race known as the Invid and their world, or Zor not chosen to study them, then the flame and the kindling that would create an intergalactic blaze of devastation would never have met.
Only they did.
In the Invid, the Masters found a race of little use and subsequently less interest to them. Passive, peaceful, and technologically unrefined- the caste of the Tirolian race that would one day come to call themselves "Masters" would have been satisfied to simply catalogue these simple beings and move on to more profitable enterprises. Only Zor found interest in the Invid and their peculiar relationship with a plant form known by loose translation to Tirolian as "The Flower of Life".
More than a food source to the Invid, The Flower of Life was infused into their very being and allowed them limited powers of mental telepathy and generation. Particular to the Invid who had evolved and developed in an ecosystem uniquely based on The Flower of Life, these powers were limited to the Invid and were little more than a curiosity to the Tirolians.
Until Zor dedicated himself to research of the Invid and their Flower.
His genius with time had harnessed the power of the Invid Flower of Life for the Tirolians, a bio-ethereal fuel source that came to be known as "protoculture".
It was Zor's intellectual labors also that had led to the fusion of the new fuel source with existing technologies to create a technology different from any the universe had seen before- Robotechnology. Machines would no longer respond and perform to the commands of their users based on the processing speeds of computers, the quality of program code, or the efficiency of interfaces alone- but would now connect and interact additionally on a sub-conscious level.
Genetics, a mature science already in its advanced stages by generations of research by brilliant Tirolian minds took quantum leaps. No longer was it merely possible to copy a life form, but with the introduction of protoculture into the process, it was possible to manipulate the very building blocks of life to control factors of physical size, strength, and longevity. Evolution had been "de-selected" in favor of calculated bounds made by those who deemed themselves qualified to make them.
So was born of technology the race known as Zentraedi.
So first demonstrated Zor his naiveté in the face of events and developing trends that a more socially astute individual may have seen as warning signs of things to come.
Taken from the rib of the Tirolians' DNA, these beings would first be used as "manufactured" labor for the harvesting of the Flower of Life- when Tirolian and Invid were still on terms where sharing was an acceptable option to both- and later as a military force for the taking of it when sharing was not.
The Zentraedi, armed with the militarized application of Robotechnology had begun their metamorphosis to the juggernaut that they would become.
Equaling the growth of the Zentraedi in strength at every step was the greed and compulsion to control of the ruling Tirolian castes. The same genetics that had created the Zentraedi was turned inward. Arrogant to the point of refusing their own mortality, the ruling castes learned to defy it successfully through cloning and transfer of consciousness.
As a byproduct of Zor's work, the Masters had been created as well- and with them the final piece put into place for relentless massacre.
Depending on the applicable definition of "creation", it could be argued that Zor in his political myopia had created both the Zentraedi and The Robotech Masters. At the very least, he had enabled The Masters to come into being with all of the implications and consequences that followed.
As an evidentiary exhibit to Zor's naiveté in all things not scientifically measurable or quantifiable, the initiator of the cosmic tragedy that followed was horrified in its opening act. With nothing less than genocidal intent, the Masters stripped the Invid homeworld of The Flower of Life, starving them to near extinction. The naturally passive Invid responded in a way that only those unacquainted with the volatile emotion of rage could. Consumed and fueled by their new if not justified hatred of the Masters, the Invid retaliated and the life and death struggle between them and the Zentraedi- a struggle that would span ages and star systems- began.
Zor, scrupulous though not worldly in a world he had inadvertently created, made an effort to correct the damage he had done. Loading a ship of his design with the body and sum of his research and knowledge, and the means to seed other worlds with The Flower of Life- he dispatched the ship on an automated mission that he hoped would allow the universe to return to equilibrium.
For his sins, whether intentional or inadvertent, Zor was killed by the Invid in their wrath before he could see his hopes of balance realized.
In fact, they would not be.
For right or wrong, and whatever value those two relative terms hold in the universal scheme, Zor had simply caused a local conflict (universally speaking) to touch on and embroil other worlds and other peoples.
It was the last stone of good intention Zor would lay paving the road to hell.
It was in a far removed way therefore that Zor had brought the eight Regult Pods to Tammus 7, though none of their pilots conceived that thought.
Warrior First Grade Koso kept an even pressure on the dual foot pedals of his Regult Combat Pod, keeping it at an constant speed and in patrol formation with the rest of the reconnaissance squad. The alien landscape bounced by him in a virtual realism provided by the pod's hologram viewscreen which hung mid-air before him and curved to either side with the contours of the pod's pilot compartment. Between his knees a series of gauges displayed the Regult's mechanical functions, while the sensor and combat computer screens directly above on the main control panel relayed to the pilot other relevant information gleaned from the surrounding world by the pod's sensor eye and other instruments. These screens, gauges, and controls were mostly redundant though. All a pilot needed for operational- which in the final analysis was combat- awareness was displayed automatically on the main viewscreen. A pilot had to concern himself solely with fighting the vehicle- adding the final component to the Regult Combat Pod system.
What Koso was most aware of, what he knew the squad leader Sub-Lieutenant Second Grade Hedra was also aware of, was that the squad was venturing dangerously far from their assigned patrol area. There was an Invid Hive in close enough proximity to warrant caution, and while the fresh replacements that composed half of the squad were still wet with stasis fluid and would be willing to march after Hedra into a thousand Invid, Koso's experience provided him with better perspective. Perspective and the experience it was based on reminded him that even the basic Invid Scout, a machine a third the size of the Regult and controlled by a being whose intellect was capable of barely more than acting on instinct, was formidable when encountered in numbers.
True to the unspoken agreement between Invid and Zentraedi to wage a war of attrition, the Invid like the Zentraedi could be expected to deploy and be encountered in numbers.
Removing his hand from the right gun yoke long enough to reach the communications panel, Koso switched to the private link which he shared with Hedra as second in command of the squad.
A window opened in the holographic viewer giving Koso a glimpse inside the pilot compartment of Hedra's pod as the rest of the viewer still displayed the forward image of the sub-lieutenant's mecha from behind in a nearly full run.
Hedra's eyes, bulging slightly as they did from the pale green skin of his face, seemed to look beyond Koso- though this was only a result of the sub-lieutenant watching his own viewer screen.
"We're coming up on ten artohls out of our patrol sector, Hedra.", Koso warned, "Most of your squad hasn't been breathing air for more than a day. This may not be the company we want to meet an Invid patrol with."
Hedra grunted, his normal display of feigned consideration- his obligatory gesture whenever he dismissed one of Koso's suggestions.
"And by that you mean-?"
"Did I use big words again? We're no more than forty artohls from an Invid hive- they are certain to have patrols out as well."
Hedra gave the same barking laugh that Koso recognized as an indication that Hedra was actually looking for the trouble he was being warned of, "You talk like a female. Have faith, friend- Fate holds us in its care today, Koso- I feel it."
"I talk like a female-?", Koso snorted indignantly, "You talk like a female! And for that matter, you've never seen a female."
"Never .", Hedra admitted proudly, and with greater pride added, "And never in battle- So I suspect they say many of the same things that you do."
"You suspect the way you fight, Hedra- badly. Speaking as I do, they're obviously creatures of great wisdom"
A beep from Koso's control panel was echoed by an identical tone from Hedra's- relayed by the communications system. Koso's eyes picked up immediately, almost instinctively given his combat experience, on the threat warning indicator that had appeared on his holographic viewscreen. It gave him a bearing and range, but no identification of the threat meaning that the sensors had only gotten a glimpse. There was little question of whether or not the contact was Invid- there were no other Zentraedi units assigned to the sector. Koso mused darkly that his unit wasn't even assigned to this sector.
He and Hedra had already had that conversation though without favorable effect to Koso's way of thinking.
A single blip on the sensor screen flickered for a moment in the display's upper right quadrant before vanishing. Looking down at the sensor screen had given Koso little additional information. It did provide a sense of comfort though to see the represented distance between himself and the Invid- Koso knew at least that he was not right on top of his enemy.
"An Invid Scout.", Hedra announced, "Bearing zero-two-one, at eleven artohls."
"My computer didn't identify it.", Koso replied without purpose. It was an Invid Scout, or more likely several Invid Scouts. Had it been the more combat effective, though only moderately more intelligently piloted, Invid Trooper- it would have likely attacked despite being apparently outnumbered. It was another trait that Koso had recognized the Invid shared with the Zentraedi, though no self-respecting Zentraedi would admit to a shared trait- that there were few situations in which the doctrine of attack was not applicable.
"It was small and it retreated into a ravine the moment it saw us.", Hedra stated with certainty that Koso recognized as being as likely put on for the squad's benefit as real, "It had to have been a Scout."
There was no arguing with logic, Koso knew, and knew better that there should be no arguing with a superior rank in front of fresh replacements. They would not understand, even if they had it explained to them, that Koso was only trying to spare them the potential of a lethal first contact with the enemy.
"There's bound to be more of them.", Koso pointed out- warning the new Warriors of the danger without undermining Hedra's authority. Koso glanced briefly over the navigational display. The area in which the blip had appeared and then disappeared was punctuated with canyons and sharp rock outcroppings- an ideal place for an Invid Scout to hide, and a better site for an Invid patrol to lay in ambush.
"Squad come right to two-eight-seven.", Hedra ordered, now on the squad frequency, "Standard assault advance."
Hedra had made the decision to attack. The edict of the Warrior's Code was that a superior's decision was not subject to dispute. Koso knew this as he knew that life was governed by two absolutes that sometimes intertwined and other times offset one another- the Warrior's Code and Fate's whim.
The terrain began to change beneath the rapidly advancing feet of the eight Regult Pods. Loose, rocky soil gave way to large stones and small boulders strewn over great slabs of oxidizing, iron-rich slabs which jutted out from the expanse of the plain. Fissures snaked through the igneous rock underfoot, branching from fine cracks, into crevices, into gorges, and eventually into intertwining canyon mazes.
Hedra halted his squad at the opening decline to one of the canyons. The canyon itself was scarcely any different from a half dozen others in a five atohl radius, but it was the appearance of unnatural indentations in the gravelly soil that marked it worthy of further investigation. Depressions beginning with and terminating in arrow-like points along their long axis showed without room for dispute that an Invid Scout had been standing in and moving about that exact spot.
"He's in there.", Hedra announced as the dual barrels of his Regult's particle beam cannons which protruded from the top anterior of the pod's bulbous frame tracked over the recesses of the crevice from its rim.
"Itzo, Kird-.", Hedra continued, "Dismount your pods. You will push through the gorge with rifles to drive out the Scout. We will cover you from either side of the rim."
"Yes, Sub-Lieutenant.", replied the two warriors in a fashion that was not unlike the automatic response one expected from a computer.
Koso watched as the two pods sank at the knees to squat on their own metal heels. Hatches at the top rear of each pod opened allowing the warriors to wriggle out from within the confines of their machines. Their environmental body armor, green and unblemished, untouched by the rigors of battle, were a stark contrast to the rusty hues of the surrounding landscape. The contrast in color was of little concern though as the Invid did not see in color. For that matter it was said that the Invid did not "see" as a Zentraedi did at all, but rather sensed the world in terms of objects that were infused with protoculture and objects that were not. Thus no form of camouflage could conceal the Zentraedi from the Invid, as every genetically engineered cell was manufactured with the derived properties of The Flower of Life.
The two warriors removed their standard issue assault rifles from their pods, releasing the firing safeties as they moved in single file past Hedra's Regult..
"Victory or honorable death.", Hedra said as they passed, echoing the Warrior's Code by obligation. The words had meaning, but in Hedra's tone and perhaps only perceivable to Koso by benefit of their long-standing relationship, Koso sensed little concern on Hedra's part as to which outcome the warriors met with- though there was a hint of suspicion. It was the fate of many new warriors to not survive outside of the stasis tube as long as it took to manufacture them within. The majority of those warriors would receive Fate's disposition in a first action, much like this one. The strong and the fortunate survived and that's how it was. What portion of survival depended on Fate and what on strength was a matter that could be argued to the exhaustion of the debating parties.
Koso shook his head to himself with a grim understanding that the two warriors had no grasp of as they descended into the deep shadows of the gorge.
"Koso, take your warriors by the right and I'll move by the left.", Hedra instructed, "Keep four lengths between you- we don't want to be clustered when the shooting starts."
When the shooting starts.
There was no doubt it was coming in Koso's mind, as there was no doubt in his mind that Hedra knew it as well. Brimal, the warrior in the pod trailing Koso directly and now a veteran of six battles in the present campaign on Tammus 7 probably knew it as well.
Itzo and Kird, whose breathing was now loud in the ears of their comrades as it was confined behind the visors of their helmets, were likely less aware. They would move swiftly though cautiously, checking every corner and every shadow they passed for the enemy who might be lying in wait as they were programmed to. Programmed with that instinct, as Koso was, as Hedra was- programmed with that instinct just as they were programmed with the ability to walk and operate their Regult Pods from the time they emerged from the cloning chambers. The programmed instinct was not yet battle tempered though. This, Koso knew, was why Hedra sent two of the new replacements to the squad into the ravine instead of he or Brimal. Itzo and Kird would either kill the Invid Scout, making the connection between vague concepts in their minds that they knew without really knowing, or they themselves would fail to emerge.
In that case, new replacements would fill the void their deaths created just as well.
"Do you see anything down there?", Hedra asked as he led two of his subordinates in skirting the left rim of the canyon.
The question was absurd of course, Koso knew. If they had seen something, there would have been shooting already. Hedra was simply breaking the silence and the tension that mounted with it for his sake and for that of the squad's.
"No, Sub-Lieutenant.", answered Itzo who advanced through the ravine on the point with his rifle readied at his shoulder, "We have tracks- but no Invid. What do your scanners show?"
"Nothing.", Hedra replied, "The rocks are too reflective and thermal imaging won't detect Invid mecha. Be mindful of the tracks."
"Perhaps the Scout followed the ravine out to its other side-.", suggested Kird, holding the rear with equal care as his counterpart on the point. His voice was edgy. Koso could tell that he was feeling the fear whose origin you could never quite pin down. Instinct was telling this warrior something, but he didn't have enough life to him to understand that yet.
"Nonsense.", Hedra said, "We would have detected it emerging."
Koso sensed that this was not the response that the two warriors wanted from their squad leader. His experience and reasoning only told them that they were in closing quarters with a deadly foe that they were not seeing.
What Hedra said next probably thrilled them less, "It's down there. Find it."
Volcanic rock crunched loudly beneath Itzo's booted feet as he pressed forward sweeping left to right with the muzzle of his rifle. Sunlight drifted down like a thin mist, weakly into the deep recesses and hollow spaces formed by the rock. It was barely adequate to see by, and not to any great depth.
Itzo found himself troubled by the prospect of failing. He had no explanation for where the distasteful sensation was coming from but the thought of failing in his duty was far more disquieting than being in such probable proximity with his unseen foe. Similarly, the warrior had no notion of how he knew exactly what to look for. He had never seen an Invid before, though in his mind he could see a Scout and identify it by its size, shape, color and characteristics of movement. For that matter, he had never seen a Zentraedi or a Regult before the previous day either. Nonetheless, even as the grogginess of his Awakening had begun to lift- he had been able to distinguish rank and knew intuitively how to operate equipment. Itzo suspected his knowledge of the Invid to have the same root and trusted in it.
Though Itzo could not have known it, he was experiencing the same sensations felt by every warrior in the first days of life. It was the sensation of abstract mental constructs forming tangible connections with the real world. Common to every Zentraedi as it was unconsidered by them, were the millions of parcels of information and memory required to function even at the most rudimentary level. From how to differentiate between a field boot and a warrior's assault rifle, and how to use both, to protocols and procedures for doing everything from putting on a uniform to mecha operation and basic combat tactics- every memory and skill had been provided for and sanctioned by the Masters. How aware of these constructs taking hold each warrior was varied per individual, as did development beyond a common starting point. But initially, all Zentraedi felt to some degree what Itzo was experiencing.
Much like a waking dream, the methodical search for the Invid within the ravine had a surreal familiarity that was reassuring to the warrior.
A hail of loose stones bounced loudly off the canyon wall, kicked down inadvertently by one of the Regult Pods above. Itzo reflexively trained his weapon up at the source of the disturbance, and then as quickly dismiss it.
Warrior Kird had swung his weapon to the sound of falling stones as well. It was for this reason that he was looking in the wrong direction to see a slab of stone, seemingly fixed to the ravine wall at a glance, begin to move.
The stone slab went over onto the ravine floor with the grating and groan of heavy stone on stone. Both warriors spun in unison to face the new disturbance- Kird in time to have something squat, fast, and powerful sweep his right leg out from under him, and Itzo in time to see it happen. Kird struck the rock floor with a heavy grunt both from the landing and a suppressed cry of pain. Bolts of particle beam energy from his rifle and Itzo's smashed and chipped gouges out of the wind-smoothed contours of the wall as their panic fire illuminated existing shadows and cast new ones with weapons fire. Itzo barely noticed that Kird's right leg, severed cleanly just above the knee, lay at an angle to its owner on the floor nearby, the foot moving in spasmodic twitches. Kird was likely more aware, though like his fully intact counterpart, his eyes were fixed on a point to the other side of the ravine's confines.
The Invid Scout stood in a cloud of swirling dust that it had itself kicked up, ready to charge again.
Barely standing above Itzo's knee, the Scout's crustacean-like symbiomechanical body rocked back and forth on two broadly set legs as it built energy for another lunge. The weapons that had so easily deprived Kird of a leg, the Scout's slender, but razor-sharp and powerful pincers gaped threateningly at Itzo- the cutting edges of the left still slick blue with the fallen Zentraedi's blood.
A glowing red eye, similar in appearance to but not electronic like that of the Regult, moved its gaze contemptuously between the two Zentreadi within a socket central to the anterior of a shiny red, exoskeletal body that had the hardness of the strongest metal alloys without being metal.
The melee renewed with Itzo firing on the Scout as it lunged again for the incapacitated Kird who lay on his back, still holding his rifle in his right hand while he fought with his left the futile battle of stemming the spurting jets of blood from the stump of his leg. Itzo was vaguely aware of shrill screams of pain that rose with each successive wave.
The particle beams from Itzo's rifle shattered the Scout's right pincer as it advanced, distracting the Invid enough to thwart the immediate attack on Kird. Instead, the Scout merely trampled over the injured warrior as it rushed in attack.
The momentum the Scout had built in its charge, it used to first ascend and then repel itself off of the ravine wall.
Itzo, provided by the Masters with all of the basic knowledge of the Invid Scout he needed to identify it as his enemy, was surprised nonetheless by its quicksilver speed in doing the seemingly impossible of scaling the face of the wall and exploding back at him. The Zentraedi warrior's reflexes were unhindered by the sight of the incredible though, and Itzo was able to raise his rifle in his own defense as the Invid came for him.
The Scout's remaining pincer, aimed at Itzo's chest, was intercepted by the warrior's rifle. The lower blade of the claw sliced cleanly through the weapon, though with enough resistance to deflect the Scout as Itzo stepped away from it in the same motion. The Scout demonstrated admirable agility in shaking off the Zentraedi's throw, landing on both feet and steadying itself without difficulty.
Itzo tossed aside the two halves of his now useless rifle and as he squared off against the Scout whose remaining claw was extended menacingly before it, blades agape, he drew from the scabbard at his side his warriors kruvok. Long as a warrior's arm extended, the weapon's crescent blade curved toward its cutting edge before terminating in a spike that jutted down at a right angle to the line of the blade. A warrior's last weapon before resorting to his bare hands, the kruvok was still as deadly in trained hands as any rifle or side arm.
The Invid Scout leapt again, and this time it was Itzo who surprised himself in his own dexterity. He stepped around the Invid as it passed in mid-air, bringing the kruvok's spike down powerfully on the slope of the Scout's exoskeleton, just behind the eye. Despite the hardness of alien's shell, the spike penetrated easily and was driven in its full length with the force of the blow. Impaled on the spike, the Scout gave a singular convulsive twitch while in flight before sliding lifelessly off the kruvok.
Itzo shook the thick, green fluid from his kruvok before sheathing it. An ooze of the substance ran both from the clawless arm stub of the Scout and the fatal wound Itzo had inflicted. It formed two puddles on the ravine's dusty rock floor not completely dissimilar from the pooling of Kird's blood with the exception of color, and the fact that the Zentraedi's blood bubbled as itts dissolved gasses boiled away in the thin atmosphere.
Itzo felt revulsion at the sight of the Scout's odd, green bodily fluid- the nutrient medium that sustained the fragile, primitive Invid within and facilitated the link with the symbiomechanical machine.
Not even blood.
Kird groaned thickly.
Itzo could not remember at what point the maimed warrior had stopped screaming, but Fate had deserted Kird in not allowing him to cease with his cries of agony. He was useless now.
Useless and left with only his shame of defeat.
Itzo felt only a disgust and disdain for the warrior laying before him- anger that came with the thought that it could have as easily been he lying in Kird's place.
A rapid burst of particle beam fire lit the depths of the ravine from above. Itzo recoiled from the hail of energy weapon fire as it tore apart the torso of the dying Kird, silencing his groans under the cracking.
Sub-Lieutenant Hedra's Regult Pod stood at the rim of the chasm, the antenna-like barrels of his mecha's particle beam cannons still pointed downward.
"Take his weapon.", Hedra instructed, "There are likely to be others. Invid Scouts aren't often found traveling alone."
Itzo looked about in immediate reaction to Hedra's warning. He had forgotten the possibility of a second, or even a third and fourth Scout in the excitement of the moment- but he was remembering now. Closer to mind was what the lone Scout had done to Kird, and his determination to not end a short life the same way.
The dust within the ravine was settling now- the thin air incapable of suspending it for long- and the way forward seemed less foreboding. The path of the gorge curved right ahead, preventing Itzo from seeing the exit point that would return him to the surface, but his general impression was that the walls opened further along. That was enough to build courage upon. If he could point his rifle or swing his kruvok, then Itzo had proven to himself that he could kill the enemy.
Still, Hedra's warning stuck with him and Itzo knew in that same instinctive way that he had known where to bury the spike of his kruvok in the Scout to kill it that it was likely to have not ventured out of the hive alone.
As Itzo had suspected, the unexplored bend of the ravine came to a broadening of the gap in the rock Pressing on cautiously, it quickly became clear to the warrior that the niche that the Invid Scout had used to ambush Kird and he had been a scarce feature ideal for concealment that Fate had put in the Scout's path. Beyond the scene of the skirmish, the wind had smoothed out all but the most insignificant indentations. The walls rose on all sides at an impossibly steep angle, leaving Itzo few options but to climb where he could find footing as the remaining members of the squad gathered around the edges of and looked down upon him.
"Perhaps the rest of the patrol took cover in one of these other gorges.", Koso suggested as he watched Itzo search for hand and foot holds in the rock as the warrior scaled his way out, "There are more than enough to choose from."
"Then we'll have to search each.", Hedra said, "We can't leave even a partially intact Invid scouting patrol behind."
"We do have them forced down. Their blood might not be up for fighting today.", Koso pointed out, aware that he was treading dangerously close to contradicting Hedra's decision as squad leader. At the very least the statement was inaccurate- the Invid's blood was always up for a fight.
"Forced down is not good enough. We can't risk having them trail us back to the staging area. We'll stay here until we find them."
Hedra's decision was re-affirmed and Koso had no intention of pushing the limits of friendship as they applied to the chain of command. Koso knew that Hedra had chosen the last phrase carefully. There was no ambiguity in it about what he had decided, and there would be no questioning it. It simply would be done.
Itzo reseated the strap of his rifle over his shoulder as he became comfortable with his foothold on the rock. Several higher ledges seemed to lay out a natural route for the warrior in his goal of the rim.
Feeling the top of a rock outcropping for good anchorage, Itzo found a crack into which he could fit his fingers. With ease he began to pull himself up to the next niche where he could place his foot. As his boot settled into an indentation in the rock, Itzo felt the face of the canyon shift. At first the slab moved only slightly, causing Itzo to freeze as to not bring the wall down on top of himself. Transferring his weight to the other arm and foot, it was then that Itzo realized that the slab of rock was being moved from behind.
Koso watched, the walls of the canyon below tumble away in great chunks. His last view of Itzo was of the warrior being carried down with the rockslide, frantically clawing at every surface in reach in an attempt to save himself- but without success. A thick billow of dust swallowed Itzo on its rise out of the gorge, and engulfed the Regults on the rim as it belched out a moment later.
Koso's minimal concern for Itzo was short-lived, as he felt a sudden jarring motion beneath his mecha's feet. The ground beneath his Regult's feet was collapsing, the gorge threatening to devour more of the squad having gotten a taste for Zentraedi with Itzo.
With the reflexes of a skilled pilot he worked his legs in the pod's stirrups and was rewarded as the machine retreated from the cave-in with a powerful leap. The symbiotic link between mecha and pilot was not a skill to be learned, but those pilots with more experience in mecha could be easily picked out from those with less. Reaction time and the ability to make the machine act with finer dexterity distinguished seasoned warriors from those still wet from the stasis tube.
Koso saw that distinction across the chasm as Hedra's Regult deftly escaped the disintegrating rim of the gorge. Less skillful, but with the promise of developing talent, one of Hedra's new warriors recoiled similarly.
The third Regult on Hedra's side of the gorge, a warrior who had struck Koso as radiating a dullness about him, proved his inadequacies in the areas of mecha piloting as Koso watched the dust cloud overtake him. The Regult went in, dropping- almost as if yanked- down into the rising murk of the dust. Perhaps Koso's perception that the Regult had been yanked down from below was not entirely inaccurate.
Any question of what had caused the sudden collapse of the canyon rim ended as a wide arc of particle beam fire sprayed from within the dusty shroud- joined shortly by bursts of plasma fire, indicative of Invid.
Two dark forms vaulted from within the depths of the ravine. Unlike the slight, delicate construction of the Scout to which Itzo had put an end- these mecha were stout and sturdy of form and at nearly twice the height. Their crude silhouettes in the illuminated but settling dust added to their brutish aura and revealed them to Koso to be Invid Shock Troopers. Slightly more evolved, intelligent, and aggressive than the fragile Scouts, the Shock Troopers were however more capable of asserting their aggression.
Though half the size of a Regult Combat Pod, it was a foolish warrior who did not recognize the Invid Shock Trooper an adversary to be respected on the field of battle.
The pause, much longer in perception than in reality, ended abruptly.
Both Shock Troopers surged from the cloud of dust under the cover of their own rapid plasma fire. For a terrible moment that he thought would be his last, Koso mistook their charge as being for him and in a panic, he returned wild fire that even at so close a range was grossly inaccurate. It was only as his particle beam bolts chewed into the weathered rock, having missed both Shock Troopers, that Koso sensed that the Invid were after the Regult to his right. Plasma fire from the weapon nubs atop the Shock Troopers' crustacean-like bodies split the thin air as they charged with their massive claws gaping open before them. Particle beam fire from the other side of the gorge joined Koso's as discipline reasserted itself in him and he took the time to aim.
