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

CyberWar

Senior Member
Enter the much-awaited sequel to the previous chapter, Omega Protocol - Part One.

The exchange of fire with the human vanguards had subsided, the enemy pulling back to regroup. There was little doubt that the enemy was merely probing the Sidh lines for weakness, likely oblivious of the hell about to be unleashed on them. The roiling black clouds of soot and nanites overhead prevented accurate reconnaissence imaging from orbit or stratosphere, and the constant electrical activity in the cloud cover also disrupted lower-altitude UAV flights, largely limiting both sides to low-altitude recon flights well within reach of the air defenses. Such disruption was the reason why self-replicating nanites had been unleashed in the atmospheres of numerous embattled worlds, though it invariably came at the cost of shrouding the planets in perpetual twilight and essentially destroying their entire ecosystems. Granted, the nanites were at least in theory also meant to aid in ecological recovery in the long run, replicating by consuming the soot and dust particles before eventually falling out of the sky as inert dust themselves - but in practice that tended to take years, long after any plant life on the stricken world had gone extinct.


Remains of this plant life were to be seen everywhere in the no-man's land that Drax and his decury were advancing through. Splintered stumps of long-dead trees stuck out of the cratered soil, massive roots sticking out of shellhole walls here and there indicated how grand trees had grown here once, even the occasional fallen log that hadn't been yet ground to splinters by incessant bombardments.


In the absence of photosynthesis in this new dark environment, fungi of all sorts seemed to thrive even in spite of the cold. Decaying bodies older than a week or two were often covered in a thick dirty-white fur of molds, though it admittedly only made the vile corpses look even more hideous. Different kinds of fungi richly covered dead tree stumps and anything else organic, and some slimy pitch-black fungus even seemed to thrive on irradiated grounds. Some of these fungi emitted toxic spores, which added another hazard to the already-deadly battlefields.


"Careful, mudhole ahead!" Vitellus who was on point alerted the rest, using a hand signal along with an announcement on the squad's short-range radio. One of the advantages of having fully-enclosed helmets was being able to converse without risking a nearby enemy hearing it, provided one didn't forget to turn off the external speakers and the electromagnetic interference wasn't too heavy.


"Mudhole ahead!" the message was passed down the file, even though everyone had heard it the first time over the radio. Repeating commands and warnings had become so ingrained and habitual that none of the soldiers thought about it anymore even in situations where it was redundant.


Passing the aforementioned shellhole halfway full of liquid mud, Drax was wary not to step too close to the edge. One misplaced step, and the muck would swallow a man whole, especially if he was wearing armor. Drax had seen it happen before, lads going down to slowly suffocate inside their armor suits, their buddies outside being powerless to do anything about it unless the mudhole turned out to be sufficiently shallow to pull the unfortunate out in time. Survivors described the feel like being immersed in fresh concrete, seemingly liquid but at the same time rigid enough to overcome even the might of powered armor. Dead bodies that tended to pickle in the muck wherever it was found only further added to the unpleasantness, and even if the fully-sealed armor suits prevented direct exposure to their foulness, their mere proximity was often enough to make more inexperienced and squeamish souls retch - oftentimes with deadly consequences, seeing how it was inside a sealed helmet. Fortunately, none seemed to be found here, the mudhole being crusted over by a thin layer of ice that formed here at nights despite the Magestrix Wasteland being located in tropical latitudes.


The decury continued onwards, keeping a 10-meter distance between each other and staying low, maneuvering between the rusting hulks of destroyed vehicles that littered the battlefield. Passing a wrecked Fed APC, Drax looked up to see the eyeless skull of its commander grinning back at him. Poor bastard had apparently burnt alive while trying to escape the vehicle, his charred hands still frozen in a struggling position, the shrunken burnt flesh on his skull having split open clean in the middle and since peeled away, revealing the white skull leering at bypassers as a grim reminder of their impending fate. The rest of the human crew lied piled up at the APC's rear door, themselves little more than charred, shrivelled flesh and bones.


"Poor bastards..." Jassa remarked at the sight, "Bad way to go."


"Serves the fuckers right," Drax growled, "If you want to pity someone, better pity our lads who suffered the same and worse!"


The girl sighed, clearly disapproving of the decurion's opinion, but said nothing and moved on. As if to affirm Drax's statement about there being worse ways to go, the very top of a Sidh Battlemaster tank could be seen ahead, almost buried inside another mudhole where it had gotten stuck sometime before. The crew had evidently been trapped inside, the tank sinking before any could make their escape, as was attested by a lone armored hand sticking out of the mud roughly at where the tank's top hatch should have been.


"Fuck!" autogunner Cato grumbled at the grim scene, "I don't know which is worse - burning alive or drowning in the mud like that!"


"Does it fucking matter?" Drax shrugged, "In the end you are still done and dead! Now focus on the job!"


