The familiar stream of chatter in Tauran’s implant, punctuated by the thumping of an auto cannon, ended as an enormous explosion made all noise cease. Tauran staggered as a chunk of stone hurled from the center of the cavern struck his chest plate and skittered past, followed by a gust of superheated air. Ten thousand years of technological advancement, and I find a way to get bludgeoned by a stone. Ignoring the ache in his breathing, Tauran surged into the cavern, toward the source of the blast.
Flares launched by his assault team hovered like angry red stars at the roof of the cave, casting shadows around scattered boulders and stalagmites.
Too many shadows.
The chamber was huge, and the quick strike he’d planned was turning into a bust. The cavern was too far under the extinct volcano that formed it for scanners to have picked up its size. Now Tauran’s team would pay for their ignorance in precious seconds, minutes even, for the defenders’ shock to turn into resolve, surprise into escape.
Tauran had missed the start of the raid because of his shuttle’s slow descent from orbit. Even now, the pilot’s words dug into him like a burr. “You should be on the Gemini, sir. By regulations, the commanding officer stays off-planet during a ground assault.” Well, slag regs. Rules weren’t going to stop him this time. He broke cover and began to run.
Just as he caught sight of the assault team, his XO’s voice sounded sharply in his ear.
“Cease fire, cease fire. No more hostiles. Say again, no more hostiles.”
Tauran skidded to a halt.
A cluster of disarmed mutants, changelings, knelt in the center of the cavern. Commandos from other sectors herded more of the deformed humans to the group. Some changelings were bare-chested, protected only by the organic armor of keratinoid scales covering their bodies. Others showed the more common changeling deformities of gigantism, exoskeletal growths, and cranial ridges. Field medics moved through, quickly triaging the ones with the worst injuries. Uninjured ones were fitted with cryo-restraints. Scores of gelid mutant eyes followed Tauran as he surveyed the scene.
In less than a second, he dismissed the captured ‘Lings as nothing more than soldiers. So much for nabbing the leaders and civilians who traveled with them. The captives were breathing without helmets, so environment controls must still be up. Good. He retracted his visor. The cold air burned his face, but eyes and ears were better than helmet sensors for what he was looking for.
Smoke seared his nostrils. He dashed from boulder to boulder, blinking away tears from fumes, searching for other bodies. Stun grenades in the distance played his ears like a drum.
Commandos who caught sight of his hooded eyes and chiseled brown face stiffened and turned back to their tasks. Two slipped behind him like ghosts, pulling security. Tauran acknowledged them with a curt nod. There was no hiding from guardsmen who’d followed him for years that he was in the soup with them instead of monitoring the fight from orbit. But even being among his own didn’t relieve the knot in his gut.
Where were they? He couldn’t have been wrong about the DNA traces they’d found on the surface. They had to be here, no matter how crazy it seemed. Three years he’d been chasing them, more than half the time Lausus had been alive.
Tauran panted in the thin air. Forcing a deep breath, he unfocused his gaze to take in the whole cavern. There had to be a clue. Had to be.
His nostrils prickled in the cold, and then his breath stopped. Tauran lunged to a pile of rags and bedding almost invisible in a corner but for a flutter of yellow, and stumbled to his knees. Scooping the rags to his face, he inhaled deeply. His eyes rolled back as familiar scents triggered images. A woman in tears. A boy not old enough to walk. Shouts, and the faint warmth of lips brushing his own with fire.
Beneath armor, a flush spread across his chest.
So close and yet . . .
Tauran let his wife’s torn scarf trickle from his fingers. Every muscle in his face tensed to keep the evidence of disappointment inside. He stood and turned to the soldiers who’d formed a cordon behind him.
The commando closest flashed a look at the other.
“Intel didn’t say they had a personal transporter, Commander.”
“Dec’ing intel,” Tauran swore without heat, as if explosive decompression would do anything to the AI they used for predictive analysis. “Why’d they have time to use it?”
“Cave is big. We pushed through double-quick, but—” The commando hesitated. “The last ‘Lings destroyed the transporter instead of defending themselves.”
Tauran grunted and followed him to the mangled device. The transporter was too sophisticated to have come from a changeling world. Its control panel was seared completely away, leaving the computing core no more than a puddle of slag. No chance of ripping destination coordinates from that. A dead changeling sprawled next to the transporter, his face contorted into a smile of agony and triumph. Was triumph having something worth dying for? Dropping to a knee, Tauran closed the mocking eyes.
Behind him, a throat cleared. Tauran turned to find a tall commando in battered armor. Like his, Palinura’s visor was up. Sweat steamed from his executive officer’s hard features and fell on her pursed lips. As she tapped the ragged scar on Tauran’s chest plate, her titanium hand rang like a leaden bell.
“You’re a little early for the debrief, Commander. Didn’t trust your XO to follow the rules of engagement?”
Tauran grimaced. “Rules aren’t what worry me.”
“Obviously.” A storm raged in the commando’s green eyes. “Sensors show only two escaped.”
“Only two,” Tauran repeated, his hands balling into fists. His lip twitched as a howl rose up inside. Why had he believed this time would be different?
Palinura’s expression hardened, and her eyes wandered toward a groaning mutant attended by two medics. Sputtering flares revealed other dying and dead changelings scattered around the cave, no armor other than the bony extrusions and scales given by their mutations, no weapons more dangerous than welding irons and gas-powered slingers.
Palinura swept her arm to take in the entire cave.
“They never win, and yet they fight. Why?”
Because we attacked them, of course. Wouldn’t you fight? ‘Lings almost always kept to the defensive, too wary to engage Commission forces directly. Tauran would have been happy to leave them alone if changeling independence didn’t threaten interplanetary supply lines. The mutants didn’t need to attack to hold the rest of the Commission hostage.
“You think we’re winning?”
Palinura shrugged. “We had no casualties beyond a few burns. The only dead ‘Lings were shooters. A lot are more humanoid than usual. Must be first-gens. Two’ve got no cranial or exoskeletal growths, and either aren’t changelings or are too early for deformities to show.”
“Show me,” Tauran replied. “Could also be ‘Ling sympathizers or relatives.”
Palinura’s gaze flicked away. “We’ll gather samples for testing, of course.”
Tauran tensed his face into an expressionless mask. He was making a hash of this. Pali had every right to be offended.
Dismissing Pali back to mop-up operations, Tauran crossed over to the changeling’s makeshift command center. A stack of defensive plans smoldered on a crate, all pointless now. He scattered singed fragments as he dug through the pile. At the bottom, he uncovered a mostly intact drawing, so crude it could have been made by a child: a stick figure with an oversized star on its chest, not unlike the insignia of a Guard Corps commander. The figure was faceless, either by design or because it was incomplete. The figure’s badge of office distinguished it rather than eyes or a mouth. Despite smudges and quavering lines, the drawing’s deep markings suggested considerable care.
Was Lausus already drawing? At what age do kids begin to draw?
Gingerly, he slipped the paper beneath his chest armor. Unbidden, he glanced back at the slagged transporter. Had he been five seconds away from recovering his son? Ten? Whatever it’d been, now it would be a million or more.
The whomp of a distant stun grenade snapped Tauran back into the moment. Across the room, Palinura unclipped her MaG and gave him an expectant smile. He nodded and lowered his visor. Nothing like a good fight to speed forgiveness.
This time, Tauran counted all the way to ten before he shouldered past his guards and charged.