The streets of Kaplan were crumbling, cratered, and torn apart from month after month of impact from various kinds of ordinance ranging from hand-made bombs to low-yield orbital delivered neutron bombs. The city was located right in the middle of a front line of a global civil war that had kicked off five years before, and was once home to a few hundred thousand humans whose livelihoods revolved around the manufacture of shuttles and short range interstellar starships. Kaplan also had what was once the most high end star-port on the world of Burning Temple, which, along with the extensive manufacturing facilities, made it a highly prized possession to both sides of the conflict.
Moving through the devastated city was a column of shock troops belonging to the Hedorat Orthodoxy’s army. By the way they were equipped it was plain to the experienced eye that they belonged to an armored infantry corps. There were soldiers in powered armor suits mingled with full sized exosuits stomping heavily through the wrecked streets. Exosuits were really more like humanoid shaped armored vehicles than suits at all. Those towered above the infantrymen at twelve or so feet and carried a small arsenal of their own that included guided missiles, chain guns, and the occasional gauss cannon. For all its firepower, though, this was still just a probing force and incapable of holding any territory it may capture in the city for very long. All of the equipment was painted the stark white favored by the Orthodoxy, who clearly prioritized symbolism over tactical considerations.
Moving in shadowy parallel to the Hedorat forces was a much more lightly armored force of human infantrymen. They passed through alleyways, crumbled ruins, and along the few remaining rooftops in quiet stealth. These were guerilla fighters operating in the service of the Lancer Corporation, the other belligerent faction in the war. Unlike the Hedorat troops the Lancer soldiers were irregulars, and many of them were off-world mercenaries looking to add to either their bank accounts or their resumes. The unit was led by a young local-born officer named Lieutenant Howard. He was fresh out of the Lancer Army’s academy just two months before, and he was the only one in the light infantry force still wearing a formal Lancer uniform. It was a well maintained utility suit of shift-camo, and still operational. Shift-camouflage was made of an optical cloth that changed colors and patterns to approximate the surrounding terrain. It wasn’t an invisibility suit of any sort, but it was still effective, at least while it lasted. The suits had a way of malfunctioning after a few months of constant use, and more often than not they froze mid-pattern, never to function again. Even so, broken shift-camo uniforms were better at concealment than bright white suits of lumbering armor.
The lieutenant peeked over the top of what used to be a brick wall with night vision lenses in his eyes, taking note of the Hedorat soldiers moving slowly by at about ten meters. Their helmeted heads and heavy rifles sweeping slowly back and forth as they scanned the surrounding darkened ruins for the Lancer guerrilla fighters. He dropped back down to the ground behind the wall and said into his com unit, “Sgt. Krug, have you got a good look at them?”
A few seconds passed, and the voice of an older man, probably in his thirties, responded in the lieutenant’s ear with a raspy quality to it. “Yeah, Lieutenant, I see them. They’re pretty heavy, but nothing special as far as I can tell.” He paused for a few seconds, and continued. “See their gear? The suits are maintained well enough, but still pretty beat up. The Orthodoxy only gives the best armor to their social elites, which is pretty stupid if you ask me. It decreases the overall quality of your forces for the sake of a few nobles. I doubt any of them has a completely sealed suit, though, which is good for us.”
“What do you mean?” the lieutenant asked. “Do you really think we can take them?” He asked this incredulously, fairly certain that his small squad of guerrilla fighters and scouts would be no match for the Hedorat regulars. He had been given command over men who had already seen almost a year of combat in this war alone and often felt like he was in over his head. He usually was. Although they were all more highly experienced from this and other wars, he had no faith in the idea that they could take on a force at least four times their number, and a lot more heavily armed and armored. He wondered what the off-world soldier had in mind.
Krug proved to be an invaluable asset to the green officer, and was a natural soldier who was capable of effectively using all of the various small arms, heavy arms, and vehicles involved in this conflict. He had even once donned a captured suit of Hedorat powered armor and showed the men how smoothly it moved by engaging in various martial arts maneuvers, slipping gracefully from fighting form to fighting form. He then abandoned it, commenting only that in this war it was ultimately a high tech coffin.
A moment later Krug dropped down from a neighboring rooftop with the stealth and grace of a jungle cat, and slipped to the ground behind the wall with Lt. Howard, his combat shotgun in one hand and a backpack in the other. Krug wore a simple black utility uniform and pack, and carried a long knife strapped to his muscular thigh. He had at some point attached barbed wire and nail spikes to the hilt’s knuckle guard, similar to the trench club he carried hanging from an equipment harness. Lt. Howard had personally seen Krug use both weapons on enemy troops and was glad the man was on the Lancer Corporation’s side in this war. Krug didn’t have a single hair on his tanned and leathery scalp, and was even lacking in eyebrows. Everything about his appearance could be summed up as “grizzled” from the hard look in his blue eyes to the scars on his face from countless bar fights. The man looked to be born for war and seemed at home on the ruined streets of Kaplan.
