Legions of Sol
Book One

The Voltok Crusade
Chapter Two
August, 4030 – Galactic Calendar
Landing + 00:00 Hours

Ilya Volko jerked hard against his restraints as the heavy lander's retro thrusters kicked in to stop their freefall into the planet's atmosphere, flames wrapping around the ship. Metal groaned and the shrieking wind could be heard even through the hull. The seconds stretched into eternity as the shuddering worsened. Maximus Strand hunched over in his harness, eyes clenched tightly shut. A particularly jarring bump rattled the Armadillo APC in its clamps and Mila Turanova whooped with excitement.

"First deck Legionnaires, prepare for landing. Ten Minutes." The pilot's voice was barely discernable amidst a burst of static when the lander banked and the world titled dizzyingly to one side. Strand swore and swallowed hard, keeping a white-knuckled grip on the bars in front of him. Volko reached over to the console next to him to switch the view to the cameras on the rear of the ship, nearly blinding himself with the flare of the thrusters now filling the screen.

Volko's radio momentarily shrieked with interference before settling into clarity. "All callsigns, this is Whiskey-Zero-One. As soon as we land, Two-One and Two-Two will immediately debark on foot to secure a perimeter. Have your vehicles post on either side of the ramp. Two-Three, Two-Four, I know you guys are on the second level. As soon as you disembark I want you to scout an hour out in the canyons to our front."

"Five Minutes," the pilot said, interrupting Optio Matthew Sonso. "Engaging final landing sequence."

The shaking of the vessel worsened as the thrusters' power increased, bringing the ship almost to a hover before beginning the final descent. Sonso continued. "I'll speak with Monterio about having her scouts set up regular patrols. You've all been briefed on the nature of the enemy. Keep your eyes peeled and report anything that makes you uncomfortable. Whiskey-Zero-One out."

Strand yelped as the lander's shaking came to an abrupt and jarring end, sending his head smacking into his restraint harness. On the command view screen, the ship's thruster smoke hung heavily over the landing zone. A moment later the ramp popped open with a hiss and slammed to the ground with a clang that reverberated through the hull. Two squads of Legionnaires stormed down the ramp and onto the hard dirt surface of Pevek, spreading in opposite directions around the lander with their weapons raised. Two Armadillos followed close behind, descending to the surface side by side before maneuvering to either side of the ramp with their mounted cannons slowly panning across their sectors.

Two Ares Light Battle Tanks disembarked next, slowly driving about a hundred meters out. Metallic thuds echoed through the hull of Volko's Armadillo and Vehicle Commander Florensis' voice sounded over the interior radio.

"Lander crew just removed our clamps, Decanus. We and Decanus Therodein are first on the lift down."

Volko nodded and pinged his vest radio. "Two-Three, this is Two-Four"

A moment's pause. "Two-Four, Two-Three."

"Nathaniel, we're going to head into the canyons due North-North-East at two-two degrees. Satellite imagery from Thi Trinh shows a nearly parallel canyon a half kilometer south, with minor evidence of a road. Recommend you take that path. How copy? Over."

The APC jerked forward and slowly ambled toward the massive lift at the fore of the lander's cargo bay. A moment later a second vehicle pulled alongside and Nathaniel Therodein's voice replied. "I copy your heading two-two degrees North-North-East with parallel path a half kilometer south. Plan sounds good. Keep in touch Ilya. Two-Three out."

The lift clanged to a halt and the vehicle slowly drove through the bay and into Pevek's brutal sun. Volko fiddled with the command console a moment before the view switched to a satellite image tracking his Century's movement with red icons. He rotated the screen on its arm mount so it sat in the aisle between the rows of combat harnesses for easy viewing for everyone. He gestured to the top-down image of desolate canyons honeycombing the dry countryside.

"Welcome to Pevek, kids."

Landing + 00:45 Hours

"Decanus, we're coming up on our turn-around time."

Volko turned in place and glanced at the APC a few meters behind him. "Understood, Commander."

His squad marched in staggered columns with Strand at the front, four on either side, and Volko in the rear, just in front of their vehicle. The barren cliff walls stretched above them for at least 700 meters, to his estimate. His boots crunched softly on the soft dirt, kicking up small clouds of dead soil with every step. He glanced at the plateau high above him, one hand shielding himself from the vicious star beating down on them with its heat. A small bead of sweat tracked down his back underneath his armor. It was miserable.

"Florensis, contact Nathaniel and let him know we're about to head back. There's nothing out here."

"Yes, Decanus."

Turanova groaned, stamping her feet in the dirt. "I hate this shit. I hate this heat. I hate this barren wasteland. I hate this planet. Fucking forced march all the way out here and don't get to shoot a damn thing."

