Hope"Warp Drive Active," Stated the robotic voice of aura through their neocoms as the two of them stared at each other in opposite sides of the cramped compartment.
Each was clad in Caldari assault armor, their web gear and ready harnesses loaded down with gear and weapons. To an ordinary human being they would have appeared almost monstrous, a good head taller than the human norm and much bulkier. If not for the slight feminine shape of one of them, their sex would have been indeterminate.
The bodies were little more than clothing for them at this point. When the mission was done they'd transfer their consciousness back to a set of clones identical to the bodies they'd been born with.
Through the helmet mounted display that each of them wore, they could see the name of each other along with a brief over view of their status. The helmet mounted microphones and communications systems were a backup to their personal neocom, and in truth neither of them really used them anymore. At times they didn't bother with the normally spoke word much at all, instead falling back on text messages and synthesized voice comms instead of actually speaking.
The ship that carried them was piloted by the third member of their little team, a capsuleer. Onboard her ship, they may as well have been standing in her belly as each capsuleer interfaced directly with the ship itself and piloted it almost as if they were an extension of their own body.
A blue holoprojector flickered to life revealing a terrain grid that was rapidly filling with symbols and markings. A voice crackled through the neocom from their pilot, "Okay, it's about two minutes to the target now... so lets get this briefing moving."
The female mercenary leaned over the display, studying it as the capsuleer's voice filled their neocom.
"Khanid Works lost contact with one of their open pit mining operations on Chamemi V, twelve hours ago. Initial scans by satellite revealed this..."
The map zoomed toward a pit that had been dug into the side of a mountain. Surrounding the southern rim of the pit was a large structure of classic Amarrian design. Further south was a loading dock large enough to accomodate a freighter, but instead of a massive hauler or industrial ship, a pair of small ships that looked a bit like a bloodied claw sat on the loading dock surrounded by crates and tiny figures.
He growled at the sight of the two ships. "Blood Raiders."
"Right, looks like two Hematos frigates," The woman across from him said, her voice tightening as she spoke.
"Total staff of the mine comes to thirteen hundred souls."
He frowned. "Does that include slaves and family living on site?"
"I... I don't know Ash, all I've got is the corporate mission brief," Came the reply of the capsuleer pilot, her voice quivering slightly. "If we had more time I could dig through some records."
"Aslan, it's fine..." The other mercenary said. "They're probably all dead anyway by now."
Ash glanced down at the top of the holographic map and clenched his fists. "Just once, I'd like to actually save someone from these demons Tahli."
The female mercenary slumped a bit at those words before taking a deep breath. "I know, I know..." She straightened up. "By Adakul's light, if there's someone left alive down there, we'll find them."
Ash nodded and glanced up at her. "Thanks, Tahli."
"I know how you feel... I feel the same way. Lets, lets just get this done." She peered down at the holographic map again. "Have you got an LZ picked out for us Aslan?"
"Yes," The capsuleer said as a point on the mountainside overlooking the mine flashed with a dull red light. "Since we don't have a warbarge in orbit or an MCC down there, you'll have to use drop uplinks to bring in any replacement clones."
Ash shivered, he hated the damn things.
"The plans that Khanid Works sent me show five defensive guns at the facility. They're mostly cruiser scale laser batteries and a couple missile launchers. Not sure how the bleeders managed to get past them without losing ships, but they did somehow," Aslan said. "No idea how many bleeders are on the ground either, they'd need quite a few people to chorral the people down there. I'd say at least fifty of them, maybe more."
"About normal then... We can handle fifty blood raiders," Ash growled.
Aslan's voice sounded relieved. "Good, I'll stick close to your guys position for direct fire support, and to nail those frigates if they try and run."
Tahli nodded. "Let’s do it."
The holographic map flickered and disappeared and the compartment shuddered as the two of them reached for a set of handles overhead to steady themselves besides two hatches that were built into the sides of the compartment. Aslan's voice came through the neocom once again, "Entering the atmosphere now. We'll be at drop altitude shortly."
The blue light of the Khanid styled interior flickered and died to be replaced with a bloody red light that hung over each of the egress hatches.
"Thirty seconds to drop," Aslan’s voice echoed in the small compartment.
Ash tightened his grip on the handlebar over his head as he glanced to the only other soul in the compartment. Clad in the grey armor of a Caldari assault dropsuit, her gender was barely visible through the armor's bulk. The flat grey of the helmet's face watched him as the ship shuddered around them once more.
"Pilgrim two, ready for drop." Ash muttered to himself as he turned back toward the hatch beside him.
Her voice whispered through the neocom a moment later. "Pilgrim one, ready."
"Ten seconds, Pilgrims." The ship's pilot answered, and then the ship gave another shudder. "Damn it! I'm getting fire from the ground. Looks like those cruiser sized guns."
"Just give us the green—" As she spoke the red light over the hatches flashed a brilliant green. Instantly Ash yanked on the handle overhead and the hatch hissed open. Without a second glance, he leapt out into the slipstream.
Ash fell, glancing up just in time to see the massive form of the Malediction-class interceptor that he'd just left pull skyward. Lances of red and purple energy shot up toward the gleaming ship as it rose through the clouds.
Then he looked down as he fell toward the rusty red earth beneath him. Mentally he started counting out the altitude. Two thousand meters, fifteen hundred, one thousand...
He could see the objective, the massive silvery steel construct of the Khanid Works pit mine a good half a kilometer south of where he was falling. The turrets that surrounded it fired futilely up into the air after the Malediction.
Five hundred meters... Ash thought as he looked down. With a mental command he activated the inertial dampener as he passed one hundred meters, then braced himself.
With a slam he landed in a crouch, his leg muscles aching from the sudden impact as he pulled the Kaalakiota Rail Rifle from his back and checked it. Then he stood, keying his neocom’s voice system as he did.
"Pilgrim two is down."
"Pilgrims are down, setting up a drop uplink now," Tahli called out.
Ash grimaced, the drop uplink would allow them to return to the fight in a fresh clone if taken out, but it was a painful means of travel involving spatial distortions and radiation levels that would cook an unprotected soldier. If it wasn't for the set of implants and cloning technology that he and his fellows used, such means of transport would only guarantee death from radiation. As the cloning technology rendered his body a replaceable asset, it was viable.
That didn't mean he liked it. Traveling through an uplink felt like how one of his teachers had described falling through a blackhole would be like. It felt as if he was being stretched out into a long noodle as he fell through the small wormhole, and if it wasn't for the pain suppressors built into the suit, he was sure he'd have collapsed on stepping out of the uplink.
He glanced at his hud and hurried over to the marker that showed where Tahli had landed. As he approached her, the familiar shape of a drop uplink activated at her feet and she straightened up cradling a rail rifle in her arms. She tapped her helmet. "Drop uplink established, Aslan."
"Roger that, I’m starting a circuit just below the horizon. Give me some coordinates, and those blood suckers won't have a clue what hit them."
Ash glanced nervously around before kneeling down beside a rock and pulled out his scanner. Aiming the device like a gun toward the facility, he pulled the trigger and waited for it finish it's scanning cycle.
Dozens of red contacts popped up on his hud as the scan finished, and Ash scowled. "Looks like you were right Aslan, at least fifty hostiles."
Tahli crouched down beside him and steadied her rifle against the rock before them. She glanced around the area and Ash could imagine her chewing her lip in thought beneath the helmet.
"We're going to need direct fire support to deal with those frigates on deck," She said before jerking her head toward the bloodstained ships sitting on the ground.
The two Hematos-class frigates sat in the middle of the loading dock, their boarding ramps down. From their perch atop the hillside overlooking the pit mine, Ash and Tahli watched as the tiny figures in blood soaked clothes roll barrels toward the ramps, while soldiers clad in equal bloody armor stood watch.
A pair of MTACs stood watch over the area, their giant humanoid forms slowly twisting left and right as they hefted the oversized energy weapons that each had been equipped with.
Tahli spoke up as she activated her wrist computer, "Aslan, we need a strike. The bleeders have two MTACs on site, coordinates enroute."
Ash scowled. "If that doesn't work, we don't have the firepower to take them out."
"It'll work, and if it doesn't we can just call in another strike," Tahli said as she lay back down onto the rock beside him and lifted the rail rifle to her shoulder. "There's some sentries on the top of that spire, around two hundred meters out."
Ash lifted his rail rifle to the shoulder and sighted on the target's she'd pointed out.
Against another mercenary like themselves, such a shot would be a futile effort as the heavy armor, integrated shielding, and even the genetic profile of their bodies made them far more resistant to damage, and two hundred meters was over twice what was considered the normal 'effective' range of their weapons.
But they were not mercenaries and, despite the energy those railgun bolts would lose in transiting those two hundred meters, the rounds had more than enough power behind them still to be fatal. Slowly he pulled the gun into his shoulder and readied the rifle.
"Target locked, inbound," Aslan's voice crackled through the neocom.
The defensive turrets that topped the spires deployed at that moment and started to track their way as a rumble filled the air. All around them, Blood Raiders stopped their work and looked toward the towers before glancing around nervously.
One of the lasers mounted on a spire fired, sending a scalding beam of purple light slicing through the air over their heads. The Blood Raiders that had stopped to look bolted for cover wherever they could find it. Men rushed for protection behind crates or threw themselves onto the rusty red soil as the thunderclap of a sonic boom washed over the area.
The distinct scream of a salvo of rockets ripping through the speed of sound filled the air and Ash glanced toward where the combat MTACS had stood just before they disappeared in a flash of blue electricity and smoke. The air reverberated with the concussion of the explosions just as a second shockwave rolled over them.
With a boom the Malediction screamed overhead, bare meters above the rock. As it passed the spires, bits of rock and loose equipment were blown free in its wake. The guns swung to track the ship as it passed, but by the time they were halfway there it had already dipped below the horizon kilometers away.
Deafening silence filled the air in the wake of the strike and Ash felt his hears ring from the double blow of the sonic booms and concussion of the rockets. Then the charged crack of Tahli's rail rifle filled the air.
One of the guards at the top of nearest spire toppled from the roof, his head blown clear off by the bolt. The sentry next to him spun toward them and Ash lifted his rifle up and squeezed the trigger.
In the third of a second it took the accelerator to charge, the man had lifted his own rifle toward them and fired, sending a beam of purple light hissing through the air. His scrambler shot flashed against Ash's shields just as his rifle bucked in his hands and sent a round ripping through the air in return.
The blood raider's chest exploded as the round tore through the man's armor and sent him toppling out of sight. Without a word of command, Ash and Tahli rose from the cover of the rock and started down the hill. The lose moraine and gravel slid beneath them as they skidded down the side of the hill.
The blood raiders were still shaking their heads to clear them of the concussion of the airstrike as they approached. A few of their more competent members were aware enough to snap shots at the approaching mercs, but almost instantly it was clear that they were outmatched.
Much like the vast disparity between conventional crewed starships and their capsuleer brethren, the gulf in capability between the two clone mercs and the blood raiders they faced was enormous. Despite the training and drills that each of those men had gone through, they couldn't match the experience and advantages of the mercs.
For Ash and Tahli death had become little more then a painful learning experience. They'd long ago lost track of the number of times they'd woken up in a new clone. It simply wasn't a big deal for them anymore. Their experience, their minds, and their identities had become divorced from the bodies they inhabited.
"Contact!" One of the raiders that had started shooting at them yelled just before a burst of rail rifle fire permamently silenced him. Another raider screamed as Tahli's rail rifle punched through his body armor and he dropped to the ground.
The years of experience and training had turned combat into little more then reflexive actions for the two of them. A target appeared before them and they neutralized it automatically. The screams of the bleeders were something they'd long ago learned to ignore.
