Monday, June 24, 2013

Chapter Two: First Blood

 Sergeant Minor’s head rolled from his body. Drussus screamed in the darkness and Francisco del Torres rammed an armored elbow into his face to silence him. Emergency red lights flickered on and Bleak ordered: “Cioran, you’re sitting on the manual controls. Open the rear door.”
            “What happened?” asked Cioran, hammering his fist onto the release of his security belt.
            Bleak struggled out of his seat before answering him. “The air brakes didn’t kick in. We slammed into the planet at full speed and the force broke a supporting beam that severed the Sergeant’s head right at the point where his neck emerged from the chest plate.”
            The other men, shaking off the effects of the crash, began to stir and free themselves from their restraints, as Cioran lifted his seat and manipulated the rear hatch’s manual controls. The Heinkel buried deeply in the rich black loam of the planet prevented his opening a side hatch. But the tail of the plane projected upward at a forty-five-degree angle from the planet’s surface; so, after several minutes of wrestling with the manual controls, he freed enough space to squeeze through and fall to the ground.
            Bleak was the last one to leave the ship. As he climbed over twisted metal, he switched off the auxiliary power and the emergency lights dimmed and disappeared.
The squad stood in darkness. Corbeau pointed at the dense cloud cover overhead and Axel Weise said, “I just felt a drop of rain.” Then, the clouds opened and rain poured down on them. The squad pulled on their camouflaged ponchos and gathered up their equipment into a pile and covered it with two shelter halves.
            As he worked, Raben felt Drussus moving away from the squad but before he could investigate, Bleak said, “Raben, go into the ship and strip the sergeant of all his equipment, then wrap him in his poncho and bury him.” He handed him a shovel with a folded metal shaft. Raben, a bit unnerved by the gruesome assignment Bleak just handed him, shrugged out of his pack and placed it and his rifle under his shelter half and climbed, with the help of Weise, into the blood-drenched transport.
The sweet smell of the Sergeant’s blood filled his nostrils, as he worked his way to the body. He could not sense the Sergeant’s aura but he did discern flecks of green light on the corpse; bacteria was already growing and ingesting the dead flesh. Suddenly he knew what troubled him about Drussus; he was carrying some sort of contagion akin to the growing flecks of living decay on the Sergeant’s body. Reminded of Drussus, he opened his mind, but he could not sense him; he was gone.
            He stripped the Sergeant’s body like Bleak ordered and hauled his equipment outside to the cache. Bleak told the men to take what they wanted.
            The rain stopped just as the sun appeared on the horizon. Raben climbed out of the shallow grave he had dug on the side of the Heinkel glider, stretched and gazed at the sun, as he waited for Doc to remove Minor’s synthetic armor and fatigues. Then he signaled he was ready and Raben helped him place the Sergeant’s body and head into the makeshift grave. The men gathered and Doc said a few words over the body, as Raben covered it with dirt.
            They had crashed onto Hawthorne’s Ridge, a slight bump that stretched 2500 kilometers to the northeast, all the way to the gates of Forlorn, General Stravitsky’s headquarters and center of the rebellion against the Kaiser’s rule on Camarones.
            Finished with the burial, Raben surveyed the scene. They had crashed on a prairie of waist-high yellow grass that undulated from the force of a northerly wind. To the east, two Camaronian dragons the size of draught horses flew languidly unaware of the downed glider. The men  seemed to be alone, undetected by the rebel forces.
            Raben joined the squad sitting in a tight circle eating iron rations. Most of them looked exhausted.  An hour on the ground and they were shell-shocked, dirty and wet.  Bleak handed Raben a black bar of chewable ration, as he dropped down between the Corporal and Cioran.            Del Torres turned to him and said, “Your buddy Drussus bugged out.”
            Raben cut his eyes sharply at the man and said, “He’s no friend of mine.” And del Torres winked, knowing his jibe hit its mark. Bleak muttered with his mouth full, “If you see him, kill him. Now eat up and let’s get going.” He stood and pulled out his data plate and made some entries before saying, “Raben, come here.”
            Raben crammed the last of the iron ration into his mouth and jumped up.
            The corporal showed him the screen. “I have worked out the route to the Attis Chapel. Memorize it. You are to take point. I want you two to three kilometers ahead of us. If you see anything, you warn me on this frequency. It is new because we have a renegade deserter out there who will probably fall into enemy hands. You got it?”
            Raben nodded.
            “Take the sergeant’s machine pistol and all the ammo you can carry. Do not turn back to us; no matter what happens, push as hard as you can to the Chapel. Once you get there let me know.”
