When your worst enemy has your back...you know the mission is doomed from the start.
Sergeant Osu Sybutu of the Legion had a simple mission. Take five men and travel unobserved to a location in the capital where he would deliver a coded phrase to a contact. Simple, that is, except for the fact that there was a war going on, and all the different factions he had to pass by on the way would cheerfully shoot him on sight. And that was only if the planet didn't kill him first.
Militia Sergeant Vetch Arunsen's task, however, was far more complex. Shepherd a group of hated rivals across the frozen wastes, keeping them safe from everyone who wanted to kill them, which was pretty much everyone. Including the oddball troopers under Arunsen's own command, who would happily shoot the Legion soldiers if given the slightest opportunity.
Legion versus Militia. Joint defenders of the Federation. In theory. Their mutual loathing, however, could burn the armor plate off a battleship. For rival sergeants Sybutu and Arunsen, there's only one way their squads could survive trekking across the ice world of Rho-Torkis.
Legion and Militia.
"There is a nice amount of back story and character development for all main characters, and they come across as real people, with real strengths and weaknesses coming through. Their struggles are very realistically portrayed, and it really helps immerse you in the story. These characters are definitely a strength, and are as good as any in sci-fi today."– The Bookwyrm Speaks
"I think the thing that jumped out to me about this book was Taylor's ability to write not just good characters, but good characters for this world. Sure, you can have an awesome character that really sticks out, but they might not fit the world they're living in. Whereas the characters in The Fall of Rho-Torkis each character seemed to be placed perfectly and it really made me like each and every one of them for one reason or another."– Brian’s Book Blog
"It mixes science fiction with a space opera type action packed story. I liked the characters. Their banter reminded me of my military days. I miss that!"– 5-star amazon.com review
When Raven Company set out into the snow to join with the legionaries, the air was crystal clear and sharp as a blade against any exposed skin. The freshly laid snow crunched beneath their boots with an obscene spitting sound. Within minutes, though, the western horizon darkened in anger and blew snow into their faces. Swirls of pitiless white brought land and sky together into a featureless hell.
Snowstorms on the Great Ice Plain could last for weeks, but mercifully this one blew over in less than an hour. By then, the troopers had lost all sense of direction and found themselves a mile to the east of Fort Iceni and, luckily, in the marching line of the legionaries headed west.
The troopers fell in with their rivals, saving their energy by stepping into the footsteps the jack-heads had flattened into the snow. At least, the humanoid ones did.
Trooper Ndemo-327-Cerulian—her name usually shortened by her comrades to Enthree— was not humanoid. The progeny of Muryani traders, Enthree was a hairy, six-limbed insectoid whom Vetch was attempting to inject with the rightful Militia sense of heavy cynicism. She soon gave up on following the humanoid footsteps and punched her hoof-like feet through the snow in time to a very different gait.
"I hold many questions about Fort Iceni that I cannot resolve," she announced to the crisp air. "Most of all, I do not understand why it is located in the middle of this great mass of featureless ice and snow, many miles from any other settlement."
The legionaries they were marching with gave no more reaction to Enthree's words than they had to any of the troopers. It was as if the troopers who had joined them from Fort Iceni were ghosts, manifesting as ephemeral shades to those elevated to the legionary plane of existence.
By contrast, Enthree's squadmates hopped into closer trails of footprints to better hear the latest episode of the squad Muryani's special brand of naivety.
"The locations of other Militia garrisons are considered with great care," she continued. "They might be close by the local center of political power. Perhaps guarding the mouth of a river, the main spaceport, or a major junction on a key trade route. None of those are so for Fort Iceni."
"I don't care where they put a base," said Meatbolt, "so long as it's somewhere that has proper roads. And people. People are good."
"In my experience," offered Lily, "if the Militia does something that makes no sense on the surface, then there's a hidden reason that involves money."
"Fair point," Meatbolt responded. "Got to be to do with the minerals."
Vetch glanced at the young human trooper. Even in his padded white cloak, the great bulk of Meatbolt's torso was obvious. Clearly, his veins ran more purely than most with the blood of the ancient titans who had served as Legion Marines back in the Orion Era. It wasn't just his physique, but his martial temperament also fitted with the tales told of those long-ago legionaries.
He had high hopes for the boy, but Meatbolt had a lot to learn first. And quickly.
