Lt. Simmons sat perched on top of her troop carrier with thick headphones hooked to a parabolic dish peeking out from behind the crest of the ridge where they were parked. She tapped the control unit and the dish twisted slightly to change its alignment. Through the headphones, she heard the scrape of their boots across the ground and the synthetic cloth of their uniforms rustling as they continued walking. There were four of them – a simple foot patrol along the perimeter of the Second Brigade’s camp for the night.
Captain Brandt lay out flat on his stomach next to her, peering through the scope of his rifle. Two more Marines were set up on the roof of the second troop carrier, peering in the same direction as Brandt.
Simmons whispered, “They’re stopping. Twelve hundred at two eight five point four five.” Brandt adjusted his rifle until he saw the target. Simmons glanced at the other two, who each gave her a thumbs up.
“There’s four of them,” Brandt whispered.
“We only have three set up.”
She gently clapped his shoulder. “You’ll be lucky to get one before my guys get all four of them first. We’re just being polite because you’re an XO and all that.”
“Gee, thanks,” he said, making final adjustments in his aim.
Simmons waited until she heard the patrol finish making its hourly report, drew in a breath and said, “Fire when ready gentlemen.” As Brandt drew in a breath and held it, the other two men snapped off their shots. Through his scope, Brandt saw two Terran Guards collapse in a heap. As he adjusted his aim for one that was still standing, two more shots rang out and the other two fell almost before the first one hit the ground.
Brandt shook his head and pulled back from his rifle. Simmons, smiling down at him, said, “See?”
Scrambling down from the rooftop of the second troop carrier, one of the other riflemen said, “Don’t worry about it, Captain. We’ll make sure you get a certificate of participation.” Brandt shook his head and folded the bipod of his rifle back along the barrel.
Simmons unplugged the headphones and hopped off the carrier, bending her knees to absorb the shock as she landed squarely on the ground. “Displace,” she said, and climbed into the front passenger seat. Brandt hustled into the rear compartment with the rest of First Squad and pulled the hatch closed behind him as the vehicle lurched forward and started racing just below the crest of a shallow ridge. Brandt slung his weapon over his shoulder and tightened the strap as 12 eyes stared at him from behind blackened faces beneath helmets smeared with random brown smudges. Even though all he could see were their eyes and the thin line of their lips clamping down in silence, he knew what they were thinking. They were Bravo One Nine. He was “other.” A green plastic tube flew through the air and landed in his lap. “Here, Captain Brandt,” one of them said. “You best camo up that face of yours so you don’t give away our approach.”
Scanning their faces, he was unable to determine which one of them was speaking and said to the group in general, “Thanks.” He pulled the cap off the tube and dipped his fingers into the black goo. He smeared it along one cheekbone and then the other, massaging the compound in a growing circle of black paint until it covered most of his face. He applied more to his nose and around his neck until he was sure he would be all but invisible against the night sky.
He looked at the squad and smiled. They just stared back at him. The man closest to him raised his hand and lazily tapped his own forehead. Brandt reached up and felt the patch of bare skin just below his hairline. He smeared a patch of black over it and nodded. The man simply put his hand back down.
Brandt was beginning to wonder if he’d made the right decision when the carrier jolted a stop. Lt. Simmons turned around and said, “Dismount. We walk from here.” Brandt pushed the rear hatch open and stumbled out of the carrier just in time to keep the squad from trampling him as they rushed out and squatted down to form a small perimeter. The squad from the second carrier did the same. Uncertain about what to do, Brandt squatted down between the two formations as Lt. Simmons walked out from the carrier a few steps and stood, looking at both groups.
“First squad will move to contact while second flanks in echelon. We need to get in fast and quiet and then get the hell out of there the same way.” Shahn’Dra peeked from around the corner of the second troop carrier. Lt. Simmons waved at her. “Come on over here, sweetheart,” she said. Flicking her eyes at Brandt, she said, “And Captain, you can stand up here with me.” Relieved to part company with the members of First Squad, he stood up, brushed the front of his uniform and strode as casually as he could to stand next to her.
Shahn’Dra, hunched over with her thin claws intertwined with each other, stepped out cautiously, swiveling her head between the group of men and Lt. Simmons. Her antennae were slightly unfurled and quivered gently as she allowed herself to sense the mood around her.
