Legions of Sol
Book One

Chapter Four
August, 3530 – Galactic Calendar

Volko stifled a yawn as he scrolled through the patrol reports on his handheld data screen. After nearly two days of the same, he was getting rather bored. There had been no further attacks after the bunker's explosion. Another re-trans site had been set up in the middle of a cluster of three more drop bunkers, staffed on a rotational basis by squads from each of the three Legions on Pevek. The Decanus shifted against his ruck, using it as a cushion while he lazed against the interior wall of his squad's trailer barrack. The building reverberated with the rumbling engine of a Fury Mobile Heavy Weapons Platform, the tracks kicking up massive clouds of dust and dirt as it slowly moved through the base. The artillery cannon mounted on the top of the vehicle rotated as it moved, keeping a predesignated target locked in its sights.

Volko sighed and checked his watch. It was almost time for his patrols to check in. He stood and stretched, grabbing his rifle off the nearby bunk and stepping outside. The blazing sun nearly blinded him and he raised a hand to ward off the worst of the light. With his rifle slung over his shoulder the decanus slowly marched to the central communications array, grumbling quietly about the oppressive heat that never quite went away.

The array sat in the center of the operating base, covered by camouflage netting and flanked on three sides by computer terminals and radio banks. With the help of the re-trans bunkers and the ships in orbit, the Legions had nearly continuous radio and satellite imagery for the entire combat zone. The advantage hadn't helped Task Force Ankara locate their civilians, however. None of the patrols had as of yet found any sign of their enemy either. Volko scowled as he contemplated how much time they were wasting combing the canyons that spread like veins throughout the Badlands. A comtech gave a curt acknowledgment of the decanus and handed him a headset.

"Two-Four to all patrol elements. Proceed with reports in sequence."

The squad leader scribbled on his data slate as each patrol gave an affirmative signal and stated their findings. Unfortunately, it was more of the same. Nothing but dust, dirt, rocks, and heat. Always the heat. Reviewing the data before signing off, he frowned.

"Two-Four to Patrol Strand." Silence and soft static answered him. He tried again and received the same response. "Two-Four to Patrol Turanov."

Boris' voice sounded through the headset, weary and drained. "Turanov receiving."

"I need you to reroute to Strand's last known position. You will receive coordinates and projected patrol path shortly." After receiving an affirmative, the decanus keyed the radio for all his patrols. "Two-Four to remaining Two-Four Patrols. You are to RTB immediately and prepare for SAR. Sign acknowledgment and regroup with Florensis at Gate Two upon your return. Two-Four out."

Volko handed the headset back to the comtech and stalked in the direction of his barrack. Worry clouded his features and a frozen hand clenched his heart tight in its fist. Seconds seemed to stretch into hours and what felt like an eternity later he and Mila Turanova were jogging towards the specified gate. In reality it had only been just over half an hour. His Armadillo was waiting with the engine running, and Florensis poked her head out of the commander's hatch, waving an arm at her squad leader. She shouted to be heard over the engine and passing vehicles.

"Decanus, we have Gordon and Sol aboard. Just waiting on you two and Wulfrikson and Pharos."

"Copy. Raise them on comms and get an ETA." Volko and Turanova ducked into the passenger bay and the ramp shut behind them. The decanus reached over and opened the door inlaid in the ramp, waiting for the remaining pair of troops. Two Ares Light Battle Tanks pulled up behind the APC and the commander's voice spoke in Volko's ear.

"Decanus Volko, this is Decurion Jenci Aodh, tag 'Four-Four.' We will provide escort."

The infantryman gave a mirthless smile. "It'll be a pleasure to have you with us, but let's hope that you're not needed."

The sound of crunching dirt and panting breaths dragged his attention out the rear of the APC where Holly Pharos was clambering through the open door. Wulfrikson was only a second behind her, pulling the hatch shut as he slid inside. Volko banged a fist against the turret hatch and called vehicle secure before Florensis had the driver begin their movement. Decurion Aodh's LBT pulled in front of the Armadillo while the remaining tank took the rear. Together the three vehicles exited the base and began their convoy to the canyons.

