Twice more they came within detection range of Meccite patrols. Except, Ruson realised after they ducked into the undergrowth to give the second one a wide berth, they weren’t patrols, not exactly: they were all heading along the same route the first group of soldiers had taken, and not taking the precautions he’d have expected from dedicated reconnaissance troops. They were in fact heading for the crash site, as quickly as possible. Whatever the mysterious artefact in the clone’s head had been, the Meccites were obviously intent on recovering it. Their route would also lead them past the place where their comrades had been slaughtered and though they’d moved the bodies out of sight in accordance with protocol, they would still see evidence of the skirmish. They would know there were enemy troops in the jungle. Then there was the matter of Mellesen. She would, he trusted, have the sense to stay low and activate her armour’s camo fields. Certainly, even injured, she could defend herself from an attack and account for most of an enemy patrol, even if they were also armed with one or more of these strange exotic matter weapons, but she would eventually be overwhelmed and then killed or, worse, captured. She wouldn’t engage.
He could feel Jesk’s question coming even before she crept up beside him and asked it. “Do we let those patrols find the crashed aircraft and the clone’s body?”
“We can’t risk any further casualties.”
“They’ll realise someone’s been there.”
“They will,” he acknowledged.
“And when they report back…”
“They don’t know who or what we are, nor how large our unit is. I deem the risk acceptable.”
“As you say, sir.”
Marines were uniquely disciplined soldiers, but their hierarchy was based solely on merit, and it was considered perfectly acceptable to question a superior’s orders, as long as their authority was not undermined. Even by these standards, Jesk was unusually forthright, but that was something about her Ruson appreciated. He held up a hand and signalled for the squad to advance. Together, they moved swiftly through the forest, now travelling with much more care than before, as the schematics projected into their helmets indicated they were approaching the enemy compound. It loomed out of the night, separated from the tree line by a clearing that was obviously artificial: the ground was blackened and scorched. Likely the Meccites had to go out there fairly regularly and use fire or chemicals to clear it. The complex was walled, and a quick scan burst told Ruson that the ramparts were made of solid concrete, over eight metres tall. They’d probably stood here for centuries: the Meccites tended to reuse the facilities abandoned by previous iterations of their fractious empires. The burnt strip between the forest and the walls was ten metres or so wide, but there was no indication that it was overlooked. No infrared signatures moved back and forth atop the walls, but the sensor disruption field was causing problems even at this range. They had little choice though. He gestured and they rose from cover and began their advance.
Ruson cycled through a number of options on his suit’s interface as he jogged towards the walls. His heavy gauntlets reconfigured and deployed hefty climbing blades, while at the same time his boots produced matching crampons. The rest of the squad did the same and, after covering the distance, they all jumped at the towering concrete battlements. The aging surface yielded easily to the weight of a Spacefleet Marine in full armour crashing into it, and Ruson’s blades sank several centimetres into the edifice. They began their ascent, moving as quickly vertically as they did horizontally. In fact the wall was slightly angled – an obsolete defence method against solid munitions – so it was even easier than he’d been expecting. In mere moments, they’d reached the top of the ramparts and Ruson signalled for them to wait. This close to the source of the disruption field, his armour’s sensors were useless, so he switched his visor to transparent and filtered in true audio. The jungle came alive around him: here, the wildlife hadn’t fled from a crash, and he could hear the night-time cacophony from the canopies. Distant screeches from primates or some other animals echoed across the landscape, and strange birdcalls rang out as if in counterpoint. The humming and scratching of invertebrates was loud enough to hear even from eight metres up and ten metres away. He used some of his bionic senses to filter out the background noise and listen for the sound of guards moving above. After several seconds, he heard a soft crunch of boots. He held his breath, waiting and listening, trying to ascertain direction and speed. The footfall came again, very close, moving towards him. Only one guard. Either the Meccites were overconfident, or they’d sent much of their strength out to find their downed craft. When the guard seemed to be almost directly above him, he launched himself up and over the low rampart. To the hapless soldier, he must have seemed a rippling phantom emerging from the black of night. Externally, his helmet would still appear opaque: a faceless and indifferent mask, and his outline would be blurred by the shifting camo field. The guard tried to raise his gun and call out a warning, but the climbing blade was already in his throat. Ruson turned and caught the dying man as he fell, wrapping his arm around his head to muffle any burbled screams. He took his weight and lowered him gently onto the concrete parapet. Then he beckoned the others up. They all climbed onto the other side of the wall with practiced ease and then crouched low in the shadows beside him.
“No sign of an alarm,” Jesk whispered. They were all using their real senses now and speaking aloud.
Ruson surveyed the walled compound. For all their technology, the Meccites had a curious disregard for aesthetics. The facility was a cluster of connected domes and trapezoids, a mixture of concrete and steel, arranged haphazardly in the wide space made by the walls. There was no gate visible in the perimeter: most likely the defences were a mere relic, and egress was conducted by aircraft or some underground tunnel. Meccites tended to build below the surface of their worlds too, like burrowing insects. Doubtless there was much more to the facility than they could see from this vantage.
Avamor was using the lens scopes on his armour to scan the area visually. After a moment he deactivated them and turned to the sergeant. “I can see a number of possible entrances, sir. There are a few more guards up on the walls, but they don’t seem to be doing much. It’s a token garrison.”
“This isn’t a military base then,” Jesk surmised, “no wonder that patrol didn’t put up much of a fight.”
“They put up enough to take one of us out of action,” Ruson reminded her. He pointed down to the closest building; just a rounded bulk in the shadows. “We have no idea of the layout of this facility, but it stands to reason that whatever they’re developing, it will be in the most secure area. We should head towards the centre and go downwards where possible. Once the alarm is raised, we can expect increased resistance, but our mobility is our main advantage. We move fast and strike hard, keeping them off-balance. Standard defensive structure sweep protocols. Secure each area and advance as swiftly as possible.”
“Containment?” Shiroc asked.
“No. I don’t want any extended firefights. If we get bogged down, we retreat and find another route, or we attempt a breakthrough if that isn’t possible. The objective is the weapon; we’re not trying to take this base.”
Jesk tilted her head in an almost-comically exaggerated expression of curiosity. “And once we find the weapon?”
“That will depend on what it is. If it’s something we can retrieve, we’ll try to bring it out with us, but if needs be we’ll destroy it. The mission is to neutralise this threat, not reconnoitrer for enemy technology.” He gave Shiroc a quick sidelong glance. Avamor still had the railgun, slung across his back. “All right,” Ruson said, “let’s go. Jesk, you’re on point.”
Going down was much easier than getting up. The powered armour they wore was capable of absorbing the impact of a fall of up to around twenty metres without causing harm to the occupant. They all dropped down the other side of the wall, landing on more concrete, which buckled and cracked as they each landed. The aging facility was again a boon: there was little more than a low rumbling crunch from their impacts, though if any guards had been alerted by the sound, they wouldn’t have had a chance to respond, for the Marines were already moving. Jesk ran right for the metal door on the near side of the closest dome. She picked up speed and crashed into it with full force. It buckled and sparked, and she shouldered straight through the groaning steel, barely breaking her stride. An alarm began to sound above their heads, but Avamor silenced it with a smash of his armoured fist as he passed beneath the lintel. They were in a curving corridor, with no other doors evident. Ruson split the squad, taking Shiroc with him, and headed left, while Jesk and Avamor went right. The sergeant found a door into the interior at ninety degrees from the entrance along the corridor that evidently followed the outer edge of the dome. He sent Shiroc around to get the others back. When they returned, Jesk informed him that there was another identical door on the opposite side. Shrugging, he aimed his fusion pistol at the one he’d found and blasted a smoking hole through it. He battered his way through the glowing wreckage and they entered a hemispherical chamber that looked like some kind of storage bay. There were a few reinforced crates piled around, and Ruson ordered the Marines to investigate, which they did via the simple expedient of kicking them over and tearing them apart. Inside some they found various supplies – protein rations, some synthmeat cans, dehydrated algae – and some unidentifiable technical equipment. Nothing that appeared too sinister in any case. The only exit was in the opposite wall, up a shallow ramp, and it was a set of double-doors that were large enough to admit a vehicle. Loading wagons? The doors weren’t secured, and Ruson opened them using a wall terminal. Beyond them was a wide corridor that led off into darkness. Meccite numerals marked the walls on either side, and the scuffed floor told him this was a thoroughfare used by vehicles. An identical set of doors was directly opposite the ones they’d entered by, and he guessed a near-identical bay was on the other side, accessible through the door Jesk had found. They went down the corridor, into the heart of the complex.
A short time later, Ruson became aware of a brightening at the corridor’s distant end. He realised after a moment that it was automatic lights activating in sequence. He could soon hear the low hum of an engine, very far away. The lights were motion activated, but the Marines’ camo fields were obviously enough to fool their primitive sensors. The vehicle was approaching fast. They ducked into the shadows on the edge of this interior roadway. The white light of the wall lamps was cascading towards them: the suits would not be able to cloak them in their glare. The vehicle was visible now, a bulky, armoured machine on tracks, like a primitive tank. A larger version of the exotic matter railgun swivelled on a turret. There was no need to give any orders; the unit moved with seamless coordination. Jesk, still on point, moved out into the centre of the road and tossed an EM grenade into the tank’s path. It skittered along the concrete floor and detonated soundlessly just as it passed over. The invisible shockwave took out the lights, and sent the tank slewing to one side as its tracks seized up. It careened into the wall, its reinforced nose smashing apart the concrete and sending dust falling from the ceiling. Ruson advanced and fired his gun, quickly melting the turret’s servos into slag so that, even if they did manage to get the cannon working, they’d only be able to fire it into the wall. Shiroc and Avamor, moving up on his right, took aim at the tracks, ensuring the behemoth would remain crippled. It was at this point that the crew realised they were sitting in a death trap and threw open the rear hatch to escape. Jesk was waiting for them, taking out the first soldier with a close-range shot from her fusion pistol, and hacking into the next with her blade. Ruson vaulted over one half-melted track in order to join her as she clambered into the tank’s interior. One crewman remained, trying desperately to get his comm unit functioning. “They’re inside!” he was screaming ineffectually at the dead console. Jesk grabbed him and hurled him into the opposite wall, the impact killing him instantly. A quick search of the cramped interior revealed no other occupants.
“They know they’re under attack,” Ruson reported as he and the corporal emerged, “but they don’t know we’re here yet.”
“When they realise they can’t signal to their tank, they might realise,” Shiroc pointed out.
“True. So let’s move.”
The Meccites were woefully unprepared for any kind of assault. No doubt they had thought the disruption field protection enough against enemy forces. The idea that where an orbital bombardment failed, Spacefleet would simply send in heavily-armed warriors was perhaps unthinkable to a people so used to relying on their technology. The next time they encountered soldiers was in a hangar, much deeper inside the facility. It held a number of aircraft of the same design as the crashed one in the jungle. Here, flight crews were assembling, presumably to begin aerial reconnaissance of the surrounding environs. It was possible they assumed they were under attack from a much larger force, and were trying to track them down, believing Spacefleet platoons to be massing in the forest. For them, it was already too late. The Marines entered the hangar via a high gantry. They dropped over the railings to ground level and began a lightning-fast assault across the wide space. The whole area was brightly lit, and the camo fields were effectively useless, so they switched to reflective mode. This was disorientating enough, for each suit became like a perfect mirror, as if mercury simulacra had formed from nowhere, but it also rendered them immune to laser-based small arms. The pilots’ pistols were useless and soon they were breaking from the apparitions that were suddenly in their midst. Avamor shot at one of the craft and it spun off its landing struts, colliding with another. He charged into it, using sheer momentum to upend it and send it cartwheeling across the hangar. Chaos erupted as the ships were knocked over, or their wings and tails spun around, knocking into fuelling rigs and fleeing crews. Though there were only four of them, the Marines wreaked utter carnage, slaying dozens of enemies and destroying equipment and vehicles as they came. But there were enough Meccites in the hangar for one of them to finally activate an alarm, and the lights changed from white to pulsing red. An audio warning rang out, and though Ruson couldn’t understand the words, he could easily guess their general sentiment.
“Now,” he said, gesturing to his squad onwards, “we stop for nothing!”
So it went. More brief and brutal firefights ensued. In one narrow corridor, a squad of guards had hastily built a barrier with containers and drums and attempted to mount a defence. Railguns screamed as exotic matter ammunition flashed through the air. The Marines’ augmented reactions allowed them to dodge the incoming fire though, and the bizarre weapons instead ripped enormous chunks out of the walls as they released all their monodirectional momentum. The barricade was stormed, Jesk acting as the point of a wedge, battering through it with sheer force. She fell amongst the wreckage as Ruson leapt over her and slaughtered two Meccites. He grabbed another one and tossed him over what was left of the barricade, directly into the path of Avamor, whose knee collided with the screaming man’s head, causing it to explode in a shower of gore. Jesk was up, blade finding another soldier’s gut and disappearing up to the hilt as she roared her defiance at him. They had barely paused, continuing to race onwards, deeper and deeper into the Meccite complex.
Through another door, into a much wider corridor; a thoroughfare not unlike the one near the entrance they’d used, their unstoppable momentum finally met its first real obstacle. At first, all was quiet as they burst into the more open space. Jesk hovered uncertainly: the corridor ran perpendicular to the one they’d just passed through, and neither left nor right presented an obvious choice. Ruson frowned slightly. He was about to go right, when a distant sound caused him to draw up. Somewhere at the far end of the trackway, something very large was approaching. It had two legs, like a person, but the tread was exponentially heavier. All the lights were flashing red now, but Ruson could still make out a dim shape coming towards them. A roar echoed: at once inhuman and horribly, unmistakably human at the same time. Even he, with his decades of experience, his ingrained training, his bionically enhanced physiology, couldn’t ignore the flutter of fear he felt at that sound. The enormous footfalls came faster now as, scenting prey, the beast rushed to slake its hunger, fury or both.
“Left,” Shiroc suggested.
They turned, but from the opposite direction came another bestial roar.
“Two of them,” Jesk murmured.
“So it seems.” Ruson allowed himself an ironic smile. This may not have been a military base, but it was a secret research facility, and they should have guessed a few prize examples of Meccite genetic engineering might have been sitting in a cryo chamber somewhere. Here, charging towards them from both sides, was the greatest affront to decency the Meccite scientist-priests had dreamt up: distended, warped caricatures of humanity, cloned beings twisted into impossible creatures by men and women who believed they had a moral duty to push the boundaries of rationality, ethics and simple respect for the sanctity of human life if it represented an advance towards superiority of knowledge. But Ruson and his squad had encountered these so-called ‘advances’ before, and there was nothing superior about them. They were a living defilement, a manifestly inferior melding of man and beast into something very much less than the sum of its artificially-combined parts. They were the warrior-hulks: the cloned monstrosities that were, as far as the Meccites were concerned, the last word in infantry combat. And two of them were bearing down on them right now.
“Prepare yourselves,” the sergeant told them.