The decury proceeded onwards, the men trying to ignore the scenes of carnage that unfolded at every step. The veterans who had already seen it all were largely unfazed, but the rookies clearly seemed distraught even while this wasn't their first time in the field. The majority of them spent most of their off-time doped senseless, the brass having long given up on keeping the off-duty soldiers sober and had even authorized the distribution of recreational drugs to keep at least the suicide rates down. Desertion was likewise at an all-time high even in the elite legions, MilSec provosts having their hands full executing captured deserters. Lately, the command had dispensed with formal court-martials entirely and either had deserters and defeatists assigned to penal units for suicide missions, or simply had them shot on the spot.


"Hold up, movement ahead!" Vitellus suddenly raised his hand and knelt after the built-in motion tracker in his tacticom alerted him.


"What is it?" Drax spoke at half-voice instinctively, even though he could have screamed out loud inside his helmet without anyone outside hearing much.


"Tracker's reading two contacts on eleven, 50 meters!" Vitellus reported.


"Can you see them? Give me a look!" Drax inquired, tapping a few keys on his tacticom to sync with Vitellus's helmet optics. The pointman peeked around the side of a burnt-out Sidh tank behind which he was currently covering.


"I don't see shit, Dec," he said after looking for a moment, "Do you see anything?"


"Check your sensor!" Drax ordered. Sometimes the motion trackers gave false readings or stopped working entirely when their sensors got fouled with dirt or mud.


"Already did, it's fine," Vitellus responded, "I'm still reading two contacts!"


"Decury, spread out! Alpha, with me! Beta, move 50 on nine and take overwatch!" Drax ordered.


Vitellus, Cato and Cassius formed up on their decurion, while the rest moved to overwatch positions with Jassa in command. Marksman Victus assumed high ground by climbing on top of the wrecked tank nearby.


The assault party advanced quickly and quietly, staying low inside the rims of shellholes. As they approached another destroyed tank, Vitellus pointed at it to signify that the contacts were behind it, even though the others could see it on their trackers as well now. Though the team could have checked the place by launching one of the small recon drones they had with them, Drax had elected against using them, as seeing a drone in the air would no doubt alert any nearby enemies. Now he gestured for his teammates to split up in pairs and flank around the tank, sending Cato and Cassius to the left while taking Vitellus with him on the right. Taking utmost care to make no noise, the two pairs crawled up to the edge of the shellhole they were hiding in and simultaneously snapped around the tank with their weapons ready.


Their sudden appearance startled two gaunt, emaciated dog-like beasts who were busy feasting on one of the tank's former occupants. Scavengers and carrion-eaters were among the last surviving wildlife on Alcaeus, there being no shortage of fodder for them even in conditions of nuclear winter, at least for now. After giving the interlopers an angry growl and a hostile glare with menacing red-glowing eyes, the creatures ran off before anyone could fire a shot.


"Fuck, it's just some damn critters!" Cato spat angrily.


"Alpha Lead to Beta, area clear! Form up!" Drax radioed to Beta team, "It's just some wildlife."


"Good thing it's just some local corpse-eaters," Vitellus remarked, looking in the direction the creatures had taken off to, "I heard some guys from the 62nd talk about mutants they've got up north. They said those things are fucking huge, like bears! If they get you, they'll bite right through your armor and eat you up alive."


"Keep on believing every nonsense you hear from some wasted pissheads off-duty, dumbass!" Cassius scolded him, "Anything bigger than those dingo-dongo things would have long starved to death out here, much less further north! Not to mention things don't just mutate into giant man-eating monsters alluva sudden!"


"The two of you, shut the fuck up!" Drax interrupted their argument with an angry growl, "You're out in the fucking field! Just because there was no enemy here doesn't mean every asshole can now chit-chat like they were on a bloody leave! Eyes sharp and pay attention!"


"Uh... Yes, Dec!" the two quickly apologized.


An instant later, Vitellus jerked back violently, a projectile impacting violently on the chestplate of his armor at an angle with a loud ding, ricocheting off and away into the sky with an angry buzz. Just as he cried out in shock and surprise, another one struck him square in the central torso, piercing through him and tearing out on the back along with a jet of blood and gore. Cassius who stood the closest to him was sprayed red with the blood of his friend.


"CONTACT!!!" Drax roared, diving on the ground and pulling the shocked and confused Cassius down along with him. Not a moment too soon, as a rotary autogun started to spray a torrent of bullets at them with it's trademark roar, the first tracers streaking past inches above Drax's head and impacting on the wrecked tank behind them. The autogun's roar was joined in by the familiar chatter of human auto-rifles, one or two squads judging by the sound of it. Drax crawled up to the nearest pile of dirt that could provide some cover and returned fire, the familiar thunderous racket and hefty recoil of the blast rifle in his shoulder immediately providing some measure of relief.


"Vitellus... Vitellus... Buddy..." young Cassius whimpered behind him, still staring at his dead friend whose blood was gushing out on the ground in spurts from a fist-sized hole in his chest. Drax angrily kicked him in the head to get the boy's attention.


"Quit whining, get up here and fight!" he roared furiously, squeezing closer to the ground as the Fed autogun began to rake the dirt right in front of him. The rest of the decury was making a half-hearted attempt at returning fire, but it was clear the humans were having the upper hand in this fight from the start.


