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The Price of War; a Tale of Wrath

The Price of War; a Tale of Wrath

For all their complaints about having to run laps in full combat gear, Domerin’s soldiers never fully appreciated how bulky and awkward their combat armor really was until they were forced to wade through dense jungle undergrowth in it. The only things worse would have been loose sand or snow; both of which Domerin tried to avoid at all costs. When combat gear became more of a hindrance than a help, it was generally best to avoid the job all together. But in this case, they needed to move through the trees as quietly and carefully as possible anyway.

They were deep in enemy territory; farther beyond enemy lines than Domerin was usually willing to cross. But there were still rare indications that could make him throw even his considerable caution to the wind and this planet ticked all the boxes. Unique flora with breakthrough medicinal properties. Regular expensive supply drops. And Ruby Dagger coded messages.

They’re here and they’re up to their usual tricks.

It was easy enough to justify the excursion; they couldn’t really consider this planet free of hostiles if the Ruby Daggers had a hidden outpost ready to mobilize a counter strike as soon as they were gone. Secret research or not, it was in line with their tactics. But this was at least half personal and he didn’t have the luxury of lying to himself about it, even if it was only in the depths of his mind.

Pausing on the outskirts of a small clearing, Domerin bent forward, wedging himself between several giant leaves to keep as hidden as possible. “Report,” he hissed into his radio, though his helmet was likely to mask the sound from outside.

“Nothing here,” the quiet voice of his first officer and right hand replied without hesitation. “I’m moving a little farther east.”

“Good idea,” Domerin replied. “I’ll be inching south here in a moment.” He paused for a moment and, when he heard no further responses, hissed, “Barrett?”

“Nothing yet,” came the carefully neutral reply. It was an improvement over the still nothing he had snapped the last time. A comment which had earned him at least two terse warnings about potential insubordination.

It was just his luck that the first man Rilan had been able to find when Domerin summoned his first officer to special duty had been none other than Daniel Barrett. The young upstart who just so happened to be dating Domerin’s daughter. And while that offered the kid ample opportunity to shove his ankle down his throat both on and off duty, Domerin was in no mood to deal with his attitude today. He shouldn’t need to give a member of an elite mercenary unit a lecture about the dangers of operating in enemy territory, but he couldn’t ignore the itch on the tip of his tongue.

“Go a little further north,” he ordered instead. “Report back in half an hour.” If they hadn’t found anything by then, he would give the signal to pull out. They had risked enough and he was starting to think his instincts had been off this time.

There’d be no point in searching west; the rest of Domerin’s mercenary unit held fortified positions in that direction while they forced the last remnants of an enemy warband to abandon their posts. If it hadn’t been going well he wouldn’t have justified this particular risk. Or else he would have come alone.

He spent the next several minutes picking his way through the forest, paying excruciating detail to his surroundings, avoiding every fallen twig and dry leaf that littered the area. It was bad enough that he couldn’t avoid disturbing the foliage. Luckily the heavy canopy kept the sun from reflecting off the metallic surface of his armor.

He was just about satisfied that they weren’t going to find anything, was just about to recall his scouts, when he found it. The hollow-seeming rock with the strange indentation. A quick scan confirmed the circuitry hidden beneath the mass of boulders and tree roots. There was a high-tech facility down there somewhere.

For the briefest of moments, he was disappointed. He would have liked to be wrong. He would even have endured Daniel Barrett’s jeers on the way back to base if it meant dismissing this particular ghost. But his insight was too keen for that, honed by the very group he now hunted. Anger and determination devoured his disappointment as quickly as it rose, leaving him hard-edged and restless.

“I found it,” he growled into his helmet radio. Only crackling silence answered. “I’m transmitting coordinates. Meet me there. And hustle.”

Two short, affirmative pledges followed. Then Domerin put all his focus into retracing his steps, leaving not even a footprint to mark his passing.

*  *  *  *  *  *

“If the scan is accurate, the facility isn’t large,” Domerin announced as he brushed a few stray locks of hair away from his face. The three of them had removed their helmets for the time being. They were nestled in enough cover they were unlikely to be noticed, and all three of them needed a few minutes of fresh air. Especially since this operation’s length had just been extended. “It couldn’t hold more than half a dozen personnel, but the outer layer masks life signs so we can only speculate.”

Rilan ran a hand through his sweat-dampened hair, his lips twisted in a grim little grimace. “If it’s supposed to be a research lab, I suppose we can assume that at least two of those personnel are science and medical staff. That means four combatants.”

Domerin snorted. “Given the nature of the Ruby Daggers, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve shoved more people into the post than can fit comfortably. Even so, I don’t imagine we’re up against more than half a dozen guards. The three of us should be enough.”

