Authors: David Sherman; Dan Cragg
Tags: #Military science fiction
Almost loud enough to drown out the crash of thunder in the middle distance, the raindrops spattered on the leaves. They slid and rolled down twigs, aggregated into dribbles and flowed into runnels, some of which reached major branches and flowed to tree trunks, where they sluiced to the ground below. Or they fell onto the heads, shoulders, and backs of Fighters who slip-walked stealthily through the sodden forest. The Fighters didn't mind the rain; they were genetically accustomed to being wet. Now and again one of them got so wet that the gill slits on his sides opened to extract life-giving oxygen from the water.
This, the Fighters minded. There wasn't enough water running over their bodies for their gills to function properly, and their lungs cut off when the gills began working.
The Leaders and Masters with the Fighters wore coverings over their gill slits so rainwater couldn't tease the slits open. But the receptors that lined their sides were exposed on all the aliens, so they easily sensed the listening posts the defenders of Haven had established.
In columns of twenty Fighters each, each column headed by a Leader, four hundred Fighters penetrated the outer line of listening posts. A Master followed every fourth column, and an Over Master was in overall command. The Over Master didn't expect to have much to do on this raid. It was well-planned, and he had drilled his Masters thoroughly. Their first task was to assemble the columns of fighters behind the line of listening posts, in front of a section manned by the regiment of the Army of the Lord that was led by Earthman Marines newly arrived on the mudball they called Kingdom. The Great Master in command of the Kingdom operation sought to instill fear in the newly arrived Marines. The Army of the Lord was already terrified. The Earthman Marines who had been fighting for months were sorely wounded, with many casualties, and their morale suffered.
The Over Master listened with satisfaction to the splash and thunder of the storm; so much noise totally masked the sounds made by his Fighters.
"Acting Colonel Deacon, sir?" Second Acolyte Burningbush, assistant intelligence officer for the 842nd Defense Garrison, stood in the doorway of the garrison's situation room. He darted an apologetic glance at Colonel Deacon Hosanna, the proper commander of the garrison.
"Come." Ensign Wolfe, commander of the second platoon, Company B, 26th Fleet Initial Strike Team, Confederation Marine Corps, didn't look up from the situation reports he was reviewing with the officer whose command he held.
"Sir, the LPs are reporting anomalies." Burningbush hesitantly held out a thin sheaf of papers, not sure whether to give them to his real commander or to the infidel usurper.
Hosanna's face was expressionless as he inclined his head, meaning Burningbush was to give the papers to Wolfe.
"What kind of anomalies?" Wolfe muttered as he took the papers. He skimmed them quickly, then read again more slowly. "Full alert," he said halfway through. "All hands. Everybody awake and in fighting positions."
"Why?" Hosanna demanded. "Don't you know what this is?" He read the papers over Wolfe's shoulder. He saw the anomalies, small figures moving toward the city, and assumed they were lizard- or small mammal-like animals moving to higher ground from flooded-out burrows, and he said as much.
"Colonel Deacon, have you ever seen the recordings of the traces made by those creatures?" Wolfe replied, looking at the Kingdomite commander.
Hosanna blinked. Of course he'd seen the electronic signs of migrating animals.
"I have. It was part of the orientation for all officers and noncommissioned officers of 26th FIST when we first arrived. The Skinks have a lower body temperature than humans, they give infra signals just like smaller animals." He looked directly at Second Acolyte Burningbush. "Why haven't you passed the order yet?
Do it. Now!"
The junior Kingdomite officer jumped at the shouted word. He cast a fearful glance at his rightful commander as he darted out of the room.
"You may be right," Wolfe said harshly to Hosanna, "but I'd rather be embarrassed by ordering a full alert over a lemming run than be caught sleeping by a Skink attack."
"As you wish," Hosanna said, his face expressionless.
"If I'm right, I hope your men know how to fight," Wolfe growled. He checked to see that he had a fresh power pack in his sidearm as he strode from the situation room to the command center.
Alone, Hosanna allowed an expression to fix on his face. It was a combination of hatred and fury. Archbishop General Lambsblood had a great deal to answer for, putting the off-world infidel junior officers and swords in command of units of the Army of the Lord over more senior officers, officers pure in their faithfulness.
The Over Master transmitted a halt command to the Masters, the Masters relayed the command to the Leaders, the Leaders, in turn, halted the advance of the Fighters and moved them out of ragged columns into a staggered line facing the defensive positions.
The Fighters couldn't see the positions, and the receptors on their sides could not pinpoint the bunker locations; they weren't close enough. But they knew there were many camouflaged a short distance ahead because their Leaders had told them they would form on line when they were just out of firing range.
On command, the Fighters lowered themselves to the ground, elevated the nozzles of their weapons enough to keep them from getting clogged by anything on the ground, and began slithering forward through the muck. Very soon the largest bunkers became visible, hulking black-on-black out of the stygian darkness. After the Fighters entered their weapons' most extreme range, their side receptors began to detect minute electrical impulses radiating from the bunkers.
Suddenly, their receptors overloaded by massive electric discharges all along the defensive line, the Fighters were disoriented. Lights as brilliant as a small sun lit them up. Then surprised shouts came from the bunkers, followed quickly by fléchette fire studded with plasma bolts from the blasters of the few Confederation Marines positioned among the soldiers of the Army of the Lord.
The Over Master shrieked orders, Masters shrilled them in turn, Leaders screamed them out. The Fighters damped their receptors and regained equilibrium. They pointed the nozzles of their weapons at bunker apertures and fired. Many streams of a viscous, greenish fluid spattered harmlessly against bunker walls, but some disappeared though the apertures. Agonized cries echoed out. But attackers were quickly being shredded by fléchettes or flashed into vapor as the Fighters wriggled deeper into the mud and returned fire.