"Not like that, you idiot!" Drax bellowed to Cassius and pulled him back down after the lad crawled up next to him and started to shoot back, only to almost get his head blown off, an auto-rifle slug ricocheting off his helmet much to his dismay, "Wait for that autogun to overheat!"


Indeed, the humans they were facing were apparently only marginally better-trained than Drax's rookies, as their autogunner was spraying the Sidh positions with long, sustained bursts rather than short, controlled ones. Though the intent was probably to suppress the Sidh and so far it worked well, Drax knew that at this rate the gun would soon either overheat or run out of ammo, giving his men the much-needed opening.


"All elements, get ready to suppress! Beta Three and Four, prepare to hit them with some AP on my mark!"


"Uh... AP, Dec?" AT trooper Grexus sounded confused.


"Beta Three, if you have forgotten to load up on frag missiles, I swear on the Emperor's blood I'm going to crawl over there, choke you to death and rape your corpse!" Drax bellowed over the radio.


"Oh, frags... I thought you said "AT", Dec!" Grexus responded much to Drax's relief. Just as he responded, the autogun's tonitrous roar on the enemy side ceased, the sound of it revving down being barely audible over the noise of other gunfire.


"Now! Suppress! SUPPRESS!" Drax roared, leading by example and rising up to return fire, "Short bursts! Don't blow all the ammo at once!"


The decurion felt much relief as Cato's auto-blaster roared to life, starting to spray the human positions with high-explosive death. The fire returned by his decury was at first hasty and disorganized, but quickly picked up a more steady, disciplined pace, the rookies starting to shoot in aimed, controlled bursts and taking turns to keep the enemy suppressed while others were reloading.


"Beta Three, hit 'em!" Drax commanded.


"Negative, can't see the targets, dec!" Grexus called in.


"Fuck! Sync on my quad!" the decurion cursed and commanded after a split-second decision. Rolling deeper into cover, he reached over on his back where a small quadcopter recon drone was mounted on a charging slot. With a flick of a single key on its underside, the machine buzzed to life and automatically synced to Drax's tacticom. The decurion tossed the machine into the air, and not a moment too soon as his hand was almost scythed off by a renewed torrent of autogun fire. The drone was up, however, and started to feed targeting data, revealing some 16 targets covering in shellholes roughly 100 paces ahead.


"Target coordinates received!" Grexus reported, "Firing!"


A moment later, four missiles erupted from the shellhole behind the tank with a loud thump, their motors firing with ear-splitting roar as they arched high up in the sky before streaking down straight on top of the enemy positions. Then, all four burst with rather pathetic pops, and for an instant there was silence before the whole enemy line was engulfed in a series of earth-shaking blasts as thermobaric submunitions from the missiles blanketed the area.


"Alpha and Beta Three, sync on my quad and prover cover fire, hostile elements flanking on 10!" Drax commanded, "Everybody else - advance!"


The Sidh left their positions and began to advance with fire and movement while the surviving humans were still stunned and disoriented. Cato and Victus had assumed positions on the wrecked tank and shifted fire to the left to take care of the flanking element, while the attacking Sidh shifted slightly to the right to avoid getting flanked themselves.


Advancing at best speed and ignoring the occasional pot-shots fired their way, the Sidh were quickly upon the human positions, an abandoned and partly destroyed trench connecting several large shellholes. The missiles had done their work admirably, mangled and dismembered bodies lying where they fell, a few stunned and disoriented humans shambling around aimlessly like drunk, clutching their bleeding ears until they were cut down and blasted to pieces by Sidh gunfire. Only a handful furthest away from the missile blasts were still somewhat in fighting shape.


Flinging a grenade in the enemy trench and ducking until after it exploded, Drax dashed the final meters into the Fed position with furious speed, his combat augmetics having switched to close-quarters mode. A human sergeant fired a burst from his rifle at him only to miss as Drax knocked aside his gun and ran him through the neck with the deployed bayonet of his blast rifle. Another Fed soldier in a powered exosuit came charging at him screaming, landing a blow of rifle butt on his face that sent Drax stumbling back. Before the human could train his rifle at him and fire, Drax threw all his weight back into him, knocking the human off-balance. As the man fell on his backside and tried to roll aside, Drax managed to line up his blast rifle and fire off a burst. The upper half of the human soldier disintegrated into a fountain of blood, mud and gore that sprayed Drax head to toe. Something impacted hard against his back, and the Decurion snapped around to face a young woman, as her lithe frame and feminine curves suggested even while she was clad in a protective exosuit and an enclosed helmet. The girl furiously shot round after round at the much-larger Sidh with her autopistol, the light sidearm unfortunately proving completely inadequate against Sidh powered armor. Seized by battle-rage, Drax grabbed the girl by the arm, effortlessly crushing it in his augmented armored grip and making her drop her gun as she writhed and screamed, banging on his armored gauntlet in futile efforts to break free. With a cruel determination, Drax proceeded to first twist her arm in an odd angle and then pull it off, repeating the process with her other hand and then with both legs, until only a limbless torso remained on the ground, twitching and shrieking in agony. For a moment, Drax thought about forcing her face in the mud until she drowned, but elected against it as the sharp report of a sniper railgun cracked nearby. Putting the poor woman out of her misery with a stomp of his armored sabaton that crushed her skull to red pulp, Drax moved on to hunt down any remaining enemies.