Why two Invid facing off against as many Regults chose to concentrate their efforts on one was beyond Koso's comprehension. He had no time to comprehend it, nor time to consider it. As the first of his particle beams struck the trailing Invid in the charge, the first reached the Regult standing (standing but not firing, Koso observed) to Koso's right. In the blur of motion, Koso could make out where Invid plasma bolts had sliced and punched cleanly through the legs and lower body of the Regult under direct attack. Bits of the trailing Invid sprayed in all directions as Koso's particle beams bit into the Shock Trooper's formidable bio-alloy armored shell, but failed to significantly penetrate it before both Invid struck their target in a coordinated flying tackle.
Razor-edged pincer blades of one Shock Trooper severed the right leg of the Regult as it toppled backwards as had the claws of the Invid Scout only minutes before severed Itzo's. Claws sliced, stabbed, dug into and extracted the inner workings of the stricken Regult in a fury before it had come to rest on the ground. Invid pincers worked at such a frenzied pace that to try to follow their motion made Koso dizzy. Sparks showered the Invid as they worked intently to reduce the Regult that had in moments lost most of its recognizable features and was exposed to the frame in some areas.
Koso kicked mightily with his Regult's powerful leg at the Shock Trooper he had drawn fire down on. Evident of Koso's experience in the Regult, he placed the kick as precisely and easily as had it been his own limb. The Regult however had the benefit of being able to deliver significantly more force in the blow. The heavy, metal foot landed beneath the Invid's sensor eye in the pointed anterior of the Shock Trooper's shell- where Koso had decided a mouth would be found had Shock Troopers had mouths. The snap kick lifted the Shock Trooper free of the downed Regult, its claws still flailing and slicing at the air as it went up and tumbled through the air in a reverse flip.
Impressively, the Shock Trooper landed squarely and solidly on its feet when it returned to the ground. As easy as it was to mistake Invid mecha as living things by their appearance, they were but machines with the organism to be contended with inside- well shielded and shock isolated. Stunning the Invid had been less of a point to Koso as just separating it from the Regult. The Shock Trooper brandished its pincers threateningly, and Koso replied with his mecha's particle beam cannons. The hail of blue energy bolts saturated the Invid's center body mass, doing the Shock Trooper real damage as Koso charged on it. Without ceasing fire, Koso placed a second running snap-kick into the Invid's chin- sending it airborne again. Koso tracked the Shock Trooper in flight through his gun sights, putting most rounds on target. What struck the ground the following moment was still identifiable as a Shock Trooper by general form, but could more accurately be described as a smoldering Shock Trooper's biomechanical carcass.
Claws and legs twitched convulsively, showing that the Invid pilot was indeed in the process of dying- but not dead. Koso knew better than to turn his back to even the most grievously wounded Invid, having seen them come back from worse states than the one the Shock Trooper before him was in to do harm to a careless warrior. Advancing on the Invid that lay on its back, legs working ineffectively to right itself, Koso continued to fire into the ruggedly constructed body until his mecha loomed directly over it. The death blow came with a crushing stomp of the Regult's right foot that staved in the Shock Trooper's thorax with a gristly crunch from its overwrought bio-alloy body.
Koso prudently did not spend a moment gloating in victory.
He turned his Regult on the remaining Shock Trooper, half expecting it to be in the process of attacking him. It was not. The Shock Trooper, given moments more would have likely shifted its attention to Koso, but was still fixated on the destruction of its first prey. The Shock Trooper squatted on the frame and pressure hull of the downed Regult which was no longer even recognizable as its former self. As Koso maneuvered to shoot, the hatch of the reduced Zentraedi mecha sprang open. As admirable and understandable as Koso found his less experienced counterpart's impulse to free himself (and fight on, presumably) to be- the seasoned warrior could have screamed in frustration as the warrior tumbled out directly into his line of fire. Koso was relieved however of the possibility of taking another warrior's life as the Shock Trooper swiped his head off with a single, clean stroke even before the warrior could steady himself on his feet.
A rapid burst from Koso's particle beam cannons ripped into the Invid, staggering it backwards before the decapitated warrior's body had lain out on the ground. A greater volume of fire struck the Shock Trooper from the side as Hedra and his remaining warriors joined the fight at last.
The Invid went down heavily, gave a twitch and a final great shudder, and then was still.
Koso heard Hedra's bark of a laugh as the dead warrior's helmet, head still inside, rolled and then teetered to a stop in a depression in the ground amidst the strewn debris that had been his Regult. There was no humor or release of tension in the laugh. It was an apathetic sound that always made Koso cringe because it seemed to be made for no other sake than to be heard.
"Not the best first day that Fate has ever granted a warrior.", Hedra said indifferently as his Regult vaulted the span of the canyon and joined Koso, "You really can't go on losing warriors like this, Koso- we'll start to think you're Invid!"
Hedra's nerve-grating, barking laugh filled Koso's ears again, eliciting a similar sound from the new warrior under his command. Koso mimicked the sound as well, though with only enough sincerity to fool the new warrior. Hedra, Koso knew, was wise to the parody- but he also knew that Hedra cared little. Koso pictured for a moment that it was Hedra's thick skull and small brain in the helmet before him. The strange thought of the sub-lieutenant's head still laughing that awful laugh crossed Koso's mind briefly. That thought nearly made Koso laugh honestly. He let it go though and the moment passed.
With Fate's favor, Hedra had satiated his appetites today for battle and blood. The detachment had shrunk somewhat in number over the course of the patrol, and returning to the forward staging area was what Koso wanted most now.
The "Plateau", for lack of anything better to call it, stood at the western most edge of the continent's central highlands.
Not a true plateau in the strictest topographical sense, the enormous landform did thrust steeply up from the great barren plain on three sides while offering a gentle sloping approach through foothills along four avenues from the south. Even this approach terminated ultimately in a steep final climb up to the mesa's enormous, level summit.
It's attraction as a defensible position was clear to even the most novice warrior, and at less than a half hour's hard mechanized charge to a known Invid Hive, it was also clearly an ideal position for the rallying of forces and the staging of offensive operations.
Rallying and staging is precisely what the forward-deployed elements of the 604th Grand Army had been doing for two days now. Broken down along corps lines, the 604th Army had divided itself to reduce and then destroy three other Invid Hives that had been scattered across the continent with no strategic value to their placement apparent, except for perhaps to the Invid. So often was the way with the Invid that made them alien to the Zentraedi- their disregard for all but the most rudimentary strategic thought and planning. To this point could be held the example of the whole battle for Tammus 7. The world was a worthless rock in space, possessing no attributes or resources that could- to the Zentraedi mind anyway- warrant establishing an outpost. Only the presence of the Invid in the Tammus system had caused the Zentraedi to even give the system a second glance as ages of tested doctrine dictated that anywhere Invid were found they had to be annihilated utterly lest a sanctuary, no matter how small, be left for them to reconstitute their numbers.
Reconstitute their numbers the Invid would. Even on a desolate world such as Tammus 7, the Invid had displayed the remarkable (and grudgingly admirable) ability to regenerate even the smallest force into a formidable one. This was the pragmatic reason that Zentraedi warriors and commanders alike came quickly to recognize for granting their traditional enemy no quarter in battle- beyond the mandates of The Warrior's Code. It was within this frame that many Zentraedi also came reluctantly to recognize the similarities between themselves and the Invid. Battles were fought without surrender on both sides until one prevailed. Partial victory was none at all, and the Zentraedi recognized in their Invid adversaries the same belief. Only the prevailing side left a field of battle alive.
Three Invid Hives, minor and minute as Invid Hives went, had been destroyed by the elements of the 604th Grand Army already. They had been building their strength, in the irregular logic of support common to the Invid, of the fourth Hive found on Tammus 7. Reduction and destruction of the smaller Hives had been a necessity in planning the demise of the anchoring Invid position on this world, as the large hive (presumably the first constructed when Tammus 7 was selected for Invid colonization) would require a massive effort by a major Zentraedi force to overwhelm it. Experience had also shown Zentraedi commanders that one of the central strengths of the Invid- the apparent "life force" link that joined all Invid within a hive cluster and to a lesser extent every Invid in the species- could also be made to serve the Zentraedi as one of their weaknesses. Reducing the lesser hives first would not only preclude the possibility of attack on the Zentraedi army's flanks or rear during their offensive against the mainstay of the Invid presence, but it also weakened the defenders measurably without actually having to fire a shot. It had been observed, and legitimately so, that an Invid killed in the flesh was a real wound to the race as a whole. Though each death was small in comparison to the whole, every warrior with even the most minimal battle experience knew that multiple minor wounds were as fatal as a single major one.
What the Invid thought of the Zentraedi as they braced for the final battle of Tammus 7- if they thought on the same level- was known only to them. Still, the terms and conditions of war as observed on countless other worlds would be observed and adhered to. This much was unspoken and understood on both sides.
The building foothills of the avenues of approach to the plateau made it possible for no more than three companies to provide protection to an entire army from that direction. It was from atop one of these hills that Sub-Lieutenant Hedra's returning patrol received challenge from an unfamiliar unit. A platoon of Nousjadeul-Ger power armor, a common sight in the heavy infantry units of the male armies, stood watch over an approach at the crest of one such foothill. The power armor, an exaggerated exoskeleton of armor and weapons worn by a warrior to augment his strength, speed, and individual combat capabilities was a purer fusion of military and Robotechnology in that unlike the Regult or any of its four variants, power armor was not controlled by control grips or pedal-stirrups in the sense that a pilot controlled a combat pod. The machine answered for the majority of its functions to the warrior's movements (power armor issued troops seldom if ever called themselves pilots) and nerve impulses- distinguishing this breed of warrior as having a higher state of union with their machine. Power armor shock troops rarely allowed other warriors to forget this. Still, most warriors accepted this without substantial objection as the shock troops in their Nousjadeul-Ger were an impressive sight bristling with weapons that inspired the common ranks of Zentraedi warrior if not instilling fear in the Invid.
"Who goes?", asked the platoon lieutenant charged with his unit to the holding of the hilltop position, "What unit?"
Koso, having no part in the exchange that would follow as second in command to the patrol listened silently as it unfolded. The challenge was merely a formality, and not even formal at that. The power armor had been able to determine through their sensors that the patrol of Regults were exactly that as soon as they had come over the horizon. Invid could not mask themselves as Zentraedi- it was a physical and technological impossibility- nor had there ever been a recorded instance in which the Invid had tried. The challenge from the avenue's defenders was rather an understood way to break the tedium that preceded action. The platoon of shock troops was eager to hear of combat, and Koso knowing Hedra, knew that Hedra was eager to boast.
"Sub-Lieutenant Two Hedra, lord.", Hedra replied showing the respect to a superior rank demanded by protocol and The Warrior's Code, "Second Company, First Battalion, 741st Infantry Element. Returning from standard patrol."
The lieutenant, towering above the patrol, the long, brutish tube of his power armor's shoulder mounted particle beam cannon training over the Regults following his line of sight, grunted an approving acknowledgement with a faint hint of envy.
Hedra replied to the question that was clearly evoked by the battle damage to the surviving Regults of the patrol and their diminished number, "We encountered an Invid patrol, lord."
Koso noted that Hedra had neglected to include the fact that it had been a small Invid patrol- but Hedra's epic war tales were more prone to embellishment than accuracy.
"Dispatched?", asked the lieutenant.
Pleased with himself, and not fearful of showing it, Hedra replied to his superior, "They will not be joining the ranks of battle tomorrow, Lord."
"Pass then.", chuckled the lieutenant, and then his men, amused by Hedra's choice of replies, "Duty and honor, Sub-Lieutenant."
"Duty and honor, Lord."
The posted sentries motioned the patrol forward, allowing Hedra to lead his warriors up the final incline.
Koso's Regult ascended the steepened grade of the hill with only moderate effort, but it was a reminder to the warrior of his mostly earthbound existence. By comparison, and almost as though to flaunt the comparison, a flight of Gnerl Fighter Pods passed overhead in escort of two massive, disc-shaped Re-Entry Transport Pods that were likely ferrying replacement warriors to units in preparation for the next day's anticipated battle. The Gnel Fighter Pods, bullet-shaped and a tri-point configuration of sharply rear-sweeping wings and tail, were the vehicle whose warrior pilots other Zentraedi suspected Fate favored the most. Though cramped, more so even than the cockpit of a Regult, the Gnerl pilot was least likely of all warriors to have to resort to his kruvok or bare hands in dispatching Invid. Despite the edge of maneuverability the Invid enjoyed over the significantly larger Zentraedi craft, the Gnerl Fighter Pod had the advantage of speed that when employed with Fate's favor and the correct tactics could rush its pilot in on the enemy and whisk him away without an enemy shot being fired in return at him.
Or, so it would seem to the novice warrior.
Warriors with experience- warriors like Koso- knew and had seen that death in the Gnerl pilots' ranks was scarcely less frequent by percentage, and by no measure less violent.
Koso had seen many a Fighter Pod obliterated by the intentional collision from an outmatched Invid adversary- or worse. Worse being, in Koso's mind for the uneasiness he felt at heights, those pilots who had escaped initial destruction from an Invid Shock Trooper's plasma cannon fire, or an agile Scout's air-to-air suicide charge- only to have a wing taken off and be trapped in their machine as it went spinning to the ground without possibility of escape. Koso had seen it happen many times and wondered how often a warrior's sidearm had been used to end his own life before it could be snatched from him in meeting the ground. Koso knew that were he ever in that dire position, that would likely be his solution.
Of course Koso knew he was likely to never have to make that decision, as warriors were predetermined into a service category during the process of cloning. There were rare occasions, and Koso had met one or two warriors in his time who fit this description, in which a warrior's aptitude for another service category was recognized and with supervision he was allowed to transition. Koso was comfortable that he was not one of these cases. Space flight operations in a Regult were as close as he had any want of coming to a Fighter Pod. Koso preferred the firmness of the earth beneath his boots when he did battle.
Let the Gnerl pilots have the air.
Other warriors would disagree.
They would say that the Fighter Pod pilot was not as much of a warrior as he never had to clean mud and dried gore from his body armor, or block out the screams of the dying as he concentrated on the unforgiving challenges of ground battles. Koso had heard these arguments too. They were often from the novice warriors confronted with the realities of combat, or more rarely from warriors who had built combat experience and at the same time had acquired bitterness.
Warriors would always talk though just as sure as the fact that death came to all warriors eventually.
It was the Warrior's Path though...
The edict of the Code.
The flight of Gnels split off from their escort formation around the two Re-Entry Trasports and streaked away with an increase in output from their powerful pulse-jet engines. The drone of the fighters was lost under the deep rumble, like thunder at an extreme distance, of the Re-Entry Transports as they passed directly over the returning patrol under Hedra's command. The transports, carrying the supplies, equipment, and replacement warriors needed by the 604th Grand Army moved east over the plateau toward the area that had been designated as a landing zone. As the two transports neared, a half dozen others lifted off to return to their base ships in orbit and to perhaps ferry more supplies and warriors planetside. This activity would go on until almost the moment that the army deployed for battle.
Watching the Re-Entry Transports dip low and then vanish into the landing zone, Koso thought darkly that only that morning Warriors Itzo and Kird had come to Tammus 7 that way- as had those warriors in the patrol whose names had not stuck with him. Now their replacements were coming in the exact same way- as would theirs, most likely.
"Koso", Hedra said as the sub-lieutenant led the remnants of his patrol on through the tidal regions in the sea of bivouacs in the direction of the 741st Infantry Element's encampment. Koso knew the "tasking" tone Hedra always used, and being the second in command he was sure what he was about to be tasked with.
"We are in need of replacements for our losses. I have to report our engagement. Go draw some strong warriors for our squad. We will need them tomorrow."
"Strong", clarified Koso, "or smart?"
"Some of each. We'll need both. Or, if they have neither- foolish brave will work."
"Ah, your type."
"Yes!", chuckled Hedra pridefully, "I am all three."
Thuverl Salan Class
Action Commander Gymalt sat at the head of a flat gray table that stretched nearly the length of the officer's briefing room.
Best practice normally dictated that that while in a combat area of operations- which for a destroyer squadron of a Zentraedi Army fleet was almost constantly- commanding officers within an element were strongly encouraged to confer via com-link. Invid could not be counted on to approach from great distances that would allow a warship's sensors to give adequate warning of impending danger. Most frequently, they would simply appear and often by the millions within the columns and formations of a fleet- bringing all units to instant alert and action. For this reason it was unwise for a commander to be away from his vessel, justifying conference by com-link.
Gymalt had his own justifications for not adhering to this best practice though. It was an unspoken justification that was understood in one way or another by the sixteen other destroyer commanders under his charge who sat to either side of the table before him. They were sixteen where less than ten days before they had been twenty-four.
Action had been intense initially and losses heavy in landing the infantry on Tammus 7. The loss of eight ships from a squadron was not unheard of in such circumstances and many squadrons had come away much worse or not at all.
Fate had been kind to Gymalt and his commanders of the 4234th Destroyer Squadron.
There was an air about Gymalt that commanded attention that superceeded the issue of rank. It transcended physical appearance as well, though his battle and time-worn features gave him credibility in all things command-related. It may have been something in the steadiness and intensity of the gaze of his icy-blue eyes, or the certainty and factual brevity with which he spoke that asserted his dominance. One-to-one, no commander under his charge would seriously entertain the notion of making challenge to that authority.
Some enterprises required quiet collaboration.
"General Alzyha has scheduled the assault on the final Invid Hive to initiate concurrent with first light in the region.", Gymalt said bluntly, "The bulk of the fleet will provide low orbital fire and air support, rotating through that duty. The 4234th will not be involved in these support operations . It has been determined that given our losses during the initial landing phases that we should assist in the rear guard effort- defending the landing ships from possible Invid counterattack with other similarly depleted combat elements."
There was a brief and quiet murmur of discontent with what had been said. The orders were technically not Gymalt's, and therefore the protests were not as overtly insubordinate.
Gymalt quelled the dissent as quickly as had it been an order issued by himself though, "That is our assigned duty, and that is the duty that the 4234th will perform. I need not remind anyone at this table of the nature of the Invid-. They are cornered, they are losing this campaign, but they still have the potential for great treachery. I also needn't remind any of you that I expect a full measure of commitment from you all and your commands in carrying out our duty. The Invid in the Tammus system still have the potential to do this Army and this fleet great damage. Be vigilant and be aware at all times. I want no more empty seats at our next meeting than there are at this one. Now for the details of our assignment-. Screen."
The lights in the briefing room dimmed at Gymalt's command and a three-dimensional, holographic chart appeared. Vessels of the 604th Grand Army's fleet appeared, encircling Tammus 7 by the thousands. The image zoomed after a moment to an organized cluster of vessels orbiting the world at extreme range. These were the fleet's landing and transport ships. Armed heavily like all Zentraedi warships, they were still routinely kept back from areas that had the potential for intense engagements. As they were responsible for the storage of critical supplies for the fleet, and for transporting the bulk of the Army's warriors- the loss of these vessels one-for-one was felt more acutely by the Army than of any other class of ship, save the flagship.
Despite its importance, there was a definite stigma attached to acting as rear guard for transports during the final stages of a campaign. The stigma was only multiplied by assigning an entire unit to the duty. It spoke volumes without uttering a word, saying that the unit was ineffective enough to warrant neither reconstitution, nor decomposition to supplement other units. It was simply easier to sweep it aside for disposition later.
Gymalt's words bore no hint of shame associated with this stigma. He merely continued, outlining the details of the 4234th's assignment. The holographic image continued to zoom until it settled at level of resolution that allowed all around the briefing table to see the fleet's transport elements assembled in a simple box formation.
"The transports will maintain simple, defensive station-keeping.", Gymalt explained, needlessly, "While we will deploy along the rear right quadrant in an enveloping crescent."
The screen gave visual reference to Gymalt's description as the seventeen destroyers of the 4234th Squadron appeared in a half-moon formation perpendicular to the line of the transport formation's flank, and with the "points" of the crescent situated above and below the rear right corner.
"Deployed in this way, our ships should be able to provide maximum overlapping cover for each other- should the need to defend arise."
The point that Gymalt had mentioned the destroyers covering one another in defense and not the transports was not missed by the other commanders at the table, but neither was it verbally acknowledged. Other reduced units were deployed along the transport formation's flanks, and in dorsal and ventral screening positions- yet there were enormous gaps for exploitation- particularly if exploited by Invid mecha that could be counted on to be deployed by the hundreds of thousands or better.
It was a clear manifestation of the stigma to which Gymalt would not concede. It was an impossible task if the worst case scenario was realized, and would almost certainly result in a further reduction of the detailed units if not their annihilation.
As well as each commander at the table understood the precarious nature of their assignment, they also understood that their possible destruction was part of a grander, time-tested design. Zentraedi armies retained their power by being led from strength and by purging the weak or ineffective. It was a simple formula that had proven true over centuries of use.
Empty chairs that were not likely to be refilled were a vivid reminder of this fact.
"Use your resources prudently.", Gymalt said, combining a reminder and a warning into the same words, "We cannot anticipate when we will be replenished. You are all dismissed to return to your commands. Duty and Honor. Honor through Victory. Niko Choh'k."
"Duty and Honor.", replied the commanders as they rose from their seats, referring by phrase to the Niko Choh'k- The Warrior's Code- the basis for the conduct of one's life and service.
Clearly eager to return to their own commands, the officers filed quickly out of the briefing room without additional words exchanged between themselves or with Action Commander Gymalt.
All filed out, except one who remained seated midway down the right side of the table. The fact that he lingered after the others had departed did not surprise Gymalt in the least, and in fact had he not it would have been a greater cause for concern to the action commander.
"Something is on your mind, Pach?", Gymalt asked needlessly.
Pach, unlike the majority of warriors- both of the officer and warrior grades- was unreserved in questioning, and there was always something on his mind.
Gymalt rose from his place at the head of the table and moved down its left side to take a seat opposite his subordinate. Mostly it was for convenience in carrying on what could be a long discussion, but also because with Pach more than any other commander under his charge, Gymalt felt comfortable with this display of equity- even if it was only a display.
Pach was slighter and somewhat smaller than Gymalt in physical dimensions, his short, neatly kept black hair and medium-blue skin only beginning to show the wear that was so advanced in Gymalt. His eyes, an unremarkable brown in color, nonetheless retained the luster of a perpetually active and dynamic mind that Gymalt was certain he too had possessed once.
"This situation, Lord-.", Pach said, his carefully chosen words coming cautiously on his deep, bass, voice, "This situation, this assignment, Lord- I do not see it developing favorably for the 4234th no matter what path it leads us down."
Gymalt chuckled at the line that their dialogue was already taking, "There's a kind of insubordination to your words, Pach."
"You know I mean none, Lord."
"I know you mean none.", Gymalt assured him, "But the 4234th has been assigned its part in the last battle to bring a glorious Zentraedi victory over the Invid to this star system. General Alzyha has said so. The particulars are a matter that do not affect that reality, however. We will do as we always do though- conduct ourselves as warriors are expected to and trust in Fate's favor."
Pach's expression darkened, "The benefits of Fate's favor are reduced when the solid certainty of determining factors in battle are stacked against us. General Alzyha in committing the bulk of the fleet to orbital support of the ground operations creates an inviting target to the Invid in the transport ships. Then we are given the hopeless assignment to defend those same transports. He could save many transports by purging us directly and assigning a force in suitable strength to the detail."
"You sound like a warrior who fears death, Pach.", Gymalt observed.
"I do not.", Pach replied without hesitation, with the caveat, "But nor do I seek it for myself or my warriors. They adhere faithfully to the Niko Choh'k and still have much to contribute to the fight with the Invid."
"Then they will prevail in battle.", Gymalt assured the junior officer, "As will you."
"And prevail again, and again-.", Pach thought aloud, "Until the implications of Alzyha's favor, not Fate's finally stands us up for the last fall."
"You and your warriors do live faithfully by the Niko Choh'k, so you remember the final Pillar.", Gymalt reminded him, "Death comes to all warriors, Pach."
"I submit to the Code.", Pach said, "Though some Pillars more grudgingly than others."
Gymalt rocked back in his chair thoughtfully, his hands not leaving their place on the table before him.
"Of all my commanders, Pach, I know you the best and understand you the least."
"You know and understand me well, Lord.", Pach told his superior, "You just prefer not to accept the understanding of me as you would likely be forced to purge me if you ever did. I don't question the fact that Duty requires sacrifice- I just question the amount of sacrifice for the amount of gain from time to time."
"Don't be concerned.", Gymalt said, "I wouldn't purge one of my finest commanders, Pach. With whom would I have these conversations then? Besides, this is all a mental exercise. General Alzyha has favor with the High Command because he is effective in rooting out Invid where he finds them. Conduct of his command as he conducts it now has given him that effectiveness. He is not imaginative, but he gets results. That is why he is likely to outlast either you or I. We have other concerns though."
"I have my suspicions on that subject too, Lord.", Pach said, unaffected by Gymalt's resignation to the order of things.
"What in particular?"
"Alzyha's favor with The High Command.", Pach clarified, "When was the last time Alzyha's army was ordered to put in for repair and re-supply, Lord? We transitioned directly from our last campaign to this one. I would be curious to see exactly what stores are aboard the transports we are to guard to the last. My vessel is down to forty-five percent munitions capacity, and my warriors take damaged and semi-functional mecha into combat. If the 4234th Destroyer Squadron is being set up for purging by this particular guarding detail, then it could be argued that the whole 604th Grand Army is being set up for purging through neglect."
Gymalt nodded, "I have thought the same on occasion, Pach."
"You have? To what end?"
"To the end that these are matters that can only be addressed from General Alzyha's level. Keep that keen mind focused on those matters you can affect. You will achieve more and sleep better."
Pach shook his head, "Doubtful, Lord. The price due for command responsibilities is exacted in restful sleep."
"And intrigue.", added Gymalt.
"Nothing to concern yourself with, Pach."
Gymalt shifted the direction of the conversation, asking, "Your new lieutenant, does he show promise?"
"Dychi.", Pach said, refreshing Gymalt's memory as to the name of his executive officer, "He is progressing. If Fate grants him the time, I think he should serve well as an officer. He is a different sort from you and I, very- thoughtful."
"Are you saying we lack thought?", Gymalt asked jestfully, "I believe I am insulted!"
"No, Lord.", Pach said, "I simply meant that he is very meticulous, moreso even than me. That makes him an excellent executive officer. He will have to learn spontaneity before he's ready for a command of his own though. Unfortunately, that's more of a quality than a learned skill. We will see."
"Qualities change with time.", Gymalt said, "They can be coaxed out and nurtured if the proper environment exists. He should learn much from you."
"Given time.", Pach reaffirmed.
"Given time.", Gymalt agreed.
Commander Pach had enjoyed an audience with his superior for some time when the responsibilities of both finally demanded that they part company.
Leaving the briefing room and walking aft along the main corridor of the command deck, Pach's mind was still churning through thoughts that were both his alone and those spawned by the lengthy discussion with Gymalt. He was entirely self-absorbed as he reached the lifts that would take him down to the shuttle and transport deck, the lowest spaces of the Thuverl Salan Class destroyer.
The calling of his name barely registered with Pach, inwardly focused as he was, but it did catch and the voice was a familiar one.
"A moment of your time, if you offer it."
