Here is the condensed story line of the Frontier: The Highest Wall without the conversations and voting prompts.
Homestead R-22 had been completely overrun. A storehouse had been burnt to the ground, its superstructure still glowing through the morning mists as the Firewarriors of team Horizon crept over the outer walls. A row of greenhouses had been ransacked on the eastern flank, the roofing gently rustling in the wind, inside everything was trampled. On the western side a series of wind turbines had been torn down.
Shas'Ui Hu'dai wasn't taking any chances and had ordered the team to fan out but stay within line of sight. Reaching a ruptured cargo hauler that had crashed, probably trying to flee the combat zone, he knelt. Switching his optics to his blacksun filter, he swept the terrain, grimacing behind his visor.
"What was this? Threshers?" Shas'La Ud'un, Horizon Five, whispered next to him.
"Threshers don't attack in the numbers that would be needed to do this." Hu'dai eye-swiped his vid-feed to Ud'un and the entire team. All twelve teammates saw what Hu'dai saw through the blacksun; heightened radiation levels indicative of massive plasma discharges, their phantom traceries interpreted as blue streaks.
"They were attacked." Hu'dai concluded. "They fought with all they had."
"Where are they, Shas'Ui?" asked Ud'un.
The Shas'La was right, Hu'dai thought. There were no bodies, at least not around the perimeter. Hu'dai stood, looking at the homestead itself at the center of the structures. It was made of thick fio'tak, able to withstand ordinance strikes if need be so far was it on the border of the tamed parts of this world.
Hu'dai was not a native of Fo'tan. Like most Firewarriors on the planet he was from Kel'shan Sept, two whole stellar zones away from here. He did not like the idea of risking his team by pressing forward but this was not like a Second Phase Sept where he could call in a Hunter Contingent to support a recovery mission. Out here, it was just them and the troop transport a few hundred meters to their rear.
"What do we do, Shas'Ui?" Another Shas'La, Horizon Ten, asked over the comms.
Hu'dai leapt over the cargo bed and pushed forward, Ud'un moving in perfect precision behind him. "Converge on the homestead, weapons ready. Horizon Ten, Eleven, cover our entry. Horizon Twelve?"
"Yes, Shas'Ui?" Ra'kla responded from the troop carrier's cockpit.
"Extraction parameters Orange at the wrecked hauler." He clicked his chrono, syncing everyone. If anything went wrong, as it so often did on the frontier, they would double back.
"Understood, Shas'Ui, thrusters primed and ready, releasing drones now."
Horizon team cleared two more walls before they were in the courtyard surrounding the homestead. Just like the outer perimeter, there were no bodies but now there were signs of a vicious firefight. Fist sized craters were everywhere save the homestead which remained unscathed, unnerving the Firewarriors all the more so. Whatever had attacked had not had any detectable ballistic weaponry.
The carrier's drones whistled as they flew in a broad orbit around the team. They would keep watch over them and would boost their communications when they went into the homestead itself. Earth Caste structures like these went deep, Hu'dai knew.
The main doors had been atomized, the lips of what was left bent inward indicating an outer explosion of some kind, maybe demolitions. Hu'dai relied on mont'sia alone, instructing his warriors to do the same. Kel'shani combat-doctrine had adapted after the Gue'la incursion a century ago after their "Ca'di'a" shock troops had learned how to slice into the battlenet. Hu'dai gave three quick commands with one hand as he swept the opening with his carbine. Horizon Two through Seven switched to low-light on their visors and lined up to enter with Hu'dai. Eight and Nine took up positions facing outward, securing their exit.
Hu'dai took in a breath and held it, stilling his thoughts that were raging about him, and settled, focusing on the darkened corridor leading in. He eye-swiped and pulled up a schematic of the homestead from the colonial archives. The simple AI within his helmet communicated with the others and placed the map in the upper left With a simple nod he gave the order; 'go'.
