PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 29 of 44 )

: Summon the Guard
PART 1 OF 2

 


Medical Frigate SS Melissa
Ward A-12 (private ward)
Masa System, Union of Border Worlds
1200 Hours, 08 Feb 2681 (2681.039)

The man lying on the bed was barely recognizable as the brash, cool and young Caruno. He lay swathed in hideously thick pressure bandages, the only thing visible being his face, and most striking of all, his blue eyes.

Caruno croaked, "Young… master." He raised his hand plaintively in greeting.

The injured man did not rest in a bed, but on a palette made of extralight gel, like bubbles of air, that made him seem to float in thin air. This was a necessity, as large parts of his epidermis had been destroyed or severely damaged when he had been exposed to vacuum and the coldness of space. A nurse stepped closer, gently applying healing salve to those patches of skin that were not yet showing any improvement. A doctor nearby constantly monitored his vital signs and typed notes into a wristpad, nodding to himself.

Outside the ward stood another two Loyalist Marines - Caruno's status as the former Lord John's aide meant that he himself knew many Corp secrets, some of them important enough that Family Tan would prefer them to be forgotten and hidden beneath the sands of history, or, since that was impossible, in a file hidden deep down in near forgotten vaults in Fortress Home. Because of his extensive knowledge, he was both an asset and a liability, which meant that he had to be protected.

Celes stood and simply regarded the wounded Caruno with the detachment akin to watching a stock report. If she could feel pain or concern, she didn't show it. Max sat down beside the bed and held his aide’s mangled hand, flinching slightly at the grisly sight. It was swollen and red, as veins and tissue had hemorrhaged and been torn apart by decompression and exposure to vacuum. He swallowed upon remembering what the doctors had told him. Contrary to popular belief, exposure to open space did not kill instantaneously, but more slowly -- one of the medics had remarked that one minute seemed to be enough, as the brain suffered damage from lack of oxygen and the low temperature. Max bit down hard on his lower lip when another comment entered his mind. Considering his exposure, we cannot be sure about the amount of cranial damage; we lack the necessary equipment to establish with any amount of certainty whether or not he will recover fully.

Max wanted to release the bloated hand, but Caruno shook his head, gritting his teeth against the pain. "Rest, Caruno. Don't strain yourself. I merely wish to ask you a simple question."

The medic nearby gave a short bow. "Please ,milord, make it quick. Master Caruno needs to rest."

"… ask, Young Master…"

"Caruno - I am now acting Lord of Sutari. Please tell me... what do I do now?"

Caruno almost seemed to want to give a smile, if not for the fact that his bloated features only made it look like a sneer. "… As you were taught to do… Lord of Sutari. Lead. But... " Caruno seemed strained and tired even after such a short exchange of words.

"... beware… of… your own blood… trust Celes… read the… datacore… file… Nayidarisuen..."

At that, Caruno gave a tired sigh, and fell asleep. Celes raised her eyebrows at the mention of her name. She knew that Caruno was TISD, too, but agents often did not refer to each other, much less by name.

"Milord, it is best you speak to him another time, he is tired."

Max stood up and released Caruno's hand. It fell limply to the bed, like a rag doll. "Understood, doctor. Can we speak outside?"

The doctor nodded. Celes followed him. Outside the ward, the doctor raised one eyebrow and glanced at Celes. Max nodded. She was by all rights now his TISD officer and one of his personal bodyguards. If there was a commodity such as trust, she deserved it all the more so now.

"Your prognosis, doctor...?"

The doctor, a woman with short hair and a gentle smile on her face, nodded. "He is in a critical condition, but we have managed to stabilize him. It was his luck that the damage control teams managed to patch the hull so quickly.” Her shoulders slumped. “However, I have already told you that we cannot be sure about him, not until we reach a fully equipped medical facility. Right now, I can only tell you that he will live, but as to what his condition will be, your guess would be as good as mine."

Max needed a few moments to digest that. "When will he be back up and at it?" he finally asked, trying to speak around the lump lodged in his throat.

"Not for anytime soon, milord. In fact, perhaps never. His mind appears to be as sharp as ever, so chances are that any brain damage sustained was only minor in nature, but the brain is a very complicated organ. Even after hundreds of years spent studying it, we have still not found a way to duplicate its functions, and we have no way of repairing it.” She paused. “His bodily injuries will be far easier to take care of, though.”