Volko grabbed a headset from next to the monitor and keyed the mic. "Two-Four to Patrol Turanov."

A moment of silence. "Turanov receiving."

"Sitrep."

"Sir. We've found the tracks from the Two-Three APC. We are currently bearing seven-four degrees north-by-northeast. Patrol Strand is still unresponsive."

Volko swallowed the lump in his throat. "I copy bearing seven-four degrees north-by-northeast. Hold at your current position. Our convoy will be there in 10 minutes. Two-Four Out." He hung the headset on the wall and banged a fist against the turret hatch. When Florensis' head popped out he spoke again. "Contact Four-Four and tell them to adjust convoy to enter at the upcoming canyon, bearing seven-four degrees. We'll catch up to Turanov and proceed from there."

"Yes sir."

The hatch slid shut and Turanova leaned forward, her expression one of terrified concern. "What news from my brother?"

The squad leader shook his head. "Nothing yet. We'll regroup with them and continue the search. I need you to stay focused, alright?"

Turanova nodded. Her fingers tapped a nervous beat against her bouncing legs. Pharos reached over and grabbed her hand, holding it tight. Volko flipped a switch in the wall and the pale green interior lighting changed abruptly to a dull red. Wulfrikson, seated at the rear of the vehicle, pulled tape off the rear viewport and sighted through it to ensure everything was secure. A thousand thoughts screamed through Volko's mind, full of what if's and could be's. He banished them all with a small shake of his head. Long minutes later the convoy stopped, Florensis called "dismount left," and the ramp dropped with a heavy thud.

The squad pounded down the ramp and into the burning sun, swinging around to the APC's left. Boris Turanov and Michael Tanner knelt ahead of them, next to their APC's front tire. Volko pulled alongside them and tapped each of their shoulders. "Glad to see you both in one piece. Still nothing from Strand?"

Boris flashed an apologetic grimace towards his sister and shook his head. "No, decanus. We found evidence of a fight around the next bend, but that's it."

Volko scowled and keyed his radio. "Four-Four, I'd like you to take point. The Two-One Armadillo and Florensis will ride between your tanks."

The lead Ares swung about on its tracks and pulled in front of the parked APC Turanov and Tanner had used during their patrol. The tank had barely enough room to squeeze between it and the canyon wall. The dismounted infantry dispersed to march in two columns, four on either side of the APCs. Volko's eyes scanned the rock walls and dirt floor, careful not to skip over any evidence. As the group rounded the bend, they bore witness to the remains of what looked like a small skirmish.

Chunks of the wall had been blasted free and small craters pockmarked the path. When viewed as a whole, the fight appeared to move at speed down the canyon. Four hundred meters down, the walls came so close the tanks would be unable to pass through them and an Armadillo would be hard pressed to do so in one piece. It was here that paint and hull paneling had been scraped along one side of the gap. A single Bayreen corpse sat slumped against the rock just before the narrow opening. Half the torso had been blown apart.

Volko gave the order for the tanks to pull to one side while the Armadillos would follow the infantry through. The team raised their weapons and inched forward, keeping their eyes trained on the corpse and the rocks above them. Halfway to the opening, Vivian Sol doubled over and retched. She fell to her knees, tore off her helmet, and clasped her hands tight to her ears. Samuel Gordon dropped next to her with a hand on her back. A brief scream erupted from her before Sol fell to her side, dust and dirt kicking up around her as she began to convulse. Sprinting towards her, Volko slid into a crouch next to the shaking soldier.

He pulled the emergency cord located at the top of her vest under her chin and the combat harness fell apart. Gordon pulled Sol onto her side while Volko ripped a soft pouch off of his belt and held it underneath her shaking head to prevent her from smacking a rock. He nodded at her partner. "Get her pistol belt off and loosen her top. Boris, start a timer for the convulsions. The rest of you keep on security."

Volko swore when blood started to leak from Sol's ears, eyes, and nose. A moment later she vanished, a cloud of dust left in her wake. The decanus stumbled back and a startled Gordon fell on his ass with a curse. Ilya quickly stood and scanned the surrounding area, grabbing his weapon off its sling. "She's shifted. Goddess above, she's shifted."

