The taste of bile filled my mouth. I had thrown up twice on the way down and Bacare once. Of us all only Kriaeusus and Ross seemed not to have suffered any ill effects of our passage down. Everyone else had a greenish tinge to their faces as they put on their helmets. The smell was still on my breath and no amount of swilling seemed to wash it out. My eyes swept our surroundings looking for anything out of place even though it was still night my armour's enhanced vision mode made it almost as clear as day. Farakas was as rocky as Melanos but with more colour. Melanos was grey in all it shades Farakas on the other hand was a more alive world. Unlike Melanos it was damp and wet. Lichen clung to boulders and the open areas between the boulders were covered with stunted green covered trees and bushes and course grasses a lush green. It perfectly matched the green and grey of our armour and we could blend perfectly into the environment. It would keep us camouflaged from sight but not from scans but the interference prevented any attempt at scanning. At the moment we were too far away from the source for it to be nothing but a minor annoyance to our comms. That would change as we got closer. The shuttle was still down and Vorra was messing with something she had in the storage compartment. The rest of us were hunkered down in combat formation spread out around the shuttle. The Axon and Orion shuttles had already departed their squads had taken cover and were ready to move on my command. I turned on my comms ignoring the crackling in the background it would get worse as we got closer to the source.
"All squads report in!"
"Axon Alpha in position," Sergeant Imbert replied.
"Axon Beta in position," Sergeant Eleitherios said sounding more professional than his performance aboard the Havoc.
"Orion in position," Sergeant York reported in.
"Elafi ready," Sergeant Hollen replied. Trust a Valkyrie to be different.
"Go on my mark," I told them, "Axon A and B flank left, Orion and Elafi flank right."
"Aye ma'am," a chorus of voices echoed into my ear.
I turned to Tutor impatient to get going. "What is Vorra doing?" I asked him a little exasperated.
"Kriaeusus give Vorra a hand and report back!" he snapped at Kriaeusus.
I caught Vorra out of the corner of my eye she was wrestling with a canister as tall and as wide as she was. She had trouble manoeuvring it into place even with Kriaeusus' help.
Curiously got the better of me. "What's that?"
"Signal booster with an uplink directly to the Havoc."
It appeared like something thrown together then that could be said the same for most Ezaran built devices.
"I didn't think the Havoc carried anything like that?"
"Normally it doesn't. You know we had the traitor's comms unit."
"The one you dismantled and sent all the comms signals straight to the bridge."
"That's the one," Vorra said.
"Yes but I thought Com Ops had it?"
"It was overlooked in all the excitement after you were kidnapped."
I shuddered at the thought, scheduled for execution by those I had sworn to protect.
"The chief thought in might be useful. It has a really powerful transmitter."
"That's too heavy to lug around," I pointed out to Vorra, "I'd rather have something useful like a MARS."
Vorra indicated the lifter engines on the bottom of the comms unit. "It's capable of making short remote controlled hops."
She sounded really enthusiastic and I hated to burst her bubble. I wasn't going to rely on just comms. That's why I had come up with the flares, strobe lights and the tepes.
"Ok, ok Vorra if this doesn't work you get to carry it." I turned to Lieutenant Prousenos. "You ready?"
"Yes ma'am," he replied his voice sounding strangely distorted by his helmet.
"All squads move out!" I called out on the linked comms system.
It was slow going with the squads split into fire teams as each waited for a team to leap frog past them then moved forward while another team covered their movements. I had factored the pace into my calculations. We held the centre following an overgrown road that led from our LZ to C-19 with the other squads on our flanks. We kept off the road for obvious reasons and as much I was tempted pick up the pace I was aware we were in a potential combat situation. Vorra's signal booster made a series of short jumps as she had expected but the signal quality never got any better and I wasn't relying on it anyway. I saw a shape gesture ahead and couched down behind a rock scant cover if we got into a fire fight but better that standing in the open. Through my scope I could see that it was Vorra. She signalled hold position. Comms had become an issue because of the static we were getting. The signal booster had failed to cut through the interference. I crept up to Vorra's position and reached out the gauntlets of my armour in direct contact with hers.
