A lone squad of elite soldiers are sent to find and destroy a mysterious weapon being developed by an inscrutable foe. The whole war may ride on their success or failure, and there is no sacrifice their superiors are unwilling to make to ensure victory.
‘Mission Omega’ is a new story that takes place in the universe of the Four Quadrants, set some fifty years before the events of ‘Legacy’ and shedding light on one fateful mission in the bloody and destructive Meccite Wars.
The technician talked through the final checks as she sealed Sergeant Ruson’s armour and he nodded along automatically, only half-listening to the long litany of warnings and advice that came every time he undertook a drop mission that required his suit to be fully-sealed. She stepped away and handed him his helmet. Before he could put it on and activate the collar mag-seal, Captain Essar appeared at one end of the hangar and walked towards where the squad were assembling near the atmospheric craft that would take them most of the way to the planet’s surface, currently hundreds of kilometres below.
Ruson saluted, and Essar responded in kind. Like all the Marines on board, her skin was peppered with networks of scars – battle and surgical – and bionic augmentations emerged at the heart of many of them, like cities squatting in the midst of a sprawl of infrastructure, viewed from orbit. She wore the tight-fitting skinsuit, as did they all, but without the bulky powered armour that the squad had just been fitted with. “Sergeant,” she began, with a voice that sounded grating and metallic, her larynx having long ago been replaced with a prosthetic version, “I’m here to brief you on your mission.”
He tried and failed to hide his surprise. He had assumed that, as was usually the case, they’d be assigned their target in-flight. Normally their objectives were quite straightforward. “Of course, captain,” he said after a moment. He signalled for the other four members of the squad to attend, and they approached, their armoured feet clanging heavily against the deck.
Essar waved a hand, and the space between them filled with a number of floating holos. One, a map, she enlarged and flipped, turning it from a flat ‘screen into three-dimensional relief. It showed a ragged peninsula, heavily forested. A red target icon was focused on a non-descript group of lumps and bumps that might have been buildings. “This is an isolated region close to the equator of Azazel Prime. We believe it is the location of a Meccite research facility. That’s it there.” She pointed at the slowly-rotating marker. “Our intelligence indicates that a weapon of some kind is being developed there. Ordinarily,” she continued, seeming to anticipate his question, “we’d simply destroy it from orbit, but there’s some kind of sensor-disruption field – perhaps a version of a cloaking device – that is preventing our ships from targeting it. All our shots simply go awry.”
“Sir, could we not…”
She raised a hand. “Believe me, sergeant, Command has explored many alternatives to simple bombardment, but all of them involve a significant redistribution of resources and, more importantly, time. We don’t want the Meccites to flee, taking whatever they’re developing with them. We have to find this weapon now and eliminate it.” Essar swiped across the map, and now it filled with slow-moving dots, gliding far above the ground. “We’re going to carry out an aerial bombardment, but it’s really just a cover: we have no expectation that atmospheric craft will have any better luck targeting the complex. While that’s happening, your squad will be dropped here.” A blue icon appeared on the map, further up the peninsula, perhaps a few dozen kilometres from the Meccite base. “Your mission is to infiltrate the target on the ground, discover the weapon and destroy it. We believe the facility to be heavily-guarded and, like all the enemy’s research stations, protected by experimental systems. Expect the unexpected, sergeant.”
He gave a slight smile at that. “I always do, captain.”
She didn’t return the smile. Instead, she gave him a long, hard look and then lowered her voice so only he could hear. “Sergeant, Command would be more than willing to throw a great deal of resource into this, if the option were there. Intelligence is convinced that what is being developed down there is crucial to the future of this war. I’m certain you’re the man to complete this mission, but you should know that it has been classified Omega Priority. You must eliminate this target by any means necessary.”
“Understood, sir. We will not fail.”
“I know.” She saluted again. “Good hunting, Ruson.”
He turned and put on his helmet. It sealed itself automatically and he felt the pressures equalise within his armoured suit, making his ears pop. The rest of his squad – Corporal Jesk, Troopers Avamor, Shiroc and Mellesen – had already done likewise. He addressed them through the internal comm. “You all heard our orders? Good. Let’s go.”