"How do you figure that?" Vetch asked. "Everyone knows this region is rich with deposits. There's Leezore, xonryllium, holmium, and probably a rich seam of that gunk Enthree rubs on her hooves to stop them splitting."
"They are not hooves," the alien insisted. "I possess foot-hands, and I do not understand why you mock my regime of dutiful hygiene. You insist we keep our weapons greased with the correct low-temperature lubricants. What's so different about my moisturizers?"
"Suit yourself, Trooper," Vetch replied, trying not to laugh. "All I'm saying to our budding young geologist here is that the ten feet plus of permanent ice covering the ground is kind of a problem."
"Is it?" Meatbolt sounded pleased with himself. "I reckon some aristo-hat staff officer already owns the land rights. They ordered Fort Iceni to be built here, and then put themselves in a stasis pod for a century or two. When the world thaws, they'll wake up to find the land worth a fortune, and a Militia base nearby to ensure their ownership rights are protected."
The squad crunched onward. And if they were like Vetch, they were all stunned by the longest statement Meatbolt had ever uttered that wasn't on his usual topics of food, sex, or firearms.
"You know," Vetch said, "that's actually pretty smart, Meatbolt. It might even be true. But I'm shocked. Shocked, I say, that such cynicism can escape those innocent sweet lips of yours. Where could you possibly have learned such skepticism?"
"Err," Meatbolt replied, confused. "You and Lily, Sarge. Mostly."
Vetch added 'Beginner's Guide to Irony' to 'How One Keeps One's Dumb Mouth Shut' on the list of things he needed to teach Meatbolt.
Suddenly, the going underfoot got a lot easier. Vetch guessed that the Ravens had been following a group of Legion stragglers who'd lost their way and been forced to break a fresh trail through the deep snow. Now they had rejoined the route of the main column where the snow had been flattened by the passage of many legionary boots.
Up ahead, the marching column stretched beyond the horizon. A few individuals stood out against the white background like an army of distant ants, but mostly the winter-camo legionaries were invisible; it was the highway they'd flattened out of the snow that betrayed their enormous numbers.
From her cozy gatehouse vantage point, Captain Solikin-Goh had given Vetch the impression that she'd seen a company of legionaries and wished to force a favorable comparison with her own Ravens.
A company? This felt more like a brigade. And if the Legion was swallowing its pride and asking the Militia for a company to fill a shortfall in its numbers, how come an entire brigade appeared that wasn't in any Table of Organization and Equipment that he'd been briefed on.
An entire brigade not on the TO&E? Even for the Legion, that was seriously odd.
If he were in command of Raven Company, he'd be on the radio to Major Yazzie and urging her to rouse the colonel out of bed and ask him to find out what the hell was going on.
Only problem was, Vetch wasn't the Raven's boss, and Solikin-Goh was back at base relaxing her wings in her warm quarters.
He glanced across at the trooper who had once been a company commander, and on this planet too.
"You need to go through the lieutenant," she told him.
All he'd done was glance Lily Hjon's way, but the disgraced former officer knew precisely what was on his mind. "It's the only way. Sorry, Vetch. It's your duty to do this."
He took a deep breath that burned his lungs with cold. Lieutenant Julius Shen's uncle was a major-league aristo-hat, with palaces, seats on the boards of several interstellar corporations, and, yes, the formal hats that looked like stacked Shinto temples inlaid with priceless jewels.
The fact that his nephew was stuck in the position of a lowly lieutenant said a lot about Shen's lack of competence and ambition. Maybe it also spoke of a limit to the Militia high command's willingness to permit the service's officer corps to become a laughing stock.
Perhaps, but even if Shen was a lowly platoon commander, he was still Vetch's platoon commander.
While Vetch searched for an angle that might prompt Shen into action, Meatbolt started waving his arms excitedly. "Watch this!" he cried. Before Vetch could stop him, the youngster was marching in lockstep with one of the legionaries, matching the jack-head stride for stride.
Vetch frowned. Now he saw one of his own troopers in such direct comparison with one of the legionaries… something about the way the jack-heads were marching wasn't right.
"These legionaries move strangely," said Enthree.
Orion's balls! If even the big bug could see it, then something must be up.
"Maybe we've stumbled across a Zhoogene unit," suggested Deep Tone.
"No such thing," said Sward, the only Zhoogene in the squad. "And even if there were, these drones don't move like my people. I think they're drunk."
