Legions of Sol
August, 3530 - Galactic Calendar
Monneran and Molotova's Panther sped across the dry, cracked desert. Optio Sonso in the Scouts' Kingmaker and the Armadillos were just behind. Above them flew a line of Stalker gunships, silhouetted against the setting sun. Long shadows stretched across the arid plateaus, their canyons falling into darkness. Volko glanced at the vehicles below them and silently prayed to the Goddess that they would find Maximus in time. Mihailov's voice came over the internal radio.
"Sylvan-Zero-Five and Whiskey-Zero-One just entered the canyon. The Armadillos are setting up a cordon at the opening. All aircraft, ready drop lines."
Volko coughed as the aircraft flew through the smoke from Mikkelsen's wreck. He glanced down to watch Monneran exit her LRV with Kota on a leash. She held one of Strand's shirts to the dog's nose for a moment before being pulled forward. The K-9 walked around the edge of the dried blood in front of the destroyed Armadillo before his ears perked up and he started pulling on the leash in front of Monneran.
She spoke over the radio. "Kota's got a scent. Six-Three, take over the Panther. I'll proceed on foot."
Sonso interrupted Molotova's response. "Satellite images are coming in from Thi Trinh. I've got a read on Strand's tracker, six hundred meters down the canyon. Affirmative life-signs."
"Yeah, Kota's pulling that way. Let's go." Monneran gave Kota the "track" command and took off at a jog. With her free hand she pulled down the night vision goggles attached to her helmet so she could see in the intense shadow of the canyon. Her scouts and Sonso did the same, leaving their vehicle lights off. A moment later the sun dipped below the horizon and the world was left in darkness.
"NODs on." Volko and his squad followed Monneran's example, gazing at the world through the green-tinted goggles. He picked out the flashing infrared marking on the back of Monneran's helmet and followed her path through the canyon below. He grabbed his radio to contact Mihailov. "Seven-One-Golf, we're going to go ahead and get down there. Hold position."
"Understood. Ropes away."
The crew chief kicked the thick nylon ropes free of the gunship and watched them unfurl beneath them. A moment later he gave the OK and Volko was sliding down, hands and feet wrapped loosely around the cord. He landed hard and pulled his gloves off, stashing them in one of the pouches attached to his vest. He stepped away from the rope as the rest of his squad came down. As soon as everyone was clear, the crew chief detached the ropes and the gunship resumed its covering position above the group.
"Wulfrikson and Pharos, clean up those ropes. The rest of you, I want staggered columns either side of Monneran."
Turanova, Gordon, and Tanner moved to the opposite canyon wall while Turanov took up position behind Volko. Wulfrikson and Pharos grabbed the discarded drop ropes and quickly coiled them up, running them to the LCV before assuming their positions. Volko clicked his goggle's IR strobe to signal the OK to Monneran and the group continued forward, weapons at the ready.
Time crawled as the team moved slowly up the canyon. The whine of the Stalker engines and the rhythmic thumping of their rotor blades created a steady backdrop of noise that invaded Volko's mind. His heart pounded heavily in his chest, fear and worry warring for control. He glanced at the helicopters above them, nothing more than green shadows to his night vision. Every crunch of the squad's boots had his ears twitching. He couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. He grabbed his radio and whispered into it.
"Whiskey-Zero-One, I can't help feeling we're not alone. Request thermal imaging of the canyon and plateaus."
"I'm only seeing us, decanus. Stay focused. Strand's tracker is just up ahead."
"Shit! Negative life-signs on Strand. Three hundred meters, around the next bend. Get moving!"
The infantry and scout broke into a full-on sprint, Kota straining at his leash. Monneran grabbed her sidearm from the holster on her vest as she ran. Volko's breath sounded loud and harsh in his ears. Above them the gunships flew ahead, circling Strand's assumed location. Ropes deployed and the remaining squads slid into the canyon. Solokova called over the radio.
"Two-One here. Negative visual. What's the distance?"
Volko and his squad rounded the corner, Monneran leading the way. Just ahead of the newly deployed squads Kota stopped in the middle of the canyon, sitting in the dirt and looking at his handler. Monneran crouched low while Volko ran to her side, his breathing heavy. She turned to face him, holding something in her hands. "Ilya..."
Volko looked down and choked. Monneran held a severed hand, Strand's tracking chip implanted in the palm. The Decanus turned away, tears burning at the edge of his eyes. His heart pounded and he swallowed bile. "Two-Four to Whiskey-Zero-One. Kota found the chip. Negative on Strand."