Dropping the backpack between himself and Howard, Krug pulled out a couple of tear gas grenades, saying, “I distributed some of these to the squad on my way over. We don’t usually find cause to use ’em, but Command still keeps sending tear gas for crowd control purposes. Beats me why; I haven’t seen a crowd around these parts for a while. I figure the gas will get into those suits through all the cracks and worn out seams, and maybe cause enough distraction for us to take out the officer.” He spoke Galstan with a strange off-world accent, and grinned at Howard with his even white teeth.
“Which one’s the officer?” Howard asked. “How can you tell?” Back at the Academy the idea of directly attacking enemy officers was generally discouraged, under the thinking that any such action would be met with an escalation of officer-targeting. It wasn’t so much an attempt at civility as it was an attempt at self-preservation. The practice started early in this war when some front line Orthodoxy units started targeting officers, but the discomfort with the idea still lingered on both sides. Regardless of the training, however, the war had taken a brutal turn in which even captured officers were being executed on the spot by both sides. It was generally accepted that the Hedorat started this ruthless strategy, but the Lancers were quick to adapt the policy.
Krug readied two of the grenades, and Lt. Howard took the remaining two. “The officer’s in the shiniest exosuit,” Krug said. “The one with the cleanest paint-job. He’s probably a nobleman.”
“But what if that’s just a new guy in a new suit or something like that?” Howard asked.
Krug grinned again, and said, “Then I guess we just take out a nice exosuit! We win either way. Unless we lose, of course.”
The attack started with grenades landing amongst the heavy troopers and exosuits from the beginning of the column to the end, instantly shrouding them in a dense fog of painfully burning tear gas. Trained and experienced professionals that they were, the Hedorat men leaped into motion and began spreading out in an organized manner, trying to ignore the initial traces of vapor that leaked into their worn armor.
As armored troops took up defensive positions heavy fire poured in from the darkness of the surrounding buildings and alleyways, which were further obscured by a follow-up wave of smoke grenades. The fog created was chemically engineered to block not only normal visibility, but ranges of the spectrum utilized by a variety of ocular devices. It even dispensed a nano-chaff that blocked low power radar and some sonar imaging equipment.
The incoming rounds strafed the armor in the street, sweeping inwards and focusing on the targeted exosuit’s legs. Armor piercing rounds punched holes into the machine’s plates while explosive rounds shocked the internal systems, sending erratic signals and disrupting mechanical functions. The railguns mounted on some of the exosuits boomed with each round fired, tearing massive holes through multiple walls, while thousands of bullets pumped out from the heavy troopers into the surrounding city in a steady stream.
Krug stood with a crouch and charged into the midst of the Hedorat forced who were starting to fire almost randomly as the tear gas seeped into their armor. Unable to escape the burning mist, some of them broke and ran towards whatever safe haven their tortured brains tried to discern. Many were pulling their helmets off as they fled. A number of the guerrilla fighters turned their fire on the fleeing men, aiming in on their exposed heads with practiced ease. Krug dodged past confused Hedorat men and slammed to the ground next to the officer’s whirling exosuit. The pilot was disoriented, as was the suit’s computer system, by the fury of the sudden attack and was desperately firing in all directions. Krug jumped upwards and slapped a magnetic mine to the exosuit’s back with a loud clang as the panicked soldier spun past him. He then dropped to the broken street in a roll and dashed back into the darkness at full speed, shooting an enemy grunt in the head at point blank range as he sped past.
Lt. Howard continued to fire on the exosuit’s right leg with his 20mm rifle. He had maintained consistent aim on the upper thigh, along with three or four other men in his squad, and the armor had long since peeled away to reveal the electromechanical skeletal frame and spurting hydraulics systems. The fluid looked almost like blood as it gushed out. One of the supporting rods crumpled under this relentless fire, and finally snapped, sending the massive suit tumbling to the ground. The suit’s pilot continued firing bolts of metal in all directions from his thundering railgun, obliterating two of his own heavy infantrymen and taking the arm off of a fellow exosuit. One of the other suits moved closer to help its leader back up just as the mine exploded. It was designed for deep penetration on heavier vehicles than this exosuit, and sent gouts of burning plasma through the flailing armor and across a couple of Hedorat troopers with brutal results. Plasma shot in the opposite direction, torching the assisting suit as well, and killing another two infantrymen.
Their damage done, Lt. Howard and his squad fled into the neighboring streets, meeting up at a rendezvous point a kilometer away. From even that distance they could still hear the bleeding and crippled enemy unit shooting furiously into the night. Looking at the faces of his men, Howard saw a grim sort of pride in their eyes and reflected the feeling back at them. “Good plan, Sgt. Krug,” he said to the battle-hardened man. “There are a couple of exosuits and some grunts we won’t be seeing again.” The men grinned evilly, and they headed towards the extraction zone with a lighter step.
* * *
Lancer’s command system was highly mobile, based on a system of armored transports and fast-drilling equipment for burrowing a new facility a hundred meters into the earth as needed. The layout was the same every time so that no matter where they put down roots for a few days, nobody had to learn a new layout, and operations continued almost seamlessly. Using this system the Lancer Corporation was able to keep the command structure more compact, and less reliant on long range communications between command and the troops. As a result the Lancer troops were able to drop into enemy territory and relocated quickly, which served to keep the Hedorat forces off balance. The Hedorat Orthodoxy, on the other hand, preferred to maintain their command structure deep within their own territory, and relied on an ever-shifting network of encrypted communications nodes for a command and control infrastructure. This had far less flexibility than their Lancer enemies, but they found that they lost fewer higher ups that way. Keeping the nobility alive was a priority. They did start moving their generals from base to base after losing a significant portion of their staff to a nuclear strike at a base built deep in what was thought to be an impenetrable mountain. They would have survived one, two, or even three direct hits, but the Lancers dropped eight bombs on the facility, leaving a huge radioactive crater glowing in the earth.
Krug had served in a few different actions on various worlds, and had found that he preferred the mobile command system. The Lancer Corporation was particularly good at this process, and he was lying on his now-familiar rack in the barracks shortly after the fifteen minute debriefing they underwent when they returned from patrol. The barracks consisted of numerous cargo container-like boxes that were lifted easily with each move up through the network of tunnels to be loaded onto massive air transports. Krug’s box was open to the interior of a small cavern, and his fellow soldiers were engaged in off-duty activities like gambling, talking, and working out. The Lancer army did not allow drinking, as others had in some of Krug’s previous jobs, but some of the men still managed to smuggle illegal alcohol in. The offense was rarely punished unless it started to get out of hand, and Krug reached into his footlocker to withdraw a steel flask.
“Mind if I join you, Sergeant?” Lieutenant Howard asked from the room’s front door. He entered and sat on a folding chair when Krug gestured him in.
Krug took a pull from the flask and passed it to the young officer. “Go easy, Lieutenant,” he warned. “It’s some of Doc’s batch, and pulls duty as anesthetic, disinfectant, and weapons cleaner.” The unit’s lead surgeon was infamous for his hooch, and was notorious for using the nasty stuff as a cure-all. “Now me, I’m not normally a drinking man, but the Lancer Army really frowns on the leaf, so there it is.”
Howard took a drink and made a face, passing the flask back to Krug. “Good work out there today,” he said.
The sergeant grunted in reply and leaned back in his rack. “How did this whole thing start, Lieutenant?”
“The war?” Howard asked. “You don’t know?”
“Nah,” the sergeant said. “I signed on from a world out in the Fringe Region, after things already got to full swing. I just wrapped up a light job, Lancer pays well, and here I am. The politics and such don’t normally interest me in these things, but you people..!” He took another pull from the flask, and continued. “You people have really taken to killing each other. There’s usually a lot of bad blood before a global war even kicks off, and you guys have the worst blood. I’ve never just shot so many captured officers before, so I figure you have to be pretty pissed off at each other about something. So what happened?”
“Well, you know the Hedorat Orthodoxy is a religious movement, right?” Howard asked. Krug nodded. “They actually colonized this world about two hundred years ago, and ran the place with an iron fist from the beginning. This world is mineral rich, as well as having a lot of petroleum reserves, but the Hedorat never could get it together enough to efficiently use the resources let alone build up a solid industrial base, so they approached Lancer to come in and set up shop for a cut of the profits. That was about thirty years ago.”
“So you’re Lancer, but you’re from here?” Krug asked.
“Yes,” the junior officer answered. “My folks came from off-world, but I was born here. Kaplan, as a matter of fact. So anyway, Lancer moved in lots of infrastructure and lots of people, and went to work.”
“Let me guess what happened next,” Krug interrupted. “The Orthodoxy pissed away all their money, decided that they wanted all those new factories, told their people that you were all foreign devil infidels who were unfairly stealing their resources, and tried to nationalize Lancer’s operations here. Right?”
Nodding his head, Lt. Howard said, “You’ve seen this before, I take it. We saw it coming a year out, though, and were ready for them. Their force buildup was kind of hard to miss. They sent an interceptor force up to try and knock out our orbital systems and strand us ground-side, but we already had space defenses up and running, so that didn’t work out for them at all.”
“So it’s just a matter of time then,” Krug said. “You can stream in supplies and reinforcements until you win.”
“Or until Lancer decides it’s not worth it anymore,” Howard said. “Then they’ll evacuate all of us, including you irregulars, destroy the remaining infrastructure, and leave the Hedorat a broken and ruined planet to live on.”
“Lancer takes care of its own, then,” Krug replied, nodding in approval. “Loyalty’s a two-way street. It’s good that they know that.”
“Sure they do,” Howard said. “And don’t be surprised if they offer you a permanent job, too.”
Krug started to drift off to sleep, but said, “That’d be swell of them but it won’t come to anything.” His head slumping against his chest, Krug mumbled, “I’ll be moving on after this one. Not really a company man…” A few seconds later he snored quietly, and Lt. Howard left his box to mingle with others of his men.
Later on that night Howard made his way to the officer’s mess, where he sat with his peers and discussed the events of the past few days. One of the other lieutenants turned to him at one point and asked, “How’s that sergeant working out for you?”
“You mean Krug?” Howard asked. “He’s the best I have, hands down. It was his plan that took out that heavy grunt platoon today.” He paused and asked, “Why, what do you know about him?”
A listening Captain spoke up at this point. “We hired him on a couple of years ago from another mercenary outfit. He was leading an infantry battalion on mop-up operations from what I hear. Nothing too exciting. He probably got bored with that and signed on with us. I heard about him from before that, though. Rumor has it he’s from an Apocalypse World out in the Void.”
This got all of the officers’ attention, of course. The fate of an Apocalypse World was the kind of stuff that all of the human worlds took notice of. There were a lot of different things that could cause an Apocalypse Event, including some that were unknown, but they all ran roughly the same course. The population would go mad, save for a very few who were resistant to whatever sparked the madness, and turned on one another in absolute savagery. There were accounts of all sorts of horrors associated with this ranging from a world-wide melee in the streets to massive acts of cannibalism. Few tended to survive and such worlds were quarantined for decades, if not sterilized from orbit. It was the ultimate fear of any populated planet.
Howard mulled over this for a minute, only halfway listening to the conversation around him. There was no telling how Krug had gotten off an Apocalypse World let alone how he had even survived at all. Howard suddenly understood the man’s uncanny instincts, which must have been honed both avoiding and fighting untold numbers of murderously insane people. He had seen numerous video clips taken during Apocalypse Events, and was always shocked by the sheer monstrous brutality of it. It was no wonder Krug had taken to urban warfare so well.
Later that evening Howard slept fitfully, with disturbing nightmares of rabid people attacking and devouring one another in the streets, just like in the videos.
* * *
Krug wasn’t overly fond of the envelopment assault. Dropping in around and amongst enemy forces who were dedicated to killing you as you fell to the earth in the night always left him feeling way more exposed than he actually was, darkness be damned. Nevertheless he had done just that numerous times by dropping from low flying aircraft to orbital drop pods and landing by way of gliders, parachutes, and impact jets. This time the deployment was from high altitude aircraft, and the landing was going to be facilitated by a high energy cushion materials. The idea was for his drop-suit to shoot kinetic absorbing foam to the ground below at about fifty meters, resulting in a small mountain of the stuff softening the impact. The foam then broke down into thin liquid seconds later, freeing the soldier to engage the enemy almost immediately upon landing.
As he neared the forest below Krug briefly considered the possibility of equipment malfunction, just as he always did in these situations, but put the thoughts out of his mind as the wind screamed past his ears. He wore the foam dispensing pods and harness over a light suit of ceramic plates, as well as a high end combat helmet equipped with night-vision, infra-red, and short range radar, as well as encrypted communications and navigation systems. He would probably never use the radar, and rarely the communications, as both could easily give away a trooper’s position, but he would find the rest of the helmet’s capabilities useful. He carried a 20mm rifle loaded out with a mixture of armor piercing and explosive rounds, a couple of side arms, some knives in various locations, and the ever-present trench club. The armor was a still-functional scout suit with shift-camo cloth glued to the plates, as well as a broken shift-camo utility suit beneath. The squad was equipped with the best gear available for this mission, which served to highlight the importance of their goal.
A buzzing sound went off in Krug’s ear, alerting him to the immanent deployment of foam, and he braced for impact. The cushion kept the trooper from dying, but it was still a jarring experience. There was a rushing sound from the pods and Krug felt himself enveloped in the blue mass. His feet hit the ground, and he bent at the knees to absorb some of the shock before dropping into a roll to get away from the center of the liquefying mountain of goo. Within seconds Krug was beating feet towards the designated rendezvous point, careful to avoid traveling out in the open. Owing to years of practiced experience he left almost no trace of his passing in the surrounding arboreal forest.
It took about half an hour to get there, all of which passed in silence due to a strict comm silence. Krug halted a few meters away from the meeting spot and remained hidden in the brush, keeping an eye out for either his squad mates or Hedorat troops. Within minutes he saw Lt. Howard moving far less naturally through the bushes, only marginally hidden by his own shift-camo, and waved the young officer over to his own position. He worked with the squad to improve their stealth skills, but none of them had even close to his own natural instinct for moving unseen.
“Any resistance?” Lt. Howard asked in a hushed voice.
