What Ought to Be Left Buried
"By her grace we prevail!"
Canticles of service, Kommando Manual
MOON OF LENG, SIERPINSKI-23
Sierpinski was becoming an increasingly unnerving place if Alpha's elevator ride had been any indication. It was hard to believe anyone had ever even staffed this facility, with how desolate it seemed.
Room by room, hallway by hallway, Alpha carried out the arduous task of clearing out every corner of the facility. At first, they moved with the same efficiency they always had whenever it came time for close-quarters fighting, flowing down cramped hallways and into rooms with guns raised, ready and willing to dispatch the enemies of the Empire. It was truly an impressive sight, one that made Phönix proud despite the fruitlessness of their efforts.
But with each empty room, each quiet hallway, their discipline began to erode. What had started as a routine search and destroy mission was quickly turning into a macabre journey for answers. Even Fixer hadn't reported anything out of the ordinary in the ARAR tunnels, save for the stench emanating from long-dead plants she found along the way. No bodies, just abandoned tools and half-finished mechanical work.
To make matters worse, Phönix could feel the overbearing presence from before grow ever stronger the further the team proceeded. Powerful energy, Bioresonant energy, was behind every wall, in every crevice. It was like the entire facility was one living organism desperately trying to purge invaders from within. Strong as she was, she couldn't keep it out forever. A terrible weight was beginning to grow upon her shoulders and cloud her mind, for the first time in her relatively short period of activation, Phoenix was unsure. She was the pinnacle of Replika technology, and if her subordinates figured out she was compromised…no, it would not come to that.
Joseph wouldn't allow that. would he?
No, not Joseph. She had slipped once before saying his first name, decorum had to be followed. But then, why did saying his name feel right? And why did she really feel more, focused, having him around? What was going on with her mind?
She watched from down another long stretch of hallway, silently recounting the canticles of clarity, as Jaslo and Rogier stacked on opposite sides of another door. They nodded at each other silently before Jaslo slammed a control console nearest to him, causing the door to slide open with a loud pop. Both the Kommandos then quickly piled into the room, leaving Phönix and her besieged mind to fend for themselves.
"What the shit."
Having filed into the room and cleared his corners, Jaslo lowered his rifle and blew some air from behind frustrated lips. Across the room, Rogier did the same and looked over to his superior, his confusion visible under all his gear. The sergeant promptly keyed off on the squad net.
"That's the third throne-blasted room. Nobody's home. What the hell is going on?"
Seeing Rogier, of all people, at an utter loss for words slightly unnerved the lieutenant.
"I thought, maybe you'd know."
"Well, I don't. This is bizarre, even for the Nation." Rogier replied. "Something did this, Joseph. Something that sure as throne wasn't us."
"That a theory you, want to stick with?" Jaslo asked cautiously.
"Eh. It's all I have left."
"I wish it wasn't."
Spotting no signs of any immediate threats, Jaslo's voice dimmed as he started to scrutinize the dimly-lit room further. A Gestalt worker's room, nearly identical to the last, utterly devoid of any provisions suitable for decent human habitation. If anything, it looked more like a prison. Flat faded mattresses separated behind iron bars sat arranged on either side of the room, lining its walls like the books in an organized library. Condensation dripped from leaky pipes above and pooled onto the grimy concrete floor below. A few worn and tattered uniforms still sat hanging from wire hangers, next to whirring oscillating fans. CCTV cameras lined the walls above, constantly watching the Kommandos' movements.
"Barbaric, absolutely barbaric." Jaslo muttered in disgust.
"I concur, Lieutenant."
From ehind the two Kommandos, Phönix voiced her opinion, hunching over ever so slightly as she entered. Distaste was visible on her face. "Man and Replika were meant to live under our flag, shoulder to shoulder. This desecration of rights shall not go unpunished."
"Respectfully, ma'am. There may not be anyone left to punish," Rogier replied, sarcastically.
"Her light shall reveal all in due-." Suddenly the Replika winced and put a hand to her temple, both her eyes going wide. It was a brief moment, but just enough to put both Kommandos on high alert. They had never seen their commander like this before. Phoenixes were meant to have minds fortified by faith, representing the finest in Imperial Replika technology. Not even a squad of Kolibri could put up mental defenses as powerful. Simply put, this wasn't supposed to happen.