Sonso paused a moment. "It'll be recent then. Keep moving down the canyon. Seven-One-Golf, I want spotlights scanning the plateau. All units, disregard light regulation."
Immediately vivid beams of light pierced through the dark sky. The aircraft moved off, their engines soon muffled by the canyon walls. The Panther and Kingmaker kicked on their floodlights, sending long shadows across the ground. The infantry turned on tactical lights attached to their rifles and raised their NVGs. Volko glanced at Turanova and grimaced. Silent tears tracked down her face. He turned back to Monneran.
"Try the shirt again. We have to find him, fast."
After a moment of sniffing around the spot the hand had lain, Kota pricked his ears and took off down the canyon, Monneran right behind him. Volko's squad followed at a jog while the rest of the infantry formed two columns behind them. The decanus flashed the hand signal for a wedge formation, briefly glancing behind him to ensure his Legionnaires understood. He turned off his mind, losing himself in the effort of the run and sheltering himself from the emotional agony that was threatening to pour over him. He knew the rest of his kids had done the same.
The crunch of their boots and their heavy breathing merged with the rumbling engines of the Panther and Kingmaker and the muffled thumping of the aircraft rotors to create an almost overwhelming symphony that echoed down the canyon. Volko's pulse sounded loud in his ears, nearly blocking out the din of their search. He swallowed the lump in his throat, ignoring the icy hand that gripped his heart. His pace slowed as Kota ran to the canyon wall and sniffed around the rocks before continuing slowly forward, stopping every few paces to sniff the ground again.
The search party rounded another corner and Kota went wild on his leash, pulling towards a dark crevice in the cliff face. The Decanus flashed his light at the shadow and paused. A small cave, the entrance barely 5 feet tall, burrowed deep into the plateau at a steep angle. Monneran unbuckled Kota's leash and pulled out a flashlight of her own, following the running dog as it disappeared into the darkness. Volko swore and ran after them, his squad following suit. Decanus Solokova called after them but quickly disappeared from sight.
Volko sidestepped through a narrow gap and nearly ran into Monneran. She stepped slowly to the side and he froze, taking in what she revealed. A massive chamber filled with bodies. Everywhere he turned his light he saw nothing but human bodies and blood. He swallowed hard and turned back to the passageway to tell his squad to remain where they were before returning to the macabre scene before him. Monneran slowly walked further into the chamber, eyeing the K-9 that sat patiently before the sea of corpses.
Next to Kota lay the body of a Legionnaire. Volko's light landed on the face of Maximus Strand, frozen in silent agony. His heart stopped and he stumbled forward, falling onto his knees next to his friend. His breath hitched and he gingerly placed a hand on Strand's chest. His eyes danced over the body, lighting on the mangled arm. He bent over his friend and silently loosed a long, trembling breath.
"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." He turned towards Monneran. "Help me get him up. Let's carry him out."
Together the two were able to lift Maximus onto Volko's back in a fireman's carry. Monneran buckled Kota back into his leash and led the way out of the chamber. She pulled Turanova to the side and whispered in her ear. Volko eased his way through the narrow gap and back into the cave mouth. Turanova sobbed once on seeing Strand's body before shutting her emotions down. She lifted her weapon and marched out of the cave, tears streaming down her face. The rest of the squad stood in pained silence.
Tanner raised a hand to get Volko's attention. He spoke quietly, subdued. "The Armadillos are outside. Sonso wants everyone loaded up."
Volko nodded. "Therodein aboard the gunships?"
The decanus led the way out of the cave and to their APC. Slowly walking up the ramp he gently laid Maximus on the floor between their harnesses. Florensis sat in the turret hatch staring sullenly at the body. She called vehicle secure when everyone took their seats and returned to her position. Volko reached for the radio.
"Two-Four to Whiskey-Zero-One. We found Strand. Report one KIA. We also found the civilians."
A brief pause. "Understood. We've received orders to regroup with Task Force Doleth and assist in the evacuation of the urban population. RTB and take care of what you have to, then collect your gear. We leave at 2300. Zero-One out."
The ride back was spent in silence. Volko sat staring at the lifeless eyes of his friend. He'd lost two now, in the last day. He ached with the pain of it. He repeated the day a thousand times in his head, mulling over the different ways he may have been able to save them. He hated himself for it. The sound of Turanova's quiet crying slowly invaded him, wrapping him in the agony. He closed his eyes and leaned forward in his seat, resting his head in his hands.
Eventually, an eternity later, the ramp dropped open. For the second time that day, the APC sat next to the medical facility. The squad filed out and stood to the side while Volko and Gordon carried the body inside. The decanus watched the medics wheel it away. He tore himself away and turned to his troops.