Drunk? Outside of their bases, the Legion was always as sober as a Littorane priest. If they were drunk, then they sure as the Five Hells were not legionaries.
Vetch clicked his tongue twice to activate his headset. "Lieutenant Shen, this is Arunsen. Request switch to channel 13."
"Legionaries are never drunk outside of their burrows," Lily replied to Sward's comment while Vetch listened for the lieutenant's reply on his headset. "As children, future jack-heads can pass as normal people. But then, during the Legionary induction, a prophylactic is inserted up their arses, which is infused with the quintessence of arrogance and will release slowly throughout their lives, protecting them from the dangers of humility. With this sense of superiority throbbing in their backsides, it's no surprise they walk funny."
Lily made Vetch chuckle, which was unfortunate because he was still laughing when Shen replied.
"What is it, Arunsen?"
"Request we switch to channel 13, sir."
"This had better be good. Switching…"
Vetch lifted up his helmet to turn the channel selector switch on the side of his headset.
"Are you even there, Arunsen?" Shen obviously didn't realize the lesser members of the People's Army had clunkier switch gear.
"Yes, sir. It's the legionaries. Something's wrong. The entire squad is telling me the jacks aren't acting right, and where the hell has this brigade sprung from? The existing garrison at ASI-39 is only brigade strength and they're requesting Militia reinforcements. So who is it we've stumbled across in the snow by accident? Do we actually know who we're marching with?"
"Something is wrong." The radio signal faithfully carried the contempt in Shen's voice. "Some. Thing. If you have a matter to report, Sergeant Arunsen, then you will use specifics. Numbers. Directions. Facts! Don't distract your superiors with vague feelings that are probably a result of crashing blood sugar because you haven't stuffed your fat gut in the past hour. They are legionaries, Arunsen, and we are following them to the security zone around ASI-39. If I catch you suggesting otherwise, then I will have every member of your squad flogged, and I will make sure to let them know who to blame for the scars on their back. Am I clear?"
Another snowstorm was rolling in from the western horizon. Already it was swallowing the extent of the column they were marching with. It didn't change the facts, though. And although it would cut visibility to a few feet, it wouldn't make the slightest difference to their platoon commander's ability to see what was going on around him.
Even in a perfectly clear day, he was blind to almost everything.
Vetch conceded defeat. For now.
"Yes, sir. I understand. Arunsen out."
"Problem?" Lily asked as he switched his comm back to the squad channel.
She'd been listening to his side of the conversation. By the looks of the faces pointed his way, they all had.
"Certainly not," Vetch proclaimed cheerfully. "Lieutenant Shen has ordained that furthermore there are to be no problems."
"That's decent of him," said Lily. "Are you saying the lieutenant has cured the galaxy of insufferable jack-heads?"
"He has. And if you imagine you are walking in legionary footsteps, or that we are not alone out here in the ice and snow, then you are to report for psych eval as soon as you get back to Iceni, because whatever you think you see are but phantasms."
Enthree regarded him through the rectangular eyes of her stretched head, which was topped ludicrously with a taped-on helmet. "I understand why two groups with similar roles would feel a natural sense of rivalry, but–"
"It's more than that," interrupted Lily. "The next war we fight is far more likely to be against the Legion than it is your Muryani Empire."
"It is not an empire. Nor is it mine. I was born a Federation citizen."
"If you say so," Lily replied. "The Federation is better off without the Legion. In fact, is better off without the Militia too. Scrap them both and start over. It's the only way."
"Thank you for your candor, Trooper," replied the alien. "If we are to be billeted with the Legion, it is important I understand the subtleties of our enmity and our insults. For example, why do you name them jack-heads?"
"Another time," Vetch snapped, worried about the heaviness of the blizzard that was almost upon them. "That's enough talk about the Legion. Stick close to me. You too, Meatbolt. Meatbolt? Damnit! Where are you?"
"But, Sergeant Arunsen, if we are to work with the sodding jack-head skragg-wipes, then I must understand them better."
"What Vetch means to say," Lily told Enthree, patting her on the flank, "is that he's done talking about the Legion for now. Try the sarge again in a few hours when his patience has recharged."
Vetch ignored them, trying to spot Meatbolt among the marching legionaries.
Enthree snapped her elongated jaw. It was such a deafening sound that even under his hat and helmet Vetch could have sworn a field railgun had just fired.
