Artillery echoed across the low plain, missiles fired from orbit tracing paths as black as the death they carried across the red sky. The batteries behind Laurie pounded a deafening rhythm, boom-boom-boom, pouring fire into enemy defenses.
The smell of burning metal and flesh made its way through the filter in Laruie’s helmet, stinging her nostrils. She knelt behind a piece of rubble, quickly pulling the spent filter out and replacing it, blinking back the water in her eyes as smoke overwhelmed her. New filter in, she slammed the helmet back on, popping her head over the scrap to take stock of her surroundings.
Everything had gone to hell. There was supposed to be minimal resistance. To say that intel was wrong would be as gross an understatement as their estimation of the enemy. The first dropships never stood a chance, decent engines disabled within seconds of breaking atmosphere, plummeting in a freefall until they burned up or impacted the ground. A fast death, with several seconds of pure terror preceding it. All those beings were now vaporized or impossible to pick from the twisted metal that ferried them to the ground, all mixed together in blackened craters.
Her own ship, in what was to be the second wave, had made it though. She called for the orbital bombardment before she hit the ground, rage and hate burning in her chest. She slaughtered everything in her path, now on the outskirts of the capital city.
“What now?” She glanced back at the soldier crouched behind her.
“We push in.” She glanced skyward, the red from the setting sun masking the fire that burned all around. “I want this city taken by nightfall.”
She radioed for the shelling to stop, waiting and counting until the explosions stop. “Now,” she said, standing, “We move in.”
Suddenly, pain burned in her left eye, her helmet shattered and blood pooled in her mouth. She whipped the helmet off and what remained of her eye went with it. She swore violently, trying to look around with her remaining eye. It managed to fix on the child standing there, covered in soot, the rifle it had taken from a soldier clutched in his hands would have been comical in another context. Laurie didn’t laugh, gritting her teeth against the pain and cursing the child.
She reached for the pistol on her belt, drawing it purposefully. To his credit, the young native didn’t react with any fear, instead trying to bring his weapon to bear as her sight covered his face.
She woke, cold sweat covering her as she sat upright in the medical bay. She looked wildly around, expecting to see the dirty face that haunted her dreams. Instead, the Bartender was perched on a stool, reading calmly.
“What the hell are you doing?” She snapped.
“Waiting for you to wake up. You passed out trying to fix the primary converter in the engine. I thought you’d be more comfortable here.”
“Well, why aren’t you trying to fix it?”
“Because it’s beyond any hope of repair. I rigged the cargo bay, as you asked. We’ll be ready for them when they come.” He paused. “If they come.”
She took a deep breath, taking stock of her wounds. “I also took the liberty of patching you up a bit, since you wouldn’t let me do it while you were awake.”
“Thank you.” She did feel better, which was relative at best. At least the pain in her side was only a dull throb. She leaned back on the table, wiping her brow as she did. “Did I… say… anything? While I was asleep?” she asked in a quiet voice.
She swore. “What did I say?”
“Just ‘not again’. Over and over.” He laid his reading material aside and rose, standing over the table. She moved her arm from over her eyes, looking up at his reptilian face, as calm as she had ever seen it. “You know, I recognized you that day in the bar.”
“Would have helped you out to turn me in.”
He shrugged. “There are plenty of people who want both you and I dead. I’ve done things I am not proud of for a cause I believe in.”
“I didn’t believe in their cause. I was just paid to be there, Bartender. And a lot of people are dead because I was.”
He looked down on her, care reflected in his deep black eyes. “I can’t judge you. And neither can the Dead Corps.”
The Venturess creaked, the sound of metal on metal reverberating though the ship. “Won’t stop them from trying,” she said, sliding off the table. The Bartender picked up her gun belt and handed it to her. “Ready for this? They’ll let you go if you don’t help me.”
“I never did take the easy way out, Captain.”
She stopped in the doorway of the medical bay, looking back at him. “You’re really willing to help the Butcher of Vaersadg?”
“I don’t think you’re that person anymore, Captain.”
She looked ahead, to the far side of the cargo bay, where a thumping was emanating as they attempted to breach the hull. “I hope you’re wrong, for the time being.”
“Where do we take them? The bay is rigged to blow.”
“There’s good cover here, but no way out. We can go above, to the common deck.”
“Not great shooting lanes, except for as they come up the ramp.”
“That could work to our advantage.”