Seeing both of her subordinates tense up, Phönix quickly composed herself and cleared her throat.
"-I apologize, I had a brief moment of….disruption, in my subroutines." The commander straightened herself out and stood back upright, towering over the two men. "As I was saying, her light shall reveal all in due time."
Jaslo's thumb subconsciously slipped off of his rifle's fire selector, and with it his sudden burst of adrenaline began to wean off. "...light or not, room's cleared. Nothing for us here, we need to keep moving–" Jaslo answered cautiously before something caught his attention. Sitting atop an old weathered plastic table was a crumpled piece of notepaper, and had it not been for his image intensifiers, the lieutenant might've even missed it. He reached over and scooped it off the table, raising his goggles to expose his eyes to open air for the first time since he'd left the Charon.
"What is it, Lieutenant?"
"A note, maybe a page out of a journal, or something." Jaslo clicked on his red-tinted helmet-mounted light and looked over the poorly-written scribbles. He read the note aloud as best he could, his eyes squinting slightly as they adjusted to the light differential.
"'Feeling a little lightheaded today. I hope it's not that new flu that seems to be going around.'"
"Flu?" Rogier inquired. "Give me a break."
Jaslo skimmed past unimportant details, his eyes looking for anything that could answer the questions that had been eating away at the squad.
"Just some rambling about being chewed out from missing shifts." Jaslo brushed off the question and continued to skim further. "Someone named Alina Seo, Gestalt worker…."
That was when something else caught his attention. Something that only made his mood dour further.
"'More and more people continue to go missing in the mines lately, including Replikas.'" Jaslo furrowed his brow. "'Not even the Protektors seem safe.'"
He stopped and slowly lowered the paper. Rogier had gone deathly quiet, choosing instead to just stare at his superior officer. That was when Jaslo felt an overbearing presence hovering over him: Phönix, peering out over his head. She was close, far closer than protocol demanded. Her crimson red eyes burned through him and into the very paper itself.
"That cannot be." The commander lowered her head and looked closer at the paper, her voice as cold as the realization that fell upon the room. "Simple ailments do not affect us."
That was when the telltale sign of gunfire boomed through the walls. On instinct, both Rogier and Jaslo were already out of the room before Stalwart's call came over the net.
As the squad's dedicated marksman, Weber was out of his element inside Sierpinski's cramped interior. His sniper rifle, compact as it was, simply wasn't meant for the sort of fighting that might occur, laden and unwieldy with a heavy barrel and high-power optic. Of course, Sierpinski wasn't the Corporal's first time conducting CQB maneuvers, and Empress knew his skill with a blade was second only to Jaslo's, but it didn't fill him with much confidence when it came to dealing with shotgun-equipped Protektors. To make matters worse, his secondary role as a scout occasionally put him out in front of Stalwart's heavy equipment.
He stood fast in the hallway while the pair cleared an adjacent room, peering nervously over the top of his sniper's scope when he heard what sounded like a woman's sobbing. He had entertained the idea of calling back to the others, but his idealistic nature gave him pause. Surely whoever was beyond that door wasn't much of a threat. If they happened to surrender and reaffirm their Imperial vows, that was even better.
So, Weber took a leap of faith. Hugging the wall up toward the automatic sliding door, he flicked on his weapon's side-mounted IR laser, took a deep breath, and then slapped the door's console, sending it sliding open with a loud fwoosh.
Time seemed to stand still as he pushed into the room, adrenaline coursing through his veins. Like the other Kommandos, years of training had honed his senses to a razor's edge and his eye for detail as an artist also extended to his work on the field. The entirety of his new surroundings, an old classroom, came to him in an instant. Overturned desks, ancient chalkboards with lessons from courses past. Then, the source of crying. A Replika, it was a Eule garbed in the colors of the Nation with her face buried in her hands. The large meat cleaver that sat on the desk next to her was immediately singled out as the greatest threat, but before Weber could even think to issue any verbal warnings, the Eule looked up at him.
He would soon wish she hadn't. The disfigured face that looked back at the Corporal would haunt him in his dreams for years to come, a partially-disfigured mass of synthetic flesh and bone half-concealed behind bloodstained bangs. The Replika let out a terrified blood-curdling shriek and backed away as if the Corporal's very existence was an anomaly.