"Very well," said the Muryani, "but please now be serious. These people we march with concern me greatly."
Vetch and Lily looked at each other. "You're right," she said. "It's like their minds are spaced out on warp blast. I'd ask them for a few pods to pass the time—purely for morale purposes, you understand—but legionaries don't do pharmacological recreation. Their tiny heads would explode if they tried anything that went against regulations because that would offend their precious Empress."
"Empress?" Enthree queried. "There is no such individual as an Empress."
"Yes. Yes, there is. The Empress Indiya. Dead two thousand years or more, and even if you dug up her bones and reanimated her, she wouldn't recognize that title. That's what they call her now, though. I bet half these jack-heads have her image inked into their skin." He sucked in a chilly breath, breathing in the first flurries of the approaching blizzard, and muttered, "That's if they really are legionaries."
He slapped the Muryani on the shoulder. "Thank you, Enthree. You're right. Something's wrong, which is why I'm worried about Meatbolt. Stay sharp, everyone, and keep close. Here comes a Rho-Torkis welcome."
The blizzard hit them hard, whipping snow high above their heads, and gusting winds that threatened to topple them over. In such a whiteout, their missing trooper had well and truly disappeared.
Around them, the blurry shadows of the legionaries shortened their stride and leaned into the wind, but continued to march with a confidence in their bearing like an army of ants following a pheromone trail. The opaque visor on their fully enclosed helmets was not just designed by Legion techs to intimidate; there were HUDs on the inside that would show the location and status of their squadmates on a tactical map. Vetch imagined they also had a big red arrow that said, "March this way, jack-wipes!"
The troopers followed the legionaries, knowing that if they didn't, they would quickly lose all sense of direction. As a last resort, the general processor blocks in their backpacks could give a compass bearing, but they weren't ruggedized for use in the deep freeze, and Vetch didn't fancy the idea of removing his thick gloves to operate the damned thing, only to find the extreme cold had glued his finger to the screen before shattering the device and taking a frostbitten digit with it.
No, they had to stick with the jack-heads for now. Captain Solikin-Goh had better be right in her assumption that they were headed for ASI-39.
All he could see were shifting outlines of people who might be members of the squad.
And might not.
He didn't like this situation one little bit.
"This is Sergeant Arunsen," he bellowed into the gale. "Call out!"
"What in the Five Hells are you doing?"
"Meatbolt?" It definitely had been Meatbolt's voice the wind had carried to him. "Meatbolt! Answer!"
At first, the only reply was the howl of the wind, but then: "Get away, you freaks!"
Vetch had a clearer fix on the trooper's voice this time and headed Meatbolt's way.
The storm calmed temporarily, the veil of snowflakes lowering to reveal a bizarre sight. Three legionaries had Meatbolt's arms pinned behind him, presenting his bared neck to a fourth who had removed their helmet. The trooper's eyes were wild as they gazed in horror at the legionary's mouth… or, more specifically, his teeth. The mad jack-head wore false fangs and there was no doubting what he intended to bite.
"Well, well," Vetch shouted.
The legionaries snapped their heads to regard him, snarling.
"Some kind of vampire cult ritual killing." Vetch shook his head. "And in the Legion too? Who'd have thought it?"
"Sarge!" Meatbolt sounded frantic, but Vetch wasn't a fool. He was stalling for backup.
Except it wasn't coming.
The legionaries seemed to have decided Vetch wasn't a threat and tightened their grip on Meatbolt. The biter closed in.
Taking a step toward the one with fangs—which looked very realistic, he admitted—Vetch asked politely, "Please let my friend go."
When the bloodlust wasn't gripping him, it was Vetch's way to be courteous in battle. If he ever met his ma in the afterlife, he intended to explain and justify every kill. He would be able to swear on his soul that he had never committed murder, and wherever he could, he would offer an opportunity for the other side to back out. He even tried not to cuss, except when he was really fucked off. Or drunk.
And in case he ever met his loser of a father in hell, he had given strict instructions to all his comrades that when he died, he should be buried with Lucerne. He figured that if he were going to hell anyway, he could at least acquaint dad with the business end of his beloved war hammer.
A good man went into the afterlife shielded by the positive karma of his good deeds. Vetch wasn't a good man; he intended to go armed.
But he didn't intend to go anytime soon, which was why he'd left his PPR-3 blaster rifle slung over his shoulder and began swinging Lucerne before he'd even finished his plea to let his friend go.
Almost two seconds passed in silence.
War hammers took a little work to bring into play.
The fanged legionary hissed like an angry snake.
Certainly, none of them apologized or offered to let their captive trooper go, which was all that mattered as Vetch swung his hammer through the crisp air in an arc that would intersect with the head of the nearest jack-head holding Meatbolt.
He felt the jolt in his shoulders at the moment of impact. It was sharp and painful, a sign that the legionary was wearing a helmet under their hood. Or helm, as they liked to call them because, naturally, a jack-head was too special to wear a mere helmet like the rest of the galaxy.
Vetch couldn't help but grin. A legionary helm offered good protection against blaster bolts, shrapnel, bullets, and burning plasma. Against Lucerne, though, it offered little protection. The man's brains had just been pulped inside his skull.
Meatbolt threw off the two legionaries pinning him and rushed the jack with the teeth.
Meanwhile, Vetch carried on his hammer swing over his head, building up speed as he brought it low and then swept up beneath the chin of the next legionary in line, who was too busy readying his rifle to realize the danger he was in.
The man's PA-71 charge pack sent electric juice into its rails, but before he could fire, Lucerne's studded metal head thumped into the base of his chin and snapped his neck back so far that the rear of his helm was touching his spine.
In skilled and untired hands, war hammers made superb melee weapons, but there was still a lot to be said in favor of weapons that only required you to point and shoot.
As Vetch recovered his hammer into a neutral ready position, Meatbolt was trying to wrest control of the legionary-vamp's PA-71, while the remaining jack was pointing his rifle at Vetch's center mass.
"Liberty or death!"
The Militia battle cry came from all around, as if being uttered by the blizzard itself.
Blaster bolts sizzled through the air, followed by the reassuring shapes of Raven Company reinforcements.
Vetch dropped Lucerne and dove to one side.
The jack fired but missed, distracted first by the cries of the charging Militia troopers, and then by the multiple blaster bolts that crackled like persistent lightning over his visor.
Legion helms were good protection against blaster bolts. But at such short range, that protection only went so far.
The visor exploded, the legionary's head with it.
Still, the jack had Vetch in his sights. He should have blown darts through him but hadn't.
How very un-Legion-like.
The blizzard was closing in again, but Vetch could see that Lily was organizing a defensive ring, and the fanged jack was on the ground.
"Are we boring you, Meatbolt?" he asked of the crouching young trooper, trying to snap him out of the shock that seemed to have uncharacteristically gripped him.
Meatbolt drew his coat closer around him. "Sorry, Sarge, it's just…" The trooper stood and shook his fists in rage. "Those skragg-stuffing jack-heads. They bit me!"
"Just their deviant way of showing affection." Vetch scanned the battlespace, expecting to see blaster bolts zipping through the snow. He should be hearing the whine of railguns charging and the crack of grenade explosions. But there was nothing. It made no sense. All around them, legionary HUDs should be flashing news of the dead jacks.
"Lieutenant Shen this is Arunsen. Request you switch to channel 13."
"Why are you trying my patience, Arunsen?"
Stupid dope. Channel 13 was the only channel the jacks shouldn't be able to eavesdrop. "Sir, request you switch to channel 13."
Blaster bolts sizzled through the falling snow. "Why? Because the legionaries are trying to kill us," he shouted over the open channel. "Raven Company. Raven Company. Legion is hostile. Disengage. We are betrayed. Withdraw to the east."
A humanoid shape loomed out the snow. Vetch smacked its knees with Lucerne and it fell. "And don't hesitate to smash a few jack-head skulls on the way."
He swung Lucerne around his head and down into the twitching figure at his feet.
It stopped moving.
"Militia, to me!" he bellowed. "To me, troopers!"
Raven personnel formed a wedge around him.
They were bunching. Too close.
Before he could shout at them to put some space into their shape, a heavy blow glanced off his helmet making him stagger back.
Head ringing, he felt out the wound with fat, gloved fingers. There was a new groove cut through his crest and one of his beautiful helmet lamps had shattered.
"Right! Who broke my bloody lamp? You'll pay for that."
Red berserker mist descended. Vetch no longer cared what his mother would say to him in the afterlife.
"Kiss my hammer!" he screamed. With Lucerne high, he charged the jacks who'd ruined his helmet.