"Vorra?" I said softly.
"Wreckage ahead," she replied her eyes on the way ahead.
With my other hand I reached out and touched Prousenos who had followed me forward.
"Prousenos call a halt to the other squads and have them hold position until we've investigated."
We edged closer to the wreckage I recognised it as the probe we had sent. The probe was basically a missile with a warhead removed and replaced with a sensor package. It was supposed to transmit data back. This one hadn't and hopefully it data unit was still intact.
"Vorra check that the data drive is intact we need to retrieve it?"
I watched as she crawled forward. In our dealing with the Orsini this would have been heavily booby-trapped and I wasn't ruling out that possibility here. Vorra spent several minutes at the wreckage before giving us the sign for all clear. Once again I was pleased I had taken the time to learn marine hand signals.
"Look at this," she said as I touched her armour making direct contact with her comms.
There was a large hole in the side of the probe, which couldn't have been made if it had just crashed.
"That's from weapons fire," she told me.
"Prousenos inform the other squads as to what we have found and expect armed resistance."
"On it ma'am."
"One other thing Prousenos if any shooting starts take cover and hunker down. If it gets too intense I want you call the Havoc in."
"We'll make a marine of you yet," I said.
"Thanks but no thanks ma'am.
"Vorra," I said, "have you secured the data?"
"Ok Vorra resume mission, go weapons free." I wondered who had removed the data unit from the probe probably the same as who shot it down
We moved onwards at a more cautious pace I chafed at delay but we had to take things carefully. It was ten klicks between the LZ and C-19 and we had only covered half of that. I what seemed like hours we were finally in sight of our objective. The entrance to C-19 was another seven hundred metres distant when I called a halt. C-19 was at the far end of a shallow rock strewn dip. Two ridges curled around the edges of the dip and joined above the entrance excellent cover for firing at the entrance of C-19 and both ridges were almost straight up with no breaks each easily four metres ridge to floor. Anyone attacking from C-19 would be unable to climb up. It was a near perfect kill zone. I said near perfect, the only thing marring it from being perfect was a large mound on the left-hand side of the dip close to the entrance. It looked too fresh to be natural and it wasn't in the plans of the area.
The sight of it didn't fill me with any confidence. I signed for the squad to halt since we had arrived ahead of the other squads. I heard a roar and something arced over our heads as we scrambled for cover. There was a boom and bits of Vorra's signal booster rained down in front of our positions.
"Damn if anything that's bound to wake up the neighbours," I cursed glad that Lottie had chosen to remain silent. When the booster exploded the flash of light had revealed something that night vision mode had not picked up. The sight of it made my blood run cold. It may not have been an AS battery as I had feared but something a lot worse for ground troops.
"That's torn it, they've got a MARS," I said and fired a flare.
It streaked into the sky and burst with a red light. It was our agreed signal for trouble. I was already moving knowing that my current position would be targeted dragging Prousenos with me. Debris and shrapnel exploded where I had been. The rest of my squad returned fire as I dusted myself off. There was scattered weapons fire from the MARS position and then it went silent. We had hardly time to breathe when the massive blast doors to C-19 opened.
"We have movement," I called out although I doubted the rest of my squad could hear me.
Prousenos did as was told and found cover.
I readied my weapon seeing figures pouring out through the doors recognising the gait of the figures. "Orsini!" I yelled. They had haunted my dreams since Anoxi. I should have frozen in fear but I became unnaturally calm. Raising my weapon and sighting though its scope I went into automatic and fired picking targets as they charged as if I was at a shooting match on the firing range. As they came closer I saw what they were confirming my worst fears. "Death troopers!"