There was no need to say anything else. They were Spacefleet Marines, and more than that, an elite Elimination Squad. Their missions were invariably simple: seek and destroy. The greater context of the operation was of little relevance to them unless, as now, it affected the mission’s parameters. Each of them had once been an ordinary soldier, a man or woman born and raised on a planet, orbital or ship somewhere in the Four Quadrants, who had signed up to Spacefleet hoping to win glory, promotion, or maybe just collect a salary and move on. Instead, they had found death and, with it, rebirth. All had given their lives in the cause of the Free Planets, sustained injuries that had shattered their bodies beyond repair, but been recovered before they were completely past hope. Those broken mortal forms had been ceded to the Marine Corps where they had been rebuilt with cloned flesh and unfeeling machinery, enhanced and improved, turned into living weapons. What changes in personality they had undergone during that long, agonising process, none of them could clearly recall. Even the memories of their former lives were fragmented and vague, lost to a new routine of gruelling drills, deadly missions, endless repairs and redistributions of bionic parts, until what was left was a kind of gestalt conglomerate of all those Marines who had served the unit before, their memories and battle-craft preserved in the unique adaptations their recycled augmentations had developed.
The Before was immaterial. What mattered was the mission.
They boarded the atmospheric craft via the lowered landing ramp and took up positions in the assigned slots along either side of the wide rear cabin. Their armour automatically locked into the alcoves, even as the ramp rose. There was little sense of movement as they waited like that, held fast against the bulkheads, but they all had access to external sensor feeds that showed them what was happening. The craft fell from the open hangar, leaving its mothership, the compact Chimera-class destroyer FPS Iobates, hanging in space above the blue-green orb of Azazel Prime. The rest of the small Marine Corps fleet was also in orbit, and likewise deploying aircraft that now streaked down towards the haze of atmosphere below. All a distraction, Ruson reminded himself: hundreds of sub-orbitals sent flying into danger, risking the wrath of whatever defence emplacements the Meccites had put on this world, simply to cloak their drop. It would have been humbling, had not the sergeant implicitly understood that his meagre squad represented a much more precious resource than that entire mighty airwing.
A chime across the comm indicated that the next stage of their preparation was about to start. Ruson took a breath, steeling himself. First, the alcoves administered the anaesthetic through twin ports on either side of their armours’ collars. There were two brief lances of pain, and then the numbness began to spread. The drug took a short while to take effect. While it did, a second infiltration into the otherwise sealed environment of the suit occurred: this time a snaking tube, connecting with a port in the lower back, began to pump fluid into the narrow space between their skinsuits and the inner-surface of the armour. The gel was already warmed to body temperature, the sensation of it gradually filling up around them was weird and not a little disconcerting. Ruson took careful, measured breaths, silently willing the anaesthetic to hurry up. The gel was already hardening around his legs, and now it seeped up past his crotch and over his belly. His eyelids fluttered and, before the gel had reached his throat, he was in a deep sleep.
The gel was designed to protect their fragile human bodies from the crushing impact of their arrival at the drop zone. No landing, nor even gentle glide from an open ramp for an Elimination Squad. Instead, once they were at low enough altitude – ‘low enough’ being an extremely relative term – the alcoves would slam shut, rotate to the craft’s exterior and open again, unceremoniously dumping them planetside. During this meteoric descent, their suits would be inactive, giving off no hint of radiation, offering no comm chatter, not even a glimmer of a power source. To any observing sensor, they would appear to be simple inert ballast, unworthy of further investigation. When they landed, the gel filling the suit’s interior would absorb the energy, cushioning them and then automatically re-liquefying and being absorbed by the advanced recycling systems in the armour. All this Ruson knew through many briefings and training exercises, and from witnessing others undergo the process. But he had never once been conscious for the fall, as was the intention. Despite having been dropped into warzones by this method hundreds of times, he was no more cognisant of it than if he had merely read it in a manual. To him, it was just theory.