            Raben walked to the cache of ammunition and supplies and dropped all of his personal items onto the ground to make room for more ammo.  He stuffed his large fatigue pockets with grenades, anti-personnel mines, and clips of ammo. When he had finished, he swung his sniper rifle over his shoulder and onto his back and picked up the Sergeant’s machine pistol. The Sergeant, like most of the Black Robes and their auxiliary marine units, after they had their weapons blessed by the priests, considered their weapons sacred. Raben didn’t buy it but in a symbolic act of faith and honor, he bowed down on one knee and pledged an oath to God that he would respect the Sergeant’s gun.
            Raben passed Cioran, who puffed on his cigar and gave him a thumb up, while the rest of the squad ignored him. He then double-timed it away from the squad, heading east. Marine training had hardened his body and increased his stamina and he could run at this pace all day. He needed, however, to maintain silence and stealth, so he stopped after an hour and cut several handfuls of the tall yellow grass and wove the strands into his poncho. From here on out, he would walk rather than run; he was way out ahead of the patrol and that was what he was ordered to do.  He didn’t need to run anymore. He ate another iron ration bar and drank a few swigs of water from his canteen before he renewed his march. Before setting off, he scanned the horizon. Grasses undulated with the northerly wind and a Camaronian dragon flew just above the grass, searching for prey.
            Raben stowed his canteen and folded up the iron ration package and stuffed it into a hip pocket. He stooped, leaning forward so he didn’t stand too high above the tips of the yellow grass, and started off at a slower pace than before, turning his head back and forth, keeping the dragon in sight.
            At noon he stopped in a hardwood copse and took another drink, activated the micro-cell, and called Bleak, who immediately answered.
            “The path is clear, Squad Leader, over.”
            “The auspex shows you off course by ten degrees, over. Please adjust south.”
            “Roger that, Squad Leader,”  he answered, made the adjustment and set off.
            The drop zone had consisted of rolling hills, high grass, and no trees. The terrain now flattened and turned downwards at a steady but measured decline. He suspected he would soon reach water and he remembered from the maps that a substantial stream or river ran between the drop zone and Attis Chapel.
            It rained again in the afternoon. The rain fell so fast he could not see more than a meter or two and the yellow grasses bent under the rushing onslaught. His head down, he pushed onward, slogging through the deepening black mud that encrusted and weighed down his jump boots. Near dusk he reached the steep banks of a rushing river and he realized immediately he would not be able to cross here even if it were not flooded. He opened his mind to discern a way across and received a strong impression that a ford existed to the south. He set off through the rain at a trot and after several hours, he could no longer see well enough to continue. He pressed his micro-cell to alert Bleak he was stopping for the night but for some reason he received only static. He found two large hardwoods growing close to the river. They emerged from the same root system and created a dry niche between their trunks where he inserted himself. He pulled the hood of his poncho over his eyes, placed the machine pistol in his lap, and crossed his arms. Even though his stomach rumbled, he fell asleep immediately.
            He woke at dawn. The rain had stopped sometime in the night but the river was high. Once again he opened his mind and received a strong impression that a ford was near. He climbed out of his nook, scratched the thick stubble on his face, and set off. As the sun rose, illuminating the steppes, he reached the ford. Thousands of horse tracks marked the black mud of a trail that crossed the river. He bent down, examined the tracks and fresh droppings and concluded a large mounted contingency heading west had just passed.  He surveyed the area and, not seeing anyone, waded across the muddy, turgid waters, holding his weapons high above his head. The waters reached his throat twice and he almost slipped but he finally reached the other side and then ran toward the north.
After thirty minutes, he tried Bleak again and on his third try he succeeded.
“Enemy cavalry is headed your way. I estimate regiment size, at least.”
“Do you have an ETA?”
“They passed me about an hour ago.”
“Damn, they must be near.”
“They are traveling far to the south of you. I had to follow the river south to find a ford.”
“Maybe they will bypass us, over.”
“Good luck, Squad Leader.”
At mid-day Raben crossed a ridge and confronted a pyramid-shaped hill emerging out of the steppes. A bone white chapel surrounded by a rock wall dominated the hill’s summit and he dug out his binoculars for a better look. Yellow grass covered the hill and a black dirt road began at the western base and gradually wound upwards around the circumference. On the northern side, almost level with the broad gate, was a moat and a wooden bridge spanning the crevice. The stone walls were seven or eight meters tall with a square crenellated tower, squatting on each corner. The rear of the white Chapel made up the south wall, while its entrance faced north onto a main bailey. The Chapel roof was a large copper dome, which had turned green over the ages.
