Chapter 43

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TIME’S FIST

Enforcer Battalion’s troop carriers scurried across the desert floor, hurling trails of billowing dust that stretched out into the darkness and settled back to the ground, shaken from an eternal slumber by something the land had long forgotten. The ground had seen and felt the tremble of it all before. The sky had once watched with uncertainty, now content that it would all come to the same pinnacle of futility. They had survived this for more time than even a Shoahn’ could count. It was just a moment of stirring that could not keep them awake. The ground and the sky would reach into time far beyond what the living would ever see. It was well enough to sleep until then.

Dekker stared at the green glow of the navigational display, willing the marker for the communications complex to crawl down the screen. He tapped a button to zoom in on the marker and it crawled faster, but the scale of distance contracted to swallow up the relative speed. Time would not let go of him, but only taunt him with its rigidity. He thought of his ancestors, who had travelled at near the speed of light only to have time rob them of the history of those they had left behind, leaving an infinite ocean of space across which they could only yell at the long dead. He zoomed the display out far enough to see both the marker and the string of dots that represented his battalion carriers moving towards it. They looked closer, but they crawled one aching pixel at a time towards each other. Time – immutable, onerous, indifferent; it closed around him like a fist. It gave him infinite options, but only a few that he would be allowed to even try. The best of them lay across an expanse, out of his reach, just like the people his ancestors had left behind because they could not be chosen.

Time had come to this place to give him one last chance to save something that the universe would never see again if he let it slip from his hands. There was no justice in that, no mercy. There was only the hope of achieving the impossible, as if it were all a maze laid out just to see if he could get through it to preserve something that had a right to exist but would always take the blood of men like himself. He was time’s plaything. If he could, Dekker would have slashed its throat to watch it bleed away and leave the universe frozen in a single moment so that time could no longer wield its infinite power without a notion of what it meant to live.

The carrier jostled as it barreled across another gulley and leapt a few feet in the air on the far side. Lt. Simmons, nestled into the driver’s seat next to him, let out a glistening “whoop!” as the carrier landed.

“Check your bearing marker,” he said, noting that she had strayed two degrees off course. He leaned over to check the large screen mounted in the console in front of her to confirm that the bearing marker was aligned with the correct heading on the compass drawn on the display. He tried to ignore the readout for their speed and her hand pushing the throttle against its forward stop, both of which told him she was driving the carrier forward as fast as she could, but would never be able to drive it fast enough.

Through the windshield, he saw the lights clawing at the scrub, rocks and gullies of the desert that stretched out beyond them and into the darkness. They rose up in a blur, all the same, as if they were an infinite loop of nothingness that simply marked the passage of more time. For a moment, he wondered if they were even moving through space. The ground was all motion, but it had nothing to say about actually getting anywhere.

Dekker found himself drawn into a trance as he watched the blur. The fist of time seemed to let go of him and he had no sense of then or now as seconds became minutes and then hours until, at last, he saw the outline of the communications complex fade into view on the horizon.

He tapped his headset. “Enforcer all stations, Enforcer Six Actual. Listen up. We’re ETA five minutes. Get ready to circle the wagons. Company commanders disperse in a three sector circular perimeter. Set up your tactical signaling – we’re going to EMCON charlie. Actual out.” They had been through it all before. The battles, drills and rehearsals up until that point would have to be enough. They knew what he wanted and he had to trust them to make it happen without him; he wouldn’t have time. The fist closed in around him again. The past was gone. The present flew out of his hands. All he had left was if only. If only he had dug deeper. If only he had been there when Jommy had to run. If only he had followed orders at the Highlands. If only. He shook his head and pounded his fist on his leg, forcing his mind to stop. “Enough,” he growled at himself.

An orange glow flooded the desert floor as the sun peeked up behind the dunes beyond the complex. Dekker leaned back and inhaled sharply as his chest tightened. The day that could be the last day had announced its arrival. The day that would either be the end of it all or a new beginning for them all was here: a minion of time, a master of their fate.

The carrier’s frame creaked and the brakes squealed as Simmons eased the throttle back and braked the carrier to a halt. Dust flew up from behind them and settled onto the ground in front of the carrier. Dekker took another breath and opened his hatch. He stepped onto the ground and stretched, coaxing the blood in his muscles to start churning again so that he could move without looking too much like the old man that he felt like inside.

The complex looked like it had died. The corners of the resin walls of all three buildings were rounded and streaked with grooves from years of wind and grit. Piles of sand sloped into every corner and along the walls, making the buildings look half buried. The gate leading to the patch of open ground between the three buildings was half way open, drooping away from the top hinge that had broken off. Dekker paced around to the side of the building on the left. The solar panel array jutting from the wall faced the sky like a black flower petal. The casing for the motors that cranked the panels to face the sun was cracked, the innards encased in grit and debris. He paced around the back of the building in the rear, which served as the heart of the communications center and on to the third building on the right side of the compound.

His heart sank as rounded the corner to the rear of the third building. The boom holding the solar panel array was sheared at the base where it was once attached to the wall and the panels lay half buried in sand. They glistened in the rising sun, unable to convey the flow of electrons seeping from their innards to the complex’s power system. He knelt down to feel the surface of the panels as they warmed under the sun’s glow. Behind him, troop carriers were easing into position to set up security. He looked over his shoulder as his Marines dismounted, sergeants yelling and pointing as they scurried to survey the terrain, plant lane stakes and dig trenches where they would look out onto the world from behind the sites of their rifles.