“Pardon me commander…”

Domerin could tell by the look on Daniel Barrett’s face that he was barely holding back an outburst and he braced himself for a protest he had to admit wouldn’t be entirely misplaced.

“Why are we assuming that the researchers won’t be dangerous? Isn’t it common practice for mercenary companies to train and drill all their members in combat, even those who hold science positions?”

No doubt the kid was thinking of Robin when he spoke. Robin was hardly comparable to the average mercenary unit science personnel though. “Basic combat training, yes,” Domerin replied. “That doesn’t make them a particular threat when compared to their guards. Certain members of our engineering department are rather more versed in combat operations than most scientists are willing to go.” He’d like to think it was loyalty or dedication, but the truth was his daughter and many of her companions were tough as nails.

Beneath the tan he had earned from long hours laboring in the hot sun in recent days, Daniel Barrett paled. “Shouldn’t we wait for reinforcements?”

Domerin crossed his arms in front of his chest, considering their options before he answered. It wasn’t a bad suggestion and, for once, he didn’t feel like biting the kid’s head off. It was the kind of question he would have asked in his younger days if one of his commanders had ordered him into a similar situation. Then again, his commanders had been considerably less principled than he was.

“It’s too risky to bring in anyone else,” he declared after what probably seemed like too short a period for proper consideration. He didn’t tend to second guess himself in situations like this. “We were lucky enough that we got this far without being noticed. And if we move any more than two or three more people over here, they’re going to be at heavy risk of exposing us all. Not to mention the danger of sitting around waiting a mere stone’s throw from the people we’re trying to ambush. It’s best if we move quickly.”

“Reinforcements aren’t far if we have to call for them,” Rilan agreed, with a somewhat sympathetic look for the youngest member of their little team. “If it gets to that, we won’t have to worry about stealth. And besides, our commander is shockingly good at this sort of thing.” A hint of a grin crept across his lips. “You can be forgiven for nerves since you’ve never seen him in action.”

With both senior officers overruling him, resignation settled over Daniel’s youthful features and he nodded. Upstart though he could be, Domerin had seen the kid in action often enough to know that he was the equal of this particular task. He would never have allowed him to accompany the party in the first place if it were otherwise.

“It’s a less than ideal situation,” Domerin said, softening slightly. Then he set his shoulders, and settled his helmet back over his head. “I’ll take point,” he said as the others prepared to follow him into battle. “Rilan, you’re on rear guard. Daniel, you cover me as best you can. We’ll go in as a group. That should make it harder to pick us off one by one.”‘

He gave the signal and they began their third trek through the jungle undergrowth. The rest of the plan could be ironed out along the way.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Domerin always entered combat with a sense of preternatural calm. Even three to one odds didn’t shake him. The difficult part was breaching the facility’s defenses without alerting its occupants – a monotonous and time consuming task. The direct confrontation was a brief flash in comparison, though the soldier’s intense concentration almost seemed to slow time so that the two tasks took up the same amount of time in his head.

War was the one thing Domerin Lorcasf had ever really considered himself good at. The time he spent in battle was almost a comfort of sorts; though he would have sounded like a monster if he ever made the admission aloud. When he fought, he didn’t feel the fire in his limbs left by the bionics that allowed him to move with freedom. His mind was too occupied with his movements and position, and the actions of those surrounding him, friend and foe alike. Defeating an enemy and staying alive were his life’s work, though he would never have considered it an art form. War was too much like a machine; he was simply a well-oiled and well-designed cog which never ceased to spin.

They found eight men inside the facility rather than six, all trained for the kind of combat his daughter excelled in, which made this a very dangerous situation for his little scouting party indeed.

Domerin took two with his initial charge, felling them with one shot each. Daniel injured another before the opening volley of return fire.

Rilan had focused on their surroundings during the opening moments of the fire fight, destroying anything that looked like communications or weapons terminals, eliminating their ability to call for help. They didn’t have any ships in orbit, but they must have at least one craft stowed somewhere on the planet in case they had to make a quick getaway. Likely in a hanger concealed in a similar manner and, if they were lucky, unguarded.

They spent several minutes pinned in the entry to the complex before Domerin pressed forward, risking several shots to his battle-worn armor to take another of their assailants out of the fight. Daniel took advantage of the opening to finish his original target, and Rilan picked off another, right over Domerin’s shoulder, the energy bolt burning dangerously close to his armor’s exoskeleton before it continued onward to embed itself in another man’s body.

