Children of Heaven, Chapter 21

Chapter 21:

September 14th, 4233
Graveyard (Enitri)
Uncharted Space
Milky Way Galaxy (Orion-Perseus Divide)

Target ship designated Necromancer.

The heavy autocannon swept back and forth across the corridor, high velocity shells whining down the passageway, the Necro troops peering around corners and firing back up towards Alpha Squad’s position. They still had those plasma guns, but they’d added grenades, HV-rifles and rocket launchers to their repertoire now. Alpha had had to set up their defences here when they’d almost been overrun; Wachowski and Danningmore had bought it covering the set up of the autocannon. Without additional support, they couldn’t break through the enemy’s lines around Main Engineering.

Leibowitz’s other squads were faring no better; he’d lost contact with over a quarter of them. That could mean anything; it was hard to stay in contact with the warship’s bulk between him and his units, but given the ferocity displayed by the defenders so far, he was not optimistic. The runts were holding his side passages with heavy weapons while the Marines attempted to forge ahead. For the moment that was deterring flanking maneuvers, but the big guns’ ammo reserves would only last so long.

Several of the Warhawks had managed to breach airlocks and insert units behind the enemy’s positions, but they were quickly overrun or isolated when the enemy sealed off those sections with blast doors and force fields.

The Necro troops had been caught off guard by Liberty’s assault, but they had the home team advantage and were not shy about using it. As another volley of plasma fire roiled past, Leibowitz knew that they couldn’t hold out for much longer.

~

The lift shuddered to a halt and Sergeant Adria Hennessy tapped her comm. “Wraith Two to Ensign Reeds – we just stopped.”

“I know, they’ve figured out that the elevator’s going. I was hoping they’d miss it, but they’re overriding my override. I can’t keep them out and when they get control back, they’ll drop you down the shaft.”

“Roger that; you got us this far, sir.” Adria flipped the comm off, turning to her driver. “Time for some wall-crawling.”

“Check,” the other Marine confirmed. “Magnetizing treads now.”

The tank rolled forwards, its forward track pods angling up towards the wall, clamping tightly to the metal wall of the lift tube. Wraith Two was an Endurance-class main battle tank and had been designed for the very real possibility that she might have to go extravehicular on her host ship or station’s hull to clear away boarding craft or fight EVA sabotage units.

Eighty tons of armour and weaponry pulled herself straight up the elevator shaft’s walls as the platform underneath her returned to Necromancer’s control and plummeted hundreds of meters back down the tube. The aliens had noticed this unanticipated survival of the invading vehicle and high above, access doors opened and hunter-killer drones descended upon the League war machine.

Adria took the controls of one of Dark Lord’s sponsons, letting the reticule drift over the incoming hostiles. Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough.

~

If this doesn’t work, I’m going to feel really stupid. And then die, probably, Corporal Rentwell thought as she slithered through the target vessel’s service corridors. One of her recon bots had picked up an incoming squad of alien troops; she’d had nowhere to fall back to until she’d spied a small access hatch. It had blown open during the fight that had killed Kappa squad, but it was too small for the aliens – or a human in power armour – to squeeze through.

Shucking herself out of her suit in record time, Denise had propped her armour up against the wall and activated its self-destruct sequence, tying it to a proximity alert. Her armour was damaged enough that it could pass for being crippled. That ruse appeared to have worked as one of the stupid bastards had gone in to check to see if ‘she’ was alive. The explosion had been suitably pyrotechnical and had covered her retreat into Necromancer’s ducts.

Clad only in her bodyglove, Denise took a moment to get her bearings. She had her carbine draped over her back and a sidearm in her hands, along with four grenades; two plasma and two flash-bang. Not a lot. She tapped the side of her head, brushing a sweaty black lock of hair back behind her ear. She’d salvaged a portable HUD too, but it lacked the command and communication functions of her Marine helmet. Given that those had been slagged earlier, she wasn’t missing much.

Now, if I were the bridge, which direction would I be in? Selecting the most likely passageway, Corporal Denise Rentwell crawled through the bowels of the enemy ship.

~

“There’s the doors to the midship access shaft,” PFC Gunderson pointed out.

“Guns – blow ‘em.”

Dark Lord rocked as its main cannon fired, 160mm of armour-piercing explosives slamming into the warship’s blast doors. They shook in their housings, a spiderweb of cracks appearing from the impact site, but no other appreciable damage. “Reloading!” shouted Guns as the tank rocked again, this time from the fire battering it from the hunter-killers in the shaft.

Adria swore victoriously as she carved one of the drones open with her gun, the rubble falling down the shaft.

~

Another pile of debris clattered to the deck, bits and pieces bouncing amid the pile of shattered metal, coolant fluid and body parts. St. Claire smiled a little, though her eyes kept flicking over to the control deck’s doors. “She got another one.”

“Looks that way,” Reeds mumbled as he tried to bring the elevator back on-line. One of the Warhawks had debarked another tank, and they wanted to go up, too. Dad was right; competence only means that people expect you to do it again. I should have been a lawyer. They get paid no matter what and people don’t shoot at them… much.