There was only one way up the hill and one entrance to the Chapel. A small force, he concluded, could prevent a large force from entering the Chapel, if they blew the bridge. Of course, there would not be any escape on foot for the defenders.  Finished with his examination, he tried Bleak but failed to reach him. He scratched his chin and then stowed away the glasses. He set off across the steppes, heading toward the black road. Large grasshoppers sprang from the yellow grass and glided several meters in front of him and a cool breeze whistled through the grasses.
A road began on the west side. Before he reached it, a crimson lizard, a meter long, with a scarlet crest, flicked a forked tongue at him. He kicked toward the beast, which opened its mouth wide to show him several rows of razor-like teeth. He backed up and waited, his machine-pistol pointed at its head. He held fire and, finally, with a wave of its thick tail it moved off into the grass.
He started up the hill scanning the horizon in each direction. There was no sign of the enemy.
As he crossed the bridge, he noted that someone had recently replaced some of the thick planking. He bent down and leaned over the side to determine the best way to blow the bridge before he approached the open gates.
            Inside the fortress, he examined the barracks that lined the sides of the walls, the storage facilities and the towers. Except for some rotting furniture and worm-eaten grain in the supply bins, the place was deserted.  He ate his iron rations under the roof of the northwestern tower; and afterwards, he tried Bleak again to no avail. The sun would soon set so he decided to wait until morning to investigate the Chapel, whose heavy wooden doors were shut.
            At dusk, splendid copper rays radiated off the Chapel’s dome and four winged-reapers, birds similar to buzzards, landed on the battlements of the southeast tower. He climbed up steps that led to the firing steps on the wall adjacent to the Chapel to get a better view. As he climbed, he caught a glint of light in the west. He pulled out his binoculars, thinking it might be Bleak and his unit; instead, he saw a dust cloud with a familiar smudge of green corruption emanating from it. He knew Drussus rode with them, whoever they were.
            He could not estimate their time of arrival but he felt it would be soon; therefore, he could not rest before he prepared his defenses. He emptied his pockets onto the stone floor and counted his mines, grenades, and explosives. He then repacked his supplies into his pack and hurried away from the chapel, through the gate, across the bridge, to the road.  He buried the first anti-personnel mine fifty meters from the bridge. He spread out the rest from the first mine to the bridge’s lip.
            Later, after sunset, he stood in the center of the bridge and yawned, as a thin thread of silver moon rose. He shook himself and then continued with his work. He fastened plastic explosives at the four corners of the bridge and stretched two trip wires: one in the center and a second, three quarters across, as a safeguard if the enemy somehow missed the first.
            When he finished, he leaned against the northern wall and drank several swallows of water and ate half of an iron ration. The moon now overhead illuminated the steppes. Using the binoculars, he could see campfires maybe three kilometers west of the hill. Imagining roasting meat, his mouth watered.
            Finished with his break, he entered the compound and pushed the massive iron doors shut. He wrestled four iron cross bars into place to lock it and then wired the doors with his remaining explosives. He buried his last four anti-personnel mines around the entrance to the northwest tower as a final defense, then climbed the stone steps of the tower to the roof, where he wrapped himself in his poncho and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Waking with the sun, he peered over the side of the crenellated wall and saw gray smoke rising from the steppes about three kilometers to the northwest. He decided to eat before checking the chapel.
Later, he pried open the chapel’s great wooden doors, entered, and walked across slabs of white slate. There were no chairs, no pews, and no statuary.  A single stained glass window, situated several meters above the floor, shone with morning light. Embedded in its colorful panes was a gigantic one-eyed creature with webbed feet and hands battling hundreds of tiny marines led by a Priest in bone white armor and wielding a massive two-handed sword. A massive square stone dominated the center of a nave at the far end of the Chapel and Raben guessed it was an altar; however, as he approached it, he realized that each side was covered with marks, signs, pictographs, glyphs, and runes. He examined the figures engraved on the side facing the back wall and recognized them as ancient Lingua. His father had been a scholar and he remembered books written in the same script in their rooms before his mother’s abandonment of them, his father’s death, and his fall into the slums of La Ciudad. The other inscriptions were in languages he had never seen or heard. He mouthed some of the Lingua words he recognized: lapis philosophorum, but he did not understand their meaning or significance. Suddenly, however, he felt Drussus’ presence and he turned and rushed from the Chapel to the northeast tower, the one hat overlooked the moat and bridge. He climbed its stairs, three at a time, until he reached the flat roof, which he crawled across and peered over the edge. Enemy cavalry galloped up the black road toward the Chapel in columns of four. They rode with their power lances raised and their banners snapping in the wind. He estimated their number at two thousand. He checked his sniper rifle, opened a box of ammunition, and slipped a round into the chamber then set the gun to the side. He picked up the Sergeant’s machine pistol and inserted a long magazine, containing thirty rounds, and laid it next to the sniper rifle. Then he sat with his back against the white stone and waited. Soon, he sensed, for the first time an enemy psychic, someone with powers like his, probing the walls, seeking his location. The man’s aura was not diseased like Drussus, but Raben felt his experience and his confidence, as he led the column up the black dirt road. He picked up the sniper rife and checked the scope, released the safety, and lifted it to his right shoulder. The wind died down and a moth fluttered languidly by as he rose, stepped up onto the firing step, and aimed at the psychic that foolishly rode at the head of the column. He rested his left elbow on the cool stone of the embrasure, centering the crosshairs on the man’s shaved skull and pulled the trigger.