"M-my face! They took my face!"
On instinct, Weber raised his weapon and took aim, his laser drawing a tight bead on the disfigured Replika's forehead. In his mind, he pleaded that she wouldn't reach for the blade, but she did no such thing. Grabbing the knife, she began to slowly approach him, swinging it about wildly while stuttering something utterly incomprehensible.
"Drop the weapon, put it down now!-"
Weber hardly had time to finish his command before the Replika violently blew apart in a torrent of thunderous gunfire. The flurry of armor-piercing projectiles made short work of the Eule's thin polyethylene shell, and what remained of her now-lifeless frame toppled over and crashed through one of the wooden desks. A dark puddle of oxidant ran across the tiled floor, pooling around his boots. Coming up next to Weber, Stalwart continued to level her machine gun at the Eule, smoke slowly rising from its barrel.
"Clear left!" The Replika looked over at her comrade with a genuine look of concern. "You okay, Jake?!"
"Am I okay? What the fuck was that for!?" Weber pointed at the gory mess.
"Clear right!" Miko shouted from the other end of the room, shuffling his way past rows of desks to get a closer look at whatever Weber was talking about. His eyes traced along the ground, picking out the shining meat cleaver among the mess his gunner had made almost instantly. "You are welcome, my friend." He sighed, extending a boot to kick the cleaver around for emphasis.
"Are you kidding me? You didn't even give her a chance to surrender!"
By now the rest of the squad had caught up, Jaslo being the first to see the ruined mess on the ground. He raised his goggles and pushed to the front.
"What the hell happened here?"
Stalwart shook her head and raised the barrel of her weapon up. "Eule unit with a cleaver, sir. I engaged her before she could swing at Weber."
Jaslo cocked his head and almost yanked the still-shaken Weber by the vest. "You hesitating again, Kommando? That scar on your eye not teach you any lessons?"
"No sir. Weber followed proper ROE. Issued a warning and she charged right we got inside." Stalwart answered confidently.
Weber knew what she was trying to do and despite his dismay at the outcome of things, he was thankful. He nodded and gulped down some air, the adrenaline beginning to fade. "Yes sir, the situation was under control."
"Be that as it may, a corpse does me no good." Phönix called out as she entered the room and eyed the mangled corpse in disgust. "I cannot extract information from the dead, even with my gifts."
"Ma'am, about that." Weber answered, the image of the disfigured face coming back to him. "That EULE, she, she said something."
"Yes, I, she-"
"Listen!" Suddenly, Phönix cut the Corporal off with a raised hand, her eyes beginning to dart every which way. "Do you hear it?"
On instinct, all the Kommandos quickly crouched low and brought their weapons up, IR beams clicking on and cutting through what little light remained. Everyone remained quiet letting the audio suite of their helmets work as they tried to find out what had spooked their commander.
Not skipping a beat, Jaslo silently conducted a few hand and arm signals, gesturing for the team to fan out into a position that didn't involve them being backed into a corner. Pushing out in the hallway, Alpha formed two gun lines on either side of their still-recovering commander. For a few moments, there was nothing, just the dull ambient sound of ancient power systems humming away in the dark places their NVGs didn't illuminate.
"Fixer here, I've made it to the command center."
Suddenly a burst of radio traffic over the squad net cut through the silence, causing more than a few Kommandos to reflexively jump. Jaslo grit his teeth but otherwise did his best to hide his relief. It had been some time since they had last heard from their ARAR.
"Aye–bitch!" Miko reflexively spat back, "Could you have picked shittier time?"
"Quiet, Miko." Jaslo silenced his subordinate and kept his rifle aimed at the dark beyond. "What's going on, Fix? We have a developing situation down here."
"Yeah? About that-"
There was an abrupt pause followed by the sound of what could only be described as warning klaxons on the other side. All of the Kommandos tensed.
"Fix?" Jaslo felt the grip on his rifle start to tighten. "What the hell's going on?" Nearby, Miko glanced over his shoulder and at the lieutenant. "Are we compromised?"
