Chapter 52

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ESCAPE

Its turbine whining with the strain of full power, the carrier scurried down the back side of the next dune, hidden by the folds of sand hills stretching out from the communications complex. Once at the bottom, the transmission spooled up to grind the wheels into the sand and climb the next hill. The wheels spewed a trail of sand into the air as the carrier clawed at the dune like an animal fleeing its hunter. The turbine and drive shaft wailed with a strained chord, out of tune with each other,  as if cyring out, “I’m trying. I’m trying to take you away from them. I’m trying to find my way back to the endless sea of desert ground where we can run and run. And I am so tired. I’m trying.”

Strapped into the driver’s seat, Lt. Simmons strained to keep her grip on the throttle as the carrier heaved and groaned against its suspension.

When Preston’s com panel ripped loose from its straps and slammed onto the deck of the rear compartment, Dekker said, “Ease up, Lieutenant.” He looked over his shoulder to see the panel sliding across the deck. “Our cargo isn’t secure.”

“After this last dune,” Simmons said, anger biting through her words.

Dekker fought to watch the monitor in front of him as his head jolted to the side when the carrier dug through a dip in the dune’s slope. The stabilizers on the rear camera were fighting to keep the image from bouncing around on the monitor but the buildings of the complex bobbed and weaved while swarms of Terran Guard troops crept closer to the few remaining Marines huddled in the center compound. A constant billow of smoke from their weapons floated across the ground as they fought to hold onto the last moments of the attack for as long as possible. Dekker cringed as seconds were counted by the crumpling and pitching of his Marines dying at phase line Alamo. He had told them all the same thing. He couldn’t help wondering if any of those dying on the monitor in front of him were among those who understood, or those who were just following orders.

Maybe Lane had been right. Maybe it was just about orders. Maybe decisions were best left to those who had been appointed to make them. Dekker gave himself a moment to let that thought float through his mind as the Terran Guard mowed down the last of his Marines holding out in the compound. Then he tossed it aside and covered it over with the will that came from what he knew was right. He ignored the thought, blinding out everything except the reality of his battalion disappearing before his eyes.

He had nothing left except a decision that put him and Lt. Simmons in an uphill battle where everything had to go right – and probably wouldn’t. His only solace was that the Paladin faced the very same fight. Whether or not losing his Marines was worth that chance was another thought he buried deep and covered over with the growing weight of his will. Many thoughts would have to be put in graves before this was over.

He reached forward to press a button to switch the display, his finger bobbing in the air from the vehicle bucking as it dug towards the dune’s peak. He thought to close his eyes as he gave up and latched his hand onto his knee. Unable to look away, he watched as the Terran Guard ran past his fallen Marines and stormed into the communications building. Moments later, they trotted back out. Some ducked into the other two buildings while others lay down at the far side of the compound. Dekker flinched as the communications building erupted in a burst of flame and smoke, shreds of wall and equipment raining into the sky.

“We’ll need to find a good position to align the signal as soon as possible,” he said, still straining to be heard over the turbine and the carrier’s frame creaking with the exertion of climbing the dune.

“I need a minute,” Simmons said.

“For what?”

“I just lost my best squad. I need a minute.”

Dekker studied her face as she stared through the windshield. Unable to push the throttle any further, she twisted her hand around it instead. She fought with the control grip, yanking it with reflexive instinct to keep the vehicle from toppling over. He recognized her expression as one he had worn many times as she tapped a growing well of anger to overwhelm the urge to stop and let the ocean of everything else wash over her. He had to let her do it, too. That ocean was endless and once awash in it, there was no return.

For his part, that ocean was somewhere in a place called the Highlands, and his escape had been a decision. Whether or not it had worked – he still didn’t know.

The crest of the dune loomed in front of them, but Simmons kept the throttle jammed forward. The carrier reached the top and leapt over the crest, flying low over the slope as it dropped down below them on the other side.

“Ease off!” Dekker yelled. He reflexively kicked his feet, trying to use rudder pedals that didn’t exist to stabilize the vehicle as it yawed. He clenched his teeth, bracing for the vehicle to land and tumble sideways. “Lock it up.”

The vehicle hit the sand at a quartering angle and leaned to the side far enough for the bottom of Dekker’s door to scrape the ground. Simmons jammed the throttle back and slammed the control grip to the side to turn into the landing. Both Dekker and Simmons slammed forward against their harnesses as the back end of the vehicle rose up, threatening to flip over. The back end hung in the air and then slammed back into the ground. The front wheels came off the ground a few feet and then dropped back into the sand as the vehicle rocked to a stand-still.

Lt. Simmons let go of the throttle and the control grip. Panting, she asked, “Did you say ‘lock it up’?”

Dekker cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah, I guess I did.”

Simmons smirked. “What’s next, are you going to tell me this is unsat?”

“Lock up that unsat trash,” Dekker said, a smile creeping across his face.

Simmons chuckled. “I never thought I’d miss boot camp,” she said. She leaned back and stared at the roof, letting out a long breath.

“It was pretty simple and all made sense, I suppose,” Dekker said.

“None of it made sense,” Simmons said. She shook her head, as if clearing her mind. “But it was simple enough.”

“Ever notice,” Dekker asked, “how everything you really need to know comes from basic?”

“Like recon and surveillance?  The really useful stuff came later.”

“Well, sure. For me, it was infantry leadership training. That’s not what I mean.”

“You mean how to think.”

“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. It’s at times like this when those words mean the most. This is when their true meaning comes to light.”

“We still have a mission. I know that, sir. But I still need a minute. We’re tighter in recon than most.”

“What is that mission, Lieutenant?”

“You’re just not going to give me that minute, are you?”

“The mission.”

Simmons pinched her nose and closed her eyes. “We need to establish the uplink and fire the STI after the Paladin has lured the Second Brigade into its track.”

Dekker smiled. “No.” He spoke slowly, letting each word linger. “What is your mission?”

She opened her eyes and looked at him. Her eyes flickered and the her face went slack. “That they shall not perish,” she said.

“That’s right. And there are very few of us left to perish. You lost a squad. I lost a battalion. And the Second Brigade is bearing down on the Pyramid. We really only have one enemy left.”

“The Old Scrolls?”

“No.” Dekker turned off the camera display on his monitor and watched the image fade until all he could see was his own ghost of a reflection in the screen. “The only enemy left is extinction.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence