"And though we walk through the valley of death, we shall have no fear."
Each of the young soldiers repeated the prayer, silently, maybe moving their lips, forming the ghosts of words. Young men and women, barely out of training, and struggling for their faith. They knew that they should be rejoicing for a chance to defend the Believers of the Lord, to be martyred for the glory of the Lord, but somehow the fear was still churning in their guts, a black hole swallowing their resolve. Had not New Zion fallen? Fallen to the black-clad minions of Colonel Santiago, the empty, broken husk of the defiled cathedral now serving as the Spartans new command centre?
Artillery detonated nearby, spraying the side of the transport vehicle with shrapnel an debris. Michael slammed against his harness as they rocked dangerously, but somehow the driver maintained control. Several dents had appeared, flat, angular protusions in the synthsteel hull. The Spartan artillery was getting close.
The only chance to retake New Zion was now, while the enemy reinforcements were still on their way. An elite unit of rocket infantery was even now frantically trying to secure a position in the Xenofungus that had so falsely seemed an adequate defence for the growing base. Accompanied by a special ops team of monks from the Order of the Word, their mission was to ideally subvert, but at the very least slow down any advancing Spartan troops, buying vital time.
Of course, Michael did not know this, as he was only a simple soldier in the Lord's army of Faithful. But he was smart enough to realize this: The situation had to be grave indeed, if Miriam had to rely on rookies like him and the others. The particle gun was large and unwieldy in is sweating hands, and failed to give him any reassurance. He glanced about, and in the flashing red light his eyes met Maria's. By her looks, she felt the same as he. Michael tried to flash her a smile, but all he managed was a twisted grimace. With a terrible, sinking feeling clenching his heart, he stared down at his combat boots. Again he prayed...
The monk was sweating, even in the cold, rainy night. Unbeknowingst to him, Sonya had already informed her people. But she still played along, just to see how high he was willig to go.
"That isn't enough," she told him bluntly. Visibly agitated, he paced the small clearing. Sonya was a bit disappointed. The Believers' probe teams were supposed to be good, after all.
"As I was saying, with your recent, and, as I might add, unjust fall from favor, you could only profit from-"
"Enough already," she cut him off. "We've been through that. I want 100 Credits for me, and 10 for each of my soldiers."
The monk came to a stop. "There is another alternative. 100 credits and asylum for you, if you agree to carry a tracer. It will allow our forces to ambush this unit, and it will warn you of our attack. You will be giving your reward after the battle."
Sonya almost cursed aloud- this would have been a perfect bait, a perfect opportunity for a counter ambush. Could they be that stupid? But it was too late to call back her people, so they would just have to stick with killing of the probe team. She had been told that they would never let themselves to be captured, although she was beginning to doubt even that.
The monk seemed to realize something was amiss. Suddenly, without the slightest warning, he drew a shredder pistol, bringing it to bear on the red-haired Spartan squad-leader. But he was not quite fast enough. She flung herself at his arm, grabbing it and ducking under it, moving behind her attacker, in one fluid motion. His shoulder joint popped with a sickening sound, even as a volley of deadly projectiles pulped and shredded the surrounding vegetation. She then whipped out a combat knive with her left hand before he could free himself, and hacked into his throat. The monk went limp. As he slumped to the muddy ground, Sonya wrested the gun out of his hand. An inferior weapon, still bearing the insignia of the unity.
Xander winced as his commander yelled a stream of angry curses right into his ear. At the edge of his vision he could see the ugly, scarred face looming near, and but for the breather, his left cheek would have been splattered by spittle.
"I'm doing my best, sir," he managed to answer, "but they're moving damn fast, and there's lot's of rain and smoke. So far we've only had visual for 2.4 seconds total, that's not-"
"I don't give a **** about your visuals!" screamed the commander.
"Spare me your pathetic excuses, and do your ****ing job, soldier! Understood?"
Without waiting for a reply, he left Xander to recalibrate the mortar. Not much time left, he thought, and he willed his hands to be steady as he finished his adjustments. Their position wasn't the best: Except for a hastily improvised minefield, they didn't have any perimeter defenses. Instead the defenders were huddling in the outer ruins, while the inhabitants were crowded inside the former recycling tanks, bound and at gunpoint. Without doubt they were praying constantly, praying for Xander and the others to die. As he fired another round, he found himself agreeing with Commander Friedrichs rough strategy. The last thing he needed was some fanatic freedom fighters to worry about. At least he hadn't shot them. Yet. He really hoped it wouldn't come to that. There were some limits. But then, it's them or us, isn't it?
The explosion shattered an already heavily damaged agridome, and almost toppled one of the mud-splattered transports. But somehow the driver regained control, veering wildly at first, then continuing on it's crazy ride. No more time for another shot. Quickly Xander grabbed his particle gun and deactivated the safety switch, scrambling for better cover. As he ran, he saw the assault vehicle suddenly jump, caught in a spay of dirt and mud, and crash on it's side for good. Thank the Lord above for these mines, he thought.
Soundlessly they moved through the fungus, ducking, weaving throught the twisted, purple stalks. Sonya smiled ruefully as she watched their smooth progress: And to think that she had opposed Corazon's decision to adapt the Gaians economic model. That had earned her a degradation from a trusted aide to a simple squad leader. But that didn't bother her too much. She was confident that in time, she would be able to redeem herself. Already she had proven her loyality by giving away the Believers' attempt to buy her out. What did bother her was that she, Sonya Piotrowna Shelyakanov, had been dead wrong. She had let her preconceptions stand in the way of a rational evaluation. It was so clear now! The efficiency many of the Gaian's techniques generated was enough to be admired, but the added unterstanding of their environment was even better. A warrior always knows his terrain, Sonya thought, and their fast progress through the surrealistic maze that was the Xenofungus made the advantage of this knowledge very evident.
A PSI-Scout came in on her earphone: "Beta-Clear. Alpha negative, so far."
Good. That meant that there were no mindworms in the actual vincinity, even though the thought now was more one of thrill than of anxiety. The Gaians had already caught and even controlled mindworms, using them against their enemies. Now, this weapon, too, was in their grasp. How wrong she had been!
As the scouts had not yet encountered any traces of the Believer troops that were sure to lurk in the fungus, her unit continued quickly, disappearing into the vegetation one by one. Sonya adjusted the chaos rifle on her back before she followed them.
Soon, there was nothing left except the growing puddles, splattering in the gloom of reddawn.
Michael was slammed into his harness, as everything around him lurched. The light went out, as did the engine. He was hanging suspended by his safety straps: Obviously the transport had overturned, lying on it's side. Somebody opened the rear, and the shaken Believers began crawling into the open. Michael, too, carefully lowered himself down and followed the others.
It was still dark, but to the east Alpha Centauri B's light slowly penetrated the thick, rolling clouds, creating a reddish-purple twilight. The were standing in a flat, muddy field, strewn with debris and craters. For a moment, Michael stood still, taking in the battle around him. Then a particle bolt hissed past him, and he threw himself flat onto the ground. There was fighting on the perimeters, but it did not look good. A constant barage of glaring bright, orange particle pulses emanated from among the ruined buildings, cutting down advancing troops and keeping the others in an inferiour position.
Suddenly, he saw Maria stand up, but with her back to the base. She seemed oblivious to the danger, and staring at them, she raised her voice to a battle-cry: "Charge, for the Glory of the Lord!"
And her voice, ringing clear and loud across the sounds of the battle, touched something inside each one of them, as if chiming a bell, and a cry broke from their lips, making them one, sweeping away fear and uncertainity with holy light, and every one of them remembered.
They had been trained for this. They were chosen. The hand of the Lord was upon them.
As one, they answered: "Charge, for the Glory of the Lord!"
Michael rose with the others, joined in their mad, scampering run through the mud, and it was as if instead of the cries and explosions, he heard a heavenly choir urging him onward. Beside him, a companion screamed and writhed on the ground, his flesh smoldering from the particle hit. Michael barely noticed. Then, suddenly, a mine detonated, tossing several Believers through the air, and smashing Michael to the ground.
The chorus fell silent, replaced by his own frantic gasping for air. But even that faded away as darkness rose up from the edges of his vision and engulfed his conciousness.