The human sniper who had fired nearby was taken out soon enough by Jassa and Duilius, lifted up on their bayonets and thrown out of his shellhole like a bale of hay. Further to the left, two survivors from the flanking group could be seen legging it back to the main Fed positions in panic, until one was blown to shreds by Cato's auto-blaster and the other's head and upper torso exploded into a puff of red mist from Victus's precision blast rifle. Drax looked at the drone display and saw no more targets in proximity.


"All clear! All elements, rally up and regroup!" he commanded.


While the rest of the decury made their way to him, the decurion noticed Cassius furiously hacking away at a fallen human with his bayonet. It was clear that the man was long expired, yet the young Sidh seemed hell-bent on reducing him to pulp.


"Get some! Get some!" Cassius snarled as he stabbed the corpse again and again.


"That is enough, Private!" Drax barked, "He ain't getting up no more!"


"Ain't much to look at when you carve them cunt-born fucks up good!" the lad growled, panting heavily as he raised his helmet's visor just to spit on the mutilated corpse, "Ain't that right, Dec?"


"Call them whatever you want, but get your shit together, Private!" Drax said sternly, pushing him away from the dead human.


"No disrespect, Dec, but who are you to lecture me about it!" Cassius refused to back down, "I saw what you did to that broad!"


"That I sometimes do such things don't mean you've gotta be like me," Drax said, suddenly feeling embarassed about his earlier sadistic outburst, "What I did ain't right."
"If you say so, Dec..." Cassius didn't seem entirely convinced, "The bitch probably deserved it anyway."


"If you need to blow off some steam, go and do your late buddy a last favour and grab his tags," Drax instructed , "And pick off anything useful he might have on him. He won't be needing that stuff anymore, but we will."


After retrieving his drone and commanding everyone to move some 200 meters to the side, so that the decury wouldn't be wiped out by artillery should the humans have called it in before their destruction, Drax ordered a statrep from the survivors.


"Beta team, ammo at 80, AP missiles down to 50, One and Four reporting minor damage to armor, no injuries," Jassa reported to him after collecting reports from her fireteam.


"Alpha team, ammo at 80, minor armor damage to One, Alpha Two is KIA," Drax announced loudly so that everyone would know the status of his fireteam, should someone else need to take command in his stead.


"How much to Scourge, Dec?" Cato inquired. Drax turned to his tacticom to check the map.


"According to this we're about half-way there," he spoke, switching to holographic projector so that everyone could see what he was pointing at, "We could use this string of craters for cover, and be there in under an hour, provided no other run-ins happen. Victus, I trust you have that chameleonite cloak with you?"


"Of course, boss!" the marksman nodded, "Should I put it on now?"


"Yes, put it on. You'll scout ahead for us," Drax instructed him.


"Why don't we just use one of our quads?" Jassa objected, "We could see the enemy from a click away."


"With that drone buzzing above us, we'd only be giving away our location," Drax explained, "And we can't fly it above and beyond sight and earshot because of all the electric activity."
As if to confirm his statement, a particularly fearsome lightning criscrossed the roiling clouds above, brightly illuminating the gloomy battlefield. Moments later, a mighty thunderclap shook the scene.


"Point taken," Jassa agreed, "Victus, I guess you're it then."


"Heh," the marksman chuckled sarcastically while putting on the chameleonite overcoat and cloak from his backpack, "It's as good a job to die on as any other! Is this thing working?"
As he fiddled with the cloak controls on his tacticom, the matted grey fabric with a hexagonal pattern rapidly assumed the colour and even the texture of the surrounding ground, forming counter-shaded patterns. As long as Victus stayed low and moved slowly, he'd be nearly invisible from more than five paces away. After everyone gave him the thumbs-up, the marksman moved off into the twilight, practically disappearing from sight already twenty paces away. Only the ping of his IFF transponder indicated Victus's rough location on the decury's tacticoms.


"Alright, move out!" Drax commanded when the marksman was some 200 meters ahead, "Single file, ten meter distance!"

----

Some time passed without much incident. The decury travelled along the string of giant craters as planned, using their rims as cover. With each of the craters easily three-hundred meters across and close to eighty deep, with a small lake of murky water already formed at the bottom, they had most likely been left by kinetic strikes from orbit. Human or Sidh, nobody could tell, though the amount of Sidh wreckage and decaying bodies close to the crater rim at least on this side suggested the craters were possibly made by the former.


"We're one click out," Drax informed the rest after checking his tacticom, "We should see LP Scourge once we crest that ridge over there."


"Beta Two to Alpha One," Victus suddenly called in, "I'm at the ridge. I think we might have a little problem here."


"Define problem, Two!" Drax grumbled, gesturing for the rest to stay sharp.


