Unit 03 sat alone in the Raven's troop bay, hands closed over her legs, head tucked low. For close to an hour, all she heard was the roar of jet engines as the transport flew toward the surface of planet Chiron.
The troop bay, designed to carry fifteen soldiers into battle, was cavernously empty. The angle at which the gleam of atmospheric re-entry heat streamed through the slotted windows wrought her lone shadow against the metal hull.
She looked at the slotted window and imagined the stars beyond. Were her sisters watching the heavens and praying for her? There was no way for her to know.
She looked to her left and grabbed the SCARAB-II nuke. The large metal cylinder still felt unusually cold, a bit heavier than it should be. It was a Class 10 weapon, compact, portable... she stopped thinking about similarities between Class 10 and Class 12 weapons. She listened to her favorite song for the remainder of the trip.
Unit 03 rose from her crash seat as the craft began to drop altitude, sensing her brief down time was over. She set her assault rifle at an anchoring clip on her hip, nuke in hand, and approached the aft hatch as it swung open. A patch of trackless beige, marked as the New Kalahari Desert, appeared below. Dragons flew beneath corpselike billows of smog toward the east.
"They're going somewhere," Captain Wilkes had explained. "It might be a migration pattern. That's either a good thing or a really bad thing for us. Get to the surface. Wipe the landing zone for me to set the Vidardown."
With only thirty wounded soldiers aboard, there were no resources to waste on a detailed invasion. Captain Wilkes found the least infested land on Chiron and told her to sterilize that zone with one of the Vidar'snukes.
They could not drop the nuke from low orbit and remote detonate it. The Dragons, with their starship grade plasma, would vaporize the bomb and tear the Vidar apart long before either reached the ground.
The transport flew past the desert and crossed into the Kairutian savannah. No flocks of birds took to the air upon their approach. Not even a rushing pride of lions heralded their coming. Unit 03 remained at the open aft hatch for the remainder of the flight. The aft hatch was a familiar place, and one of the only constants in her world.
The view of a thousand battles began here.
The transports roared past the broken gates of Kairut City by mid-morn. Unit 03 watched a portrait of havoc scroll beyond the aft hatch: rusted cars and concrete littered across the ruins of was once a sprawling cityscape.
At one minute to arrival, she turned her back to the open aft hatch and faced the cockpit ahead. She hung onto the frame with one hand, the other cradling the nuke as the Raven rapidly dropped altitude.
In the span of thirty seconds, the Raven swooped through the clouds, passed hollow skyscrapers and cruised low along a wide street. A glance over the shoulder and she saw a road blur at her back, five meters below.
"Stay on that road," Captain Wilkes counseled. "It will lead you straight to the target area. Don't engage any hostiles unless you have to. Just run in, drop the nuke, and run out."
The transport now flew as slow as its powerful jets allowed. She exhaled, let go of the frame. The Raven stole away in an instant.
Cradling the nuke with both hands, she curled into a ball and braced for impact. There was the dull roar of wind, followed by a sudden impact. She still had forward momentum when she left the drop ship, and her force shields flared as she tumbled down the road like a broken wheel: the curve of her helmet, the arch of her back and finally the boots, over and over.
She rolled once more, sprang to her feet, and in five pumping strides accelerated to a set speed of sixty kilometers an hour. She now held the nuke with one hand, her boots denting asphalt like it was clay.
The pale sun angled past the empty buildings when she sprinted into the city center, and there she saw the face of destroyed beauty. Great mosques, once standing proud with shining bronze towers and gold pinnacles, lay broken in a stinking quagmire.
As she sprinted past the ruins, a sudden tightness came about her chest. A headache, sudden, throbbed with her heartbeat. While at first she thought the symptoms were battlefield anxiety, she had learned over the years that this is how she sensed the plague's presence.
She slammed to a halt and leapt into a nearby alley. Captain Wilkes asked her not to engage any hostiles, so she listened. She linked a cable from the assault rifle to her helmet and poked the gun around the corner.
A quarter screen surveillance video appeared in her visor. She counted about a hundred of the human sized Acolytes. There were four Cyclopes. She paused, recounting just how tough one of these monsters were. She’d wrestled one in the abandoned orbital elevator...and it’d almost killed her.
Typically, an infestation this large was no cause of alarm. She would have simply charged through the smaller ones in a ruthless stampede and weaved past the Cyclopes long before they lumbered to a turn and gave chase. This infestation, however, wasn't a typical situation.
"I need an alternate route. There are over a hundred, armed."
"Say again," Captain Wilkes inquired. "They're armed?"
"One hundred and seventeen Acolytes armed with YG-ER7 pistols, MK55 sub-machine guns and SAW-62 heavy assault rifles. There are two pairs of Cyclopes."
"Alright. I'm looking up a new route on the map."
Unit 03 kept her finger on the trigger. She glanced up at the morning sky, thankful that there were no Dragons or Lotas there. Kairut was by far the safest place on Chiron.
"Detour into that alley," Captain Wilkes told her. "Take a left at the next street, cut through the residential district and continue west. Hurry. The evolved Locri look like they're finished. We don't have much time left."
As Unit 03 continued into the alley, she wondered if Captain Wilkes and the thirty wounded soldiers aboard the Vidar were the last surviving humans. Seven years ago there were billions of them strewn across the stars. What exactly did Captain Wilkes plan to do? Even if by cosmic sleight-of-hand humanity somehow overcame the plague ...then what?
At this point, even repopulation was a bleak preposition. Clinging to their hope of survival, humanity denied the plague a swift victory by casting near every colony into a nuclear pyre. Chiron, once their strongest outpost, was now becoming one of the plague's hive-worlds.
There were no colonies left to run to, and to find arable land would be nothing short of a miracle. Across the planet, vast conservatories and green houses lay in ruins. Food, shelter, water—they only had a paltry supply left on the Vidar.
Unit 03 advanced deeper into the alley, moving sideways so she kept an eye at both ends. Something was wrong. She heard the voices again, eerie whispers written beneath the silence.
These voices were different from before. She heard these in her head, in her thoughts, and they spoke as one. She now understood some of their words, but the meaning of the message remained incomprehensible.
She emerged from the other end of the alley a minute later and sped into the suburbs. Credit to possible migration, no more Acolytes came as she pressed onwards.
Unit 03 bounded atop the dilapidated house ahead. From then on she was fast among the rooftops; her steps were rapid fire impacts that crushed the roofing tiles and set the steel trusses beneath creaking.
The headache tensed as she drew close to the target area. The voices were together now, stronger. Their words no longer sung fear into her heart, and their message was now clear.
Lamenting warrior ...cast aside your vain labors and venture forth into my domain. Shed your armored casket and I will grant you freedom, everlasting.
The sun angled higher in the sky and the hatchery loomed in the distance. Laid on the ground, the imposing fleshy mound bulged from the earth like a festering open wound.
This hatchery appeared young, and yet it was so strained that it began to rot; rivers of bloody white pus oozed from ruptured sores, where maws of gangrene flesh rotted to necrotic brown.
In over a thousand ground engagements, humanity came across only a dozen hatcheries. The growth of such breeding grounds began when the plague covered an entire globe.
Like the Locrix bioships, the hatcheries were known to regenerate physical damage at an alarming rate. Orbital bombardment and air raids proved to be useless. To destroy hatcheries, soldiers were forced to venture deep inside to plant a powerful bomb.