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The Omega Protocol - Part Four [sci-fi; mature content] (1 Viewer)

CyberWar

Senior Member
The long-awaited fourth and final chapter of the mini-novel "The Omega Protocol". For those unfamiliar with the characters and events, check out the previous three chapters also available right here on WF Fiction Showcase.


As the two made their way down deeper inside the mechwalker for shelter, Drax looked at the sky above through the well-like hole left by the projectile that had felled the once-mighty war machine. The roiling black sky was now ablaze from countless artillery rockets that ascended into the clouds with ear-splitting blood-curdling howl. The Feds were said to call these rocket barrages "The Emperor's Bagpipes". The late Emperor of the Sidh was no doubt playing his favourite tune from beyond the grave now. Countless more regular artillery shells, invisible to the naked eye but easily seen on thermal, added to the pandemonium with their own inimitable howl that resembled an electric train passing and slowing down in the distance, multiplied by the thousand. Amidst this havoc, Drax's augmented hearing could tell apart the distinctive high-pitched cracks of hypersonic shells fired by long-range railgun artillery, no doubt gunning for hardened targets deep behind the frontline.


Then, the perpetual twilight outside suddenly lit up brighter than the brightest of days, as if illuminated by a thousand suns, forcing some other Sidh who were also awing at the sight to hastily withdraw into shade, the irises of their eyes having instantly turned a metallic white. The clever augmetic was common with the Sidh military, meant to shield the soldiers' eyes from flashbang grenades and also from nuclear flash if they were caught by it with their helmets off. Moments later, the mechwalker hulk was violently rocked by the arriving blast waves.


"Get ready!" centurion Crassus shouted over the noise, "Once the barrage ends, we move out and hit the Feds where they least expect it!"


"Everybody check your weapons!" Drax ordered his assembled men while verifying his own blast rifle, "Conserve your ammunition, I want to hear short, controlled bursts, do you get me!?"
"We get you, Dec!" his soldiers barked together.


Decurion Boreale was in the meantime busy organizing her soldiers, who had been assigned to bring and install the IFF transponder and communications equipment to the Fed dropship.
"Alyxenos and Demeratus, you will carry the gear! Caestia, Callicrates, you will cover their backs on the way and help them install everything once we're inside the dropship! I and the rest will help clear the way! Remember, this is not a frag contest, but a live-or-die matter, so no heroics! Stay cool and keep your heads on your job, because whether we get off this rock alive depends on how well you do it!"


"Decurion Drax," centurion Crassus spoke, "I want you and your men to accompany me on the vanguard. Your soldiers seem to know their way around at least somewhat, which is more than I can say about the majority of my boys and gals. They need someone experienced to lead the way."


"Will do, sir," Drax curtly nodded, "Just wondering, aren't your optii more qualified than I am?"


"Between you and me, decurion," Crassus spoke, a ping on the squad radio channel indicating he had switched to "Private" mode so that only Drax would hear him, "Your and Boreale's handful of veterans are the only decent bunch of soldiers I have. Thersandros, an excellent quartermaster as he may be, is still a warehouse rat who only got pulled to frontline duty a few months back. Arminius and Corax, the one who pointed a gun at you during our earlier argument, are both former Urban Security - decent organizers and probably once decent cops, but also hardly frontline material. And me - I used to be a manager in a fishing gear factory, only took a reserve officer training in the Auxilia before the civil war - of which I spent most on garrison duty and only got promoted to centurion for the absence of any better candidates after the previous guy bit the bullet in our first real battle. You on the other hand were born and bred for this war, and the others know it even if they don't say anything."


After such frank confession, part of Drax suspected the centurion for simply trying to cover his hide by placing the best available men between himself and danger. But then again, he could hardly be blamed - the ruthless pragmatic in the decurion told he'd probably do the same thing in the centurion's place. Besides, it was also the sensible thing from a tactical perspective as well - with decurion Boreale busy leading her veterans to protect the IFF transponder, someone experienced had to lead the way and embolden the rookies to follow.
"You honour me beyond my merit, centurion," he spoke out aloud, "My only accomplishments are being built for what I was built for, and surviving a handful of battles more than the average guy around. But if you feel I could inspire your soldiers by leading the way, I will consider that duty a privilege."


"Good! I'm counting on you, decurion," Crassus curtly nodded and turned to other tasks at hand.


The mechwalker regularly continued to be rattled by massive explosions, some of them uncomfortably close. At least two tactical fusion bombs struck the wrecked cruiser that Listening Post Scourge was originally established to monitor, if the intensity of the flashes and the speed with which the blast waves arrived was to be any measure. In between them, conventional artillery fire continued seemingly unabated. It seemed as if the Sidh forces were striving to expend every last piece of ordnance before embarking on a decisive counter-offensive. Drax couldn't help but feel a bit saddened as he realized that most of his compatriots probably indeed thought that to be the case, expecting the fleet in orbit to drop massive reinforcements and finally relieve the embattled planet Alcaeus. What a disappointment were they in for at the end of the day...


"Hey, Dec, what was all that about with the centurion before?" Jassa asked, leaning against the wall next to Drax, "You two seemed to talk on "Private" about something."


"He wants us to lead the way," Drax shrugged, "Says we're the most experienced troops besides Boreale's boys that he has. I guess it never gets easy, does it?"


"Easy ain't the Sidh way, as our drill instructors used to say back in boot," Jassa agreed, "I think the centurion did right by choosing you to lead the way. You have the gift of leadership in your blood."


"I just do what it takes to stay alive," Drax retorted, "The fact that I'm slightly better at it than many others doesn't make me a leader."


"You might not have noticed it, but I've seen how the rookies look at you," the girl argued, "They believe in you, that if anyone can keep them alive, it's you - and if you can't, nobody could. And ever since I checked out your codex records, I believe it too."


"You accessed my codex record?" Drax frowned. Much like any product of engineering, every Sidh was assigned a serial number upon activation, expressed as a bar-code tattoo on one's right wrist and back of the neck. The said code was the key to the dossier containing every piece of information about the individual Sidh - his finances, employment and legal records, health status and also a detailed genetic ancestry chart for the state eugenics program among other things. Humans tended to frown at the practice, regarding Sidh codices as little more than slave brands and their bearers as sub-human assembly line products of industrial manufacturing, but the Sidh themselves would wear their codices with pride, a mark of their Sidhness. Accessing another's codex record, however, was a whole different matter. Even the bearer of the codex couldn't normally access the entirety of its contents for a number of legal reasons, and someone else doing it was already a serious crime.


"It was back in the boot, when we still... you know...," Jassa spoke in her defense, "Castellus once joked that what we were doing technically amounted to incest, so I was curious to see just how closely we both were related genetically and hired a data-slicer to find out."


"And you only thought to mention this to me now?" Drax grumbled, "Make no mistake, I'm not angry with you for slicing my codex - the bloody thing doesn't contain anything I'd care to hide anyway. I'm more disturbed by the fact that you broke a whole string of laws just to indulge your curiosity. They could've sent you to a penal unit if anyone had caught that slicer and traced the whole thing back to you! And don't even tell me how you could afford to hire a slicer with your rookie grunt's pay, I don't want to know..."


"I'm sure you can imagine how," Jassa lowered her head in shame, "I'm sorry, for whatever good it is now. "


"Why tell me this now?" Drax spoke, somewhat disappointed in his friend, "The least you could've done is not go behind my back about it. And about that payment... If you so wanted to know, you could've just asked, we'd have worked out something that didn't involve you and that slicer... well, you get the gist of it!"


"Given the circumstances, I just felt you should know," Jassa sighed, "Please forgive me, Arcadius. I make no excuses for what I did."


"What's done is done," Drax frowned, "The curiosity of youth sometimes gets the better of all Sidh. I hope you were at least satisfied with what you learned."


"You have a long lineage of leaders among your ancestors, Arcadius. Noblemen, politicians, even a famous admiral," Jassa spoke, "It took me some digging to even make sense of the many names on your pedigree chart, but they all had one thing in common - they were leaders of men. That is what the progenitors were trying to breed into you as well."


