Lt. Simmons tapped her headset again as she drove the carrier across the onslaught of ripples in the ground. “Say again.” She squinted at the ground rolling up in front of them as she strained to hear.
A voice broke through the static, just audible over the background noise. “- One Alpha, One Charlie overrun. One Charlie falling back -” An explosion saturated the transmission and then faded. Static filled the headset for several seconds and Lt. Simmons tapped her finger against it as if she were trying to dislodge the words she strained to hear. “-Dirt Hill! Three Alpha, get over there.” A squeal rang out in her headset, causing her to wince. “-Nobody left. Alamo phase line castle. – ” She heard a scream and then nothing but an ocean of hissing – the raw background noise of the radio carrier wave. Whoever had been transmitting from the MEF was done. She listened for several minutes more and then tapped her headset to switch frequencies.
“Two Bravo Delta,” she said. The carrier rattled and rocked as it barreled through a gulley. Playing the transmissions over in her head, she forgot to compensate with the throttle and the carrier bolted up the other side. All six wheels left the ground. When the carrier hit the ground, the frame screeched as the suspension bottomed out. Something behind her crashed to the floor. She whipped her head around. “Everybody alright back there?” Some of her Marines were still asleep; the rest stared back at her with eyes still hidden behind the camoflage painted on their faces. One of them was looking at the roof.
She turned back around and scanned the com panel on the floor next to her and winced when she realized she had left the PA switch on. They had heard everything.
“Two Bravo Delta, Badger Six,” she said.
Her headset clicked and she heard the Paladin’s voice. “Badger Six, Two Bravo Delta Actual. Authenticate packrat.”
“I don’t have your code sets, Major. Badger is ETA two minutes check point dodgeball. Over.”
“Understood. Standing by. Out.”
She eased back on the throttle as the carrier dipped into another gulley and rolled into a patch of flat dirt and scrub surrounded by a ring of low-lying hills. She peered into the gathering night, looking for Major Walker’s jumpjet. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a red light flashing on and back off. She veered towards the light and let the carrier’s headlights sweep over the jumpjet standing in the middle of the clearing. She eased the throttle back and disengaged the drive system, letting the turbine idle so it could charge the batteries and power the cupola on top in case they were ambushed. She would have preferred stealthing the vehicle, but with the MEF transmissions and the questions stacking up faster than answers, she decided to maintain tactical readiness instead.
“Sergeant d’Vane,” she said.
A voice erupted from behind her. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
“Omni sector fire lanes and a walking element at 200 meters.”
“Yes ma’am,” d’Vane said, smacking the release to open the rear hatch of the carrier.
Simmons nudged Shahn’Dra. “Wake up, we’re here.” Shahn’Dra jerked her head up and snorted, then stretched her snout out in front of her and shook her head. She unbuckled her harness and started to open the hatch when Simmons put a hand on her shoulder. “Wait. We need to secure our perimeter first.” Shahn’Dra leaned forward to stare through the windshield and started drumming her claws on the Old Scrolls. Simmons smiled as she unbuckled her own harness and opened the driver side hatch. As she hopped to the ground, she pointed at Shahn’Dra and said, “Wait.” Shahn’Dra nodded, still drumming her fingers on the case.
Simmons stepped to the back of the carrier. “All squared away over here?” she asked Sergeant d’Vane.
“Yes ma’am.” He swept his hand over the the hills surrounding the carrier. “I’m setting up a reverse slope ambush on all four corners with two elements patrolling on the other side. That way, we have no silhouettes but can still react to anything that comes our way.
“That’s a good plan, Sergeant. Let me know if anything comes up.”
She continued around to the front passenger hatch and opened it. “Come on out, sweetie,” she said. Shahn’Dra hopped to the ground and started swaying back and forth as she held the case in front of her.
Simmons led her towards the jumpjet as Major Walker started limping towards them. He had a carbine slung over one shoulder and he tried to take long strides despite the limp, but he couldn’t hide it. She stopped and snapped a salute. Walker stopped and swung his arm so his hand bobbed just in front of his brow before settling into a return salute. Shahn’Dra bolted towards him and held out the case. Smiling, she said, “I brought this for you.”
Walker ran his hand over the surface of the case and brushed the blue triangle with his fingertips. “So these are the Old Scrolls,” he mused. “Doesn’t look like much. Can you open it?”
Shahn’Dra’s smile faded. “I cannot. If I could, I would not. That is not why I brought them to you.”
“I know,” he said, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “Just drop it on the ground there.” Shahn’Dra hesitated. “Go ahead,” he said, smiling. “Drop it.” She stooped down and lay the case on the ground, then patted the symbol and murmured something in her own language. She stood up and took a step back when Walker unslung his carbine.
He took a step back, shouldered the weapon and pointed it at the case. A sharp crack filled the air as he pulled the trigger. The round glanced off the case and spun off into the darkness. All three peered at the case, unable to see where the bullet had actually hit it. “Well, this is going to be harder than I thought,” Walker said. He sat down next to the case and ran his hand over its surface. Simmons and Shahn’Dra sat across from him as he continued to trace the blue triangle with his finger.
For the first time since their skirmish with Second Brigade, Simmons felt the fatigue creeping into her bones and shook her head to keep it at bay for at least a while longer. “Have you heard from MEF?” she asked.
Walker grunted. “Not since they did this,” he said, patting the bandage on his wound. “You might say I’ve been keeping a low profile.”
“From what I heard, they could have used you tonight.” Simmons pulled her knees into her chest and counted the first stars flickering on the horizon.
“At the compound?” His voice floated around her, poking at her consciousness, devoid of answers. It didn’t sound like the voice of a man hiding anything, but it didn’t reveal everything he knew, either.
“There was an attack,” she said, puffing her words into the air in front of her to see what they might catch.
Walker gasped. “What’s going on here?”
“Lane sent Dekker’s battalion to round you up. I was attached to keep an eye on things and make sure he actually followed through.”
“Followed through on what?”
Simmons knitted her brow, still gazing at the horizon. “They said you shot up the compound, killed some HQ staff Marines and then took off. If your company had been at the compound, maybe you could have stopped First Brigade.” She stared at him, trying to put him in a corner. She was tired of bumping into walls in the dark.
Walker tapped the bandage on his leg. “See this, Lieutenant?” Simmons nodded without looking. “This is from a 7.62 mm round from an MEF R-51. I can show you the bullet if you want. I barely made it into my Cat and, yeah, I shot back.” She narrowed her eyes, took a slow breath through her nose and turned away. “If we had been at MEF,” he continued, “then Second Brigade would still have this.” He patted the Old Scrolls and tilted his head. He was waiting for her to ask him more. She could keep asking him small questions and he could keep giving her small answers made up one at a time to weave whatever story he needed her to hear. Her trust would build as his answers nibbled away doubt until she forgot what the real problem was. She knew what the problem was. And he wasn’t helping.
She leaned in, glaring. “Major Walker, I have been trained to out-think everybody. You can walk me in circles all night long and at the end of it, I still have orders. And I have a squad of highly motivated Marines who just saw their buddies get shot up over this – whatever the hell it is – who are willing to back them up. Brandt believed in you. But he’s gone. That means it’s up to me now.”
A wince flashed over Walker’s face and then he smiled. “I’m not walking you in circles. We’ve both been set up here. But we do have one thing in common.”
“And what’s that, Major?”
“Your boss. Because of him, I am out here with you, alone, unescorted, limping in the darkness and trusting that you will not carry out your orders to bring me in.” He looked towards the horizon. “Not that those orders really matter now that Godfrey is out in the open.”
“I can’t reach Colonel Harris,” Simmons said. “Not since the First Brigade attacked the compound. Which brings us back to you not being there when they needed you.”
“Seems you’re going to have to sort it out for yourself then, Lieutenant. What’s it going to be?”
The urge to end the conversation welled up inside her. It was time to stand up and call over Sergeant d’Vane to place the Paladin in custody. But that was as far as her mind could go. After that, it was just more of the same question. She sighed and twisted her neck, trying to disperse the tension tightening around her like a fist. She closed her eyes and grimaced at her own mistake when she finally realized what that question was.
“I need to know what’s so important about that,” she said, pointing at the Old Scrolls.
Walker glanced at Shahn’Dra. The girl knelt next to Simmons and took her hand. She unfurled her antennae and said, “I will show you.”
©2016 Michael J Lawrence