“No,” Krug replied in the darkness. I don’t think they even saw us jumping in, judging from the lack of patrols. You would think they would have entire platoons out looking for us by now.”
Almost as if in answer to his statement, gunfire, flashes, and a few explosions erupted about four or five kilometers away and the two soldiers sank further into the shadows. “That would be the distraction force,” Howard said as the rest of the squad appeared out of the shadows one by one. Once gathered, they moved out, cautious of alerting the heavily defended base beneath the earth. Their mission was to insert themselves into the facility and kill as many command staff as they could, with particular attention to hitting infantry commanders. All of the men had been familiarized with the various enemy uniforms and insignia in preparation, and were aimed at decapitating the command and control structure in this theater.
On the far side of the assault zone a heavy infantry force was dropped in with air support, and from the sound of things they were shooting at everything that moved. There was no way they could possibly have fought their way into the base, but they would put on a good show of having blundered into the area before extracting. They would be out before a counter-attack force could deal with them, and in the meantime the hit squad would be in the base and running amok. That was the plan, at any rate.
The squad found the service entrance exactly where it was marked in their systems, which in itself was a rare event. The hatch opened up into a communications system wiring shaft that led down into the base. The Hedorat Orthodoxy had to build large enough to accommodate maintenance personnel, and the Lancer assassins were about to take advantage of that fact. It was expected that their entry would set off alarms so they dropped straight down the tube, landing on another cushion of foam at the bottom.
Krug hit first and bounded through the entry hatch with his rifle, gunning down Hedorat personnel. He saw afterward that they were just technicians of some sort, but they were armed with pistols so he felt little concern for their fates. He sent a spray of rounds down the corridor to blow apart unarmored security troops as other assault commandos poured out of the maintenance shaft behind him. “Move!” he ordered gruffly, slipping naturally into the leadership role in the intensity of the moment.
They ran swiftly down the hall, eliminating enemy troops as they presented themselves, making their way through the maze of carved tunnels to the central command center. This was their first target area on a list of two. The intelligence was good and they burst into the high tech cavern, destroying equipment and staff alike in an orgy of gunfire and thrown grenades. Their method was to secure all exits immediately and lay waste to everything and everyone inside. They executed at least four colonels in this chamber alone before moving on to the officers’ quarters.
Krug stalked from room to room, assassinating everybody within each on without hesitation. He had little qualm in doing this, keeping in mind that these were the ones who had ordered the deaths of more people than he could ever kill in his lifetime of war. He never minded killing the normally safe high commanders and their staff, and was confused by those that did.
He came to a door marked as the base commander’s quarters and stormed into the suite of rooms. He immediately shot and killed off three lightly armored security troopers, gracefully dodging their return fire, and finished off a fourth with the quick stab of a knife to the throat. As the man sank to the floor gurgling from his lungs filling with blood, Krug moved swiftly and efficiently across the front room to kick another door in. He was faced by the base commander, named Bishop-General Lormur, and his immediate staff officers. They drew their pistols and opened fire on Krug as he dove through the doorway.
He threw himself bodily against them, slashing with his knife in one hand, and emptied his rifle’s magazine with the other into the unprotected flesh of his enemies. The sounds of explosive rounds hitting the walls and the death screams of Lormur’s officers dying in the confusion filled the air. After it was done, Krug stood covered in the blood and gore of his work bleeding from a couple of flesh wounds. Amazingly, however, Lorum managed to escape the assault unscathed through yet another door in back. This one was reinforced armor and Krug had to set explosives to blow the door out of its frame. It took a few minutes to do, and Krug was joined by Lt. Howard and some other squad members.
“Lormur?” the young officer asked, to which Krug grunted in the affirmative.
When the door blasted inwards into a crumpled mess, the Lancer soldiers found themselves walking into a richly decorated bedroom suite. There was a huge canopy bed and the walls were adorned with what were probably priceless paintings. A beautiful young woman cowered in the center of the bed, her head cradled in her arms, whimpering in terror. To the side of the room was another closed door. One of the men began to move towards what was likely the bathroom, but was interrupted by a single gunshot from within. The woman flinched at the noise, and continued to sob.
They found the corpse of the base commander lying stretched out across the bathroom floor, his pistol still in hand and a pool of blood expanding out from what was left of his skull onto the tile floor. “Well,” Krug replied, “that saves us the trouble.”
The woman they found turned out to be a junior officer Lormur had taken a fancy to. She probably had little choice or recourse against his predation, and was likely almost glad that he was dead. The men surrounded the bed, debating whether they were going to kill her or possibly use her as they saw fit. They didn’t seem to hear Howard’s protestations to this discussion until Krug stepped in.