"A leader isn't born, a leader becomes one," Drax argued, "Our late Emperor, in His own written words, was nobody important until he was well over 40 - nobody in the world could have imagined He would one day become the father and founder of a whole new species of Man. I may have a long pedigree of leaders behind me, but whether I become one myself is up to my own efforts, and my own efforts alone. In His wisdom, our Emperor himself saw that and bade our kind to renounce all ties of kinship, so that no Sidh would be privileged or disadvantaged over another by virtue of ancestry, by anything else than his own merit. Perhaps that is why it is forbidden even for ourselves to access our full pedigree charts, so that the distinctions of our ancestors do not make us prideful absent achievements of our own."


"You are right," Jassa agreed, "And I have sinned against the Emperor's will and law by slicing your codex and my own, I will be the first to admit it. But illustrious ancestors were not what I was looking for. I wanted to see if we really are of the same blood."


"And?" the decurion questioned. Being a Sidh, he wasn't particularly bothered by the fact that his closest companion with whom he had shared more than just platonic affections on occasion was likely a biological sister or half-sister of his - with the abandonment of natural procreation and kinship ties, such distinctions were simply no longer relevant to the Sidh.
"We are," Jassa affirmed what they both had really known all along, coming from the same progenitory batch, "Two branches of the same tree, no, more like two twigs of the same branch. That asshole Castellus was right with his jokes after all."


"And did knowing for certain really change anything?" Drax asked, "I thought it was plainly obvious to begin with. As it should have been to Castellus, for that matter, with him being our birth-kin as well."


"No, it didn't," Jassa admitted, "I hope knowing this hasn't changed how you feel about us, though."


"Well, asides from that incident involving a certain data-slicer, it hasn't," Drax stated sternly, though it was obviously mostly in jest, "BFFs until the end of the war, and after that we'll see!"


"Agreed," Jassa nodded and added with a mischievous grin, "And for the record, that slicer was absolutely useless in that way. He was over and done before we even really got to... you know."


Drax playfully punched her in the shoulder, the girl answering with the same before both were forced to cling to the walls by another nearby blast that rattled the derelict mechwalker.


---


After half an hour, as the bombardment outside began to subside, centurion Crassus called everyone to attention.


"When our ancestors first set foot among the stars, they were outcasts - alone, afraid, desperate," he began to speak, "They who were meant to be the Humanity's shield and sword had been cast away by the very people they were meant to serve and protect. Rejected by Mankind and without a purpose, they were lost and hopeless. But our glorious Emperor, our esteemed Father and Founder, stepped up and said: "Do not despair! If Humanity has rejected us, to hell with them - we will be our own shield and sword from now on! And if Humanity has stripped us of our purpose, we will invent a new one ourselves! We are the vanguard of Mankind, and if Mankind wants to have no business with us, then we will rise above and beyond them and fulfill the destiny we hoped to secure for them for ourselves!" Thus spoke our revered Emperor, may He now rest in eternal glory, thus he spoke over 150 years ago. Today, the time has come again that these words hold true. We are again lost, hopeless and without a purpose, surrounded and embattled by our enemies on all sides, without our Emperor to lead us. But we still have His only daughter, our new sovereign, our one and true Empress to lead our race in these dark times. And more importantly, we still have His words to guide us - be your own shield and sword, and absent purpose find one! Today, we will live by these words. We will be our own shield and sword, and absent a better purpose, we have already found one - to live so that we can fight another day! We have a hard battle ahead, and without a question many of us will fall, but in the end of the day, those of us who live will persevere like our kind always has! For survival, adaptation and triumph is what all Sidh are made for! Long live the Emperor! Long live the Empress! Long live the Unknown Mother!"


"HA-OOH! HA-OOH! HA-OOH!" the warriors shouted thrice, banging their fists on their armored chests and raising them in salute.


Without further talk, the Sidh lined up for the exit paths. Some would go out through the same narrow maintenance shaft that Drax and his decury had came in through, others would use an identical one on the opposite side of the wreck, and still others would climb out through the central shellhole on top of the mech and assume overwatch to join the others later.
Drax and the others went the same way they had arrived along with the centurion. Making their way out, they quietly assembled in the shellhole they had entered through before. The air was full of smoke and dust - that is, even fuller than usual - but it was unusually bright. Drax looked up to see a clear sky through all the haze, the perpetual cloud cover being temporarily driven away by the nearby blasts of fusion bombs. Once blue as typical for oxygen-rich atmospheres of Terran worlds, the atmosphere of Alcaeus had since assumed an infernal reddish-orange hue from all the pollution. Several mushroom clouds still towered in the distance, the nearest rising some 10 clicks away. The sky further above, however, was ablaze, the shapes of starships trading fire high above in orbit. The battle raging above was a constant source of falling debris that came crashing down through the atmosphere like blazing meteors almost non-stop.


"Form up! Line formation, 10 meter distance! Advance!" the centurion ordered. Drax's tacticom immediately processed the order, highlighting the desired positioning of soldiers on his HUD. He assumed the second position to the left of the centurion.


As the Sidh began to slowly advance towards the ridge behind which lied their target, a distant metallic roar suddenly rang in from the direction of Sidh positions. Drax paused to listen in, the roar repeating itself again, pewtering out in an eerie long wail. The sound sent a chill down the decurion's spine, giving him the goosebumps.


"Gjallarhorn," the centurion explained with apparent satisfaction, noticing Drax listening in to the sound, "Our lads are bringing up the super-heavies like our old hideout here."


He was referring to the Gjallarhorn sound system of four titanic foghorns mounted on the backs of some super-heavy mechwalkers. Venting excess steam from the coolant circuit was a normal process of operating these towering war machines, and quite noisy in itself - until someone had figured to make use of it by redirecting that steam to a system of giant horns. Much like the sirens on the ancient Stuka bombers had once terrified enemies of Germany, the Gjallarhorn now served to terrify the enemies of Sidhkind.


"I hope they won't be straying anywhere near here," Drax frowned, not being comfortable with the idea of finding himself in the path of multiple 100-meter engines of war with city-destroying firepower. Not to mention that all their plans of escape could be ruined by one misplaced artillery shell or missile wrecking the dropship they were about to hijack.
The group finally advanced to the peak of the ridge, with Drax, Jassa and the centurion carefully crawling forward to peek over it.


"See that landing bay door there?" Crassus pointed at a large blast door on the side of the wrecked Fed ship, "It's where they keep the dropship. The power's still on to open and close those doors, so they must have rigged up some field generators inside. Question is whether the controls for those doors are on the bridge, or the landing bay."


"Any ideas where to go in with minimal noise?" Jassa asked.


"My bet would be that utility airlock just next to the landing bay," Crassus pointed at a smaller hatch, "Up in space the maintenance crews use them when it's nothing worth sending a whole ship outside. It doesn't look too high off the ground either, so we could get someone up there to open it manually."


"We'd be totally exposed down there," Drax argued, "I think we should go around along the ridge and go in through the topside. It's always easier to fight downwards than upwards."


"You are forgetting that the whole lot of humans will also be going topside to fight at the first sign of trouble," Crassus objected, the distant blare of a Gjallarhorn seeming to affirm his concerns.


"Or they might as well go for their dropship at the first sign of trouble and try to ditch the place for somewhere more defensible, such as that big cruiser hulk behind us," Jassa argued, pointing at the larger starship hulk in the distance behind them, "Maybe we should split up, the larger group storming the topside to distract the humans, while a smaller group breaches and takes the landing bay?"


"Seems sensible," Crassus agreed and got on the radio, "Attention all teams, slight change of plans!"


While the centurion was busy detailing the new plan to the other decurions, Jassa looked at Drax, and although her face was concealed beneath the helmet, the decurion somehow knew she looked concerned.


"No heroics, alright?" she spoke, "Just like they taught in the boot camp - slow is smooth, smooth is fast."


"Just like in the boot," Drax agreed.


"Alright," centurion Crassus turned back to them, "Boreale's boys and the overwatch team will take care of the landing bay so our bird doesn't take off without us. Decurion Drax, you and your soldiers will lead the way, I and my lads will cover you! Move out!"


Just as the centurion spoke these words, the sky over their heads was split by a brilliant bolt blazing over towards the other wrecked cruiser in the distance. An instant later, a deafening hypersonic crack shook the area. Several more bolts followed in short succession, bright flashes and rising fireballs marking their impacts in the distance.


"Fuck!" Crassus cursed, "Looks like the mechs are going for that cruiser and we're square in the middle between them! Double-time it, lads!"


