A Tale of Into the Fray
Genesis liaisons came and went, but my favorite has to have been James. Now James was really into music, and he felt that the entire combat robot complement of our expedition was just his personal stereo set. Knight-Captain Damian had to repeatedly tell him to stop playing the latest orchestral recordings from the speakers of every single piece of tech in the expedition, as doing so would alert the beasts to our location and "compromise security."
James, as you can probably imagine, grumbled about this constantly and would usually pop on a headset to listen to music there.
"Music," he said to me once, "is the only evidence we have of a higher power."
Vlad had raised his eyebrows. "What makes you say that?"
"What, Vlad, don't tell me you're getting religious," I had said.
He shot me a scathing look. "What I'm suggesting is that there is no evidence of any higher power. Gods, demons, angels, call them what you will, it doesn't change the fact that they simply do not exist."
James shrugged. "Maybe so, but all I can say is that when I'm listening to music the world feels... right
. Aligned, even. I get this sense of grandeur that there's something bigger than me out there. It's almost... ocean-like. And you can't tell me that there isn't some sort of genius behind the great composers. Admit it, Vladimir: music suggests the existence of the divine."
"If so, then the so-called 'pop' music that's all the rage these days proves the existence of diabolical influence," my dour friend countered, and we all laughed. "Imagine naming a song after a day of the week and just repeating it over and over again in an asinine, despicable, whining tone."
We laughed some more, and James conceded the point. "Still, the masterpieces of classical composition inspire and uplift the soul."
Vlad shrugged. "They've a gift for manipulating emotions, that's true enough."
They agreed to disagree.
The coolest thing I ever saw James do was a modification he performed on an aerial drone. He replaced the running lights and spotlights with ones that changed color, and rewired it to be in sync with the speaker system that he added in. At the press of a button on a remote attached to his wrist, James could have the drone play any music in his considerable collection along with an accompanying lightshow.
The first time James actually did so, he attracted a pack of beasts to our location, prompting Damian to request his transfer. Before he left us, though, James did partake in a memorable battle, the one that would give our expedition its chosen name.
Our force was assembled in a shadowy meadow, soldiers of the Flame Dawn filling the space while combat robots kept the perimeter. At the center, Knight-Captain Damian strode. "Our mission today is simple," he explained. "There is a large pack of beasts heading northwest to join their main force, which even now is locked in battle with Bromich's expedition. We are to delay, harass, and if at all possible destroy that pack.
"The migratory route they're taking is a well-established one, so it shouldn't be too hard for us to travel." I winced, remembering the difficulty we'd had those first few days of trying to forge through the thick undergrowth of this new world. Having clear trails was always a blessing. "Given the size of the pack, we'll wait for it to pass us and then begin to harry it from the rear, picking off the slowest of the beasts and working our way forwards."
James spoke up. "My aerial drones will keep tabs on the pack's progress, and the combat robots are ready for battle."
"Excellent," Damian nodded. James had always kept the artificial troops ready for battle, even though they were plagued by malfunctions and jams in this world. "We set out within the hour."
The idea was to arrive on-site before the pack did, and to lie in wait before falling upon its rear. We did not. By the time we reached the immense trail, the beasts were already heading past. A massive creature with scarlet fur led a horde of smaller, similar beasts with fur that was scarlet brown. The massive beast had thick metal plating on its head and shoulders, and James winced when he saw it.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Looks like the Skraar," James replied. "We lost an entire expedition to it in minutes five days back. Genesis command sent out a bulletin with its description."
"And what action does the bulletin recommend?" Lysimachus asked.
James looked at my large friend and his machine gun. "Fleeing in panic," he replied. "Even your big gun won't do anything to something of that size. We're best off letting it pass and focusing on its young."
The pack--no, herd--passed by slowly. Each of the smaller animals was still easily twice the size of even our biggest soldiers. "I've no intention of fleeing in panic," I said. "If we don't take these beasts down, they're going to slam into the main force. They're already hard-pressed as it is." I clenched my fist. "It's our duty to do what we can for the cause."
"Preferably without dying," Vlad added, checking that his pistol was fully loaded.
For half an hour the herd marched past, the young following Skraar as he led them northeastwards. Even in the distance we could see the immense leader of the herd, his form towering over the other beasts, the trail, even the trees. How are we going to bring that thing down?
I wondered, but then I remembered that we had taken down the behemoth that had been so tall as to be hidden by the clouds. If we killed that, Skraar too could fall.
James's radio buzzed and I heard Knight-Captain Damian's voice: "The herd is almost past, prepare for the attack."
And then we saw the end of the line. The stragglers at the back of the pack. Not all of Skraar's young, it would seem, had been created equally. Concealed at the edge of the trail, we waited for Damian's signal.
"All soldiers, attack the rear. Pick off the slowest beasts and move your way forward. Do not, I repeat do not, attract the attention of the entire herd. If they turn on us, we're finished."
"For the Dawn!" I shouted, bursting out of my hiding place and into the clearing of the trail. Falling upon a small beast at the end of the herd, I struck it in the leg with my sword while Vlad placed a bullet in its head. It went down immediately. Behind me, Lysimachus' machine gun barked, pouring hot lead into another straggler that stumbled and fell before it could even react. A few other beasts turned and looked back as our force left the treeline, but most of the herd continued to press onwards, towards Bromich's position over a day's journey away. With Gwendolyn and Haraldur at my side I charged another beast, slicing into its hamstrings and bringing it down for my two companions to finish off. All around me, other groups of soldiers were doing the same.
One beast turned and roared, bristling in rage and charging our forces. As I watched, Aspirants were crushed beneath its feet or mutilated by its jaws. Finally, a combat robot launched itself forward into the enraged beast's way, ending its unstoppable rampage with the bark of canons and a crash of bone upon metal. I turned and watched as James directed more of the robots out of the trees and towards our line. While they weren't as fast as our soldiers, those combat robots were instrumental in stopping the charges of the beasts. Many fell, but even as they did so technicians and field mechanics began to recover the scrap for reuse.
Suddenly, Knight-Captain Damian called a halt. "Cease fire and fall back into the trees!" he shouted over the radio. I looked up at the main body of the herd and immediately understood why. The beasts had stopped moving and had circled up. If we continued to attack them, we'd be walking into a wall of muscle and claws prepared for an attack. As quickly as we could, we disappeared. Gunners fired a few warning shots to keep the beasts at bay while we retreated.
"Good work," Damian's voice said over the radio's static. "But we're only getting started. James, I want to know as soon as those beasts are on the move again. Once they are, we wait five minutes then resume the attack."
And so we did. Moving with an uncanny coordination under Damian's command, we would attack, then disappear, always picking off the slow, the wounded, those out of position with the rest of the herd. Once, twice, three times we struck and vanished, whittling away at the beasts' numbers.
But the third time they followed us.
"Move, move, move!" Damian shouted into the radio. "Make for the trees and keep going! They're hot on our trail!" Lysimachus laid down some covering fire as Haraldur and I escaped back to the woods, with Vlad calmly clipping off another headshot at a charging beast. Combat robots placed themselves between the oncoming stampede and our forces, only to be quickly overrun.
We struggled in the thick underbrush to put as much distance between ourselves and the enraged herd, but I knew that those beasts would have far less trouble than we did. Rather than forcing their way through the trees, Skraar's young would smash through them, an unstoppable charge. Already I could hear them crashing through the vegetation.
"James," I said, "we're not going to make it."
He nodded even as he disentangled himself from a thornbush. "You're right. Not like this." He tapped his wrist remote, and suddenly his modified aerial drone was overhead. He looked up and smiled wistfully. "See you on the other side, little friend."
Then he tapped the remote a few more times and the drone shot off, back towards the trail, back towards the herd. In the distance, I could see lights flashing and hear music play. The crashing sound suddenly stopped. Looking back, I could see that the beasts were turning away.
James turned on his radio. "Knight-Captain Damian, I've sent the aerial drones to distract the beasts. It should be safe to regroup now."
He looked at me sadly. "Well, there goes my music."
I patted him on the back. "James, your music just became our guardian angel."
He smiled. "Huh. You're right."
We gathered around in another clearing, this one artificially cleared by combat robots. Damian stood at the center, proudly pacing. "I have just received news from the main UTF force," he said. "Thanks to our efforts, the herd of beasts was sufficiently thinned, allowing Bromich to repulse them. We fought well, harrying the herd and killing off the weak, separating it and chasing down the stragglers. It strikes me, men and women of the Dawn, that we have fought much like a particular kind of beast, a beast feared throughout legend. Like a pack of wolves we have hounded our prey; like a pack of wolves we have downed one animal after another; like wolves we have fought together and died together. We are Aberion's Wolves!"
We cheered, stomping our feet and pounding each other on the back.
Damian held up his hands for silence. "However, special note is to be made of our Genesis Liaison, James Sibello. It gives me great pleasure to award him with the Crimson Cross, earned for bravery on the battlefield. Sibello's efforts sacrificed much of his force in order to secure our retreat, and saved many lives."
I clapped James on the back. "Great work, James!"
He smiled and let his headphones dangle around his neck. "I do what I can."
Then Damian stode forward and was handing James the medal. Taking the mechanic's hand, he raised it high. "To Genesis James!" he shouted, and we cheered. Even though James transferred back Talich-side a few days later to be replaced with a different liaison, I will never forget that moment when we honored him as one of our own.