They advanced two by two, advancing with shield guards up then split every ten paces to clear a doorway or take up a covering position as the Firewarrior behind them advanced. They did this with proficiency and driven by a single will, bred into them and further honed by a lifetime of combat, drills and teamwork.
The homestead comprised of twenty family units, all Earth Caste, with a Water Caste team of agriculturists and a squad of Firewarrior Shas'Saal. They found the first of these warrior-students in the central gardens at the base of the structure.
"By the worldspine-" A Shas'La gasped.
Hu'dai raised a fist and they all stopped. The enemy, whoever or whatever they were, had strung up the bodies of the Shas'Saal from their own viscera to the ceiling. At their center, laid onto the garden's fountain, was the Shas'Saal's instructor, impaled by a curved, golden weapon. The water splashing against the instructor's armor was the only thing in the room for a long time as Horizon team was struck by the shear horror of the chamber.
Hu'dai gave two quick instructions and the team fanned out again. He approached the fountain, pulling out a datawand from his kit and knelt over the instructor. They had tortured her. Based on the data Hu'dai's helmet was feeding him she had been the last to die. Her face had been stabbed indiscriminately, her eyes pulled out, leaving purple black streaks of blood. He touched her cheek, imagining the pain she must have felt, to see her students die.
He took the wand and touched a processor inside the instructor's collar, absorbing the audio and video captures it retained and pocketed the wand. Hu'dai next examined the blade the attackers had left. It was smooth, polished to a chrome and looked heavy but not lethal, more ceremonial like a Ta'lissera blade. It hadn't cut so much as gouged its way through the armor by sheer strength from the wielder. Hu'dai had never seen anything like it.
"Xau'kat aliens." His Second cursed from behind him.
Something fell and crashed deeper into the complex making every Firewarrior still alive train their weapons in the direction. Hu'dai stepped back, activating his blacksun filter. He saw the vibrations in ribbons of soundwaves, seeing that it was something in the cafeteria level. His finger tensed on his carbine.
The Sio't meditation rose up from Hu'dai's training like an ember that burned away the other emotions and left only purpose. It was the duty of the Fire Caste to be the spear and the shield. He would not let the possibility of a survivor be left behind nor an enemy they could punish for such an atrocity.
Hu'dai directed Six and Eleven forward to secure the stairway leaning further down into the basement. Checking his visor's data he quickly patched in to the drones circling the property above. Their panoramic sight saw nothing, no ships, no heat signatures in the surrounding terrain. He would keep them there, not daring to risk open communications that might alert an enemy.
Ordering his Second forward, the Shas'La instantly knelt so his Shas'Ui could remove a demolitions suit from his backpack. Hu'dai withdrew a fist sized drone from the pack and synched with it. The drone's simple, sub-sentient intelligence was overwhelmed by Hu'dai's own and he took control of it, letting it hang in the air as its miniature anti-grav thruster activated. Typically, such a drone was not used for reconnaissance and had a range of only a few hundred meters. Inside of the drone was packed with kles'tak explosives which Hu'dai was careful to deactivate.
He ordered the drone to lead Six and Eleven in, patching their optics with the drone's before ordering the two Shas'La forward with the rest of the team forming up the rear a few meters behind. He didn't want them to get bogged down if it came to a shooting engagement. The Third would be in charge.
The Second, Ju'to, looked up and him and signed a question; -Us?-
-Help me- Hu'dai ordered as he examined the blade in the instructor. It was unmistakably alien and did not come up on his AI's database of reference. That meant little though, with two dozen member races and twice that that the Empire sometimes fought against, a line-warrior's processor couldn't make the leaps in deduction required.
The Second went around behind the fountain and indicated the blade went straight through into the fio'tak as well as the instructor. Hu'dai bit back a curse and reached out to touch the handle. He wanted to pull the offensive weapon out from his fellow Shas'faan.
"Do not." Ju'to hissed, breaking communications silence.