The other commander, wearing the same officer's tunic of green and black with gold braiding stood with his arms folded high on his barrel chest. His pale green skin was creased about the eyes with deep furrows, giving him the appearance greater age- though Pach was fairly certain that they had a comparable number of years to both of them. Stocky to the point of being nearly round, and with the uncommon trait amongst Zentraedi of complete baldness, the commander was no less imposing than Pach even with his shorter stature.
"I do.", Pach replied, "Fate favors you I hope, Sylas?"
"As well as any of us.", Commander Sylas, master of Destroyer 818 of the 4234th replied, "And you?"
"Well.", Pach said, reading in Sylas's voice something more than pleasantries, "Though we will see tomorrow how well Fate favors anyone."
"Indeed.", agreed Sylas, "And it is of tomorrow that I wish to speak of with you."
"What of it?", Pach asked, realizing that he and Sylas were experiencing the uncommon occurrence aboard a Zentraedi vessel of a space devoid of others but themselves.
Sylas continued to speak as though he was not only aware of this, but expected the condition to persist for as long as it took for him to say his mind.
"Don't be coy, Pach.", Sylas said with the subtlety of a fist to the gut- his normal demeanor- "You enjoy Gymalt's favor- we were curious as to the substance of your discussion."
Pach was suddenly surrounded by the other commanders of the 4234th Destroyer Squadron in the space outside of the lift doors. Their collective body language was not threatening, but it was clear that Pach would be going nowhere until the conversation had run its course.
"We spoke of operational matters, specifically of our assignment tomorrow. You were there for the briefing, all of you, so you know what I do."
Sylas nodded verification of what he already knew, "Yes, yes-. The question on our minds is what does he intend to do about it?"
"I don't understand.", Pach said. There was still no menace in his fellow commanders, but Pach disliked the course the conversation was beginning to take.
"Was my question unclear?"
"Action Commander Gymalt intends to carry out our orders- as should you."
"And you see nothing tactically unsound about the resources being deployed to defend such a large number of transports, Pach?"
"What I see is irrelevant.", Pach said, answering the question indirectly, "It is our assignment, and our duty to carry it out."
"Don't lecture me on duty like I'm a warrior wet from the tube, Pach.", Sylas snapped, "We also have a duty to our warriors to not lead them into a needless massacre- the same duty Gymalt has to us."
"Action Commander Gymalt is well aware of his duties.", Pach replied calmly, unmoved by Sylas's passions, "You should make it a point to mind yours. You speak of leading our warriors into a needless massacre? What massacre would that be?"
"The guarding of the rear is a slaughter asking to happen.", Sylas pointed out, saying nothing that Pach had not, but the underlying implications were as opposite as they could be, "You see that as clearly as any of us."
"And until your dire predictions come true, Sylas, we are obligated to follow legitimate orders for a sanctioned tasking. Anything else is insubordination at best."
"You sound like Gymalt.", Sylas scoffed, "Duty no matter what the cost."
"Duty is the bond that makes us strong, and different from the Invid.", Pach said, "And if you're so certain that there's to be a massacre, then I would suggest you consider the massacre that would be if the transports were left to fend for themselves. At least with our protection, they have a chance."
"Then in estimation the warriors who crew the transports are of greater value than those you command?"
"No", corrected Pach, "I feel that their protection warrants putting my warriors into harm's way."
Sylas's expression showed that he recognized that he and Pach were at a point at which neither would surrender ground and neither could gain. Instead, he changed topics.
"What is Destroyer 741's condition?"
Pach was unsure of Sylas's motives in asking and replied with care, "Operational and combat ready. As ready to fight as Destroyer 818 at least."
"I ask", Sylas explained, his tone far less confrontational, "because Gymalt was absolutely correct that if we should join battle with the Invid, we will rely upon each other for mutual support. It's not unreasonable to ask how much support can be expected."
"Destroyer 741 has never failed to prove itself strong in battle. You know that, Sylas."
Sylas nodded his agreement, "That's good, because in extreme situations, sometimes difficult decisions need to be made. The weak may need to be sacrificed to preserve the strong. Of course you know the principle of the purge."
"I am familiar with it.", Pach stated, "Though I hesitate to associate the word principle with its underlying function."
Sylas locked eyes with Pach, and said unafraid, "Gymalt is weak, Pach. He is dying slowly and his superiors understand that. His weakness makes us weak, and that is why we have all been slotted for purging. If on the other hand-."
"This conversation is over.", Pach said, attempting to step around Sylas for the lift only to have Sylas place himself in his way again.
"Do you fear what I say?"
"No, I find it distasteful."
"No harm can come to you by hearing it though, and it is worth your consideration.", Sylas advised him, sounding more like a trusted comrade than Pach felt comfortable with, "If Gymalt's weakness is cause to set us all up for the purge, then perhaps his loss can get us back into a position where we have a chance of regaining favor. A stronger leader may rejuvenate the squadron in the eyes of our superiors."
"A leader like you, for instance?", Pach speculated.
"Or you.", suggested Sylas, "I'm not greedy for power, but I am protective of my life and the lives of my warriors."
Pach made physical contact with Sylas with enough pressure to tell the commander that he would pass him if it meant moving him by force, "Are you done now, Sylas?"
Sylas stepped aside and the cluster of commanders that had shrunken in around the two officers opened to allow Pach to the lift call panel.
"May Fate hold you and Destroyer 741 in its favor tomorrow, Commander Pach."
"And all of you as well.", Pach replied to the other commanders as a whole, "We will agree that this conversation never took place."
As a lift car arrived to carry Pach to the shuttle hangar deck, Sylas said after him, "We will agree to that, but you should still consider what was said. An unfortunate sacrifice is not the same as an unnecessary one, Pach."
There was a uniformity to the arrangement of a platoon's bivouac in the larger encampment of a Zentraedi Army that made one look the same as the next to the untrained eye. Officers' and sub-lieutenants' shelters always stood in the rows closest to and facing an encampment's command post. Beyond, and organized by squad were the warriors' shelters, standing in neat columns. Beside each, and connected by life support umbilicals on planets whose environments would otherwise be hostile to the Zentraedi, squatted a warrior's mecha that like a domesticated animal of metal waited with limitless patience for its master's summon to duty.
It was in the fine details that the composition of a unit could be found. On the eve of major battles, as the next day's was sure to be, unit bivouacs housing mostly seasoned warriors were quiet places characterized by productive uses of energy if energy was being expended at all. Weapons, equipment, and mecha were checked thoroughly for existing or developing defect so that a replacement might be found before the critical hour. On worlds where the winds carried grit and sand, experienced warriors could often be identified by the wads of fabric stuffed as tampions into the muzzles of their mecha's energy weapons. Accumulated grit could melt in the ultra-high heat of particle beam fire, and the molten material that resulted could easily and quickly render an otherwise functional weapon useless.
Mostly there was the quiet and calm though.
A warrior who had survived even a small number of battles quickly realized the difference that conserving one's energy for a fight made when the fight actually came to be. So often, novice warriors burned nervous but crucial energy all the same in sparring matches or standard physical training regiments.
Experienced warriors might offer up their wisdom from time to time in seeing these displays, but more often than not would pass without comment. They knew. They knew that the warriors who Fate chose to one day achieve their level of battle savvy would survive to learn, and the others would not.
He had once been one of the sparring warriors, flying on adrenaline without fear of fatigue. On the morning of their first significant battle, he and Hedra- both barely dry from the stasis tube- had nearly beat each other senseless in such a match.
Of the dozen or so warriors who had spilled each other's blood in pointless recreation though, only he and Hedra had survived to see nightfall of that day. Koso learned quickly that day with Hedra trailing only a step behind. Koso had learned to quietly observe the warriors who bore scars and spoke reservedly of battle, and to mimic those habits he saw. More often than not it was he who determined the reason why a thing might be done and passed it on to Hedra. Before the seed of their friendship had germinated, it was mostly out of Koso's desire to not have to endure the indifference of hardened warriors alone that kept him interested in preserving Hedra's life. Since then, the camaraderie had solidified and they looked after each other for that reason alone, and in that time Hedra had repaid Koso's favors manifold.
Now it was their turn to be the figures of wisdom or indifference- they had been both- to warriors who behaved as they once had.
They now bore the scars.
Koso had spent some time navigating the labyrinth of small unit encampments in order to reach the logistics area of The Plateau. The pace of material deliveries to the units had not slowed any in the time that Koso had been back from patrol, rather he was almost certain tha the comings and goings of Re-Entry Transports had increased in pace. Fortunately it was clear as he made his way past long lines of warriors who were waiting to draw for themselves from the abundant supplies of weapons, rations, and the hundreds of other items that kept a fielded army functioning that not every warrior headed in the same direction as he was in search of the same thing. Indeed, when he reached his destination, he found the marshalling area to be amply stocked with fresh warriors and short on those seeking them. The most likely explanation, Koso knew, was that experienced warriors avoided the company of new ones as much as possible- and more so just before a battle. The annoyance of questions and the near mechanical "clicking" way in which new warriors conducted themselves was more than many a veteran cared to deal with.
To Koso however, replenishing the ranks of his squad was more than merely finding warm bodies in boots to march at the Invid. Early choosing often meant the best choice- even if the differences were sometimes negligible.
"Who has charge of the new stock?", Koso asked in the direction of a small assembly of soiled warriors who sat on ammunition crates nearby to the aimlessly milling horde of new warriors .
"I do.", said one rising from where he sat with portable inventory unit.
Koso nodded his acknowledgment to the warrior who he saw by the rank insignia just above the Imperial Chevron on his left breastplate to be of the same grade as he.
"I need warriors who can get into a Regult without needing supervision.", Koso said to the warrior assigned to tend to the new arrivals on Tammus 7, "Any good candidates?"
The fellow warrior looked impatiently at Koso, suspecting correctly that Koso would be more selective than most in drawing from the pool of new arrivals.
"Well as best as I can tell, they fall into three groups, Warrior.", Koso's counterpart explained to him, "You have the four minute types, who will last about four minutes in combat. Then we have your three minute variety-."
Koso interrupted, "And let me guess, we have the two minute kind also?"
The other warrior snorted a guttural laugh that turned Koso's stomach by its sound, ""Not hardly. Then you have the ones who will likely shoot themselves while loading their rifles. What would you like and how many?"
"Four.", answered Koso, "And I'll save you the trouble-. I'll have a look and chance picking them myself."
"Suit yourself.", said the warrior in charge. He then motioned Koso closer raising the inventory control device, "Identification for transfer?"
Koso raised his right forearm. Above the cuff of armored gauntlet on the inner forearm of his body armor, Koso presented his unique identification code for scanning. The inventory control device read the series of dots and dashes to mark Koso as being the authority drawing from the pool of new warriors.
"The selection is still pretty good.", the shepherding warrior said handing Koso the inventory device as he took his seat again. His manner told Koso that he had invested all the energy into the task that he was going to.
"Take what you like."
"Without your expert advice?", Koso asked dryly and without any attempt to conceal mild contempt, "How will I manage?"
The warrior stared Koso down hatefully. A brawl, even a warranted one, would have required more energy than the task of selecting out stock for an upstart's unit- so the temptation quickly lost its appeal.
"Maybe tomorrow when you come back to replace your losses.", the warrior, still brooding, said grimly, "If you come back."
Koso accepted the computerized tool, "I'm certain you'll still be here. Honor through victory."
The other warrior replied with a brutish grunt.
The new warriors in the assembly area were keenly aware that they were being reviewed with a critical eye. Without prompting, the more proactive of the lot formed a crude review line. Koso took mental note of these warriors, automatically segregating them from those warriors who joined on the line as followers. Besides the order in which they formed up, there was little distinction between them that Koso cared to notice. They were a line of occupied suits of pristine environmental body armor standing at attention.
"You, fall out for assignment to my unit.", Koso said, tapping a sizable warrior on the chest. He was physically robust, and had been one of the warriors to first form the review line. Koso only caught a sideways glance of his face through his helmet visor before he'd moved to the next warrior in the line. By the time he had decided against the selection of that warrior, he'd forgotten the face of the first.
Appearance was of little importance. Strength, indication of nerve, and a faint glimmer of intelligence were the criteria by which Koso judged each potential selectee in the split second it took to pas them.
Another tap, "Fall out."
Loyalty was another factor that was important, though not one that could be perceived as readily. Koso looked for the signs of a steady nerve, which was most of the way to unit loyalty in battle- but not completely. It was one of those qualities that couldn't be known until a warrior was tested by combat. Koso had seen the unexpected occur in almost every variation. He had seen the largest, strongest warriors become completely unnerved and vanish in the thick of a battle never to be seen again. Sometimes these warriors were lost to Invid, sometimes the unit would find them and they would "go missing"- in these cases, questions were never asked.
Koso had also seen warriors of lesser stature stand as fast as a rock outcropping in the face of overwhelming enemy forces. Sometimes these warriors lived, often they did not. These were the warriors whose loss was regrettable. These were the warriors with whom a unit commander would be grateful to Fate to fill his ranks with.
Koso remembered the early dreams.
These were the first recollections of life that still clung fast to the edges of his mind and still came to him occasionally in sleep. These were hazy dreamscapes in which bravery in battle and loyalty to one's fellow warriors was reinforced with feelings of satisfaction. The dream, like many that Koso remembered from that time of slumber in stasis, always had a darker component to it as well. Cowardice and failure was always associated with a crippling sense of shame and even an element of pain.
Even now, the dream was the same when it came back to him. The reinforcing stimuli were subdued somewhat now, but the dreams were the same.
In their consistency, Koso felt that he understood these dreams. They were like others in which he had visions of operating a Regult, or taking part in hand-to-hand combat- all experienced before he had ever done any of these things. These dreams were a message from The Masters- expected conduct and abilities of a warrior.
Other dreams- more recent ones experienced after The Awakening- made less sense and whose meaning was not as clear. There was the dream where Koso found himself in combat wearing nothing at all. There was the dream where he was appropriately clad in armor, but his rifle when brought to bear on an Invid (and in this dream, it was inevitably a clean and simple shot) would bend at the moment he pulled the trigger.
The point of these dreams was beyond Koso's grasp, and he wondered if other warriors had them. He was fairly certain that all had the stasis dreams- by things he heard other warriors say, or references that they would make. The dreams that Koso could not explain, he was more hesitant if not fearful to discuss or even allow the hint of them to escape.
It could be, he had once reasoned, the result of faulty manufacturing.
Stasis dreams were much more comforting in their simplicity and recognizable purpose. The Awakening had a way of confusing a warrior's world.
"Fall out.", Koso said, tapping another warrior on the chest.
These warriors were much closer to their Awakenings, some of them possibly as little as hours out of the stasis tubes on one landing ship or another. They would not understand the more confusing dreams that often perplexed Koso.
Koso on the other hand remembered vividly the jarring transition into consciousness that all Zentraedi shared. The chill to the body as skin was exposed to air instead of stasis fluid for the first time. There was the panic as lungs suddenly demanded air and fought to expel the same stasis fluid that had also insulated their bodies during sleep. Muscles never commanded to do anything failed, spilling the warrior onto the cold metal deck into a rapidly draining pool of fluid. Then came the pain and disorientation as eyes opened for the first time and were overwhelmed by sights that the brain fought to form associations with.
"What's your name, Warrior?"
"Fall in for inspection and issue, Warrior Koso-."
"Fall out.", Koso said, selecting the last warrior needed to bring the unit back up to strength.
The large warrior, bigger even than Hedra, stepped forward.
Koso paused, having already moved on past the warrior before he stepped out and had spoken so brazenly. It was rare in the extreme for a new warrior to speak out of turn, and even more rare to offer up unsolicited information to a superior
"What's that, Warrior?", Koso asked, spinning aggressively on his last selection and standing in so close that the visors of their helmets bumped repeatedly.
"My name is Ulstik.", the massive warrior said without hint of confrontation to his voice- or fear.
Koso relaxed somewhat at this, though he did not show it outwardly. The cause of the warrior's speaking out was the key concern. Brazenness was kin to bravery and could be embraced. Defiance on the other hand more often than not spawned disaster, and Koso would have as likely ended the warrior's short life then and there had he sensed that trait in him. As a superior, it was his right to terminate the lesser grades if they posed a legitimate threat to unit efficiency or cohesion. More though, Koso felt an obligation to his fellow warriors to not allow one into their ranks who might by personal flaw bring Fate's bad favor upon them all. Koso had been forced to this before- and while completely justified for the reasons deemed "legitimate", he had carried an unspoken sense of guilt away from these acts and did not relish the possibility that he might have to terminate a warrior again.
"When", Koso stipulated in replying to the new addition to his unit- Ulstik was still fit to make the cut in Koso's mind- "you have spilled the blood of an Invid and dried all the stasis fluid from behind your ears; and, if you live to this time tomorrow-. Then perhaps I will consider remembering your name- Warrior."
Koso led his warriors in the direction of the mecha pool, or more accurately the area in which replacement mecha of every configuration had been assembled in neat lines and rows for the warriors who required them. The exchange with the large warrior who now took up the rear in the line of selectees, caused Koso to find his mind in another place.
He recalled the walk out of the stasis chamber, naked with the exception of the issue bundle that had been thrust at him in passing through the door. It had been in that corridor that led to one of the landing ship's many stasis compartments, as well as the infirmary, that Koso had first smelled the odor that all warriors came to know so well. It was the odor that both excited and revolted Koso at the same time- the smell of blood, burned flesh, slow decay, and dirt.
It was death's odor, and one that could be neither mistaken nor mimicked.
Warriors sitting slumped against the corridor wall, awaiting the possible salvation of treatment in the infirmary, watched Koso and his dripping comrades pass as if in some kind of review for their amusement. Koso, through sideways glances had seen that the response of the wounded was anything but amusement. Hateful glares washed over the new warriors as they passed. Koso had never forgotten them.
At the time, Koso had been satisfied in the misconception that this aura of loathing was nothing more than a mute manifestation of the agony of wounds and the building delirium of infection. Now though, with hindsight, Koso felt differently. He thought now that perhaps it was an odd sort of envy belonging to dying warriors alone that coveted the certainty felt by the naïve. It was the certainty of programming that told the naïve that correct conduct, that proper reaction to stimulus was rewarded with success.
It was a certainty and a naiveté' that battle would quickly remedy.
With hindsight and experiences similar to those of those first dying warriors Koso had seen, what seemed ages ago now, Koso could almost hear the thoughts behind each pair of burning eyes.
You'll get yours too.
Commander Pach watched through a viewport as the relative confines of Destroyer 1017's shuttle hangar opened and fell away to the vast expanses of space. Powerful Zentraedi warships were dwarfed to insignificance in comparison, and patrolling squadrons of Fighter Pods seemed as clouds of dust blown in a prevailing wind.
Pach had found that the immensity of space gave scale to even the largest assemblies of vessels. It was perspective that if pondered too long could make one face one's own immaterial existence in the grander view of things- and it was for that reason that Pach normally curtailed such futile exercises.
As his shuttle came to its heading, Pach's view of the fleet changed and brought into sight the object of his next day's assignment.
Landing ships, slightly longer than destroyers of the Thuverl Salan class, but with nearly five times the mass, were in Pach's opinion unsightly at best. Boxy by nature and function and with a deserved lumbering appearance to them, the landing ships of the fleet stood in defensive station by squadron; each squadron in station with the next to form a mutually protective box formation.
There was nothing refined or appealing about the appearance of a landing ship, but Pach understood their importance to the fleet and to the Army in function. These vessels were self-propelled supply depots, attending to the material needs of a deployed army in every respect. Mecha, munitions, food, field equipment and supplies, and personnel from the slumbering ranks held in stasis all flowed from the landing ships out to the fleet at the request of unit commanders- in principle.
Pach, like the other commanders of the fleet, was aware that the reality in the 604th Grand Army was near opposite in contrast.
The "flow" of supplies for unit replenishment had slackened to a trickle, and that trickle was now strictly rationed and distributed by General Alzyha's command. Direct requisition from unit commanders had long since ceased to be honored, and more often than not the rare occasion on which a unit commander might make a direct request- the request itself was ignored.
It was no secret to Pach or any of the other commanders as to the reason why.
Alternate means for obtaining what was needed to keep a unit functioning were still available. Barter- though officially prohibited by regulation- was tolerated by higher echelon commanders as long as these activities remained conservative in scale and low in profile.
Pach participated in this shady exchange of provisions as did all unit commanders by necessity. He found his involvement unsettling though- not because of its deviation from regulation and protocol, but rather because it made the 604th Grand Army remind him of an animal deprived of fodder and beginning to sustain itself on the last of its own body's reserves. Pach had always been successful at striking a deal to acquire what his command needed- but each time, recently more than ever, he approached each deal with a fear that what he would need could not be gotten by any offer of trade. It would be at that point that he would have to come to grips with the fact that the 604th Grand Army had made the transition between metabolizing its last reserves and being in the process of slow starvation.
The freedom of open space helped Pach cast out the dark prophecies he reserved to himself for the future of the 604th Grand Army.
Rising from the comfortable seat provided for him in the passenger cabin, the commander made his way forward to the cockpit. It was a mere whim the commander was satiating in doing this, to gain a more panoramic view of the vast emptiness that the shuttle's view ports did not provide.
The gentle vibration of the shuttle's engines passing through the deck were familiar and comforting to Pach, but not so much as the more pronounced and powerful sensation of being in the single seat of a Gnel Fighter Pod- which he had known well long ago. One would not expect the same feeling to come from a lumbering shuttle as one would from an agile fighting machine, naturally- and Pach did not. It was not the physical sensation of having a Fighter Pod's engines almost in your back, or the buck and pull of high-speed maneuvers that brought the commander the sense of comfort though. He recognized as much. It was the sense of control- real or not- that one felt to have a machine answer directly to your command and the additional perception that in having that control that one took some responsibility for one's own destiny out of Fate's hands and managed it one's self with flap, rudder, and throttle.
Many machines answered to Pach's command now- through the orders he gave to the warriors operating them.
It was a removed, distant form of control comparable to conducting a manual task with gloves on. And while Pach's subordinates had not to his memory failed to achieve his desired outcome in an issued order, it was still a degree of removal that the commander grappled with from time to time. The exchange of words never felt as firm as flight controls in one's hands.
One machine answered to his words more directly than others, though it could be argued that it in itself was thousands of machines incorporated into a package of singular purpose that Pach determined and controlled in the final analysis.
Destroyer 741 floated effortlessly, gracefully on a gentle current of oblivion- awaiting the return of its master and commander faithfully.
Identical in every physical respect that could be measured or observed to Action Commander Gymalt's Destroyer 1017- or any destroyer of the 4234th Squadron for that matter- it was not the "standard" Thuverl Salan Class vessel as found predominantly throughout the Zentraedi Fleet.
Even in a military force as established and uniform as that deployed for the Masters by the Zentraedi, there were still moments of evolution and refinement that could be marked. Among these moments had been efforts to standardize the specifications of the class of vessel that would be the mainstay of the Fleet much in the same way The Regult or the Gnel had gone through refinement before reaching "final" form. To this end, variations designs on a central concept had been built in limited quantities ("limited" in comparison to the number of units of the finalized design that would be required by the Empire) for combat testing and review of their effectiveness. Like many facets of the manufactured Zentraedi culture, these ships were either to prove themselves viable and be adopted for widespread use, or would eventually disappear from the inventory by attrition.
Destroyer 741 and the others like it- a limited production run that few could identify by the official addendum to the Thuverl Salan nomenclature of "Lot 500 – Heavy"- had not been selected as the final design of the Fleet destroyer class.
Broader in the beam and of modestly greater mass, the "Lot 500- Heavies" also possessed a larger battery of main armaments, greater magazine and provisions storage capacity, and a larger crew and warrior complement to what would become the "standard" Thuverl Salan. Decided by those charged with the task (with no Zentraedi input considered) the "Lot 500- Heavy" had been deemed too resource-intensive for mass production and more capable than required for the role the Thuverl Salan was conceptualized to fill.
Intended to operate as part of large, coordinated, fleet actions the vessel's independent strengths to function autonomously worked against it. The "Lot 500- Heavies" were not unique in being slotted for discontinuation for the reason that they violated the doctrine of the Robotech Masters as it applied to the Zentraedi: that exceeding the standard of "good enough" was as fatal a flaw as measuring up inadequate.
The leaning of the Zentraedi- the extraction of the weak and incapable through the purge of battle was a delicate balance that was maintained with calculated and uncaring methodology.
From time to time though, and despite the best calculations and methodologies elements merged to defy the will of the Masters.
To Commander Pach there was still something intangible about Destroyer 741 that allowed him to pick his ship out from others- even of its own kind. It was the vessel's character that could not be easily defined or explained, but that was familiar to all that served aboard. Whether it was the surges in its acceleration curve that Destroyer 741 demonstrated in building to speed as the engines' power was felt through the decks, or how the ship always seemed to answer quicker to the order of left rudder than to right regardless of how the thrust trimmers were tweaked- the ship possessed insignificant and innocuous peculiarities that gave it an individuality. In a universe of uncertainties, there was some comfort there. There was reassurance in a crew member's knowing which nutrient dispensers yielded the most palatable offerings, though the selection amongst all was uniform. There was a sense of reliability and predictability in being able to taste static charge in the air of the lower decks during the building of charge in the ship's immensely powerful main battery, or in the raising and tickle of a warrior's fine hairs when it fired.
These were the constants the ship provided.
There was comfort there to Pach at least.
A ship, this ship, his ship was a solid anchor of familiarity against which all other things could be framed. In that bond there came a heightened perception that allowed Pach to recognize his ship from all the others. He had not been the first master to feel that bond with Destroyer 741, and if Fate chose it to be so, he would not be the last.
For now though, it was his.
Zentraedi warships, in all their various configurations, projected a sense of incontestable power. It transcended the mere fact of their massive dimensions, required in a practical sense to ferry and support the warriors that were the backbone of Zentraedi Imperial might. The capital ships of the fleet had the appearance, and perhaps so by design, of brutal instruments of conquest to be wielded club-like by the Zentraedi at the will of the Masters to bludgeon into submission all that opposed the deviant children of Zor.
All but the Thuverl Salan.
This was, of course, a matter of Pach's personal perception and opinion- but only the Thuverl Salan Class of warship, though it was the fourth largest common configuration to be found in the Fleet, retained an elegant grandeur in projecting power.
Admittedly and irrefutably even the Lot 500- Heavies were outgunned by the larger command-class vessels of the Fleet- goliath vessels of strangely angular, mechanical-organic forms that inspired fear and respect by virtue of their grotesque destructive potential. To Pach the Thuverl Salans were no less impressive with their graceful lines and slipstream appearance.
Overall, roughly the shape and balanced proportions of a spearhead, it seemed only fitting that this class of vessel was the vanguard of any fleet action. Bringing to bear sufficient firepower to pulverize an enemy, Pach had come to know the character of the class- of his vessel at least- as being more apt to slice into a foe.
The class appealed to Pach at a level felt perhaps best by Gnel Fighter Pod pilots- the same balance of speed, power, and lethality- only on a grander scale.
"May I be of service, Lord?"