"I… understand, Doctor. Please take good care of him. Do your best."

The doctor gave another nod, and then expressed that unspoken agreement throughout the Families and the Corp. "We take care of our own, milord. Have no fear." At that, the doctor gave a short bow and disappeared between the blast doors into the ward. The two Loyalists Marine guards at the ward stiffened and resumed their positions, looking like statues while being prepared to deal with anyone not authorized to enter. Akiko and Mai, his two other bodyguards, who had followed him from the shuttle, stood a respectful distance away, waiting for him outside the ward, opposite their brethren guarding access to it.

Max walked down the corridors of the Melissa, morbidly conscious of the fact that the hand he held Caruno's with was the same hand that was now graced with John's ducal ring - his. It was as if that non-feeling lump of platolum and platinum fed on misery and loss, savoring the touch of Caruno's hand. He did not know whether to feel pity or disgust at Caruno's condition. He felt inner revulsion at what had happened to Caruno. Yet - it was bravery in a sense that he hung on to life against all odds. Still - why had Caruno lied to him when he offered that poor woman in the rubbish dump outside Sutari Branch a job? Had it been a matter of duty? Necessity? Or simple efficiency to have simply gotten him to move on and see his uncle? He had to think of something else. The tread of Akiko and Mai behind him seemed like a metronome, rhythmic, consistent. Celes walked slightly behind and to his left, in her position as acting TISD officer.

"Celes - Caruno mentioned Nayi… something. What was it?"

"Unknown, milord, though presumably he refers to something on the datacore by that reference title. I have remembered it, in case you should require it."

"Thanks, Celes. What should I do now? I'm lost. There's so much to do. The refugees to offload. The funerals of our fallen. Those Union Marines… there’s so much. I don't know whether I'm fit for the job."

Celes blinked. "Your first task, if I may suggest, would be to access the datacore and Lord John's account. He will have something there for his successor. In addition, you should read through all the documents pertaining to your position as acting Chief Executive Officer and Lord Commander of the Branch. These should be in his office on board the Kaikuhur, but I took the liberty of ordering our techs to transfer all such contents to the memory core."

Max raised an eyebrow, "Lord John had two hats at once?"

Celes nodded. "As I understand, he served several tours in the Archipelago before he was promoted to his position four years ago. He was a rare example in that he could lead Sutari's Homeguard units, as well as coordinate its business strategies simultaneously."

"The Families had a reason to divide these tasks. Too much power in one place is dangerous. That is why we originally divided economic power from military power in the Corp to avoid a coup."

Celes nodded. "That is correct, milord Maximilian, but you must realize that Tanfen is a meritocracy, and Lord John earned both positions, and he was without doubt loyal to the Family. Additional circumstances were analyzed by the Board before investing him in his position. As I understand, his marriage to Lady Elayne and his position in the Family, his years of loyal service, as well as his vetting by both the Patriarchs of Tan, and Gan, as well as TISD provided him with the position. It would be more appropriate to say that that rule would only apply to someone unproven to the Families, or an outsider. He was neither."

Max nodded. "What is our tradition concerning the funeral for our fallen?"

Celes thought of it before answering, "As far as I understand, it should be done as soon as possible. Lord John's status demands a full traditional funeral. We have no body, which will complicate matters, as well as the fact that brother Branson was our only Taoist Chaplain we had on board who knew the full rites to guide Lord John's soul into the afterlife. We will have to ask whether the Homeguard regiments have one among their ranks.” She rubbed her eyes. “On top of all this, we lack the proper vestments and materials."

Max nodded. "Yes, where are we going to find hell bank money here, of all places?"

It was a Taoist tradition that paper money from the mythical bank of the afterlife was burned to provide the departed soul with currency in the afterlife, in addition to incinerating all manner of household appliances and items made of paper to ease their living. These were definitely not available here, in space, in the middle of a war zone of all places.

"What of Lady Elayne?"

"She should be resting now, milord - your priorities are to lead the Branch, and to prepare the funeral. TMMN can handle the refugee transfer."

