Threedak stood on Meridian Station’s observation deck silently. To her right stood Dahlass and Bekai while Pinrakt and Dormah occupied her left. It was a rare occasion for three of her daughters to be present at the same time with Threedak. The threat of Maxist terrorism loomed large, and potential loss to the empire if an unlucky bomb or radiation leak eliminated all of them at the same time would be catastrophic.
Still, Threedak wouldn’t hear otherwise. Kahtash’s fleet was leaving Dhaj’s orbit to accomplish something the humans never had. To beat back the invaders.
Slowly, the brilliant white plumes of the fleet’s fusion torches disappeared from view as the incredible distance robbed the ships of all semblance of speed. Remoteness was funny that way. Intellectually, Threedak knew that the ships were moving away at kilometers per second relative to Dhaj, but in her vision they crawled. It was the same with the planet. Great cities housing millions of Dhajtel appeared to just be motes of silver and light from the heights of the belt.
Threedak sighed and glanced at Dormah. Maybe it was the melancholy of watching her daughter go off to risk her life, but she couldn’t help but wonder what time and distance would do to her memory after she passed. True, those who consumed her would remember Threedak with perfect clarity, but who would she be to the rest of the Dhajtel?
The Maxists sought to demonize her, slandering her with words they barely understood. Maybe she was an imperialist, but she certainly wasn’t bourgeoisie. She snorted. If they were going to try and insult her, they should actually try to be accurate. How could an Empress be anything but a feudal lord and monarchist?
Frankly, these days robots did most of the factory work and the Maxists drew their numbers from amongst the clerks and managers. If anything, the Maxists were the bourgeoisie. Of course, none of them actually understood Marx enough to know that. It was just words to them, an excuse to work less despite the ravening starvok of the invaders at the Dhajtel’s collective throats.
She smiled slightly as Pinrakt shifted behind her. Her daughter was only a little bit better than the Maxists. Pinrakt and her disciples sought to preserve the early history of the empire via art, but nearly all of it lionized Threedak. Whether in painting, sculpture or vid drama, she was always portrayed as a noble and intrepid pioneer braving untold hardships to force culture on her neighbors. Every Dhajtel that played her was at least twenty percent larger than she was, their coloration computer enhanced until they practically glowed.
After a decade or two of fawning media, Threedak was pretty sure that her citizens wouldn’t be able to recognize her in a crowd. Her daughters and her guards dwarfed her, and her coloration was still muted from a harsh growth phase with barely enough food and zero shelter. She certainly wasn’t the dashing figure cut by the vid stars as they slashed and quipped their way through the surrounding tribes.
Finally, she exhaled, doing her best to avoid coughing, and turned to her daughters. Bekai was still staring out of the viewport, a pensive look on her face while Dahlass fretted, opening and closing her graspers while shifting her weight. Pinrakt, per usual, gazed off into space, disconnected and aloof.
“I worry too,” Threedak spoke quietly to her daughters, “but your sister will be fine. Her fleet outmasses the invaders by almost 50%.”
“I know,” Bekai replied, her throat pouches fluttering with discomfort. “At the same time I can’t help but worry. We only have long range passive scans of the invader base. For all we know they have another three torchships powered down and ready to spring on us. I really won’t feel safe until she’s close enough to scan them with active sensors.”
“Even if she wins,” Dahlass fussed at her sides, trying to smooth her scales with her grasper, “there will be casualties. She’s in the most powerful ship in the fleet, but that could just make her a bigger target for the invaders. I don’t want her to win at the cost of her own life.”
“Come now,” Threedak chuckled slightly as she led the other Dhajtel away from the viewport. “You’re the ones who convinced me to let her lead the expedition. It’s hardly fair that I have to be the one quieting your concerns.”
“Either way it will be almost a week before Kahtash’s fleet gets anywhere near the invaders,” Bekai said from behind Threedak. “I don’t want to spend that time worrying.”
“I’m just concerned that something I did will hurt Kaht,” Bekai sighed. “We’ve tested the systems on all of the ships a thousand times, ran their thrusters at 100% while having them fire at static targets. Everything we could think of. I just can’t help but fret over the possibility that we missed something in the designs and they’ll break down at a critical point in combat. I really don’t know how I’ll be able to take a week of anxiety without any sort of resolution.”
“We just need something to take our minds off the invaders,” Dahlass interjected, her tail twitching restlessly. “Bekai has been meeting her production numbers, but my analysts have noticed a worrying trend.”
She paused, forcing the rest of the group to stop or leave her behind. Threedak simply looked at her daughter, waiting for Dahlass to finish. Bekai on the other hand was less patient.
“Out with it Dahl,” she snorted. “You just can’t drop a cliffhanger like that and get all shy. It’s just not how things work.”
“The Maxists,” Dahlass blurted out, her tail thumping against the station’s metal floor. “Their propaganda has been more effective than expected. It’s still not a lot of people but we’ve always had about 10% of our population, usually not from our line, that don’t buy completely into the concept of unity. They still work their jobs but they’re disaffected, not truly connected with our society.”
“The increase in workload as we geared up for Kahtash’s expedition led to a lot of complaints and dissatisfaction from them,” Dahlass continued. “Many of the complainers are flirting with joining the Maxists. That’s the bad news, that so many of our people would be willing to sell out our collective destiny just to work a few less hours a day. The good news is that the influx of Maxist recruits has allowed us to infiltrate them.”
“Wait,” Threedak interjected before breaking down into a series of coughs that wracked her body. After almost a minute, she continued speaking, exhausted. “Do we know the location of their central leadership committee?”
“Yes,” Dahlass responded cautiously. “Are you alright? That was…”
“Mother,” Bekai’s eyes were fixed on Dormah who was studiously avoiding her gaze. “You’d tell us if something were wrong right? I’ve noticed Dormah nearby almost as much as Bahwel and the rest of your guards. Is there anything that we need to worry about?”
“Now isn’t the time to be concerned about that,” Threedak waved a grasper dismissively, still gasping for breath. “We need to bring down the Maxists once and for all. It was one thing when they were just advocating for work slow downs and increases in pay. Once they started bombing factories and killing Dhajtel, they sealed their own fates.”
“But,” Dahlass stared at Threedak, worry in her eyes as their membranes nictated.
“Kahtash isn’t here so command falls on you Dahlass,” Threedak put her grasper on her daughter’s shoulder, squeezing tenderly. “Talk to the marines and put together a team. Use as many soldiers as you want. I don’t want any of them to escape.”
“Don’t change the subj-” Bekai began, still staring down Dormah.
“I am the Empress and I will change the subject if I want to,” Threedak replied dryly. “Your concern is noted and appreciated, but it is time to rid ourselves of these parasites once and for all.”
Four days later, Threedak and her daughters reconvened in Meridian Station’s command center. They still fussed and fretted over her, but Threedak wasn’t going to let her health stop her from purging their society. She didn’t mind dissidents. After all, even the smartest of beings were prone to miss important details here and there. Having a subset of the Dhajtel that disagreed with her viewpoint was an important element of preventing it from growing stagnant.
That said, denying simple truths was anathema. That the invaders existed. That all Dhajtel needed to work in order to thrive. That their society was better off today than it was as a collection of hunter-gatherers, dying to hunger, disease, or predators almost as soon as they were hatched. This was a viewpoint that harmed the Dhajtel as a whole. Honest disagreement was to be cherished and nurtured, but parasites that denied the rain even while standing soaked in the open. They needed to be removed from the whole before they poisoned others.
“Dahlass,” Threedak nodded her head toward her rather skittish daughter. “Please announce the beginning of the operation.”
“Mother,” Dahlass fretted. “This is Kahtash’s job, I don’t want to overstep my authority. Are you sure that we can’t just wait until she gets-”
“Daughter,” Threedak chided her softly, a smile stretched across her muzzle. “Kahtash is better at fighting and leading in combat than any Dhajtel ever hatched, but you are the best at organizing and supplying an operation. This is not the early days. You are not fighting an existential threat to our empire. You are crushing a bug that we have let live on for too long. It will be fine. Give the order.”
Dahlass ran her graspers over the scales on her face and neck, smoothing them one last time. Then she reached forward and pressed a button on the command center, bringing up the image of Dhajtel wearing battle armor painted in the colors of the Imperial Marines.
“Captain Salaht,” Dahlass spoke, a quaver in her voice slightly undermining the formal tone she attempted to take. “Please initiate Operation Haunting Spectre.”
Threedak smiled again. As much as she enjoyed watching Dahlass come into her own and overcome her omnipresent nervousness, Threedak had intervened to name the operation. Even if the Maxists didn’t know the first thing about Karl Marx himself, that didn’t mean that Threedak’s memories didn’t contain the contents of his books. Given the senseless violence and setbacks caused by the Maxists, at the very minimum she could have some fun at their very final expense.