“She comes with us,” he declared to dirty looks from some. They had been in combat for months without break, and some came from backgrounds in which rapine was considered part of the plunders of war. Krug, however, would have none of it, and he snatched her up from the bed and fastened her wrists with a restraint before throwing her over his shoulder. “She comes with us,” he said again as he walked out the door. The men shrugged and shouldered their gear, prepared to fight their way out with their sullen sergeant. They figured he was going to enjoy her himself, and none were prepared to challenge him on that. Truthfully, though, rape was not what he had in mind for their female prisoner. It was not his way.
The plan was to get to the hangar bay and commandeer a small transport that they could fly at treetop level to a designated pickup zone; there a Lancer bird would extract them to safety. Any collateral damage along the way would be welcome. Opposition forces they encountered in the corridors began to consist more and more of heavier armored grunts returning from the earlier counter-attack outside the base. These often proved more difficult to take down, and carried the larger weapons that went with the armor. A raider went down next to Krug, and then another, until by the time they were crossing the hangar to a small transport sitting closest to the doors only half the squad remained.
Fortunately one of the men who had pilot training survived the attack and settled into the pilot’s seat. Krug dropped the woman to the deck of the aircraft and turned to provide cover fire as they made their escape. The hover turbines took less than a minute to spin up, and they were off and speeding out over the treetops pretty quickly, with Krug taking aimed shots at the occasional enemy ground forces as he spotted them. The bird tilted to the right to beeline to the pickup point when a boot to the back sent Krug sailing out of the side hatch and plummeting into the trees. He impacted the branches hard, but was largely protected from any actual harm by the armor plates of his suit.
He came crashing to the ground through thick underbrush and bushes leaving a trail of crushed and broken plant life in his wake. Unconscious, Krug lay in the forest for about an hour, completely unaware of the movement of enemy troops around him, even when they found his limp form in the growing light of the rising sun.
* * *
“What is your name?” the Hedorat interrogator demanded, smacking Krug across the face with the back of his fist. The mercenary merely let his head loll to the side and sneered at his questioner with contempt. The man struck him across the jaw again, and then a few more times, trying to force anything but that insufferable smirk to cross the outlander’s face, but to no effect. Krug had taken far more powerful punches than that in his time, and this officer in front of him had obviously been pressed into the role of interrogator. These were not his regular assigned duties.
Krug leaned back and sagged against his bindings, letting out a hoarse laugh. “You’re new to this, aren’t you?” he asked mockingly. “Don’t worry; I’ll go easy on you.”
The officer punched him in the mouth again, saying, “Shut up, you scum!” He punctuated each word with another punch to the mouth, before he planted his boot in the middle of Krug’s crotch and kicked.
The mercenary’s harsh laughter echoed off of the metal walls in mockery.
* * *
“He’s inexperienced at this, isn’t he,” a tall officer wearing the flat black uniform of the Special Intelligence branch. It was less a question and more a statement as he watched the unsuccessful interrogation going on in the next room.
“Yes, Sir,” a Major answered. “We lost all of our trained interrogators in the assault, so we had to pick from the intelligence officers.”
“Should have picked an infantryman,” the Colonel replied. “They at least have some muscle behind the punches. Get him out of there; he’s just embarrassing himself now.”
* * *
They threw Krug into an isolated cell with no furnishings, no facilities, and no light, his hands fastened tightly behind his back. He dragged himself to put his back against the wall and set himself to waiting. Other men would have had a hard time maintaining such rigid self-control, and would have fallen to sobbing, begging, or some similar behavior. Krug, however, had learned how to out-wait his enemies while remaining perfectly still when learning to be a sniper. It was a skill that proved useful in a multitude of situations. He knew that they would be monitoring him and he would do nothing to give away that he might be uncomfortable, exhausted, or otherwise weakened in any way.
After a while in such isolation most people lose track of the time completely, with minutes blurring into hours, and then into unknown numbers of days, but not so for Krug. One of the ways he kept his mind occupied and focused was to count. He kept track of the time in his mind by simply forcing himself to count to sixty over and over without stop. This would naturally be interrupted by sleep, but he also knew that left to his own schedule he normally slept for around six hours before waking. Between this and constant counting, Krug was generally able to keep the time to within an hour over a period of days. As time dragged on he would slip out of synch by days, but that was a gradual process. He did not expect for things to run too long since he knew that his captors would want to more properly interrogate their prisoner as soon as possible.
He only had to wait three hours before the door opened again, allowing in a crack of light. Armored soldiers came in and grabbed up their prisoner roughly, dragging him almost violently down the hall. The journey ended with them strapping him into an interrogation chair that was bolted to the floor. The room was empty except for a metal cart against the far wall with various forms of razors, blades, and surgical tools arrayed across a plastic drop cloth. It occurred to Krug that the tools were probably not kept sterile.
“Hello, Sergeant Krug,” a man said as he strode into the small room. He wore a plain slate colored uniform that was very unlike the other military uniforms previously on display around the base. There was simply the encircled “X” emblem of the Hedorat Orthodoxy on his left breast and four black stripes around his cuffs. Krug was unfamiliar with this uniform, but guessed that it was representative of some sort of secret police or intelligence service. He remained silently wary, counting the minutes in his head.