They ran forward before slamming into the side of the wall of one of the mine's defensive towers. Nodding to Tahli, Ash flanked around the side of defensive tower and slid up beside the door to the interior. He pulled a flux grenade from his belt, primed it, and threw it through the door. A shout of alarm came from the group inside just before the screams.
After the crackle on his helmet display marked the grenade's detonation, Ash swung around the side of the door an rushed inside. Four raiders lay on the ground in expanding pools of their own blood. A fifth was staggering to his feet, blood running from a half a dozen points in his armor. Ash squeezed the trigger of his rifle.
In the time it took to charge the raider had managed to snap his own pistol up on him and fire. The shields integrated into Ash's armor flared just as the rifle finished charging. The long burst of fully automatic fire he loosed in return tore the man apart and his bloody corpse dropped onto the floor.
"Pilgrims, looks like those Hematos frigates decided to leave." Aslan's voice crackled through the neocom as Ash pulled the bloody remains of a raider off the control console in the center of the room. "I'm moving to intercept."
"Roger," Tahli muttered and Ash glanced over his shoulder as Tahli backed into the room, her own rifle spitting fire at the blood raiders closer to the loading dock. Beams of vicious energy shot around her as she kept up the fire. "Hack that thing, Ash!"
"On it!" Ash said as he activated his own wrist computer and started to work. Within a half a second he'd brute forced through the first layer of the lockout the raiders had put on the system. "First layer security breached."
"Hurry, Ash!" Tahli shouted just before boom of an explosion filled the air. "God, they've still got an MTAC up!"
"Second layer breached... Come on..." Ash muttered as he kept working, his gaze flicking between console and his wrist computer.
"Hematos engaged, the mine's defenses are locking onto me..." Aslan's voice came through the neocom.
"Got it!" Ash said as the lockout collapsed and he saw the system before him light up. Quickly he crouched over the controls. "I've got control of the mine defense grid. Switching targets!"
The entire tower shuddered as the laser cannon mounted atop it fired. On the sensor display, Ash watched as one of the red crosses that marked a blood raider ship disappeared.
"That's great, but I need fire support!" Tahli yelled as the defensive tower rocked from another hit. "MTAC, coordinates inbound."
"I've got it, Tahli. Just hold on!" Aslan's voice came through the neocom.
Ash crouched down beside her as a beam of golden light burned through the opposite side of the doorway, leaving a hole as big enough for a man to force his head through. At the same time scrambler shots sparked off the metal which surrounded them, leaving only a scorch on it's gleaming surface.
"On the way!" Aslan's voice called out and the two of them huddled together as the sonic boom of the rockets ripping through the air rolled over them. Then the concussion of the impact followed as their huds crackled from the em warheads that Aslan had used.
Tahli straightened up as the rumble of Aslan's ship passing faded into the distance and the two of them slowly leaned out of cover.
A broken MTAC sat in the midst of a crater, dozens of men clad in the blood red uniform of the blood raiders lay dead around the remains of the mech. A barrel that had once been filled with the blood were split open and leaking onto the loading bay's floor, staining it. Further back the remains of another MTAC had been scattered all across the bay from the explosion.
"Clear!" Tahli said before stepping out into the light with her rifle at the ready. "Nice strike, Aslan."
"I'm chasing down that last frigate... call me when you need pickup."
"Roger," Tahli said before lowering her rifle slightly. "Right, lets split up and sweep the area. I want to finish this quick. Then some salvage droids can sort through what they left."
Ash nodded as he lowered his rifle for a moment as well. "I'll take the right side. Meet you back at the landing bay in... thirty minutes?"
"Sounds good. There shouldn't be much resistance left, at least not anymore."
"No, lets just finish this," Ash said.
They split up and Ash began to make his way through the cooridors. Blood stains littered the floor and he could easily make out where a laser beam had cut across the surface of one wall. A level further down he found himself in a bay laiden down with mining MTACs, surrounded with scaffolding for some sort of repairs or maintenance. Another level down he found himself before a door, beside which a bloodied barrel sat.