The question from the pilot jostled Pach out of his musings to realize that his unannounced entrance into the cockpit and certainly his unorthodox presence there (so far as standard protocol went) had drawn the attention of the two warriors at the controls and had obliged them to address him though their attention was best applied to the tasks at hand.
"No.", replied Pach as the gentle, banking turn of his shuttle brought the craft in line with Destroyer 741's long axis from astern, "I'm here for the view."
"Yes, Lord.", replied the pilot, returning his full attention to his duties as the flight of Fighter Pods that had been flying escort for the commander's shuttle peeled away and vanished to begin their own approaches to return home.
Like all things observed, the Thuverl Salan Class destroyer had an ideal distance and angle from which it could be observed.
From dead astern and well below the centerline was not that position.
From the approach path to the shuttle hangar deck, the lowest occupied space of the vessel, the ship's sleek proportions were lost and it appeared squat and every bit as organically bizarre as any other Zentraedi vessel configuration with its odd bulges and vascular hull features. The ship's two, massive main engines- powered down to stand-by mode, bracketed the impressive beam in their armored nacelles that jutted aft and separated from the dramatic slope of the ship's fantail which housed the vertical span of the full eight decks.
Proximity revealed the blemishes and scars to the skin of Destroyer 741's standard, Imperial, green hull paint scheme. Blast marks dotted the otherwise uniform color in black, while gouges from the glancing blows of debris revealed the dull, lackluster grey of terilium armor plate.
Still, the shuttle bay doors stood open wide and inviting showing the ship ready to receive its master. This was enough to distract Pach from paying mind to minor physical imperfections.
"Destroyer 741, this is Shuttle Eight-Seven, commanding officer aboard. Request clearance for final approach and landing."
An officer in meticulously kept uniform, bearing the rank insignia of sub-commander, stood well back from the gaping airlock as it allowed the passage of the commander's shuttle through its semi-permeable cold plasma field into the enormous shuttle hangar. The sub-commander, his features lean and taut- unmarred by combat or the rigors of long periods of responsibility- smoothed his shoulder-length, blue hair into a neat arrangement before straightening his tunic.
Many, if not most warriors reserved this attention to appearance for inspection. As executive officer of the vessel though, the sub-commander felt obliged to consider himself under constant inspection both by his superior and in some ways of equal importance by his subordinates.
Sub-Commander Dychi considered himself presentable as the commanding officer's shuttle touched landing skid to deck in the space allotted to it.
Dychi approached the shuttle as the engines powered down. Just aft of the cockpit, the crew hatch slid open as the gangway extended and met the ship's deck at a steep angle. Commander Pach appeared in the portal and quickly made his way down the length of the ramp, not making use of the hand rails.
"Permission to come aboard?", Pach asked, observing protocol as Dychi technically was still in command until he relinquished it.
"Permission granted, Lord.", Dychi said placing his clenched right fist over his heart in dutiful salutation, "I relinquish command of the ship."
"I accept it.", Pach replied, completing the formality.
"I am prepared to make my ship's report, my Lord.", Dychi said with relaxed obligation. "I am prepared to receive it.", Pach said leading the other officer who in frame and stature seemed almost frail and wiry by comparison to his superior.
The two officers passed the severely damaged hulk of a Re-Entry Transport Pod. As a transport, the vehicle was now useless, but the exposed innards of the craft as seen through open and removed service panels showed how even in its state the Re-Entry Transport Pod functioned to serve others of its kind by giving of its functional parts. Nothing could be wasted, no functional part insignificant- especially now, Pach knew and thought to himself silently as warriors worked to remove a power transmission assembly from a thruster. If the detail noticed the passage of the ship's two senior officers, they made no sign of it. While Pach detected some silent disapproval in Dychi's manner momentarily, he paid it no mind. The work at hand was of greater importance, and no affront was intended. Tomorrow there would be battle, and a functioning transport would likely better further the Zentraedi cause than the observance of protocol.
Dychi would learn and accept this soon, Pach knew. This was only a phase that all young officers, their minds not yet made flexible by the realities of Duty, had to negotiate for themselves.
"Lord, I have repeatedly requisitioned from General Alzyha's command a resupply of provisions, munitions, and warriors.", Dychi stated factually, and then added with a hint of managed shame, "I have been less than successful securing a firm reply."
"I would suggest you have, Sub-Commander Dychi.", Pach replied as he and his executive officer left the hangar deck for the corridor that would lead on to a set of ship's lifts, "General Alzyha's command has not replied because they cannot render an acceptable reply. There are few provisions, munitions, or warriors to distribute to anyone save deployed, forward commanders. Given our status in the Fleet at the moment, I would not invest much more energy in that particular pursuit, Dychi. You're out of your sphere of influence- let it go without guilt or shame."
Dychi stepped after Pach into an elevator car as it arrived to the commander's beckon, and with a moment's hesitation asked, "Begging your pardon, Lord- what status is that?"
Pach nodded his silent approval to Dychi's perceptiveness and reminded himself that the executive officer had not been privileged to the conference of the squadron's commanders, nor to the session following between he and Gymalt. Dychi was quick to pick up on subtle things, Pach had found, though sometimes the obvious eluded him.
"Status as a less than fully operational unit.", Pach said, blunting the truth somewhat, "It's nothing that would be affirmed officially, so save yourself the trouble of trying to or attempting to contest it."
"Yes, Lord.", Dychi complied, adding, "Sub-Commander Ritzal will be… disappointed."
"Yes, Lord. His requests for updates on his replacement warriors have been coming almost hourly. I suspect that my being here to greet you will mean that there will be a message waiting when I return to the command deck."
Amused that Dychi had not learned the "persuasion by pressure" methods employed by the ship's ground unit commander to get his way, Pach chose to impart an unrelated piece of wisdom, "Ritzal is both gifted and skilled in making do, Dychi. He enjoys the comfort of numbers in his ranks too much, but we have no warriors to spare. He will manage, Dychi. Regarding warriors, have you issued posting orders for our defensive component yet?"
"Yes Lord.", Dychi replied as the lift car arrived on the command deck, ""Though it was difficult. We have insufficient numbers to adequately guard all areas of vulnerability. I try not to think of what would happen if Invid were to penetrate the ship."
"We'll have to make do as well, Dychi.", Pach said leading the way forward toward the command center of the ship, "On the off chance that you haven't grasped this yet, there's never enough munitions, supplies, or warriors for that matter-. Not where battle with the Invid is concerned."
Two warriors in full body armor and armed as though expecting battle in the corridor stood outside the sole entrance to the ship's command bubble. Pach returned their salute as they saw him and stood aside to allow his passage- otherwise he gave the two little more consideration than any of the ship's fixtures or control panels.
Pach and Dychi entered a compartment that could allow perhaps half a dozen to stand within it with comfortable familiarity. A work station with a number of displays and access to all relevant information aboard and about the ship occupied most of the rear of the compartment and allowed a commanding officer to work free of involving crew in the details of his pursuits. Commander Pach sometimes made use of these facilities, though he was equally capable of working without distraction from his quarters at an identical work station. When in the command bubble, Pach's attention was normally directed forward.
The circular compartment, truly a bubble of sorts, was enclosed on three sides by a transparent screen of acrylic. This concave, seamless window allowed the commander to look down from his chair at the center of the bubble onto the command center below.
Aisles and rows of work stations covering the full spectrum of ship-handling and command and control functions filled a space that rivaled some of the ship's magazines and storage spaces in volume. Active and staffed continuously, warriors worked in the various tasks required to run the ship and perform its assigned missions. The commanding officer was equally visible to the staff on the deck below, though whether they took the time to notice or wonder about his activities Pach was unsure. Despite the rigors of protocol, Pach did not enjoy separation from his junior officers, staff, and warriors often. He too had known the view from the command deck and the imposing appearance of the command bubble above. It had seemed threatening without cause to him then, though he suspected that was the intention of the Masters in designing this aspect of the vessel as they had all the others.
From his current perspective, the command bubble was no longer imposing- except in how it imposed isolation. The staff and crew carried his orders out dutifully, but Pach was always aware of the solitude that his role placed him in. Dychi was company, true, and even good company Pach was finding. Still, the very design of the station where he stood his watches made it difficult for Pach to be little more than what he appeared to the crew below- a towering, untouchable image that gave orders.
The burden of Duty.
As Pach settled into his chair and gazed out over the command deck at the large holographic viewscreen that spanned the width of the compartment and now showed Destroyer 741's position on tactical display, Dychi continued.
"I suspect the presence of the females will make the situation more difficult."
Pach, who had already turned inward, pondering the dozens of readily visible gaps in the defensive screen that the 4234th Squadron was to provide to the rear right quarter of the landing ship force, came suddenly back to the conversation with Dychi.
"Females? What females?"
Dychi appeared startled, as though he had broached a subject that had been deemed forbidden, "Action Commander Gymalt did not inform you, Lord?"
"He said nothing of females.", Pach said, his expression darkening at the possible implications, "What of females?"
Dychi, now collected, explained, "We received word from General Alzyha's staff that a female army had made contact and was to join us for a combined operation. Pardon me for not informing you sooner, Lord, but the word came down in such a way that I assumed that you had to know."
"No apologies, Dychi.", Pach said, excusing the technical failure of his subordinate, "Normally, that would have been a safe assumption. But why-?"
Why would Gymalt not inform his commanders?
The question spun in Pach's mind without answer for a moment.
"Lord.", Dychi interrupted without knowing he was interrupting.
"Perhaps I am not in a position to judge, due to my inexperience- but I have reservations about a combined combat operation with the females. I have heard, informally, from many junior officers with field experience that they are not trustworthy."
Pach's mind seized on what must have been Gymalt's reasoning. Perhaps he knew of Sylas's plotting? He had to-. What else could have Gymalt's vague reference to "intrigue" have meant? It was speculation, of course, and Pach knew it. The pieces fit though- having females mix into the battle would increase the possibility if not probability of "accidents". Why nurture conspiracy by informing the assembled conspirators of an upcoming opportunity?
Pach was certain that he understood now why Gymalt had remained silent on the topic- but what he would have given to have five minutes with Gymalt now.
"I have served in combined operations with females before, Dychi.", Pach said, realizing that Dychi had gone for a long time without a response, "You can trust that their interests are the same as ours when battling Invid."
Dychi's tone was cautious again, and he struggled clearly to only seem interested in the technical aspects of what he asked, "I have never seen a female, Lord- I assume you have. What do they look like?"
"Much as we do.", Pach said with a shrug, "It was long ago that I saw them- live females- on a battlefield, but they appeared physically much as we do. For the most part, they are smaller and more frail than we. Even the most robust struck me as lacking a male warrior's strength, but I would hesitate to call them weak. Their strength is just different. They appeared to be capable warriors."
"I was told that their appearance was different than ours.", Dychi said as though discovering a deeply held truth was in fact misconception.
"The similarities are greater than the differences.", Pach assured him, "They are constructed with slight differences, proportioned differently. Have no fear, Dychi, you won't mistake a female for an Invid."
"I wasn't concerned with that, Lord.", Dychi responded, "And you feel they can be trusted?"
"We are to find out one way or the other, aren't we?", Pach resolved, "Though when? When were the females due to arrive, Dychi?"
"Sometime in the next six to eight hours, by the distributed message from Alzyha's command, Lord."
"Then they should arrive in time for the battle. What they do once engaged is completely up to them."
"Lord-.", Dychi said after a moment, "There is a final matter that requires your attention- two perhaps."
Dychi looked uncomfortable, "Concerning Sub-Commander Gerrok, Lord."
Pach knew the matter instantly, as he knew Gerrok better than anyone aboard the ship and at least as well as he knew himself. The matter was that Gerrok had never made any attempt to conceal his dislike for Dychi, in the short time that the new officer had been aboard, and Gerrok being Gerrok. Well, it was to be the same story Pach had already heard from Dychi on no less than a dozen occasions.
"What exactly is the problem?", Pach asked without having to.
"The main matter, he would not say.", Dychi replied, his frustration still fresh enough in his memory to cause the sub-commander's face to flush in the revisiting of it, "He asked to speak to you when he returned. This ties directly into the other matter, Lord. I appreciate that the two of you have been comrades and friends for some time, and that you have served through much together-."
"Don't make excuses for The Chief's behavior, Dychi.", Pach said.
Dychi continued, "Though to have him refuse to discuss ship's matters with me in your absence is at best a gross violation of protocol and insubordination. I am, after all, Lord, the executive officer."
"Indeed you are.", Pach agreed, "I will resolve this issue with Gerrok, Dychi. In the meantime, I have two tasks for you."
Pach rose from his chair, having been seated scarcely long enough to have warmed it.
"First, contact Sub-Commander Kranna and inform him that he is to provide his best Fighter Pod pilots first consideration in arming. We have no missiles to waste, so they should go first to those who will do the most with what we have. He will gripe, but let him know that these are my wishes."
"Yes, Lord, and the other?"
"This will sound unusual to you Dychi, but I need it done competently and discretely."
"Of course, Lord."
"I want you to work with the head of the communications division to monitor all communications coming from and going to Sylas's vessel- coded and uncoded. I want to know with whom he is speaking, and if at all possible what is being said. The coded transmissions will likely be a non-standard cipher, but see what can be done regardless."
"Yes, Lord.", Dychi complied.
Seeing Dychi's understandable curiosity at why he was being asked to spy on a fellow warrior of superior rank, Pach simply said, "Don't ask, Dychi. I will explain it all to you shortly. Just get the monitoring up and running- quickly."
Pach brushed by him on the way out the door, "I'll be aft in engineering, speaking with The Chief."
The rectangular electronic unit hit the work table heavily and slid toward Point Lieutenant Jerl with the sound of metal scraping against metal. The unit stopped just short of the junior engineer's side of the table, and he picked it up. Turning the charred metal box over in his hands once, Jerl set it down on the table again. Work in the electronics workshop continued intently but quietly, very quietly, at tables around the one at which Jerl stood. Of the other technicians at work, none made eye contact with the point lieutenant, nor did they make any attempt to acknowledge his presence. He was avoided on every level as though he was the carrier of a disease that might be spread by mere association.
In a sense, he was.
"What is it?"
By itself, there was something about Sub-Commander Gerrok's gaze that was oppressively heavy, intense and penetrating. When coupled with a question, curt and direct as he was well known to be, the sensations were amplified and significantly less pleasant. This was, naturally, with those whom he liked- or perhaps more appropriately those whom he tolerated.
Jerl went for the hand scanner on his belt- a standard piece of equipment to all warriors who performed any sort of maintenance function on the ship. Aboard a vessel with literally millions of parts and components, it was the only way to know what everything that one might encounter requiring replacement was.
Unless of course, you were Chief Engineer Gerrok.
Gerrok rolled his eyes dramatically, disapprovingly. If the electronics workshop had been quiet before, the quiet surpassed silence and went into negative volume as the tension heightened until it could be felt like a static charge.
"I can do that too, Jerl. I'm asking you what it is, not the hand scanner."
"Of course, Lord-.", Jerl said, embarrassed, as his hand slipped away from the comfort of quick answers to be found with the hand scanner.
"Opening it up to look inside might help.", suggested Gerrok dryly.
Wisely, Jerl chose not to reply but rather centered himself on the only course of action that would abate the active scrutiny of his superior. He found the friction lock latches on the units sides and rotated them into the open position so that the interior of the component could be accessed. What was revealed inside was a shambles of melted and charred electronics, every bit as easily identified as corpses found in the aftermath of intense battle.
"Don't feel compelled to act quickly, Jerl.", Gerrok said, the knife of sarcasm cutting just a little deeper, "The ship will just repair itself if you give it enough time."
Jerl had discovered many things in the time since his Awakening. One of the most profound was that the initial inclination toward subordination to superiors could wear thin in favor of the temptation to strike a superior with a blunt object. In his time of service under Gerrok, he had discovered just how quickly and how thin it could wear. Perhaps his submissiveness had just not worn thin enough- yet, or perhaps he just hadn't found a suitable blunt object.
"-A Type 47 standard bus-.", Jerl said as the heat-gutted component began to look less like an electronics massacre and more like a damaged piece of equipment comprised of elements with which the junior officer was familiar, "That definitely makes it a weapons system component-."
"Good.", Gerrok said, approvingly but not praisefully. Jerl was convinced that had he the ability to pull a pristine, new unit out of his left ear, Gerrok would be inclined to ask why he had not been able to do it more quickly.
"A 226 processor managing seven energy converters-.", Jerl continued with his mechanical autopsy, "It's from a heavy gun mount's cyclic particle accelerator."
Gerrok's expression remained grimly stern and neutral as to the correctness of Jerl's answer, "Not the linear rail accelerators?"
"The bus is the same type, but the converters are the wrong type and one too many for the electrostatic nodes in the linear rails."
"Good.", Gerrok said, his expression still neutral, "Anything else?"
"You also didn't pull my head off my shoulders, Lord.", Jerl said, making use of the best blunt object available.
Gerrok's expression soured slightly, barely noticeably- but as enigmatic as The Chief was, Jerl had learned in their time together that some display of emotional response was favorable in meaning to none at all.
"We'll just say that I'm still weighing the immediate gratification of that versus the pain it would involve bringing your successor up to your very meager skill level, Point Lieutenant."
"Yes, Lord.", Jerl replied.
"Oh, and by the way-.", Gerrok said pointing to an equally damaged looking component on a workshop table to Jerl's right, "You will take the salvageable pieces from this unit and that and reconstruct one that functions."
"Lord, we do have these units in storage.", Jerl said before fully contemplating the wisdom of doing so.
Gerrok was unaffected, "You miss the point. I can get a warrior still wet behind the ears, to swap out a system module. I expect something more from you. Don't always count on there being replacements- there might not be. Your ability to improvise is what will make you useful to the ship and to me. This is your chance to demonstrate that ability."
"Yes, Lord.", Jerl said, dismayed by the possibility that what The Chief asked might not be possible. He resolved to make the attempt though.
"Back to work.", Gerrok ordered generally to those around him.
All knew that this was about as close as they would get to hearing of a job well done.
One had to know The Chief.
Pach knew The Chief and had seen variations on this same display countless times over the course of the years.
Gerrok only became aware of Pach's presence inside of the workshop as the level of his subordinates' productivity reached a level that satisfied him. Even then, Gerrok did little in offering salutation, opting instead to ease by the commanding officer into the corridor on his way forward to the maneuvering room from which all of the ship's vital power and propulsion functions were monitored and controlled. Pach paid little mind to Gerrok's rather cavalier acknowledgment, and opted to follow him forward. Pach knew Gerrok after all, and knew equally well that Gerrok was as likely to change his ways as were the Invid.
Wisdom in command, Pach had found, was often the ability to select what one ignored.
"To think we send thousands of warriors into battle with the Invid-.", Pach said, sounding distant in thought, as he followed Gerrok into The Chief's layer, "When we could save countless lives and achieve better results by simply sending you."
"Then you'd risk leaving upkeep of my ship to Jerl.", Gerrok replied somewhat less abrasively than what Pach was expecting, "And no one wants that. You think I'm harsh with them?"
"On the contrary", Pach said, "From what little I heard, I was afraid that you were mellowing with age. Normally you have them wetting themselves within a minute. You're not getting soft on me are you Gerrok?"
Gerrok shot Pach a sharp glare that said all that needed to be said.
"I take it that your new lieutenant shows promise?", Pach continued as sub-officers and warriors worked at the various stations around him, "Otherwise you wouldn't invest the time in tormenting him."
"Who's tormenting anyone?", Gerrok asked, "I only apply realistic levels of pressure to important tasks."
"That's a creative explanation."
Gerrok paused at seeing a flicker in the monitor display of one of the control panels. He seemed to lose the world around him as he opened the panel of the console and reached inside. Only when the work, unseen to Pach, eliminated the flicker from the screen did Gerrok recognize again the existence of things and others around him.
"What are you doing down here anyway?"
"I'm not allowed to walk my ship?"
"My ship", Gerrok corrected, "And I know when you have a purpose- even when I don't know what it is."
"Now you're just being paranoid."
"Paranoid.", Gerrok snorted, and then with a flash of comprehension crossing his face, added, "The resupply isn't happening, is it?"
Pach shook his head, "No, I'm afraid not."
"So, I'm not paranoid so much as I'm perceptive."
"A mix of both, I'd say.", Pach granted, meeting The Chief half way.
Not to be distracted from the main topic, Gerrok asked, "Who do the Masters want dead- the Invid, or the Zentraedi?"
"They may not have invested a lot of thought in it lately, Chief.", Pach said more honestly than he had intended his answer to be. It was a valid question, because the line of apparent indifference drawn by the Masters between weeding the weak in the Zentraedi ranks out by attrition and arbitrary decimation had been clearly crossed- even to the most loyal and ardent warrior.
"Well, fortunately in the time I save not repairing things for lack of replacement parts and consumables, I have plenty of time to think it over.", Gerrok replied.
"You'll make do, as always, Gerrok.", Pach assured him, "Of that, I'm supremely confident."
"No thanks to the Masters.", Gerrok grumbled.
The duty staff of the maneuvering room, for as much as Gerrok was able to pretend it was not there, was, and was clearly hearing the discontent of their superior despite their efforts to conceal it. To hear it from Gerrok was one thing- to be expected even, Pach had learned. To let the junior grades hear him indulging in such forbidden pleasures was quite another. A multitude of problems were known to begin that way, and none of them ever benefited a combat unit or turned out well.
"That's enough, Chief.", Pach said, putting his hand firmly on Gerrok's shoulder.
Gerrok, not oblivious to the latitude that Pach's friendship granted him in questionable behavior was also aware that even that friendship had to have its limits for Pach where matters of the ship's operation was involved. He knew grudgingly when it was best to bite his tongue, and sometimes was even capable of doing it.
"Of course.", Gerrok said, "I'll take my small, intellectual victories where I can. How I would enjoy letting them know that we've learned how to cannibalize or borrow from almost every system on the ship to support the others."
Pach wasn't convinced that the Masters didn't know, or that this had not been the intention in not providing the Zentraedi with anything but the most rudimentary abilities to repair and maintain the ships, machines, and equipment provided to them. Still, the Chief's point was clear.
"You'd astonish them, old friend.", Pach said honestly to the engineer, "Can you hold us together for another battle?"
Gerrok's expression was bleak. It often was, when it was not bitter or irascible.
"Of course.", Gerrok said pridefully, "You don't keep me for my disposition."
"That's all I needed to hear, Gerrok."
"Though-.", stipulated the engineer in a way that expressed to Pach that he was not exaggerating even in the slightest, "Even the best of us have limits as to what we can do. The same applies to ships. We'll both reach a point where we can do little for you without proper resupply and refit."
"Understood.", Pach acknowledged, and the danger of Gerrok charging headlong into blatant insubordination was quelled.
"Any chance of a trade arrangement with the other ships in the squadron?", Gerrok asked. An issue was never truly settled with Gerrok so long as he had another angle to approach it from to get what he desired. It was one of the qualities that made him excellent in his duties, so Pach could not curse its manifestation in other areas too harshly.
"Not likely in the time we have before we're to go to action stations.", Pach said truthfully, "And even if you could locate all of what you needed and arrange a favorable swap- we'd never have the time for you to make the trade. Time is too short."
"A familiar theme in this army.", Gerrok said quietly.
"Isn't that the truth.", Pach replied wishing that he could have granted Gerrok the simple comfort of at least trying to locate what he needed through trade. It was a common, though officially discouraged practice between engineering officers of the fleet in the same way that trade of munitions and supplies was. In the same way, it was also overlooked because it kept the fighting units functioning- the greater Zentraedi machine, really.
A second thought occurred to Pach that caused him to question whether he was the one, not Gerrok, who suffered from paranoia. To allow Gerrok to barter within the 4234th would mean that he was revealing to the other engineers of the squadron where systemically Destroyer 741 was the weakest. Not advisable if Sylas were to include him with Gymalt in his list of unfortunate sacrifices that needed to be made to preserve the rest of the squadron. Of course, the benefits of letting the engineers speak freely of something as outwardly innocuous as trade could be made to work both ways.
"Sylas's engineer, Erkola-.", Pach said to Gerok., "You're on good terms with him?"
"Of course.", Gerrok replied, "Everyone likes me."
" Sooner or later, you'll have occasion to barter with him-.", Pach said, "When you do, try to be conscious of anything he might say or try to get you to agree to that seems out of the ordinary."
"Define out of the ordinary."
"I don't have to", Pach said confidently, "if it is, I'm sure you'll know."
"What's this about? Do I want to know?"
Pach replied, "Sylas, and probably not."
Gerrok shook his head disgustedly, "Don't we have enough to worry about?"
"Add another worry to the heap. An occupied mind is an exercised mind.", Pach offered, "And the same goes for any of the other engineers. I trust that I don't have to worry about you being swayed to sedition?"
Gerrok paused, then asked, "Will it get me the parts I need?"
It was officially time to change topics.
"One more thing, Chief."
"I'm listening.", Gerrok said expectantly.
Gerrok rolled his eyes, "That whining-. I never had these problems with Pyros.-. –The walking protocol manual, you mean?"
"Pyros is gone, and I mean the ship's executive officer, and its commander in my absence.", Pach corrected, "Please see that you show the appropriate respect to the billet if not to the warrior in it."
"I couldn't tell that there was a warrior in it.", Gerrok said dryly.
"Respect-. Right. Got it. Anything else?"
Pach shook his head- not an admission of failure, but recognition that Gerrok's interpersonal skills were a constant work in progress.
"I'd be afraid to broach the subject."
"Good, because I have work to do.", Gerrok said, motioning Pach out the door of the maneuvering room.
"I'll be on the bridge.", Pach said as he departed, and then asked over his shoulder, "At what point did I lose control here?"
"At what point did you have it?", Gerrok retorted..
As it applied to The Chief, it was a valid question.
The officers and warriors of an operations-level combat unit understood the implications of battle in a very pragmatic, "micro" way. They saw specific mission objectives, and the resources in warriors and equipment available to them to apply to those objectives in order to achieve them. Victory or defeat was something measured on a day-to-day, battle-by-battle basis.
Victory was often defined by surviving to see the end of a battle in order to tally the resources available to apply to the objectives of the next.
Defeat was defined by the inability to do anything further- the individual having been relieved of these responsibilities by death.
Battles, campaigns- the war with the Invid was seen at the operations level in small, brutal chunks.
From the command level, especially within the uppermost echelons of the 604ths Army's command- perceptions and trends toward victory or defeat were viewed in delay and quantified gradually.
The command platform of the 604th Grand Army, the Pritan Cardun ("Uncontested Victory") of the mighty Queadol-Magdomilla Class of command ships, and second in scale and firepower only to the Nupetiet-Vernitzs Class and on which the commanders of Grand Armies kept their flag was more than capable of conducting combat operations and by itself laying waste to entire worlds. This was not Pritan Cardun's primary function any more than picking up a weapon or manning a mecha for combat was the function of the officers to whom the "macro" conduct of the war fell. Pritan Cardun rarely fired an energy salvo, or launched a fighter even in its own defense. Pickets and screens of thousands of ships, millions of Zentraedi performed these functions.
These units were the limbs of the organism that was the 604th Grand Army- Pritan Cardun was the brain.