They both continued walking down the corridors of the medical frigate. Aunt Elayne was sleeping, half sedated, half torn in shock, sadness and disbelief. She walked a thin tightrope between sanity and madness now, it seemed. No matter wherever it was in the universe, any medical facility always had that certain smell of chlorine, that sterilized feel to it, and underlying it, a sense of seeming sadness, that the human condition is so fallible and fragile it could be lost in an instant. Medical technicians roamed the wards interspersed throughout the corridors, carrying wrist pads and medical supplies. Kyra and some of her men were on level three, and one of them was having a new cybernetic arm attached, with vat grown neural connections for maximum efficiency. That would have cost hundreds of thousands of credits, but as they say in the Corp - whoever owed the Corp, could write their own ticket.

He went down to the docking locks to the light shuttle that would take him to the Memory and away from this place of sorrow.

 

Union Assault Shuttle A-15 "Sue Surree"
Masa System
About the same time...

Richard woke up to the sound of something like a gatling gun rattling off at full auto. Damn. He blearily opened his eyes. Metal ceiling. Bed. Alright.

Richard gave a snort as he woke up, his hair disheveled as he realized something he had forgotten. Though his mind seemed foggy, he went to the small sink in the common room where he bunked in with three of his brethren. Marle snored in her sleep like a damned heavy gatling gun, no matter the fact that she looked so comely when she was awake. Marle rolled around, and subconsciously slugged her bolster like a human target’s neck before mumbling to herself. Richard almost felt tempted to give her a royal whack on the head for waking him up again, as usual. The ties of brother and sisterhood in the Order were tighter than blood. That being said, he mourned for the loss of his brethren in the assault, though it was necessary to save Tanfen lives. He was annoyed in a sense, but the ties between them, and all of the others made it seem affectionate. She needed the sleep more than he did, and it would be impossible to doze off again with somebody close by who made a roaring fighter engine appear maudlin and quiet by comparison. He still had no idea how Huxley and the rest of them managed to sleep with the racket caused by her.

He suited up in a Homeguard jumpsuit with no insignia, his hair still wet from splashing water on his face. He felt the itch of stubble on his chin, but ignored it for now. Looks were of no importance right now. He strapped on his gun and sword and then walked out, heading for an access terminal that could connect to the local Tanfennet node, in this case, being carried onboard one of the Fleet's corvettes, in the middle of the formation, and always with two fighter escorts at any one time.

He hailed a Union tech that passed by and asked for a terminal with a laser link. The tech pointed towards the bridge and gave him quick instructions on the protocols required. Richard shook his head - he needed something with more privacy. He was not going to let outsiders, even if they were on the same side (technically) have any inkling of Tanfennet's existence or depth. The tech pointed at the captain's cabin. Richard nodded and walked up toward the cabin, finding no one there. He raised a commlink and inquired as to Max's whereabouts. Mai answered him. Richard nodded, satisfied, though he was worried for a moment. He opened the door, and sat down on the terminal, keying the laser link towards the corvette with the datacore. His own access level would give him access to the Tanfen Arms database, with listings of all current weapons available in the current market and in development by both Tanfen and other arms manufacturers. As he connected to the datacore, he ensured that the cache memory on the desktop terminal was wiped clean.

ACCESSING TANFENNET . . .

SELECTING SERVER . . .

SERVER FOUND > > > > > SUTARI NAUCAS SEA 733924NSY037563916

PLEASE ENTER ACCESS.

USERNAME : LM-KUSANAGI-RICH-ALM0403210101

PASSWORD : ********

WELCOME TO TANFENNET, LIEUTENANT KUSANAGI.

Richard leaned back.

"Voice access please - EVE interface."

The screen flickered slightly, as it ran through protocols to determine whether the client terminal had holographic capabilities, seeing that it hadn't, it projected its interface on the screen as a 2D image. EVE appeared on the screen, dressed in a TPRO uniform, a red jacket and white blouse, with the TPRO lapel pin on her collar. This was not EVE Prime, with the powerful AI that drove it. Instead, it was merely an interface to facilitate ease of use. This particular EVE still seemed real, as it ran through complicated protocols and programs that gave it the illusion of reality and emotion. Her light platinum blond hair floated in an unfelt wind as she gave a sweet smile that heuristic programs said would give a sense of ease to the user.

EVE smiled. "Good evening, Lieutenant. How can I help you?"

"Eve, can you analyze for me a weapon that fits these specifications?"