Hu'dai stopped, trusting the Second. Ju'to patched his vid over to Hu'dai who saw that delicate, copper wires were leading out from the back of the instructor. Hu'dai slowly withdrew his hand.
"That was close." Hu'dai said softly. He looked around the slaughtered Shas'Saal. The enemy must have gone, why else place an ensnarement in the entrance. He opened comms for his team.
Pulse fire exploded from down the corridor. Hu'dai and Ju'to were moving instantly, carbines up, covering one another as they advanced. Shouts and screams of Tau in pain were punctuated by the bellowing of the Third as she tried to organize them and the overwhelming cacophony of automatic energy weapons.
"Cease fire! Cease fire!" The Third was screaming, desperate.
"Keep it together Shas'La!" Hu'dai ordered, the voice of command willing the Shas'La to stop.
He and the Second strode in, gouts of smoke rising from dashed tables and exploded kitchenware. The Shas'La were in a loose circle, the twin barrels of their carbines still glowing red. One of them, Five, had his helmet off and was being cared for by Eleven, the team's healer.
Hu'dai could tell by their body language they were rattled, their visor optics glowing and shaky in the gloom of the cafeteria. This was not like them, they had seen horrors from the Galaxy together as a team, but here they had acted like a bunch of first-cycle cadets and had nothing to show for it.
"What happened, Third?"
A Shas'La stepped forward from the ring, shaking her head, "Be'nu'sha saw... something behind the counter, she went to go look and..." She pointed halfheartedly at a shattered stone serving portal. Hu'dai looked at Horizon team. Eleven was missing.
"Report, Shas'La!" The Second barked. It was Ju'to's duty to maintain discipline in the unit but it had been two cycles since he had had to reprimand a fellow warrior so blatantly. Something was wrong about all of this.
"She went back there and then, Shas'Ui, she came out firing." The words hung in the air.
"That is impossible, Shas'La." Hu'dai said flatly, but none of the other Shas'La denied the Third's words. "Explain."
"That's just it, Teamleader, she came back and opened fire on us with her carbine."
He scanned them, "Firstly, the Friend/Foe recognition codes in your armor would prevent our weapons to align and fire. Secondly, why in all the worlds would Shas'La Kel'shan Be'nu'sha, Horizon Eleven, attack-" He couldn't even finish the statement. No Tau could willingly bring lethal harm to another Tau. Thousands of cycles had passed since the Mont'au. "Impossible." he said again. "Where is she?"
The Shas'La didn't move but the Third pointed again toward the counter. "Her shots went wide, she didn't hit any of us, but then she fired a grenade, blinded Five over there."
Hu'dai started making his way toward the counter. "Then what, Shas'La?"
"I... I turned off the recognition codes in her armor, Shas'Ui... You put me in command." Her voice was breaking.
Hu'dai reached behind the counter. Be'nu'sha had lost her helmet, letting her tightly wound braids scatter all around where her head rested on the floor. She looked peaceful, her expression without rage, her glazed over eyes strangely at peace. But peace had not been Be'nu'sha's last moments.
The twin spheres of a pulse salvo created a massive atomic reaction, the surface they impacted against causing a micro-fusion reaction. The craters that they made were unmistakable, usually leaving rings and rings of fused matter in striations that could be considered beautiful if you didn't think about the damage it could inflict on a life form. This crater now appeared dead center on Be'nu'sha's chestplate. It had melted the symbol of Kel'shan that had been printed on the crystalin matrix of her armor and had cracked the plates underneath before exploding outward and through Be'nu'sha's backpack.
There was no blood. Just a blackened cauterized wound. She was dead.
Ju'to who had followed Hu'dai, opened his visor and vomited.
"Is she dead?" The Third whispered, not leaving the rest of the team. Hu'dai closed his eyes. How could this have happened? "Is she DEAD?" This time she screamed. Hu'dai looked back at her and nodded slowly. The other Shas'La took a step back. Was it horror? Disgust? What greater violation of the Path than to strike down one of your own?