If the command ship was the "brain" of the army, regulating and dictating functions to the body, then the consciousness of the organism resided on the command deck of Pritan Cardun. At the center of the command deck around a large holographic display table worked the command staff, an assortment of sub-generals, action commanders, and commanders representing the varied disciplines of war. In incessant shifts, these officers worked as the highest links in the chain supporting the individual from which all orders direct or derived flowed.
General Alzyha, commanding officer of the 604th Grand Army, presided with silent intensity over the final details of initiating battle with the Invid on Tammus 7. The holographic map before him, capable of displaying views as grand as the known universe or as minute as an area of battlefield soil incapable of encompassing a Regult's footprint, showed the plain on which the battle would be fought and toward which Zentraedi ground units were already moving.
Predominantly unremarkable in topography, the plain did have a series of gentle swells running north to south in staggered parallel. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years ago these had been a volcanic mountain range. The tenacious eroding forces of Tammus 7 had taken that much time to grind down what the geological forces had thrown up in the comparative blink of an eye to yield what the Zentraedi commander looked upon today.
Alzyha was neither interested in the geological history of the plain, nor of much that had anything to do with Tammus 7 or the Tammus star system for that matter. It was only the presence of the Invid here, their last bastion in the system and the implications of that fact that interested Alzyha at all.
General Alzyha, for all the millions in the 604th Grand Army, was the only warrior who could see the entire picture and certainly was the only one with the commander's perspective.
Certainly the command staff of sub-generals, action generals, commanders, and lesser grades had visibility into all of the information that flowed into the command center aboard Pritan Cardun. They too knew the direction that the 604th was taking operationally for it was they who disseminated Alzyha's orders, but this was scarcely standing in his position.
Of all the officers who were privileged to the strategic details of the 604th Grand Army, perhaps Sub-General Brenik, Alzyha's executive officer, was closest to understanding the way in which Alzyha perceived the campaign in its development and execution. Even he though fell short, for it was Alzyha alone who had received the orders to conduct the campaign from Supreme General Breetai, and who by virtue of this fact was responsible for carrying out an instruction issued by a true living legend to all Zentraedi.
Alzyha could clearly remember, though it seemed now lifetimes ago, the swell of pride to be called to an audience with the Empire's most cunning and accomplished commander, and the honor of receiving the duty of sweeping this sector of space clean of Invid occupation and activity.
Hundreds of worlds, thousands of battles, and decades later- it was all about to come to a favorable end on this unimportant rock in the distant edge of an unimportant galaxy. A balance of prudence and audacity that Alzyha had learned from Breetai's example had led him to this point where the last Invid outpost stood surrounded and primed to fall- and only sheer foolishness in action would prevent it. So profound was the feeling of these moments leading to the ultimate one, that Alzyha wanted to be involved in all of them.
Involved in, but not a hindrance to- that was the labor of prudence. To plan and set things up as best as they could be prepared, and then to step back and allow events to unfold as they would.
As they were beginning to.
There were moments of anxiety, surely, around the simple plan to attack the orb-like Invid fortress half embedded in the denuded mound that had once been a volcano. At the same time the plan's simplicity was its strength. It had been adapted and applied to many a battle and had very rarely failed to yield less than total victory. As ground forces moved into their final starting positions for the battle, the fleet would saturate the entire region around the Invid Hive with energy weapon fire from orbit.
Invid Hives, even weakened ones, had the ability to erect an energy shield that no known orbital bombardment had ever penetrated. This was not the point of the bombardment though. Invid were known to tunnel out in all directions from a Hive, extensively if given sufficient time, and would use these tunnels to move forces in mass in defense of their nest fortresses. Many a field commander had been unpleasantly surprised to have the earth open beneath his feet only to have Invid and not lava pour forth into what had been considered a "secure" rear area to the line of battle.
Orbital bombardment could collapse tunnel systems, or at least the shallower tunnels, making them an unviable defensive fixture. Optimally, though rarely, the saturation fire would even force the Hive Brain- the organic computer merged with the collective Invid consciousness- to order its obedient warriors into the open in a panic. In these rare cases, thousands of Invid could be slain with out a shot fired by their Zentraedi counterparts. These were rare cases, and more often than not the personality (Alzyha used and even thought the term loosely, though admittedly after fighting enough of the Brain-controlled Hives, one did become aware of differences in the enemy's disposition that could only come from the top down) of the Brain was such that the Invid sat snugly and securely tight in the safety of their tunnels until the time came to attack.
In most instances, the vast majority of battles, victory in the final analysis came down to the ability and willingness of warriors to wade into the equally capable and vicious Invid and thrash them to annihilation. It was a matter of a force of superior skill, and superior numbers if that could be achieved, hurling the Invid back from their defensive positions, through their energy barrier that could be crossed easily by infantry or mecha while remaining impenetrable to weapons fire, and finally into their layer itself. Victory normally came with the field of battle strewn with the dead from both sides and washed in their blood, and only when the Hive Brain was "disconnected" by means that often leaned toward the excessive.
This was normally the outcome, but there were those moments of anxiety where, with victory within Alzyha's grasp, there was the possibility that the tested formula would fail.
And should it succeed, there were other anxieties that none but a very select few in the 604th Grand Army's command shared with Alzyha. These anxieties could not be shared, though with the conclusion of this campaign they could not be concealed for long either. As these guarded anxieties were concerned, Alzyha still had time to design a strategy to contend with them. There was still time.
"Action General Syron", Alzyha said to the ranking field commander, who by preference would soon leave the relative safety of Pritan Cardun for Tammus 7 and oversee the battle personally, albeit from a more secure area in the rear, "Progress reports?"
"Favorable, Lord.", Syron, whose years of exposure to the field and to battles gave him an aged appearance beyond that warranted by his years, "Probe and scout elements have encountered minimal Invid activity and no resistance."
"They are conserving their strength for the fight.", Sub-General Brenik speculated wisely, backed by the experience of many battles, "They have the forces required to make one last stand, and they are choosing to do it on ground they control. They are purely defensive now."
"I concur.", Syron said to his superior, "With the fall of the other Hives in the complex, they have been forced into a defensive posture. This would account for the lack of offensive activities on the plain. I expect that their defense of their last Hive will be fierce, but not sustainable. They are finished and they know it. It's only a matter of how many Zentraedi warriors they can take with them."
"As few as Fate will permit, hopefully.", Alzyha said, watching the real-time advance of his units across the plain on the holographic map. Within two hours, units would be positioned, essentially encircling the final Hive on Tammus 7. All that would be required then would be to collapse the circle- tighten the noose- and make the final kill.
So said the plan.
"With your permission, Lord", Syron said having become noticeably more fidgety even over the course of the past few minutes, "I will take my leave to assume command of the deployed forces."
"You may take your leave.", Alzyha granted, "Honor through Victory."
"Honor through Victory, Lord.", Syron said before hurriedly departing. Syron was very involved as commanders went and had a compulsion to be with his warriors, especially now as the hour of anticipated triumph approached. He had no concerns for what lay just beyond as Alzyha did.
This being the case, Syron's eagerness to depart played into Alzyha's need to speak inconspicuously with Sub-General Brenik alone.
"Brenik, join me in the senior officer's briefing room for a moment."
The door to the briefing room had scarcely sealed before Brenik said, "Lord, there has been no contact with Supreme General Breetai."
Sub-General Brenik had spoken out of turn, and unprompted by Alzyha on the only topic that warranted seclusion from the prying or even accidentally overhearing ears of the command staff.
Alzyha's expression returned to the grim visage that the topic about to be discussed always produced in him. Brenik never saw fear or panic in his commander's eyes during these discussions, but rather elements nearly as detrimental and disturbing- disillusionment and despair.
"No response through the priority command channels?", Alzyha asked. There was no point in asking. He had issued his last orders along these lines explicitly to make use of the highest priority channels available to Zentraedi commanders for communication. Brenik had never disobeyed an order, or even strayed very far from the letter of it for that matter- to say that communications with Breetai had not been made was to say that they had not been made using every resource possible.
"No, Lord.", Brenik said somberly, "Communications logs show that the message was distributed through The Network. There simply has been no answer. Failing to acknowledge a hail on a priority channel, even if it is only an acknowledgement, Lord, is-."
"I'm aware of the severity of the infraction!", Alzyha replied sharply, almost snapping at his lieutenant, "And unfortunately, so is Supreme General Breetai."
"Yes Lord.", agreed Brenik, then added with only a moment's hesitation, "Additionally, there has been no response to us at all from any elements of the High Command on the same channels. Reluctant as we may be, General Alzyha, we must consider the possibility that something catastrophic in magnitude has taken place without us knowing."
"I have considered it- reluctantly.", Alzyha admitted, "The implications I can render are dire at best."
Brenik nodded his agreement, "Do you believe Breetai to be dead? Supreme Commander Dolza as well?"
"I don't know.", Alzyha said honestly, mirthlessly, "It is likely, though I cannot be sure."
"But", speculated Brenik, "For such a thing to have happened and there been no official word or indication of any kind-."
"-Would", Alzyha said continuing the thought for his lieutenant, "Almost certainly indicate a disastrous Zentraedi defeat- a well planned and executed decapitation strike by the Invid at the least. We've always known them to be relentlessly single-minded in their aggression, but never sophisticated in their strategy. This could be the first indication that we have misjudged them, or that they have suddenly evolved to a higher plain of military thought."
"Possibly, Lord.", Brenik agreed, "But our immediate concern is what this means for us."
"Our immediate concern is ridding Tammus 7 of Invid.", Alzyha corrected, "After that, our next concern is replenishment of supplies and personnel. The Network is still operational- that would indicate that there are still Factories deployed and functioning. Once that is accomplished, we can address the questions of what has happened and what we must do about it."
"Yes, Lord. Naturally."
"Brenik", Alzyha said, his voice pensive, "Has talk of this spread through the ranks yet?"
Brenik considered his answer carefully, "No, Lord- not to the best of my knowledge, or not extensively at least. Our commanders are operationally focused right now, and per protocol, only we at the highest levels of command even have a reason to communicate up the chain. If there is speculation about anything outside of the scope of our current operations, it's just that- speculation and unfounded speculation at that. Once operations have ended however-."
Alzyha made a noise indicating his comprehension, "Yes, I know. We will have to have answers or at least a course of action for getting them lest morale suffer, or worse."
"Lord, you're not suggesting that-.", Brenik began.
Alzyha cut him short, clarifying himself, "I am only saying that uncertainty can lead to fear, and fear can lead to problems in even the most disciplined and cohesive units. So long as our commanders and warriors have direction, they will follow. Our burden is to decide the direction."
"Yes, Lord- you will have my full support."
"I will require it, Brenik.", Alzyha said, and then cautiously added, "The females- has there been any update from them on their estimated time of arrival to the Tammus system?"
"No, Lord. There has been no word from them at all since the agreement of their commander to support us in our operations."
Silence, tense and electric filled the briefing room as both officers considered the additional complexities of adding females to the already potentially volatile situation.
"Lord, do you find it odd that an entire female army would contact us unsolicited and offer their assistance in our operations at a time when we've been separated from our chain of command?"
Alzyha nodded, "The thought had entered my mind. Now more than ever."
"Perhaps a female coup within the Empire? The High Command has historically been male dominated, and while no female has ever dared to challenge that- I suspect there must be some level of discontent about the fact. But enough to stage a coup in a time of war? The females couldn't be so foolish as to cause a division of the Zentraedi while the Invid are still a threat?"
Alzyha shook the thought off, refusing to become mired in possibilities that had no facts to either support or refute, "We can theorize all day, Brenik. We have no way of knowing. If and when the females arrive, we shall watch them carefully."
"Assuming the worst, Lord", Brenik said, fulfilling one of his obligations as executive officer, "Assume that there has been some kind of female coup within the Empire. Assume that the failure of Breetai and Dolza to respond to priority hailing is a result of a successfully executed decapitation strike not by the Invid but by the females-. Could it not follow then that the female army in route to our position does not intend to support us, but may seek to destroy us before we can rally with other male forces to retaliate?"
"It is possible.", Alzyha allowed, "And again, we do not know. However, if the possible is true, then we certainly have a course of action and a new campaign to pursue following this one."
"I hope to Zor and the generosity of Fate that I am wrong, Lord.", Brenik said apologetically as though the thought had conjured the possibility and not vice-versa.
"As do I.", Alzyha replied, "Time will tell."
"Your orders regarding this, Lord?"
Alzyha thought a long moment on it, then with a sigh said, "No orders. Not a word of this speculation is to go beyond we two. The mere thought would raise too many other unwelcome questions that we have no answers to. Our warriors and commanders will mistrust the females already. This will prime their senses for hints of treachery. We are already committed to our course. Now we must see it through."
Tammus 7's twin moons hung directly overhead and just over the western horizon respectively, their luminosity dulled to dingy, orange-yellow orb-like smudges that lacked any real character or features.
Like almost everything else involved in the daily existence of a warrior on Tammus 7, the glow of the moons could have been artificial. They seemed synthetic to Koso as he swayed with a learned ease to the steady advancing trudge of his Regult Combat Pod as he saw them through the panoramic field of view offered by the mecha's holographic screen. They could have as easily been fabrications of the pod's computers like the navigational or tactical icons that floated in the mix with the external image as overlays. Even the compass direction of north that Koso and his unit followed was generated by a beacon put into place specifically for that purpose- there being no natural magnetic north with the planet's nickel-iron core gone cold and no longer spinning.
Had Koso chosen to contemplate the issue longer, he might have also come to the realization that the Zentraedi too were a synthetic element introduced to Tammus 7.
The warrior had no time to ponder such things though, and the thoughts were fleeting with the exception of two matters that were very real.
There was the fear.
No warrior worth a breath of air rationed to him would admit to fear- but Koso was certain that others felt it as he did. No lofty talk or pre-Awakening impressions of death being a moment of elated sublimation could offset suspicions rooted in the seeing of warriors literally ripped limb from limb in a churning mass of Invid, or of the clear agony conveyed in their screams.
No warrior who had ever seen that was immune from the fear, Koso had resolved long ago. Some just coped better than others.
The other matter, intimately linked to the fear was the dying.
The dying, to the best of Koso's knowledge had not started yet- but it would soon and in doing so take Zentraedi and Invid alike. The dying had not started, but the threat of it hung over all as did the Tammus 7 moon that now stood in the zenith of its nightly journey across the sky.
It would begin soon, and with it would come the fear. To some Zentraedi it would be an old, familiar companion into battle as it was to Koso- and no less acute or electrically painful and ice numbing at the same time in its familiarity. For some warriors, it would be the first taste of either as it would be for Ulstik (Koso marveled at remembering his name) and the others.
For many, these two matters would be their last experience- a fact their comrades would be expected to shrug off like battle gear at the end of the day. Sometimes Koso was able to do this.
"Coming up on waypoint.", Hedra announced from the squad's lead position, "Prepare to come right to zero-four-one."
Koso shook his head to dislodge these inner musings with a motion that would have looked absurd to others, had they been able to see him within his Regult. That was the difficulty with periods of inactivity- it led to too much thought.
Still, almost as intellectual exercise's last, parting jab at him, Koso could not help about the Invid. They experienced the dying, and in doing so must have felt pain in the limited and primitive ways available to them.
Did they feel the fear though?
Koso sighed, knowing that there was no way to answer the question and as such that it was just best left alone. He could though, as could the other warriors of the 604th Grand Army marching toward the enemy millions strong, give them reason to feel fear.
The activities on the bridge below the command bubble were as familiar to Commander Pach as the contours of the command chair in which he sat.
Not yet stood up to battle-ready condition, the officers and warriors of Destroyer 741 were nonetheless keenly aware that the moment would soon be upon them and as a result the intensity of all, the aura and energy of concentration that they radiated, was on a steady rise. The ship was in a state not unlike a fist cocked back and tensing to strike. Release had to come soon, it was only a matter of receiving the word.
"Dychi, Fleet status?", Pach asked glancing alternately between the vertically split halves of the ship's main viewscreen that showed the visual "forward" image from the ship's centerline, to the left and the more macro-detailed tactical display to the right that yielded a greater wealth of situational information in a three dimensional, detailed map display.
The visual portion of the viewscreen showed the line of landing ships that composed the right shoulder column of the formation that the 4234th Squadron was assigned to help defend. Standard combat patrols of Gnerl Fighter Pods moved about them flying pre-determined paths, and looked wholly insignificant and inadequate to the task of defending the giant vessels. This dissymmetry between the requirements of the task and the resources allocated to perform it was something that Commander Pach had come to expect as defense went.
Defense as an unspoken rule of thumb never garnered the favor of Zentraedi Army commanders the way offense did. Even when a prudent measure, defense was quietly understood to be analogous to an admission of weakness or vulnerability. Not wanting to admit to even the possibility of these traits, high level commanders preferred to run the risk of committing the great majority of resources to the offensive end of operations.
Defense: the mode and methods of it was a concern left primarily to the already exsanguinated few left to perform it.
Defense was a concern foremost on Commander Pach's mind though, and a defense complicated by the possibility of having to protect from attack by enemies both real and potential.
Destroyer 818, Commander Sylas's vessel, hung low in the frame of the visual display in the station in the defensive crescent to which it had been assigned by Action Commander Gymalt. Stacked third in the crescent below Destroyer 1017 at the crescent's top "point", and Destroyer 741 staggered just below and to the right- the tactical display offered a clear visual interpretation of a message that Gymalt was perhaps sending. More gun batteries could be brought to bear in defense of the two superior-position vessels than could be easily brought against them.
Then, there were the females. Conspicuous by their absence after the stir caused by the announcement of their impending arrival, the females were a random element in the mix that could have either highly beneficial or dire effects- but unlikely something in between. The possibilities were hardly worth contemplating as there was no way to see into their intentions though. All that was left was to wait and see what would unfold.
"Initial Fleet Operational Units are approaching their start position, Lord.", Dychi said in reply to the question that had been posed on the far shore of a sea of thought, "Chronometer shows eight minutes to operational initiation."
"Time to make ready then.", Pach said, knowing full well that all that remained was the formality, "Executive Officer, sound action stations. Elevate ship's condition to combat posture."
"Yes, Lord.", complied Dychi.
The ship's public address speakers shrieked out three successively higher-pitched, shrill tones. The sounds released the tension that had been building in anticipation of the fight and allowed the energy to bleed off into activity.
"Action Stations!", came the deck officer's voice over the speakers from his post presiding over the activity of the command center, "All sections stand to battle readiness."
Throughout the vessel, the warriors who had not been transferred planetside under Sub-Commander Ritzal's charge to participate in the ground battle now scrambled from barracks spaces toward the hangar decks containing their fighters, or to the hundreds of posts throughout the ship requiring a warrior's presence during battle. Automatic blast doors began to close and would upon doing so separate the ship into environmentally self-sufficient airtight compartments that would reduce the scale of internal damage should Invid weapons or the Invid themselves penetrate the tough outer hull.
Outside of the controlled and life-supporting conditions of the ship's interior spaces, along the ship's flanks as well as dorsal and ventral areas iris style hatches opened to allow the destroyer's gun and missile turrets to extend into battery from their barbettes. Muzzle caps on missile turrets slid aside into the hemispherical outer faces of their launchers clearing the tubes to let their weapons fly. The ship's gun turrets rotated through a complete circle and then swept the twin-prongs of their linear particle accelerator pylons through a 180ْ arc to verify that each had its full range of motion per design specifications. Dual-purposed, these were the tools most frequently used to do battle with Invid transports or to clear landscapes of an Invid presence.
Alone, Destroyer 741 was capable of wreaking unspeakable devastation. Acting as part of a fleet action, it could pull its weight in obliterating the surface of a world or clearing a target-rich area of space. All of this without making use of the vessel's most powerful weapon- though Destroyer 741 had made its fair use of that as well.
"Lord, the ship is compartmentalized. All sections report ready at action stations.", Sub-Commander Dychi reported, "Primary weapons systems power grid is at full capacity, and the main battery is charging. Hangar decks report ready to launch on your command."
"Launch the main contingent and have Kranna deploy along standard sentry patrol patterns.", Pach ordered as he noted the other destroyers of the 4234th Squadron signaling their readiness at action stations on the tactical display. He could not help but give special attention to what Destroyer 818 was doing at Sylas's command. Commander Pach hoped that this particular scrutiny was not as obvious to Dychi as it, and that the underlying apprehension was not apparent.
"Have reserve squadrons move into stand-by position for launch."
"Yes, Lord.", Dychi replied before seeing to the relay of orders.
"Command, Sensor Control.", came the protocol formatted opening of the sensor officer's unprompted report, "Detecting weapons fire from the leading elements of the orbiting Fleet. The operation has commenced, Lord."
"On screen.", Pach ordered and was provided with a visual image of warships of the 604th Grand Army showering Tammus 7 with bolts of blue particle beam energy in a focused barrage.
The Invid sensed The Flower of Life, and as a result could sense its refined derivative- protoculture- that was a fuel source for every Zentraedi warship, fighter, and mecha as well as being a component in every warrior's genetically engineered make-up. The sensitivity of the Invid to their Flower- the quantity they could sense and at what ranges was a matter of constant speculation and dispute. However every warrior of any experience could tell the novices around them that there was no question that the Invid on Tammus 7 were capable of sensing a force as large as the 604th Grand Army.
The Invid knew they were there- in orbit and on the ground.
What was happening now was merely a provocation hoping for a fight.
"First orbital barrage terminating in fifty seconds.", Sub-General Brenik advised General Alzyha as he watched the time elapse on the ship's chronometer, "Negative response by the Invid. Minimal effect."
Alzyha watched the holographic representation of the battlefield as the area with the Invid Hive at the center glowed with the red flashes that indicated particle beam impacts.
As expected, the Hive stood undamaged and defiant beneath its impenetrable energy blister. As identified as a possibility and dreaded by every ground unit commander and warrior engaged in the battle on Tammus 7, the Invid themselves were not being drawn out by the attack.
"They choose to sit snug and conserve their strength.", Alzyha noted of his enemy whose commander lacked even the identity of a name, "Then there is no choice but to purge them by battle or risk prolonging this campaign. Brenik, pass on to the second assault wave of the Fleet to maintain orbit, but abort saturation fire operations. As soon as this barrage terminates, have Syron order his ground units to advance on the objective."
"Yes, Lord.", Brenik obeyed.
There were no comments or suggestions from around the hologram table from Alzyha's command staff. A somber mood had descended on all because like the commanding officer, all had seen this behavior in the Invid before. They would lie in wait until they were ready to fight, and then fight they would.
Zentraedi warriors would pay heavily this day for every step gained- that much was a near certainty.
"Bloom" and "Blossom" were words that one might not associate immediately with energy weapons fire- and probably less with battle. However these two terms, and the phenomena they gave name to were critical to the opening of this final offensive.
Particle beams, in practical applications such as the primary weapons systems of Zentraedi space cruisers and mecha, possessed qualities both similar and dissimilar to lasers. Dissimilar qualities included the fact that the beam, or "bolt", of energy of a particle beam weapon discharged was not a homogeneous stream of intensified light as with a laser. True to the name, the bolt was an electrostatically hyperaccellerated, electrostatically focused stream of particles possessing mass, and subsequently traveling slower than the laser that moved at the speed of light. Also unlike the laser, whose destructive qualities were derived from the explosive evaporation caused by the laser superheating a target surface, the particle beam shared the physical principle of doing its damage through the transference of kinetic energy with weapons as ancient as the first stone ever hurled by a creature done with the intention of causing harm. Only the particle beam hurled innumerable sub-atomic sized "stones", and at an equally incomparable velocity.
Of the characteristics shared by lasers and particle beams was that of "bloom"- or the diffusion of a beam by passing through matter such as the gasses of a planet's atmosphere. For both lasers and particle beams, "blooming" reduced the effectiveness of the weapon on a target.
Where particle beams proved superior to lasers, as it applied to orbital saturation of a target, was that while blooming might reduce the damage done directly to a specific target through the kinetic transference of the beam- the "blossom" effect could still be devastating. A stream of particle energy meeting a dense, solid object- such as a planet's surface- would be redirected radially, sweeping all before it like a fragmentation bomb throwing sub-atomic shrapnel.
Many worlds bore the pock-mark scars of these weapons over vast areas- lingering testaments to failed resistance to the Zentraedi and their Masters.
Sub-Commander Ritzal had seen such wounds inflicted on many a landscape of many worlds as was being inflicted upon Tammus 7 now.
A steady barrage of particle beam bolts had rained down from the early morning sky like the fury of angry gods, quickly obscuring the view of the plain, the eroded volcanic mound, and the Invid Hive within in a rising mass of dust and smoke that would soon choke out the growing light of day. The dust and smoke would swallow all that could be seen before long, carried on the high-velocity winds generated by each particle beam's impact that were comparable in energy released to a small nuclear blast. The brilliant blue flash of the initial salvos was now muted by the thickness of debris in the air. Particle beams now showed their impacts as a series of luminous, amorphous bursts that formed an irregular, visual pulse to be seen by all.
"All" varied in meaning depending on the perspective of the individual.
"All", could easily mean the whole of the 604th Grand Army, or just the forward deployed ground elements. The former was a view of things held by command at General Alzyha's level, and the latter by Action General Syron. To Ritzal though, "all" connoted the 741st Infantry Element, roughly regimental in size and his charge to command under Commander Pach, his lord and commanding officer of Destroyer 741. "All", to Ritzal, seemed to be a downward view in the chain of command as it applied to Duty and responsibilities. Detached from Destroyer 741 for forward ground operations, Ritzal now answered to Action Commander Mekrid directly- though communications with Commander Pach were maintained, though this was through Ritzal's sense of personal obligation to his lord, and the possibility that Pach might arrange for him a higher quality of replacement warrior.
"All" for Action Commander Mekrid now included the 741st Infantry Element, but like most things in the Zentraedi Army- what was intended and what was were often two very different things. Action Commander Mekrid served well to command Ritzal and his warriors in battle, but in attending to their support needs he was not as well suited. Thus, the nature of the continued connection with Commander Pach even when detached. It was a relational triangle that was understood, went unquestioned, and never formally discussed. So long as the bonds of Duty were strong ascending and descending the chain of command, the system worked. Ritzal considered himself in Fate's good favor that he enjoyed that condition- he had seen the consequences suffered by units that did not enjoy these bonds.
The 741st Infantry Element- a misnomer as the proportions of infantry and mechanized units was roughly equal- watched the bombardment in attack formation from the lava flat beneath the small hill on which Ritzal's mecha stood. What they thought as they watched was not foremost in Ritzal's mind, but leading them in the assault that would begin in a matter of minutes was.