Indeed that seemed to be the case as return shots soon came in from the opposing direction, shaking the area with their hypersonic passage. One of the projectiles flew low, striking the wasteland some half-click to the right and carving a glowing-red trench in the dirt with a spectacular explosion, white-hot fragments of the slug riccocheting back into the sky and disappearing in the distance with a wrathful hum.


The Sidh split up and proceeded to their assigned objectives on the double. Sensing there was no point in hiding any longer, Drax launched his quadcopter drone to get a better picture of the top side of the shipwreck.


"Grexus, Duilius, sync on my quad and get ready to hit anything moving on top of that ship! No point for you to lug around those missiles anymore!" he ordered, no longer bothering to use callsigns as he otherwise would have - with this being a do-or-die mission on a planet about to be obliterated anyway, the enemy intercepting their communications and learning their identities was the least of the decurion's worries.


The drone feed, though somewhat blurred by heavy electromagnetic interference from the battle raging in orbit, showed several makeshift positions on top of the wrecked ship, centered around what appeared to be another maintenance airlock. IR showed some six sentries positioned there. Suddenly the hatch opened and multiple human soldiers started to emerge with haste, evidently alarmed by the heavy weapons fire outside, for enemy infantry was bound to appear soon thereafter.


"Now! Hit them!" Drax barked. An instant later, four missiles streaked high up into the air and came down, their weak bursts being followed by a moment of silence and then the ear-splitting roar of their detonating submunitions. The decurion grinned in malice as the drone IR feed showed the humans vanish in a cloud of brilliant white. Without further command, he broke into running pace, the rest of his decury close in tow. The Feds were not to be allowed to recover from this initial shock. As he went, Drax saw in the corner of his eye that Boreale's decury and the overwatch team were descending down the ridge and making way to the lower airlock. It was several meters off the ground, so the men would quickly form a living pyramid for Boreale herself to ascend and start bypassing the locking mechanism. Others formed a perimeter, keeping an especially-watchful eye towards the top of the ship where the biggest danger would be.


When Drax finally reached the topside of the shipwreck, a confused and angry-looking face emerged from the top maintenance airlock just as his armored boots first hit metal. Seeing multiple Sidh approaching with haste, the human let out a cry of surprise and fear, ducking back inside just as Drax fired his blast rifle and missed widely. Moments later, several grenades erupted from the hatch, bursting and shrouding the area in a cloud of white smoke.


Drax dashed forwards, pulling a grenade from his tactical rig and preparing to fling it in the airlock. Although the thick phosphorous smoke completely obscured his vision, leaving him only a rough idea of where to throw it, so it did for the humans. Then suddenly, just as he pulled the pin, his feet seemed to slip from underneath him as he stepped on the strewn intestines of one of the obliterated human defenders. With a wrathful curse, Drax struck the armor plating below face-first with a loud clang. The armed grenade hit the deck just paces away, a silhouette in recognizably Federation-made powered armor emerging just ahead and training his rifle at Drax's head.


An instant later, a shot struck metal inches from Drax's face as the human was knocked aside by Jassa who literally dove into him with all her might. While the two started to fiercely wrestle, Drax lunged forth with all his might and kicked the grenade as far away from them as possible. It exploded somewhere in the smoke with a bone-rattling blast, deadly fragments striking the deck and the armored fighters on the ground. Feeling the impact, Drax looked at his chest and found several smoldering fragments embedded in his tactical rig. Twisting around, he found the human wrestling on top of Jassa, struggling fiercely to line up his sidearm with her face. Without further ado, the decurion pulled the enemy off by his collar, throwing the human on his back. Ignoring a shot to his face that grazed his helmet, Drax knocked the opponent's hand aside before he could line up another shot and brought all his armored weight down on the enemy's face with every ounce of strength. The lighter human helmet flattened under the mighty blow, blood and brain matter literally bursting out through cracks and seams. An instant later, Drax found himself lifted off the ground and hurled aside by a mighty blow as a Fed armored exosuit stomped out of the airlock and kicked him aside. The massive autocannon in the exosuit's hands resembled an oversized rifle, complete with a bayonet almost the length of a man. The soldier within trained it towards the approaching Sidh and opened fire.


The soldier wearing the armex barely let off three or four deafeningly-loud shots when his autocannon came to a grinding halt as Jassa jumped up and jabbed her combat knife in the ammo chute, jamming the weapon. Even so, the short burst was enough to rip one of Crassus's men in two and blow off the left arm of rifleman Cassius. Groaning in agony, he collapsed to the ground, clenching his profusely-bleeding stump. The rest paid him no heed for now, as his armor suit itself would stabilize him, self-sealing antiseptic gel leaking out from the damaged armor over the wound and auto-injectors inside the suit injecting him with a cocktail of painkillers, coagulants and stimulants.


Jassa was in the meantime wrestling with the much-larger human armex. Angry at the interruption, the human was struggling to get the she-Sidh off of him, clawing at her wildly as she tried to tear away some armor plates and expose vulnerable internals. The other Sidh were wary to shoot at the armex in fear of injuring Jassa, until wounded Cassius resolved that issue, returning to the fight under influence of painkillers and stims and diving under the enemy's feet from behind. The armex tripped backwards over him and crashed on the deck, Jassa just managing to pry away one of the chest plates far enough to reveal the softer myomer bundles underneath before the human finally grabbed a hold of her and tossed her away like a rag doll. Before he could get up, however, marksman Victus was upon him and started to shoot one armor-piercing round after another into the exposed spot. The armex twitched uncontrollably and stopped as the pilot was killed, but not before Victus added a final coup-de-grace by jamming a grenade in between the armor plates and diving aside. The resulting explosion blew the chest of the armex open like a tin can, shovering those nearby with fragments of armor, blood and gore.


"Can you still fight, soldier?" Drax shouted to Cassius who crawled out from underneath the destroyed armex and limped over to where he was hit earlier to collect his blast rifle and missing arm.


"I won't be any good with a rifle like this, but I can still shoot with my blaster," the young soldier replied, hooking his rifle to the magnetic slot on the back of his armor suit and tucking his severed arm inside his tactical rig, "Hurts like a bitch, but I'll manage. Whatever they're putting in these auto-injectors sure gives a great buzz!"


"Alright, stay in the rear with Crassus's lads and watch our backs!" Drax ordered, "You're no good to me like this up front!"


Cassius nodded somewhat reluctantly and pulled back as ordered. In the meantime, Drax discovered much to his frustration that his blast rifle was damaged beyond immediate repair, having absorbed much of the kick he had received from the armex. Now its magazine well was deeply dented, the loaded mag stuck firmly inside the weapon and impossible to remove or replace without first straightening it out. Looking for a substitute, Drax couldn't help but notice the autocannon of the deceased armex trooper, the ammo chute connecting it to a large cylindrical ammo drum on the suit's back.


"Jassa, get over here and help me with this thing!" he shouted to his friend, "I wanna give the cunt-borns a little taste of their own medicine!"


"You're crazy!" the girl protested, nonetheless coming to his aid, "That thing weighs a ton!"


"I know a thing or two about these armexes," Drax argued, "They mount their external weapons and stores on magnetic slots just like on our suits! With a bit of luck, I might just be able to lug this thing around with me!"


"I know that," Jassa spoke, breaking open a cover on the armex's back and tinkering with the wires and switches inside, "With a little luck, I could get it to disconnect... There!"
As she exclaimed that, the magnetic locks disengaged and the heavy ammo drum dropped to the deck with a heavy thud. Drax immediately knelt down next to it and used his tacticom to readjust his own suits' power systems.


"You sure about this?" Jassa questioned, "Your suit's not meant to lug around anything this heavy for long! It will drain your fuel cells in under an hour!"


"An hour should be plenty enough!" Drax retorted, "Get that thing on my back!"


"Hey, what in Emperor's name are you two lovebirds mucking around there!?" centurion Crassus barked at them, his men having in the meantime secured the airlock, "We ain't got all day for this!"


"Just a second, sir!" Drax spoke, his tacticom informing him of a successful coupling with the ammo drum while Jassa worked to attach the autocannon's power cable to his armor. Since the beginning of the war, Sidh armorers had designed their infantry armor suits to be compatible with captured Fed power systems of similar size and output, so the autocannon should have been no exception.