He came to awareness gradually. The slow-acting anaesthetic cleared itself from the system far quicker than most similar drugs, but grogginess was still unavoidable. After a few seconds of disorientation, his training kicked in and he rose slowly from the impact crater that his deployment had left behind. His body felt stiff, which was normal, and he activated an automatic analgesic via an implant in his brain stem, just until his blood got pumping again. Quickly, he took stock, running the various automatic checks on his armour. All systems were functioning. He did a manual check of his other equipment: his fusion pistol, med-kit, EM grenades and sidearm were all present and correct. He moved experimentally, checking for any damage that the suit’s diagnostics might not have picked up – it was possible for them to be damaged, after all. Everything checked out. Now he activated his heads-up-display and located his squad mates. They were scattered around haphazardly, over an area of about three-hundred square metres. All were up and moving like him, and converging on his position. The terrain was, as expected, dense with vegetation. It was sub-tropical jungle, a mixture of tall, broad-leafed trees with hard, segmented trunks that didn’t branch and thick hedges of flowering succulents. It was dusk, with the planet’s single bright sun already having dipped below the horizon. Ruson’s auditory sensors picked out the calls of native fauna deeper in the jungle. Any that had been nesting closer would have been scared away by their sudden and unexpected arrival. Off to the south there was a faint haze: the residual energies of the aerial assault that had served to disguise their drop. They had probably been unconscious for just over an hour.
“Report,” Ruson said when the whole squad was visible in the clearing he had made.
“Everyone functioning at optimal,” Jesk answered, “no significant damage.”
“My right knee servo took a bit of a knock, sir,” Mellesen explained, almost apologetically.
“Can you function?”
He could see the bulky shape of her armour moving its leg in the gathering gloom. “Yes, sir. Just a little numbness.”
“Keep an eye on it. Report any problems to me immediately.”
“Of course, sir.”
He filed away that minor issue. It wasn’t unusual, and he knew it would be unlikely to slow down the trooper. But a busted servo could effectively cripple a Marine if it blew out at the wrong time. The lower leg armour might lock in place mid-step, crushing or tearing apart the limb inside. There might be no warning. But it didn’t matter: there was nothing they could do now. An Elimination Squad maintained comm silence with HQ at all times. There would be no help coming if one of them sustained a serious injury, and they all knew that.
“All right.” He configured the map of the region on his HUD. “Our objective is south-south-west from this position, thirty-five klicks over rough terrain. Standard dispersion formation. Jesk, you’ll take point.”
She might not be happy about that, but the logic was obvious. He gestured with an extended palm. “Move out.”
The first sign of enemy activity came after they’d traversed three kilometres of dense jungle. There were no paths through the thickets, but the superhuman strength and agility granted to the Marines by their armour and bionic implants allowed them to pass through the terrain as swiftly as an ordinary soldier would move across open ground. It was Shiroc, out on the west flank of their loose fan, who raised the alarm with a brief flash sent across the comm that appeared silently in their HUDs. As one, they stopped and waited. At close range, any direct signals between them would be detected. It was approaching full night now, and doubtless the enemy would be using sophisticated sensor equipment to navigate their surroundings, as Ruson’s squad were. So they moved silently. Their armour already generated a shifting camo-field that would render them almost invisible to human sight, but did nothing to dampen the radiation they emitted. Their only strategy was to attack swiftly and decisively, before the alarm could be raised. As Ruson approached Shiroc, the trooper signalled with his hands. Five fingers, three fingers, thumb pointed north, fist clenched. Eight of them, moving north, in tight formation. A patrol, although not a very efficient one. Off to either side of the two crouching Marines, three more dim shapes ghosted through the foliage. Quickly, Ruson gave orders, using more hand signals. You, go north and circle around. You, the same to the south. We attack from here. Try to split them up.
Shiroc and Jesk were with him as they began their assault. By this time, he could see the patrol with his armour’s sensor equipment. They were eight bright blobs in the infrared spectrum, moving warily, scrambling over a fallen tree trunk. There was residual heat in the area, suggesting this had been one of the targets of the earlier bombardment. Ruson risked a broader spectrum scan and discovered, less than a kilometre away, what appeared to be a wrecked vehicle of some kind. It still glowed faintly in the infrared and he guessed it was an aircraft that had been shot down. Theirs, or the enemy’s? For now, there was no telling, but they were certainly heading towards it. They closed to a hundred metres and then a tumult to the north indicated that Mellesen had reached the patrol. Another to the south could only be Avamor. The Meccites panicked instantly, trying to run in two directions at once. The hulking, glowing shapes of the Marines appeared through the jungle, and bright-white lances of fusion pistol fire seared from them. Sparks and flames leapt up, and screams filled the night. Ruson launched himself into the fray, covering the intervening ground in a matter of seconds. He switched to visual display, as the heat from the fusion pistols was rendering infrared almost useless. In the darkness illuminated only by fire and flashes from the Marines’ weapons, he could still see the terrified faces of their foes. He yelled a brief warning through the comm and then hurled an EM grenade into the melee. It detonated and an invisible shockwave crackled across the patch of churned ground and smashed vegetation that marked an hours-old barrage, disrupting any active systems those in the radius were using. His squad, forewarned, would have momentarily activated the reflection setting on their armour that would leave them unaffected. The Meccites were now effectively blinded. They wore helmets with visors that they’d obviously been relying on, but the grenade had shorted them out. Three were already down, smoking holes punched through their light body armour. The others attempted a desperate defence, but carried only lasers, and while the Marines’ armour was still reflective, they were impervious to such weapons. Ruson shouldered into the nearest Meccite, and the force of his charge sent the unfortunate soldier hurtling through the air. Another he dispatched with a close-range shot that blew apart most of the victim’s chest cavity. Then, as the next one made a desperate swing at him with the butt of a laser rifle, he drew the blade he wore at his hip and rammed it straight through their throat. The fight was over almost before it began, but there was one variable Ruson hadn’t reckoned with: the last soldier standing had a weapon longer and bulkier than the basic guns wielded by their dying comrades. They levelled it now, just before Mellesen could close on them, and there was an unfamiliar tearing sound and a projectile of some kind moving at incredible speed. There was no muzzle flash, but the recoil was significant and the shot surely went awry: it caught Mellesen on her right leg and knocked her to the ground. Jesk grabbed the soldier with the strange weapon from behind and snapped their neck with a brief twist of her arms and then all was silent.
Ruson spun around, checking there were no survivors of their brief, brutal onslaught. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t. “Mellesen? Are you alright?”
“I’m…I’m okay, sir. Got hit on the leg again. I think the servo is completely fused.”
Jesk was kneeling beside her. She examined the damaged section of armour. “What was that?” she asked him.
“I don’t know. Avamor: retrieve that gun.”
He brought it to the sergeant, who turned the long rifle over in his hands. “It looked like it fired some sort of solid munition,” he said.
“Solid shot shouldn’t be able to do this,” Jesk replied grimly.
She was right: their armour was proof against almost any physical projectile. He joined the corporal and looked over Mellesen’s leg. The entire knee joint appeared to be completely wrecked. He quickly patched into her internal sensors, and confirmed what he already expected: her knee had been pulverised into uselessness.
“Thought I’d…dodged it,” she said, clearly in considerable pain, “but the servo…”
He tossed the strange gun to Shiroc. “See if you can make sense of that thing,” he growled. Then, turning back to Mellesen, his tone softened somewhat. “All right, Marine. You’re not going anywhere: your knee is out of commission, never mind the damage to your armour. Activate your analgesics. When the mission’s over, we’ll call in a craft to retrieve you.”
“Sir…” She was trying to give him her fusion pistol. “Redistribute…”
“You aren’t dead yet.” He shoved it back into her hand. “Keep it, in case some more of those bastards come along. The rest of us are taking a short detour to see what it was they were heading for.”
As they moved off, Jesk gave voice to his own thoughts through a private comm link. “The armour’s systems can’t keep her alive for long.”
“I know that.”
“Best case scenario, we’re done and gone in, what? Three hours?”
“She’ll have bled out before then.”
“The med unit can stop the bleeding.”
“You scanned her knee: the bottom half of her leg is being held on by a few tendons and crushed metal from the servo. The suit can’t fix that.”
“So why didn’t you euthanise her? She was right to offer her equipment. It would be more use to the rest of us.”
He sighed as they ducked under a precariously balanced trunk. The whole area around them was pocked with smoking craters and what vegetation had survived was torn up or charred. “Before we left the ship, Captain Essar informed me that this was an Omega Priority mission.”
“Oh. It’s that important?”
“Still, the best chance of success…”
“She’s been part of our unit for five years. Even if only she survives, we live on, through her.”
Jesk said nothing more, and he terminated the private link after a few seconds. He didn’t mind her questioning his decisions: as his second in command, that was what he expected. But even he knew this one had been made for reasons of sentimentality, and that wasn’t something which Marines were supposed to indulge. But the history of this unit was measured, through an unbroken chain of squad members giving their lives and having their bionics recycled, in centuries. Spacefleet Marines had little that was their own, but what they did have they kept sacrosanct. The unit would continue, even beyond the loss of four-fifths of its members.