Strand slowed his pace until he marched alongside the sniper. He grinned at her. "If you want we can trade weapons, since marching with yours is so bad?" He unslung his machine gun and held out a hand for her rifle.

"Fuck off, Flight Sickness."

Volko chuckled and shook his head. "Alright kiddos, time to head back. Florensis, drop ramp and turn on the air con. Fuck this heat."

The Armadillo commander laughed in her headset. "What heat, sir? Feels good in here. Ramp clear."

The access ramp hit the dirt with a thud, clouding the air with dust and smoke. Volko waved his squad into the vehicle, smirking at their whoops of delight as the cold air inside washed over them. Squeezing past their legs, he forced his way to the front of the passenger bay and flipped on the interior lights just before the ramp clanged shut. Once again, he was bathed in pale green. The squad leader grabbed the command screen from the center of the aisle and rotated it to face him, changing the view to match the driver's. A moment later the Armadillo was reversing until there was enough room to turn around.

He grabbed the radio from the wall mount next to him. "Two-Three, this is Two-Four." Nothing but static answered him and he frowned. "Two-Three, Two-Four." A pause. "Anyone this Net, this is Two-Four. Radio Check."

He rapped on the on the commander's hatch and waited for Florensis to pop her head out. "Lauren, were you able to reach Nathaniel earlier?"

Her brows furrowed. "Yes sir, but it was pretty staticky. Could be the plateau is causing some hefty interference."

Volko nodded. "Good point. We'll have to see about dropping someone up there to set up a re-trans site."

The commander smirked. "So long as it's not us, sir. I don't fancy sitting on my ass for days on end."

"Isn't that what you'd be doing anyway?"

Florensis shut the hatch in his face and Volko chuckled. The ride back was rough, the driver appearing to aim for every bump and ridge on the path. Strand braced his arms against the harness in an effort to protect his head. Even Turanova gritted her teeth against it. Her brother leaned back in his seat next to the hellhole that connected the passenger bay to the driver's compartment and shouted at him.

"We are humans, not cargo, you imbecile. Cease your agonizing driving at once."

Artyom Malekov's laughter filtered over the interior comms and the ride instantly worsened as he sped up. Even the ever-tranquil Vivian Sol spat the vilest swear Volko had ever heard. The squad fell silent and stared at her for a brief moment in shock before she grinned and they erupted in laughter. Turanova slapped Sol's knee, her expression one of pure joy.

"I knew there was a soldier in you somewhere!" She nodded, smiling smugly. "I've taught you well."

Strand grimaced. "You taught her that? What the hell is wrong with you?"

There was no saving the sniper or her compatriot from the relentless teasing that followed. Volko watched them with a fatherly smile on his face, chuckling whenever one of them gave a particularly ruthless comment or joke. After that, the ride back was a blur. It wasn't until the ramp fell open and covered them in dust that any of them realized the journey was over.

The squad disembarked and Volko glanced around him at the small patrol base. Anthem MBTs were parked on each of the three corners. Ares Light Tanks and three of the Armadillo's sat spread across each side with two Anthem's doubled up on the south border to create a gate of sorts. Volko's vehicle was parked in the center of the patrol base next to one of Luna Monterio's Panther LRVs and a small camo net covering a communications array. A heavy lander sat just outside unloading construction drones to set up a proper operating base.

Volko stalked over to the comms array to join the cluster of command staff. He nodded to Optios Monterio and Severa before saluting Optio Sonso. "Sir, we didn't find shit. My Armadillo commander did make a point about the geography, however. It might be a good idea to set up re-trans locations across the plateau. I lost comms with Decanus Therodein just before we hit the turn-around."

Sonso nodded. "Nathaniel said about the same. I'm looking to get bunkers dropped across the area so we don't have to give up a vehicle. Monterio's already got a squad out, so we're just waiting for them to get back and we can start setting up regular patrols and figure out what the hell we're looking for."

The distinct sound of something very heavy falling through atmosphere distracted the group and everyone in the patrol base looked skyward. A drop pod wreathed in flame streaked across the sky. Sonso grinned when the flames petered out and the pod began to slow. Seconds later the object slammed into the ground in the distance, kicking up a massive cloud of dust and smoke. The heavy thud echoed across the badlands. "I guess our bunker request got approved. Monterio, can you reroute your squad to secure it?"

Optio Luna Monterio of the 6th Scout Century bent over the radio operator, whispering quietly into an ear piece. She glanced at Sonso and nodded. "Already on it. They'll have to scale the cliffs to get to it though. Think we could requisition some gunships from 7th Flight?"

Decanus Therodein raised a finger to interject. "If that's not possible, sirs, my squad noticed a couple of narrow paths lining our route. They were maybe wide enough for motorbikes, looked to go up pretty high. We didn't scout 'em out though."