~

As a child, Denise had loved crawling through the snakeworm burrows that criss-crossed a hill near her home. The caverns were just big enough for a child to wander through and hide from parents, siblings and vegetables. The inhabitants of the warrens had never worried her; snakeworms were big and omnivorous, but they were quite shy and easily spooked. They also had good hearing and slithered off into the side tunnels when they heard her coming. One time, she had come face to face with a snakeworm; it had hissed at her with a mouth big enough to swallow her in a single gulp, but she had shouted and lunged at it; it had fled backwards and vanished deeper into the burrows.

Worming her way through the access tunnels of the alien ship felt very familiar. The aliens hadn’t secured these portions of their vessel. It might not have occurred to them; even without their armour, they couldn’t fit through the smaller tunnels and as far as they knew, neither could the humans. They probably relied on service drones to conduct maintenance in these passageways. There was no reason to have larger tunnels, since the aliens’ build made it impossible for them crawl around like a human could, so anything that needed regular maintenance from a technical crew would just be on a normal deck.

The corporal froze in place as the butt of her carbine caught on a lip in the passageway for the umpteenth time and she soundly cursed whoever felt that these tunnels needed to have ridged ceilings. Sucking in her breath and hoping, also for the umpteenth time that she wasn’t inhaling a lungful of deadly bacteria, she flattened herself as best she could. I’m glad I’m not a D cup, she smirked.

Reaching an intersection she paused, checking the schematic on her little monocle of a HUD. She was still a fair distance from the command deck, but she needed to go… up. Left, then up.

All right then.

~

The tank exploded, dropping to the smooth floor of the access shaft with a bang as something inside it cooked off. Dark Lord ground ahead, crushing the debris that was scattered throughout this section beneath its heavy treads. Damage indicators flashed nonstop, but the vehicle was still functional. The Necros’ assault was relentless; turrets would pop out of the walls, HKs and skimmers would drop down out of the shaft behind them or zoom in from overhead, and the Necros had dropped a trio of light tanks right in Wraith Two’s path.

Their armour had been thin and they’d been as ugly as everything else about this ship, but they’d hit hard, knocking out two of Dark Lord’s sponsons and one of her sensors. It was obvious that the aliens hadn’t planned for this type of attack; their responses were clumsy. I guess someone who bombs the fuck out of planets doesn’t have a lot of practice in fighting off boarding actions.

Another pair of HK drones whizzed by overhead, strafing Wraith Two as they probed for a weak spot in its armour.

They really don’t want us getting to Engineering. Too bad. Hennessy could never have done this on a human vessel and despite the situation, the fact was that she was driving a tank through the middle of an alien starship… and, well, she was having fun.

~

+imperative: destroy highthreat armoured unit. destroy highthreat armoured unit. danger to core systems+

+status: highthreat units routed on decks 12-19. pockets of resistance on decks 13, 16, 17+

+unacceptable: highthreat units remain in control of brood pods and lower levels. casualties high+

~

“Fall back, fall back!” Leibowitz shouted as he dragged the wounded Sternmeyer to some semblance of safety. The Marine commander was emphatically not having fun. The enemy marines had managed to knock out his autocannon and in the wake of the big gun’s destruction, had charged his position. There were too many of them and what they lacked in coordination, they made up for in aggression. Weir had taken a missile in the face; the Marine’s body just ended halfway down his torso and Sternmeyer had caught a sniper’s round to the gut. Internal systems were preventing him from bleeding out, but he couldn’t stand.

Higgins laid down heavy cover fire as Leibowitz tried to pull his injured comrade to safety, but they weren’t going to make it. So close, they’d been so cl-

The entire deck shook.

The charging Necro marines froze in their tracks and fell back, thundering up the hallway that they’d come from, running as if the Devil himself were chasing after them. Leibowitz and Higgins exchanged a brief look. What the fuck was that about?

~

+imperative: destroy highthreat armoured unit+

~

“Knock knock, motherfuckers.” Adria grinned as her gunner reloaded Dark Lord’s main cannon. “Got a candygram for you.”

~

Of course, it would have been too easy if the vents took her right to the bridge, wouldn’t it? Can’t make anything too easy, can you? At the moment, Denise Rentwell, who had never given the matter much thought, was coming to a similar theological revelation as Senior Captain Goldstein had. There has to be a God. And He hates me.

She’d finally made it to the deck with Necromancer’s command and control without being detected, but the tunnel she was in ended right in front of the bridge’s doors. Peering through the grating, she had a very good view of eight armoured feet, which belonged to the two armoured – of course – alien Marines standing guard over their command center. She’d withdrawn to a nearby intersection, confirming that the rest of the tunnels in this section in no way connected to the bridge. She had no idea where to go to find one that did and she doubted that she had the time to find out. Right. I’ll just launch a frontal assault on two aliens in power armour, burn through an armoured door and take control of a warship’s bridge all by myself… I’m going to die.

It took her a few moments, but she was able to come up with a better plan. She crawled back towards the grate, her carbine trapped uncomfortably between her breasts and the floor, one hand maneuvering her laser pistol. On its lowest settings, it could function as a decent blowtorch and she was slowly cutting through the grate so she could climb out.

Don’t look down don’t look down don’t look down… she urged the guards, but it looked like God didn’t completely hate her. She managed to cut the panel cover free from its mounting, holding it in place with her free hand as she grabbed her plasma grenades and thumbed the detonators. Jerking the plate aside, she tossed the explosives out under the aliens’ feet, pulling the cover back and pushing her face down into the deck.

There was a dull, hollow roar, a heat so terrible that she thought she was going to catch on fire and light so bright that even with her eyes squeezed shut, she could see only white. When it was over, the remains of the guards lay molten and twitching on the deck. Score two for the human, the Marine smiled, slipping her right hand down her belly to the trigger of her carbine. She grabbed a flash-bang with her left.

Her HUD display was linked to the rifle, showing her what it was pointed at and she jostled it painfully, trying to get a better bead on the bridge doors. Come on, come on. It didn’t make that much noise. They’re not responding and I bet the blast took out your cameras. Come and see what’s wrong.

The doors slid apart as an alien leaned outside, two dinky pistols clasped in its equally tiny chest-arms. The tentacles on its face recoiled from the heat in the corridor, jaw opening in dismay as it beheld the carnage.

“You are one ugly motherfucker,” Denise snarled as she squeezed her trigger. The report of the carbine’s shot was excruciatingly loud in the confined crawlspace, but it had the desired result: the creature’s head exploded and its body crumpled where it stood. Many of the League’s citizens did not have the same genetic and biological enhancements that the Concord’s populace took for granted, but Denise Rentwell was Palshife born and bred and her parents, even if they had not cared for her choice of career, had wanted their daughter to have and to be nothing but the best. Her strength was twice times that of an unaugmented human, her reflexes amplified as well. To one unused to such opponents, she could move almost faster than the eye could track.

The Marine pulled herself out of the vent in one smooth movement, tossing the flash-bang into the bridge as she followed it, diving between the open doors as they slammed shut behind her, crushing the alien’s body between them. She closed her eyes and rolled blindly, hoping that nobody here was a quick shot, but the suddenness of her attack had surprised them long enough for the grenade to go off. The aliens screamed in bewilderment and fear as they were blinded and deafened, staggering around like drunken horses.

Ignoring the ringing in her own ears, Denise fired her pistol through the skull of the nearest creature, the squid-faced centaur collapsing over its console. One of aliens had not been looking in the direction of the grenade and it charged her, tentacles reaching out to throttle her. She rammed the carbine into its face and pulled the trigger, blood and brain tissue spraying over the far bulkhead. The others never had a chance to recover before she dispatched them.

Feeling the after-effects of the adrenalin rush, Denise looked around the gore-flecked bridge, sinking to her knees and shaking. Take control of a warship’s bridge all by myself? “Easy,” she mumbled to herself. “Piece of cake.”

Maybe God loves me after all.

~

Dark Lord sprayed Engineering with railgun and flechette fire, tearing the crew that were unlucky enough to be caught in the path of the tank’s fire into shrieking gobbets of flesh. Several died rushing towards a particular panel, which had to be an emergency shut-down or self-destruct. After ‘securing the area’ in that manner, the tank had been crippled by a succession of missiles launched from a cluster of troops; her engine had been slagged and two of her crew were killed by shrapnel blown off from the inside of the hull.

Sergeant Hennessy, half her face torn by the same burst of metal that had killed her main gunner and engineer, spun the main turret around, taking out the enemy troops, the bulkhead behind them and whatever had been in the compartment behind it. Resistance was considerably lighter after that.

“Signatures incoming; it’s hard to tell with the damage we’ve taken, but they read like power armour.”

“Round two,” Adria grunted as she scrambled over to one of the tank’s two remaining sponson turrets. The combat drugs kept her from feeling the effects of her mangled face and the other injuries she’d sustained. Once they wore off, she’d have trouble speaking, let alone fighting. Until that happened, adrenalin and painkillers would keep her going. The sergeant patched the gun sensor to her HUD, her fingers tightening on the trigger as silhouettes fell across the mangled upper level. She almost fired but at the last second, hesitated. Something didn’t seem right. “This is Wraith Two at Objective Beta,” she snapped into an inter-squad channel. “Identify yourself or be fired upon.”

“Wraith Two?! How in the hell?” Senior Major Leibowitz’s voice thundered back, as he and a second Marine stepped into view, carrying a wounded soldier between them. All three soldiers did a double take as they saw the tank they’d left half a ship away sitting in the middle of their objective, its main cannon pointed directly at them. If she’d been able to see their faces Adria would have bet a week’s pay that each and every one of them would be staring in slack-jawed shock.

Hennessy popped the top hatch and saluted, grinning despite her mutilated face. “Main Engineering secured, sir.”

Gently setting his injured squadmate down, Leibowitz took in the engineering compartment, looking at blown-out computer panels, sprays of entrails and the bullet holes stitched across the walls. “And what,” he demanded gruffly, though even the static-filled comm couldn’t hide the relief in his voice “Is your definition of ‘minimal damage’, soldier?”

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