The man appeared to study his computer pad for a moment and placed on the stand with the surgical tools. “You’ve quite the history of combat. We have you popping up here and there in various systems across human space, serving in quite a few different fights. Your loyalties are… thin.”
“Is there an actual question going to come out of your mouth?” Krug asked viciously, still counting.
“Yes, but not just yet, the man replied calmly. “I just want to establish a setting in which we both have some idea as to who we are dealing with. Based on your history, I would say that threats carry little meaning to you, so I won’t bother with them. Nor will I beat you, as I doubt it would even faze you a little bit.” He crossed in front of the seated prisoner as he spoke, circling around him slowly. “No, but I may cut into you at times not because I think it will loosen your tongue, but because I will want to hurt you. Pain will be the nature of our relationship. You will resist me, I will hurt you, and we will both fulfill our emotional needs.”
Krug glared at him as he crossed in front again, wishing he could get his hands around this foul man’s neck. “What do you want to know?” he asked point blank, fully intending to answer no questions.
“Now, now, we’re not quite there yet, Krug,” the man said as he walked towards the metal cart. “First we have to develop our channels of communication.” He picked up first one tool, then another, before settling on a shiny scalpel. “Right now you don’t have to say anything. Just sit back and let me do all the work.” He turned back to Krug, and began his grisly business with the detached professionalism of the truly psychotic. This was a man in his element.
* * *
Over the next two days Krug was subjected to a regimen of brutality and sadism that would have broken the most stalwart of men. His flesh was slashed, beaten, burned, and frozen, towards no discernible goal. More than once he would have spilled his guts if given the opportunity, but at no point in any of this did the Hedorat officer ask him any questions. It was instead one round of torture after another, and Krug had no idea how much longer he would last. Both men knew that he was not yet completely broken, but both men also knew that it was just a matter of time until he caved and would be defenseless against any line of questioning. The matter was prolonged through the expert use of tissue repair tools kept alongside the hooks, blades, and burners, and Krug lost very little actual blood throughout the proceedings. There would be no death in this chair for him.
Krug sat calmly in the corner of his cell, as he had from the beginning of this hell when he wasn’t being tormented, and counted. He even managed to count through much of the torture, but was forced to estimate when things turned really bad. Krug did feel himself fortunate that his captors kept him on a high calorie diet of a tasteless paste, though. They probably figured it would keep him in shape for their torments, while Krug intended to use all that energy for escape should the opportunity present itself.
The Hedorat torturer arrived early in the afternoon with two guards. “Hello, Krug. I trust you’re ready for the day’s work?”
The mercenary spat on the floor in a show of defiance, an act which resulted in one of the guards back-handing him across the face with a gauntleted fist. The officer grunted and the soldiers grabbed Krug up by the arms and dragged him down the hall to the interrogation chamber, his feet trailing on the cold tile floor behind them. They pushed him roughly into the chair that still had spatters of blood from a previous session it had hosted earlier that day. Krug listened to the screams of the poor sod from down the hall, and focused on his counting to block out the horrendous racket.
“Today’s going to be a benchmark day for us, Krug,” the interrogator said almost cheerfully in a perverse way. “We’re at a point in our relationship when I can tell you a little bit about myself.” He was standing directly in front of Krug, putting on a rubber apron to protect the immaculate uniform.
“What does that mean?” Krug asked. “Is this the part where you try to earn my trust?” He laughed with a harsh bark. “You think I’m going to spill my guts to you, tell you everything I know? Is that it?”
The Hedorat officer leaned forward and said too low for the microphones to pick up, “My name is Major Reddig, and I don’t think you have anything worth telling me. If you did you would have already spilled it for the cameras, anyway. No, I just like hurting you. I look forward to this all day every single day, and when I finally get to cut into you..? Spectacular.” He straightened and stepped to the ever-present tray of tools. “Now,” he proclaimed loudly, “My name is Captain Tung.” He looked over his shoulder and winked conspiratorially at this procedurally required lie. “I’m a family man and devout member of the Orthodoxy. I’ve been in the service of The Temple for seven years, and have watched the Lancers destroy my world. They stole from my people; they defiled our land, and have been slaughtering without shame.” He rolled the cart closer to the chair, and said, “Two years ago Lancer forces bombarded my hometown and killed my entire family.” He looked at Krug and slightly shook his head with a slight smirk, confirming the lie he’d just told. Krug understood what was happening. While the man whose real name was Reddig continued with what was probably a scripted interrogation process for the recording systems, he and Krug both knew that this was all really for his sadistic amusement.
“But of course you’re not really a Lancer man, are you,” Reddig said. “You’re a mercenary, which means you’re only about as loyal as your last paycheck.” He picked a handful of long needles from out of the tray and appeared to study their points closely. “So, do you think you might want to start telling me about your unit? Maybe about your superiors, the officers… That sort of thing?”