Monterio stepped away from the radio, task complete. "I'll send my other squad out there. Haraldsen will stay on station at the bunker until we can get another group up. Any chance of regular army support? Maybe we could have them man the bunker system so we can move on."

Optio Severa from the 4th Armored shook his head. "FleetCom is deploying all regular army and navy units to Anadyr. If we set up a satellite control hub we might be able to convince Angel or Novaris Legions to spare a group for rotation though."

Scouts piled into the wireframe jeep next to the radio array and started the engine. The gunner at the rear of the vehicle saluted Monterio before they pulled off, fitting neatly between the two southern Anthems before turning east to follow Therodein's patrol route. Monterio watched them go with a solemn gaze before returning her attention to the group. Sonso clapped Severa on the shoulder.

"Not a bad idea, that. I'll put in a requisition order. Our forward base should be complete in a couple of hours. In the meantime, and this is for you 2nd Century folks, I want everyone to split into teams and start regular patrols. Two hours out with hourly updates to the bunker team. Monterio, what's their tag?"

"Decanus Haraldsen, Sylvan-Six-Five."

"You heard the lady. Keep four guys per squad here on security. You can rotate a vehicle out for the patrols, but the rest are on the perimeter with the tanks. Unless you have any questions, you're dismissed."

Volko and the other leaders from his century saluted their Optio and turned away from the makeshift command center. Monterio stepped around to his side and the two made their way to the back of his APC. The Decanus smirked and stepped over Turanova, who was currently laying across the access ramp with her head on her helmet and an arm slung over her eyes. Once inside the vehicle, he turned and shoved her down the ramp with his boot to the delight of the squad behind him. The sniper shrieked once before hitting the dirt, coughing and sputtering in the instant dust cloud that enveloped her.

After navigating his way through the forest of legs and gear, he flicked on the command monitor and pulled up a grid overlay of the surrounding area. "Time to go to work kids. Maximus, Sam, and Boris: your teams get first patrol. You'll be going two hours into the canyons at points two-three, two-four, and two-six respectively. Hourly updates will go to Sylvan-Six-Five at the re-trans bunker on the plateau, now marked reference Bravo-One. I know we haven't found anything yet, but keep an eye out, all right? These things are deadly in the extreme. With a little luck we'll find our civilians and get the hell out of here by the end of the week. Hákon, you're on the west perimeter with Holly. Mila, you and I are on the south. Hop to it, kids."

Monterio stood aside while the vehicle emptied before joining Volko and Turanova on the walk to their assigned positions. She glanced sidelong at the Decanus and smiled. "It's good to be in the field again. I'm pleased we were assigned to the same force."

Volko shrugged and grinned. "Knowing you, you'd have made your way over here eventually anyway. But you're right. It'll be nice having you nearby for the time being."

Turanova grabbed a sandbag from next to the Armadillo and squeezed her way between the two. "Excuse me ma, but pa and I have some very important security work to do."

Volko chuckled and Monterio feigned offense. "Why did she call me ma?"

The sniper trudged ahead of them and tossed the sandbag to the ground, waiting in annoyance for the dust to settle before propping herself up behind it and sighting down her weapon. Volko shrugged and unslung his carbine. "Because I call them my kids. She's right though. Come on, I need to get in position."

The Decanus dropped to the ground next to his marksman, grinning as she spat in an attempt to clear her mouth of the dirt. Optio Monterio stood at his feet, a slight smile turning the corners of her mouth. A moment later the peaceful quiet was shattered by the echo of a distant explosion. All eyes in the patrol base turned north to the plume of black smoke now rising into the sky. Just as the Optio grabbed her radio, it erupted in static and screams. The voice abruptly cut out and the transmission washed away. She glanced briefly at Volko before sprinting towards the comms relay.

Optio Sonso's voice sounded in Volko's ear. "All squads, this is Whiskey-Zero-One. Sound immediate recall. Two-Three, Two-Four, consolidate your rear detachment in one vehicle for QRF. Instructions to follow. Whiskey-Zero-One out."

Volko grabbed Turanova by the rear of her vest and hauled her to her feet before running for his Armadillo. Hákon Wulfrikson and Holly Pharos joined them seconds later, with four Legionnaires from Therodein's squad piling in after them. The Decanus pounded on the commander's hatch and the ramp lifted off the ground, sealing them in. He grabbed the wall-mounted radio just before the vehicle started moving. "All Two-Four patrol elements, this is Two-Four Actual. Immediate recall, return to base and fall in with Two-Three. Further instructions to follow from Whiskey-One. Two-Four out."

Optio Sonso's voice filtered through, tension clear despite worsening interference. "Two-Four, Whiskey-Zero-One. You are clear to proceed immediately to reference point Bravo-One. You are QRF responding to Sylvan-Six-Five. Zero-One out."