Suddenly the telltale thrum of Phönix's Zweihander materializing ushered forth from within the center of the formation, a faint glow beginning to envelop the room as she brought herself into a combat stance. Unbeknownst to the Kommandos, the presence that had been pressing on her conscience was now the strongest it had been since they arrived. It wasn't just some latent bioresonant echo. It was a warning.
"Something wicked, this way comes."
That was when Fixer came back over the radio. "Jaslo, what room is the team in?"
"Classroom Four, why?"
Then, from down the hallway came a garbled, inhuman scream. Then, another, and another until it became a chorus of incomprehensible noise.
Fixer's normally deadpan voice was full of dread as she came back over the net. "...I think I found the staff. You have about half the facility heading there now."
Ignoring her pain, Phönix shifted into a combat stance and began muttering something under her breath. "I am her rock, I am her pillar, I am the scourge of all evil..."
The screaming was getting closer now, and with it came the thudding of synthetic legs on metal.
Phönix raised her voice over the sounds beyond and over the pain in her skull. "I AM THE LIGHT IN THE DARK, I AM THE SHIELD AND THE SWORD."
Stalwart's eyes glowed a bright red as her targeting systems kicked in, she saw the horde of approaching horrors before the rest of her squad. "Contacts!"
That was when Jaslo and the rest of the squad saw them. Replikas, or rather, what used to be Replikas. All that remained of their former forms were the uniforms and utility tools they carried. They were twisted creatures now, devoid of the once-fair synthetic skin they had in life. Some were EULRs, but more than a few carried the shock batons and riot shields favored by STARs. All of them screamed at the Kommandos from behind gumless mouths and pointed their makeshift weapons as they charged forward at frightening speed.
"KOMMANDOS! DISPENSE HER JUDGMENT!" Phönix yelled over the chaos, her squad quickly sounding off in response as the hallway was illuminated with the roar of disciplined gunfire.
Rogier was fast to respond, spinning on his heels and retrieving a small cylindrical device from a bandolier slung over his chest. With a flick of his thumb, the grenade came to life, beeping rapidly with a pulsating light blinking on the housing, signaling to him that it was time to be rid of it. Emerging from the center of the formation right as the Kommandos began to open fire, the Sergeant underhanded it towards the enemy ranks, watching it roll towards the charging Replikas before detonating in a dazzling burst of bright blue sparks. The light fixtures on the ceilings terminated in sequence, shutting off with thunderous clacks all the way down to the end of the hall, their image intensifiers quickly adjusting to the sudden total lack of ambient lighting. Yet, the onslaught continued, even in the wake of a weapon designed to instantly disable Replikas.
At the front of the squad and just under Phönix's impressive reach Jaslo had fought on countless battlefields and against enemies of all kinds. Fear was no friend of his, he had conquered it, smashed it into the ground until all that remained was righteous purpose. This new enemy, he had never seen anything like it before, but it was not enough to give him pause.
Suddenly, one of the faster Replikas, a Eule missing all of its skin lept at Jaslo from the horrid mass beyond just as he went to reload.
And right into Phönix's outstretched grip.
The mighty Replika held the screaming flailing thing by the throat and snapped its neck with impunity before hurling it into the others to be trampled.
"You would do well to time your reloads better, my subordinate!"
"I had it under control!"
Unfazed, Jaslo slammed a fresh magazine into his weapon, slapped the charging handle forward, and switched targets at will. He quickly toppled one of the incoming STARs over with several well-aimed shots to the legs, and quickly blew apart another with a controlled burst that easily penetrated her riot shield. The crippled STAR unit continued to crawl towards them, rapidly falling behind to be trampled by the stampede of corrupted Replikas.
For what it was worth, Sierpinski-23 was certainly not abandoned. But as the Kommandos started to conduct a fighting egress, they quietly wished it was.
ORBIT OF LENG, INS CHARON
"Sir, warheads are primed and ready for launch! Tone and target are green."
"Good." Kestrel relaxed against his command throne and closed his eyes for a moment. "The Empire speaks through these guns."
All of the bridge finished the mantra as one. "Let our word be heard!"
Then Kestrel opened his eyes. "Fire!"
The Charon rocked back slightly as a Pilum-class nuclear missile was sent streaking across the murky black void toward the orbital station.
"May the souls of those who would turn their back find some measure of peace."