These questions would never be asked because Shas'La Kel'shan Dia'da, the Third of Horizon team, pulled her service pistol out from her harness, put the barrels under her chin, and before anyone could say anything, killed herself.
The sound echoed through the cafeteria. The Third seemed to fall in slow motion, falling to the floor with a crumple of armor. Hu'dai was holding up his hand, as if he could have stopped her. He lowered it now, not knowing what to do as his visor compensated for the sudden flash of pulse fire.
And then he saw it. A giant that might have been standing behind the Shas'La the whole time, hugging the deeper shadows of the room, only now apparent in the sudden flash from Dia'da's pistol. Hu'dai had never seen anything like it and could only make out the edges. Still confused about the suicide of one of his own, he was sluggish to change his visor to the blacksun filter.
The monster did not wait.
A blade shot out, wider than three handspans, and cut clean through two Shas'La from the waist. The remaining Shas'La turned, confused, carbine already coming up when a heavily muscled arm reached out and plucked him off the ground, crushing his neck and flinging him like a ragdoll.
"Fall back!" Hu'dai shouted to Ju'to and fired from the hip at the giant.
The alien leapt back, fast, too fast. But Hu'dai kept up the barrage, grabbing Ju'to who was still getting up and thrusting him down the hallway. Hu'dai saw the things eyes, twin pools of all black behind some kind of rebreather. He shot at it but it disappeared again.
Something clamped against his backpack. With a whirr and the warble of vesa'sia, the drone language, the demolition drone had magnetized to him. Hu'dai grunted and fired a photon grenade into the dark before turning and running pell-mell from the cafeteria.
Hu'dai and Ju'to reached the garden then turned and aimed their weapons at the corridor.
"Ufa'da!" Hu'dai yelled the code word into the comms and received an immediate signal that the Twelfth was lifting off with the transport.
A wholly alien sound of clicking echoed out from other doorways. Hu'dai could make out eyes reflecting in the dark. They were surrounded, outnumbered, by things Hu'dai had never seen. Some kind of new alien, a new threat, something from the Rift.
Shas'Ar'Tol needed to be warned.
Ju'to came to the same conclusion and grabbed Hu'dai and pushed him toward the exit. "Go, Shas'Ui, a'to Tau'va!" And with that he charged toward the doors, firing wildly into the dark.
Hu'dai felt sick as he turned and fled. The training that he had spent with his team included such potential scenarios. Always with the calm and calculated instructions that the cause, the mission, the goal of all actions were centered on the Greater Good. Ju'to must have seen the demolitions drone and known there would be no time to get it off. There needed to be a survivor and there was no time to debate.
He reached the doors to the homestead, expecting to see Eight and Nine where he had stationed them. They were a meter up, hung by the same cord that had been used on the Shas'Saal, their entrails split from their bellies to hang, leaving puddles of blood beneath them.
Where were the drones? Was all Hu'dai could think. He had planned for an attack, how had they died without setting off an alarm within his operations.
Hu'dai heard the closing whine of the troop transport. Twelve was throwing caution to the wind, forgoing his cloaking field for raw speed, aimed right at Hu'dai's position.
"Minu xenos stultum..." A reedy voice said behind him. He turned, carbine already at the ready but the massive blade of the alien flicked out and cut the barrels with ease, along with Hu'dais right hand. He took a step back, cradling his stump.
The alien was still under the doorway, coming up to the top of it with its massive head. It was heavily muscled, pulsing white flesh, without any symmetry as though even amongst its own initial biology it was malformed.
"Mortis enim est unicum." It chuckled through the grill of its rebreather. Somewhere in the frantically calculating AI of his armor and his mind he realized the alien was speaking a dialect of Gothic.
It stepped forward. Hu'dai would only have a second.