The psychic’s head exploded in a burst of red and pinks and Raben felt the man’s spirit whoosh past his ears like a banshee’s scream. He yanked the bolt of his rifle and ejected the shell. He reached for another round and then aimed at an officer at the head of the column, whose horse reared from the turmoil and the panic of the men and the whining cry of the dying psychic. Raben adjusted his aim for a second time and fired. The man fell backwards out of the saddle and onto the road. As he reached for a third round, he felt Drussus fleeing down the hill and he found him with his sight, the cross hairs centered on his spine. He felt the recoil of the rifle and then sensed the green corruption flame up into a searing verdant burst of energy. He had missed. Somehow, Drussus had deflected the bullet with his mind.
He wiped his brow and squatted down and rested his back against the wall of the tower. Amid the screams and shouting on the hill, he imagined a giant black pyramid rising out of the yellow steppes. He rose and fired again. Then he saw in his mind’s eye the ages passing as the pyramid’s sharp outlines faded. Anti-personnel mines exploded, wrenching him back to the present. Gutted horses spilled lifeless riders onto the hill. A squad of cavalry had charged across the bridge and tripped the wire. The bridge blew and debris and bodies filled the air and then fell into the crevice.
Raben raised the Sergeant’s pistol and sprayed the column. The bullets ripped into flesh, downing ten men and twelve horses. A bugle sounded, as he ejected the spent magazine and inserted another one. He switched the pistol for his rifle and took aim. The slug struck the bugler’s left eye and ripped away the right side of his face and the cavalry pulled back. He sat and wiped sweat from his face. He took a sip of water from his canteenand then tried the micro-cell.  There was no answer and he wondered if the enemy cavalry had caught the squad out in the open on the steppes.  He counted his ammunition and knew he could not afford to waste anymore. At thirty rounds a burst he would soon use up his ammo.
He remembered his orders. He would hold until relieved.
A Camaronian dragon circled high above the Chapel. Its nostrils widened at the smell of blood and it screeched a cry into the air, calling its kin.
As the cavalry regrouped at the bottom of the hill, he fingered his rifle and said his first prayer, not to God but to the sergeant and to his gun. Suddenly, he understood his kinship to the squad. It was the first time, since they pulled him kicking and screaming from the slums of La Ciudad’s lower levels that he felt he belonged to the marines. It was a feeling steeped in order, a feeling he could embrace.
He said out loud, “I will hold until relieved or die in the attempt, just as the chaplain preached and the major ordered.” He smiled ruefully at the sky that was now crowded with screeching dragons, circling above the carnage on the hill. They reminded him of the marines struggling against the monster in the stained glass windows of the Attis Chapel.
As he waited for the next attack, he traced his fate lines, spreading and splitting before him. In response to his vision, he pulled his serrated knife from his jump boot and placed it next to the sergeant’s machine pistol. “When the bullets are spent,” he thought, “I will need this knife.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chapter One: Planetfall

He wrinkled his nose at the acrid mix of gun oil, mold, mildew, sweat, backed-up toilets, cigars, and after shave tainting the air, as bits of rust and dried paint flaked from the ceiling onto his black synthetic blanket and his olive-drab fatigues. Unconsciously, he rubbed his nose and then scratched a freshly inked tattoo of a raven with wings extended on his right shoulder and rubbed his left hand over three healing wounds, neatly stitched, on his stomach, the remains of the surgeons’ latest treatment.
Eighteen year old Markus Raben perched on a metallic rack screwed into an interior wall of a Gothic arch supporting the lowest passenger bay of the Germania battle-barge, Kaiser Wilhelm, cleaning his sniper rifle. His mates’ mundane thoughts floated up from the adamantine deck, irritating and intruding upon his order sense.
Experience told him something was about to happen he wouldn’t like.