The Over Master transmitted an order; a half-dozen Large Ones on the right flank rose to their feet and charged a silenced bunker. One flashed into vapor when a plasma bolt grazed his shoulder. The flame that flared from him ignited a Large One who ran by too close. The other four made it past safely and ran around the bunker to its rear. They peeled off, two to one side, two to the other, and headed for the rear of those bunkers that still fought. One pair was quickly pulped by long bursts from fléchette machine guns in the second line of bunkers. The other pair made it into the entry tunnel of a bunker. They burst into the bunker room behind the soldiers firing through the apertures.
As he heard trampling behind him, a Marine spun around, brought his blaster to bear, squeezing the firing lever when he saw the color of the huge figures. The nearer one flashed up, but as fast as the Marine was, he wasn't fast enough. The nearer Large One had been swinging a sword at him even as the Marine spun about. After the Large One flared up and ignited its partner in the closed space, the sword completed its arc, chopping deeply into the Marine's neck. The heat from the two flaring Large Ones singed the defenders, sucked the oxygen from the air, and immediately burned their lungs.
As more of the defenders obeyed the commands of the Marines and opened up on the attackers, the rate of fire from the bunkers increased despite those no longer in the fight. The fire from the attackers slowly ebbed as their numbers dwindled under murderous fire from the bunkers.
On the attackers' left flank a Fighter with a genetic defect that afforded him more intelligence than Fighters were bred for realized that he and his mates would all be killed if something wasn't done about the lights. He understood that the Earthmen needed instruments to detect them when they couldn't see. It was time for him to take a risk. He raised his head and shoulders high enough to allow him to aim carefully, then fired a deliberate spray into the aperture of the bunker almost directly in front of him. Screams immediately came from the bunker, and fire ceased. He sprayed another, longer stream. The screaming stopped.
Pleased, the Fighter slithered to where he'd last known his Leader to be and came upon his body. He rooted through the Leader's belt pouches, found what he was looking for, stuck it into the waistband of his loincloth, and returned to his position.
"Fighters, to me!" he called out, his voice a raspy gargle.
Fighters to his left and his right looked at him uncertainly. He was a Fighter like them, not a Leader. But their Leader was dead, along with half of their mates. And this Fighter did call to them in the voice of a Leader. So, uncertain or not, they edged closer to him to hear and obey his next order.
"With me!" the Fighter shouted when he saw seven Fighters ready to follow him.
"Between the two dead bunkers. Now!"
He leaped to his feet and sprinted forward. Seven Fighters ran with him. Fléchette fire took down one. He skidded to a stop with his back against the nearer bunker, next to the aperture, and signaled one of the other Fighters to do the same at the other dead bunker. When that Fighter was in place, the Fighter who had taken charge signaled again and waited until he saw him spraying acid into the bunker. Then he stuck the nozzle of his own weapon through the aperture of his bunker and sprayed from side to side.
Satisfied that they'd truly killed anybody who might have been left alive, he signaled his remaining Fighters to lower themselves to the ground and spread out in the space between the dead bunkers. The low humps that were the second line of bunkers were just out of range. More important, he could see that the lamps were mounted on spindly towers between the two bunker lines.
He shouted, and the Fighters slithered forward until they were within range. He shouted more orders, and his six remaining Fighters began spraying two by two at three of the bunkers in the second line. He didn't fire with them; instead, he slithered toward the nearest lamp tower.
Withering fire converged on the Fighters he left behind, but one second-line bunker stopped firing, then another. No fire came near him, and soon he was in the dark, below the outward-pointing cone of the lamp's light. He found a thick cable lying on the ground, parallel to the line of lamp towers. Directly beneath the tower a cable ran upward from the cable on the ground. Emanations from it tingled his receptors. Slithering as low as he could, he followed the cable to the left until he reached a junction that led toward the second bunker line. He briefly pondered the situation, and decided it might be where to kill the lights. He backed off out of splashback range, then sprayed toward where the cable lay. Almost immediately, the changes in the discharges he sensed told him the acid was eating away the cable's insulating covering.
Without further warning, lightning flashed and deafening thunder cracked. When the Fighter who had taken charge could see again, the lamps were out. He smiled grimly and slithered as fast as he could back to where he'd left his companions. One of them was still alive, whimpering, one arm almost torn off. Hastily, he tore the breechcloth from a Fighter corpse and wrapped it around the arm to stanch the flow of life fluid.
"Go back," he ordered.
The wounded Fighter whimpered again, but crawled away.
The Fighter drew his dead close to each other, then got out the fire maker he'd taken from his Leader's corpse and touched it to one of the dead Fighters. Jumping up, he ran as fast as he could before the flare could catch him. Between the first two bunkers, he paused to flash the Fighter who'd fallen there. By the time he got back to his own position in the line, more flares were lighting the night. Masters and Leaders ordered the flaring of the dead and the withdrawal. Moving quickly, the intelligent Fighter flamed all the dead from his section, then joined the exodus. Three times before the attack force was safe from pursuing fire, he had to stop again to flame more of the newly dead.
The Over Master in command of the raid reported more than thirty bunkers killed, at least six of which held Earthman Marines. He further reported more than 250
Fighters along with seven Leaders and two Masters died gloriously in the great victory. He did not report the Fighter who assumed the role of a Leader. He didn't know what to make of that; a Fighter assuming the role of a Leader was unheard of.
Captain Conorado, just returned from his court-martial on Earth, nodded when his officers and senior noncommissioned officers finished bringing him up to date. "All right. Mac," he said, addressing Lieutenant Rokmonov, the assault platoon commander, "you take over third platoon. Wang," to Staff Sergeant Hyakowa, acting platoon commander of third platoon, "you're back to platoon sergeant again.