Krug glared at him in response, which was no less than Reddig expected. The officer took one of the needles and jabbed it deep into his prisoner’s leg. He then proceeded to stab spike after spike through Krug’s flesh for the next half hour before he was interrupted by one of the soldiers. The two spoke in hushed tones for a brief moment, then left Krug alone in the room.
Krug immediately formulated a plan as he worked his bound hand as loose as possible. He pushed agonizingly against the bindings until his fingers were finally able to grasp one of the spikes buried in his thigh. The pain was excruciating but he managed to rip the needle out in squirt of blood. Angling the sharp point to aim inwards Krug placed the tip against his wrist and began to push. The pain shot up his arm, but he continued sliding the needle under the skin with gritted teeth. It took a few minutes but Krug managed to shove the spike into his forearm until only a few millimeters of the dull end were poking out of the small hole in his skin. The torment settled into a throbbing ache, and Krug continued to count off the minutes.
About twenty minutes later Reddig came back into the room with a couple of guards. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut things short for the day, Krug. I’m sure you’ll understand.” He waved his hand towards the bound mercenary signaling for the guards to take him away as he started back down the hall. They unceremoniously ripped the remaining needles out of Krug’s legs and grabbed his arms painfully. He flinched uncontrollably as one of them grasped the area around the spike, but they ignored his reaction as a result of the wounds left by the previous torture. The two soldiers hurriedly dragged him back to the cell and threw him in without bothering to bind his hands. This was unusual, and Krug made note of the incongruity.
Knowing that he was always being recorded, Krug leaned against the wall just as he had for days, and kept his hands behind his back. It took him a few minutes to pull the needle out after which he waited patiently; counting off the time second by agonized second.
* * *
The mercenary awoke to the sound of muffled explosions going off in the distance. He felt the vibrations through the floor with each “whump” and placed his ear against the door, listening for movement in the hallway. It didn’t take long to hear the footsteps of two or three pairs of boots approaching his cell door, and he readied the spike in his fist. He assumed that whoever had the job of monitoring the cell cameras had probably made their escape by now, given that the explosions on the surface were probably orbital ordinance impacts blasting layer after layer of earth from the top of the hidden base. The door unlocked and Krug threw himself against the first body that appeared in front of him. The soldier was taken by surprise and didn’t even have time to throw up his arms in defense as Krug stabbed the needle brutally into his face and throat over and over. The prisoner was lucky though, because although the soldier was wearing full plate ceramic armor, he wasn’t wearing his helmet. The man screamed in pain until Krug tore his larynx out, after which he gurgled to death.
His eyes blazing a furious blue, Krug leapt over the dying man and grabbed the other fleeing soldier from behind in a murderous choke hold. Not waiting for unconsciousness to set in, Krug crushed the man’s windpipe forcefully and snatched up his sidearm in the process. Standing up, the enraged prisoner looked down to the end of the hallway at the stunned figure of Major Reddig. The Major started to run, but Krug was on him in a matter of seconds and dragged him screaming into the interrogation chamber.
About ten minutes later Krug stepped back out into the hallway covered in blood that was not his own, quickly scouted the area, and proceeded to liberate over a dozen Lancer soldiers from different cells. They were in various states of abuse, but most of them were in good enough shape to fight. Rallying the men behind him they fought their way up from the detention levels, adding pieces of armor and weapons to their growing arsenal as they moved. “Come on, you sons of bitches!” Krug bellowed as they stormed a control center. “Let’s make them bleed!” They blew the doors in and proceeded to slaughter every officer and soldier in the room in their blind rage. As they were wrapping things up, a Lancer identification call came from outside in the hallway, and the former prisoners rejoined their mates in the assaulting force.
Krug had the last Hedorat officer on his knees with a pistol pointed at the back of his head when a familiar voice said “I guess you survived that fall, after all. You look like hell, though.” Krug looked over his shoulder at Lt. Howard, and laughed bitterly.
“Yeah, I have some luck,” he said, as he squeezed the trigger and sent the officer slumping lifelessly to the floor. He holstered the sidearm and asked, “So what’s going on with the attack? Are we winning or losing?”
The two started walking up the corridor to the surface. “Well, we’re here, so I guess we’re winning this one, but word’s come down from on high. Home Office has decided that this place isn’t worth the fight anymore, so they’re pulling the plug on all operations. We leave in a week.”
Krug grunted in response. “I see,” he said. “I guess that means I need to start looking for another job.”
“Are you sure?” Howard asked. “You would do well as a Lancer officer. They pay well, and you’d make a good lifer.”
Krug just shook his head, saying, “Sorry, Lieutenant, but that isn’t going to happen. I’m not exactly lifer material, and besides, I need a vacation. Someplace where the weather’s nice, the leaf is burned, and the local women don’t try to kill me.”