A glance at the writing on it made his skin crawl, and with a snarl he pointed his rail rifle to barrel and squeezed the trigger. A burst of railgun bolts perforated the barrel and the crimson liquid that had been contained within sprayed across the floor.
"Bastards!" Ash snapped before he hit the activation stud beside the door.
The door hissed open and Ash stepped into the darkened interior of the compartment, his rifle pulled tight against his shoulder as he swept around the room.
It was dark inside. The low hiss of pumps and beep of life support monitors filled the air as he slowly maneuvered through the cramped room. Suddenly a pale figure stood from behind what looked like a blood stained cot and lifted a pistol.
Ash squeezed the trigger as he sighted in on the man, and grimaced as the purple beam of the scrambler pistol smashed into his shields, ripping into them. Then the rail rifle finished charging and spat its first bolt.
The round ripped through the man, spraying blood in all directions as he fell back. A second shot tore through his chest, before a third blew apart his skull and sprayed brain matter across the floor. Then he fell with a sickening thud.
Ash lowered his rifle and took a deep breath to calm himself.
The low hiss of pumps drew his attention to a rack which hung from the ceiling and Ash froze, his mind flashing back to the same racks he'd seen from his time in the hands of the Blood Raiders.
In the center of the rack hung a girl, maybe no older than five or six. Her face was ghostly pale and the monitoring equipment still beeped a faint but steady rhythm from her heartbeat.
Tubes filled with her scarlet life blood hung down from the rack and dropped into a barrel half filled with crimson blood. Other racks hung about the room, their occupants already dead.
"God," Ash muttered as he stepped up to the rack and activated his wrist computer. "Tahli, there's a survivor here!"
"On my way..." The neocom crackled.
He hacked through the rack's firewalls and disabled the pumps, not certain what else he could do. "I'll need a medic!"
"We don't have one!" Tahli answered through the neocom. "What about a nanite injector?"
"I don't know if that'll work for her, she's just a kid," Ash said. Scowling he checked her heartbeat on the monitor again. "The bastards took a lot out of here before we arrived, and they pooled the blood from multiple victims together. I can't just reverse the pumps. Mixing blood types could kill her."
"God's grace... just hold on, I'm coming."
Ash swallowed nervously as he stared at the heart monitor, uncertain what to do. Taking a deep breath he glanced around the room, his gaze drifting across countless racks filled with pale corpses.
Anger flared through his veins. "Aslan, how many people worked her?"
"Umm... The brief said, about thirteen hundred, Ash."
Ash shut his eyes and balled his fists. "God..."
"Ash?" Tahli's voice echoed in the room as she stepped inside.
"Did you find any other survivors?" He asked, knowing the answer already.
He swore. "Just once I'd like to save a life from these monsters."
He stared at the girl, his heart clenching in agony. Intellectually he knew it was all to common, he'd probably killed thousands in his career, but staring at the pale form of the girl, Ash couldn't really reconcile that reality with the form of the little innocent girl.
"Hell..." Ash muttered to himself as he pulled a nanite injector from his pack and stepped up to the girl. Cautiously he checked her pulse one last time before stabbing the injector into her calf and activating it.
A long shuddering breath came from the girl and Ash watched as a faint hint of color filled her cheeks. He dropped the injector and glanced at the lifesign monitor, its low chirp growing louder by the second. He activated his wrist computer again and started to bypass the controls once more. Finally the restraints went slack and the girl toppled from rack, falling into his ready grasp.
The clatter of booted feet drew his attention and Ash glanced over his shoulder as Tahli slid into the room. She froze as she saw him holding the girl, still unconscious in his arms.
"Is she?" Tahli asked.
Ash felt a smile slip across his lips. "Yeah, she is..."
As the girl stirred in his hands Ash couldn’t help the grin that slid across his face.
"Ash..." Tahli's voice was a croak through the neocom. Glancing down, Ash saw her scanning the girl once. "She's not a slave at least, no micro-controller implant, but she has a subdermal id tag."
"Ash, her name..."
"What about it," Ash asked as he settled her against his shoulder.