"I think it's best if you come see this yourself," the marksman responded.


"Stay put and cover the rear," Drax instructed the rest, "I'll go see what this is about!"


The decurion made his way up the ridge, homing in roughly on where Victus's IFF beacon pointed him on the tacticom. The marksman was nowhere to be seen, though that was to be expected, given his active camouflage. Just as Drax was about to crest the ridge, someone grabbed him by the foot and pulled him downwards.


"Whatever you do, Dec, don't stick your head over that ridge!" Victus grumbled from below, Drax literally having almost stepped on him.


"Emperor's blood, don't fucking scare me like that!" Drax grumbled, kneeling down next to him, showing two closely pinched fingers, "I was this close to putting a couple shells in your back!"


"Now crawl up to the edge slowly," Victus instructed, "Don't stick your head out too far, or you'll blow our cover!"


Drax did as told and peeked over the ridge for the first time.


"Well, I'll be damned..." he exclaimed after crawling back down and comparing what he saw to the map in his tacticom, "Clearly this wasn't here before."


The ridge that rose some thirty meters above the surrounding battlefield and even a bit above the giant crater rims turned out to be nothing but the edge of a collossal trough, ploughed there by what looked like the bow of a Fed light cruiser. Now a mangled mass of twisted metal of the height of a fifteen-story building, the wreck was partly buried in dirt at the end of the giant furrow some four hundred meters to the left. To the right, the chasm stretched at least two clicks out, the far end disappearing in to the haze and darkness. The far edge seemed to be a bit lower than this side, as the massive hulk of a superheavy mechwalker could be clearly seen jutting out of the dirt some two hundred meters further if one used night-vision.


"This pile of junk must have been what caused that big shake we felt down in the station the other day... Going across a place this exposed would be suicide," Drax grumbled, "It's gonna be one hell of a detour from here."


"That's just part of the problem," Victus pointed out, "Switch to thermal and take a look at the wreck!"


Drax did as instructed. Against the white bulk of the shipwreck, numerous black shapes stood out, clearly manning defensive positions.


"Either it's the survivors, or new occupants, but they sure as hell ain't our guys," Victus stated, "Either way, we have to get around them."


"Any idea how many are there?" Drax asked, weighing his options.


"I counted at least twenty, meaning there's probably at least twice that number inside," Victus spoke, "The seven of us might take out twenty if we got them by surprise, but no way more than that."


"Guess there's no way but around them," Drax frowned, "Regardless of whether there's still anyone in that listening post, we'll have to beeline it back if we want to make it on time."
"Not to sound pessimistic, boss, but that place could be long overrun by the Feds for all we know. I don't like to call in a bust anymore than you do, but we could just turn back and say we found the place deserted," Victus suggested, "We've already lost one man on the way here, why risk losing any more?"


Even though Drax's face was concealed beneath the helmet, he looked like about to deck the marksman for such suggestion.


"Private First Class Marcilius Victus," the decurion slowly and sternly spoke with barely contained rage, "I will pretend I didn't hear any of that load of treasonous defeatist bullshit that just spilled from your mouth. We've been given a mission, and we will carry it out one way or another, or die trying - that's how it is, and that is how it will be for as long as I am the decurion of this unit."


"Not to sound scared or anything, Dec, but I think Victus is right about this one," the voice of Duilius rang in over the radio, Drax only now realizing the whole conversation had been audible on squad channel, "We should call it a day and turn back while we still can."


"I'll be sure to ask when I care to hear your opinion, ex-Traitor!" Drax barked, "Or is it really "ex-" now?! By the Emperor's blood, you bunch call yourselves Sidh and soldiers of the Imperium - start acting like ones! Now, before we move out, is there anybody else here who wants to whine and bitch about wanting back home to mommy?!"


"I'm still with you, Dec," Cassius remarked, "But I also think this is a bad idea!"


"Fine!" Drax growled, "Then piss off, all of you who don't want to be here, the rest of us will be better off without you anyway! Get the fuck out of this unit, piss off back to base and get shot like the worthless fucking deserters that you are! But just in case you choose to stay, I don't want to hear another word about how this mission is a bad idea! Being alive during these times is a bad fucking idea, but you don't hear me or Jassa complaining about it! Now, is everybody in on this or not?!"


"I'm in," Victus sighed, "I sure hope you know what you're doing, Dec!"


"Fuck it, I'm coming!" Duilius exclaimed, "If only to prove Dec wrong about me and Grexus!"


"Yeah, I'm in!" Cassius agreed, "I will do it for Vitellus, so that he didn't fall in vain."


"Good!" Drax was satisfied, "Now move out, and keep your eyes and ears peeled!"


The decury set out, walking just below the rim of the ridge, making an occasional careful peek over it to see what the human sentries in the wrecked ship were up to. This way, any human patrols couldn't suddenly get a drop on them from above, they could see any out in the surrounding battlefield from some distance away, and any who saw and engaged them could be swiftly avoided by sliding down the ridge where cover was more abundant.