Raben, a marine, fresh from hospital on the hive-world Germania, had not yet been re-assigned to a recon squad. In the interim, he trained under the iron tutelage of Sergeant Mannix, who never tired of reminding him he was teen-age trash from the lowest level of the acropolis La Ciudad, the largest city on earth, and his conversion into either a lobotomized android or space detritus was imminent. Raben knew otherwise. He had measured his fate through the Tarot and rationalized it had a purpose for him: after all, he had survived fifteen years on La Ciudad’s lowest levels by using his wits and his knife; and, just recently, he had escaped with minor wounds from a brief police action on Neu Hessen, his first fire fight.
As expected, he felt a psychic twinge of pre-cognition and nausea, greater than the usual irritations, jolting him from his reverie, alerting him that his nemesis from boot-camp was returning to the passenger bay. Anthony Drussus arrived as predicted, wearing a black dress uniform and exuding a greenish aura, an aura Raben could not articulate. All he could say, if asked, was that it, like the dried paint and the odor and chaotic thoughts of four thousand marines, soaked in testosterone and crammed in the tight confines of the battle-barge, disturbed him. What was patently clear to him, however, was that if he had met Drussus on an elevated passageway in the lower levels of La Ciudad a year ago, he would have split him from groin to throat with his knife.
As Drussus waded through the bunks on the deck, Crassus Ancillus looked up from his game of dice and called out in a rough patois, a variation of Low German: “You been stealing from the sailors again or selling our weapons to the Kaiser’s Marines?”
Drussus turned toward Ancillus, and his hooded eyes narrowed as he smiled: “Neither, Ancillus; I have been to see your sister.”
Ancillus stood slowly, scratching some dry skin beneath his left eye and growled, “That’s impossible because there ain’t no brothel on this ship.”
Drussus grinned and said, “You are right brother; I was gambling with the Ciudad Black Robes.” He pulled a hand full of Imperial scrip from each of his pockets and threw them onto his rack.  Drussus’ aura immediately darkened and Raben felt his hatred and fear directed toward Ancillus, who simply shrugged and returned to his game, oblivious to malice that Drussus felt toward him.
At that moment, a boatswain’s whistle sounded in the arched corridor outside their bay and the men jumped to attention, as Sergeant Mannix squeezed through the narrow hatchway. Seeing him enter, Raben sprang from his upper rack and landed lithely next to Drussus, as the sergeant barked: “At ease.”
Raben relaxed with the others and surveyed the sergeant’s black fatigues covered with sigils, runic prayers, and unit insignias. He then turned his attention to Drussus, who stood next to him, and noticed to his chagrin that the man was wearing make-up.
The sergeant pulled a data-plate from a pouch on his belt and punched in a code with a minute metallic stylus; and, after a quick survey of the encoded messages scrolling on the tiny screen, read out loud to the men gathered around him: “Orders from Command. Drussus and Raben are to report to Major Catullus, Intelligence Officer, in full dress uniform at Cabin 6363 at 09:00.”
With the message delivered, the sergeant snapped his computer off, surveyed the room like a bird of prey, and said with a sneer, “This place smells like a toilet, gentlemen. I suggest you grab some toothbrushes and get busy. I‘ll be back for inspection at 12:00; and, if you intend to eat in the near future, this place better smell like a Mexia Rose Garden in spring.”
As the sergeant disappeared through the hatch, Ancillus asked: “a Mexia what?”
Raben shrugged, grabbed a towel from his locker, and hurried to the showers. Later, dressed in his black dress uniform, with jump boots shining like polished coal and his ebony hair pulled straight back and pinioned flat to his head, he waited at the hatch for Drussus. After a few minutes, he glanced at his watch, shrugged, and set off alone through the dark labyrinthine decks of the Kaiser Wilhelm.
Thirty minutes later he discovered Drussus sitting at attention in a metal chair locked down by rusting bolts outside the Major’s cabin. A bead of sweat rolled across his sallow cheek, carving a furrow in his face powder. Raben, too, wiped sweat from his brow and examined Drussus’ aura; its green tinge had deepened and he intuited an incipit fear leaking from the ragged edges of his aura.
Neither man spoke to the other as they waited.
At precisely 09:00 the hatch opened and a staff Sergeant in gray fatigues appeared and beckoned them to follow him into a small cabin. Upon entering, Drussus and Raben quickly snapped to attention in front of a drab-green metallic desk, where a huge man in full dress sat behind the desk. Like Raben he had olive skin and thick black hair, which he wore long and pulled straight back. A tattoo denoting membership in the Black Robes marked his left cheek and a jagged scar creased his right.
Raben repressed his desire to examine the Major’s aura; however, his will was weak and he caught glimpses of a reddish brown light emanating from the man’s frame. Suddenly, he became aware that Major Catullus was eyeing him like a crow over a nut and he suspected he sensed the illegal use of his psychic ability. The Major leaned forward, raising his left brow, and Raben squirmed, trying to suppress his powers before the Major caught him in the act of psychic projection and heresy.
Suddenly, the Major slapped his hands together, which made Drussus jump, and said, “I have excellent news for you. I think I have found a recon squad for you. As you know the Kaiser’s Marines on Camarones have been retreating for three weeks. The enemy performed a brilliant pincer attack at Hawthorne Ridge and enveloped the Governor’s armor, but, with our help, the rout has ended and the Kaiser’s Marines are now preparing a counter-attack.
“To assist them and create a diversion, we will drop behind the rebel’s lines. But before we drop, our scouts must establish listening posts and gather intelligence.
“II Squad lost two men during the retreat; you two will replace those men.
“The reason I am talking to you personally is to make it clear that II Squad is reporting directly to the Black Robes. II Squad is dropping into the Tresor River Sector to establish a listening post at the Attis Chapel. This location is vital to our interest and when I say ‘our interest,’ I don’t mean the Kaiser’s but the Black Robes’.  I am talking to each member of the squad to emphasize the importance of our taking and holding Attis Chapel until relieved. Do you understand?”
Raben didn’t understand but he shook his head in the affirmative.
“All right, report to your squad, gentlemen, and good luck.”
They snapped to attention, saluted, and turned on their heels. Once outside the Major’s cabin, Raben noticed Drussus’ aura had changed from dark green to a bright yellow. He wondered why and expressed a guess. “Are you happy about the assignment?” Drussus stared at him for a moment and then said between gritted teeth: “I am ecstatic about getting off this tub and down to the planet.” He turned and huffed off in the opposite direction of II Squad; Raben, however, chose not to point out his mistake and set off in the opposite direction.
An hour later, Raben stood at ease in front of Sergeant Minor’s desk. The Sergeant’s augmented right hand whirred softly as he inserted Raben’s record chip into the miniature data-plate on his desk. As the Sergeant reviewed the records, Raben examined his pale blue aura, infiltrated by flashing burgundy lines that popped in the ether like tiny bolts of heat lightning.
Minor looked up, catching Raben’s intense gaze, and surmised he was staring at his hand. “I lost it last year when we landed on Schola Beach. A rebel wielding a sword whacked it off before I had stepped completely out of the Heinkel.” He paused and then said with a chuckle: “I gutted him; and before he died, I chopped off his hands, feet, and ears.” He opened the top drawer of the desk and pulled out a dried ear, which he threw across the desk.
“That is enough talk about the good old days. We have a new assignment. You have an excellent record so far but you could fail tomorrow and end up an android. Do you understand?”
Raben nodded and then swallowed. The loud gulp surprised him and the Sergeant smiled. “There are two things to remember: Our motto is Victorus aut Mortus-Victory or Death-and our orders are to hold until relieved. Got it?”
He nodded and Minor continued: “We drop in tomorrow morning at 04:00 so go next door and get squared away. Corporal Bleak will help you select your gear for the mission. You have any questions?”
He shook his head.
“Welcome to II Squad.”
He exited and turned right toward an open hatch, where several men were talking at the same time. A dark blue aura with a twinge of green emanated from the cabin and Raben realized that Drussus was already there throwing off the equilibrium of the group, adding a germ of instability to the squad’s order.
            No one looked up when he entered so he worked his way to an empty bunk next to the outer wall of the ship and lowered his synthetic duffel bag and sniper rifle onto the bed. Ritually, he reached out and touched the metal skin of the ship just as he did when he lurked through the lower levels of the hive-city from which the Ciudad policia extracted him three years ago. Unlike the lower levels of the battle-barge, these walls were freshly painted and dry. With his hand splayed against the wall, he sensed the ship’s vibration, which he hadn’t been able to accomplish below, and felt the far reaching, undulating waves of hyperspace. A shiver ran down his spine.
            He sat on the bunk and watched nine men milling around the room; members of his recon-team. Field packs littered the floor, their woven metallic fabric glistening in the florescent lights of the cabin, along with scattered stacks of ammunition, grenades, anti-personnel mines, field rations, trip wire, detonators, Gelignite, a plastic explosive, and a single com-pack programmed for communication with the ship and the men’s micro-cells. Through the mess, a tall red head with thick red moustaches, his arms covered with colorful tattoos, depicting primitive warfare in a primal forest, strutted about the room, wearing nothing but a pair of government-issued black boxers. A large cigar hung from his mouth with a few centimeters of gray ash dangling from its end. He stopped and stood with his legs wide-spread over a case of Gelignite and Raben swallowed, waiting for the ash to drop and ignite the explosives.
