“Marine Six, Marine Six, Enforcer Six Actual, over.” As soon as he stopped talking, Dekker’s headset clicked and all he heard was static. “One Six, One Six, Two Six Actual, over.” Dekker rubbed his forehead and lightly stomped his boot on the ground as more static hissed through his headset. “Three Six, Three Six, this is Enforcer Battalion Six Actual, over.” More static poured out of his headset. He started wheezing, as if the static was suffocating him.
He heard a pop and then a whine rise up behind the static. The hollow resonance of a voice trapped in a single sideband frequency flitted over the whine. Dekker scanned the horizon and caught a wisp of green shimmer as it danced across the sky. “Sergeant Preston, get over to the HQ carrier and recalibrate for magnetic impedance. It sounds like the poles are warbling again.” The Marine behind him hoisted his rifle and slung it over his shoulder before trotting out to the command carrier.
He heard the ghost of a voice struggling to overcome the effects of Shoahn’Tu’s magnetic poles shifting position. He peered into the night as if he might reach out and pull in the transmission trying to reach him. The resonant chatter bounced along the top end of the radio signal’s carrier wave until he made out what he thought was his call sign. The resonance faded as the voice crept back to the center of the frequency. His hands tingled when he heard his call sign, still hidden in the shadows of the sideband carrier wave but clear enough that he knew for certain somebody was trying to call him.
“Station calling Enforcer Six, repeat transmission. You are three by two and getting stronger. Repeat transmission, over.” His eyes fluttered as he strained to hear the tone of the caller’s voice while its resonance swept to the lower end and dropped out, leaving the signal clear enough for him to understand.
“Enforcer Six, Enforcer Six, Badger Six. Break. Any station Mike Echo Foxtrot, this is Bravo One Nine, do you read?”
A numb wave flushed through Dekker’s body and his muscles stiffened to the point of aching. His jaw clamped down as he listened to Lt. Simmons repeat the call. He trotted out to the carrier and poked his head inside. “Sergeant Preston, can you get a fix on that signal?”
Still working the controls of the radio panel as he worked to clean up the signal, Preston answered without turning around. “I can give you a bearing, sir, but that’s about it. The poles are really dancing.”
Dekker pounded his fist on the side of the carrier. “God dammit.” He heard himself seething and sucked in a breath, forcing himself to talk in a normal tone. “What can you tell me, Sergeant?”
Sergeant Preston nudged a knob on the panel. “Sector between bearing three two two and three five five sir.”
Dekker grinded his teeth for a moment and smacked the carrier with the palm of his hand. “Good deal, Sergeant. Carry on.” He scanned the closest group of the battalion’s carriers and spotted a group of Marines huddled around the sloping resin cloth of their tents. He marched towards them, stretching his neck and forcing his breath in even draws that made his chest ache.
“Officer on deck!” one of them called out. They all stood up and fixed themselves in place like posts in cement.
“Who’s ranking here?” Dekker blurted out.
“Corporal Jenkins, sir, Charlie three.”
“Alright, Corporal, assemble your section and come with me. Hurry up.”
“Sir!” The corporal and his six Marines scrambled to fish rifles, web belts, harnesses and helmets from their tents and assembled into a single line facing Dekker. He fished a compass from his pocket and oriented it so the needle lined up with the north index.
He yelled to Preston, “What’s my index, Sergeant?”
“North plus one three and drifting, sir.”
Dekker twisted the bezel on his compass so the needle now pointed to the correct bearing for the shifting pole. He lined up another marker on the bearing for Lt. Simmons’s signal and said, “Let’s go.” Leading his six Marines into the darkness, he tapped his headset and listened. A minute later, he heard her voice as clear as if she were standing next to him. Scanning the horizon, he caught a flash of light skimming the ground, groping through the darkness.
“Barrier line, right here,” Dekker said. The detail fanned out into two sections on either side of him and unslung their weapons. As the lights from the approaching carrier drew closer, Dekker huffed his breath out in measured intervals, as if he were already beating her with his bare fists. The lights swept across the ground and pitched up, flashing directly into his eyes as the carrier pitched up out of a gulley. The vehicle was just close enough for him to hear the turbine as it spooled down to idle. The carrier slowed and rolled towards him, as if driven by an errant child caught coming home after curfew. When it was within ten meters, it squealed to a stop.
Out of the corner of his eye, he checked the men in his detail and saw all six barrels pointed straight at the carrier. The front hatches opened. Lt. Simmons hopped to the ground and walked to the front of the vehicle, then knelt down and laced her hands over her head. A vision of his boot flying into her face flashed through his mind. His anger ebbed and a dull ache set in when he realized that he might actually have to shoot her for desertion. She had returned. She had surrendered. The thought of executing an officer who did not resist the consequences of what she had done caught him by surprise. The notion that it might be avoided crept into his mind and clutched at him until he realized he didn’t want to.
As he watched her staring at the ground in front of her, the rear hatch swung open and the Marines of Bravo One Nine stepped forward with their weapons raised over their heads. They fanned out on either side of her and stood facing Dekker and his detail. They all wore black camo paint and most had blood and dirt on their uniforms. Even with the camo, he could see fatigue etched into the faces like fissures. They all looked past him to a place that they had all seen but didn’t talk about because they didn’t have to, a look that was reborn with every battle and faded with time afterwards.
Dekker stepped forward to stand in front of Lt. Simmons. “Stand up, Lieutenant.” As she rose to her feet and lifted her head, he could see the pale expanse of fear on her face – but it wasn’t fear of him or anything that might happen to her by his hand. She knew something. “Report.”
She let her hands down by her side and took a wheezing breath. “Major Walker sends his regards, sir, and has asked that I brief you on his request.”
Dekker’s mind raced. “You found the Paladin?”
Dekker’s mouth opened just enough to let out a whisper of a sigh. “What happened to you?” he asked, pointing at a patch of blood on her uniform.
“We ran into the Second Brigade.” Her voice was distant, as if she were waiting for him to ask the right question and that finding the Paladin and engaging with the Terran Guard were distractions, notions of things to be discussed when there was nothing else to talk about.
Dekker looked over his shoulder and said to his detail, “You men stand at ease.” The Marines behind him glanced at each other and then Corporal Jenkins stepped out and turned to face his section.
“Ordaaaare -” he paused as his Marines raised their weapons and smacked the barrels with the flat of their hands. “Hyuh.” Almost in unison, they swung their rifles to their sides and jammed the butt ends into the dirt, holding their weapons straight along their sides. Corporal Jenkins turned back around to face Dekker and executed the same move with his own rifle, then stood as still as a slab of granite.
Dekker wanted to smile. They were showing off in front of the specops Marines of Bravo One Nine while reminding everyone there, including himself, that they were ready to stand and do the exact same thing Bravo One Nine had done. The Second Brigade would have to contend with them, too.
“Corporal Jenkins, take these men back to camp and get them fed and refitted.” He turned back to face Simmons and her men, still holding their rifles over their heads. “If you fellas don’t mind slumming with standard issue.” They glanced at each other and then looked at Simmons. She nodded once and they lowered their weapons and trudged to join Corporal Jenkin’s detail.
As they headed back towards the battalion carriers, Jenkins said, “You keep close to us now. There’s snakes and stuff out here in the dark and we wouldn’t want y’all to get bit.” Somebody laughed. The sound swam through the air and infused Dekker like an elixir that gave him one moment where it was the only sound he had ever heard and the world was but a dream that promised to fade away. And then it was gone.
Turning back to Simmons, he shuddered when he realized she was standing alone. “Where’s Brandt?” he asked.
Simmons shook her head. “I’m sorry sir.” The world came back in a thunderclap of dead silence. The night air seeped through his uniform and clawed at his bare skin. Dekker too often followed the whims of passion. He knew that. Brandt had always been his stanchion of common sense, keeping him squared away when his ardor got the best of him. What would Brandt say right now? The closest answer he had to that question was standing in front of him, fighting too hard to hide her own fear.
“Brandt was right about you,” he said. “You push too hard too long. You need to know when to stop and breathe.” He waited for her to bite back with a subtle rebuke that flirted with the line between moxie and insubordination.
Instead, she said, “I know. There’s a lot we need to discuss, Colonel. I hope you’ll listen.”
Dekker reared back and watched her through the corner of his eye. Something had changed and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know why. “Let’s go, then,” he said. “I’ll drive.”
As he stepped towards the driver’s hatch, she put up her hand and said, “Wait. There’s something I need to show you first.”
He eased back. “Alright.” He tracked her every move as she stepped to the passenger side of the carrier and opened the hatch. He saw the antennae first, floating in the air for just a moment before her head poked out from behind the door. The Shoahn’ girl paused, staring straight at him.
“It’s alright, sweetie, we need to tell him,” Simmons said.
Shahn’Dra eased out of the carrier and stood next to Simmons, glancing first at him, then at Simmons, and then flicking her head away to look at the horizon. Dekker stood frozen in place, unable to move. He knew he was looking at a Shoahn’, but his mind refused to let the reality catch up to what his eyes were telling him. They were extinct. They were gone. They didn’t exist anymore.
She looked at him. She took a step forward, her eyes fixed on his. A knot of loneliness emerged in his heart and gnawed into his chest as she walked closer. It wasn’t that he could see into her eyes or through them, or even past them and into her soul, as much as he fell through them and found himself afloat in an ocean of loneliness that wouldn’t let him hide any longer. She ran up to him.
“I’m sorry,” she wailed. “It’s forbidden.” She wrapped her arms around him and buried her head in his chest. “But please help me,” she cried. A child, lost in the same ocean, reached out to him and he understood everything she was, more than if they had spent a lifetime talking about it.
He held her close as her claws brushed along his back. “It’s alright,” he said. “I miss him too.”
©2016 Michael J Lawrence