Chapter 56

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THAT THEY SHALL NOT PERISH

Lt. Simmons stood with her fists on her hips, trying to ignore the noise of the battle behind her as she watched her men struggle to raise the air control dish antenna on top of her carrier into position.

“It’s banged up pretty bad, Lieutenant,” one of them said as they strained to swing the pole up into position. “The mounting bolt is bent.”

“Rough ride,” Simmons said, squinting at them. Three of them pushed hard to try and shove the pole up far enough to latch it into place, but the bolt kept them from moving it the last few inches.

“It’s not gonna’ latch, Lieutenant.”

“Yeah, well then you guys are gonna’ have to hold it in position.”

“It’s kind of heavy,” one of them said, his voice straining with the effort of holding the weight of the pole.

“Take turns,” she said.

Grunting from the strain, another said, “Yes ma’am.”

Simmons ducked into the carrier. Jommy and Shahn’Dra sat wide-eyed in their seats. “You kids doing alright?”

“Can we come out yet?” Jommy asked.

“It is almost time,” Shahn’Dra said.

“It’ll be over soon. Just hang tight,” Simmons said. She climbed inside and sat down in front of the communications console behind the passenger seat. “It’ll be over soon.”

She extended the cables from the panel Sgt. Preston had prepared and wired it into the communications console. Setting it aside, she flipped on her console’s power swtich and waited while its LED displays and myriad of lights flickered to life. She checked each one, brushing her fingers over the switches and checking to make sure the LED displays could withstand the injury of tapping them. She could have started a series of tests for each of the subsystems, making sure they would be able to detect aircraft and ground vehicle transponders and send them messages – but any that would actually need such services were long in the past. She simply didn’t want to look at Preston’s console. As long as she didn’t see it, it could be in the proverbial quantum state of both working and not working without reality dictating for sure which state it was in. She took a breath and held it, then forced herself to look at Preston’s contraption. She let out a sigh when its lights blinked back at her and the warning indicators along the top remained dark.

She flipped a switch on her own panel marked AUX, tying in Preston’s fire control panel to her carriers communications system. Since the commands were hard coded in the circuit board Preston had assembled, all she had to do was press the transmit button on her panel and it would take care of the rest.

Never in her life had she felt so completely at the mercy of somebody else’s work. As a recon officer, the regiment depended on her to make the right decisions at the right time and give them the information they needed to accomplish their mission. People depended on her. Now, everything depended on pressing a button and hoping the handiwork of a now-dead Marine did what it was supposed to. There had always been one more route to patrol, one more angle to explore, one more place to set up an ambush. There had always been one more piece of information to find and an option hidden somewhere behind it. Now, there was only a button.

She thought of Dekker and how he had to rely on people like her and Preston to provide options that came together to give him a finite universe of choices. She realized the burden of comand wasn’t about being right. It was about trusting everyone else to be right. And he had managed to find a path to this moment despite all the different ways the world had tried to push him away from it. What had been her contribution to keeping him from finding the way?

She checked her watch, got up and climbed out of her carrier. Dekker was lying prone on the crest of the ridge as he watched the battle through his field glasses. As helpless as she felt, something inside her settled into place as she watched him. Even now, he wouldn’t quit. More than that, it was a thought that never entered his mind. She had seen many thoughts cross his face in the past few days, but doubt, fear and hesitation weren’t among them. All there had ever been, she realized, was the mission. And it wasn’t the mission he had been assigned. It hadn’t even been a mission he had known about until they had all paid a price for it to be revealed. It had chosen him, hadn’t it?  It had sifted through the scant remains of their ranks, found Colonel Dekker and said,  This one.

He still had something that had drained from her almost entirely. It was the only thing that could carry them any further. The oath they had all taken had, as she now realized, many layers between its words and its true meaning. He understood that. He carried it deep down inside in a place that too many had forgotten about. He had faith that the mission was of its own right the only thing that still mattered – that ever mattered. It was, really, the reason he existed.

That they shall not perish.

She understood what that meant now. It was something that no Terran Guard understood. It was something that few Marines truly understood, but they had given over to the faith of this man to compensate for that. It was something that she was just now beginning to understand. ‘They’ included all of them – not just colonists; not just Shoahn’. It was all of them – even the ranks of the Terran Guard trying to kill the only real friend Colonel Dekker had ever known. What kind of faith did a man have that understood that? He had it. The Paladin had it. Shahn’Dra had it. Lt. Simmons felt like a child, just realizing that to walk was only the beginning. There was so much more to learn. And no time left to do it.

She paced up the shallow rise to stand behind Dekker. As the valley came into view, she gasped.

The smoking shell of a Cataphract lay on its side, its legs frozen in mid-step as smoke boiled out from its cockpit. Another leaned to one side, its leg sheared at the knee. The barrel of a Terran Guard tank recoiled and the Cat fell back, heaving up a billowing cloud of dust that curled away into the sky. Moments later, the muffled thunder of the frame crashing into the ground swept over her.

Another Cat stepped back as a gaggle of soldiers rushed underneath it. Its plasma canisters recoiled and a wall of blue flame erupted from the ground behind the soldiers as they climbed over its feet, one of them firing a black object into the bottom of the frame.

She saw it die as it shook from the surging current and then froze in place.

Lt. Simmons hadn’t cried since she was a girl running from the Terran Guard as they gunned down her family on the slopes of the Highlands. Even as they were all screaming, she had caught the Paladin’s Cats out of the corner of her eye – and Dekker’s Foot Guard kneeling next to them, firing into the flanks of the Terran Guard troops. Even then, she had understood. It was at that moment, her legs aching from the strain of galloping down the hill and her chest burning as she gulped air, that she knew she would be a Marine. She would never run again. And she would fight next to men like Dekker. It wasn’t a thought. It was something that came alive inside and rose up to consume the very soul of her.

But now, a tear splashed onto her cheek. She didn’t even feel the urge to fight it back, because she understood. They had stood watch over them for almost a hundred years and now they were dying. The Cataphracts weren’t machines. They were Marines, every bit as much as she. The ranks of the fallen would always be replenished by people like her, people who understood what it meant to stand and fight back. But the ranks of the Paladin’s Cataphracts would never come home again. They were dying right before her eyes, and they would never return. There would never be their kind again.

That they shall not perish.

The swarm dragged another pilot from his cockpit. A soldier leveled his weapon at the pilot’s head. The head jerked back and the body fell limp. As they dragged him away, something burst from inside and tears flowed down her face as she realized that she wasn’t worth all of this. There were sacrifices too great and they were being made – here, now, when all an unworthy soul could do was watch and mourn the loss of those few whose departure would make the universe something less than it could ever be again.

She fell to her knees and a scream erupted from her. Apart from her, it ripped its way out of her soul and reached out across the desert sky, unheard and swallowed up by the wind.

“No!”

Dekker lowered his field glasses and craned his head around to look at her. “What are you doing?” he asked.

Simmons wiped her nose with her sleeve and took a shuddering breath as she fought back the rest of her tears. “This isn’t right.”

“Then what are you going to do about it?”

Simmons stood up and brushed the front of her field utility blouse. “Right.”

“How much time on the shot?”

Simmons checked her watch. “Not long now, sir.”

“Then you better get ready.”

“Yes sir.” Simmons stood for a moment more as he turned his attention back to the battle. She had a mission. Even if it was only to wait until the time was right and just push a button, she had a mission.

She turned back to her carrier and ducked back inside to sit down in front of the console. Something inside her pushed the sounds of the battle away and she counted the seconds away.NEXT.png


©2016 Michael J Lawrence