            The red head scratched his crotch and called out: “Has anyone seen my machine-pistol? I had it here just a minute ago.”
            A stout black man, his head shaved clean, wearing jump boots, battle fatigue pants and an undershirt, held up a machine gun. “Cioran, is this filthy piece of hardware what you are looking for?”
            “Thanks, Corporal.”
            Bleak handed him the gun and then turned to Raben: “You had better join the party if you intend landing with us.”
            Raben jumped up and opened his duffel, as Bleak continued in his lilting Low German: “Pick out a field pack and then help yourself to the supplies. Required equipment includes three hundred rounds of ammunition, six anti-personnel mines, four sticks of explosives, two detonators, a camouflaged parka, a shelter half, three days of dried rations, which we call iron rations, a micro-cell keyed to our com-pack, personal data plate, and an emergency medical kit. Anything else you want to carry, pick it out. Some of the men carry a shaving kit, toilet paper, extra weapons, extra ammo, hats, gloves, pictures, you name it. Just remember, we move on these.” He slapped his legs. “What you choose, you carry; what you carry, we either bring back or burn it. We don’t leave technology for the rebels, nor do we supply them with weapons or ammo. Got it?”
            “Got it,” he answered.
            “Do you have your personnel chip?”
            “The Sergeant kept it.”
            “That’s odd.”
            Raben shrugged his shoulders.
            Bleak stood up and waved to a thin man with thick brown hair, cut short, that stood up like iron spikes. “Doc, come here and meet our sniper.” He turned to Raben and said, “Doc’s been chosen to train as a Surgeon. This will probably be his last mission with us.”  The man worked his way across the room. “Doc, give him his shots and then issue him an emergency kit.”
            The medic dug around in a black synthetic medical bag and removed five syringes, each separately wrapped in a clear plastic. Bleak said, “Camarones’ fauna and flora are tough. The animal life evolved from reptiles, dragons in particular, so there are scorpions, lizards, wasps, all spitting poison, fire and acid. Because the insect and reptile population is so tough so is the plant life. The water is all right to drink in most cases but drop a pill in it first just to be safe. The first humans that colonized the planet discovered the soil was a rich volcanic ash that would grow almost anything so the planet has been a bread basket ever since. The settlers killed off most of the indigenous animal life but there is still enough around to bury you. O’Connor, our sniper, was stung by a hornet. He had been hiding in some bushes and he lay down over the beast’s nest. Killed him instantly; stopped his heart.”  
            Bleak’s micro-cell buzzed and he pressed it and said, “Yes sir, he’s here. I will send him right up.”
            Father Kavka wants to see you on the double.”
            “What?” He must have blushed because Bleak said: “Don’t you worry, I am sure it is nothing.”
            A trip to the Priests always meant trouble and Raben dreaded his encounters with them. He feared he would slip and the Black Robes would discover his secret and disintegrate him as a warlock. He was not due to see the Priests or the psychologists yet; he had just undergone some psychological tests two weeks before, but more troubling to him was the fact he had never met Kavka, a Seneschal of the Black Robes.
            “He is on Level Two, Bay 4, cabin 2372,” said Doc, as he jabbed the hypos into his left arm just below his tattoo.
            Thirty minutes later he stood before the Seneschal’s cabin and recited a mathematical litany: “Two plus three is five, seven plus two is nine, five plus nine is fourteen, one plus four is five--the pentagram.” He shuddered at the conclusion of his numerology and then whispered a few lines of a High Gothic poem his mother used to recite: “The pentagram thy peace doth mar?/To me, thou son of hell, explain.”
            He knocked and a deep baritone called out for him to enter. Kavka sat behind an anachronistic wooden desk, dressed in the black synthetic battle armor the Black Robes wore in combat. Tattooed like the major, a black ink pentagram marked his right cheek and a raven with its wings extended covered his left. His long hair, black like Raben’s and the Major’s, was pulled tightly into a knot at the top of his head.
            Raben scanned his aura:  dark gray, like fog rising from a frigid lake on a winter’s dawn.
            “I sense you are nervous. Just relax, you have nothing to fear.”
            Raben took a deep breath and tried to calm his mind.
            “You are an interesting one, Raben. We found you in a ruthless gang rampaging at the bottom of La Ciudad but your aura radiates a darkness, nay, a blackness, that showed your inherent order and your kinship to the Black Robes. Do you realize that if a truly corrupt being came close to you, you would retch in disgust?”