Finally, Drax picked up the massive gun and tried to stand up. His HUD immediately lit up with warnings as his suit's gyros and joint servos protested loudly about overload and disbalance before readjusting. Even with cyber-augmentations further assisted by a mighty powered armor suit, the giant man-sized weapon felt heavy, but Drax wasn't deterred.


"You know, you could have just taken the rifle from your injured man, decurion," centurion Crassus pointed out, "It's not like he has any use for it now."


"True," Drax grinned under his helmet, "But where would be the fun in that? Cato, you're up with me! We'll go in first and clear the way!"


"Way to go, Dec!" the burly autogunner chuckled upon seeing the decurion's new weapon, "Ready when you are!"


"Alright, lads, throw in some smoke for us first!" Drax instructed Crassus's men down in the airlock who currently kept watch on the hallway leading to it, "Ready? Go!"


Two heavy thumps of phosphorus grenades instantly filled the hallway with thick smoke, Drax and Cato following right afterward, each taking their separate direction and letting loose a few shots. The first burst nearly knocked Drax over with recoil before he readjusted his grip and stance to better control his giant weapon. Even so, the massive shells pouring from its muzzle still flew high and wide, though it mattered little in such narrow confines, the muzzle blast from the oversized gun alone being enough to kill in close quarters. The decurion began to advance, stopping to fire a short burst after every couple steps, his comrades following close behind. As he emerged from the smoke, he saw the far end of the hallway riddled with massive bullet holes and scorch marks, the back of a human defender disappearing behind a corner at best pace. Drax kept on firing as he advanced to keep any defenders suppressed, reducing the metal wall at the end of the hallway to a shredded mess of scrap.


Finally, as he rounded the corner, a spray of bullets ricocheted off his armor and the surrounding walls, three visibly-distraught humans in Federation Navy exosuits firing their rifles at him. Drax responded with his new weapon to devastating effect, two of the men disintegrating into puffs of red mist while the third had his left leg blown off as he dove for cover in a side room.


"Jassa, grenade!" he ordered his friend who was right behind him. The girl immediately obliged, hurling a grenade into the door ahead, the whole hallway shaking from the blast moments later. A severed right leg that slid out along the floor leaving a trail of blood suggested that the man who had taken cover inside did not survive.


"Boreale, what's the status on the landing bay?!" Drax heard Crassus call in on the radio.


"Meeting heavy resistence!" the decurion reported through heavy interference, noise of intense gunfire in the back, "Could use some assistance ASAP!"


"Roger that," Crassus noted, "Drax, I will secure the bridge,you take your men down to the landing bay and help Boreale!"


"Understood!" the decurion spoke, "You heard the centurion, lads!"


The team made their way further down the hallway. The floor and walls were bent and twisted out of alignment in places, evidently where the front of the starship had buckled and deformed when it crashed into the ground. Drax couldn't help but think of the usefulness of these buckles as cover in the otherwise straight hallway. His thoughts proved accurate soon enough when two human defenders rounded the corner at the far end and opened fire, forcing him and Cato to cover behind just such a bend. The rest behind them either dropped to the ground or dove into side rooms. Victus thankfully resolved the situation by firing a couple rounds at the enemy, forcing them into cover long enough for Drax to lean out and open up with his autocannon. Advancing as he fired, Drax closed the distance enough for Victus and Jassa to move up behind him and throw a pair of grenades around each corner. The decurion and Cato backed down to let their lighter-armed comrades finish clearing the way. One of the humans took a shot through the back from Victus as he fled, while the other retreated downstairs, covering his retreat with a grenade that forced the Sidh to cover back behind the corner.


"I think down is this way!" Jassa spoke, pointing to a sign on the wall indicating the direction to a Landing Bay A2, which was apparently on the same side of the ship that Boreale's unit was trying to breach. The narrow stairwell was too tight for Drax or Cato with their massive guns to be much use in, so Grexus and Duilius took point with Jassa and Victus as their seconds.


"How are you holding up?" the decurion asked Cassius, who was dutifully watching the team's back with a handblaster in his only remaining arm. The sight of his severed arm still encased in armor sticking out of his tactical rig was rather amusing in a macabre sort of way.


"As good as a guy who just lost an arm possibly could, Dec!" Cassius responded with a tinge of sarcasm, "Oh, well... Always wanted to get me some hard augmetics anyway!"
"Why carry your old arm along then? You know we're unlikely to make it to a proper sickbay while it's still good for reattaching, right?" Drax pointed out.


"You never know, Dec," Cassius said, not looking away from his assigned firing sector for a second, "Better bring it along and have the docs tell me it can't be put back in its old place than leave it here only for the docs to tell it could've been fixed if only I had brought it along. Losing a piece of yourself like that ain't the same as deciding to have some bits cut away to make room for new augs, you know..."


"Just keep it together and stay focused," Drax nodded in agreement, "If you need more painkillers or stims, let me know!"


"I'm good, Dec!" Cassius declined, "My suit's still got enough to last me for another couple hours. With any luck, we'll be aboard a ship off of this thrice-cursed rock."


An instant later, he cringed as a bullet struck the wall inches from his head. A human soldier had emerged from a utility hatch in the cleared hallway behind them and fired a shot at the Sidh. Drax instantly levelled his autocannon at the man and fired a burst. The recoil sent the shells high, forcing the man to dive back into the hatch with haste.


"Grenade! Pull the pin for me, Dec!" Cassius exclaimed, pulling a grenade from his rig but unable to arm it with only one hand. Drax obliged, plucking the safety pin out for him. Cassius flung the grenade along the floor, it bouncing a few times before rolling into the open hatch. The following explosion blew off the hatch cover and dislodged the surrounding floor plates, starting a small fire. If the man who had been hiding in the utility crawlspace below had survived the blast, he was definitely not going to use the same passage for another attack.
Drax's decury proceeded downstairs, wiping out several points of minor resistence along the way. If frantic radio calls from Boreale's team were any measure, most of the fighting took place in and around the landing bay where the dropship was stored.


"Whatever you guys are doing, be quick about it!" she called in, "We are getting clobbered real bad here!"


"Drax, double-time it!" centurion Crassus called in, "We still have to secure the auxiliary bridge!"


"I'm doing my best, sir!" Drax growled. A moment later, roar of gunfire and screams from further down the hallway interrupted him.


"Man down!" Grexus frantically called in, and the armor suit AI also informed Drax about his decury having taken a casualty. A quick check of the decury battlenet revealed that missile trooper Duilius had just flatlined. Drax hastily made his way forwards where the fighting was, only to find Grexus vainly attempting to resuscitate his partner while the others were covering behind a corner near an intersection of hallways. Jassa and Victus were taking turns firing around the corner, heavy fire coming in from just around it. The distinctive roaring bursts that contrasted starkly with the heavier hammering staccato of Sidh blast rifles indicated the enemy or enemies around the corner were armed with pulse rifles, the latest addition to the Federation's infantry arsenal.


"Leave him, he's gone!" Drax starkly commanded after seeing several holes in Duilius's chest and face plates. Formidable as it was, even Sidh powered armor was of little help against armor-piercing rounds at this range, nor could their augmetics save them from death after multiple hits to the torso and head.


The decurion tapped into Jassa's gun optics feed which she used to aim shots around the corner. It revealed a large room where several hallways met. The far end was heavily barricaded with crates, furniture, loose floor plates and other assorted junk. Three or four Fed soldiers held this improvised strongpoint under the leadership of a grizzled cigar-munching Black gunnery sergeant who was blasting away at the Sidh corner with his pulse rifle and shouting taunts in between the bursts.


"Get some! Get some!"


Drax checked the ammunition counter on his captured autocannon. Thirty-five rounds was probably enough to demolish the barricade, but to line up a decent burst, he'd need to assume a stable stance in plain sight of the enemy first. The fate of Duilius attested the ill advice of attempting anything of the sort.


With a heavy thud, the autocannon and its ammo drum fell to the floor. Drax drew his sidearm and combat knife.


"No way around these assholes," he stated, "We'll have to rush them. I want smoke and a couple frags in that room, and as soon as they blow, we rush them! On three!"
Jassa, Victus and Grexus prepared the grenades and stacked up.


"Man, this is the part that I hate the most about CQB..." Victus grumbled to himself. Storming well-defended rooms inside buildings or ships was never an easy or pleasant business even with the benefit of advanced powered armor and augmetics, as the demise of Duilius had just demonstrated.


"One! Two! Three!" Drax counted down.


The grenades flew around the corner, shaking the hallway with their explosions and instantly filling the air with thick opaque white smoke. Before the shrapnel were even finished bouncing around the room, Drax dashed into the cloud of smoke and entered a power slide, a pulse rifle burst narrowly missing his head. Slamming hard into the barricade, he dove over it and straight into a silhouette raising a pulse rifle against him. The decurion's reflexes were faster, his blaster shot disintegrating the opponent's head into a puff of red mist. An instant later he was swept from his feet, the Black sergeant descending upon him with a cigar stump still held firmly in the corner of his mouth. Drax pushed his rifle aside, it firing a burst harmlessly into the floor, and kicked the man in the shoulder, sending him reeling. Jumping back on his feet, he managed to lean aside just enough for the next burst to graze his armor, shredding his tactical rig. Noises of fighting and angry screams in the smoke nearby indicated the other defenders were also engaged with the attacking Sidh. With all his augmented might, Drax dove into the human sergeant, throwing him back and splaying him against the wall. Snarling ferociously as he finally spat out his cigar, the man wasn't about to yield, planting a knee in Drax's gut and elbowing his face. Sparks were shed as armor plate met armor plate. Drax lost his balance and fell but managed to grab onto the human's tactical vest and pull him down on top of him. Before the sergeant could break free or grab a hold of his weapon, Drax embraced him in a bone-crushing bear hug, from which a man with the lighter Fed powered armor would have difficulty to escape unassisted.


"Die... tankie... filth!" the sergeant growled in anger and pain, mustering all his might to push back against Drax, loosening his grip just enough to pull out and arm a grenade. The decurion tried to shove him away, but the man clung on to him with all his might, determined to take the Sidh with him in death.


The explosion felt as if Thor himself had put the decurion on an anvil and applied his mighty hammer to his chest. In the split-second moment between the blast and unconsciousness, Drax could have sworn he felt several of his ribs snap and one lung burst.


---


When Drax came back to his senses, he found Jassa looking down upon him with concern. His ears were ringing and the decurion felt drowsier than after a three-day drinking binge. His chest and gut felt like worked over with a power hammer, numb and dully-aching at the same time. He could taste blood in his mouth. Moments later, he was overcome with the overwhelming desire to retch, barely managing to disengage his helmet before puking out the remnants of his least meal tinged with blood.


"Can you hear me, Arcadius?!" was Jassa's first question as she leaned down to tend to the decurion. Although the faceplate concealed her features and the external speaker distorted her voice, it was plainly obvious that she was very concerned.


"Emperor's blood... What happened?" Drax groaned, wincing in pain even as his suit was administering generous doses of painkillers and stimulants.


"That Fed sergeant decided to go out with a bang and bring you along for the ride is what happened," Jassa explained, "You're lucky he pressed that grenade against the thick of your chestplate, or your guts would be all over the place now!"


Drax looked down on himself to examine the damage. The inch-thick armor plate protecting his chest now bore a large scorch mark and was visibly buckled inwards. His tactical rig was gone, evidently shredded by the blast and discarded. The decurion concluded he wouldn't be doing much shooting with all his remaining magazines gone.


"Welcome back from the dead, Dec!" Cato greeted him, "Your heart had stopped for a whole minute before your suit could jump-start it back."


"Where are we?" Drax asked, looking around and not recognizing the place.


"Just outside the landing bay," Jassa explained, "I and Victus had to lug you all the way here. Can you walk?"


"I can... I think," Drax struggled on his feet, groaning as he could clearly feel some of his ribs broken now, "This will definitely feel sore well into the next week..."


"Good!" Cassius remarked, tossing Drax his rifle, "Grab my gun, Dec! It's no use to me in my present condition."


The decurion nearly failed to catch the weapon, mustering all his will to resist the pain.


"Cato, Victus - take point! Move out!"


The decury advanced around the next corner up to a large blast door inscribed with "Landing Bay A2". Being the most qualified, Jassa stepped up to run a bypass.


"All elements, this is Actual," centurion Crassus spoke on the radio, "Auxiliary bridge has been secured, but we are encountering heavy resistence! Opening outer bay doors now!"


"Decurion Drax, if you're still there, now is as good a time as any!" Boreale called in audibly distressed, intense gunfire raging in the background.


"We're almost there!" Drax responded, "Ran into some problems along the way!"


"I'm almost through..." Jassa spoke, tinkering with the door circuits in a power box, "There!"


With that, the blast door hydraulics hissed, and the massive monolithic metal plate lifted with surprising speed for its size. Just behind it stood a Fed position, four human soldiers hiding behind another improvised barricade of crates and floor plating. All four were too busy shooting at Boreale's men to notice the impending danger. One of them who knelt down to reload caught a glimpse of the Sidh behind them and cried out in alarm, but an instant later the position was silenced with a spray of explosive shells from Cato's auto-blaster. Several shells fired by Boreale's soldiers exploded right above the door aisle, right above the heads of Drax's men, prompting them to duck.


"Friendly fire, friendly fire!" Drax shouted on the comm, again wincing as his battered ribcage protested painfully against such exertion.


"Cease fire, friendlies on twelve!" Boreale responded, no more shots following.


"About time you showed up, decurion!" she spoke as Drax and his remaining soldiers emerged from cover, "That last bunch you got there really had us pinned, and we couldn't flank without risking them shooting up the dropship! Say, you look like hammered shit..."


"I've had worse," Drax grumbled, "Is the ship ready?"


"My boys are on it!" Boreale pointed to the ship that began to rev up its engines.


"Is any of your guys even qualified to fly that thing?" Drax was sceptical. The question had frankly been bothering him all along, as none of the grunts in his old century had ever been instructed in flying a dropship, let alone a Fed one.


"Caestia and Callistrates used to fly commercial shuttles before the war," Boreale spoke without much apparent concern, "So unless you happen to have a fully-certified dropship pilot with experience in piloting captured enemy craft in your crew, they're what we have."


"As long as those two can keep that thing in the air while I and my soldiers are on it, they're good enough for me..." Drax agreed, although the idea of trusting the entire group's lives to a pair of civilian pilots evidently did not sit well with him.


"Alright, everyone aboard!" Boreale shouted, "Grab the tags and anything useful from the fallen and leave them behind! Actual, what's taking you so long?!"


"We're facing heavy resistence everywhere!" centurion Crassus responded over the radio with ample gunfire in the background, "We'll try to fight our way back to the top, you'll have to pick us up from there!"


"Roger that! Taking off now!" Boreale confirmed.


The dropship's engines roared to full power not a moment too soon as Fed reinforcements burst into the landing bay on the upper level catwalks and opened up, the Sidh troops returning fire from the ship's open rear ramp. One of Boreale's men took a hit from a round ricocheting inside the ship, the bullet finding a weak spot in the tight gap between his helmet and armored collar protecting the neck from above. With a small cry, the man dropped lifeless from his seat, a few thin sprays of arterial blood spurting out of the small bullet hole. Cato and Victus let their weapons speak in return, avenging the fallen man by gunning down three of the intruders and forcing the rest in cover. Their retaliatory fire probably saved the ship, an RPG narrowly missing the starboard engine and impacting on the landing bay wall. Moments later, the dropship left the hangar and blasted off before circling back around to pick up the remaining Sidh expected to come out on the topside of the hulk.


As Drax could prominently see from the open rear ramp now, the diversionary offensive was going on in full swing. The larger hulk of the Fed cruiser in the distance behind them was ablaze with explosions. Its titanic turrets that still functioned occasionally lit up the surroundings with blasts of their own, throwing blazing projectiles the size of city buses back at the advancing Sidh that he couldn't see from his current seat. The sky had largely darkened again since Drax last saw it, the roiling black clouds again obscuring the blood-red sky from sight. In the far distance behind the wrecked hulk, some massive blazing projectile pierced the cloud cover, briefly illuminating the sky with a massive explosion. Probably another fragment of a starship, Drax thought, knowing fusion bombs and mass accelerator slugs to produce much more brilliant blasts.