Ritzal's primary duty was command, not direct contact with the enemy- though he sat at the controls of a mecha superbly capable of both. The Glaug, or as more commonly referred to as the "Officer's Pod" for its strict issuance to officers only, was in the same family as the backbone of the Zentraedi mechanized forces, the Regult- only a far more refined and lethal relative. Of the same bipedal configuration as the Regult Combat Pod, the similarities in physical appearance between the Regult and the Glaug ended there. The Glaug's pilot sat as cramped as his Regult-driving subordinate in his cockpit, but the body of his mecha was angular and not bulbous. Not as heavily armored as combat suits, the Glaug's material protection for the pilot was still more substantial than that afforded to the Regult, and this was augmented by the sloping angles of the main body around the pilot's compartment. The Glaug also deviated from the Regult design with its two weapon-arm appendages. Each articulated arm terminated not in a hand, nor a claw like an Invid Trooper adversary, but with a brutish over-under barreled heavy and light impact cannon clustered gun pod. Essentially a more rapidly firing and powerful variant of the standard Regult's particle beam cannons, the gun clusters of the arms eitheir working together or independently provided the Glaug pilot with a volume of fire capable of offsetting an enemy's numerical superiority.
Combined with internal storage missile launchers and a powerful, top-mounted rail cannon, the Glaug was a superb fighting machine. Ritzal had pondered from time to time how much more effective the Zentraedi Army would have been had they abandoned use of the Regult completely and armed those warriors with the more capable Glaug. The answer to the question, of course, was that offensive capability would increase and casualties would lessen. Manufacturing capability not being an issue, the only plausible explanation for this not being done was that casualties among the Zentraedi were an expected if not desired outcome of battle. While Fate would randomly choose to side against even the most experience warriors eventually, it was the weak and the unfit for combat that regularly formed the vast bulk of casualties.
Such was the desire of The Masters, and so through the Zentraedi's obligation to serve it would be.
Ritzal, in the course of the years in which he had stayed true to his obligations, had found an allowable margin for slack to include not marching his warriors into slaughter with the blind faith that Fate would save those that deserved its favor. As the warriors fit to serve occasionally fell out of Fate's favor, so did those who were unfit today have occasion to improve tomorrow.
Ritzal was confident that his paltry meddling for the lives of his warriors would not interfere with Fate's whims in the grander scheme.
Looking out across the field that would soon host the conclusive battle for the planet, Tammus 7, Ritzal was aware that he would be limited in the extreme in his ability to sway or stay Fate's decisions for his warriors. It was just an experienced warrior's intuition that caused him to brace mentally for what was coming.
"All units, rapid advance by battle order."
Action Commander Mekrid's voice was calm and remote. Both descriptions were appropriate as he would loiter in the rear, seated in his own Glaug and heavily protected by a guard unit. Mekrid would make more use of the Glaug's command and control capabilities than Ritzal would, though this was to be expected as he was responsible for translating Action General Syron's tactical decisions into operational reality.
Every warrior had his duty.
The order at the moment it was given seemed absurd as it ordered Zentraedi units into a maximum speed advance into the jaws of a firestorm created by its own supporting fleet. The first units of the 741st had not put one foot forward yet when the orbital barrage halted abruptly. Unlike an electrical storm that might dwindle in power toward an end, barrages had a way of simply ceasing and in doing so leaving an ominous, post-tempest calm. The last of the thunderous booms came shortly after, still carried on the howling winds that would soon begin to die- but the eerie stillness now hung over the field beckoning warriors to charge into it and promising violence in return.
The fear was reaching a bursting point within Koso now.
His squad, with Sub-Lieutenant Hedra charging with near reckless abandon in the lead was now in movement with the rest of the 604th Grand Army's ground units- advancing as quickly as the legs of their mecha would carry them toward the Invid Hive at the center of their shrinking offensive ring. As far back from the leading edge of the assault as his squad was, Koso could not even see the point elements but knew that they were traveling in staggered, diagonal line formations that allowed the units to support one another with overlapping fields of fire without bunching- as was the 741st Infantry Element. With the movement of hundreds of thousands of mecha at top speed, came the trembling of the earth like a great quake threatening to tear the world apart from within and swallow all on the surface through liquefying soil. Koso felt this with his Regult's every stride- but it wasn't the unsteadiness of the earth, or the advance on the Hive that was causing him fear now.
It was the question.
Where were the Invid?
Koso could not see the leading Zentraedi elements through the swirling, wind carried dust of the orbital bombardment as his Regult followed Hedra's in vaulting crater rims and traversing the smoldering terrain- but by now he should have been seeing some sign of contact with the enemy. The flicker of weapons fire, explosions, the rise of excited chatter on the coms-systems-.
There was nothing though.
Only the advance, and the knowledge that the Invid were not behaving as predicted.
What gave Koso fear now was that unlikely as it seemed, it was growing more and more probable that the Invid too had plans, and that the 604th might very well be playing right into them.
"They plan to meet us right at the shield line.", Hedra said via comlink to his squad, showing Koso that he too was turning the same thoughts over in his head.
It was possible, but Koso did not feel in his warrior's core that Hedra was correct, even as the blister of the Hive's shield loomed up ahead, visibly crackling with the interaction of dust and energy on Koso's viewscreen. True, the Invid could mass behind the field and mount a very effective defense- but this way was not the Invid way
And then it happened.
The single word, uttered by an anonymous warrior, sent a jolt through Koso as the tension broke in an almost euphoric rush. Action was beginning far ahead, and off to Koso's left at the edge of the field of view provided by his Regult. The fiery billow of explosions and the flicker of particle beam fire lit the murk, silhouetting all before it and obscuring all behind it. With each flash or blast, Koso could see the advancing Regults of other units outlined perfectly in freeze-frame against the visual signs of combat. His own pod shook as light artillery units- Regults equipped with awkward-looking yet highly effective dual-drum missile launchers- hurled their weapons in volleys overhead in the direction of the action. Capable of distinguishing Invid from Zentraedi mecha, the saturation fire of missiles would likely do far more damage to whatever enemy position the advancing Zentraedi had stumbled across than to the friendly units- though in such proximity, there would be Zentraedi losses. This was to be expected and accepted. Every warrior understood that no individual was worth the cost to the whole of causing the advance to bog down or halt. Mobility was the best tool used against the Invid- grappling a distant and far less favorable second.
The rapid strobe of multiple missile detonations, explosions first by the dozen, then the score, lit the field and filled Koso with an exhileration that was almost able to drive out the fear. Something was wrong though. Koso was instantly aware of it, though what "it" was eluded him for a moment longer.
Close ahead and to the right, there was a gap in the advancing line.
A squad of equal size and identical formation to his should have been there. It had been there only moments before though Koso had not intentionally paid it notice. Now though, there was a gap- a squad had vanished without so much as signs of a shot fired. Possible causes had not started to whirl inside of Koso's brain when his eye caught a disturbance on his sensor display. Further to his right, running parallel to his own squad, the leading three Regults of another squad simply vanished from the sweep of his Regult's sensors. Two more disappeared as Koso's attention centered on the display, and the balance of three Regults crudely broke their advancing formation nearly smashing into the unit to their left and directly to Koso's right.
"Invid inside the formation!"
The fear that Koso had felt transformed instantly into a particular breed of dread as the words brought a realization of the situation to him.
They had lain in wait. They had bided their time, refusing the challenge to battle that the fleet's orbital bombardment had been intended to be, sitting securely in underground chambers and tunnels while particle beam salvos pulverized volcanic earth and stone and scattered it to the wind. They had waited patiently for the Zentraedi army to close to a range where missile and energy weapon had no more practical benefit than razor-edged pincer.
The Invid Brain in this solitary remaining Hive was a crafty one, making it a treacherous one. That in turn made the Invid under its direction crafty and treacherous as well.
Koso felt the dread of knowing the character of the battle that was now ensuing.
"Those clever meat plants!-.", Hedra laughed with laugh devoid of any humor, "They're springing a trap on us! -Those unfortunate slime-sacks!"
This was another case of Hedra needing to run his mouth at the wrong time that Koso chose to ignore. Hedra annoyed him in that way regularly, but could be given some latitude as he was a capable warrior and could talk a streak and fight at the same time.
Koso chose to reply, "Do you think so?"
As if to spare Koso the pain of hearing Hedra prattle on, a squad of Regults ahead and to the left of the squad began to fire wildly, seemingly at their own feet as the advancing machines stumbled into one another as they skittered to a halt. In the dust-thick air, the rapid discharge of particle beam cannons created a stobe effect and transformed the firing Regults into shadowy figures. As they fired, new shapes began to materialize from the ground under the Regults' feet.
Koso could not see the ground clearly, though he could see the Regults as they appeared to be sinking slowly and this told him that the earth was caving in around them. Why they stood on failing ground while Invid surfaced among them was beyond Koso's comprehension, but they stood stubbornly and blazed into what the wretched planet seemed to vomit up at them.
The hulking shape of an Invid Trooper would appear in part or in whole in the flash of weapon fire, and by the next burst would be seen in the process of violent reduction. Another flash would show an Invid Trooper clearly charging a Regult, and the following would show that the one Invid had actually been the first of three as they overwhelmed and began to crudely dissect the Zentraedi mecha and the pilot inside.
Particle beam bolts ripped through the dust, the Invid, and the Regult that had lost most of its recognizable form from all directions as the ground collapsed into a sucking vortex of earth and stone. As Regults vanished into the chasm, their footing having dissolved beneath them, a surge of Invid boiled up through the same rift like demons escaping the underworld.
Any unit-level organization evaporated around the rim of the pit as the skirmish deteriorated into an uninhibited brawl to the death. Invid scrambled and clawed over Invid, forming a writhing, surging mass of crustacean-like mechanical bodies to reach Zentraedi with their wildly swiping pincers. Regult Combat Pods fired around and sometimes through those of their own kind if they had fallen disabled, and on occasion simply because action had shifted to put them in the line of fire. Wreckage, both mecha and biomechanical heaped quickly and caused the ground to appear to move as mechanical limbs both Invid and Zentraedi twitched and sparked in their death throes.
Hedra was invigorated, intoxicated by the boiling melee that had appeared in his path and was rapidly spreading.
"Koso, I sometimes worry you lack the will to fight!"
Hedra plunged headlong, or the Regult equivalent of it, toward the heart of the fight as he spoke, and in doing so directed the rest of the squad to engage similarly. An Invid Scout, looking small and frail compared to Hedra's towering Regult appeared from a gap that had opened and closed in the Zentraedi line and made challenge with open claws and a posture that indicated it was prepared to lunge. When it did, Hedra skillfully snap-kicked his smaller foe with the right foot of his Regult, toppling it backwards through the air. The Invid did not touch ground before Hedra had trained his particle beam cannons in on it and had riddled its lightly armored body with fire. The biomechanical body met the earth missing a leg, a claw, and with great, smoldering gouges penetrating deep into its center mass.
"I haven't lost my will.", Koso clarified as the squad closed up on Hedra and fell into an advancing line with interlocked fields of fire, "I just would prefer to not have to do it hand-to-hand."
"That's fine-.", Hedra said, "Invid have no hands!"
Koso was not sure whether the last comment was a poor attempt at humor, or a statement of the obvious that had nothing to do with the point being pressed. Hedra was capable of both- sometimes simultaneously.
The issue quickly passed from Koso's mind as a Regult just at the fringe of clear visibility was sideways tackled by two Invid Troopers. Heavy claws dug into its body and peeled away metal in crudely sheered strips as the fallen Regult's legs flailed at its pilot's command. Sparks flew with the severing of power circuits, and the mecha's systems failed with a dying shudder. The Invid Troopers were well into the Regult's body by the time its systems had failed, and a Zentraedi leg joined the debris torn from within and tossed aside.
Great gory strands and chunks sloughed off vigorously working pincers before the warriors of Koso's line could react to the Invid attack on their comrade.
Koso in unintentional conjunction with two Regults to his left fired on the nearest of the two Invid. Exoskeleton was blasted away in a steady torrent of particle beam bolts. The Invid Trooper, its pilot of a higher caste and of superior (though still rudimentary) intelligence to the lesser Scouts, turned on its attackers defiantly even as its reduced left claw, already useless, was shot completely away. The Trooper rushed, but lost its ability to function effectively with the loss of its eye that shattered with a particle beam blast. Koso lost sight of the Invid as his line crossed over where it had fallen- though he was sure he heard the crunch of its collapsing body under the weight of a flanking Regult.
The Invid's companion had gone too. Most likely shot down in the same way while Koso had been distracted with the first. If that particular Invid was one laying about smashed within Koso's field of view, he could not tell- and there were far too many to waste time with the investigation. The same could also be said of the Regult it had helped to bring down. Hedra's squad was coming across them in ample quantity as well, and in similar condition to the Invid with whom they shared the field as their grave. It became difficult for a warrior to know what his mecha was treading on.
Slain Invid and Zentraedi in destroyed mecha sounded very similar underfoot.
Action General Syron's Glaug Officer's Pod stood at the crest of the highest point he could find in the highlands to the east, giving him a modest view of the battle as it continued to unfold around the Invid Hive.
From a tactical perspective, he received all he needed to see through a constant data stream from the command ship in orbit above. His command screen showed that the Hive was already completely encircled by Zentraedi forces so numerous that many had not made it far enough forward into the engagement area to have fired a shot yet.
Both on the command screen and by visual observation he could see the Invid ring of defense outside of the Hive's energy barrier where it met his oncoming Zentraedi. He could see clearly the collapse of the futile defense as the ring shrank with evaporating numbers toward the barrier wall where the last stand outside of the Hive itself would be made by an Invid force that had already massed and stood in wait.
Syron could see within his own lines as salients opened with the breeching of unseen tunnels by their Invid builders, and their close as the breeches were overpowered by Zentraedi firepower and with wrecked Invid mecha.
Action General Syron was seeing all that he had envisioned in his planning of this final assault on the last of the Invid in the Tammus system, including extreme carnage to both sides. Invid defenses were wavering, and would not remain cohesive for much longer.
Syron expected to see all of these things, but expected to see the carnage on a greater scale and the fall of the Invid defenses more stubborn. In short, without wanting more Invid to battle- Syron was expecting more Invid to battle.
Where were they?
Where the Invid had been, where they were, and from where they were choosing to fight was now readily evident to Sub-Commander Ritzal of the 741st Infantry Element. The Invid, eager as ever for a fight, were showing themselves equally content to do their fighting from behind the safety of their Hive's defense blister.
The exhibit of this deviation from the normal, "head-on", offensive Invid mentality was piling up quickly at the convex exterior of the energy field. The smoldering mechanical carcasses of Regults formed a bulwark at the field perimeter, piled in some places for or five deep in unstable masses where they had fallen. In other places, Regults could be seen to stand though destroyed, their lifeless weight having settled on the mounting piles of the dead. Within the wall of carnage that was almost as organic with slain infantry as it was mechanical with Regults there were the occasional spasms of both machine and warrior that had not quite succumbed fully to wounds.
Ghastly a sight as this was greeting Ritzal, it also held the promise of ending the stand-off between attacker and defender at the barrier wall. It would require much sacrifice and bloodshed, but Ritzal could envision it having participated in the same tactic countless times before- and if it could be envisioned, it could be executed.
What Sub-Commander Ritzal was seeing, and what the Invid could not avoid as they fired with impunity from within the barrier at the Zentraedi forces quickly massing without was that each fallen warrior, whether infantry or at the controls of a Regult Pod, increased the density and often also the height of the physical wall that the Invid could not fire through.
From sixty strides of his Glaug's legs, Ritzal could see beyond the shimmering translucent green of the Invid Hive defense blister along the gradually mounting rise that led to the Hive itself at some distance. Smartly (perhaps too smartly for Invid, was Ritzal's gut reaction) the energy weapon-bearing variants of the basic crustacean-like Invid mecha design- Armored Scouts and Shock Troopers- stood staggered posts and positions higher on the crest of the rise where they could and were firing wide and deep into the Zentraedi advance. Massed on the more level ground just within their perimeter were the brute Troopers who were no less capable of being lethal, but were restricted to killing by pincer-claws alone. Unlike their relatives on the rise possessing a longer offensive reach, the Troopers would either advance out beyond the protection of the energy field or wait for the Zentraedi to penetrate and come to them.
Ritzal would have preferred the former, but as he and many other seasoned warriors had sensed at even the earliest moments of the battle- the Hive Brain was too smart to be drawn into squandering what few resources it had. It probably knew, as the Zentraedi were confident of, that it would not survive the day- but the Zentraedi would have to come in to get it, and first they would have to wade through the sea of purple rage that were the ranks of Troopers.
Ritzal's warriors would have to contend with the Troopers, true- but first they would have to overcome the initial obstacle of the defense blister. Unwittingly, and certainly without consent, the Invid and the Zentraedi had been working jointly to achieve this- the Zentraedi in the sacrifice of dying, and the Invid in the killing of them.
As Sub-Commander Ritzal's Glaug reached the foot of the battlement of the fallen, the treacherous though seemingly random zip of plasma energy fire from the Invid high atop the rise within the blister fell off to nothing in the shadow of the gristly defilade. Others had discovered this as well- warriors in environmental body armor as well as those at the controls of mecha were pressing themselves at increasing depth into the cover provided by their fallen comrades.
For the moment, Ritzal assessed, the massing of warriors was acceptable- even necessary. Soon though, very soon, if their progress remained arrested the Zentraedi onslaught would bog down and back up. A warrior to the right of Ritzal's Glaug, possessing both bravery and initiative happened to catch the sub-commander's attention as he with rifle in hand began to deftly scale the barricade of wreckage. What exactly he intended to accomplish, Ritzal was unsure of, what he expected to happen was equally unclear. What Ritzal expected to happen, did- and in very short order. The warrior, reaching the top of the pile he was scaling, had scarcely peeked over its highest point when his head was shot clean away by an Invid plasma bolt fired from somewhere deep in the enemy lines. The body, perfectly sound below the smoldering stump of a neck, toppled back along almost the exact path it had ascended when there had still been a brain in charge of its operation only moments earlier.
The sight though quickly lost in the fine details to Ritzal did illustrate to him what would be happening with much greater frequency if some cohesion in effort was not immediately gained. No other officers were readily identifiable by the markings on their armor or by the types of mecha that Ritzal saw about him.
The responsibility was apparently his.
Taking quick survey of the tools with which he had to work, Ritzal began to organize.
"Sub-lieutenants! See to your warriors, and clear a path for the mecha in the rear!", Ritzal barked over a general command frequency that would only be received by those in immediate proximity to his Glaug, "Mecha units to the rear- bring up your artillery support Regults! I want seven mecha columns! Three to either side of me, two standard Regults on the point followed by artillery, and then whatever you have left. Space out for three infantry columns between mecha columns! Form up, and hold for my order!"
Other warriors, particularly in the sub-officer grades on whom Ritzal knew the success of his attempt at organization hinged, were intimately familiar with the assault plan the sub-commander was setting up, and were quick to fall into their places. Under cover of the bulwark, the Regults formed up quickly- two standard units followed by an assortment of light and heavy artillery variants, followed by whatever straggled up next through the now withering field of fire being laid down by the Invid defenders. Between the mecha columns, warriors who had either lost their mecha or had entered the fray on foot as infantry crowded into the gaps and could be seen switching out partially spent energy clips in their rifles for fully charged ones. All knew that contact with the enemy would be coming soon, and that it would be both relentless and unforgiving from that point.
"First line, ready!", Ritzal ordered.
In accordance to the plan that had been played out countless times before, both the first line Regults and as many warriors as could possibly be brought to bear between them trudged up to the very limit of the battlement's cover and braced themselves against the crude wall, all finding the best footing they could.
Invid plasma fire was now stitching through compacting clusters of Zentraedi infantry and mecha to Ritzal's rear who had reached the front line of the fight only to find that there was nowhere further to go. The Invid raked the ranks indiscriminately, cutting down warriors and mecha with nearly every shot as the mass was so dense that it was no longer even necessary to aim.
"On my word!", Ritzal ordered and in doing so could feel the tense of mechanical limb and muscle around him, "Once you breach- keep moving! Make way for the warriors behind you! If you stop, you will die!"
There was a heavy silence that connoted a broad understanding, and then there was nothing left except for Ritzal to set the action in motion.
Koso joined with the other Regults in his column as they took one collective step forward like a mechanical beast with dozens of legs, and lurched together toward the Invid. To Hedra's credit, whose Regult was now directly in front of Koso's and whose back completely filled his central field of vision, the squad had remained together through the entire rush on the Hive's defensive blister, right up to the point they had reached the glut of warriors jostling on foot or in mecha to edge closer to the fighting. At that time, there was little a sub-lieutenant could do to maintain his unit- especially with constant Invid fire randomly cutting warriors down around him.
Knowing that even in a horde of thousands of Zentraedi, a warrior could be "alone" without the company of his own unit, Koso had taken pains to stay close to Hedra. A fight wherein one needed that kind of "company" was just ahead (literally now), and despite his many flaws, Hedra was good company to keep in combat. Either by a similar instinct, or by not knowing anything better to do one of the new selections for the squad that Koso had drawn, Ulstik, was similarly adhering to him.
At the top of the battlement, the first Regult in each column reached the defense blister's energy field. This did not go unnoticed by the Invid beyond as the sedentary ranks of Troopers that had been waiting patiently below suddenly erupted in a frenzied swarm that bunched and piled upon itself to match the height of the Zentraedi bulwark, and in doing so to meet at level footing the first Regults just beyond the field.
The act, though correct in defensive attitude was unnecessary as the Invid Armored Scouts and Shock Troopers high on the bluff in the Invid rear had also seen the Regults and sensed the threat. These trained their plasma cannons in the number of a score or more Invid to single Zentraedi target. Alone or in groups they fired, all opening up on their Zentraedi foes within a split second of each other and without exception the first Regult of each column was pierced and had bits hacked away to the point that the chance of each pilot's survival would have been deemed a clear impossibility at a quick glance. Only Ritzal's Glaug remained standing, absorbing the heavy frontal barrage into the pod's own defense shield- a feature enjoyed by only the officer pilots of Glaugs, and by the warriors at the controls of Gnerl Fighter Pods.
The first line of Regults, and those warriors who had voluntarily sacrificed themselves without hesitation, did not fall back onto the heap of the slain to add to the accumulation.
The machines teetered on legs that locked up at the loss of power and control systems, but the second Regult in each column stepped in quickly to brace up the weight of the first from the rear while infantry surged up to either side to steady each machine as Invid plasma fire continued to rapidly reduce each sparking, smoking hulk. Some infantry were cut down as they assisted, others before they could lay hands on task, but along the six columns of Regults, none of the first machines- destroyed as they were- fell.
They did not fall, at least, in a direction other than had been intended.
With a push from the rear from the second Regult in column, the first Regults served the only function they had left to them. The Invid defense blister, impenetrable to energy weapons and objects with great kinetic energy, was plastic to steady, deliberate applied force- such as the weight of a wrecked hulk pressing into it.
The energy membrane stretched inward with the weight of each forward-falling Regult hull- stretched and then broke. Glowing with the plasma energy they had absorbed, the mecha fell into the waiting masses of Invid, who blind to all but the sensing of the protoculture energy fuel of the Regults before them and their naked hostility to anything possessing it that was not Invid, the Regults and their dead pilots provided a final service to their comrades by giving a moment's distraction to the enemy. Even as claws sliced, tore, and scattered both machine and flesh below, the second Regult in each column was pressing into the field membrane, stretching the already weakened patches with their forward motion.
From the rise, the Invid Armored Scouts and Shock Troopers were not as easily distracted as the more primitive pilots of their counterparts below. Plasma cannons that had been trained a moment before on the first Regults required only minor directional alteration to come to bear on the new threats to the Hive. The second barrage that was barely discernable from the first was at best different only in that it was less concentrated on the Regults. Similar to the mecha, the first infantry elements were beginning to press their bodies through the field though without the additional protection of mecha the sensation to each warrior was comparable to exposing his naked skin to flame. Plasma bolts now sliced through machine and armor-clad flesh and bone as the Zentraedi juggernaut began to move toward its objective again.
The second Regult in each column was quickly cut down much as the first had been, only at the point at which the pilots were killed and their machines rendered useless, half had actually penetrated the blister membrane- one having even been able to return fire.
Sub-Commander Ritzal had expected the loss of the first two Regults in each column, and had taken a gamble that the third in each column, the all-important artillery variants would not meet the same fate before having an effect. Before the second of each column had vanished into the churning swarm of Invid below, the third Regults- the artillery Regults- had penetrated, giving their missile pods a clear path to the enemy.
Smoke from dozens of missiles filled the air beyond the defense blister as the Zentraedi weapons streaked toward the Armored Scouts and Shock Troopers in reply to their plasma fire. The spread of weapons, carrying plasma napalm warheads mostly, struck home all throughout the Invid firing line swallowing the defending mecha in blooms of star-hot gel, or forcing them to scatter to escape the same. The particle beam cannons of the artillery Regults came into play now with their missile loads spent. Guns turned down and began to fire on Invid Troopers who quickly found themselves in the same position the Zentraedi had occupied only moments before- defenseless under fire. As gaps opened, brazen Regult pilots and now warriors who were penetrating in a steady train dropped in to join with the enemy.
From Ritzal's vantage point atop the battlement, his Glaug half through the field, he could see the swell of the Zentraedi pocket grow with every passing moment. Stubborn and tenacious as the Invid were, and as quickly as they were inflicting casualties around the pocket's edges- the Invid Troopers could not contest the longer reach of Regult particle beam cannon and infantry rifles. Without gun support from the high ground that even now still burned intensely with plasma napalm, the Troopers could not hold ground.
To his right, Ritzal saw a Regult Light Artillery Pod, ideal with its higher volume of shorter range missiles, step through the Invid shield and immediately shower a reconstituting mass of Shock Troopers with a volley of plasma napalm weapons. Of the ten or more Invid unfortunate to come under the volley, only a single escaped the massive ball of flame- and this left a dripping trail of its melting exoskeleton in its wake.
Ritzal joined the fight, engaging lone or small numbers of Shock Troopers on the rise with his Glaug's dual impact cannon clusters while Regults and infantry continued to stream in through the breeches to both his sides. Explosions and smoke were rising from other points within the Invid perimeter, telling Ritzal that his plan had been used similarly by others- it not really having been his plan. Despite other Zentraedi units making headway toward the Hive, Ritzal was still mindful of getting as many mecha inside the perimeter to bolster his flanks and act as a spearhead. The Invid were doubtlessly sending reinforcements to plug holes, and the battle still could easily go against them.
Ritzal could take some small satisfaction that he'd achieved another small objective on the way to the bigger one. He had gotten his warriors and himself in.
Getting out again would be warmer work.
Action General Syron's expression was unrevealing as his face appeared in a communications-link screen over the ship's command center. Alzyha found that Syron had the disciplined quality of expressing all that he intended to say through carefully chosen words while surrendering nothing through inadvertent mannerisms or facial expressions. He delivered the news of great loss exactly as he did that of great success- factually and unembellished, and devoid completely of apology or expectation of praise.
Alzyha was grateful for Syron's nearly machine-like capacity to assess and report impartially. There was no practical application for emotion in combat action- save perhaps the constructive harnessing of rage. At Syron's level of command and his, even this was ill advised. Cold assessment and decision was what won battles if not saved lives.
"Lord-.", Syron reported with no tonal indication of what he was about to impart, "The Invid defense barrier has been penetrated at six points and slow progress is being made. Invid tunnels continue to open in our ranks outside of the barrier. The resources required to close those salients is draining energy from our forward progress. I recommend a localized orbital barrage to seal the holes, hopefully collapse the tunnels, and free up our warriors to build for a final assault on the Hive."