The fight may have been even at that point, but that didn’t stop the Ruby Daggers from thinking better of allowing it to continue. All three took off into the narrow tunnels that served as hallways, though it soon became clear they weren’t looking for an exit. They evaded all attempts to pin them down, clearly intent on their objective.

As soon as they located a computer terminal, Domerin knew what they were up to. He should have shot the terminal, data be damned, but the remains of the Ruby Daggers kept him at bay while they retrieved the data backups.

So intent were they on blasting him into oblivion, they were taken completely off guard when Rilan flanked them via another passage way, a maneuver that ended in hand to hand combat with one of the mercenaries while the other two extracted themselves.

Domerin ordered Daniel to remain behind while he pelted after the last two, but they knew the hallways better than he did. External scans couldn’t compete with long months spent living in a place, and they slipped into the jungle despite his best efforts.

He was tempted to pursue, but a terse message from Daniel drew him back into the ruined facility. Ignoring the blood and bodies, he retraced his steps until he found the others. Daniel had wedged his bulk beneath one of Rilan’s shoulders, supporting the superior officer while he limped back toward their entry point.

Domerin cursed under his breath and waved the two of them aside. “Wait here. I’ll sweep the facility to make sure there aren’t any left. Daniel, do your best to stop whatever bleeding and patch Rilan up as much as you can.”

“It’s not bad,” his first officer insisted without prompting as Daniel struggled to help him remove the armor from his damaged leg. “We’ve already made certain they won’t be using this facility again anytime soon.”

“Indeed, but that’s only half the objective.” Domerin’s helmet hid his grim expression.

“We don’t know how much data they had,” Rilan protested.

Domerin grunted. “It was enough that they risked their lives for it.” He hadn’t seen or detected any vehicles with his scans. How fast could two men in combat armor move? He might be able to catch them, if he could determine what direction they were moving. He considered risking calling for one of his ships, but without knowing what kind of hidden arsenal the enemy might have, it seemed too great a risk.

“Stay here,” he repeated as he turned away. The facility wasn’t large. It only took him five minutes to determine both that their destructive rampage had been total and that there was no one left to retaliate. His mind was on the two fleeing mercenaries as he returned to his companions.

“All clear.”

Daniel had already bandaged Rilan’s leg. The older man was grunting and grimacing in pain as the younger man tried to snap his armor back into place over the bandages.

“We need to get him back to medical,” Daniel said as he finally completed his task and reached up to wipe the sweat that had gathered on his brow. “I think there’s a small piece of shrapnel lodged in there and I couldn’t get it without making the wound worse.”

Domerin pressed his lips into a thin line but he nodded. “Get back to base as quickly as you can. Stealth shouldn’t matter now that we’ve driven the rats from their hole, but be careful. We don’t know if they’ve got reinforcements.”

“What about you?” Rilan demanded. They were good enough friends that the man didn’t fear speaking freely, even – and especially – in a situation like this one.

“I’m going after that data. If nothing else, Robin’s going to want it.”

Having returned to the armor he had discarded to do the delicate medical work, Daniel offered his arm to help Rilan stand but the older man waved him way. Instead he leaned forward. Domerin could just imagine the look on his old friend’s face beneath his helmet.

“Don’t bother using that bullshit on me, Domerin Lorcasf. I don’t like them getting away with that data either, but what the hell are you going to do on your own?”

“Whatever I can,” he replied, turning toward the door.

“Commander,” there was a sharp edge in Daniel Barrett’s voice, the kind that warned Domerin wasn’t going to like the rest of what he had to say, “he’s injured.” The kid motioned toward Rilan. “If the primary objective is complete, shouldn’t we prioritize recovery?”

“This is not an ordinary circumstance,” Domerin hissed the retort. “You have no idea what we’re dealing with and why we’re here. I didn’t bring you out here to question me. Do your damn job and let me do mine.”

Silence ruled for just a moment before the deep inhalation that warned Daniel Barrett wasn’t done yet. “With all due respect, Commander, your daughter’s going to kill me if you go off in the jungle and get yourself killed and I don’t think she’s going to accept ‘I was just following orders’ as an excuse.”

A strangled sound from Rilan’s coms indicated that he had choked off what was likely a laugh. Domerin grit his teeth, trying to hold his annoyance at bay.

“I appreciate your half-baked attempt to dissuade me from what might seem like a fool’s mission to you, but I am not going to let those Ruby Daggers return to base with the results of whatever they were working on here, and I am not some green recruit with no idea what he may be walking into. Whatever my daughter thinks of my actions, she understands that I expect my orders to be obeyed.”

“You’ll never cover enough ground to catch them on your own,” Rilan insisted as he hefted himself back to his feet.

