The moon was ill, cast a sickly-yellow gleam across the desert as the Raven drop ship cruised low and fast. Their pilot avoided breaching cloud ceiling, and flew low enough that the desert beneath them churned and unfurled in great wakes.
The Raven drop ship was a relic of The Intifada, an old feud among men long forgotten seven years ago when the plague appeared. With a stunted nose streamlined against a sturdy angular body, it was a marvel the thing flew at all, but with enough propulsion anything will fly.
Four stubby wings protruded on four top corners of the drop ship's hull, each fit with a missile pod and a powerful jet. Along the spine of the craft, the emergency pulse-detonation engine bulged like a rocket melted into its back. Though the transport could fight, it was better suited for running.
Unit 03 stood by the yawning loading ramp with one hand clamped to the frame. At length she prospected the sky, grey and cold. There were no stars. All she saw was the ailing moon, lonely in the heavens.
Behind her, a dozen soldiers occupied the troop bay. From the way some shook with the jitters, she knew they were all still a little green. The rest sat frozen in their harnesses with haunted eyes, alone with their fears.
They're going to die. All of them. They're going to die.
She envied them. She turned away and watched the sands race away below ...saw herself plummeting, dashed into a bloody smear ...but no. She didn't have the freedom to make that choice.
"Your signal is still good," she heard Captain Wilkes' voice in her helmet from the rally point. "Once you retrieve the code, arm the bomb and bug out. The Raven will pick you up."
After the transport left the desert, it angled skyward above an emerald ocean. For close to an hour it crossed the waters until it made landfall beyond an ashen rocky cliff. The craft then rose higher and crested the ridge of a circular mountain range. A shroud of storm clouds covered the world within the mountains' hollow. Forged of stone and ice, the sheer mountain sides dropped to unknown depths beneath the clouds.
Their pilot urged the Raven drop ship forward unto the hollow, undaunted. It drew a deep wound through the cloud cover, and in moments they had their first line-of-sight view at the objective.
Centered deep within the mountains' hollow, a tower of gritty steel crusted with fangs of ice looked like a spear fixed at the heavens. The space elevator rose two kilometers but broke off near the cloud ceiling--splintered long-since to deny the plague access to the planetary orbital defense grid.
Around it, Acolytes. Hundreds of them, thousands.
The Acolyte strain of the plague appeared like humans. They marched through stony meadows, moved supplies from the space elevator and worked great machines, but it was dangerous to think of them as such.
So far the humans knew there were three strains of the biological threat. While the Acolyte strain swept through the lands like a great flood, the Lotas and Locrix took to the air and to outer space.
She had fought the Acolyte strain countless times on the ground, but she couldn't take the fight to the air or into space. Fearful men and women bound her reach.
Below, a thousand heads craned on ill-shapen shoulders. Eyes, like midnight hollows, caught the drop ship as it flew overhead. A presence aboard it, unfamiliar, unwelcome. Pheromone scents poured, shrieking a chemical cry of unease. The wafting yellow musk saturated the horde, invoked instincts ...hunger.
An amber light flared on the side of the drop ship's aft hatch. She inspected her parachute once more and grabbed the SCARAB-II tactical nuke. The oversized metal capsule was cold and landed an unusual heft in her grip. Meanwhile, the roof of the orbital elevator emerged below.
The light flared green. She jumped.
A hurricane swallowed her. Encased beneath the JAW-1221 combat armor, she plummeted straight down like a missile. She saw the icy ground tumble as her visor fogged. The suit's air supply sucked out the mist, showed her the icy mountain peaks menace the leaden sky. The wind battered against her--so loud all she heard was the thunder of her heart and the cold blood it hammered through her skull.
She shifted her weight, controlled her fall. The chute deployed with sound like the crack of sheet metal shaken out. Her boots met the alloy roof with enough force to shake icicles from the orbital elevator, followed in rapid succession by her knees and hands as she absorbed the impact.
A cold front blasted through her chute, dragging her across the elevator platform's roof. In one swift motion she rolled to her feet and ripped the chute from anchoring points on her armor. By the time the twelve soldiers touched down, she was meters shy from the roof access hatch. The soldiers let their chutes flutter away in the cold breeze and sprinted after her.
She trotted to a halt and reached in her utility belt for a length of diamond wire. The strand was millimeters thin, but was tougher than an arm of braided iron cords two inches thick.
She grabbed one end, slipped the thread underneath the access hatch so it scraped the hinges, and then held the opposite end as a guide. When she wrenched, the diamond filament ran through the hinges like a band saw through wood. Below, utter darkness and the wind's wounded howl.