Each Orsini death trooper's helmet was a mosaic of skull fragments from their fallen enemies made into a macabre parody of a skull. The smaller the fragments the more kills they had. The rest of the armour had been covered in glue and rolled in bone dust. There were lethal spikes on their forearms and knees. I had been hand to hand with a death trooper on Anoxi but at the time I was too far gone in battle rage to even register the fact and had only been told about it afterwards.
"Call in the Havoc," I shouted at Prousenos couched in a shallow ditch as I continued firing at the advancing Orsini, "We need fire support now!"
The Orsini surged towards us and things looked precarious. I hadn't time to wonder where the other squads were I had to concentrate of the battle in front of us.
Suddenly fire rained down on the Orsini from the ridges. Still in auto mode I changed mags and continued firing aware my ammo was running low. There seemed to be no end to them.
"Too many," I gasped. Cutting and running would be the end of us we had to go on and take as many of the bastards with us. It was what I had signed up for I had taken my oath and now it was time to make it worth it.
The ground erupted between the attacking Orsini and us. I glanced up as we dived for cover seeing a familiar looking wedge shape above my head. Prousenos and Marsha had come through. As abruptly as it had started the firing ceased. Cautiously I raised my head nothing moved between C-19 and us. Slowly I stood up bits of debris were still raining down.
"Prousenos," I signed to the Lieutenant.
He seemed to get my gesture and staggered over to me more shaken than due to injury.
"Ma'am," he said as his fingers made contact with my armour.
"Axon Beta and Orion on overwatch. Elafi and Axon Alpha will shadow us."
We edged forward carefully picking our way across the Havoc's kill zone. Its railguns had pulverised the ground destroying anything there.
"How do you stand this?" Lottie asked I could hear the tremble in her voice.
"I don't," I replied, "you know the nightmares I have. The only thing that keeps me going is duty. Which the Guardians exploited."
"I'm sorry Sandra,"
"Don't be I have to live with it. Orsini don't take prisoners it was them or us. I sided with us."
"If you don't mind I'll find a corner to hide in."
I continued on across the nightmarish landscape picking my way between blasted body parts my weapon at the ready. The ground was littered with bodies the Havoc's explosive rounds had devastated the Orsini but I remained wary. A wounded Orsini, even a nearly dead one was as dangerous or even more so than a live one.
Halfway to C-19 Lottie began talking obviously where she said she had hidden hadn't been enough and all I could hear was her saying. "Don't look, please don't look."
She kept up this litany until I had enough.
"Shut up," I growled at her, "you are going to get me killed."
That shut up her up.
We moved onwards and I was aware that my ammo was low. I had two clips left both explosive rounds and a half clip in my AR 32. Bits of what had once been living breathing beings were strewn across the floor and no matter where I stepped my boots were covered with gore.
We threaded our way through the carnage. I surveyed the concrete entrance to C-19 and the dark tunnel leading to its interior. The walls around the entrance were pockmarked. As testimony to its Confederacy builders the chips were tiny. The structure too well built to withstand bombardment from the Havoc's point defence railguns. I doubted it would have withstood a concentrated attack by heavier weapons. I flicked a signal for the following squads to halt. The comms had become impossible all I could hear was static. I reached out and touched Prousenos close behind me.
"Prousenos. Bacare and Kriaeusus take point. Tutor and Lawrence next, then Harms and Vorra. Elafi next through in fire teams. We'll follow last. Axon Alpha holds the entrance. That clear?"
Frankly I was surprised that the squads were ok taking orders from a tepe. I was betting as soon as we regained comms that I would receive complaints at my use of tepes in this way. I really didn't care they were a resource in our war against the Rhosani. Any other time I would be just as vociferous in objecting to their use in a combat situation.
"Axon Beta and Orion will maintain overwatch."
"On it ma'am," Prousenos replied.
I removed my hand.
