Start the tale at the beginning by clicking FAITH & EMPIRE — Chapter – 1
The Hard Nut
“The planet’s atmosphere is composed of seventy-six percent hydrogen, fifteen percent helium and the rest is mostly methane which, the last three days of observations have shown us, can erupt in fiery geysers from beneath the planet’s mantle at random,” L’Amour began his description of Muvuru-3.
“Sounds highly unstable,” Chaplain Prata said.
“It is, Padre,” the colonel agreed. “The planet has a metastable liquid metal core of ultra-pressurized hydrogen. And planetary mantle instability and deterioration is being exacerbated by the mining operations. More on that in a minute.
“Gravity is eighty-eight percent of Earth’s standard, so mobility should not be a problem. Lastly, we’ll be touching down during the planet’s deep winter. Surface temperature averages sit at a chilly minus 50 degrees Celsius.”
The holographic orb ballooned again, enlarging to display a large swath of rugged terrain of dun and dull yellow faintly marbled with streaks of rust-red. A shoehorn-shaped protrusion of rock wedged between a large, deep crater and towering mountains was centered on the image.
“Our target is here,” the colonel continued, highlighting the shoehorn. “Eleven degrees south of the equatorial line, dug a kilometer and a half deep into this mesa. We’ve detected three entrances, one at the top, another at the base of the mesa’s north side and one on its east side about half way up at the end of this narrow land bridge. We will assault the base from each direction. Thus, Attack Group Delta will be subdivided into three forces.
“The Halberds, Santos Godfrey de Bouillon, Don Juan, Gonzalo Fernandez and King Louis will drop our 3rd Battalion and two squads of mechs in this valley just six klicks north of the mesa. The Hermann von Salza and the King Konrad will add Austros’ 5th Battalion. Together, this northern force will be designated, Iron Arm. And it will lay low in this valley, safely out of the enemy’s line of sight, until called forth by the King Alfred.
“The call will come as soon as the eastern force, designated Hammer Strike, climbs out of this sunken plain. Hammer Strike will consist of our 5th Battalion, two squads of mechs, Austros’ 4th Battalion and Martel’s Marauder’s Tank Corps. The Santos Cortes, Andrea Doria, Colombo and Torquemada will drop our boys, and the King Andrew and Czar Nicholas will bring theirs.
“Dropping directly onto the sunken plain would expose the ships to overwhelming fire from the mesa’s ground to orbit batteries. You will instead drop to the surface here, seventy-one kilometers south and fly as low as possible through these hills to the sunken plain. This course will greatly reduce your exposure to enemy fire.
“First Battalions, Austros and Imperial will be designated, force Thunderclap, and together, we will assault the mesa top once the King Alfred has silenced the enemy’s surface-to-orbit guns. I will lead them down aboard El Cid with 1st Platoon. The Saints Charlemagne and Magnus will deliver the rest of the battalion. The Empress Catherine and the Vladimir Putin will drop Austros’ 1st Battalion.”
Colonel L’Amour clicked the remote. The hologram ballooned again, displaying a close-up of the mesa, sitting, it seemed at the center of a web of fissures.
“This base sits in the center of a vast network of tunnels that stretch more than halfway around the planet,” the colonel continued. “Notice anything peculiar about these tunnels?”
I knew next to nothing about mining, but the web of squiggly lines radiating out from the underground base looked a lot more organic than I would have imagined they should for those produced by mining operations.
“Those tunnels were dug by ore wyrms,” Barrel-chested Lieutenant, Breck Sheed said from a few rows ahead of me. I noticed several heads scattered throughout the deck nodding in agreement. Most of us however looked around with clueless expressions.
“That’s right,” Colonel L’Amour said, giving the remote another click. A hologram of a writhing ore wyrm replaced that of Muvuru-3. We studied the image of the large, sharp-tooth mawed and scale-studded monstrosity in silence for a few seconds. “Ore wyrms, for those of you who don’t know, are genetically designed to bore through planet mantles, eating the earth and rock and, well… to be blunt, they then crap out the ores.”
Chuckles rustled through the assembled marines and fighter pilots as the imaginations of those of us who had never heard of ore wyrms concocted their various images.
“Now that’s a neat talent,” someone said from the back of the room.
“I know a gene tweaker on Rega who might be able to give you that enhancement, if you like eating dirt, that is,” Corporal Bucci offered and we shared a laugh, myself included.
“Just how big are these wyrms, colonel?” Izzy asked.
“Adults average a circumference of seven to ten meters and a length of anywhere between twenty to forty meters. They weigh a ton or two, depending on their size.”
Izzy responded with a “Yikes! These things can’t be legal.”
Colonel L’Amour responded, “They are legal, but their use is restricted to uninhabitable planets, has been so since the signing of the Gemini Accord.”
“Colonel, if one of these ore wyrms swallows Shoji, here,” Our platoon’s First Sergeant Hayes asked with an elbow nudge to the marine on his left. “Are you saying the only thing left of my corporal will be his tooth?”