"Get your rucks hooked up to the Armadillo. Mila, I'll leave Maximus' to you. Take what you need, then make sure it gets to the medics."
Volko watched her walk away before marching towards the back of the facility. He parted the curtain and found Vivian Sol crouched next to her bed, lacing up her boots. He gave a mirthless chuckle.
"Always ready. Have you been given the OK to return to duty?"
Sol stood and shrugged on her combat vest. "Yes, decanus. The medics told me we're moving out, too."
"Good girl. Let's get our gear and we'll meet up with the squad at the truck."
Together the two left the building and jogged towards their barrack. Around them the FOB was bustling with activity, despite the late hour. Vehicles moved into a double column in the central camp pathway, readying for the convoy to Doleth. The radio tower was dismantled and loaded into one of Mihailov's Stalkers. Generators were loaded onto pallets and prepared for transit back to Nova Roma. A series of explosions lit the night sky as the re-trans site detonated the reactors in the bunkers and abandoned the plateau.
Volko and Sol entered their barrack to find the rest of the squad packing their rucks and folding their cots. Turanova crouched in one corner, slowly going through Strand's belongings. The silence in the room was deafening. The decanus quickly folded his cot and shoved his few belongings in his ruck before attaching the cot to the back of it. He shrugged the heavy pack on and moved to stand by Turanova's side.
"Do you need any help?" he asked quietly.
The marksman looked up at him with a vacant expression, her eyes blank. She shook her head once and returned to the items before her. She pulled Strand's spare ID tags from the pile and slipped the chain over her head, tucking the tags underneath her vest. Next she grabbed a folded shirt and held it to her face, inhaling deeply. Volko turned away.
"You have five minutes. Then pack the rest and bring it to the medics so his family can get them."
"Yes, decanus." Her voice was quiet, barely loud enough to be a whisper.
Volko waited for the rest of the squad to finish packing and led the way to their Armadillo. Florensis already had it positioned in the center of the camp with the rest of the vehicles. Walking around the outside of the APC, Volko found a spot to strap his ruck down. As soon as he was done he unstrapped one of the MRE boxes from the hull and tossed it to Tanner.
"Pass them out; we'll eat on the way. Make sure the crew each gets one too."
He turned and found Monneran standing next to him. She stepped closer and wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace. He returned the embrace and exhaled slowly, burying his face in her hair. He lost himself in the warmth of her, the smell of her hair, and the beating of her heart. For the briefest moment, he felt secure. Then they pulled apart and his world came crashing back down around him. She cupped the side of his face.
"I'm sorry, Ilya. You did what you could."
He shrugged her hand away and took a step back. "It wasn't enough, Kara."
Monneran reached for his hands and clasped them tightly. "No, no it wasn't. But we'll do better. And we'll pay them back tenfold."
He opened his mouth to respond but the crunching of boots in the dirt caught his attention. Turanova walked to the side of the APC and attached her rucksack to one of the mounts. She nodded at Monneran before ducking inside. Volko watched her go and shook his head. "Two of my kids, Kara. They're gone."
Volko pulled his hands free and boarded the Armadillo, squeezing past his squad to reach his seat next to the turret hatch. He watched Monneran walk away on the external cameras and called vehicle secure. The ramp slowly lifted shut, sealing the troop bay in shadow. The decanus reached for a switch next to his console and turned on the interior lights, bathing the bay in pale green light. His eyes locked on the empty seats.
"Try to get some sleep after you eat." He spoke absently, addressing no one in particular. "I don't know when our next reprieve will be."
The squad quietly voiced their acknowledgement and once again the APC fell into deafening silence. Volko unbuckled his helmet and let it fall to his feet, leaning his head back against the restraint harness. The radio gave a brief burst of static before Sonso's voice filled his ear.
"Convoy, this is Whiskey-Zero-One assuming convoy command." The optio listed the order of march - their positions within the convoy. Volko and his squad were assigned to the rear with the Anthem tanks to act as rear guard. The Fury platforms would be sheltered in the middle of the group with the Kingmaker. The rest of the Armadillos would be just behind the Ares light tanks at the fore of the column. The scouts would range ahead to call route instructions while Mihailov and his Stalkers flew overwatch. Sonso paused. "It's been a hard couple of days, I know. We had our noses bloodied thrice over. But we're the Dominion's best, and we'll hit back harder. Don't lose sight of the mission, or we'll lose even more. Stay focused. Convoy lead, move out."