He proceeded to describe the weapon he saw during the raid, citing information about its size, caliber, and the symbols engraved on it.

"Please wait while I check the database."

EVE smiled, closed her eyes for a moment, as if in deep thought before she opened them and answered.

"I'm sorry, Richard, but the weapon you describe does not fit any known piece of equipment registered in the database. Your description suggests that it is a heavy anti-tank weapon, though the data provided by you indicates that it would be most efficient as a vehicle-mounted weapon, due to its size."

"Could it conceivably be carried by an infantry man?"

EVE shook her head. "Not in the way you describe Richard. The weapon, even if it could be carried by someone, has far too heavy recoil for one man."

Richard rubbed his chin. This was a strange contradiction. The Gauss rifle he saw was certainly meant to be carried as a rifle, yet, it seemed too heavy to be one. It could be a prototype or a custom job not meant for the market yet. He thought deeply, then remembered something else about the weapon. He entered the weapons serial number and asked for a designation of what it is.

"No such designation exists within the Tanfen database." She shook her head.

He tried another way of going about it.

"EVE, can you please tell me the what corp uses this type of serial number series?"

"Richard-based on the first two and the last eight numbers, this weapon is an experimental weapon from Porhen Industries R&D branch."

Richard gave a grim nod. What would a Porhen weapon be doing in pirate hands? Could there be a connection?

EVE waited patiently for Richard as he leaned back in the chair and thought deeply.

"Will there be anything else, Richard?"

"No, thank you EVE. Disconnect now."

EVE gave a short bow, and disappeared, leaving the room in darkness and Richard alone to his thoughts.

 

 

Island 5 "New Alekia" / T-1234A1245
North Docks, Assembly Area Six
Meiwan Archipelago, Maywan
1200 Hours, 09 Feb 2681 (2681.040)

The dock areas of the island seemed to stretch into the distance. The horizon was dark and murky, like gray dirt dropped into the clear green sky. The weather was getting worse, even by Meiwan's standards of horrible Weather; already, the sky was turning dark and ash gray, the result of a combination of volcanic ash being strewn into the air like glitterdust spread by a child. The approaching rainstorm transformed it into an ash-gray slush that obscured sight and made those who witnessed this process wish for a safer haven, for the spectacle was of the kind that made even hardened veterans mournful and quiet, reminding them of the value of a hot beverage and a comfortable place to stay. However, that was not to be, at least not on this particular day. Relaxation was not on the agenda. The infliction of pain, or in Corp speak, "collateral asset damage and seizure," was. Many figures were on the docks, all of them busy at work. Made of solid durasteel, with massive armored pontoons, the docks were shielded from assaults as much as from the hellish denizens that called the water home. Solid durasteel nets formed a perimeter that was also meant to deter power-armored frogmen, sappers and subs, but the main the main reason why they had been set up was to stop the numerous lifeforms that inhabited the murky, cold depths, such as the razorfish. Very little was known about this creature; however, incidents had proven the value of caution when dealing with this denizen of the sea. It was known to hunt in pods, and while not much of a threat on its own, several of those beasts could easily tear a man apart. And that was only one of the many threats which were out there, some of which had not yet been catalogued by Tanfen's xenobiologists.

A light naval destroyer, accompanied on its watchful vigil by two patrol boats, stood guard at the massive dock locks, keeping a watchful eye on the entry into the naval docks; situated close by, a pair of entrenched AA guns, meant to protect against human or animal foes, rounded out the station's weaponry.

Occasionally, a ship that entered the docks would be sealed off between two nets before entering the safe area, and then bursts of tracer rounds, followed by special depth charges, scoured the water, turning it into foam in an attempt to clean out any unwanted hijackers that might have hitched a ride on the supply vessels. Sometimes, liquids colored the surface of the water, and then, some of the more experienced men on guard shook their heads and smiled knowingly at their comrades, some of whom were green enough to comment on the fact that none of the dead animals ever floated to the surface. "Ain't gonna happen, buddy," a grizzled dockhand declared when asked that question, pausing long enough to spit a lump of chewing tobacco into the water. "The bastards that live in the sea somehow always sink downwards. It's driving those eggheads crazy, don't ye know." He grinned as if he knew a lot more, but refused to elaborate on that topic.

In fact, the mineral wealth this world offered was not the only reason why Tanfen had chosen to set up a camp on his planet; their interest had been aroused when Porhen had suddenly moved in, claiming a portion of the world for themselves.

One of people on the docks moved with the crisp, precise gait of a professional soldier, frowning at those who did not work as hard as they should have. His faded cap, emblazoned with the Tanfen logo, was almost hidden by his oiled raincoat, but he made a habit of letting some of the workers see it from time to time, just to let them know that he was not somebody to be pushed around. The man's face was pale and grizzled, with heavy stubble. The lack of ambient sunlight, along with the massive heat that was the result of Meiwan's sulfuric atmosphere, made life difficult for people, but did not provide them with a tan to show for their trouble. He shook his head, giving the old dockhand an almost conspiratorial wink before spitting into the water. The weather, while living hell for humans, seemed to be damned good for the plant life, though. Those plants that flourished reminded the eggheads of thingies found in some ancient era or other on Earth - the scientists had a name for it, of course (since that was the eggheads were really good at), but he was a soldier, and did not care enough. Paleozoic? Something like that. Had sounded like a malady to him, but he had not said so. The master sergeant fractionally turned his head, grimacing when he caught sight of gigantic ferns, massive palms, and swarming around those, the largest damned blood sucking mosquitoes this side of Hell. At least the buggers didn't come out in the rain; for that, the man was grateful.

He sniffed at the air, resisted the urge to spit out again, since he knew well that it would only make him thirsty sooner or later, and fresh, drinkable water was a luxury here, despite the sea in front of him. It was a bloody joke. The water (if one chose to deign it with that name) was not drinkable, due to hellish micro-organisms that would have killed any human being with a few hours. To make matters worse, even Tanfen's best purifiers (which were prohibitively expensive) took quite some time to process water into a substance that was even remotely drinkable, which meant that a large amount of water had to be imported offworld, and what supplies that were available ranked right up there with fusion rods, food and synth-cigarettes in importance. The master sergeant turned his eyes heavenwards and heaved a sigh. The accursed rain that fell on him now was so clogged with ash and contaminants that a good taste of it'd send a Laifen Highlander into Intensive Care without a second thought.

The man spat a vile curse, then uttered that most famous (and cynical) of the Corp's euphemisms: "For the Corp, the Credit and the President," as he lighted a synth-cig with a long pull, making a significant effort to coax a large enough flame from the lighter to prevent the cigarette from going out immediately. The meager plume of smoke was a small reminder of what was to happen later today. Beyond him, his gaze took in the effort being assembled against Porhen. He cracked a vicious smile. For a megacorp, Tanfen packed a lot of armament, but it was wise enough to play with its toys where no one could object. The master sergeant shrugged. It was not as if he was paid for thinking. The brass, the ones who used their brains for a living, had come up with the astonishing notion that taking over an already established base was cheaper than building up the infrastructure from scratch, and that the costs from about three month's worth of mining from even one of the archipelago's smallest islands made up for the costs spent in "defensive" assets. Hovertrucks bearing munitions and armament moved back and forth from bunkers as they were finishing the loading of a small convoy of gunboats and a pair of wet navy assault frigates. His gaze came to rest on the small flotilla - and the strike team.

Arrayed in haphazard rows, with teams of technicians, troops and men nearby, were a small division of hover-vehicles of various types. Some were troop transports, some were light tanks, and others were simply stripped chassis with a light artillery cannon to provide added fire support. The advent of the hover drive had facilitated amphibious assaults tremendously; however, wet navy ships were still needed for increased punch and staying power. A hover drive took up enough power to prevent the use of larger, power-hungry weapon systems - at least if one was restricted to non-military stuff. He made a face when trying to imagine how it would be like inside of one of those craft. It was disconcerting, hovering mere inches above the water, and certain death below, but the hover crews seemed to relish the added danger.

The master sergeant shrugged and turned to the dockhands, barking out orders which they heeded with crisp efficiency, laughing when he remembered the inane question of an absolute greenhorn who had asked him why Tanfen had not simply bombed the Porhen bases from space. He had shaken his head and had taken the boy to a TASC pilot, who had lectured the newbie on the drawbacks of such methods. Firstly, Tanfen did not have enough assets in place to launch an attack from orbit - and the potential losses had been deemed too high by the brass (not to speak of the danger of being spotted by the authorities). Secondly, and that was the really important reason, orbital attacks did not leave much in their wake. Ground attacks allowed for the capturing of enemy installations, and once seized, it was easy to fortify territory.

