This is the third in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events detailed in the first two stories, the Incident at Ko'Grappa and the Incident at Avalon and it is followed by Escape From Avalon--Part Two, Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu, The Council of Chozanti, The Battle of the Jade Mirror--Part One and The Battle of the Jade Mirror--Part Two. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.
These chapters and more are contained within a novel released as part of the Collectors Edition.
Cai Rui let the pack roar at full burn for ninety seconds before he relented. The HUD said that he had traveled nearly two thousand meters. Slowly he throttled back on the fuel, letting himself sail in a low, pulsing arc over the ice-torn plateau. Scanning for a clearing in the rubble below, he finally let himself land on the curving lip of a lateral moraine with a view of the surrounding plain. He would have at least a few seconds to react, even if they encircled him – or so he hoped.
He toggled his microphone. “Barnswallow, this is Gold Five. We are under attack. Prepare for launch. All units: scramble for evac immediately.”
The response was slow in coming, shredded by bursts of static, but it was still possible to make out the pilot’s western hemisphere drawl. “Roger on sitrep, Gold Five,” she said. “But that’s a nega–tory on lift–off. Repeat, nega–tory on lift–off.”
Cai Rui switched to the private channel irritably. “What do you mean, negative? We need to get the hell out of here!”
“Yep. Sin loi for us, chief. Barn is on fire. Been tryin’ to get through to you for the last ten minutes, but our long-range comm is jammed from above. We’ve got two eagles in the sky, weapons hot. Judgin’ by the fireworks I’d say they got gauss PD and grasslights at the least.”
Cai Rui looked up, sweeping the palms of his gloves over the smeared face-plate of his helmet, clearing the thin film of red ice. Through the turbulent morning sandstorm he could see the faint flicker of green and blue light as ships above exchanged fire. “An orbital attack?” he said, incredulous. “But we had the latest scan. There were no other ships in this quadrant. No one could have reached us that fast. It’s impossible–“
The pilot’s voice broke in again, ironically amused. “I ain’t sayin’ it’s possible. Just that it’s happenin’. I got the message when our friends turned up. Two birds, cruiser size – they’re nkc. Maybe some smaller support vessels, too. Don’t know. That’s all I got before they started jamming us.” She paused. “Can’t get a word back from the barn, but I don’t think they can take that kind of punishment for–“
The fireball cut off her words, the unmistakable spreading lotus of oxygen–nitrogen aflame. For a long moment his earbuds hissed and moaned in silence. “Yeah,” she said at last. “Guess that’s that.”
Cai Rui turned toward the east. In the distance he could see the dark shapes moving, indistinct but swift, loping around the boulders. They covered ground at appalling speed. There were at least a hundred, moving in clumps of five or six – squads, perhaps.
His mind moved swiftly, thoughts sliding into position like the beads of the abacus. Two cruisers. No known configuration. Employing either an unknown means of propulsion or an unknown method of avoiding detection – possibly both.
A distress signal sent as bait, drawing out a small Sol Force contingent to a distant, peripheral planet. For months, there had not been a single message on the SolForce wire which was not filtered by his office for the requested keywords. He had eyes and ears within Tarkasian space as well – combing reports, listening to stories at the stardocks and ports, collecting tales from frightened colonists, drunken traders, taciturn smugglers and black marketeers.
He could still remember the words on the wire: “Calling all SolForce vessels. Slaver attack at Avalon. Please assist.” Nothing more, but it was the first solid lead he had been given since Ko’Grappa. Of course he had gone to check it out personally.
And stepped into the waiting arms of a demon that knew his name.
He toggled the comm. “Barnswallow, prepare for lift–off.” He set his scope to maximum zoom, trying to make out the shape of the enemy approaching – at 500 meters they were still moving too fast from one patch of cover to the next to get a solid image. The one thing he could say for certain was that they ran on all fours, a predatory leaping gallop that sent a shiver down his spine.
Her voice carried the edge of angry frustration. “We got nowhere to go, sir. Soon as I fire up these engines, we’re gonna be visible from orbit. We’ll be the only duck in a shootin’ gallery.”