The roiling clouds above were frequently illuminated not just by lightning strikes, but flashes of light beyond them, the squad radio frequency chirping with sudden static whenever it happened.


"Our boys must be having one helluva fight up in orbit," Cassius remarked at the sight. As if to confirm his statement, the cloud cover was breached by several fiery streaks of re-entering debris that disappeared into the darkness and crashed down somewhere behind the human lines. Moments later, the area was shaken by their sonic booms.


"Better hope no ship decides to come down on top of us!" Drax grumbled. The ridge that they were walking on and the massive trough beyond it alone were testaments to the damage that even a relatively small warship could cause by crashing down from orbit. A battleship that rivalled a good-sized mountain in scale or a city-sized superdreadnought could devastate a whole continent, though atmospheric drag and friction most often broke up vessels of that size into countless fragments long before reaching the ground. Even so, these fragments that were often the size of city blocks would still lay waste to vast areas, so a naval battle in low orbit was always dreaded by all troops on the ground regardless of the side.
"Hold! Movement ahead!" Victus who continued to scout ahead radioed in. Everyone took cover behind loose rocks or whatever else was available.


"Fed patrol on 10, 250 meters!" the marksman informed. After electronic beeps from his tacticom alerted him of an update in tactical situation, Drax leaned out of his cover for a better look, zooming in his helmet optics towards the indicated direction. Indeed, a small patrol of four humans was traversing the battlefield where Victus had spotted them.


"Give me a close-up on your scope!" Drax instructed, tapping a key on his tacticom to sync with Victus's optics. A display window popped up on his HUD, letting the decurion see what his marksman saw through his scope.


"Can you take them out quietly?" Drax asked.


"Not all of them," the marksman responded, "See those antenna-things on their backpacks? Those are gunfire locators. At this range I could drop maybe two of them before the rest pinpointed my location even with a suppressor on."


"Guess we'll have to take them all down at once then," Drax frowned about the new delay, "Jassa, you're with me! Rest of you, take overwatch and engage only if we are spotted or if you are engaged!"


Entering an almost-animalistic creep on all four, Drax left his position with Jassa in tow and cautiously proceeded down the slope. This manner of movement that resembled the crawl of lizards was difficult for the average human to maintain for any practical distance, but easier for the augmented Sidh physique further assisted by armor, and faster than the traditional belly crawl as well. Several times the two paused their advance because of dislodged rocks tumbling down the ridge, but the humans didn't seem to notice them, more preoccupied with what waited them ahead towards the Sidh positions and probably not hearing or seeing the small rockfalls that far anyway.


"Take out the rocket trooper first, then go for the rifleman," Drax instructed Victus over the radio, having deduced that the second human from the rear carrying an ordinary pulse rifle without any attachments beyond a red dot sight was most probably the squad leader, "Wait for my mark!"


"How do we go about this, Dec?" Jassa inquired quietly.


"See that wrecked APC over there?" Drax pointed to a wreck that the patrol was headed towards, "I'll go to the shellhole next to it, while you get behind it. Then, when Victus drops the last two, I'll jump the second guy with the grenade launcher, and you get the first one from behind once he turns to engage me."


With that said, he tucked his blast rifle over the shoulder where it locked onto a magnetic slot, instead drawing a combat knife. Built to be used with powered armor, it was a large and heavy blade more resembling a small sword by human standards, its the laser-sharpened edge keen enough to cut through ballistic fibre and bone with ease. Even with the helmet completely covering Drax's face, Jassa could tell there was a malicious grin underneath.


Creeping forward with extra caution, the two split up. The patrolling humans seemed to be in no hurry. Drax switched on the parabolic microphone built in his helmet to listen in on their conversations now that he was close enough.


"... it's the air that is killing me here!" one of them, Drax couldn't make out which, spoke, "All this soot and nanite dust is making me cough like a chain smoker 30 years in the habit!"
"Ha! Don't you think dying of lung cancer ought to be the least of your worries right now?" a woman's voice laughed, partly muffled by a gas mask that all four of the humans were wearing.


"Seriously, this shit we're breathing in every second without a mask will kill you if the tankies don't!" the male soldier argued, "And I'm pretty sure it's gonna do no good to fertility either! I certainly wanna have a couple juniors calling me daddy when this war is over!"


"That's a disturbing thought..." the woman chuckled, Drax now making her out as the squad leader, judging by the lither frame and the body language of the third soldier in the group.
"Hey, why do you always have bust my dreams!?" the first soldier protested, turning to the woman briefly and letting Drax identify him as the second in line - his own mark. Judging by their careless banter on patrol, these four were evidently still new to the battlefield and did not take their proximity to the enemy with due seriousness.


"Hey, did you see that?!" a deeper, gruffer voice that evidently belonged to the burly rocket trooper walking last, interrupted. The four immediately crouched, making Drax freeze as well. Then he noted that they seemed to be looking in the opposite direction.


"Probably just one of those corpse-hounds," the first soldier who hadn't spoken thus far stated after gazing in the indicated direction for a while, "The damn things have been tripping signal mines on the perimeter ever since we dropped here."


"Probably," the female squaddie agreed, "But let's just stay put and look a little longer."


Using their distraction, Drax crept over the lip of the last shellhole separating him from his intended destination. Just as he was about to crawl up the other edge of the crater that would put mere 10 paces between him and the humans, he felt his hand break through and sink into something with a sickening squelch. He looked to the right, only to find his right hand sunken into the ribcage of a decomposing corpse. The body was almost entirely buried in the dirt and almost the same dirty-grey colour, making it difficult to notice until this close up. The decurion looked further and saw more decayed body parts sticking out of the ground in the same shellhole - with this region having been an almost constant battleground for well over a decade, bombardments exposing and re-burying successive layers of corpses from earlier battles was no surprise. These particular ones all seemed to belong to humans, lacking any obvious augmetics. Probably from 2239, when the Feds first made planetfall on Alcaeus, Drax thought. Even though he was isolated from contact with their foulness by armor, his hand still began to tingle in disgust, but he suppressed his revulsion and withdrew the hand slowly to avoid any unnecessary noise.


Carefully peeking over the edge, Drax saw that his targets were still distracted and figured that now the time was as good as ever.


"Take them down!" he ordered.


An instant later, the back of the rocket trooper exploded in a puff of red mist and gore with a sickening splat, one of the rocket pods mounted on the shoulders of his exosuit breaking off and falling away to the side. The squad leader rolled to the side to see what had just happened, but before she could even cry out, a second shot obliterated her head, strewing fragments of helmet and bloody bits of skull with strands of blonde hair still attached across the ground in front of her. Before the second shot had even landed yet, Drax was already up and lunging forward, so that when the remaining two humans realized they were being ambushed, his massive power-armored frame was already descending upon them like the shadow of Death itself.


Holding his knife with both hands, Drax plunged his knife into the soldier with the grenade launcher attached to his pulse rifle, aiming just inside the protective collar of his exosuit. The blade struck true and Drax could feel its point strike the man's spine before he jerked the knife towards himself and twisted it on the way out. With a jet of blood spraying well over a foot high, the human could only let out an incoherent gurgle as he fell to the ground, clutching his neck. The last remaining opponent lunged back, raising his rifle to shoot, only to dive into the arms of Jassa who had snuck up from behind as agreed before. The man's gas mask was forced off as the heavy blade literally came out of his mouth after Jassa plunged it in the back of his head, revealing a swarthy young lad whose brown eyes froze wide in terror before he dropped to the ground dead.


"Nicely done!" Drax commended his teammates as he and Jassa quickly patted down the bodies for anything useful. The humans turned out to have some MREs on them much to the Sidh delight - if there was anything good that the average Sidh soldier could say about humans, it was that their MREs tasted much better than those of the Imperial Army. Being the butt of many unflattering jokes, the latter were almost universally disliked by Sidh troops, not so much for having a bad taste as for having no taste at all, so Fed MREs were often among the very first things pillaged by the Sidh whenever they happened to defeat humans in battle. That they were not meant for augmented physiology and were consequently much less nutritious was no deterrent, even the Fed habit of occasionally leaving stashes of poisoned food for the Sidh to capture failing to discourage the ever-hungry Sidh troops. After all, their augmented physiques could survive most poisons that were discreet enough not to reveal the food as obviously poisoned.


"Good news, lads! We have two Number Eights, a Nine and a Seven," Drax noted after taking a quick inventory of the loot. Brief cheers of delight on the squad radio indicated that such spoils of war were most welcome by the decury.


"I claim all the cashews in Seven when we get back!" Jassa cheerfully volunteered, wiping the still-warm blood from her knife on the slain man's pants. The casuality of her demeanor after just having killed a man would have been almost disturbing if it weren't for the fact that she was a Sidh, born and bred for war.


"Only if you surrender the Grain & Choco Bar," Drax couldn't help but squeeze out the faintest of smiles under his helmet.


"Hey, not fair!" Decius protested, "You're not the only one here who likes cashews!"


"Sorry, lad!" Jassa retorted, "Finders get the first pick!"


"Don't worry, you'll get your fair share too," Drax reassured the AT trooper, "But know that the Grain & Choco Bar in Nine is mine and mine alone!"


Aware of the decurion's preferences, his comrades raised no protest, recognizing the futility and danger of attempting to deprive Drax of his favourite treat.


---


It took the team another 40 minutes to round the crashed human ship. After learning about the signal mines from the conversation that Drax had eavesdropped, the decury was even more cautious. With time running short, the soldiers already began to accept the likelihood of having to weather the initial hours of the offensive inside the listening post, provided it wasn't already occupied by humans.


"This is going to be one hell of a run if we are to make it back on time," Drax grumbled, checking his tacticom for time remaining, "Looks like we are finally here."


"THAT is one big-ass mech..." Grexus remarked with no small measure of awe as he looked at the colossus that laid ahead partly-buried in dirt by subsequent bombardments.