“Are you ready for this, sweetie?” Lt. Simmons asked.
“Tell me again what you need to do.”
“I will find the Old Scrolls and, if necessary, I will protect us from the Dark Winds.”
One of the Marines in Second Squad chuckled and said, “Leatherhead gonna’ blow for us fellas.”
Something inside Brandt snapped and he became somebody else, a madman whose actions he could only watch but not control. He bounded forward, grabbed the Marine and with a strength he never knew he had, threw the man several feet through the air and watched him sprawl across the ground. “Mother fucker!” he yelled, and with a single motion leapt towards the man and yanked his side arm free. He crouched down and pressed the barrel of his weapon against the Marine’s forehead. “Talk again and I swear to fuck I will send a bullet through the middle of your brain housing group.” He seethed as the man stared back at him, surprised more than afraid.
“He lost them,” she said. It took a moment for him to recognize Shahn’Dra’s voice.
“What?” he shouted.
“This man, he lost them.” She walked up to the Marine, knelt down in front of him and looked into his eyes as her antennae danced slowly over her head. “The other humans took them away. Screaming. Crying. But they didn’t find him. When he tried to run to them, his father yelled at him to stay away.” She closed her eyes and began to coo. A single droning wail floated out from her, filling the air with the agony of the boy that had become the Marine staring back at her. Breathing through her singing gills, she let out a slow melody that cascaded down on the first droning coo and cried a note for every tear the boy had shed when the Terran Guard had dragged his family away years before. The Marine shuddered as his eyes glistened.
Brandt pulled his side arm away from the man’s head and stepped back as Shahn’Dra sang for the Marine, just as she had sung for him after his last battle. Her body weaved back and forth and the wail grew in pitch and intensity until the man broke down and exhumed the soul he had lost. He heard the shots ring out in his mind and saw his family again. His father fell first, his dead eyes staring back at him as his face fell against the ground. He heard his mother’s scream choked short as another shot deformed her face so badly he couldn’t recognize her as she fell next to her husband. Her sister turned and ran. A final shot threw her forward and her body went limp as it hurled through the air and thumped to the ground. His breathing came in sharp gasps and then subsided as Shahn’Dra faded away the last notes of her wailing and drew out the droning coo into a single note that changed the color of the universe itself.
She opened her eyes. Gently wrapping her clawed fingers around his arm, she said, “I am sorry.” She stood up and backed up to stand next to Simmons as she folded her antennae back down on her head so they could all clear their minds of her song. Lt. Simmons shook her head and said, “Sergeant d’Vane, you alright?”
The sergeant stood up slowly, eyeing Captain Brandt. “Sorry,” Brandt said. “She’s done a lot for us.”
“Yeah, I get it,” d’Vane said. Turning towards Shahn’Dra, he said, “I apologize, miss. I – “
Shahn’Dra gently waved her hand and shook her head. “We will right many wrongs this night. Together.” Looking straight into her eyes, he nodded and resumed his position in his squad’s circle.
Lt. Simmons raised her voice so they could all hear. “Everyone alright? We ready to go?” The Marines all looked at each other and then back at Lt. Simmons. “Alright, let’s move it up.”
Walking in a low crouch, Simmons approached the crest of the ridge. Brandt took up position to her left, with Shahn’Dra behind him. First Squad fanned out in a wedge formation behind her while Second Squad drifted right to form a second wedge. Once at the crest, Simmons signaled for them to stop. She pulled her field glasses out of their case and inspected the formation of troop carriers 100 meters to their front. She waved Shahn’Dra forward and whispered, “Which one?”
Shahn’Dra closed her eyes and rippled her antennae. “The one that looks at us,” she said.
Lt. Simmons pulled down her field glasses and looked at Shahn’Dra. “The one facing us?” she asked with an edge of impatience in her voice.
“Its eyes look at us,” Shahn’Dra said.
“Alright,” Simmons said. She looked at the first squad’s sergeant and held up four fingers, then swept her hand back and forth. He nodded and continued to move his squad to her right. She turned around and made a pushing motion with her hand. Sergeant d’Vane nodded and checked his squad’s formation on either side. Turning to Brandt, she said, “How are you at wetwork?”
Brandt patted the knife nestled in its sheath on his belt. “Got it right here,” he said.