“Trust me, lieutenant. We will all be happier in the air. My eta is 3 minutes.” He turned and leaped from the moraine, augmenting his bounds with occasional bursts of the jetpack – trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and the voice that had crawled like a beetle within the folds of his brain.
Along the way, he muttered to his personal computer. “Cicero. Mappa strategia Avalonae.” Obligingly, the suit laid a transparency over his view, assets marked in red. He had always been a careful man, but there were many worlds in the empire, and he had viewed so many schematics for so many missions that just this once, he had to re–check – if only to be certain that desperation had not supplied him with a false hope.
His last bound carried him to within 20 meters of the shuttle; his support platoon had taken up a circle of firing positions around the craft. “Good to see you in one piece, Gold Five.” Gardner’s voice, rising from his crouch with a hand raised in greeting. “Thought we might lose you back there.”
He looked into the boy’s eyes and nodded. “Gold Six is gone,” he said quietly. He put his glove to his blood–spattered chestplate. “She saved my life. Fall out, Nineteen. Everyone into the shuttle.” He stood on the ramp and waited until all six Marines had entered before he stepped inside and dropped the hatch.
The pilot was already strapped into her cockpit. She hadn’t yet fired the engine. He dropped into the co-pilot’s seat beside her, and she looked across at him. “You sure about this, commander—?”
“Yes.” He took the data line from the armrest beside him and plugged it into his suit, downloading his map into her console. The site he had selected was already tagged in red. “This is a strategic map of the system. It is, of course, highly classified. We need to reach these coordinates.” He tapped her navigation screen with his fingertip. “In one piece. We may be fired upon, from orbit and possibly from the ground. I assume you know the maximum elevation we can attain and still avoid laser lock from space.”
She paled. “It’s fifty meters. Maybe a hundred, in this storm?”
“Then I would suggest you fly the nap, unless you care to bet our lives on the weather.”
She grinned, reaching for the ignition. “Saddle up, soldiers,” she said, looking over her shoulder to the Marines in the back. “We’re in for a sporty flight!”
The men hurried into their flight webs, and Cai Rui quickly buckled himself into the seat. The woman was mad, of course, like all pilots. She looked forward to a potentially lethal rush at hundreds of miles an hour over the skin of the planet’s surface, buffeted by savage cross winds and blowing sand and ice, dodging unpredictable formations of rock and fusillades of gauss flack from above. This would be her idea of a “good time”.
Cai Rui, although he preferred to err on the side of her madness, was not nearly so certain that all of these dangerous precautions were necessary. There were other, darker possibilities. As the shuttle rose from the ground, he switched his comm to ground channel and picked a random scramble. “All units. This is Gold Five. It is time for a debriefing. Acknowledge transmission NV.”
He waited for all six lights on the HUD to blink affirmative. “Information on this mission is delivered on a Need–to–Know basis. Here are the things that you officially Need to Know.
“One: our support vessel in orbit has been attacked and probably destroyed. Long-range communications are being jammed at the system level. Even if the Hyperion managed to send out a distress call to SolForce before they were jammed, reinforcements could not arrive here for several days. We have to assume that we are on our own.
“Two: We are about to become the first SolForce personnel ever to survive contact with a new alien race. The creatures we are up against are not Hivers, Tarka or Liir. We don’t know much about them – but today we’ve discovered that they don’t need a spacesuit in ground conditions like these. And they have ships capable of taking down a SolForce cruiser with all hands.”
He let this sink in for a moment before he continued. “Those of you who have been with me on previous missions have probably already begun to put two and two together yourselves. We don’t know what this race calls itself, but you have probably heard them called ‘slavers’. The few who have seen the aftermath of their attacks call them 'Rippers' – today I found out why. Whatever they are, they’ve got huge claws. Very strong, very fast. And big.”
One of the lights on the HUD flashed twice. “Yes, Black Fifteen?”
“How big is ‘big’, sir?” The Marine’s voice had lifted half an octave with tension. “Are we talking bigger than a Daddy Croc or a Warbug?”
Cai Rui hesitated. “I didn’t ask it to step onto the scales, private. It looked about the size of a Hiver Warrior or a Changed Tarka, yes. But I will admit that I couldn’t see very well, with my helmet covered in blood.”
The boat was accelerating now, spires of ice and rock flying by at terrifying speed. In the distance behind them, there was a series of deep, reverberating thuds.
“Holy moly,” someone said. “What are they doing back there? Did you see those things hit? They were the size of a truck at lea—”
The only warning was the quick tilt of her helmet; suddenly the shuttle slammed into a bank. It shuddered with the nearness of the collision as something the size of a destroyer passed within inches of the stern.
The boom of impact rocked the shuttle. Cai Rui, his portside seat suddenly parallel to the ground, winced as his window was hammered by the upward plume of debris.
“What the HELL did they just throw at us!? What the HELL kind of weapon is that!?” The pilot continued her turning circle, engines screaming with strain.
Cai Rui looked down through the billowing sand, rapidly clearing before the onslaught of the wind. There was a significant impact crater below, but it was clear that the missile, whatever it was, had not hit at full terminal velocity. It had been some sort of ship or vessel, reduced now to a circular deposit of scrap — the colorful contents of the hold scattered over the icy plain.
Something within him seemed to go very still. “Lieutenant, make another pass.”
“Why, so they can throw another damn building at me? Are you crazy?”
“Do as I say,” Cai Rui said quietly.
With an inarticulate cry of frustration, the pilot banked again, circling back over the impact crater.
“Hold steady,” he said. “Camera on.” The image panned over the interior of his face–plate, linked to the flight recorder of the shuttle. “Magnify.”
There was silence for a few moments, finally broken by a horrified whisper. “My God. Look at all the people.”
It was Gardner’s voice; Cai Rui had forgotten that his suit was broadcasting. All six Marines and the pilot were looking down on the strewn field of corpses – the naked dead of a dozen worlds.
Scattered among the wreckage there were Hivers, Humans and Tarka together – looking more closely, he could even see a few pitiful Liir. The stunned pilot had slowed, without orders, pausing at a hover. The cameras panned over the carnage, slowly zooming in, clarifying, steadying the image. Even in death, these gaunt bodies and haunted faces were eloquent of a vast and prolonged suffering.
“Deus misereatur,” he murmured softly.
Something stirred among the dead. “Follow motion,” he said, having the camera track the dark shape that feebly crawled among the broken flesh and steel. There in the wreckage was a twisted, shattered form, dragging itself by one heavy claw toward the shelter of a rock to die. Four limbs. Covered with hair. Broken jaws hanging wide in agony – equipped with ferocious rending fangs. A large predator, born to kill.
“Behold the enemy,” he said. “We’re not seeing him at his best, but–“
The creature rolled over onto its back, its body convulsing in pain. “Seeing her at her best, sir,” one of the women said. “That one’s a female.”
The beast was now still, its massive chest no longer rising — and still the pilot hovered, her face rapt with horrified fascination. “Her belly is still movin’,” she croaked. “There’s something inside her.”
Cai Rui frowned. “Maximum magnification.” Something indeed seemed to be stirring under the skin of the slaver female – there was some kind of slit in her abdomen, filled with restless lumps.
“Gah!” The Marines flinched as the worms burst forth, two bloody heads emerging from twin holes in the hairy carcass. They retreated rapidly into the bloody tunnels they had made, as if to flee the cold.
Cai Rui swallowed his gorge, nauseated. “I believe we’ve seen enough. Camera off. Move on, lieutenant. We won’t have much time.”
The pilot leveled off, her face bathed with sweat. “They weren’t really trying to hit us, were they. That wasn’t about us at all.”
“I don’t think so, no,” Cai Rui said – somewhat reluctantly. “I don’t believe they would deliberately fire on this vessel.”
She shuddered. “What the hell did they crash all those ships for? It must have been at least four went down – that can’t have been an accident.”
“I don’t know, lieutenant.” But in his mind, the chorus of dead women was loud, words rising up in his consciousness and tumbling together.
The Rippers are back.
My God, they’re everywhere.
We had no idea what they were, until they started working together.
The local rats really make short work of anything that’s just lying around – they’ll eat anything that resembles food or garbage.
Nasty things, like weasels.
My God, they’ve gotten so big…
Jimmy, no. Don’t open the…hatch.