Unit 03 looped a knot around the sheared hinge and jumped. A fine spray of sparks flew from the force shields about her fingers as she abseiled down the high tension line into the dark. She touched down, assault rifle in hand. For the duration it took the twelve soldiers to get down, her keen eyes hunted through the dark and spotted the door that would let them out.
They all crouched and sprinted through the dark, past the door, to a stair case corridor. A spine of dim fluorescent lamps lit the path as it snaked down the building. And the data room? It should be two floors below. That was where they will find the computer system with the access code to the deactivated orbital defense platform serving this region of the planet.
Seven years ago, this military space elevator as well as all orbital defense platforms were placed in lockdown. The measure prevented the plague from escalating its war of attrition from mass infantry to a technological effort on a planetary scale overnight. Such measures were one of many drastic acts imposed on all weapons rated Class 10 or higher.
Each Class, 12 being the highest, broadly assessed the threat of a weapon based on the scale of destruction it could create, and how often it could recreate such devastation. The use of starships, and the recently activated bioweapons, was severely controlled and monitored.
With the orbital defense platforms in Coalition hands, they could punch a hole through the Locrix bioships surrounding the planet. Only then would the rest of the home fleet jump to Sol to retake and rebuild Earth as the major military stronghold in this system.
While they sprinted down the corridor, she heard the voices again. There were words in the calling, she knew--vulgar whispers of death and fates worse than death, just below the threshold of hearing. Usually the twelve untested soldiers would have lost their wits, but her presence loaned them an air of courage and they followed her in a tight column.
They angled a left at the second turn of the spiral corridor, then slipped into the security hallway. In better days, a detail of armed guards lined this passage. Today, only the vacuum-seal door stood between them and the data room ahead. She fast-walked to the door and entered the unlock code.
With the dry grind of heavy gears long without lubrication, locks disengaged and the vacuum seal door slid apart, into the walls on either side. Inside the dead lay in their seats, where they gazed into the infinite unknown with hollow eyes. One held a fond photograph, a cruel gash blasted through his skull. The sympathetic gun, ever close.
She ignored the calling and grabbed the chair, twisted it aside, then brought out the battery from her utility belt and powered the computer on. The soldiers came around her, rifles in hand.
She entered the password the instant the computer was on. Meanwhile the soldiers nervously glanced through the shadows as the voices spoke words they could not understand and whispered fear into their hearts. Gunfire exploded into the security tunnel behind her, followed by a shrill insectoid scream punctuated by the thunder of a grenade.
"Hurry-the-f**k-up!" One soldier yelled.
The instant she got the code, she crashed a fist into the computer. She wrenched out the memory disk and crushed it into dust. Turning, she sighted down the security corridor.
"I'm entering the code now," Captain Wilkes said. "The drop ship is circling back. Arm the bomb. Get back outside for evacuation."
She armed the nuke, tossed it into the data room and closed the vacuum seal door. By then the soldiers were already half way out, so she sprinted to catch up. They charged past a tangle of corpses back into the spiral corridor and followed the coiling path all the way down to the cavernous lobby below, halting only when the anticipated horde was not there.
Death was watching, she knew. The soldiers in front of her stared deep into the infinite darkness. Nothing moved in the shadows, but they too knew something was here, waiting.
Throaty growls directly in front of them--closing fast. A dozen exploded through the yawning shutter door, limbs flailing. As one, the soldiers opened fire at the sound, illuminating the lobby in harsh orange strobes. They fell beneath a hail of gunfire.
"You can't risk a firefight in a closed environment," Captain Wilkes counseled her. "One mistake and you'll get swamped. Get outside; the drop ship is holding position a hundred meters above you."
Safe in her command center at the rally point, the Captain had a broader view of the battle field and full control over her armor. Wilkes could administer the suit's medicine, relay available tactical information, and if needed activate self-preservation measures.
More Acolytes burst through the shutter. Unit 03 and the soldiers gunned them down, and fired until a lull came about. They began a swift sprint toward the mangled shutter when they heard metal cry in the rafters overhead, groaning under a great load.
"Above us!" One soldier cried. "It's above us!"
Automatic gunfire tore into the ceiling, trenched the metal roof. Something new dropped from the shadows above, but by then the soldiers had already scattered from their tight column formation.
Unit 03 slammed to a halt, rifle in hand as an earthquake crashed into the ground no more than five meters in front of her. A single mad eye marked her through a shroud of yellow mist.