Bacare and Kriaeusus entered the tunnel and then Tutor and Lawrence, finally Harms and Vorra. Signing to Prousenos we headed in on the heels of the Elafi fire teams. I was worried that the tunnel had been altered but from the looks of it there had been no internal alterations that I could see. A series of support pillars about a metre by a metre lined both sides of the tunnel and a set of low intensity lights lit the tunnel at intervals. We leapfrogged from pillar to pillar weapons at the ready. Either we had killed all the Orsini or that those that remained were laying a trap for us. I was inclined to believe the former but then I hadn't expected to find Orsini this deep into Confederacy territory. The Elafi squad signed for us to take cover. I crouched behind a pillar my weapon ready. I saw one of the Elafi sign command forward I wasn't sure who she was. We headed out passing squad members sheltering behind pillars ready to go into action.
Ahead I could see Bacare and Kriaeusus couched either side of the entrance to the first of the large rooms. There was a door but it was currently shut. A door that shouldn't have been there. At the end of the tunnel was a door on either side. Doors where there should have been openings into rooms about fifteen by fifteen metres. Vorra and Harms were waiting by one of the doors. I touched her making direct contact with her comms.
"This door has a simple electronic lock, the other is airtight sealed."
"Prousenos?" I asked.
"I sense many minds," he sounded in pain and distress, "too much suffering." He pointed to the door Vorra had indicated had the simple lock.
"Vorra get that door open, Prousenos alert everyone we're opening the door."
I wasn't sure what we would find but I had a bad feeling.
We moved back our weapons at the ready while Vorra worked on the lock. The door slid open and the atmospheric indicator on my armour HUD went from green to amber. The air was breathable but with provisos. I peered in and was shocked to my very core. There must have been over a hundred people packed into such a small area. They all seemed to be human. Hopelessness and despair clear on their faces. From what it could see they were mostly women ranging form late teens to late forties but it was hard to tell as all were universally dirty and bedraggled. There were a few children clutched firmly to their mother's sides.
"Prousenos get all the medics up here," I spoke not bothering to use the direct comms link it was way past that time we had made enough noise getting in.
"On the way ma'am."
"You're not them?" a voice called out in Terran sounding authoritive despite the croak at the end.
"Who are you?" I replied in Terran as a ripple of relief rushed like a wave over the faces of the captives.
"I was Rowena Johnson and you are?"
"Colonel Locke, Confederacy Ground Forces," I replied although that wasn't strictly correct.
"Are you going to make us your prisoners?"
I was confused. "Prisoners?"
"I assume we are POW's"
"No," I replied then asked, "how long have you been here and from where?"
"We're from Camelot."
"Camelot!" I made a quick calculation and gave up half way thorough it.
Camelot was in the Terran Empire hundreds of light-years way from the nearest Confederacy planet. Camelot was one of the first worlds to fall when the Commonwealth attacked the Empire. Everyone assumed there were no survivors the Orsini didn't leave anyone alive anywhere.
"Please we're starving."
"We'll get you something. I want to know how long have you been here?"
"Can't tell each day seems the same there's nothing to tell the light in here such as they are, are constantly on," Rowena hesitated, "at least twenty-eight days possibility longer some of us aren't regular any more."
That at least I understood they were measuring time in their cycles.
Prousenos touched my armour. "The medics are here I called in the ones from the Orion and Axon Beta as well."
I turned my attention back to Rowena she had moved forward. Just as dirty as her companions, her lank and dirty hair tied behind her head with a piece of fabric that looked torn from her stained shirt. Even as destitute as the others she had a regal stance.
"Our medics will treat you. Do you have anyone that speaks Galactic?"
"A few of us do," she replied relief on her face.
"Prousenos pass out any canteens and ration packs we have."
"We're giving you canteens of water and rations packs."
"Prousenos call in shuttles from the Axon and Orion I want these people evaced. But hold them in the shuttle bays until we can process them and make sure we haven't inadvertently picked up a Rhosani puppet?" I touched his armour making direct contact with his comms I didn't want former prisoners knowing what I was saying. I know it sounded harsh but given what we had learned about the Rhosani a wise precaution.
"Sergeant Imbert will take charge of the evac, Axon Beta and Orion will assist. Elafi with us." I stated to Prousenos on his comms then turned to Rowena speaking normally. "We are going to evac you."
