December 31 st , 2267
Unclaimed Planet K1024
As Agent Sophie Reneau was being violently yanked off of the ground, she felt an emotion she'd long since thought she'd outgrown...sheer terror. Between her training, enhancements and the living nightmares she'd faced on her past missions, terror had become a distant memory. Until now.
The fact that whatever had grabbed her seemed to be effectively invisible certainly wasn't helping any. However she'd faced much stranger things then that on the Rim, this was something else entirely. It was almost primal, as if the force that was now dangling her twenty feet above the cave floor was triggering some evolutionary remnant overwhelming her ability to do anything but panic.
Trying to reason out what was causing her reaction allowed her to gain a modicum of control. At least it did for a few brief seconds before a puff of putrid air hit her face. The smell was so overpowering that her throat filled with bile. Swallowing it back down, Reneau refused to give in to her base instincts again. She’d almost succeeded when the next puff came…accompanied by a low snarl.
As her adrenaline kicked into overdrive, her implants sprang to life beneath her skin. Normally she could could control them, but nothing about this was normal. With her heart beating out of control, a slick obsidian oil oozed through her pores at an astonishing rate. In a matter of seconds the shimmering, black Skin covered her from head to toe.
As it spread onto her jacket and out, it didn’t close up into a seamless armor like it was supposed to. The Skin kept right on going, extending outward from her body and over the ragged claw that belonged to whatever had grabbed her. And whatever it was, was not pleased. She felt the Skin snap tight around her as she was launched back toward the ground.
Unfortunately, whatever had yanked her straight up didn’t return her the same way. Had that been the case, she likely could have absorbed the impact, especially with the Skin now sealed up tight. Instead she was hurled back through the tunnel, sailing just over the heads of her teammates, though they had to duck to avoid being clipped.
Their guide wasn’t so lucky.
She hit him hard enough to send the two of them into the wall with an audible crack. The impact had knocked the wind out of her, a condition she wished on her victim as he began to scream. Reneau did a quick mental inventory for injuries, but the Skin had done its job well. She might have a few bruises tomorrow, but not bad considering. From the sound of him, once again the Centauri's luck had failed him.
On the other hand, Lon Calvini wasn’t the bravest of Centauri on his best of days. He’d screamed every bit as loudly when a bat-like creature had flown ten feet over their heads earlier. So it was hard to say how much of his reaction was due to pain and how much was his natural cowardice.
Any thoughts of gauging the true extent of his injuries was put out of her mind when two more screams echoed through the cavern around her. The first was from Hanson, now floating upside down, his feet brushing the top of the cave. The second she couldn’t identify, although it clearly wasn’t from their group. It was animalistic and if she was reading it correctly, very angry.
But where the hell was it coming from?
The ancient texts Calvini had showed them claimed this place had been a sanctuary of the Shadows. A place where they could lay in wait for centuries, until the younger races filled the heavens once more. Then they’d return, culling the weak from the strong. Of the dozens, maybe even hundreds of worlds they’d used for this purpose over the millenia, most still remained hidden or had been picked clean by their servants. Obviously they’d missed something here.
Desperate for answers, she shifted the Skin over her eyes, allowing her to see in spectrums other than visible light. Still finding nothing, on a hunch she cloaked her eyes, using a more primitive form of the technology the Shadows used to become effectively invisible. Based on the stench, sounds and behaviors she’d just seen, she wasn’t overly shocked to see a living creature. But she definitely hadn’t expected a demon straight from the pits of hell.
At least that’s what it looked like to her. Standing twenty feet tall, the creature had two arms, two legs and a head atop its giant torso. And on either side of that head were protrusions that could only be described as horns. In one hand…or claw…it held Hanson over its head by his waist as he struggled in vain to get free.
Having dropped her rifle when it had grabbed her, Reneau pulled the Skin back from her hip just enough to get at her PPG. Taking aim at its head, she pulled the trigger again and again causing a rapid succession of plasma bolts to explode around it.
“What the hell are you doing?” yelled Jeger, staring at her as if she’d gone mad. “You’re gonna hit Bryce!”
“There’s some kind of Shadow creature!” she shouted back, emptying the energy cap into it. “Cloak your eyes and fire, dammit!”
Before her words could register, Hanson’s shouts turned into blood curdling screams. While her shots had all hit their target…something that big was hard to miss…they hadn’t done anything more than piss it off. With one claw still wrapped around Hanson’s waist, the other reached up and grabbed his chest. When the claw’s pointed tips punctured his jacket, Hanson’s screams turned into weak gurgles as blood filled his throat. With an ear splitting shriek, the beast yanked its arms outward, literally ripping Hanson in two.
As the blood sprayed across the cavern, the panicked squeals from behind her became more frantic as Calvini totally lost it. He grabbed her arm, desperate to get his hands on her PPG. If he’d been thinking, Calvini would have realized that leaving the weapons in the hands of someone who could see their attacker was the smart play. But any semblance of logical thought had left the Centauri’s brain when Hanson’s guts had painted the walls.
