Chapter Twelve - A hero has fallen.

Aboard Kas'Qoolaran

Charra'Tiil could barely contain her horror when she heard the news. The Lord's gamble hadn't paid off. Hundreds of thousands of Vasari had perished in the hastily-planned attempt to seize control of the Nexus, along with the ships. Only a small gaggle of barely serviceable wrecks returned, but many ground troops remained stranded on Nexus, with no way out, their only options being surrendering or fighting to the last. In completely childish anger, the Lord ordered the survivors be shot down. This had sent great waves of dissent through the Fleet, and though it was subtle, the rebellion was slowly taking shape. When she delivered the news to Tala'Hiri, the Asahi smiled bitterly "So, the humans have gained new allies? It is sad that your leader can't comprehend the idea of diplomacy." Charra nodded somberly "Indeed. He isn't even realising his campaign agains the Coalition and Asli has gone awry. His pride has been dealt a terrible blow, but he refuses to admit defeat. I'm all alone now. My father perished in the battle. The Lord may not realize it yet, but he has sown the seeds for a new Vasari government. There is much talk of rebellion, quiet as it is." Tala'Hiri shook her head "Let us not dwell on this topic any longer. You wish to hear my tales?" Charra nodded eagerly. The Asahi often told stories which she proudly named Tales of the Old, when universe was young and empty, when the Asahi already travelled through space. Other slaves imprisoned there also listened to her, finding hope in what she told. She often sang when there were no Vasari around, her quiet but steady voice echoing in the cavernous hall. Other slaves would often hum along, finding solace in the strange, haunting melody, for it was all too easy to lose your sanity in their surroundings. Whenever Lord deemed it 'worthy of his time' to mock her, he left rather hastily. Truth be told, he didn't know what was worse - the gaunt, blank looks from the slaves, or the baleful glare of the demigod imprisoned among them. He dreamt up grand plans that balanced on the edge of insanity. These were dark times for the simple folk of the Fleet, for their tyrannical ruler cared little for their comfort. Charra would occasionally bringing snippets of news, big or not. She had formed a new Vasari government in great secrecy, all that had to be done was taking out the Lord and his most loyal followers. But that would be pointless to try at the moment. So they simply bade their time and waited.

Alpha base, Nexus

Local time - 1300 hours

The ground shook as the massive platform slowly rose from the ground, and Lieia's eyebrows migrated to her hairline. The transport plane simply screamed HUGE from every viewpoint. To her, it reminded of the planes when humanity still was confined to a single planet, going at each other with stones and cudgels. Big, thick wings were perched atop its hull, with twenty-four massive propellers sitting in front of the engines. Numerous, beefy wheels held the enormous weight of the plane. With a groaning judder, the ramp in the transport's side lowered and the roughly two thousand troops and assorted vehicles rumbled their way inside the transport. The sight reminded her of a native beast from Linv. It was very short, but very wide. This brought a memory to her mind.

Cara laughed "How does it chew?"

Lieia responded "Armnbrarnmbnarbm! Just throws its face on its food over and over again. It has only two teeth though. Kinda mashes it between those two."

Cara lost her self-composure, rolling around in the grass.

(With apologies to Criken.)

Lieia smiled sadly at the years-old memory. She saw Naela jog up to her, and examined the bulky suit of armour she was donning. It complimented her body shape nicely, but the additional armouring clearly showed that it wasn't just for looks. Several shiny guns were mag-locked to her back. Lieia shouted over the din "Lookin' good, girl! You look like you could go and wage a private war of your own! Come on, let's get on board." They leapt on top of a tank that rumbled past, hitching a ride in the cavernous transport, just as the loading had been finished. The door behind them swung shut just as the tanks cut their engines. Naela jumped off, and after joining up with her own squad, the massive engines in the plane's wings coughed to life, and the muffled drone resonated through the hull. A gentle lurch indicated that the massive transport gained speed as it took off, its bulk cutting through air, and the troops it carried slowly climbed in their racks, for the drift through space would take a long while. After a while, the transport's AI indicated they were entering vacuum. The engines cut out, and with a series of course corrections, they drifted towards a new ward of the Nexus.

Many, many hours later

Approaching drop zone

A couple of GI troopers almost fell over as an explosion nearby rocked the planes, causing the superstructure to groan. A gigantic ramp was opening at the rear, and the tanks had already lined up for their drop. A weathered old man was shouting in a microphone, his voice nearly drowning out the other noises, but the words were still lost to the troops as they already knew what to do - lock on your grav-chute, punch in your LZ co-ords, and gittcher fat ass outta the transport! Simple and short. The tanks rolled out, a number of troops were clinging to them, hollering wildly:

"'Ere we go, 'ere we go, when we'll get there, no-one knows!"

(Sorry Geimz Werkshoop. Naah, not really.)

The few EXOs that were present lumbered out of the plane, and the transport veered off, back towards the base, as the Vasari anti-air batteries kept firing, trying to reach the plane before it got out of their range. Lieia fell downwards, spread-eagling herself to keep stable. A tank fell past her, and she heard another bit of the mad shouting "-get there, no-one knows!" The voice was quickly drowned out as the tank disappeared in a cloud, just as its grav-chutes kicked in, then shot past her upwards.