"Taking fire!" he heard the pilot cry out as the dropship suddenly jerked to the right in an evasive motion. Several streams of tracer rounds blazed past the ship.
"Well, why do you think this ship's got that big-ass gun installed for?!" Boreale who was standing in the door between the cargo bay and the cockpit angrily shouted, "Fuck them up!"
"Oh, right...!" the pilot exclaimed, taking another precious couple seconds and an evasive action before finding controls for the massive rotary autocannon that ran through the entire front half of Cheyenne dropships and making it roar to life. Drax quietly rolled his eyes at the thought of having entrusted his life to such an amateur, but Boreale was unfortunately right - a pair of civilian pilots was all they had.


"Centurion, how is it going!?" Boreale called on the radio as the dropship came to hover a few meters away from the top hatch that Drax and Crassus with their teams had entered the shipwreck through before, "It's getting pretty hot up here!"


To confirm her words, the ship was rocked by the shockwave of a closely-passing railgun slug from the Sidh side.


"...heavy fire... are down... injured... " the response was somewhat garbled, interfered by static and the noise of heavy fighting, before the centurion suddenly responded with almost-perfect clarity, "Looks like we won't be joining you. We'll keep the Feds distracted. Get those lads to safety!"


"No, I'm coming down for you! Nobody gets left behind!" Boreale argued, waving for her men to get ready.


"Negative, there's a whole platoon's worth of them between us and you, and they'll be starting the bombardment in less than an hour!" Crassus argued, coughing in mid-sentence from an apparent injury, "It's your job to get those lads to safety now, Decurion! That is an order!"


"Roger that, Centurion..." Boreale hesitantly replied, a few tears that nobody else saw rolling down her cheeks behind her faceplate, "It's been an honour serving with you!"


"Likewise, Decurion. Now go! Ave Imperatrix!"


"Ave!" decurion Boreale sighed and turned to the pilots, "Take us out of here! Stay under 30 meters and make sure that salvaged transponder is on!"


The dropship lifted off and roared off just in time, a shell striking near its earlier location moments afterward. The soldier entrusted with handling the transponder that was hastily wired to the ship's systems set it to transmit a looped message on all frequencies typically used by the Sidh forces.


"This is the surviving shuttle crew of Strategos Theron speaking, authentication code Alpha-Three-Five-Sigma-Phi-Omega-Seven-Niner! We are flying a captured Federation Cheyenne-class dropship! We have surviving elements of the Alpha Legion onboard! Do not fire upon us!"


So far it seemed to work as nobody fired at the ship even as it flew over the main Sidh frontline, discounting a few streams of tracers passing uncomfortably close but probably being aimed at other targets. A nearby explosion illuminated the perpetual twilight of the battlefield, revealing the titanic shapes of multiple Sidh mechwalkers striding towards the Fed lines. Drax spotted another two lying face down in the dirt and burning, with numerous tanks and APCs advancing in the circles of light cast by the fires. Next to the giant walkers, they looked downright tiny. Then, the pilot finally remembered to close the rear door, obscuring further battle scenes from sight.


Drax now had time to look around at the soldiers aboard the ship. Less than a half of the three-odd decuries that had set out to capture the dropship were now present, many of the ones present being heavily battered and injured. There were no casualties that had to be carried on stretchers - owing to advanced augmetics, an injury severe enough to incapacitate a Sidh to the point of immobility was likely to be fatal anyway. His own man Cassius sat two seats to his left with only one arm, his severed one still tucked in his tactical rig. One of Boreale's men had part of his helmet faceplate blasted away along with his cheek, revealing burnt flesh and exposed teeth beneath. Most likely pumped full of stims and painkillers, the soldier endured the wound in stoic silence. Boreale herself, Drax noticed only now, had a bullet hole piercing her left side, the self-sealing armor having closed up the breach and making it difficult to assess the extent of injury underneath. The decurion certainly made no complaint or otherwise indicate her injury. Most other soldiers including Drax himself had various damage marks on their armor, quite a few of them likely to be injurious.


"How long until the bombardment starts?" he spoke to Boreale.


"47 minutes, assuming they stick to the original schedule," the decurion curtly replied, her mind evidently still dwelling on the brave centurion Crassus and his men who had sacrificed themselves.


"Good," Drax nodded, "Should leave us with plenty of time to spare!"


The ship was rocked by a nearby blast, brilliant flash entering through the cockpit windows. Probably nuclear, Drax thought, observing the cargo bay lights briefly flicker and the ship's computer drone an EMP alert in its monotonous synthetic voice from the cockpit. No doubt the humans were hitting back with everything they had by now.
"How are you holding up?" Jassa who was sitting next to him asked, disengaging her helmet.


"Everything between my neck and waist is sore, but I'll live," Drax curtly retorted, "Damn shame we couldn't collect the centurion."


"Damn shame indeed," the girl agreed, "I can't help but think how they're going to receive us at the evac site. As far as they know, they're still expecting Strategos Theron and his staff. A bunch of grunts arriving in a stolen Fed ship using his authorization code will likely bring up lots of questions..."


"Only one way to find out," Drax shrugged, "Try to grab some quick shut-eye while nothing happens. We can worry about explaining ourselves to the brass later."


"Will do," Jassa nodded, leaning back and closing her eyes. Drax noticed her armored hand wander towards his and hold on to it lightly, ever so out of the sight of everyone else. The decurion smirked with disapproval, but did not retract his hand as he too leaned back and closed his eyes.


---


Having bad dreams was said to be a sign of a rookie by human soldiers. Having any dreams at all was said to be a sign of a civilian by Sidh soldiers. The Sidh were engineered to make do with minimal sleep as they were, but the warrior genotypes of the more recent generations could stay functional for two weeks on end without any sleep at all. The closest thing to sleep that a Sidh soldier typically could afford was a light, semi-conscious snooze, a sort of standby from which one was ever ready to spring immediately back into action. Medics said it had something to do with augmetics rewiring the sleep cycle, the hemispheres of the brain resting separately much like in Terran sea mammals. That's not to say the Sidh did not appreciate proper sleep whenever the opportunity arose.


Drax woke from his dreamless slumber precisely 18 minutes and 26 seconds later according to his internal clock. Most of the men had similarly dozed off. Boreale could be heard conversing with the pilots.


"Is there really no other way?" she asked.


"Not if we want to make it in one piece there ain't," one of the pilots, the man named Callicrates, explained, "I don't have pinpoint-accurate charts for these mountains, and there's much too heavy interference to try and find a pass through on instruments alone, especially when it's this dark. Gotta go either around them, or over them."


"Won't all that electric activity in the clouds mess up your instruments even more?" the decurion questioned.


"It probably will, but at least we won't crash in the mountains, and we should be able to reboot them in-flight once we're on the other side," the pilot explained, "And from there it's just another five minutes to LZ."


"Alright, do it!" Boreale curtly commanded and turned to the rest of the crew, "Everybody buckle up! We're about to hit some serious turbulence!"


While checking his safety harness, Drax peeked into the cockpit an saw a dark mountain range tower ahead of the ship, their peaks reaching into the roiling clouds criscrossed by lightning. Moments later, the view disappeared from sight as the ship entered into the cloud layer and started to shake violently, only brilliant flashes of lightning entering from outside. The shaking and constant blast of thunderclaps made it seem as if the ship was flying through intense anti-aircraft fire. Lights in the cargo bay flickered and went out, something started to reek of burning plastic, prompting everyone to engage their helmets and look around for the source.


"Proximity alert! Proximity alert! Pull up! Pull up! Altitude! Altitude!" the ship's computer began to drone while alarms started to blare moments before a vertical rock wall emerged right in front of the ship.


"OOOOH, SHIIIT!" the pilots could be heard crying out as the ship entered a desperate vertical climb, sending any unsecured items falling to the rear of the cargo bay. The dropship rattled as its belly scraped against rock several times before clearing the obstacle, the alarms finally falling silent.


"I think we're clear..." Callicrates remarked after everyone was still alive some 10 seconds later.


"Emperor's blood, that was close..." the female pilot Caestia could be heard sighing with relief.


"I think I just pissed myself..." Cato could be heard grumbling quietly. Everyone chuckled uneasily, unsure whether that was an attempt at humor or a statement of fact.
"Statrep on systems!" Boreale demanded.