“Get off me you idiot,” she snapped, doggedly trying to continue her attack.
Fortunately Jeger had finally cloaked his eyes and had begun laying into the creature with his rifle. Unfortunately, his plasma bolts had about the same effect as those from her PPG. It was becoming pretty damned clear they simply didn’t have enough fire power to make a dent in the thing.
The beast dropped Hanson’s severed legs and stormed toward her last remaining partner. To his credit Jeger didn’t stop firing even as the thing got within striking distance. Using the upper half of Hanson’s corpse as a club, the beast swung with all of its strength, smashing Jeger into the nearest wall. The impact knocked his gun away and before he could retrieve it, the beast grabbed Jeger by the leg and hurled him into the wall with a sickening thump.
Shock threatened to settle in as her eyes darted back and forth between what was left of Hanson and the crumpled body of Jeger. Maybe he was still alive, but he wasn’t moving. With a bellow of defiance, she threw her elbow back, hitting Calvini squarely in the face. Until he’d lost consciousness Reneau hadn’t realized how much the chaos in the cavern had been amplified by his incessant screaming. Even the beast had gone quiet now as it admired its handiwork.
Taking those precious few seconds to compose herself, she looked around for anything she might be able to use as a weapon. If she could get to one of the fallen rifles she may be able to cause a cave in on top of it, but that would likely bury her too. Given his love of explosions, it was a given that Hanson would have grenades in his pack, but again, that wasn't an option she'd likely survive. That left only one option.
Using Calvini’s limp form for support, she pushed herself up, relieved that her synthetic legs still worked. Steeling herself for one of those ideas Jeger always said were proof the Skin had leaked into her brain, she chucked her PPG as hard as she could at her invisible adversary.
“Over here, you big, dumb animal,” Reneau yelled at the top of her lungs.
It spun around, then just stared at her like she was nuts. Was this thing partially sentient or just a giant killing machine. Either way…
“I’d say you must be overcompensating for something with all that roaring and stomping around.” She pointed her arm just above its legs. “And since I doubt they make pants in your size, I’m guessing I can see what that is. Or more accurately, isn’t...”
Whether it was the content of her diatribe or the fact that the little gnat had the audacity to stand up to it, her speech did the trick. Letting loose a shriek that seemed to shake the walls, it barreled toward her. For something bred to be an invisible killer, it certainly wasn’t using stealth now. Its roar had been enough to shake loose a few small rocks; its running footfalls sent ten times that many crashing to the cavern floor.
At the last possible second she jumped to the side...but not all of her. As she leapt away, Reneau flung her hands toward it, an action that always reminded her of Spider-man from those classic vids. Long, black vines, still connected to the Skin protecting her, wrapped around its legs as it passed. With her right leg pressed to the ground, she barely had enough time to send spikes of Skin into the rocky ground beneath her before the vines went taut.
The beast roared as it toppled to the ground, undoubtedly in a combination of rage and pain. A shower of splintered rock exploded up from beneath her as the beast was slammed down, but her anchor held. She pictured her body being ripped in half like Hanson’s, but protected by the Skin she barely felt a tug.
Knowing she had only seconds, she retracted the spikes anchoring her and focused everything she had on the demon at her feet. It was ripping and clawing at the Skin, but she refused to give an inch. She felt the implants within her try to shut down, but through shear force of will the Skin continued to flow through her pores until the beast’s legs were completely covered. Even then she kept calling for more, pushing the inky black substance around its entire body.
In the back of her mind a voice begged her to stop, it was too much! Her body was already starting to spasm with the strain of producing so much Skin. She could feel blood starting to run from her eyes and ears. What few parts of her that could still be called fully human were giving out.
And still, Reneau demanded more.
Because two feet from where it lay was the top half of Hanson’s mangled body. His dead eyes stared at her, demanding vengeance. But those imagined pleas fell on deaf ears. She was doing this for the only reason that mattered. It was the mission.
As her vision began to fade, she vaguely noticed the primal screams had stopped. The beast’s mouth, or snout, or whatever, had been completely covered. She let the vines break free of her hands, knowing there was just enough to finish mummifying the thing.
Ignoring her body's protests, she turned and stiffly walked to where Jeger had been thrown. Only when she’d reached him did she allow herself to collapse to the ground next to him. Pressing her now bare hand to his neck she found a thready pulse. Hopefully he’d survive long enough for extraction.
She rolled onto her back, finally letting the remainder of the black shell that had been her salvation be drawn back in. It would be days, if not longer, until she could call on it again. The implants that produced it were resilient, but even they had their limits. Reaching into the pocket of her uniform she pulled out the slimy yellow bulb within. She pressed her fingers through the back of it and felt the familiar electrical impulses tickle her fingertips.
As always, hearing another person’s voice inside her head felt wrong. However well these long range communicators worked, they were not designed for humans. Even enhanced humans like her. Whichever of the First Ones had come up with them, their bodies were far more advanced. If they had even possessed bodies.