“If you’re coming you’d better keep up,” Domerin retorted as he stomped toward the door they had hacked to gain entry to the facility. It would be best to exit in a place he was familiar with. The faster he got his bearings, the better. He sent a quick message to one of the ships in orbit; it couldn’t hurt to have them scan for signs of other ships in the area.

“C…Commander Moore,” Daniel stammered as he trailed in their wake, “are… are we really going to let him do this?”

The tiny hairs on the back of Domerin’s neck stood on end. If he had been a cat, he would have arched his back, puffed out his tail and bared his teeth and claws at the kid for that comment. “I can hear you, you fucking idiot,” he snarled. “And you do not let me do anything. I am in command here. Get your useless ass back to base if you’re not going to be helpful.”

He couldn’t see the look on the kid’s face, but he liked to imagine it resembled that of a deer in the headlights. From his tone when he spoke next, that was just wishful thinking. There was outrage boiling beneath the surface of his voice, an outrage Domerin instantly recognized.

“I’m unaccustomed to following unreasonable orders without question. What is that you’re always teaching us, Commander? To stop and think when it seems like we’re about to walk headlong into a hornet’s nest? Does that only apply to every other officer’s orders? Not yours?”

A tiny, reasonable voice in the back of Domerin’s mind whispered that this was not an unreasonable protest. That he would have done the same if their positions had been reversed. That he had given more lip to his commanders when they had asked him to do less obscure things.

But that wasn’t a voice he wanted to listen to at the moment. Daniel Barrett had no idea why they were here, or what the data on that pad might be used for if the Ruby Daggers took it back to one of their research hubs. He couldn’t possibly fathom what kind of experiments might have been going on beneath the roots of those trees before they barged in and put a stop to it.

Domerin, on the other hand, couldn’t forget.

“Would you like to go back into that facility and see if you can salvage anything from the wreckage? I’m sure the Ruby Daggers weren’t the least bit subtle about what they were working on. Do you have any idea what they might do with the knowledge they gleaned here? If it’s a paralytic they were working on, it won’t just be used to advance surgical techniques. It’ll be a weapon. It’ll be a gas grenade. It’ll be a poison. If it was a pain killer, they’ll use it as an excuse to carve people up into more pieces in the name of creating the ultimate soldier. That’s what those people do.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Daniel demanded, incredulous, so shocked his voice cracked halfway through the statement.

“I’m talking about the reason we’re here. I’m talking about why I’m willing to march into an unfamiliar jungle that might hold an entire regiment of highly trained enemy soldiers. I’m talking about why we spent the last six hours traipsing back and forth through the undergrowth for what seems like one tiny research facility. You think I was worried about eight people re-taking this outpost after we left?

“I know firsthand what those bastards do with all of their medical research. It’s carved into my skin. You’ve seen parts of it. It might look like sleek metal and blinking lights. It might look like a miracle that lets me walk, and eat and fight, but it’s a nightmare. It’s pain and suffering, day and night for the rest of your life. And that’s after the agony of the surgeries, the experiments, the tests and adjustments. And it says nothing of their attempts at brainwashing, of emotional manipulation.

“Anything they don’t use to further their super soldier development program will be used to silence anyone who tries to escape that damned meat grinder. Now, are you ready to stop hindering the progress of this mission?” He didn’t add or do I have to beat some sense into you? but he was severely tempted.

A moment of silence passed during which Domerin imagined Daniel had to extract his tongue from his own throat in order to find speech again. This time the kid’s response was sullen. “That doesn’t mean this has to be a personal crusade,” he muttered.

Again, a hint of a choked sound flowed from Rilan’s coms and Domerin shot him an acid glare he wouldn’t be able to see.

“I’m the one who assesses the threat and allocates the appropriate resources in this situation,” Domerin snapped.

“What he’s saying,” Rilan interrupted before the two of them could start taking chunks out of each other’s hides, “is that he keeps it a personal crusade to minimize the risk to the rest of the company. Take it from me, Barrett, no one understands the price of war better than Domerin Lorcasf. He’s paid it already, in spades.

“Now, if we don’t get moving, Commander, you’re going to have to order our fighters to intercept when they attempt to escape. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather engage them on the ground, especially if there really are only two.”

Domerin grunted. He couldn’t help feeling that Rilan had just revealed a lot more to his daughter’s boyfriend than he really wanted the kid to know. But now was hardly the time to debate the situation further. They needed to retrieve or destroy that data before it could be transported or transmitted.

He gave the signal and, this time, both his companions fell into formation as they departed, each keeping pace, though Rilan was forced to limp.

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