            Raben did not know what to say. He was shocked a Black Robe could perceive his aura. They obviously had discovered his secret, or maybe they knew all along.
            “Did you know your DNA reflects a distant relation to the founder of Germania, to Raben himself? We suspect your ancestors were part of the genetic program Raben introduced in 2103 to strengthen the genetic matter of his settlers on the Moon.”
            He stuttered: “sir?” He had not understood one word the Seneschal had said.
            “Amazing isn’t it?”
            “Yes sir, it is.” Inwardly, Raben shuttered.
            “Raben, you have just received your first posting to a secular unit that serves as an auxiliary of the Black Robes. We selected you because we have watched you carefully since your induction and we know you have certain psi powers. The Black Robes, unlike other military orders, do not fear seers; they cultivate them. Now that you are in the system, we will be spending more time together. Don’t repress your powers but don’t discuss them with anyone except me. Do you understand?”
            Although confused, Raben shook his head in the affirmative.
            “When you return, if you return—I can’t quite see your fate lines yet—I will want you to report every sense or intimation you receive of hyperspace or any sniff of contagion you find on the planet or within this ship. We suspect there is daemon interference behind this rebellion; we just haven’t found it yet.”
            Raben immediately thought of Drussus.
            “You are dismissed and good luck.”
At 03:00, 10th Company stood in formation in Hangar Bay Two before ten ancient Heinkel landing craft. Flight Sergeant Orlando Kleinthaler in full battle regalia directed the action of seventy-five androids who rushed about the hangar, making last minute adjustments and repairs to the machinery.
            Sergeant Minor stood before his squad and repeated their orders. “II Squad shall land on the Hawthorne Ridge at coordinates 6984.7456. They will then proceed southeast to coordinates 7361.9863. Once there, they will take control of Attis Chapel and hold until relieved by Black Robe units only. They shall not relinquish control to the Kaiser Marines or any other authority of the Kaiser.”
            He, then, stepped closer to the men, lowered his voice to a whisper, and said, “Men, you know the chain of command. If I am killed, then Bleak takes over. If Bleak falls, then Doc and after Doc, Cioran.” He coughed and said with a laugh, “If Cioran falls, may God guide your steps to hell because you stupid mugs don’t have a chance.”
            II Squad laughed in unison.
            A Tech sergeant ordered I Squad into its landing craft. Once they marched inside and secured themselves into the webbing, an android closed its hatch and a hydraulic lift raised it onto the first servo-launcher. A Navy tech called out the coordinates, which an android entered, and the countdown for launch began. As soon as the launcher belched out a Heinkel, Sergeant Kleinthaler called out for II Squad to mount up and to enter its designated craft.
            The ten scouts entered in a column of two and sat on metal seats, their legs, shoulders, and arms touching the one next to them. Cioran’s right elbow dug into Raben’s left side, just below his chest armor, while Jean-Pierre Corbeau’s knee worked itself into his thigh and his automatic’s barrel bounced off his crotch. Raben flexed his muscles and willed his body into a comfortable position.
            The command to close the hatch came and he felt the lifts raising and inserting the ship into the launcher. Cioran’s head lolled against his shoulder as soon as the pressure valves clicked and the countdown began and he began to snore.
            A blast and then a thrust preceded Raben’s head slamming against the metal wall of the Heinkel glider and Corbeau’s machine gun burrowed deeper into his groin. The fall only lasted a few minutes but to Raben, whose eyes watered with pain, it seemed to go on forever. At one point in the controlled fall, he looked over at Drussus, who sat between Minor and Doc. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be praying, his aura flashing with green and yellow sparks. Raben once again felt revulsion; it was a physical reaction he could not control.
            He shook his head to clear it, as the Heinkel rushed toward the planet. Suddenly, he had a pre-cognitive vision; they always arrived unbidden and usually at the most inopportune time. In his mind’s eye he saw Sergeant Minor floating in a watery grave. To clear his mind of this troubling image, he instigated a technique he used in the Hive World to sublimate his most dreadful visions; he opened his mind to all immediate physical sensations. Time slowed for him and he heard Cioran’s breath near his ear; he smelled Corbeau’s sweet aftershave lotion; he saw the tanning powder on Drussus’ face; and he tasted the oil in the air and the ozone seeping into the transport.
Then they hit hard. The Heinkel slammed into the rich black loam of the planet and something exploded; steam erupted from a severed pipe and blood geysered into the bay, stinging Raben’s eyes and filling his mouth with treacle-sweet liquid. Someone was screaming and someone else was dead.