Simmons looked back at each sergeant to make sure they were watching and then waved her hand towards the target. She, Brandt and her first squad stood up and ran straight for the troop carrier while her second squad ran up and took up an overwatch position on the crest of the ridge.
The two Terran Guards standing sentry stopped and turned to look at Simmons and her team as they ran for the troop carrier. One of them pulled out field glasses and looked straight at them, then raised his hand while the other raised his weapon. Before he could even take aim, shots rang out from the Second Squad and the two guards fell to the ground. When they reached the vehicle, Simmons motioned with her hand, pointing first to her left and then her right. First Squad split into two sections and deployed fire teams on either side of the carrier, forming a barrier between it and the rest of the Second Brigade.
Brandt grabbed Shahn’Dra and pulled her down to huddle next to him by the front wheel of the carrier while Simmons pulled a small block of explosives from her belt and smashed it against the hatch of the carrier. She jammed two leads into and then hastily played out the wires as she backed up. “Fire in the hole,” she yelled and then mashed the button on the controller. The carrier hatch exploded in a shroud of smoke and shrapnel, revealing a gaping hole edged with twisted steel.
“You’re on,” Brandt said, patting Shahn’Dra on the shoulder. She rose up and gingerly stepped through the hole. Just as she disappeared inside, a clamor rose up from the adjacent troop carrier as Terran Guards scrambled to respond to the explosion. Both fire teams of First Squad opened up with a hail of fire. The Terran Guards went down before they even had a chance to assemble.
“Clock’s running,” Sergeant d’Vane said. Just then, Second Squad opened up from the crest, laying down a curtain of suppression fire between the carrier and the rest of Second Brigade’s vehicles.
Brandt stepped through the hole and found Shahn’Dra pressed up against the side, her hand stuck out in front of her and her antennae fluttering wildly. He turned to see Shoahn’Fal glaring at her as his own antennae fluttered. In a strained voice, Brandt said, “Don’t look at him.”
“It’s in there,” she said, flailing her hand towards a lock box nestled against the ceiling of the carrier. It was made from steel, but didn’t look too thick. A small numeric keypad provided the key to the locking mechanism.
Shahn’Dra gasped and stumbled backwards, still holding her hand out in front of her. Shoahn’Fal clutched at Brandt as he started to slam the lockbox with the butt of his rifle. The old Shoahn’ seemed unable to move very well, but his claws dug bright strips of red in Brandt’s arm.
“Step aside,” Simmons yelled. Brandt stumbled to the side, nearly tripping over Shahn’Dra as Simmons fired a burst into the lock box, shredding the lock. Brandt pulled the door open and reached in, groping for whatever was inside. His hands found the case and he pulled it out of the box, letting it tumble to the floor. Shoahn’Fal’s hand found it and he latched on tight. Brandt jammed the butt of his rifle into Shoahn’Fal’s hand and the priest pulled his hand away with a squeak. Brandt grabbed the case and hurled it through the opening. He then latched on to Shahn’Dra and dragged her behind him as he stumbled out of the carrier.
Once back outside, he picked up the case and thrust it into Shahn’Dra’s arms. He could barely hear himself above the barrage of small arms fire when he yelled, “Run!”
“Where to?” she asked.
Simmons, who was firing on a group of Terran Guards who had set up a skirmish line to their left yelled, “Just run!”
Brandt knelt down on one knee next to Simmons and took aim at the fire team that was trying to pin them down. He fired in controlled bursts, forcing the Terran Guards to duck and return fire from behind cover. “Bounding retreat!” Simmons yelled.
A Marine to her right yelled back, “Moving!” His fire team picked up and ran part of the way back to the crest while Second Squad continued to hammer the growing firing line of Terran Guards behind them.
Another Marine to her left yelled, “Moving!” and did the same while she and Brandt fired at the Terran Guards trying to move up on their left flank. Behind that, another group was running to reinforce the Terran line.
“That’s it,” Simmons said, “Our turn.”
Continuing to fire, Brandt yelled “Go! I’ll cover for a few more seconds.”
“Not too long,” she said. “They’re bringing up more.”
“Just get that case to the Paladin,” he said. As Simmons scampered back towards the crest under cover fire from both squads, Brandt leveled his weapon on one of the Terran Guards moving up to extend the line.
Just as he squeezed the trigger, the world went black.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence