Plieznabr could feel their despair in his mind, like a cold fog, dulling his senses and making his limbs heavy. Their were disadvantages to being able to read minds, he thought idly.
He did not need the ability to sense the disarray of the Zhodani troopers. Casualties lined the corridors as he approached the Engineering section, their armor breached, blood dripping out slowly in large globular drops. The gravity in this area had not been restored to full power. He saw no medics attending them.
A sergeant approached him. "Report!" he barked to the soldier.
"I do not understand, nobly born."
Once more Plieznabr cursed his provincial accent. Linguistic variation was much rarer among the Zhodani than in most of human space. "What is the situation?" he asked slowly.
"The Imperials attacked in force. They hit us precisely where we were the weakest. Each time that we retreated, they seemed to already be where we were moving towards. I have lost almost half my platoon."
"How is this possible? Your communications must have been compromised."
"Perhaps, nobly born. Our officers agreed only to use telepathy to communicate."
"Ah. May I speak with them?"
"No, nobly born. They are all dead."
"Yes, nobly born. The Imperials attacked seemingly with the goal of killing the officers."
"Strange. Where is the rest of your section?"
"Come with me, nobly born."
They stalked through the corridors, Plieznabr's escort following behind them. "Stop calling me 'nobly born.'" Plieznabr said. "I'm but an Intendant."
"Forgive me, Intendant."
"Where are you from, sergeant?"
"Thengo, in Chronor subsector, Intendant."
"You are a native of this sector, then. Ah. I come from halfway across the Consulate."
"What does your family do?"
"We are farmers, Intendant."
"My family are farmers as well, sergeant." Plieznabr gently touched minds with the soldier. He was young, almost as young as himself, and scared, even though this was far from his first combat. He had been badly rattled by the deaths of the officers. "We are not so different, are we, sergeant?"
The man stopped. "No, Intendant. We are different." He lowered his head, then raised it after a moment. "My men are guarding the corridor junction just ahead."
They were huddled together in unmilitary postures. Only a few held their weapons in any meaningful way. Plieznabr recognized the insignias of at least three platoons among them. It was shocking. He had never seen a Zhodani force in such disarray.
He walked among them, trying to spread confidence with the power of his mind. Already he could tell that they felt better, without him even having to alter their emotions. The bond between officer and man, noble and prole, was very strong among the Zhodani.
The sound of boots came down the corridors towards them. The troopers sprang up and began to ready their weapons. The sergeant barked orders at them, and they took cover where they could find it.
Several Zhodani troopers burst into the corridor junction. Their armor was singed and blackened, and they ran in obvious disarray. More followed closely on their heels, and together they milled about the junction, terrified. Finally, a tall figure in the armor of an officer emerged, his shoulders stooped, walking slowly and dispiritedly.
Plieznabr stood up, blocking one of the corridors. "Stop!" he said, putting as much force as he could behind his command. "Fall into line and await further orders. Who's in command here?"
"I am, Intendant. Sublieutenant Ianeknebr."
"Ah, Intendant." Plieznabr extended his mind to the officer. "What is the situation?" he thought silently.
"Attacked. Routed. The Captain is dead...too many Imperials..." The officer's mind was disjointed.
"How did they know where to attack?"
"Don't know...killed the Captain first...no mercy..."
Plieznabr clutched the man's hands. "Don't worry," he thought. "How many attacked?"
"Perhaps a section." Ianeknebr's resolve was returning. "We outnumbered them. We still outnumber them!"
"Yes! Let us prepare a surprise for the Imperials!" Plieznabr looked around. Ianekebr's men had made a remarkable recovery in morale. They were already beginning to get into combat positions.
Good, good, good...start here, restore morale...follow up attacks with counter-attacks...retake engineering perhaps...
"Intendant!" the sergeant hissed. Plieznabr looked at his battlecomp's display. A group of people were coming down the hallway.
"Get ready!" he said. He crouched down in a doorway near the two troopers of his escort.
They came rapidly, dressed in Imperial powered armor with its distinctive, backwards sloping helmets, bouncing into the corridor junction and firing as they came. Gauss rifle rounds whizzed through the air, ricocheting off the walls.
Half the Zhodani fired. Two of the Imperials froze in mid-leap and came crashing to the corridor floor. Yet more were boiling into out of the corridor mouth. The flat crack of a rifle grenade exploding smacked somewhere behind Plieznabr.
His men were firing back, but the Imperials had found cover near the entrance to the corridor junction. Two of them were armed with fusion guns, and the boom and flash of star-hot plasma ionized the air around them, making it wavy with heat distortion.
Another Imperial fell. Without orders, four troopers rose up and charged the corridor mouth. Three of them survived to grab one of the Marines with the fusion gun and wrestle him to the ground. More troopers were working up towards the corridor mouth.
Plieznabr grinned wolfishly. He took aim with his laser carbine and fired at the other Imperials. One dropped and he turned to Ianekebr, about to give the orders for the final charge that would clear the corridor and turn the tables, driving the attackers back towards Engineering.
Two Imperials bounced over the front line of troopers. They landed in a knot of Zhodani soldiers and scattered them like leaves with the limbs of their powered armor. One had a fusion gun, and he took aim at Ianekebr, who had stood up, frozen.
A beam of hot-white light spat out of the gun and struck Ianekebr in the chest. He flew backwards and crashed into the wall. The sergeant got up and tried to charge the Imperial, but a rifle grenade exploded against him, tearing his head off.
And then, suddenly, the attack was over. The Imperials had retreated back up the corridor. Plieznabr looked about. Perhaps a quarter of his men were dead, including Ianekebr.
He opened his mind and let his anger and frustration flow out of him. The men jumped, startled at the raw waves of alien emotion that swept over them. Plieznabr raged and raged. His youthful adrenaline fed his anger and amplified it, washing away the fear he had felt during the firefight, washing away the loss and grief -
What was that?
He closed his mind down suddenly, cutting out even the low-level awareness that allowed him to sense the presence of the soldiers' minds around him. He had felt something during that unguarded moment, something like, like...
Like an echo.
Like another mind, watching and listening in, calculating their strengths, probing for weaknesses. It wouldn't be able to read the shielded mind of an officer, he realized. But it could sense the ordinary troopers and be able to guess which one was the officer. To tell the Marines who to attack and how to do it, attacks calculated to destroy their morale and effectiveness.
He knew! He knew! And together he and his master could crush it.
"Intendant," a young man said.
Plieznabr snapped out of his reverie. "Yes, corporal."
"I am in command of the platoon now. What are your orders?"
"Orders?" Plieznabr thought rapidly. No sense in confronting the Imperials until he could get his information to Tlienjpraviashav...yet they would still need every man possible to hold what they had left. He turned to his escorts, two battle-hardened officers from an elite Guards unit. "Take this platoon back to...the main junction," he said, glancing at his battlecomp. "Your orders are to hold that area as a rallying point for all other units. I am returning to headquarters."
"Alone, Intendant? Our orders are..."
"I'm aware of those orders. However, circumstances have changed. We need every man down here, and I must report to my master in person. I will go back by the safest possible route. Dismissed!"
He could of simply linked minds. But he couldn't risk it. He couldn't let his secret be overheard before he told Tlienjpraviashav the reason the Imperial attacks were so effective:
They had their own psionic!