"Firing through our own warriors?", Alzyha asked. It was not unheard of to sacrifice warriors in close proximity to the enemy to friendly fire, but Syron was not a field commander from whom Alzyha was accustomed to receiving the recommendation.
"We will sustain losses, Lord-.", Syron admitted, "-But our losses will be equal or greater if our momentum on the objective is lost. This is our best option from my perspective, Lord- the second being a dedication of a significant force of Gnerls to suppress the enemy. Air strikes will not seal the tunnels as an orbital barrage will though."
"Agreed.", Alzyha decided, "The order will be passed down. Draw back what forces you can to preserve them for the main objective, and signal when you are prepared for barrage initiation."
"Yes, Lord.", Syron complied. The screen with his image went dark and then vanished as the com-link terminated at the Action General's command.
"This is all moving at an unexpectedly rapid pace.", Alzyha said to Brenik as he pored over the tactical holographic representation of the battlefield, "Too rapidly, despite the Invid show of force."
"You expect an Invid counterattack is planned?", Brenik asked, interpreting Alzyha's statement.
"I do.", Alzyha confirmed.
Brenik nodded, "I agree, Lord. I cannot comprehend what the Invid are waiting for if counterattack is their plan. The bulk of our forces are now on the plain surrounding their Hive. To wait longer to initiate a counterattack would defy prudence and likely prove futile. With that many of our warriors on the field, even finding an agreeable direction of attack would be difficult unless they have far more numbers than we have estimated. A force as large as ours has few areas of weakness that can be exploited as quickly as the Invid would have to do to swing this battle."
Alzyha considered Brenik's points- all sound ones. If the Invid were to launch a counterattack, its success would depend heavily on either having enough forces in reserve to deal a single, heavy, decisive blow to the Zentraedi force, or have sufficient numbers poised in the exact position required to similarly smite a portion of the Zentraedi army and in doing so disrupt the assault on the Hive.
It could not be the former possibility, Alzyha was sure. The Invid had fought hard for every point of Tammus 7 and had only given them up soaked in their own blood. Even had the Invid combined the resources of the final Hives on Tammus 7 at the peak of their strength, they would have been in a hard place to repel the full weight that the Zentraedi were now bringing to bear against this sole surviving Hive.
It could not be the latter either as the Zentraedi units that even a half hour before had been staggered and moving in order of battle in distinguishable maneuver formations had now massed into a single force that would be difficult to successfully engage- even from the rear.
By all visible indications, the Invid had squandered all but the most remote chances of successful counterattack- yet Alzyha felt it deep in his warrior's core that counterattack was indeed imminent. It came down to the Invid finding ground on which the Zentraedi were weak- though Alzyha could see none before him that fit that definition.
Then the realization struck home that the ground on which the Zentraedi were weak was not on the ground at all.
"Brenik", Alzyha began, weighing the probability of what he now suspected against the support needs of Action General Syron's warriors, "Order all vessels not expressly allocated to fire support details to break orbit and assume raid defense posture."
"Lord?", Brenik asked, not having been privileged to Alzyha's inner thoughts.
"-And recall all Gnerl units for fleet defense!"
The Invid counterattack initiated as almost every Invid attack did- both massively and with fearsome speed.
Pritan Cardun was only beginning to answer Alzyha's command to ascend from orbit when the ship's sensors were overwhelmed by the simultaneous materialization of Invid transports so numerous that their individual returns bled into one another forming an amorphous cloud on the ship's tactical display that effectively sandwiched the fleet between it and the atmosphere of Tammus 7. The "cloud" doubled in size and volume before Alzyha's eyes in a single expansive movement and then seemed to double again, absorbing Zentraedi vessels as they rose from orbit.
The command ship's nerve center exploded with a surge of activity as well-seasoned officers and crew reacted to the situation wit the rapid issuance and execution of orders. Alzyha could not see it, but he knew that the Invid transports were already in the process of launching their complement of Invid mecha. When met at range in open space, Invid transports posed little threat to a Zentraedi warship. They lacked heavy armament to inflict anything but the most minor damage on a cruiser of the Empire, and between gun, missile, and fast-moving Gnerl Fighter Pods to intercept the transports' mecha- the Zentraedi enjoyed the upper hand of almost every engagement by default.
The Invid in this engagement however had overcome all of those advantages with the simple act of materializing from fold directly and literally atop their enemy. With close proximity, the layering of defenses enjoyed by the Zentraedi cruisers evaporated and forced the substitution of pumping as much destruction into the descending swarm as could be mustered while the cruisers fought for open space to maneuver. Worst, Alzyha knew and suspected that the Invid knew as well- their best defense, Gnerl Fighter Pod squadrons by the thousands were flying to cover the ground operations on Tammus 7 below leaving only the most minimal rear guard. They would have to join battle with the Invid from below and through the ranks of the very cruisers that they were now scrambling to come to defend.
The Invid would be well upon the Fleet before the first elements even broke the atmosphere. A single Invid mecha was of no threat to a Zentraedi cruiser, but by the thousands they could invade and kill from within even the mightiest of warships like bacteria infecting and felling a great beast.
Alzyha found himself staring back at not thousands, but perhaps millions of Invid.
The enemy had indeed conserved a force for the last battle of Tammus 7, and the 604th Grand Army's fleet was about to meet it headlong and nearly naked.
"Lord, General Alzyha's command is demanding all available Gnerl units rally on Pritan Cardun for defense screening.", Sub-Commander Dychi relayed to Commander Pach who appeared to the executive officer to be engrossed in the developing situation as conveyed to him by the ship's tactical display.
The order, unusual in that it had come directly from the upper-most echelons of the Armys command and not filtered through the chain, had actually been announced by the communications officer on the command deck below the bubble. It had gone unacknowledged by Commander Pach, and Dychi in seeing all that was going on- the multiple distractions that his lord was subject to- it seemed only logical that Pach had simply not heard the order.
"Lord-.", Dychi began to repeat his last statement but was cut short.
"Ignore it.", Pach said, "Order Kranna to return his squadrons to perimeter defense of the ship and to prepare to receive our reserve fighters.."
"Yes, Lord.", Dychi said, motioning to the fighter control operations officer on the command deck below to carry out the instruction as he himself added a final observation that did not come quite strongly enough to be a protest, "-But General Alzyha's orders-."
"-We could not execute.", Pach said, justifying his decision though he had absolutely no need to do so to his executive officer, "Use your eyes, Dychi- Our fighters would never reach the command ship."
The tactical display did support Pach's supposition. Between the main body of the Fleet orbiting Tammus 7 and the higher orbiting body of support vessels was wedged the Invid force that was rapidly dividing itself to attack both ways. Individual Invid contacts were too numerous and moving in too great a formational density to be identified by the ship's sensors. Instead, the swarms moved like clouds of mist through the three-dimensional holographic representation that hung for all to see over Destroyer 741's command deck. The movement of the "clouds" seemed lazy and strangely random, though Pach knew they were neither.
Invid were moving deliberately into the heart of the Fleet's warship and support ship elements, and when the scale of the display was translated into actual physical distances- they were moving at lightening speed. Every icon representing a Zentraedi vessel or a deployed unit that was absorbed in the cloud was in peril and likely being subjected to carnage that the sensor systems of the ship were not designed to convey. Pach knew though- he had been in that place on too many occasions himself.
Like beasts dependent on their sheer size for protection, Zentraedi cruisers were best served by avoiding predatory masses of Invid or meeting them at a distance with gun and mecha. When contact was direct, they had only their thick skins to protect them, and once penetrated by Invid in force- a cruiser's likelihood of surviving the encounter diminished exponentially regardless of the quality of the warriors crewing it. The Invid would claw and blast their way through deck and bulkhead indiscriminately- drawn by the ship's protoculture-fueled reactors with an obsessive single-mindedness that could not be explained but had to be seen to be understood. Pach had seen how they would bore through a ship, recklessly disregarding any concept of self-preservation until something sensitive was compromised.
This would not happen to Destroyer 741 Pach had long since resolved. Indeed, the surprise raid now in progress proved that it could happen given the whim of Fate- but for his part, and despite what order might be given, he would not hazard his vessel or a single warrior in his command with such suicidal contact. Nothing of value had ever come of an engagement of that sort to his experience, and Pach was satisfied not to test his perception.
"Command, Communications-. Priority order from Action Commander Gymalt, Lord."
Pach's apprehension eased slightly. Had he not heard from Gymalt, he would have been forced to initiate action himself for his command. As reliable as the length of an hour though, Gymalt was on time and likely with a plan of action.
"Message is:", said the communications officer reading the text message from Gymalt that was both brief and unambiguous, "Break station and withdraw to indicated covering positions for support ship withdrawal."
Concurrently indicators appeared within Destroyer 741's tactical display showing the relocation positions desired by the action commander for his subordinates. The support contingent of transports was already beginning to break ranks- clearly they as Pach felt no need to hazard themselves unduly. Gymalt was in communication with their commanders as well to organize their movements for better defensibility- of this Pach was sure.
For many support vessels it was already too late though. A tremendous flash, brief but stunning despite the filtering features of the visual functions of the viewscreen, coincided with a transport icon vanishing from the tactical display. A pocket in the swarm of Invid appeared but as quickly closed as two more transports were lost to internal damage that proved violently mortal.
Still, the tide of Invid seemed to surge on without thinning or weakening.
"Helm, move us into our assigned position!", Pach ordered as a transport in the outer ranks closest to Destroyer 741 turned to and seemed initially intent on a collision. The master of the lumbering supply ship was quick to correct his course though and Pach was able to remain focused on the changed details of his assigned task, "Fighter Control, order all Gnerl units into covering positions and stand by for further vectoring. Fire Control, lay a suppressive missile spread in our wake. Keep your firing pattern well clear of our Gnerls!"
Invid and Zentraedi met one another all about the perimeter of the Invid Hive on the final slope to the alien structure. The defenders, descending, the attackers, ascending- met like the great stone wheels of a grist mill, only they ground relentlessly away at each other. The so-called "pulse" of battle had ceased and had been replaced by a constant flow of the two forces into one another. Front lines no longer attacked, separated, and re-engaged but simply dissolved in the fury of combat and were replaced by follow-on units.
In addition to one another, both sides struggled with sure footing as the dead and debris of the melee accumulated and would slough in unnatural landslides down the incline of the volcanic mound.
Koso sheltered from a steady exchange of energy weapon fire behind the crumpled hulk of a fallen Regult. Though deformed and crushed in, Koso had been able to see where Invid Trooper pincers had crudely peeled open the lightly armored body. If the pilot had not been dead at that point, he had certainly not survived to escape his mecha as could be seen by the loosely attached bits of him that had been extracted through the breech in the Regult's hull like entrails spilling from a gut wound.
This was not an uncommon sight in battle, and Koso would have paid no particular attention except that he could have as easily met the same fate only minutes before when a surge of Invid had penetrated deep into the Zentraedi lines and had deprived him of his own Regult. An unseen Trooper had severed his mecha's left leg at the knee cleanly and before Koso had even released himself from his seat's restraining harnesses to bail out, the points of pincer claws had punched through the side of the cockpit allowing the atmosphere to escape with a dwindling shriek that sounded like the Regult's death wail. The hatch had been torn away a moment later, and it was only the fact that he had his rifle in hand in preparation to defend his escape had saved Koso. The hatch had torn away by Invid claws, and Koso had found the glaring eye of the same Trooper staring in at him. A single shot from his rifle made with reflex speed had blinded the Trooper and sent it staggering back from the avenue of Koso's escape.
Tumbling out of his Regult, Koso was unable to identify the Trooper he had just blinded in the chaos of the battle around him. It didn't matter. Surviving from second to second had taken priority.
Koso had survived, though having to tolerate Hedra's taunting at having lost his Regult was a close second on his short list of unfavorable options to gruesome death at the claws of the Invid. Koso had survived, Hedra had found the time to taunt him while embroiled in the same battle with the luxury of his Regult still serving him, but he also gave his friend the consideration of advancing slowly enough for Koso to follow under his modest protection.
And Koso found himself where he was now.
The mass of the downed Regult that Koso covered behind shifted causing him to fear that it would sweep him under in a wave of debris. His defilade did not tumble though, only shifted as to his right a Regult with a leg shot away did roll over two warriors on foot as it toppled down the slope. It seemed to Koso that every step forward for the Zentraedi added an additional factor that conspired to work with the Invid against them. They fought the Invid, topography, and now even gravity. Sure-footed on all but a very few varieties of terrain, the Regults of the Zentraedi assault force and the other standard mecha that Koso could see were now clearly having difficulty with finding purchase on the dense layer of slaughter and battle wreckage. All along the line, as far as Koso could see to either side, the machines were bogging down as much because they could not physically move forward as by any Invid defensive effort.
"We're going to have to make the final push on foot!", Koso asserted as one of the warriors over whom the Regult had just tumbled was repeatedly crushed at the upper chest and head by the foot of another Regult as it staggered hopelessly against the shifting grade of the hill.
"You go-!", Hedra was quick to reply with his barking laugh of amusement at the thought of abandoning his added layer of protection from Invid claw and plasma bolt, "We'll cover you from back here!"
A plasma bolt from an Invid Shock Trooper split the thin air just over Koso's head, scorching him with its heat as it passed. Koso had not been the target nor had he seen the plasma disc until it struck Hedra's Regult at the right hip junction. One of the Regult's sturdiest and best engineered components by necessity, the junction assembly was penetrated easily by the energy round nonetheless. A sheet of flame and a shower of sparks spewed from the rupture as the Regult's legs collapsed beneath its weight. Ever the warrior, Hedra's particle beam cannons continued to return fire until the Regult sat heavily on its own haunches and then rolled half back and left to where the pilot could no longer bring the weapons to bear on his enemy. Additional plasma rounds from Invid at the top of the hill stitched the mecha as though the fight had become personal Hedra relented and abandoned his mecha much the same way as Koso had his earlier.
"I think we're going to need to make the final assault on foot!", Hedra said as he arrived, rifle in hand, at Koso's side behind the downed Regult.
"You're a tactical genius, Hedra.", Koso said as a salvo of missiles from somewhere in the Zentraedi lines ripped through the air overhead.
Both warriors bunched into themselves and pressed into the hash of metal, flesh, and earth as the weapons slammed home at the crest of the rise with a bone-jarring roll of explosions. A plume of plasma-napalm fueled flame rolled skyward, illuminating all below it in ghastly light and throwing deep shadows as the immense heat set exposed dead flesh and spilled blood to a sizzle.
The supply and support units of the 604th Grand Army were rapidly breaking station from high orbit and were escaping to a position more removed under the screening efforts of the 4234th Destroyer Squadron. The surprise Invid raid had begun powerfully, striking at the 604th's vulnerabilities swiftly and had spread likewise through the combat and support ship elements like an aggressive cancer.
Commander Pach had watched the Invid spread through the combat and support elements of the Fleet alike on the ship's tactical display. With the great bulk of his warriors and a portion of his Gnerl Fighter Pods deployed to support actions on Tammus 7, there was little else he could do as he obeyed Action Commander Gymalt's orders to change position. Even as Destroyer 741 cleared from the path of the fleeing support ships with the other destroyers of the 4234th, there was no angle at which they could fire their gun batteries down onto the Invid where the energy salvos would not pass through to strike combat units of the battle stricken Fleet in lower orbits.
General Alzyha's recall of all Gnerl units from Tammus 7 to defend the Fleet was beginning to set its teeth into the Invid and show some signs of having an effect, but the combat vessels in the immediate vicinity of the Invid incursion were still hopelessly locked into formation and unable to maneuver to defend or evade. Warships that in the clear could have easily outpaced and outmaneuvered the comparatively sluggish mass of Invid mecha were vanishing in explosions at a rate of several per minute now as the raid moved through their ranks like a virus- infecting and overwhelming each cell in the Zentraedi organism in distinctive and ever-expanding hops.
Where the combat units were not boxed in, they had broken from orbit and fled to a safe and tactically advantageous distance. Commander Pach noted that Pritan Cardun, easily identifiable on the display as the flagship of the Fleet, had been able to escape the outskirts of the raid and was standing off. The fact that the flagship had cleared immediate danger and that the rapidly forming picket had not opened fire inwardly on the mixed forces of Zentraedi and raiding Invid told Pach that Alzyha was still of the opinion that the situation though startling could still be salvaged. The strong possibility lingered in the back of Pach's mind as it remained an option before General Alzyha that those Zentraedi units directly engaged with the Invid might have to and would be sacrificed if circumstances changed and need demanded.
If the situation for many battle units was that they were in peril of being sacrificed to the guns of their own fleet to contain the Invid raid and prevent its spreading, than the peril of the support elements was that of abandonment in the face of the enemy.
General Alzyha's recall of fighters to the Fleet had in fact been a recall to defend the battle elements. Even had his orders been for a uniform defense of all Zentraedi assets and a general containment of the Invid the Gnerl Fighter Pods, that continued to breech the atmosphere of Tammus 7 and join the fight even as it raged, would have had difficulty navigating around the battle awaiting them in low orbit. Moving sufficient numbers of Gnerls into position to counter the Invid in any significant way to assist the support ships was a virtual impossibility.
Commander Pach witnessed the results as the Zentraedi ships in greatest need of fighter support languished for lack of it. While the exodus of the transport ships was proceeding as quickly as the vessels could break their defensive block formation and escape through the picket lines established and held by their escorting destroyer squadrons, the process was still slow in comparison to the spread of Invid through the units closest to Tammus 7. In the same way that the tide of Invid mecha had swept through the combat units, it also swept through the transports. One by one, though at a rapid pace, the Invid swarm absorbed them.
The transports differed from the combat vessels of the Fleet in that they had little in the way of defensive weapons by comparison to hold their tenacious enemy off. Missile batteries fired as quickly as they could cycle had a negligible effect on the Invid mass that accepted the damage willingly in exchange for the opportunity to make direct contact with the Zentraedi vessels. Once that contact was made, the fate of each vessel was almost certainly sealed. Essentially large container compartments bound into a hull, the transports were not designed or intended to join battle, and particularly not to serve as the center for it. Once penetrated, the cavernous open spaces within the hulls of these ships presented few obstacles to the Invid.
Like the warships they supported that had been overrun by multitudes of the single-minded Invid, the transports were destroyed by damage from within- only arriving much faster at that end than their combatant counterparts.
"Command, Weapons Control-. Contact in forty seconds."
Commander Pach and Sub-Commander Dychi required no additional clarification from the Weapons Control Officer on the main command deck. The salvo of missiles that Destroyer 741 had fired into its own wake had acquired, missile by missile, targets more than a minute before. The volley which had reduced the ship's remaining stores by a third, combined with similar spreads from the other destroyers of the 4234th Squadron, would not reduce the ascending Invid force measurably if it exceeded the commanders' expectations- but it did stand a chance of giving at least a handful of support ships a chance to escape from their dissolving ranks.
"Fighter Control", Pach said, "Remind Kranna that he is not to engage the Invid directly."
Pach knew he needn't have worried or to have given the reminder to the leader of his Gnerl units that would come within firing range of their own missiles moments after the destroyers' volleys struck. Kranna, who was an experienced pilot and had been with Pach nearly as long as he had commanded Destroyer 741, knew well that a headlong attack with inferior numbers against an Invid force of any composition was suicide- and Kranna was not suicidal. Having been a Gnerl pilot himself initially, and having had many a discussion with Kranna on tactics- Pach knew furthermore that there was little he had to say to Kranna at all regarding the execution of his duties.
Pach needed only to direct him where to go.
"Sub-Commander, you are ordered not to attack the Invid force directly.", the Fighter Control Officer- a senior lieutenant who for reasons that Kranna could never quite peg had always rubbed him the wrong way- relayed.
Sub-Commander Kranna bit back a caustic remark that would have done Chief Engineer Gerrok (renown for a stinging tongue) proud. Kranna, despite the functional relationship that he and the lieutenant had, he barely knew the junior officer and was quick to dismiss his annoyance with him to having to endure instructions on the obvious. Kranna's irritation was further tempered by the knowledge that the officer was only passing on instructions as given by Commander Pach. In this, Sub-Commander Kranna recognized a difference between himself and Sub-Commander Gerrok.
Gerrok would have bitten at the lieutenant regardless.
"Understood.", acknowledged Kranna, saying in turn to the pilots under his command who had not been detached to supplement the operations on Tammus 7, "We'll fire off our missiles and then break away high on their right flank at my command. If we time it right, we'll get their attention and maybe draw some off the supply ships."
Sub-Commander Kranna suspected that Pach was expecting something along these lines from him anyway, hence only the non-restrictive instructions. As far as their part in the larger operation was concerned, they were both seeing the same situation developing before them though Kranna was seeing it in a way that Commander Pach was removed from in the relative safety aboard Destroyer 741. Kranna did not fault him this as he knew Pach would have readily joined the bleeding edge of the fight in a Gnerl if his experience and command skill had not been required in the billet in which he served.
The tangible reality of the battle as Sub-Commander Kranna saw it was at first glance a disorganized mutual slaughter of Zentraedi and Invid that would have easily daunted a pilot of lesser mettle with the prospect of flying into it. What Kranna's superior would have seen from his command bubble as the movement and disappearance of meaningful blips and icons in the tactical display took on a more visually stimulating incarnation from Kranna's seat.
Nebulous clouds of red and purple- individual Invid being nearly impossible to pick out for their sheer numbers and distance- moved up from rusty backdrop of Tammus 7 on a course through the Fleet's support elements. Minutes earlier the transport ships had been organized into tidy rows and columns. Now, the enormous "box" formation disintigrated at an alarming pace from two sides. Above, it was pulling itself apart as lumbering transports fled the horror that sought them out. That horror, the swarming cloud of them, chewed through the formation from beneath.
The explosions, muted with distance within the battle fleet, were more appalling and dramatic to Kranna within the support elements. As the wave of Invid washed over a ship, Kranna could see as their hulls seemed to melt away. The visual effect was the same, but Kranna knew that the "melting" was actually the results of thousands of Invid claws sheering away hull plates a chunk at a time to get at the next structural layer, and then the next.
Had he been closer to any of these ships as they were overwhelmed, and had there been fewer Invid- Kranna would have felt obligated (or infuriated, more accurately) to blast as many Invid as he could off of Zentraedi hulls. There were far too many for this to be an option though. To get close enough to even the nearest transport wallowing in Invid would have meant passing through dense hordes of the enemy- an enemy as happy to ram a Gnerl to destroy it with self-sacrifice as to use weapons from a distance.
From where Kranna sat, the plight of the hopelessly lost had a very visceral quality that vessel commanders were spared. Kranna did not fault Pach this either- he had done his time in death grapples with the Invid.
A pinpoint of light, a single fleck of winking orange, bloomed distantly in a churning cloud of Invid that was just now drawing near enough for Kranna to be able to make out individual mecha. Like a spark in a powder magazine though, the single fleck appeared to flare into a sheet of thousands of such blooms that rippled across the leading edge of the Invid cloud before leaping to another like lightning between thunderheads.
The missiles fired by the destroyers as they had displaced from their original screening positions had begun to find their marks.
The wave of explosions swept back and forth, the concentrations of explosions jumping positions dependent upon what regions of the Invid swarm were nearest. Each flicker that looked so insignificant to Kranna was the violent end to an Invid as a Zentraedi missile scattered its biomechanical body to the void. The uniform motion of the sweeping destruction lasted only a few moments- enough to appear dazzling and then slam the observer with the realization of the awesome destructive power the Invid had slammed into and rode through. After those few moments, only the cloud of Invid remained- moving undeterred still through the ranks of the Zentraedi transports.
These were the moments when, with the final missiles obliterating the random Invid with the same appearance of a dying fire spewing a last burst of glowing embers, Kranna still felt fear with all of it's cold, nerve-slashing edge. It was the fear of seeing a force that at a glance was unstoppable- and knowing that you were the defense being thrown at it to stop it.
As Kranna's combat computer selected targets for his missiles, the sub-commander had the reassurance of knowing that he and his command would be releasing their weapons far beyond the reach of the Invid and would then turn their tails to them. Invid mecha, though more nimble than the Gnerl Fighter Pod in aerial or space combat still could not match the Zentraedi fighter's speed. This did not prevent them from being provoked into pointless pursuits of the Gnerls, as Kranna was hoping would happen soon- but unless Kranna and his pilots made a serious miscalculation or outright mistake, the aliens had no chance of catching them.
The thought occurred to Kranna though as his computer told him that he was within the window of his weapons' optimum range that the Invid were displaying uncommon strategic savvy today, and that a "miscalculation" or "outright mistake" on the Zentraedi's part might be to arrogantly presume anything about the Invid.
"Fire and break by squadron!", Kranna ordered, squeezing and holding the triggers on his fighter's right control yoke until the launchers housed in the bullet-shaped airframe just behind the cockpit cycled out their full load of missiles. The burn of their engines was still visible and their exhaust trails had not dissipated when Kranna pulled his fighter into climbing left bank to clear the path of fire for the following squadrons and lead the diversion that he hoped the Invid would chase.
The starfield tilted and dropped before him as the G-forces pressed Kranna into his seat despite the Gnerl's inertia dampeners. The waves of Invid were quickly lost below like an artificial horizon in space as Kranna showed them his tail. Kranna felt some of the tension ease simply by losing sight of his enemies- the images on his cockpit's central sensor display being much less daunting. At the same time Kranna was losing the satisfaction of watching his missiles find their anonymous Invid targets, as his sensors showed they had begun to, but the sub-commander had seen the effects of the heavy, armor-piercing warheads on Invid mecha enough to be able to envision it vividly.
Sub-Commander Kranna leveled his banking climb and in briefly looking directly above his fighter saw that he could watch the exodus of the transport ships into Invid-free, open space. Destroyer 741 was also clearly visible, seeming to stand on its bow, suspended high above in the weightlessness of space. Kranna could not see the fine details of the ship's gun turrets, but he knew that though not engaged they were doubtlessly tracking on the mass of Invid should Commander Pach decide to bring that overwhelming firepower to bear. Perhaps he would now that the combat fleet in low orbit had broken for higher positions with the exception of those unfortunate units involved in the direct grapple with the Invid.
These were not Kranna's concerns though, and were certainly beyond his scope of action. His best contribution to the overall battle right now was to build on what he now saw happening to his rear- to lead a sizable chunk of the Invid force away from the support ships. Once he and they were in the clear, Commander Pach might demonstrate again how he and Kranna often thought alike by giving the order to open fire.
The thought coincided with a brilliant blue flash that filled the starfield directly above Kranna. The sub-commander thought for a split second that the dazzling, nearly blinding light was indeed Destroyer 741 firing its primary batteries and that he had strayed into the path of the salvos. Beyond the sound knowledge that Pach would fire through his own warriors only as a measure of desperate and last resort, and even then only with warning, Kranna realized that the source of the light was not localized as coming from Destroyer 741, but was beyond it. In fact, the disturbance was not localized at all but seemed to fill the span of the void, washing out even the points of starlight.
Only one phenomenon could account for the sudden blue strobe in the void.
"Space fold transient contact. Subspace distortion centered bearing one-six-five mark two-nine. Range is seventy-five thousand artohls.", announced the Sensor Control Officer for all on the Pritan Cardun's command deck to hear.
The announcement was a formality- redundant to any of the officers or staff who had been looking at the large tactical display at the moment of the distortion's appearance. Nerves frayed already by the Invid surprise counterattack were stressed to the breaking point as all awaited the identity of the party in the terminal stages of a space fold. Whether they were Zentraedi, compressing the universe to step from point to point by mechanical means, or Invid rendering the same effect by whatever process they used- the sensible signs were the same. A gravitational and radiation surge coincided with the rippling of the fabric of space as two distant points were brought into contact and made one. The only peripheral effect visible to the naked eye was the photonic displacement that appeared as a brilliant light of marbled blue that would flare and be replaced by the object emerging from hyperspace.
When the photonic displacement subsided, the officers of staff of the 604th Grand Army's flagship were relieved to see in their tactical display the identification markers of other Zentraedi vessels and not a second Invid assault force.
"Zentraedi vessels!", exclaimed the Sensor Control Officer, late again in reporting what the eyes of all on the command deck had already told them, "Valid identification authenticated!"
Recalling earlier conversations and possible scenarios surrounding details of fact that only the two of them were privileged to- General Alzyha and Sub-General Brenik were alone in not being visibly elated at the arrival of a Zentraedi force that nearly doubled their strength of numbers. Even the clear identification markers that showed the vessels to be of a female force did not seem to concern the junior officers or staff- at the very least, the new arrivals were not Invid.
"Command, Communications-. We are being hailed by the fleet commander, Lord."
Alzyha braced himself. What was being negligently overlooked by his staff and had been similarly disregarded by this female commander was proper approach protocols into a known combat area. They had not announced their impending arrival. Had they not felt compelled to warn those with whom they purportedly shared the Masters' struggle of their joining of battle? Or perhaps the battle they were prepared to join was not the one being fought against the Invid.
"Open on main screen", Alzyha ordered. He would have his answers very shortly.
A female face of pale green complexion and unremarkable features appeared in the ship's main viewscreen window. Her uniform and rank showed her to be Alzyha's equal, and like a mirror, the details of her flagship's command deck that could be seen showed Alzyha's staff that they could have been looking into the nerve center of Pritan Cardun- with the exception that all of the officers and staff were females. The female general's hair, green many shades darker than her skin, was long but drawn back for convenience. Many warriors allowed their hair to grow long as a sign of longevity despite the perils of battle- but Alzyha in his few and brief dealings with females had come to notice that the practice was more common among them.
"General Alzyha, I am General Bohen of the 417th Grand Army. I apologize for our late arrival, but we stand ready to assist you.", Bohen said- her voice steady and sure, but more faint than Alzyha had expected of a leader of warriors- even a female one.
"The 604th Grand Army is grateful for your assistance.", Alzyha replied- that much was true. Bohen's tone and mannerisms did not arouse suspicions of treachery in Alzyha's mind as he thought they might at their first meeting. This was not to say that he trusted completely in her honorable intentions- but there was promise in the fact that she was not exploiting a clearly advantageous tactical situation. Moreover though, from his position, Alzyha had little that he could do but trust for now.
"General Alzyha", Bohen continued, "I have ample fighters, shock troops, and light mecha forces ready to deploy. I would suggest stabilizing the situation in orbit before we consider landing my units in support of yours."
"I agree.", Alzyha said, eager to contain and quell the Invid raid that had effectively split his fleet into two pieces. This was his primary concern, though the thought of having a female army land in the rear of his warriors while they were still engaged forward with the Invid was still somewhat disquieting. That level of trust had not been reached yet- but there was no need to express this to Bohen overtly.
"I'm ordering units into launch range now, General Alzyha.", Bohen said as orders were clearly being given and carried out by officers and staff behind her, "My commanders will coordinate with yours to relieve your units in order of battle or as you see fit. The rest of my fleet will hold station here for other contingencies."
It was a prudent plan of action balancing assertiveness in force with conservation of assets. Alzyha, had their positions been switched, could imagine proposing a similar course of action.
Destroyers and scout class vessels of the 417th Grand Army's fleet had already broken away from the main force and were branching off and closing on various points of the orbiting battle. Male and female forces would be in immediate proximity with one another in minutes, introducing the possibility of "accidents". The focus of all warriors, male and female alike, would of course be the Invid but the possibility of friendly fire mishaps leading to something more volatile was in the front of Alzyha's mind.
As real as the potential for friction between the two Zentraedi armies was, Alzyha still found himself curious to see how the females would perform. General Bohen had alluded to "shock troops" in laying out her intended actions.
"Shock troops"- as the term applied to female Zentraedi armies meant a particular caste of warriors. Quadranos.
By their reputation, Alzyha suspected that the Invid were about to receive a generous ration of punishment.
In the maelstrom of battle that had magnified in intensity as it collapsed on the focal point of the Invid Hive, Warrior Ulstik had miraculously found Hedra and Koso as they had neared the portal into the bizarre, organic fortress.
Invid Hives were perhaps the one facet of the Invid "society" that lacked precise uniformity. Unlike the closest analogy that a Zentraedi could point to- a vessel that served as both dwelling and base of combat operations- there was no particular design or configuration to Invid Hives. As variants on a general concept, all Hives could be counted upon to have hundreds of irregularly shaped, cell-like compartments within their massive spherical structures that served functions that only the Invid knew. "Corridors" were not really even that, but rather were most often vein-like pathways ("artery" perhaps being the better description with passages' striated-muscular appearance) that ventured and branched at odd angles in every conceivable direction.
If the layout and composition of a Hive was at best unfamiliar to a Zentraedi warrior- lacking even interior illumination and revealing irregular patches of red, yellow, orange, and green coloration when illumination was provided by trespassers- it posed no orientation or navigational difficulty for the resident Invid. The intended occupants moved freely, even seeming to defy gravity within their nest as they were able to adhere almost magnetically to and move along any interior surface including the walls and ceilings of cells and passages.
This was a strange sight to even Zentraedi who had experience in breeching and clearing Invid Hives, and in the history of such operations this ability exhibited by the Invid had doubtlessly contributed to the death of a significant number of Zentraedi warriors who burdened by gravity were forced to scale and negotiate the Hive interiors according to physical law.
"Clearing" a Hive was always a bloody, brutal process as every Invid in every chamber would fight to defend its cell to the death- and did so with the advantage of familiarity with its surroundings. Without fail though, it was almost assured that if the Zentraedi had pressed the attack to where they were forcing admittance to a Hive, their victory was a near certainty. Hives- being living things in a sense that Zentraedi did not recognize as "living"- were symbiotic organisms both feeding and drawing upon the energy of the population of Invid that dwelled within them. By reducing the population, the Hive itself weakened through exsnguination.
The death blow would come with the discovery and destruction of the Hive Brain. As a constant to all Hives, and responsible for the cohesive action on a massive scale that even the most primitive Invid castes were capable of, the Brain was also a constant in its placement in the Hive. In a heavily defended, but otherwise remarkably unadorned cell at the very center of every Hive, this computer, command and control system, communications interface with the greater Invid consciousness all bound into wrinkled organic mass of blue-grey could be found.
Only with the finding of it and its destruction could the Zentraedi claim victory in battle, and of the Tammus star system.
Appropriate to the losses of Zentraedi and Invid in the struggle for the Hive, a thin but constant stream of warriors' blood mixed with the nutrient fluids that supported lower Invid caste pilots in their mecha flowed out through the large, oval entrance in the side of the dome as Hedra, Koso, and Ulstik neared it waiting their turn to enter. The contributors to the fluids pooling darkly on the rock just outside of the Hive entrance were unseen somewhere deeper inside the Invid structure- but likely resembled the tattered and torn remains of their comrades and counterparts strewn all about the portal.
For Koso's part in seeing a warrior whose body was missing below the ribcage, it seemed a waste to have gotten so close to the ultimate objective only to die at the doorway. Fate had decided that cruel final irony for many warriors whose remains rested mostly in pieces and intermingled with the broken machines containing their enemies.
The pace of entry into the Hive was increasing though. At this portal, one of many Koso assumed by experience, warriors were ascending a crude series of footholds and handholds composed of kruvoks and even disembodied Invid pincer claws driven into the otherwise smooth interior of the tubular passage. Warriors were able to climb quickly the entryway now with their rifles slung over their shoulders- the sounds of the fight having become muffled as it was pressed into the deeper regions of the massive dome structure.
As Koso climbed the path demonstrated at each anchoring point moments before by Hedra, he quickly lost the dim, dust-choked light of the Tammus 7 day. He could sense that the battle, having passed its climax, was approaching its finish. There seemed to be the highest likelihood that he would survive the day and live to fight the next battle- but still there was an ominous, heavy feeling in crossing into the dark interior of the Invid's domain. It was the sensation that despite the fact that the right had been won in battle, he was inarguably out of place and perilously so.
Still, Koso pressed on in his place in the warriors' ranks.
"It's going to be all over before we get to it!", Hedra griped from just above Koso as the passage angled back from the vertical into something more horizontal.
"The fight?", Koso clarified as he gave up the last of the improvised handholds that had allowed him to reach this point in the Hive. The tap of a button on a small control panel on his environmental body armor activated the light enhancement feature of his helmet and he was able to clearly see again as he took his rifle from his shoulder.
"What else would I mean?", Hedra said, switching out a partially spent energy clip for a fresh one in anticipation of the fight he had alluded to fear missing.
"What have we been doing all morning then?", Koso asked.
Hedra snorted indignantly, "Suit yourself, but I wanted to be the one to pluck that Brain off its stem."
Koso shook his head as other warriors pressed in on he, Hedra, and Ulstik now from all sides. It was the sort of "reward" that Hedra would relish at the end of day's battle. In truth, Koso would not have minded doing the same thing- though he for the reason of being sure that the job was really done. Hedra was more of the kind who would just take pleasure in the fleshy, ripping sounds of the Brain's demise.
A roar not of an explosion but one that exploded from the throats of hundreds of Zentraedi warriors rolled back from deep within the Hive, through the passages, and toward the entrances. The sound built on itself- a primal vocalization of satiated battle-frenzy and bloodlust. Koso knew the meaning of this sound before the evidence, a crude and still twitching mass of tissue that had been a part of the Invid Hive Brain, was passed hand to hand over the heads of warriors- going by Koso and his companions to the left- before being tossed down the entryway through which they had just come.
"See?", Hedra said, unashamed in his disappointment.
Randomly, Koso caught a glance of Ulstik's face through the visor of his helmet that like the rest of his body armor had lost its pristine appearance with a splattering and smearing of Invid fluids and Zentraedi blood. The warrior's expression was one of confusion- of not knowing exactly how to react to the sudden cessation of battle.
This, more than Hedra's unquenched (and intentionally exaggerated he knew) bloodthirst prompted him to say in an unpatronizing yet conciliatory tone, "Fate will favor us better next time, Hedra."
Hedra grumbled something unintelligible as he joined the movement of many warriors back toward the Hive entrance as it slowly began to roll back like a receding tide. Koso noticed as Hedra stepped unconcerned on a segment of a warrior's body that was little more than the upper trunk, right arm, and head. Hedra barely paid notice, though Koso was more keenly aware that Fate's favor had very much been with them this day.
The Invid Hive Brain had been destroyed.
Sub-Commander Kranna could not have pinpointed the exact moment, but the signs that this had taken place were unmistakable and had all manifested at once.
Lower caste Invid, those that dominated the Invid ranks in their scout and trooper mecha were individually simple creatures incapable of thought much beyond instinctive action and reflex. As their intellect applied to battle, it was not that they did not grasp the concepts of tactics- it was that they were individually incapable of grasping the concept, or any concept for that matter. This was one of the many functions of a Hive Brain that provided the higher levels of cognitive thought to masses of otherwise thoughtless beings. It was the Brain that coordinated the actions of small Invid units, or units numbering in the thousands or millions and allowed the sheer weight of the forces to generate the Invid's fearsome and unrelenting power in battle.
When the Brain died, a single organism of many bodies lost its cohesive bond and direction. A single purpose dissolved instantly into the reflex-driven whim of thousands of simpletons, and the evidence presented itself as quickly.
Kranna had watched as a solid mass of Shock Troopers and Armored Scouts that had wove in a swarm through the void in vain attempts to lure smaller but faster units of Gnerls into direct combat suddenly disintegrated and lost a common course. Some continued to pursue Gnerls, falling increasingly behind, in a hopeless attempt to engage while others were attracted to the even more unattainable lure of distant Zentraedi transports and warships.
Kranna recognized as the swarm suddenly scattered like dust in a strong wind that in addition to losing their only real offensive advantage of massing superior numbers, the Invid had also shed their best defense- opening themselves to attack on a smaller unit-to-unit basis in which the Gnerl Fighter Pods always held the upper hand. Or, so they would have had they any missiles left to them collectively. Kranna considered, as he suspected other squadron and group commanders were as well, that he could order his pilots in to close range to use their laser cannon armaments- but this would be inviting additional losses to achieve an end that space would accomplish for him in a matter of days anyway. With no viable Hive to return to, these Invid had begun their terminal decline even if they were unaware of it.
Or, Sub-Commander Kranna was also aware of, he could relinquish the fight to the fresh female units now descending on the battle from their base ships in high and distant orbit. This was not an option that Kranna relished, to see the final death stroke that he and the other warriors of the 604th Grand Army had worked so hard toward delivered by females whose presence in the campaign could be measured in minutes. At the same time though, Kranna was also very aware that he and his pilots- all of the pilots of the 604th on station for that matter- were not in a position where they could deny the females the final kill.
Fate's will was what it was, and did not have to justify itself by a warrior's understanding.
"604th Gnerl units", came a female voice before Kranna had been given the opportunity to complete his thoughts, "Withdraw on vector two-six-five mark one-zero-zero. We will cover your egress and press the counterattack."
Kranna, looking high over his right wing could see the waves of Zentraedi mecha and fighters descending on the battlespace. He was hardly of sufficient strength or tactical position to argue. A force the size of female one now inbound was not something the sub-commander had any desire to put himself in front of, lest he be ground under in its advance.
"Acknowledged.", Kranna replied, bitterly unable to say much else.
He could see the female Gnerl squadrons leading the charge in neat formations. They would break up the dispersing Invid formation further to allow the slower yet still formidable Regult mecha units to follow on and do the bulk of the brute work. What interested Kranna despite his bitterness, and what he had not seen save for a few times in combined action with the females was the impressive mass of units that followed the Gnerl spearhead. Flying through the void also in squadron formations were the ranks of the Queadlun Rau combat suits- the power armor exclusively provided to female forces, and from whose midst Kranna was certain the order issued to him and his pilots to withdraw had come. This was because the Queadlunn Rau suits, particular to female armies, was more specifically and exclusively issued to the elite Quadranno shock troops. Their abilities were legendary and garnered grudging but genuine respect from even the proudest male warrior. Kranna however did not have to rely on legend- he had seen Quadranos in action before and their performance had never failed to meet the standards set by lore.
Commander Tuisant of the 93rd Vanhaylot'Kohsh Quadranos monitored as the male Gnerl Fighter Pod units withdrew, clearing a wide path for the combined fighter and mecha elements of the 417th Grand Army that for the purposes of this engagement was operating under her direct command. Tuisant and the bulk of her Quadranos, stationed aboard General Bohen's command ship, had launched into combat with little foreknowledge of the battle's disposition. The details of the situation had formed up quickly as the Quadranos had joined up with the fighter and mecha complement of several vessels that had been dispatched to provide the besieged male fleet with an adequate rear guard to affect its escape. The details, at a glance, were that the Invid had lost cohesion- a certain indicator that the Hive Brain had been eliminated- and that Tuisant could have easily achieved her objective for the day with half the forces with which she had been provided.
Even now her Gnerl Fighter Pods were beginning to open pockets into the thinning Invid swarm, They would make their pass, inflicting as much damage as possible in the single run and then withdraw to re-engage the Invid at the outer edges of their formation, effectively "netting" them in. Tuisant's Quadranos would follow, further exploiting the breeches made by the Gnerls and at much closer quarters before similarly withdrawing to prevent a mass Invid escape before the main force of 417th Grand Army Regults could literally wade into them and beat the aliens out of existence. It was a classic, tried, and proven battle plan that Tuisant had seen used and used herself against larger Invid forces with success. Those had been true contests of will though between Zentraedi and Invid. This was at best the last survivors of a vanquished Hive awaiting a mercy killing,. Even a mercy killing had a degree of peril to it though. The Invid were in the final stages of losing the day, but one for one they could still exact a heavy toll on the Zentraedi if Tuisant's warriors grew careless.
Tuisant and her Quadranos as the elite of the female forces both rigorously and constantly training were least likely to make those careless mistakes that could cause a warrior to meet her end. Comparable to their individual skills, the Quadranos' Queadlunn Rau combat suits were the most capable battle systems that a warrior could hope to operate in the face of an enemy. Heavily armed, adequately armored, and every bit as agile with an experienced pilot in control as its Invid adversaries that were a quarter its size and mass, the Queadlunn Rau and its Quadrano warriors had been the deciding factor of many desperate battles. The Queadlunn Rau did not look the part of the formidable machine it was, roughly humanoid in shape with its enormous barrel shoulders that housed the suit's primary missile launchers looked as though it should have difficulty walking let alone performing in combat. Quite to the contrary, worn much like conventional body armor with the exception that the pilot "put on" the suit through the chest plate hatch, the machine augmented and enhanced the pilot's own strength and speed responding to her nerve impulses for control. Even in flight operation, a feature not enjoyed by the design of the power armor suits of the male forces, the Queadlunn Rau was in Tuisant's opinion less complicated to operate than the more broadly issued Regults.
It had occurred on occasion to Commander Tuisant that so much more could be accomplished in the ongoing war against the Invid if the manufacturing of males were to be ceased and their numbers replaced with females equipped with Queadlunn Rau combat suits. The thought, always initially appealing, always collapsed under the weight of other factors that Tuisant was just as quick to recognize. The Queadlunn Rau was superior to any mecha fielded by the Zentraedi, and female warriors were superior to males in their resourcefulness and tactical savvy in battle- but this being the case, not all females were up to the standards that qualified them for the title of Quadrano.
Watching the first waves of her elite warriors engage, Tuisant was reminded why.
"Has anyone considered whether the males would do the same for us?"
Lieutenant Vala, 93rd Quadranos, 2nd Company, 3rd Platoon's leader had a valid point but like Vala- showed quirky judgment in the timing of voicing thoughts.
Lieutenant Marosa, 4th Platoon's leader, had a moment to humor Vala's musings. The Gnerl squadrons had broken off opening the path for the Quadranos, but the Queadlunn Rau while carrying a greater quantity of missiles into battle than the Gnerl carried that quantity in short range missiles. They would have to close the range more before they could pick up where the Fighter Pods had left off, so Marosa had that time at least.
"The males would as likely leave us to die as risk their skins to help. Why do we have to charge in to save them?"
Marosa knew that the statement had been heard if not paid attention to by all, and was a sentiment that was shared by many of her own Quadranos and Vala's. The best answer, that all knew and that would have applied even if the saving of the males was blatantly contrary to the best interest of the females- the answer being that this was what they had been ordered to do, and Quadranos always followed orders to their successful completion.
Marosa, having doubts herself, still felt obliged to offer the more pragmatic answer.
"The Invid would definitely kill us. I'd rather take my chances with the males."
"At least you know exactly where you stand with the Invid.", Vala countered, a valid point as always.
Marosa noted that there would be targets coming into range in seconds- Invid that were not likely distracted by such debates.
"We can pick this up later.", Marosa said.
From within the windowless confines of her Queadlunn Rau combat suit, Lt. Marosa's view of the battlespace was provided by the integrated images projected onto the inside of her helmet visor. Tracking with the movements of her head the Quadrano was provided with visibility of the battlespace she required with the additional augmentation of inputs from her suit's navigational, sensory, combat, and status systems. Quadranos rarely had to look at the redundant screens and displays that lined the interior of the combat suit's chest cavity, and even less frequently had to interact with the control panels.
An Invid unit in platoon's strength entered the range of Marosa's missiles, the target indicator boxes shown to Marosa flashed to tell her so. The pilot did not feel the abrupt motion as the combat suit's shoulder launchers snapped open to release an angry swarm of weapons onto the headlong-charging Invid. Marosa was able to make out the details of her enemies- the contour lines of the Troopers' bodies, and the exposed cutting edges of their open pincer claws- as the missile swarm enveloped and then collapsed upon the Invid unit.
Crustacean-like bodies were pulverized and their remains scattered in the weightlessness of the void by the powerful detonation of missile warheads. As similar attacks from other Quadranos of both Marosa's platoon and others found home, the lieutenant had to suddenly climb to dodge the whirling debris. No random collision was likely to cause structural damage to the Queadlunn Rau suit, or to compromise the pressurized layers of the suit- but entering the fray with Invid was not a time to lose the suit's sensor eye or crowning communications antennas to a chunk of the vanquished.
"What are we even doing here?", Vala asked. Like Marosa, she and her platoon had moved to within missile range, released their weapons, and then disengaged with a near 90ْْ change of direction into the vertical, a maneuver that would have been impossible for either a Gnerl or any Zentraedi mecha. Within their Queadlunn Rau suits, and cushioned by a limited inertial dampening system, the Quadranos were able to withstand the abrupt directional changes made possible by their machines' vectored thrust boosters.
"A show of brute force.", Lt. Etmal, of Marosa's command responded. Quick to find the most pragmatic if not the most paranoid explanation to any issue or situation, Etmal was at least reliable to have her facts in order.
"It's all that the males understand."
Marosa watched as the rest of her platoon joined her high above the mass of Invid that had now been cut off from both the disc-like transport ships that had brought them to the battle, and the male supply and support vessels they had been intending to attack. Gnerl and Quadrano units were flying circuits about the swarm, picking off units or individual Invid as they tried to escape the quickly-erected snare that the 417th Grand Army had caught them in.
The first waves of female Regults were engaging now. Though the Regult Combat Pod was primarily intended for battles waged on solid ground, its potential to be effective in space combat in mass had not been lost on its designers. Propelled by a single thruster below the pilot's compartment and situated in the junction box of the hip joints, the pod was comparably fast as its Invid opponents, and fairly maneuverable though somewhat odd-looking as it flew through the void with its legs extended at a wide stance that made the most of their maneuvering thrusters.
True to the central concept of the Regult, it was not the appearance or the effectiveness of the single machine that was intended to gain favorable results in battle- on ground or in space. It was the cumulative effort, which was to say the cumulative firepower of Regults by the hundreds, thousands, or more that dealt crushing blows to those who opposed the Zentraedi.
Flying in formation almost exactly as they would advance on the ground, though making use of the ability to stagger their ranks in the vertical, the Regult units waded head-first into the Invid behind a dense and withering barrage of particle beam fire. A tide of explosions, each showing the end of an Invid Scout or Trooper rolled back away from the advance of the Regults and showed the path they were cutting through the Invid center. The battle would follow a predictable pattern that Lt. Marosa had seen before- the Invid flanks would collapse in on the fist of Regults driving through them, and would be met by the guns of the outer ranks with some defensive effectiveness. Some warriors would be lost, but so long as the Regults retained their forward momentum, they would smash their way through the Invid, separate from the enemy, and return to plow through again in the same manner. The method was unsophisticated but effective, and with the last Hive in the system apparently destroyed, the warriors lost would be considered by the higher levels of command as an acceptable exchange for uncontested victory.
So was the perspective of the higher echelons of command.
"We should make it a good showing then.", Marosa said, building upon Etmal's supposition, "Invid- company strength coming up from zero-three-zero low. Let's get into them!"
Marosa had hardly finished when her platoon and Vala's were both in a dive to aide in maintaining containment of the Invid.
Action General Syron's face was as stoic as ever, as Alzyha had come to expect from him, as his image appeared on the viewscreen over the command deck to report. Expressionless as it was, Alzyha knew his favorite field commander well enough to recognize the meaningful glint of the eyes- the energy behind them that had only one meaning.
"Lord", Syron said evenly but with a hint of pride that may have been lost on any but Alzyha, "The Invid Hive has been neutralized- Tammus 7 is secure."
The last of a weight could be felt to lift collectively off the officers and staff of the command deck. The ship's tactical display showed that the females of the 417th were making impressive progress in reducing the main body of the failed Invid counterstrike against the 604th's fleet. Alzyha internally gave them their due measure of respect as they were performing at least as efficiently as he had ever seen his own warriors perform against a comparable force- perhaps better. Still, even with the battle grinding to its now inevitable conclusion, there was still work to be done.
The females had been successful in isolating and engaging the bulk of the Invid that had ventured out on the raid against the 604th, but those aliens that had come in contact with Alzyha's warships and support vessels before the female intervention were still in many cases actively engaged with those units. Besieged vessels were scattered through the orbital altitudes, the blaze of desperate fighting giving them a hellish aura.
"Redirect our available Gnerl squadrons to directly support our fleet units.", Alzyha instructed, "Support priority is for viable or salvageable vessels."
The order from the General was clear in implication to those on the command deck. Effort would only be expended on those vessels that had promise of quickly rejoining and functioning within the fleet. Those not making the cut would either be left to Fate's disposition, or be obliterated in the same gun barrage that was sure to follow with the intention of leaving no Invid presence in the Zentraedi wake.
Diseased or injured limbs sometimes had to be severed from the body lest they sap the greater health and strength.
"Lord", said the communications officer to General Alzyha, "There is an incoming message from the female commanding general."
Alzyha and Brenik traded brief, questioning glances with one another. Even with the battle dwindling, standard operational practice was for coordination between forces to occur at the operational levels. Upper command rarely had direct interaction.
"Odd.", Brenik noted.
"On screen.", Alzyha ordered, nodding his agreement to his executive officer's comment.
For the second time, Bohen's image appeared over the command deck. Her expression was calm as before, but had a mark of urgency without being dire. Alzyha's interest was building.
"General Alzyha", Bohen said cordially, "When these affairs are concluded to your satisfaction, it would be my duty and honor to seek an audience with you and your immediate staff aboard your flagship. We must have a general information exchange, and there are critical issues we must discuss."
Alzyha was prompt but cautious to reply, "Agreed. At the first available moment following the securing of my fleet. My command will make arrangements with yours."
Bohen nodded, "Very good. I look forward to meeting with you."
General Bohen's image disappeared abruptly and somewhat less gracefully than her salutation.
There was no need for either Alzyha or Brenik to express to the other the uneasiness they were both feeling. Face-to-face meetings between high level commanders were rare, nearly unheard of between flag officers of a male and a female army. Bohen was showing that she was either in possession of or in need of some vital information. What part he would play, provider or recipient, Alzyha could only speculate.
"I believe that negates our fear of a female coup within the Empire.", Brenik said in a volume low enough to only be heard by Alzyha, "At least of a successful one. She does not act as one in a position of superiority."
"I agree.", Alzyha said, "Fate seems to have spared us this day, and I suspect our meeting with General Bohen may give us some insight as to why. I trust Fate that it is to serve some greater purpose."