Michael Tanner, the youngest squad member cleared his throat and coughed. "Sorry sir, shifted?"

"Aye. You know she's special. Most of us call it magick. When her life is in immediate danger and there is no other recourse, she can shift into the Aether. The same dimension we use to get our ships from one end of the galaxy to the other. None of us know how she does it, or how she survives it. I've only seen it once."

Tanner's mouth hung open. "Oh."

Moments later, Sol reappeared next to the canyon wall and immediately crumpled into a heap. Turanova jumped nearly a foot before dropping next to the warrior, hands seeking a pulse. Volko stepped alongside her. The marksman glanced at him. "She's alive but her breathing is real shallow, decanus."

"Fuck. Ok." Volko ran a hand across his face. "Fuck. You and Tanner load her into Florensis' Armadillo. Pair up with one of the Ares and get back to base ASAP. Get her into medical."

With a hurried acknowledgement, the indicated pair lifted Vivian and trudged back the way they'd come. The Armadillo ramp was already open. Seconds later Florensis and the rear tank sped down the canyon. Volko watched them until they'd rounded a corner and gone out of sight. He turned back to the gap, worry etched into every facet of his being. He put a finger to his ear and tried the radio again. "Two-Four to Patrol Strand. Damn it Maximus, fucking answer me."

He grabbed his rifle and ran towards the narrow gap, his squad and the Two-One Armadillo following close behind. Turanov turned to guide the vehicle through the narrow passage. The commander, a squat man with short, rust colored hair named Moros, stood with his head outside the commander's hatch. He warily eyed the damage that traced along one side of the canyon. Once through, it was only a short jog to the next turn. Volko's heart stopped as he rounded it.

Decanus Therodein's APC sat forty meters ahead of the group, a small pile of Bayreen corpses scattered around it. Deep gouges and rents covered the armor plating; the tires sat in shreds. Volko could see the commander's hatch lying on the ground next to the vehicle, having been torn from the top of the turret. He signaled the advance and he and his troops stalked toward the wreck, rifles held at the ready. Wulfrikson and Pharos scanned the canyon walls while Volko, Gordon, and Turanov slowly marched to the front of the Armadillo.

The decanus' eyes locked on a pool of blood that ran around the front of the vehicle. He swallowed the lump in his throat and circled around, weapon glued to his shoulder. He froze. On the other side of the APC, Gordon swore and dropped his rifle on its sling while Turanov eased his way past him. The gunner silently said a prayer to the gods before returning his attention to the canyon ahead of them.

Volko eyed the blood that covered the front of the vehicle. Nicholas Arran hung from the armored plating, boots barely reaching the ground. He'd been pinned in place by the scythe arm of a Bayreen, severed at the first joint. His short sword lay in the dirt, slick with black blood that mixed with the red of his own. The decanus' eyes darted from the torn armor to the fallen blade to the broken rifle, refusing to gaze on the body of his Legionnaire.

His gaze finally moved to the face of his fallen soldier. Arran's eyes, staring blankly at the sky, seemed to hold a final cry of agony. The harsh clank of the APC's rear door opening broke the hold the corpse had on him and Volko looked away. Holly Pharos called his name.

"Decanus, the troop bay's empty. Where are Maximus and Nicholas?"

Volko swallowed. "Arran's dead. Strand is missing." He hesitated. "Turanov, keep an eye on the path ahead. Gordon, help me get his body free."

Pharos and Wulfrikson ran to the front of the vehicle to join their squad leader. Pharos spoke again, her tone of incredulity echoing in the overwhelming silence of Volko's mind. The words were lost to him as he clambered on to the APC. He glanced at the drivers hatch and blanched. The reinforced panel had been caved in, the driver beneath it cloven in two. He quickly averted his gaze.

Together, Volko and Gordon grasped at the scythe arm and pulled, straining with the effort. Slowly they were able to work the arm free and Arran's body fell forward, caught by Wulfrikson and Pharos. They both wiped teary eyes on their sleeves before carefully carrying the body to the working Armadillo. Volko and Gordon dropped off the front, Gordon turning to pull security with Turanov and Volko walking back to join Pharos and Wulfrikson. He fumbled with his comms before reaching out to the re-trans site somewhere on the plateau above them.