A grin split his chipped lips. Up till now, it had been an uneasy standstill. Both sides had kept their ground, interrupted only by occasional raids. That would change, and soon. According to what was coming down the grapevine, the assault he was to take part in was going to have air support (rumors had it that any losses were to be deemed secondary, as long as the primary objectives were completed), which was an indicator as to how important this op was deemed by the High Council. At least this time, he'd have the fingers of God on his side.

A tap on his back interrupted his reverie. His adjutant saluted behind him. Kate, as he recalled. Damned fact was, he'd forgotten half the adjutants assigned to him. It was a mark of distinction to survive a tour of duty in the archipelago; true enough, there were no real battles, but ambushes and raids wore on the nerves of any soldier, and whether one died in a pitched battle or a night engagement mattered very little to the grunts who wound up dead. He shrugged, deciding that she had not earned the honor of his remembering her name. When - if - she survived her first tour, he'd remember her, but not before. Fact was, the constant low-level fighting had been tiring him lately, and the fate of his last adjutant, who had caught a shrapnel round in his head, had hardened the master sergeant. He liked to think that the TSF had more combat experience than some frontline Union or Confed ground pounder units, a fact quietly pointed out by the Families and S'Hoon Hon, CIC of TSF himself; not that it mattered all that much. The regular units had better equipment, and they could afford to train as hard as was necessary. He shook his head sourly, reminding himself that he had matters to deal with.

"Sir, the boys are almost prepped and ready to move out. Colonel Williams says that the final briefing is on in five minutes."

The master sergeant took another long pull, then tossed the cigarette into the water, watching with a faint sense of amusement as something snatched the stub, pulling it below the surface. Though the durasteel perimeter nets kept out the larger lifeforms, smaller, guppy-sized monstrosities still slipped through them at times. According to the eggheads, they were not dangerous, but none of the grunts were willing to bet their lives on that. The master sergeant checked his holstered Archer underneath the raincoat and moved off, his adjutant close behind. His booted footsteps made a hollow noise, almost like drums, which was oddly appropriate, as it struck a beat to the budding hostilities, which would soon erupt into a full-scale war. The ghost of a grim smile flittered across his weathered features. It'd be fun to take the fight to the Porhens, paying them back in blood for their constant needling. He turned his head fractionally and muttered, "I'll be there."

 

 

In orbit over the planet
About the same time...

Overhead, in one of the ships that made up a small fleet, two people talked. One in light body armor bearing a burning sword and rampant stallion, the other in plainer fatigues. Both were armed with reg blades and Archers. Behind them, on the bridge, people bustled as they prepared for battle stations.

"Why would Commander Hon and the Board authorize a counter-attack on Porhen assets on Meiwan?" The armoured man grunted and thumped the transparisteel window, showing the noxious planet below that hid both untold wealth and their sworn enemies. "The cost in men and materiel will be enormous. In Her Name, why the hell did we move troops away from Meiwan, move them back, and now expect to counter-attack them?" He raised his voice incredulously.

"Commander Hon has touched this in a briefing before, milord. Troops were shifted away as a reaction to the threat posed by the Nephilim, in order to safeguard our assets. However, the decision of Porhen to exploit our weakness convinced the Board that steps had to be taken. The fact that our strategic assets were already prepared for transport only made this part of the operation significantly easier. As to why - we have already been briefed regarding the reasons," the man's seneschal added quietly.

His superior produced an impatient sound deep in his throat. "God, I know that we have been subjected to a full corporate war, and that we have to shift the momentum. But at what cost!?! Even now, the other mega corps are lying in wait like vultures waiting for the kill, until one of us is weakened enough to be taken down by whatever measures might be deemed appropriate by them. The damned Union Stock Index has fallen eight points. Eight Empress-be-blessed points! And the Board now wants to plan a counter-attack?"

His subordinate shrugged. "The ways of the Board are now our own, milord. Clearly, their wisdom is beyond ours." He supplemented his words with a chilling smile. "Rest assured, we will wash our hands in their blood. If we're fortunate, we may even bag one of their pathetic House Nobles. In Her Name, I'd give one lot of Tanfen shares if it were to bag me the head of a von Trisp!" He flinched when his superior gave him a wintry stare.