Then, a bright flash of light as the Station was engulfed in a massive fireball. What pieces of the station that weren't utterly obliterated were sent hurtling across space and toward Leng.
Kestrel raised an eyebrow. "Trajectory of the debris? Will it affect the Kommandos below?"
One of the crew operating a radar display shook their head. "Negative sir, and they'll be clear of the worst of it.
"Good, and right on schedule."
Kestrel impatiently blew some air out of his nose and glanced at his master-crafted analog watch just as Songbird's craft came in to dock. A gift from his human mentor many years ago. The captain never went anywhere without it and it served as a reminder of the bond he once shared. How proud his mentor would have been seeing Kestrel command his own ship now, not just any ship, but the latest from the brilliant Imperial shipyards.
The thought pained the captain and he pushed it away, buried it deep down. This war had extracted a heavy toll, but he would not falter.
"Deckard, what's the status of those storms?"
One of the crew manning a console to Kestrel's right flank looked at some analog screens and the dark green text displaying across. "Should be another two hours or so, sir."
Kestrel leaned back in his command throne and sighed as he tried to lighten the mood. "Very good, but I do hope they hurry up.
Suddenly, a loud rumble shook the entirety of both the ship and the bridge. On cue, the bridge's entire suite lit up. Each panel glared red in protest as they tried to warn their masters of the imminent danger.
"What the hell?!" Kestrel leaned forward in his throne as a dark shadow cast over the forward viewport and began to inch its way back and into the bridge.
One of the scope operators' jaws dropped and they nervously glanced out the viewport in utter disbelief. "Sir! FTL transmission, right atop us!" The female crewman frantically turned in her chair. "It's a Nation signature!"
"No, that can't be." For the first time Kestrel disengaged his cabling and got up from his command throne, rushing to the viewport to get a better look. As he looked up and saw what was above his ship, his synthetic irises began to gradually expand.
"...That's a throne-blasted Revolutionary!" He quickly rushed back to his seat and re-engaged his cabling. Revolutionary-class destroyers were some of the more potent patrol craft at the Nation's disposal. Repurposed Imperial designs, they were similar in size to friendly frigates, but stripped away all of the creature comforts in exchange for more armaments and troop berthings.
Atmosphere-capable, it was more than capable of fighting from ship-to-shore, softening targets, and providing fire support for a sizable contingent of marines. It being here meant one thing. The Nation was back to figure out what had happened to its colony. In a straight-up fight, the Charon didn't stand a chance, but that's not how she fought.
No, guile and hit-and-run tactics were the keys to victory here and Kestrel had years of experience to make this fight his.
Or at least, if he had the distance to do so. Any major movements could alert the enemy ship to something being nearby and that wasn't accounting for the standoff needed to safely use the Charon's nuclear armament.
He stopped and looked at another crew member. "Any pings?!"
"No sir, we're still running quiet."
"Blessed be her faithful watch, we still have the element of surprise." The captain sighed in relief, muttered a silent prayer, and looked at another crew member. "Any luck reaching Phönix?"
"No sir, I've got heavy interference."
"That's no good, that's no good at all." The captain leaned back into his throne, closed his eyes, and peered across the ship for his old pupil.
"Song, Kestrel here-"
"I see em' old man, just redocked but I'm rearming as we speak. You just give the word and I'll intercept any landing craft-"
"Damnit, no. Patience hatchling. We're still far too close to be invoking their suspicion."
"I can't just let them drop reinforcements on my brothers and sisters below, old man, you know that."
"And it won't come to that. I want your ship refit for combat patrol and tell Thor to get ready."
There was a pause in the Bioresonant leak followed by a chuckle from Songbird.
"Oh he's already shooing the Eules off, he's ready when we are."
"Good, now go Hatchling. You'll have a chance to dig your claws in soon."
"Been a while since I've danced in the air. I look forward to it, Song out."
Kestrel opened his eyes and took a deep breath to clear his mind. The situation was dire true, but Kestrels were always ready for any and all scenarios.
"Helmsman, start backing us up. I want a slow steady rate of movement, we need to get out of range so we can freely maneuver."
Captain, steady movement as ordered."
"...May she watch us and our ship. Let us hope we can warm the Commander in time."