"Sensors are scrambled and barely working," Callicrates reported, "But we should be over the mountains in a couple minutes. We'll do our best to keep this thing flying in the meanwhile."
The following minutes were probably the most intense that Drax or anyone else aboard had ever experienced while flying in a dropship, the turbulence and electric activity really making it feel like flying through a heavy anti-aircraft barrage. The decurion and some of the more experienced soldiers had done their fair share of combat drops before, and thus far the only difference seemed to be a lack of shrapnel and debris scraping along the hull. Centurion Crassus hadn't been kidding when he said the flight to the evac site would likely be the most dangerous part of the mission. After what seemed like ages, the pilots finally announced clearing the mountain range and again descended below the cloud cover. Visibility here was much lower than before, owing to thick flakes of grey snow or ash obscuring vision.


"Alright, hail the LZ's air control and let them know we're coming in," Boreale instructed.


"Uh, decurion, we might have a slight problem with that..." Caestia spoke with concern after briefly attempting to communicate, "I think we've might have lost the comms antenna during that close encounter with a mountain."


Even behind the faceplate, Boreale could be perceived to pale.


"Please tell me at least the transponder is working!" she spoke to the soldier responsible for the device.


"It used the comm antenna to receive and transmit signal!" he exclaimed after hastily checking the transponder, "They won't know we're friendlies!"


"Fuck!" Boreale cried out, losing her composure for the first time, "Pilots, take us down as low as possible!"


"Good idea," the two agreed when the missile lock-on alarm in the cockpit started to blare loudly, "Uh, speaking of the devil, I think we're getting pinged!"


"Well, do something! Anything!" Boreale shouted, close to panicking. Experienced and level-headed soldier as she was on the ground, the decurion was largely clueless about aerospace tactics and air defense evasion, as were, for that matter, the two pilots.


"Incoming! Incoming! Evade! Evade!" the computer dispassionately warned, the loud irritating beeps signifying the ship being tracked by at least one missile.


"Decoys!" Caestia determined after a moment of confusion or panic and hit a pair of switches. Something on the outer hull rattled, the air outside the cockpit window lighting up as the dropship dispensed countermeasures including pyrotechnic flares. Looking from the ground, the proverbial "angel wings" were quite a sight. Not so much when flying inside a plane under a lock-on, Drax thought.


"Again!" Callicrates who was steering the ship demanded when that failed to throw the missiles off-course, "Everyone hold on!"


In an instant, the dropship entered a barrel roll, loose items crashing about in the cargo bay violently. Drax quietly thanked the heavens that there was nothing bigger than an autogun ammo box, or even armor wouldn't have prevented serious injuries from happening. The ship was rocked by two nearby explosions, the alarm going silent. The pilots and pretty much everyone else aboard cheered loudly, realizing those were most probably the missiles fired at them.


"I can see the LZ!" Caestia exclaimed. Drax leaned forward in his seat for a look. Indeed, even through the heavy snowfall or fallout, whatever it was, a well-lit area with numerous massive dropships was visible.


"Try flying in sideways to show we are not hostile!" Boreale suggested, recalling that turning a captured tank's turret sideways or backwards was a way of avoiding friendly fire among ground forces on both sides.


Just as the pilots were about to implement the suggestion, a bright stream of tracers suddenly erupted towards them from the LZ, likely fired by one of the CIWS placed to defend the area.


"No, no, no, you stupid bastards...!" was all Drax heard before the barrage tore into the ship. He saw Victus and three men from Boreale's decury literally explode and disintegrate before the ship itself broke apart and tumbled to the ground violently. Last thing he remembered was Jassa screaming and grabbing onto his arm.


---


When the decurion came back to his senses, he found himself thrown well clear of the wrecked dropship. Burning wreckage, bodies and body parts were scattered all about. He tried to get up only to find his left arm twisted and bent in an unnatural angle, although the pain didn't go beyond moderate discomfort with him already on painkillers. Struggling to his feet, Drax rushed to the front half of the ship, even if an unsteady limp was the best he could manage. Along the way he found Cato, impaled on piece of wreckage and dead. Closer to the wreck lied Cassius, decapitated but with his severed arm still neatly tucked in his tactical vest. Some of Boreale's men had survived the crash and were now limping around aimlessly in shock and confusion.


Upon reaching the wreck, Drax found decurion Boreale impaled on a broken strut. The cockpit was completely crushed from the ship impacting the ground, only the bloody hand of what was presumably co-pilot Caestia sticking out of the wreckage through the cockpit door. Much to Drax's relief, Jassa was still firmly in her seat with no obvious injuries. The same strut that had killed Boreale now held her firmly pinned in her seat.


"Claudia! Claudia! Can you hear me?!" the decurion banged on her helmet while running a quick scan, indicating her life signs were still more or less nominal.
"Hey, handsome..." she uttered weakly, disengaging her helmet with her free hand, "Pretty crappy day, wouldn't you agree?"


"Hold on there, I'll get you out!" Drax spoke and grabbed on the strut, putting all his augmented might into pulling it away. The metal creaked and moved only so slightly, but refused to yield even with Jassa assisting within her ability.


"It won't budge! Hold on, I'll get help!" he exclaimed and shouted to one of the survivors wandering outside. The man didn't even acknowledge his presence, apparently in a state of shock. Enraged, Drax struck him, knocking the man on his backside where he continued to stare at him blankly.


"Up! Get up and help me, you useless piece of shit!" the decurion continued to slap him on the head, "Get up, or I swear on the Emperor's blood I'll rape your corpse with a shitty stick!"
The soldier finally came to his senses and came to Drax's aid.


"On three!" he commanded when the two had assembled back near Jassa, "One, two...!"


"Decurion, the fuel's leaking!" the assisting soldier suddenly cried out, pointing to a trickle of fluid flowing along their feet from where the fuel tanks used to be, "It's gonna blow any second!"


"Looks like I won't be able to hold you to that new beginning together, Arcadius," Jassa stated resignedly as she too noticed the trickle of fuel creeping ever closer to the burning side of the wreck.


"Oh no, you will! I'm not leaving you here!" Drax protested, redoubling his efforts to dislocate the strut, "You there, put your back into it!"


"Decurion, we gotta move!" the soldier argued, "If that fuel goes up, so will all that ammo!"


And he pointed at the two prominent missile racks mounted on folding struts outside the wreck. Cheyenne dropships featured a pair of external missile racks that could be folded inside the ship during atmospheric re-entry and high-speed blast-offs to low orbit.


"Fuck off, then!" Drax barked, "I'm not leaving my last soldier behind!"


The man hesitated, not wanting to abandon comrades in distress, but moments later the fuel ignited, forcing him to jump back and leaving Drax trapped inside behind a wall of flames.
"It's okay, babe, you don't have to burn up for me!" Jassa spoke, her expression sad but tranquil.


"I'm not leaving you!" Drax spitefully announced, disengaging his helmet, "You are the last person in this world I care about! We came into this world of piss and shit together, might as well leave it together."


"Then the least you could do is kiss a girl goodbye!" Jassa chuckled and reached out with her free hand, pulling Drax in for a passionate kiss, the likes of which they hadn't shared since those early days in the progenitory. Taken aback, he didn't even notice she curled her legs and pressed them against his chest before kicking him away with all her might.


Landing on his backside well outside the flames, Drax only managed to jump back to his feet and roar out in fury and sorrow when the missile racks detonated, a mighty shockwave throwing him even further like a rag doll. When he came back to his senses, the front half of the dropship was no more, a sea of scattered flaming fuel and wreckage around him.


A single tear rolled down the decurion's grimy cheek. That this would have happened sooner or later, he had known and expected, for such was the fate meant for all of his generation. Yet with the last of his birth-kin gone, Drax had never felt so alone in this world before.


"You're on fire, decurion!" one of the survivors from Boreale's decury rushed to him and slapped his right shoulder vigorously, Drax only now noticing a burning splash of fuel on his shoulder pauldron.


After struggling back on his feet, the decurion's face assumed that cold, grizzled expression that would become his trademark in later years.
"All survivors, assemble on me!" he barked sharply, "We continue with the mission!"


After everyone within earshot had rallied up, the decurion did a quick count. Out of all who had set out on this perilous journey, five men including himself remained.
The headlights of several approaching APCs shined through the perillous darkness of the nuclear night and the grey flakes of ash that were falling thickly from the lightning-lit sky. Moments later, the group found themselves at the gunpoint of at least three decuries of Sidh.


"Identify yourselves!" their commander demanded, apparently having recognized Drax and his companions as Sidh and withheld fire.