"Do not think that I would not rejoice in killing those dogs."

The bridge door opened behind him with an audible hiss.

The man turned around to look at his seneschal and the newcomer. The latter, dressed in Loyalist armor, nodded as he entered the bridge. The Tan gave him a wolfish smile. "It is time, then." He received an equally ferocious grin in response.

"Aye, milord, we stand ready."

With a wave of his hand, the Tan lord summoned forth nine disembodied heads; Tri-D holo images of his sub-commanders in the task force. The man suppressed a shudder as he gazed at several of these phantom heads representing the task force commanders of the Lai contingent. The fact that he had read the Scottish Play some time ago, and that these heads were reminiscent of that was not lost on him in terms of significance.

The Laifen Highlander squadron leader of their small contingent of strike fighters was a woman -- her pale alabaster white face framed by a comlink headband and a statuesque face almost seemingly carved of marble, highlighted in eerie blue from her panel displays from her strike fighter.

Calm, and collected, the Family Lai representative of the assault transports in the strike force was just as cold. His helmet was clutched in his arm as he regarded the Tan Lord. His eyes were like agates, cold and calm, like the rest of his Highlander brethren. Behind him, in a back scabbard was their traditional weapon -- a shock lance. To Family Lai - war was a surgical process, and a perfectly ethical means of achieving an objective once subterfuge was exhausted. There was little need to waste valuable energy screaming threats and anger when a perfectly executed maneuver massacred the enemy with just as much, if not more efficiency and finesse. If a Highlander had to sneak up and slit a foe's throat, so be it. Results mattered, not the petty dictates of honor, for as the Lais put it, "only winners write in the history books," and they definitely intended just that. Their Family soldiers were cold, ruthless and absolutely competent in their business -- dealing death to the Family's enemies and defending the Family name from all threats. That they were often called the soldier-philosophers of Tanfen was a well deserved title. Many Highlanders were versed in philosophy, religion and were more than well educated.

They were as massive a contrast to Family Gan as they were to Tan. The Loyalist Marines fought with passion, verve and honor, and no small amount of insane bravery. If one of their brethren were down, they would fight through the legions of hell and back to recover him. The Highlanders would have weighed the profit and loss of the transaction, and would have abandoned their comrade should the cost have been too high. The Marines would have simply said "screw it" and charged right back in. Emotion versus cold logic would be a more appropriate description for the mental model of these two Family Honour Guard Units. And seemingly in the middle, were the Walking Steel; the least in number, and the most well educated and valuable, their engineering skills and stiff upper lip, and "can do" attitude made them critical to the Corp and as a counterpoint to what the Loyalists and Highlanders had become. They were the voice of reason and humanity in their gathered ranks. A more appropriate title for them would be armed pacifists. Though the Steel, and their patron's disapproved of the war, they did believe in the Blood Feud. It worked out that they won't ever take the offensive, but they'd give back more than anyone, even the most hard-bitten Porhenner could chew when on the defensive. They instead were defending Family assets groundside in case of a Porhen counter-offensive and as squad elements for special breeching and special purpose weapons like demo charges and flamethrowers.

"Brothers and sisters in arms, members of Family Lai and Gan!" His voice rose in a crescendo.

"We are gathered! Here! And Now!" His voice turned louder and louder.

He pointed down at the planet.

"With the hated enemy below us, infesting all we have rightfully earned!"

"In remembrance of our fallen, of the lives the hated abominations have taken from us, of the Great Betrayal" His voice was a roar now. His fist was raised.

"Of the centuries of pain and loss!"

"Now!" he shouted, "We bring death! Vengeance for our fallen! In Her Glorious Name!"

In this, the disembodied heads response was unified, the grim nod of those determined to wreak vengeance on a hated enemy, though they showed it in different ways. The Loyalists gave vicious grins of anticipation. The Highlanders cold nods of affirmation, and the Steel with a stiff salute.

The Tan turned back to gaze at the vista before him and raised his right fist, clenched so tightly that the knuckles were white. He then dropped it with a scything motion. Behind him, technicians and lesser officers began relaying his orders.

"Operation Red Dawn is a go! I repeat -- Red Dawn is a go!"

Far below them, living hell broke loose.

 

CONT...