"Velthora Two-Four to re-trans."

It was only a moment before the response came, but that moment seemed to go on and on, the silence in Volko's mind echoing loudly. "Re-trans to Velthora Two-Four."

"Send report to Velthora Whiskey-Zero-One. Report four KIA: Nicholas Arran, Commander Mikkelsen, and two Armadillo crew. Report one MIA: Maximus Strand. End report. Ask for instructions regarding SAR."

"We copy four KIA: Nicholas Arran, Commander Mikkelsen, two Armadillo crew, and one MIA: Maximus Strand. Will relay and return. Re-trans out."

Ilya slowly walked up the ramp of Moros' Armadillo to join Pharos and Wulfrikson. He glanced at each of their faces for a moment before telling them to pull rear security. As they filed out, he reached behind the troop harnesses to pull a fire blanket from its housing on the interior wall of the APC. Acting carefully so he wouldn't disturb Arran's body, Volko draped the blanket over it and sank into the nearest harness. His chest burned with the heartache of losing one of his own. His radio squawked, demanding his attention.

"Re-trans to Velthora Two-Four."

He reached for his mic, arms heavy. "Two-Four receiving."

"Velthora Whiskey-Zero-One orders you to return to base for debrief, over."

"Acknowledged. Two-Four out." Volko stood from the harness and keyed his mic, walking back into the brutal sunlight. "Everyone get on board. We're heading back to base."

The ride was spent in somber silence. Pharos sat with tears running down her face, unable to look away from the blanket in front of her. The others gazed everywhere else, so long as it wasn't at their friend. Volko mentally raged at himself. Rational thought had abandoned him as he delved into the what-if's and why's of what had happened. He should have gotten there sooner. He should have sent more troops on each patrol. He should have done something. Anything. The overwhelming numbness in his heart spread to every part of him, tinting the world a monotonous grey as he wrestled with the urge to scream. Whether his ire was for him, the troops around him, or simply the gods above him, he didn't know. Eventually, ages later, the APC stopped and Moros' voice broke the thick atmosphere inside the vehicle.

"We're outside medical, decanus. Optio Sonso is inside with rifleman Sol."

Volko grunted an acknowledgment and stalked inside the building next to them, the squad following suit, Gordon and Turanov carrying Arran's body between them. A Legionnaire in a medic's uniform greeted them and lead the way further into the building while two more medics guided Arran onto a gurney and brought him to a holding area. His body would be shipped home, along with any personal effects still onboard the Nova Roma.

The first medic pulled aside a privacy curtain and ushered Volko and the rest of the squad into a small corner of the building. Vivian Sol lay in the hospital bed in the corner, her hand held by Mila Turanova who stood beside her. Tanner sat on the floor next to the pair, his head resting against the wall. Optio Matthew Sonso stood at the foot of the bed with his arms crossed. His stern gaze passed to Volko as the group filed in and the medic pulled shut the curtain behind them.

"Volko. She's fine. Doc says there's no lasting damage. I'm sorry about your missing man. We'll set up a proper SAR as soon as we're done here."

Mila spoke up, tightening her hold on Sol's hand. "Wait, who's missing?"

Volko raised a hand to shush her. "Sir, we can't wait. My man is somewhere out there, possibly wounded, and counting on us to be there for him. I won't abandon him."

Sonso's expression hardened. "This can't wait, decanus. Shut up and pay attention." The optio turned toward Sol. "Now tell me again what you felt. I want everyone to hear it."

Sol glanced meekly around the room before screwing her eyes shut. "It was like something was squeezing my head. There was shouting and screaming but you guys weren't saying anything. It was agony. Then it felt like someone stabbed a thousand blades into my brain while some beast whispered the word die over and over again. I had to get away from the pain any way possible, so I shifted. The voice stopped but the pain was still there. Decanus, it hurt so much."

Volko stepped forward to stand opposite Turanova and rested his hand on Sol's. "I know, kiddo. We'll figure this out."