"-we go, when-"

She saw the ground below approach her rapidly and she hit the dirt like a boss. Not a second had passed when troops landed around her, with one of the tanks landing meters away from her, engine roaring already as it sent a pair of 125 mm HEIAP(High-explosive, Incendiary, Armor-Piercing) shells towards one of the Vasari bunkers. A pair of M62 Coyotes shot past, their turrets spewing DU rounds at a Vasari Howler gunship. They managed to clip one of its turbofans sending it to ground in a ball of fire, but a heavy disintegrator cannon managed to melt a hole in one of the jeeps, sending them in a tumble. Before the dazed troops could get out, the cannon fired again, swiftly ending their lives. A second later, three missiles slammed in the gun emplacement, wrecking the wall, courtesy of a missile team. The plane had landed them just outside the Vasari entrenchments. Everyone knew the objective: Vasari had somehow taken control of Nexus's ground turrets, shredding several dozen ships before they got out of range, effectively denying the ground troops any support. Also, several Severun cruisers had jammed the long-range comms, rendering the Asli and TEC forces on ground unable to communicate with their ships in orbit. Orders were to destroy all Vasari forces and equipment in the immediate vicinity.

Lieia unslung her rifle and charged forward, leading the troops into the breach, where they were met by withering gunfire. A dozen troops went down, while the others huddled behind EXOs, whose armoured and shielded bulk offered some protection. Seventy meters away, a section of the wall caved in, and one of the TEC's super-heavy tanks surged forward, the T-192 XBT. The rocket pods on its turrets screamed, sending a deadly flurry of missiles towards the gun nests, eliminating some of the anti-infantry threats. Its arrival helped embolden the soldiers, and with a roar, they rushed forwards, despite the Vasari fighting tooth and nail to defend their base. The T-192's own machine guns spoke, sending hails of incendiary ordnance forwards. A SAM turret on it dealt with what few aircraft the Vasari had stationed there, while it's armour and shields soaked up the damage directed towards it. A group of Asli Alkor light tanks were engaged with their Vasari counterparts, giving tankbuster teams help in eradicating the enemy anti-armour capability. The battle was proceeding well, but the casualties were still mounting. A makeshift field hospital was constructed. While small, it had everything needed, including organ cloners and blood farms. Despite, the fierce resistance, the battle continued. A mortar team lobbed bunker-buster shells relentlessly somewhere nearby, while the pained moans of the injured permeated the air.

Naela ducked under the wicked-looking sword, letting Skitch tackle the Vasari officer to ground, and as soon as she stood up, Naela gunned the alien down. Skid, Elaya and Tiirah jogged up to her, with Lieia and the rest of Naela's squad in tow "We're doing good, but we should find the command center here. I don't think the Vasari are just going to give up." As if reinforce the point, another of the Asli tanks went up in flames, the noise of the explosion quickly drowned out in the fierce battle. Naela grimaced; even after months of warfare, seeing her kin fall in battle was like another dagger in her heart. Her fellow Asli fought selflessly, valiantly and tirelessly, despite their peaceful nature. They were patient folk, but even their patience had its limits, and woe to the ingorant fools who would try to impose their will upon them. And said ignorant fools were on their last leg here, some had even surrendered, realising at last that there was no way out. In the fading light of the sunset, the gunfire gradually stopped as the Vasari fortifications were taken after seventeen hours of fierce fighting. They'd won, but at a terrible cost. More than a third of the troops were dead, even more were heavily injured, leaving only 481 soldiers fit for combat. Their motor pool had also taken a beating, with half of the tanks out of commission. Even the mighty T-192 was labouring, its engines damaged, turrets barely operational, most of the ammo spent. Everyone was impatient, waiting for the dropships to arrive. As they could hear the distant hum of the transports gradually grow louder, they cheered, knowing they'd get a well-deserved R&R back at Alpha base.

Naela helped Skid get in the dropship, setting the wounded man down on one of the cots, letting the medics plug him up to the life support equipment. She turned around and saw Skitch wave to her frantically from atop a ruined gunship, beckoning her to come over. Wondering briefly what was going on, she jogged over to her subordinate "What have you got for me, Skitch? I though we were in the clear." Skitch frowned "I really don't know, ma'am. Maybe I'm just seeing things. But we should check it out, just in case. Woudn't want to have any stragglers trying to kill us. It'd kinda suck." Nodding mutely, Naela radioed for some support and minutes later, they set off to find out the source of Skitch's unease.

Skitch looked around, feeling invisible eyes glaring down on her from all around and rechecked her rifle. Around her, others were similarly creeped out, their eyes darting from one tree to other, inspecting any possible ambush positions. Sensors brought up nothing, but that didn't ease the tension. Naela scanned her surroundings, but found nothing. Sighing relievedly, she holstered her rifle and sounded the all-clear signal and contacted the HQ "We have finished our scan and it's all clear here. No Vasari or anyone else hiding in the bushes for that matter. Sholas out." As soon as she'd said the last words, a shrill howl rose around them and a dozen Vasari kamikazes rushed them. The next few seconds were filled with terrified screams and explosions, then it became silent once more. Naela stood up unsteadily and looked around distractedly. No Vasaris remained alive, their bodies shredded to bits by high-power explosives. The remains of seven TEC and Asli soldiers lay around. Her eyes glanced over them distractedly, until she saw one of them and for a moment, she thought she was actually knocked out.

No. No, this cannot be!

She rushed over to the motionless body of Skitch, kneeling down by her dead friend and grabbing her shoulders, taking note of the several shards of shrapnel that were stuck in her chest. She felt for a pulse, but knew it was pointless, yet she refused to believe it. Sobbing uncontrollably, she cradled the lifeless woman in her arms, heedless of anything around her.