Corporal Yukio Shoji sported a gold plated incisor on his upper rack so we all had us a good laugh, the corporal and colonel included.
“And nothing but the tooth,” L’Amour answered at last. “These wyrms are as dumb as the rocks they eat, but they’re dangerous. Besides their granite-grinding choppers, they secrete a highly corrosive enzyme that aids them in boring through planet mantles. Ore wyrms are silicon based organisms. Very tough hide. Additionally, their hides are studded with jagged, diamond-crusted scales that will cut you to ribbons if you’re foolish enough to get yourself ground under them. Armor will not protect you, not for very long anyway. Power armor will endure it more readily but not indefinitely.
“Additionally, bead fire will be practically useless unless you can convince the wyrms to keep their maws open long enough for you to empty a couple of drums down their throats.”
“And pulse weapons?” someone behind me asked.
“They will hurt and even kill them with enough concentrated fire,” L’Amour answered. “Power swords will hack them up nicely, but not without splattering their enzymes all over the place. Considering the confines of the tunnels, you might want to resist the urge to emulate Saint George unless you absolutely have no other choice. Plasma will kill them quickest and cleanest of all, so lead with your Burners if you have to enter the tunnels. But they are not the enemy, so steer clear of them if you can.”
“What’s the likelihood of our coming across one?” Lord Zoltan asked.
“We have no way of knowing that right now,” L’Amour responded. “In truth, my lord, we don’t know if there are any wyrms still left on the planet. It’s been at least a thousand years since they were first introduced into the planet’s mantle. On any world of civilized space, they would’ve been engineered sterile and died out centuries ago. The Dominion, however, wasn’t party to the Gemini Accord, so their wyrms might have been engineered to breed.”
“In which case there could be thousands of them down there,” Lieutenant Breck Sheed offered.
“We’ve equipped the recon-rovers with ground-penetrating radar just to be sure,” L’Amour said with a nod. “The proliferation of wyrms boring unchecked through a predator-free environment could explain the instability of the planet’s surface. We’ll have a better idea when we get down there, but the initial geologic scans suggest the planet’s mantle has only a few centuries left before it experiences a catastrophic collapse.
“If they’ve been digging through the mantle for centuries, think of all the treasure they must have… um, deposited,” Corporal Bucci mused out loud.
“Such a treasure would go a long way to explaining how the pirates got their hands on so many recruits and so much military hardware in so little time,” L’Amour said.
“You’d think that stumbling across so much wealth would tempt the pirates to go honest,” Corporal Shoji said.
“You would,” Chaplain Prata responded, “Except that evil, as we know, is a God-sized hole in the soul. It’s an infinite abyss. There’s not enough wealth, power or pleasure that can ever fill it.”
“That’s right, padre. And the pirate with the ugliest hole in him is one, Lugo Grogorum,” Colonel L’Amour said with another click of the remote.
A hologram of the dark, large and mutton-chopped head of the pirate replaced that of the ore wyrm.
L’Amour continued as we studied the image and read the stats bullet-pointed beside him. “Lugo is the eldest son of the Orion Hegemony’s royal house, Grogorum. He disappeared from everyone’s radar for forty years until just about a month ago. Based on the communications we have been intercepting, Imperial Intelligence has high confidence that Lugo spent three decades working his way up the ranks of the pirate horde and the last seven to ten years leading them.
“The voice which responded to Commodore Alba’s order to surrender was a match for Lugo Grogorum, so we believe he’s out there somewhere.”
Someone in the rear of the hall voiced my own question. “How did Orion royalty get mixed up with these pirates?”
“Succession in Hegemony royal houses is determined by mortal combat between sons of the Queen Concubine,” Colonel L’Amour answered. “Lugo apparently didn’t think much of his chances of defeating his younger brother, so he upped and fled, abdicating his claim to the barony two weeks before Ulyrik reached the age where he could challenge his elder brother to their Blood Rite of Succession.”
“The coward can’t be too much of a threat, running away from his little brother like that,” one of the pilots offered from the front of the room and we had us a laugh at the pirate leader’s expense.
“Ulyrik is something of an Orion among Orions, a possible future contender for the Hegemony crown,” Captain Obey said. “He is much feared throughout their empire.”
“The other houses keep a wary eye on him, or so I. I. believes,” Colonel L’Amour concurred. “Be that as it may, let us not underestimate Lugo. His sibling never backed him against a wall as we are about to do. Additionally, when he fled the Hegemony, Lugo took his personal guard of a hundred Mandrillion with him.”
The overhead projector created an image of the six-limbed, simian-human hybrid. The specimen presented to us had fur of a dark olive with red highlights, especially on the mane that haloed its head. Piercing amber-colored eyes and the white and red painted face gave it a fierce aspect. The holo didn’t show it, but I knew the creature’s snout hid a set of curved fangs.
“However, long before we can get to Lugo, his monkey-men or the ore wyrms,” L’Amour continued. “We’re going to have our hands full dealing with the very deadly hardware our probes managed to spot before they were so rudely destroyed. So, listen up and listen close if you want to up the odds of returning in one piece…”