“With pleasure Minister,” Captain Salaht’s voice was clipped and formal. Threedak forgot if she was Kahtash’s daughter or granddaughter. Over the years, the family lines had all become a bit indistinct. Regardless, she had inherited her sire’s serious tone of voice and burnt orange striping.
From the belt, twenty dropships fell into the atmosphere. Ungainly and ugly vessels, each was capable of reaching orbit under their own power, but today they displayed their primary purpose. Gliding on stubby wings the dark craft glowed in the dark Dhaj night as the atmosphere heated their plating cherry red, turning them into a deadly hail of shooting stars. On cue they all banked and changed their angle of descent, shedding momentum and letting their plating cool slightly.
Minutes ticked by as they flew toward their target, located in the hills just outside Lament, without using their thrusters. It would be wrong to call the flight silent, after all, the speed with which they plowed through the atmosphere easily generated a sonic boom and the heavily dopplered sound of a freight train. Still, with their reactors silent and their thrusters unburnt, they were fairly hard to see on advanced sensors.
The view in the command center switched to a spy satellite floating overhead. As the dropships rumbled toward their target, each of them began firing their fore-mounted railguns, jerking as their forward momentum slowed from the cannons’ heavy kick. The penetrators left hand sized holes in the gates of the compound before their kinetic energy discharged into great blooming mushroom clouds in its interior.
Then the dropships rattled visibly on the overhead view as their drop tubes fired backward. Of the twenty ships, fifteen rapidly fired fifty pods. Little more than black armored shells equipped with drag chutes, single-use landing engines, and impact resistant gel, each carried a Dhajtel warrior in full battle armor. The other five dropships opened up cargo bays, releasing walkers strapped to landing platforms festooned with parachutes and counter thrusters. The walkers themselves had barely changed from their first introduction, serving as legged/wheeled heavy support tanks depending upon terrain. A full armored battalion. Overkill, but overkill that the Maxists had richley earned.
The dropships bombardiers did their job, countering much of their ships forward momentum with the backward facing launches and landing the infantry in tight clusters. Quickly, the marines recovered from their rough landings and kicked open the sides of their drop pods as the walkers began their final gliding approach.
The Maxist compound was in chaos. One or two Dhajtel got to old style chemical machineguns and began spraying the advancing forces only for the bullets to bounce harmlessly off of their heavy powered battle armor. Threedak could almost hear the heavy crack of rail rifles as the marines returned fire. The heavy caliber long range slugs simply shredded the enemy emplacements. The hand held rail files took time to charge their capacitors, making them slow single-shot weapons, but their range and anti armor potential was unparallelled.
After the first volley, the rest of the marines charged, needle carbines at the ready to pick off any Dhajtel foolish enough to pop her head over the compound’s walls. Just short of the gate, an officer waved a metal encased grasper, bringing the column to a halt.
On cue, two of the walkers fired their heavy coil guns. The coil guns were a pared down version of the weapons on torchships, but their effect was certainly spectacular. The gate, and a significant portion of the supporting wall, simply disintegrated in a flash of light as they were shredded by metal flechettes.
The Maxists did their best to fight back. Pockets of resistance formed around rebels with crude rocket launchers or recoilless rifles as they tried ineffectually to use chemical rifles to stop the oncoming marines. Ultimately, it was futile. Even a needle carbine would struggle with battle armor’s thickness leaving only the Maxists armed with heavy weapons as threats. Threats that were quickly eliminated by the walkers’ heavy coil guns or rail rifles firing through walls.
The scary thing about the heavy electronically propelled penetrators wasn’t necessarily the slug itself. At high enough speed, they simply turned whatever they hit into plasma. Now, if the target had enough armor, this usually meant that there would be a suitably theatrical explosion on its surface. With the thinner interior walls of the compound however, the penetrator would put a small hole into the outside barrier. The inside however would be sprayed with remains of the wall and a wave of overpressure that would hit with the force of a blowtorch combined with a grenade.
Without battle armor, any one of these forces would be enough to kill a Dhajtel. The shockwave from the shell passing through was enough to rupture their lungs. The flash heating was enough to cook everyone in the room to death simultaneously. Even the shrapnel from the shattered wall was enough to mince entire squads. With battle armor, a Dhajtel in a room hit by a coil gun penetrator would require immediate medical attention. Without, the results were messy.
Within fifteen minutes, the battle was over. There weren’t survivors mostly because the shock and brutality of the attack was such that the Maxists didn’t even get a chance to surrender. Most died before they even realized that the marines were approaching their rooms in the compound. Threedak slapped Bekai’s shoulder, and her daughter gave her a fierce grin. All was as it should be.