The North Star

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Chapter One

"Krags!" Grimshaw screamed into his suit’s coms system.
He threw himself onto his back in the undergrowth just as three krag heavies emerged from the brush. Blue and red lights flashed as both parties exchanged fire. Grimshaw fought to maintain control of his phase rifle; not easy from his position. It kicked all over the place, but he was fairly certain he landed a few hits.
The deadly heat of energy discharge passed above him. The fight stopped as fast as it started.
Without cover, the krags took heavy fire. It was the krag way. No cover, no beating about the bush, and no holding back. It was all about valor and courage for the thick-skinned aliens. Anything less than a head-on charge was considered cowardly and cowardice was the greatest crime a krag could commit. Such courage came easier when you knew you would be born again, no doubt. 
Despite being at war with them for the guts of ten years, the Alliance knew little about the kragovorian. They did know the creatures were somehow able to transfer their consciousness to another krag body on death. At least that’s what the latest Alliance intelligence suggested. If it were true, it was a nice fail safe, and the Alliance lost a lot of good people trying to learn more about it. Every venture down that avenue came up empty handed. Other than that, krag technology was on par with human advances. Their shields were lighter, but their heavy armor could take a lot more heat before breaking down. In the meantime, they inflicted their damage.
Grimshaw climbed from the jungle floor and took stock of that damage. After a quick check, he was relieved to find he hadn't been hit. Others in the squad weren’t as fortunate. There were ten of them before the most recent attack, and now there were only four. Six smoldering human remains lay on the ground; the smell of burnt metal, hair, and flesh a mark of their passing. Krags always aimed for the upper torso and head. They didn't believe in taking prisoners. When they opened fire on a target, it was always to kill. It meant fewer injured and more dead. 
The three heavies lay motionless, their thick-plated armor smoking, their black horned helmets giving them the appearance of fallen demons. They were intimidating, even in death.
"Another attack like that and we’ve had it." Sergeant Richards voice crackled across the coms link. 
"Maybe if we dig in—" 
"Our orders are to reach the extraction point at all costs." The sergeant cut Bradley off.
"Now's not the time to shit in your suit Bradley. We need to get this data back to the Alliance. Now get moving before another hunting party shows up. Conners?"
"Two miles that way, sir." Communications officer Conners pointed in the direction of the extraction point. 
 They hadn’t realized an enemy unit had been sent to cut them off and a krag electromagnetic grenade took out most of their suit circuitry. Backup power kicked in and brought critical systems like life-support, short range communications, and shields back online. By then, the human squad had already suffered heavy losses. They were originally twenty-two strong. A dozen managed to break away from the ambush, while those that stayed behind drew enemy fire. It was an honorable sacrifice. The entire squad knew how critical the mission was, going in. They knew that the data they retrieved had to make it back to the Alliance, no matter what.
Since the EM grenade attack, only Conners had access to navigation systems. Being a coms officer meant navigation was programmed into his suit’s critical systems protocols.
"Head out," Sergeant Richards ordered.
They went in the direction Conners had pointed.
When Grimshaw first joined the academy, becoming a sergeant was his goal. He worked hard towards it, but always fell short. After being under Sergeant Richards’s command, he realized he could never hold such a position. Leading men took brains, but most of all it took balls. Sergeant Richards had both in spades and then some. Grimshaw had neither. He wasn't as much of a coward as Bradley, but he wasn't far behind either.
They cut through thick growth all the while listening for the enemy. Krags always came in threes. With full shields, another hunting party would likely mean the end of them. Running on low power as they were, it was a certainty. 
The mission was supposed to be straight forward: land on Gorthor undetected, take a lightly manned krag outpost, establish a link to their systems, download the data, and get the hell out. 
It was plain sailing right up until the “get the hell out” part. Alliance intelligence assured them most krag forces had left the outpost in order to bolster a nearby planet where the Alliance’s third fleet had started bombardments. What they didn’t tell them was that the enemy had left an entire company behind, forcing them to revise their tactics. 
Instead of a head-on assault, a small team managed to get in and out with the data, but before the squad could withdraw, the alarm was raised, and a group of krag cut them off as they ran for the extraction.
Grimshaw didn't like bringing up the rear, but someone had to do it. Given the situation, the sergeant and Conners took point, and Bradley wasn't reliable enough for the job. Rear guard was an important position. It could mean the life or death of everyone else on the squad… or what was left of it.
Grimshaw heard something and signaled for the others to keep moving. He fine-tuned his helmet’s audio to see if it registered anything. Satisfied there was nothing, he picked up the pace and rejoined the others.
"What's wrong Grimshit? The krags got you spooked?" Bradley taunted over the coms-link. Grimshaw never liked the guy. He was always full of hot air and empty words. Still, he couldn't blame him for trying to mask his own fear.
"Keep up, you two. We're almost there," Sergeant Richards cut in.
They chopped through to a clearing, and Grimshaw noticed a distant hum. It was the sound of an engine.
"The jump ship is just over the hill," Conners said. "We've made it."
Conners hit the floor, a gaping hole hole burned into the back of his helmet.
"Return fire!" The sergeant shouted as they scrambled for the trees. 
Blasts of blue streamed back down the path from which they came. No krag hunting party appeared. Grimshaw wondered if it was a krag sniper? There had been tales of krag marksmen, though, none of the reports were ever confirmed.
A sickening noise issued from the jungle. It was like chortling mixed with animal sounds. 
Grimshaw realized where he had heard it before. He remembered the training session from his days in Alliance Academy very clearly. It had left an impression. The instructor activated holographic images of a hideous looking creature. No one knew what it was really called, but it was dubbed the black dragon and intelligence on it was scarce. One soldier had claimed to survive an encounter with one. Grimshaw couldn’t recall his name, but he was the one who provided the audio recordings of that gut-churning sound. He also provided some broken video that the Alliance used to piece a rough model of the beast together. It was a long black serpent-like creature with bony armor, believed to be native to the krag home-world, somewhere in the Lidnall system. It had four bulbous eyes on each side of its pointed head and fangs said to contain a deadly venom. It was rumored that the krag used them as mounts, but no one knew for sure. 
It appeared Grimshaw was about to find out. He heard it again. The sound was getting inside his head.
A red streak exploded from somewhere in the brush and smashed into a tree by Bradley. The private held onto his rifle tightly as he shook back and forth.
“Snap out of it Bradley,” Grimshaw called into the coms-link.
 Bradley looked at him then made a break for it. A streak of red cut him down. Grimshaw swore.
The enemy was firing too fast for there to be only one. There were at least two out there. Another red streak exploded from the trees and made sure Bradley was down for good. Grimshaw leaned out and returned fire before the next one came. The sergeant drew up behind the tree next to him and started reloading his rifle. Grimshaw continued firing blindly; blue pulses traved in the direction the red streaks were coming from. He took cover just as another red beam streaked by.
"That data needs to get back to the Alliance, private. It could mean the difference between losing and winning the war!"
"Understood, sir. I'll cover you." He couldn't believe he had said it. Whoever stayed there wasn’t getting out alive. Grimshaw didn’t consider himself the courageous type, so he was surprised by how calm and collected he felt. He didn’t know what to expect but a wave of nerves and desperation wouldn’t have felt out of place. Maybe he had some balls in him, after all. At the end of the day, it was what he signed up for. Many had given their lives for humanity, especially since the first kragovorian encounter. Now it was his turn.
"No, Grimshaw. You’d be cut down in a heartbeat. My suit has heavier shields than yours. The batteries have recharged enough to give you time to get out of here."
"But, sir-" 
"You heard me, Grimshaw.” He threw the data case and Grimshaw caught it. “Now go!"
A white aura appeared around the sergeant’s battle suit as he ramped up his shields. He charged from behind the tree, rifle blazing. A red streak punched into him, but his shields held, and he charged again.
Grimshaw slid the case into his pack, redirected all remaining power to aft shielding and made a run for the hill. He was surprised when he wasn’t instantly struck down. He scrambled up the incline. It was much steeper than it appeared from a distance. He stowed his rifle and clutched desperately for anything he could get a hold of—weeds, roots, rocks—and pulled himself up inch by inch. It seemed to take an age and all the while he expected to die on the side of a hill, on an uncharted enemy world, grasping the root of an alien tree. The sergeant’s plan was worked because he reached the top, hauled himself over the last stretch and rolled clear of the edge. The jump-ship was a short run away. He breathed hard, his chest plates heaved, and he mustered the will to get on his feet. He stumbled in the direction of the ship; his legs started to wobble with exhaustion.
Halfway there, enemy fire struck him on the shoulder, and he hit the dirt hard. Pain flared from his upper back as he rolled onto his side with one good arm. A twisted black beast of tusk and horn slithered its way towards him like a levitating snake. The black dragon was as fear inducing as the textbooks claimed. The krag on the dragon’s back levelled a long rifle at him. Grimshaw closed his eyes. There was a shot, but it didn’t come from any krag weapon. There was another quickly followed by a third. Grimshaw opened his eyes just in time to see black dragon retreat back over the edge of the hill. He tried to get up again but collapsed in a heap. The world became tangled muddy mess of broken sights and sounds. Something took hold of his arm. He wasn’t sure what. It dragged him across the ground and darkness came overtook him.