“Objective completed,” she replied. Although she could simply think her responses, past experience had taught her that her private thoughts were sometimes transmitted if she did. After a few embarrassing communiques, she’d figured out that speaking kept the two separate. Usually anyway.
“So, is it something we can use?”
“The Great Weapon was some kind of invisible beast between six and seven meters in height. It’s been contained.”
“That’s…unexpected. We’ve heard of these creatures, but never seen one before. It’s a shame, I was hoping for an advanced weapons system of some sort. Well, at least the bio-tech team will be happy.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, then took a breath. “You should be aware the creature ambushed us. Hanson is dead and Jeger is severely injured.” She didn’t bother mentioning the Centauri. She was certain her superior cared as little about his survival as she did.
“Damn. And you?”
“Fine sir. But I’m not sure if I should move Jeger. I might cause more damage. Requesting an extraction team with medical personnel sir.”
“The Kronos is only an hour away. I’ll have them diverted to your location immediately. Is Agent Jeger well enough to survive by himself for that long?”
Himself? “I believe so, sir, but I’m no doctor. I’ll retrieve the med kit from the ship and see what I can do.”
“Negative, Agent Reneau. I have need of your particular skills elsewhere, and time is a factor.”
“Yes, sir,” Reneau answered dutifully. She felt as if she could sleep for a week, but orders were orders. However… “Sir, I should report that I was somewhat weakened taking down the creature. I’m not sure how long it’ll take for my enhancements to return to full strength.”
“That’s not a problem. The skills I require this time have nothing to do with your enhancements. You were a sniper before we recruited you, correct?”
“53rd Marine Division, sir” she said. Where was this going?
“Then you’re to report to Mars immediately.”
“Mars,” she whispered, the shock of it hitting hard. She hadn’t been back to Mars since the so called ‘Resistance’ had nearly ruined her life. The bomb they'd set off had killed most of her friends and had nearly killed her. After that traitor Sheridan had legitimized those same terrorists and put them in charge, she’d sworn never to set foot on that wretched planet again.
“Well, you’ll have to set foot there one last time.”
Damn! Telepathic leakage. “Sorry, sir. I’m on my way.”
Reneau pulled herself to her feet. “May I ask what the mission is?”
“Are you familiar with the new Excalibur?”
She nodded reflexively before realizing how pointless it was. “Built by the Interstellar Alliance and loaned to EarthForce to find a cure for the Drakh plague.”
“That’s the one. She somehow discovered our location here. We believe she’s on her way to Mars now.”
“For what purpose?” she asked, her suspicions needing confirmation.
“To expose our activities. We’re in the process of clearing out, but we can’t let that happen.”
She swallowed hard. “As I said, sir, my enhancements aren’t functioning at 100% and there’s no way my ship can take on the Excalibur .”
“The Excalibur isn’t the problem, her captain is. He’s the only one who has first hand knowledge of what we’re doing here. Or at least enough knowledge to cause us some substantial problems. When he gets there, you’re to make sure he doesn’t get the chance. No matter what. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” she crisply replied, all doubt vanquished from her thoughts. “You can count on me.”
“I never doubted it. Contact me when it’s done.”
Reneau started to respond, but she felt the electrical strands around her fingers lose their charge. He’d cut the connection.
This was not what she’d signed on for. For the last five years she’d taken on bigger and more important assignments, pushing herself to be better than any of the others. A team mission like the disaster she’d just survived only confirmed what she already knew. Other people, even ones enhanced as she'd been, were a liability. She worked best alone. She’d faced telepaths, Drakh, even agents of The Hand while her so called equals fell around her.
Her training as a sniper had been in another life. A life before she’d learned how unforgiving the universe was. The flames that had taken her original limbs had forged her into the soldier she was now. Innocent little Ensign Sophie was dead, she was someone…something…better now.
Stop it! That kind of thinking was unworthy of her position. There was no mission beneath her. And stopping the Coalition from being exposed by some self-righteous do-gooder was important. In a way it might even be the most important thing she’d done so far.
Well, maybe not. But it was important. And ultimately it didn’t matter. Orders were orders.
Refusing to dwell on it any further, she picked up her rifle and started back out of the cavern without so much as a glance back at her fallen team. As she started to pass Calvini she noticed he was conscious again, just lying there whimpering.
“I never meant for this to happen,” he babbled, unable to take his eyes from where she knew part of Hanson lay. “I just wanted enough money to open my shop. I didn’t want this. I’m not a bad man. I just wanted what’s coming to me.”
Reneau, still carrying her rifle in one hand, lifted it just enough to get off a shot, ending the poor excuse for an alien. His craven actions could have cost her more than the mission, he could have gotten her killed. Not that she would have done it for that reason, it just made it easier.
The Coalition didn’t leave witnesses. In this mission it had been a necessity after the fact. In the next, that truth was all that mattered. If Major Lee wanted Captain Gideon dead, nothing would stop her from doing just that.