"Decurion Arcadius Drax, 6th Assault, Alpha Legion! Last survivors of Strategos Theron's retinue, authorization code Alpha-Three-Five-Sigma-Phi-Omega-Seven-Niner! We're here for the evacuation!"


"Strategos Theron? We thought he went missing three days ago! Where is he?" the commander demanded, "And why are you Alphas on his retinue?"


"Strategos Theron is KIA," Drax explained without going into further detail, "The rest of us got rescued along the way. This is all of us that's left now."


"Then you're in luck, we're the last patrol! The last evac ship leaves in five, and the fleet is starting bombardment early!" the commander spoke over a loudspeaker, "Get in, quick!"
The soldiers lowered their weapons and allowed Drax's men to approach.


"Do me a favour," Drax growled while getting in the nearest APC, "Don't put me on the same ship as the asshole who set up that CIWS that shot us out of the sky! Or I can't promise I won't blow the sonofabitch out of the airlock once I find out who he is!"


"Why the hell were you guys flying in a Fed dropship to begin with?" one of the local soldiers asked, "When the radar picked you up, the whole base was put on alert - we thought you were just a scouting party."


"Long story," Drax would not go into details, "Had to change ships to get here, and lost the transmitter along the way.


Minutes later, the convoy rolled inside a fortified base that housed numerous gantries. Some were unoccupied, but a few still held massive dropships that towered into the lightning-lit sky. As soon as Drax stepped out, it became plainly obvious that the place was being hastily evacuated, the commander of the convoy not having exaggerated one bit of this being literally the last minute.


"Move, move!" an officer on the nearest's ship's ramp shouted towards any stragglers outside, "Ditch the rides, we don't have time to secure them! They're starting the bombardment already!"


Indeed, the entire horizon to the East suddenly lit up a fiery orange, like a sunrise come early - except that this light was no welcoming sunlight, but that of blazing hellfire. Drax was among the last to step inside the dropship before the ramp was raised, and everybody was ordered to assume secure positions. Moments later, the massive fusion rockets underneath the ship ignited with a tonitrous roar, the acceleration forcing everybody inside their seats or on the floor. For a moment, the ship shook and rattled violently as it breached the atmospheric shroud of dust and soot, until eventually its flight evened out. Minutes later, after reaching orbital speeds, the main thrusters shut down, zero gravity setting in.


While the ship was on its way to dock with one of the Navy vessels in orbit, Drax took opportunity to find an illuminator and catch one last glimpse of the doomed world he had struggled so hard to leave behind. And there it was, shrouded in a perpetual cover of dark-grey clouds lit by flashes of lightning. Colossal explosions were now ravaging its surface as the Navy rained down their stock of strategic-yield ordnance, the monstrous size and shape of the fiery mushroom clouds leading Drax to estimate each blast to be in the range of 300 megatons. But even these blasts paled in comparison to the continent-cracking fury of the brilliant particle lances striking down from the titanic dreadnoughts higher up in orbit, each blast kicking up plumes of white-hot debris up to low orbital heights. Even from this distance where this debris looked small, it was easy to recognize each of these fragments was easily the size of several city blocks.


Even though Drax couldn't bear to look, thinking about all those Sidh who didn't have the luxury of escape down there, the terrifying majesty of the sight - the fiery demise of an entire planet - kept him mesmerized at the illuminator until the ship turned away from the doomed world.

---

--- excerpt from the court-martial protocol 705983-Alpha-A6 "DEC Arcadius Drax"---
After careful questioning and investigation of the facts, which has been somewhat complicated by the enactment of Omega Protocol on planet Alcaeus, it is the finding of this court-martial that:



1) DEC Arcadius Drax did by his own admission abandon his standing mission of rendezvous and return of CNT Crassus's (KIA on Alcaeus) reconnaissence team as assigned to him by CNT Polycrates (KIA on Alcaeus).



2)It was CNT Crassus who incited DEC Drax to abandon his standing mission and attempt an evacuation based on classified information secured from the crashed shuttle of STR Theron (KIA on Alcaeus), and to misrepresent himself as part of STR Theron's retinue. DEC Drax admits his guilt on all counts. Witnesses (listed in the appendix) have unanimously confirmed that DEC Drax initially resisted suggestions to abandon his standing mission aggressively, and only reconsidered after being informed of the impending destruction of Alcaeus included in the classfied PLAN OMEGA found by CNT Crassus on the person of STR Theron. Witnesses are also unanimous in describing DEC Drax's reconsideration as driven chiefly by concern for his soldiers rather than selfish self-preservation.



3)Despite these flagrant breaches of standing orders, DEC Drax acted with the best interests of his soldiers in mind based on information available to him. By his own words, DEC Drax accepts full responsibility as the sole surviving NCO of CNT Crassus's followers.



In light of these findings and extenuating circumstances deriving from the destruction of Alcaeus, this court-martial hereby finds DEC Drax NOT GUILTY of desertion. DEC Drax is found GUILTY on charge of insubordination, for which he shall be FORMALLY REPRIMANDED. DEC Drax has also been nominated for the award SWORD OF THE STARS by his four surviving companions (listed in the appendix) for "demonstrating stalwart leadership above and beyond the call of duty under circumstances of extreme personal danger". DEC Drax shall be considered eligible for receiving this award after serving SIX MONTHS in his new unit on the condition no further disciplinary infractions take place. DEC Drax is to be reinstated in his original rank in a unit that the appropriate authorities of the ALPHA LEGION shall deem fit for his qualifications.



AVE IMPERATRIX!
 

The Carcosan Herald

Senior Member
A thrilling conclusion to the four-parter which commences Drax's rise to power and prominence in the Alpha Legion. As with the other three, I thoroughly enjoyed reading through it for the same reasons as I have elaborated upon earlier. Highlights of the finale include: the ship fight itself, with an excellently executed chain of action sequences; the humorous ineptitude of Caestia and Callistrates in flying the dropship; and the end of Jassa. At the end of it all, her demise rubber-stamps the terrible reality of the new universe the Sidh people face - once the guardians of humanity, cast aside with a thunderous bang, and left all alone with the darkness of space as their sole comfort.

I stand by my earlier statement that Omega Protocol presently represents the zenith of your writing career, with the potential to blossom into something truly amazing. But alas, I'm here not to praise, but to critique, and thus I proceed onto some of the areas that could use some improvement.

Chief of the bunch is your tendency to unleash what I refer to as technobarf, also known as the infodump. You've gotten much better at containing it since I last pulled you up on it, but "Since the beginning of the war, Sidh armorers had designed their infantry armor suits to be compatible with captured Fed power systems of similar size and output, so the autocannon should have been no exception" isn't getting past me. It states something which has been made as obvious as daylight when Jassa started to hook up the cable to begin with. If you absolutely, positively have to reinforce the compatibility feature, integrate it into the scenery: for example, have the armour's HUD or AI say something like "Switching to Federal-issue compatibility settings...", or have Jassa hook up an adapter.

Next on my shitlist is the following sentence: "Three or four Fed soldiers held this improvised strongpoint under the leadership of a grizzled cigar-munching Black gunnery sergeant who was blasting away at the Sidh corner with his pulse rifle and shouting taunts in between the bursts." First of all, you don't need to capitalise 'black' when describing the specific ethnicity. Second and most pertinently of all, while I always appreciate an action movie shoutout, I think specifying the sergeant's ethnicity to begin with is unnecessary. This is especially since this is the only human in the entire four-parter (or at least, the only one I caught) whose ethnic background is even mentioned. There are two worst-case scenarios I can see by doing so: first is that people think you're perpetuating a racial stereotype (see the Woggos in previous Sidhverse works you've done), or that people think you've only done it so you can proclaim "Diversity!" for its own sake. Something to be aware of, even if only as an afterthought.

Finally, I caught wind of a small handful of grammatical and spelling errors. The most egregious of them are to be found below with corrections and suggestions in brackets:
resistence (resistance), reconnaissence (reconnaissance)

"Is any of your guys even qualified to fly that thing?" ("Are any of your guys even qualified to fly that thing?")

"We'll do our best to keep this thing flying in the meanwhile." (You get a choice! Pick between "keep this thing flying meanwhile", or "keep this thing flying in the meantime".)

Aside from those, I'll once again say you've hit a new apoapsis in your writing. Keep ironing out the kinks and you've got yourself a potential masterpiece in the making.
 
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