"Thank God anyplace is better than this."
"What can you tell us about this place?" I asked her the more info we had the better.
"Not much," she replied with a shake on her head, "just that when the door opens its to dump a few buckets of swill for us to eat or to take someone."
It was easy to hear the despair and resignation in her voice accompanying the frightened murmurs of those with her. "Anything else?"
"I did see something once only a glimpse though when they were passing the buckets through," it was a woman's voice and sounded frightened.
"You are safe now," I reassured her.
A woman stepped forward although I wasn't sure about that she looked younger than Gena. Her once blonde hair was raggedly cut and was too dirty to see its true colour. She pointed her emaciated and scab covered hand towards the open door. "I was sure I see them drag a body to that room opposite."
"Thanks you miss," I said politely.
"Imbert get these people to safety," I called out to him.
"Hollen!" I yelled, "your squad is with me."
Bacare and Kriaeusus where at the door at the end of the tunnel in position weapons aimed at the door and flanking the entrance.
"Sit Rep Bacare," I asked taking position next to him as the rest of the squad and the Valkyries took up defensive positions.
"Awaiting orders ma'am."
"Vorra?" I called her forward, "check the door."
We waited as Vorra checked to door for traps she gave me a nod and opened the door. It slid open to reveal a large room that conformed to the plans. Scattered across the floor were a number of crude sleeping pallets.
"Standard sweep," I ordered as we stepped through the door. Although the room looked empty I was still cautious.
The squad and the Valkyrie spread out checking each pallet before moving on. I kept an eye on the door opposite weapon at the ready.
Hollen called me over to what seemed to be a cooking area.
"What do you make of this Poi?"
"Poi?" I said directly to Hollen.
"It means 'Returned One' it's a term of honour and respect," she said to me receiving an approving nod from the rest of her squad.
I needed their co-operation so I let her comment slide. "What am I supposed to be looking at?" I said to her.
She picked up a long leg bone. My blood went cold as I recognised it as a human femur bone and it looked chewed. I felt like I wanted to gag but that wasn't me, Lottie shuddered in revulsion.
"They've been eating humans," Hollen said I could hear the disgust in her voice.
Even I couldn't get my mind around that. Killing anyone that wasn't Orsini yes but as too eating them was something new. "This isn't something the Orsini normally do." I swept around seeing no crates of supplies anywhere. "Don't let the civ's see this!" I ordered.
"Yes Poi," she said her hand to her chest.
I wasn't familiar with the gesture it reminded me slightly of a Terran salute. "We'll deal with this later we have a mission to complete."
"As you command Poi."
We moved across to the other door taking up the same defensive positions.
"Vorra," I said and gestured at the door.
"Electronic lock quite sophisticated may take a while," she said and applied herself to her task.
The next large open area was a let down considering the type of lock Vorra had to hack through. As large as the one we had passed through this one was devoid of anything. Quickly we passed through and entered a short corridor with a small room off to the side smaller than the one the civilians had been locked into. It was as empty as the larger one we had passed through. I began to wonder if the Rhosani had actually been here. I could see nothing to indicate that fact. I checked my floor plan. There should be one more room beyond the door Vorra was hacking by far the largest in the whole complex. I stood ready as Vorra fiddled with the lock hearing every single one of her curses and she tried to get the door open. Finally it slid open this room was a total contrast to the ones that went before. The room was filled with all sorts of equipment most I hadn't a name for. In the centre was a large machine alien in design it pulsed with a blue glow as if it was breathing in and out. I had never seen anything like it ever. It reached from floor to ceiling at least ten metres tall. It was crystalline all sharp angles and spikes.
"Vorra see what you can make of that," I pointed to the machine.
I turned to my squad and the Valkyrie. "Spilt into fire teams and catalogue everything.
At one end of the room were rows of tall glass cylinders each twice as tall as I was and about a metre in diameter and were filled with a greenish fluid. As I got closer I could see they contained something.