One of the sergeants saw him and saluted. Dekker stood up and saluted back. They stood for a moment, looking at each other with eyes that knew. They knew that whatever fighting was left would be lost. They knew that they would go down jabbing a knife into the enemy’s guts anyway. Dekker realized something in that moment, something he had almost forgotten. They were the ones who stood and fell for the sake of those who could not stand for themselves. They were the ones who died because somebody had a duty to die and shout out to the universe that there was still somebody worth dying for – even if those for whom they did so were already gone.

They had come here to defend. They had come here to fight. They had come here to die. None of that was the truth though. The truth reached out to him from thousands of years and battles fought for everything forgettable. Out of it all, there was only one thing they could never forget. They had come here to keep the one thing that would fall only with the last breath of the last warrior. They had come here to keep the faith. They were the last of their kind. They were Marines.

Dekker snapped his hand down and the sergeant turned back to his Marines, yelling and pointing.

Sergeant Preston stepped around the corner and approached the broken solar array. He let out a low whistle. “That could be a problem, sir,” he said.

“Can we fix it?” Dekker asked. Preston leaned in to inspect the casing where the boom had once been attached. A splay of copper cables ran from the innards of the broken boom into the frozen casing of the motor. Preston fished a gray box from a cargo pocket and unwrapped its black cables. He attached the clamp at the end of the cables to the copper wiring and watched the meter.

“This one’s dead,” he said. “The array isn’t generating any current. It could be the cabling or the panels themselves, but it would take a while to tear into it.”

“What about the other one?” Dekker asked, staring at the ground.

“Oh, the other one’s fine. It can’t track, but its delivering juice.”

“Will it be enough?”

Preston unclamped the meter and started wrapping its cables around their spool. “No way to know until we fire things up.”

“Well, let’s get on it, then,” Dekker said, standing up.

As they walked across the central compound towards the communications building in the rear, Dekker stopped short. Lt. Simmons was kneeling next to Shahn’Dra in the far corner. Even from several feet away, he could see the girl shaking. “You go on in,” he said to Preston.

“Aye, sir.”

As Preston opened the hatch to the communications building, Dekker crouched down next to Shahn’dra. She looked at him, the leather creases in her face drawn tight and pale. The look didn’t bother him as much as the fact that she couldn’t hide it. “What is it?” he asked.

Clinging to Simmons’s collar, Shahn’dra reached out with her other hand and clutched at Dekker. Her eyes were dilated and a shiver ran through her despite the morning heat that was already making Dekker sweat. “You must put me to sleep,” she said.

“You are allowed to protect yourself,” Simmons said. Dekker glanced at the top of Shahn’dra’s head – her antennae were flat against her scalp, unmoving.

Shahn’dra’s eyes darted away and she gasped. “No.”

“I don’t understand,” Dekker said.

“He is looking for me,” Shahn’dra said, her voice coming from somewhere else. “He must not see me.”

Dekker put his hand over hers as she clawed at his chest. “Lieutenant,” he said, “mount a recce patrol and screen for the Second Brigade.”

Simmons eyed him for a moment and then nodded. “Aye aye, sir.” She lifted Shahn’dra’s hand from her collar and placed it in the girl’s lap. “I’ll be back,” she said.

Shahn’dra’s gaze followed Simmons as she headed back to her carrier. Whipping her head back to Dekker, she said, “He must not see me. I cannot hide much longer. He may already know. You must put me to sleep.”

Dekker took both of her hands in his and said, “No. Stand up.”

Shahn’dra struggled to her feet, her body quivering. Her eyes darted away again and she shuddered.

“Look at me,” Dekker said. Her eyes continued to wander as another shudder racked her body. “Look at me!” he shouted in his best drill instructor voice. Her eyes locked on his.

“This is not the day to hide. Today, we stand up. You tell that sonofabitch you’re here. Tell him you’re not hiding anymore. Fight him. Fight.” He grabbed her shoulders and squeezed hard.

Shahn’dra shook her head. “I must not. He will find us.”

Dekker shook her hard enough to make her head snap forward. “I said fight.”

“Then you must promise me.”

Dekker furrowed his brow. “Promise what?”

“You must promise me that when it is time, you will do what must be done.” He stared at her as another shudder ran through her body. He started to ask, but she was already there. “You will know,” she said, “when it is time.”

Her eyes started to cloud over, another tick of the clock that told him he had to decide while he still could. “I promise,” he said, easing his hands away from her shoulders.

Shahn’dra stood up. She reached towards the sky, stretching her arms as far as she could. She padded to the center of the compound as another quiver ran through her body. She closed her eyes and unfurled her antennae. Dekker stumbled back until his back touched the wall as she stretched her arms out over the ground. She tilted her head up, letting her antennae unfurl to their full length and weave to a beat that only she could hear. They intertwined and curled around each other and back again as a shimmer bloomed out from her. Dekker’s ears started ringing and then a ripple of light shot out across the compound and across the sky to the horizon. For a moment that lingered and stretched to the end of time, he felt himself floating in nothingness as her aura washed over him.

Before it had even begun, the moment was gone. She stared at him from across the compound, reminding him that he had made a promise.

She fell to the ground in a heap and the air became still. He ran up to her and lifted her head off the ground. He felt the warmth of her breath from her snout, drawing in and out like waves sliding up on a beach. He pressed her neck, feeling the pulse of blood beneath is fingertips.

He picked her up and cradled her in his arms. As she slept, a soothing warmth flowed through his body with the rhythm of her breathing as he walked towards his command carrier. The Marine guarding the vehicle swung the rear hatch open and Dekker placed her inside next to Jommy, who was still sitting in one of the seats welded into the side of the carrier.

“Keep an eye on her until I can send over the corpsman.”

Jommy slid out of his seat and kneeled next to her. “I’ll take care of her,” he said.

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence