Hul Matuul’a knelt beside the fallen, unconscious shaper and drew his coufee. Unlike the fallen warriors around her, this one had not elected to suicide when the infidel gas began to fill their compartment. Instead, she had succumbed to it, and fell with her face pointed towards the armory which had been her charge, and a certain set of chemical reagents and triggers in her hands. Admittedly, it would have gone ill for his plan had she actually reached the armory and carried through with her intentions, but with communications down and an obvious boarding about to take place, she likely felt there was little choice
“I would have done the same,” the shipmaster whispered as he slit her throat. “There is no shame in what you tried to do, daughter of Yun Ne’Shel. Nor shame in failure. But I will not allow you to be captured, so go to the gods in honor.”
Behind him, and all over the ship, his few remaining warriors did likewise for those few who had not opened their own throats or bellies when the gas overtook them.
First Platoon’s entry into the dreadnaught-analog was fairly anticlimactic. This was by design: one of the few things to suck worse than clearing a starship was having to make a “hot” entry nto same starship. Between the coma gas, the take from the remotes, and what they hoped was some good guesswork in interpreting the take from the remotes, the battalion had a pretty good idea of where the enemy might try an intercept.
Therefore they bored through the yorik coral hull some thirty meters behind one of the gas-and-remote entrance points. This would drop them into a fairly wide central corridor, at the far end of their assigned sweep zone, but not at an intersection and with minimal chance of getting caught in a pincer. Remotes had swept the walls for the tell-tales of hidden compartments, found none, and then took up guard positions facing up and down the corridor.
Third Squad went first, heavy weapons team in the lead. The impact of their HAA against the yorik coral reverberated down the corridor. They scanned, called clear, then spread to cover the corridor. Fire teams three, one, and then two dropped after, and secured the whole corridor for First and Second. Lastly, the Command squad dropped.
“Everybody, sync with a remote,” Johnny ordered. “Squad leaders, take two. Gunny, you and I take three each.”
A chorus of clicks followed the order, followed shortly thereafter by a veritable fleet of remotes converging on the platoon.
In retrospect, he should have tried to make his way to the dovin basal stores, wait for the infidels to board, and then trigger a singularity, destroying the ship and the attackers. But he had chosen, instead, to direct his motley band to the armory near the command area. And now, there were too many of the infidels between any of his teams and those stores. To fight, and die – and kill – as a Yuuzhan Vong should. Yet even as he waited, a part of Hul Matuula’s mind turned the problem over, trying to work out a “next time” plan.
It was almost a hobby with him, one reason Rupaak Kag had selected him.
After all, if he had gotten to a dovin basal…
If. Perhaps. Maybe. These things existed solely in the minds of Yun-Yuuzhan and Yun-Harla. For Yun-Yammka, there was only the Now, and the Battle. The ship kept him in touch with his other teams, let him track, after a fashion, the infidels. The remnants of his crew took up position with him, weapons at ready, prepared to extract a price from the enemy, to send a sacrifice to the gods before they fell.
Johnny carefully slipped the knife – which he swore wriggled – from the dead Vong’s hand, wiped the black blood from it, and equally carefully placed it into one of his conformal boot sheaths. The adaptive plastoid and pseudo-leather formed to the knife’s shape, both concealing it and holding it secure. He took one more look at the blood splatter from the Vong’s slit throat, then forwarded a picture of the scene plus his conclusions to the S-2.
There were some fifty to sixty Yuuzhan Vong scattered about the corridor, most of dead of slit throats, some of disembowelment. Each was arrayed in such of way that it was clear the warrior – and some which were clearly non-warriors, like the one he examined – had committed suicide rather than be gassed and captured. In the case of the ones who’d opened their bellies, he figured that was probably true.
But it was not true in the case of the alien below him. He shook his head and stood. It was… a maddening waste, his father would say. Best to stay alive, resist as long as possible, and find the chance to fight again. On the other hand, Johnny himself had spent his first few years in an Imperial prison mine, so he sort of understood the Yuuzhan Vong’s aversion to captivity.
“Looks like they cut their own throats,” he announced, but with his hands he indicated a negation in Battle Sign.
Ten minutes later, they came across the long awaited ambush. From the space where they found the suicided and slain Vong, the path to the “bridge” split into two widely-spaced corridors, with a series of service corridors running between them. Johnny had sent the gunny and Second Squad, along with half of third, down the starboard corridor. The other half of Third he held back to secure the armory – at least, he figured it was an armory – they had discovered near the field of dead. It was partially emptied, which was why they were expecting an ambush.
He led First Squad and his command squad up the port corridor.
Their slaved remotes ran ahead at four meter intervals, stretching out to one hundred meters. Both teams, when they came across one of the connecting corridors, stopped and searched them thoroughly with the remotes. Johnny had to admit that this was perhaps overly cautious, but they had plenty of time.
They had spotted several of the hidden compartments along the way; strangely enough, none of them concealed a Yuuzhan Vong, warrior or otherwise. Some did contain weapons, and what looked like someone’s food stash – assuming Yuuzhan Vong food tended to have spikes and claws, and was meant to be eating alive; they had found some things that might have been eating utensils, but nothing remotely resembling a cooker. Which could have meant any number of things: someone wanted to snack while on duty, someone was planning a mutiny, there was an ambushing team coming up behind them…
He flagged the compartments for Major Harwell’s attention, and the attention of the second and third wave cleanup teams, had his rear-guard fire teams leave some of their remotes behind to watch the back, and kept himself from hovering mother-hen-like over his rear-guard fire teams. If anything came up the back end, they would let him know.
His display flashed with a request for attention, from Corporal Burns, who was in charge of his point fire team. He accepted, and the left side of his display switched to the take from one of the forward remotes, tagged as slaved to one of the point team’s junior privates, who had also forwarded the information to his team commander. It had scanned down one of the connecting corridors, and the IR/heat sensor data indicated that the corridor was lined with twenty or so of the hidden compartments, each one of which contained something breathing. The compartments were not wholly sealed of from the rest of the ship, and so they leaked hot waste gases like a sieve.
He sent an acknowledging click to the corporal, shifted the information take to the lower left of his display, and called up the tactical map. Both halves of the platoon were less than twenty meters from the corridor in question. He called two remotes over to himself even as he started drawing up orders.
“Gunny, First Actual,” he called over the comm, as he pulled a roll of space-tape from his utility harness.
“Go ahead, L-T,” Gunny Occe replied. Somehow, Johnny noted, he managed to keep a tone of ‘why are you calling me over audio?’ out of his reply.
“We picked up some interesting samples a few meters back,” Johnny said as he flashed his orders to everyone’s displays. By then the remotes had reached him. “The way I see it, there’s no point in keeping these things clumped up, so I’m going to send two of ‘em your way, space-taped to a remote.”
In turn, he pulled two thermal detonators from his harness, and space-taped them each to one of the remotes. After a quick bit rewiring – something they had gamed in HAA training, when the ability to slave remotes to the HAA computers was announced – he had connected each detonator’s firing circuit to its remote.
“How’s that sound to you, Gunny?”
“I reckon that makes sense, sir,” Occe replied. He also made a note on the tactical display indicating his agreement with the real plan.
“Figured you’d like it,” Johnny said, and let the remotes fly.
For not the first time since the invasion, Hul Matuul’a was glad he had allowed Rupaak Kag to talk him into learning as much of the infidel tongue – ‘Basic’, they called it – as he could. It would, his commander claimed, give him an advantage in assessing the enemy’s intentions and capabilities. After all, the infidels would surely have no knowledge of their tongue! It had seemed an awful lot of work and risk at the time, one more fit for a shaper, or perhaps a highly skilled worker, one who could be safely used up and then disposed of if corrupted by infidel knowledge. But Kag had been insistent, and Hul would not let himself quit. So he learned Basic, and had made good use of it ever since his task force had crossed into this galaxy.
His custom-bred vonduun crab armor allowed him to directly connect to the ship, to ‘speak’ with and ‘hear’ from the Ko. There was not much left of the Ko’s mind, now, but what was there allowed him to track the infidel boarders, and to listen in on their conversations. He could tell, however, from their movements and snippets of talk, that the infidels were aware of the compartments he had used to move hidden from their droid scouts, and to stage what ambushes and traps he could. His men would get some of them, he knew, but less than could have been.
However, he expected to trap and destroy the enemy unit advancing towards his command center. Despite their awareness of the compartments, they were obviously unaware of his presence. So unaware, in fact, that they were willing to use his ambush site to pass baubles around! He had no idea what ‘samples’ they meant, perhaps some coufees, or perhaps some of the food he certainly did not know his night sentries had hidden away.
He could not help but shake his head, even as he waited for the enemy to close and pass. Often, ages ago it seemed now, he had pulled night sentry duty himself. It was frankly traditional now for the cooking staff to keep food from the sentries and for the sentries to steal away and store as much as they could. Kept everyone on their toes. There was embracing pain and hunger, learning to work through it, and then there was starving one’s self to the point of ineffectiveness. Besides, not-knowing what he did not know about the stash, anyone willing to eat a live-
Hul Matuul’a’s world exploded in fire.
The thermal detonators Johnny and most of the Hellwalkers carried were the Mark VII, variable-strength type. One could not use a Mark VII to, say, destroy a coruscanti tower by tossing it down a garbage chute, but it could be used for anything from ‘anti-personnel’ up to ‘we need to kill a tank’. Johnny had set his two to a middle-strength setting, the one normally used for breaching walls. He also sent a splash warning to the battalion opsnet, and a ‘danger close’ warning to his forward fire teams. On the one hand, by the book, he should have held the platoon back a ways. On the other hand, he did not know if he was under observation by the Yuuzhan Vong in the corridor, and if he was, he wanted to keep up the illusion of ignorance for as long as possible.
On the gripping hand, ‘danger close’ fire was part of what the HAA was designed for.
The first thermal detonator went off two thirds of the way down the line of Yuuzhan Vong; the second, simultaneously, went off a third of the way down their line. The thermal bloom and overpressure wave swept down both sides the corridor and spilled out into the main passageways, rushing towards the bridge and washing over his platoon. But the seals on the armor held, even when the local air was consumed, and the fire came rushing back over them, pushed by the new air flooding into the sudden vacuum.
Both teams deployed remotes to the each end of the corridor. The takes appear on his display, one left one right. Johnny saw that the bulkheads had been torn apart, including the doors to the hidden compartments. The Yuuzhan Vong were, astonishingly, mostly standing, with only some five laid out on the floor and slowly cooling. Those standing were staggering around in apparent confusion and disorientation, but even as he designated targets he could tell that would not last long.
Which was fine by him, he thought coldly, as he sent the targeting priorities to his heavy weapons teams. He had not intended to let it last long.
The heavy weapons teams, on both sides of the corridor, stepped forward and opened up with their concussion rifles. In a normal boarding action, in normal armor, using a c-rifle in a narrow ship’s corridor would be suicide; the overpressure wave – better than two atmospheres over ambient – which would quickly dissipate in open air, would be amplified and channeled by the corridor. Which happened here. But once again, this was something the HAA was designed for, and once again, the seals held.
Six c-rifles took the Yuuzhan Vong in enfilade fire, and pounded them again and again again, until nothing moved.
The entire engagement took less than twenty seconds.
Hul Matuul’a lay there amongst the dead and dying. His connection with the Ko was broken, destroyed when the blast had opened up his compartment. He felt as if he had spent a full month in the Embrace of Pain, while being repeatedly kicked by a trio of rakamats. His armor, he could feel, was dying around him. He knew that it was what had kept him alive; his armor covered his whole body and was sealed against sudden pressure changes.
He rolled over and opened his eyes; to his shame he let out a low groan.
The last thing he saw was one of the infidel’s blasphemous, sphere-shaped droids, hovering over him. It fired two blue rings of energy into him, and all went dark.