"What are these?" I half said to myself not expecting to get an answer.
"They're cloning tanks," Lottie replied.
She had been so silent recently that I had forgotten that she was there.
"Cloning tanks?" I looked more closely seeing for the first time something vaguely humanoid inside. The shapes didn't look human. I stepped close to a tank and stared inside. The figure was about a hundred and fifty centimetres tall with an over large head. It had two arms, two legs and a stick thin body. I couldn't see its eyes as they were closed. It had no nose just two holes for its nostrils. There were three fingers and a thumb or what I assumed was a thumb on each hand. I could see no outward sign as to whether they male of female.
"What are they and I can't tell their sex?" I asked Lottie relying on her expertise.
"These are the shells," she told me, "They clone new ones so no need for genitalia.
They don't replicate like other races. They are androgynous it means there are no males or females," she said before I could ask the question.
"So the Rhosani have been here?" I stated.
Not all the tanks contained shells some looked more human. "And these?"
"Replacements, the Rhosani wear out bodies quickly."
I remembered her mentioning it before. "Do we know who?"
"I'm not sure," she said and tapped the side on my cheek thoughtfully, "It hard to tell these aren't fully formed."
I could see she was right these clones had an unfinished look.
"Ma'am," A voice behind me said.
I turned to see Tutor. "LT?"
"You should come see this."
Tutor led me to some equipment that looked as if it had been ripped from a ship's medbay. Some of it had Terran writing on it. They must have ripped it out of the Terran ship that had orbited Farakas. There was a medbay bed stained with blood although thankfully none of it fresh. Beside it was a trolley of tools as equally blood stained. There were a few other items but I was unable to ID them. Behind the medbay equipment was a series of tall units that seemed to be refrigerators.
Suddenly the pulsing light at the centre of the room dimmed and comms returned.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thanks Vorra," I called her over the comms. Having to rely on the tepes had become a bit of a trial.
"I didn't do anything?" she protested.
"What do you mean by that?" I demanded.
"All I did was touch the thing after I couldn't get a lock on with my scanner."
That didn't sound good. "Ok Vorra keep an eye on it."
With Prousenos at my side we explored the rest of the room. There were other devices just as alien as the crystalline structure as just as baffling. On what I could see was a table was a circular piece glass with what I assumed was lettering although I couldn't tell.
"What do you make of this?" I asked Lottie.
"Some kind of script but it's like nothing I've seen before ancient earth languages don't even come close."
I put it down a carried on. My blood froze on seeing a row of cubes like the one I cut out of the impostor. I came to a decision this place was too dangerous to leave as it is.
"Harms," I commed Shawna.
"How long will it take to rig up a dozen tactical nukes?"
"About two to three hours, we'd have to take them from the missile warheads. Rig them to either remote detonate or on a timer, a long timer. I want to be as far away as possible when this blows."
"Ok Shawna liase with your counterparts from the Axon and Orion and start on it as soon as we've evaced the civs."
"On it ma'am."
"We can help Poi," Hollen volunteered. She must have been listening in on our comms.
"Harms," I commed her, "co-ordinate your efforts with sergeant Hollen and her squad."
"Ma'am?" the sound of another voice had me turning.
I was surprised to see Ross. "Ross what are you doing here?" I had a bad feeling it was for me.
"Captain Yanik's compliments ma'am you are wanted back on the Havoc."
"Why? I'm in the middle of a mission. What is Captain Yanik thinking!" I spoke sharply. I hadn't meant to but I felt frustrated that I wasn't able to complete my objectives.
"Com Ops want to speak to you," he replied.
"Ok," I toned down my anger and commed Tutor. "LT you are in charge until I get back. Com Ops wants me."
"Aye ma'am I'm your place holder until you return."
"One other thing LT. I want this place rigged to blow as soon as the civs are evaced.
Reluctantly I followed Ross to the shuttle I was determined to have it out with Com Ops for interrupting my mission nothing could be that important.