Indeed, the titanic mechwalker that had once towered just over 100 meters in height dwarfed all other land-based engines of war. Even now that it lied here destroyed, face down in the dirt, its hull still towered almost as high as a five-story building above the surrounding battlefield. The machine's left arm with each finger the size of a large car still clenched a collossal power hammer, its head as large as a modest family house, big enough to flatten a main battle tank like a tin can. The walker's shoulders bristled with gun turrets, now burnt-out and silent. A rim of meter-thick armor plates bent outwards on the hulk's back indicated the reason of its present wrecked state, left there by the massive slug of an orbital defense gun turned into improvised anti-mech piece. Although battered and rusted, the wreck's old coat of paint was still recognizable. "Scourge of Armagon" - so read the inscription on the massive armor plate protecting the mech's shoulder joint.


"Now to find a way inside," Jassa remarked, "Pity the centurion didn't mention anything about an entrance!"


"I'm sure it's there near the ground somewhere," Drax spoke, "I'm more worried about not getting shot by whoever is in there, if there is anyone at all."


"Well, we ain't gonna find it standing out here talking!" Victus stated, "Let's check it and get the hell out before the shells start flying!"


The decury proceeded towards the wreck, carefully scanning the hull for any signs of entrance. So far, the few breaches in its armor plating revealed only underlying mechanisms and myomer bundles, each strand the thickness of a man. Drax recalled reading about how the creation of walking engines of war, much less of that size, had long been deemed an impossible and impractical feat back on Old Terra until the invention of supertensile materials and high-strength myomers. Though admittedly indeed designed more as psychological weapons, superheavy walkers such as this one still had more than adequate uses as powerful defense platforms, providing fire support and anti-missile defense for entire divisions advancing in their shadow.


The soldiers stuck to cover behind the machine's giant hammer and the arm that held it, following the hull in the gap between the ground and the shoulder plate. Drax quietly cursed to himself for not having had the foresight to upload the schematics of Malleus-class mechwalkers for potential access points.


Just as the team passed under the walker's arm and descended into a shellhole, an unmistakable pop followed by a deafening bang rudely interrupted the decurion from his thoughts, the surrounding area lighting up brightly by a magnesium signal flare. Everyone immediately dove for cover and hit the dirt, leaving a guilty-looking Duilius lying on the ground trying to untangle his foot from a tripwire.


"You stupid blind fuck!" Drax snarled at him, "Watch your damn step!"


"Sorry, Dec! I swear didn't see it!" Duilius apologized.


"No shit!" the decurion growled, "Congratu-fucking-lations, you might have just killed us all!"


"Dec, I'm picking up movement!" Jassa informed. Indeed, Drax's sensors indicated possible contacts up ahead on the ridge. Being closest to the signal flare, Cassius acted first and tore it away from its mountings, plunging it into the ground and burying it in the dirt before it could give away their position completely. Not a moment too soon, as it turned out, as a human patrol crested the ridge and began their descent towards them, their guns raised ready to fire at the first sign of trouble.


"I count at least 15!" Jassa informed, "What's the call, Dec?"


"Shit..." Drax cursed, quickly looking around, "We're sitting ducks here! Prepare grenades and wait until they are at a throw's distance, we'll try to get them up close! And Beta Four - this is your chance to un-fuck your screw-up by dropping all AP missiles you've got left on them once we throw those grenades!"


"Roger that, Dec!" Duilius dutifully replied, tapping keys on his tacticom to ready the missile racks mounted on his back.


As the human patrol approached closer and closer to investigate, the tension building inside the shellhole became almost palpable. Moments before Drax was going to order the grenades to be thrown, the corner of his eye caught something. There were several dead bodies, Sidh judging by the armor, half-buried inside the shellhole - a sight so common here that the soldiers no longer paid any heed to them. Drax could have sworn he saw one of them move, but paid no heed to it. Stress about the coming battle aside, he knew for a fact that corpses could suddenly move on their own as they decayed, even if it was unusual in a weather this cold. But then, the body seemed to move again, this time in a quite intentional manner.
An instant later, someone grabbed him and at least two others from behind and pulled them down in the shellhole. Only his survival instincts kept him from shouting out as he began to struggle, until a voice in Sidh snarled in his ear.


"Stop fighting and get inside if you want to live!"


Drax stopped resisting, his captor letting him go, and turned around to face whoever had pulled him down. It was indeed a Sidh in powered armor, all smeared in dirt and mud, no doubt as a disguise. There were several others like him, gesturing to Drax's shocked and startled companions to keep quiet and follow them.


"Quickly, before they see us!" the newcomer spoked at half-voice, gesturing to a cleverly-concealed hatch in the mechwalker's side just at the bottom of the shellhole. Drax and the rest didn't have to be asked twice, making the best speed to the hatch. Having made sure that everyone else was inside, Drax entered the dark hatch, the man who had caught him following and pulling a broken slab of armor over the hatch door to conceal it from sight before entering and sealing it behind them. The humans who would arrive moments later would only see an empty shellhole and wreckage.


"Thanks for nearly blowing our cover, dumbshit! And welcome to Listening Post Scourge!" the man behind Drax announced with no small measure of venom in his voice.
 
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