Sonso cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "It was mentioned during the briefing aboard Nova Roma that there would be more forms than just the Skirmisher and Infiltrator. Ever since these fucks were discovered a few years ago, the science types have debated how they communicated. Sure they have a mouth, but there's no ears. No way to hear what they say. So a few folks latched onto the idea that they might be telepathic. I suspect Legionnaire Sol encountered one of these, possibly a commander of some sort. I've sent up a request for more information, and for Ghost Legion to send some of their telepaths or telekinetics but they're deployed elsewhere so it might be a while. In the meantime I want Sol to stay here in the med bay under supervision. The rest of you will remain on mission. Volko, I want you to head over to the briefing theater so we can set up the SAR. Everyone else go wait in your assigned vehicle."

The optio nodded once at the group and promptly left the room. One by one the squad bumped fists with Vivian before trailing out to head towards Florensis and their APC. Volko pulled Turanova to the side and whispered in her ear. "Arran is KIA, Strand is MIA. Don't panic. We'll find him. Just keep your head on straight and we'll get through this."

She gave a short gasping breath and he wrapped her in a one-armed hug before turning to Sol. "You're a strong kid. Don't get into any trouble while you're off duty."

With that, Sol was left alone as the Decanus jogged out of the medical facility and to the briefing theater in the command building. Walking through the halls he felt his mind stray back to the image of Arran pinned to the front of the APC. It was burned into his memory. He shut his eyes and shook his head to dislodge the intrusive thoughts and hurried into the theater. Inside were Optio Sonso, who stood at the podium with the K-9 Kota, and the Second Century Decani Solokova, Arayn, and Therodein in the front row of seats. Optio Monneran and Decanus Molotova from the Scouts sat in the row behind the infantry. In the third row sat a black-haired Legionnaire he didn't recognize.

As soon as Volko took his seat, Optio Sonso addressed the gathered Decani. "As of right now we are on an emergency footing. Legionnaire Maximus Strand is missing in action, presumably taken by the Bayreen. Based on what we've seen in the past, taking prisoners is unusual for them so we need to move quickly. Thi Trinh has launched satellites in a geosynchronous orbit above our location to try to get a read on Strand's life-signs. Additionally, we have received rotary gunship support from the Seventh Century in the form of Decurion Will Mihailov and his squadron of Stalkers. Optio Monneran has also volunteered her remaining scouts for the search and rescue. Squads Volko, Solokova, Arayn, and Therodein will ride in Mihailov's gunships while Squad Molotova takes their Panther. Our remaining Armadillos will provide escort where they can. Decurion Bento will have his Anthem MBTs ready for QRF if needed. I will trail behind in Monneran's Kingmaker."

He glanced at the dog at his side. "Monneran has volunteered herself as handler for Kota. Volko, I'll need you to grab one of Strand's shirts for her. We'll see if there is a scent trail left. Get to it everyone. Let's find our man."

Mihailov got to his feet behind the infantry decani and pulled off his shades, revealing a savage scar down the left side of his face. His good eye was a stormy grey, the other glowing red with cybernetics. The decurion pocketed the shades. "Gunships are this way. Get your squads."

The Legionnaires filed out of the command building at a jog. Volko grabbed his radio and relayed the instructions to his troops. Behind the building sat five helicopters, their blades already spinning. In front of the aircraft sat an idling Panther Light Reconnaissance Vehicle and Kingmaker Legion Command Vehicle. Mihailov climbed into the lead gunship while the infantry decani each selected one of their own and climbed aboard. Their squads came running around the command building only moments later. Volko grabbed his radio.

"Turanova, get that shirt to Monneran in the LRV, then get onboard." Volko waited for his sniper to climb into the aircraft before signaling the all-clear to the crew chief. A second later the gunship was in the air and flying over the wall. Below them, kicking up a cloud of dust and dirt, sped Monneran and her squad in their wire-frame LRV. Just a second behind them was Optio Sonso in the Kingmaker leading three Armadillo APCs. Ilya eyed them for a moment before speaking into his radio one last time.

"Maximus, if you're out there, we're coming for you."