Shoahn’Fal watched the man crawl in a circle and claw at the cold desert sands under the Shoahn’Tu night sky, blinded to everything but the terror ripping his mind apart. Shoahn’Fal felt his antennae rippling along the top of his head like two snakes writhing in the ecstasy that spewed out from his own mind. He glared with bulbous eyes set in a harsh leather face that protruded into a short snout and let out a low growl. The man crawling on the ground made a sound as if he had been shot and then rolled over on his back. His eyes twitched so violently, they seemed ready to burst from their sockets.
Shoahn’Fal had been a priest once. He had also been a father and a husband. Did the man kicking away from him know that? He called up the memory, formed it into a crystal-clear vision and thrust it into his victim’s mind. The man gasped and sat very still for just a second. Then he let out a wail that reached into Shoahn’Fal’s very soul.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s what it’s like. Feel that? Share that with me.”
He pushed his hand into the air and the man screamed again. Together, they reveled in the terror that had been the night Shoahn’Fal watched his wife and daughter howl in agony as bullets ripped through their chests and pitched them to the ground. He wrapped himself and his victim in the agony of watching his people starve and the despair of losing an entire world to invaders who fought each other over something that did not belong to them. Shoahn’Fal embraced it all with every fiber of his being, feeling the anguish flowing between them, through each other’s minds and then back again.
“You didn’t know, did you?” he asked the man.
The man kicked ferociously with boots made form a synthetic fabric the same color as the sand. Shoahn’Fal studied the block lettering over the pockets on either side of the soldier’s field utility blouse. He couldn’t read the name stenciled over one of them, but he recognized the emblem and lettering over the other that said TERRAN GUARD. An ornate patch with more cryptic scribbling he didn’t recognize was sewn into the cloth over the man’s shoulder. He did, however, recognize the motto that adorned everything these humans seemed insistent on smearing with their language: ‘That they shall survive’.
Shoahn’Fal knelt down, folding his tall thin frame into itself so he could tap the shoulder patch. “Do you know who that’s for?” he asked.
The man was still gasping for air uncontrollably. Shoahn’Fal closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating to control something that he was still just discovering. The man’s breathing eased and Shoahn’Fal opened his eyes. The man croaked, as if somebody choking him had let go of his throat just in time to let him live a moment more.
“It’s for you,” he said.
“That’s right. But have you ever seen anybody like me?”
“No.” The man was still pushing at the ground with his boots, but his flailing was becoming less frantic now.
“No, you haven’t.” Shoahn’Fal stood back up and looked at the man. Sadness filled his eyes now as he remembered what it was to be a priest. Whether it was weakness or mercy, he did not know, but it had been enough, at least for now. Shoahn’Fal flicked his hand and the man started to crawl away. He watched the man crawl away until he could barely see the man’s form dusted by icy starlight and could barely hear his whimpering.
Shoahn’Fal turned away from the man and leaned on a long stick made from the intertwined strands of the tough sinewy wood of a cord tree. His shoulders rolled forward and he took a deep breath through his snout. His antennae lay down on top of his head, as if going to sleep. He stepped out into the night, heading for another encounter with the forbidden.
As he walked away, he said, “That’s because you failed.”
He had lived a life of being nowhere. He needed little to survive – stealing some of it from the Terran Guard in small ways that they would never notice. A half-filled bottle of water here or a morsel of food there would find its way to their compost. He lived on discarded things – that and the occasional root plant he could find and tuck away in a bag he wore over his shoulder. Attached to a frayed rope made from strips of wood from a cord tree, the bag looked like it had been made from rags, just like the robe he wore.
His life droned on this way, from one day of wandering in one direction to the next day of turning back and doing it all over again, never venturing more than a day’s walk from the Terran Guard who had not only failed to protect his people, but didn’t even know of his existence.
Something burned inside that kept him alive, something he did not understand and knew to keep buried deep. It was forbidden and echoed from another time when such things rampaged through his world.
But then he had let it loose. The Forbidden had come pouring out of him, bursting through the sentries of his mind who had tired over the years and finally succumbed to the power of that which all Shoahn’ were forbidden to see: themselves.
And now he had tortured a man with it. His only regret was that he had not done so before – and often. There was justice in it. But there wasn’t enough. He had prayed long and hard, trembling in the dark, terrified by what he had found inside his own soul. The prayers didn’t last long. The trembling subsided.
He realized it was a beginning.
The Pyramid, the last of its kind, had been his temple. There, he had practiced his rituals and prayed for enlightenment, even though there were no Shoahn’ left to guide through the spiritual necessity of The Way. There was the girl and her mother, who carried on even after he had left countless moons ago, but they were the last and he had left them there to pray to each other and wind out the days that led to extinction. The Pyramid had also been a museum of sorts, guardian of reminders from the past that The Way was the only path to salvation for all.
But it held secrets. The vast expanse of the Pyramid’s interior was a place no Shoahn’ eyes had ever seen. The myth spoke of Old Scrolls that revealed those secrets and he had pocketed on odd thing called a Revealer before he had left. Perhaps it was lies, nothing more than tales to compel the masses to relinquish their souls to the teachings of the priests. But he had dared ask: what if there was more? It had been his first brush with the Forbidden and he smiled now as he thought of how childish it was compared to the things he had done since then.
There was one last step that had carried him through the gates of the Forbidden and past the point of no return. He had ventured into the Fallen – that great expanse of desert that was prohibited for any to enter. He had studied the myth, had burned every line of its ancient verse into his mind. It began with a walk under the stars as they turned a certain way. It began with a walk that took him into the depths of the Fallen.
Shoahn’Fal felt the sands of the Fallen grind against the thick hide of his bare feet. Most of Shoahn’Tu was desolate. In most places, scrub clung to the dry clay of ancient seabeds and the wind chiseled deep grooves in the sandstone rises, but none of it compared to the sweeping desolation of the Fallen. As far as he could see, Shoahn’Fal saw nothing but sand. Gusts of wind swept over the ground, brushing lone patches of sand that rippled like water on a vast ocean and whirled up into the night.
It was clear that nobody could survive more than a day in this never ending wasteland, so Shoahn’Fal didn’t understand why it had been drilled into the mind of every Shoahn’ for generations that transgressing the Fallen was akin to genocide. As a child, he was taught that entering the Fallen would awaken a great beast that would consume the world and wash them all away in a river of fire. As a priest, he made sure that same lesson was repeated to every Shoahn’ from the moment they came into the world. He thought of all this and waited for the world to end with each step he took.
The end never came. He hunched his shoulders against the cooling night and pulled the collar of his robe tighter around his neck. He had decided that once he had crossed the threshold, he would just keep walking. Soon enough, he would run out of strength and collapse to the ground. He would start to hallucinate and his throat would dry up and choke itself closed. He would lose consciousness and then the wind would cover him over with sand. He accepted all of that because he had been promised the world would be swept away in fire. If the Shoahn’ were to become a whisper in the night that nobody would ever hear again, then let the same happen to the humans. Let the fire bear down and burn Shoahn’Tu bare.
The fire never came. Shoahn’Fal crested a low rise to find himself looking out over another sweeping plain of sand that stretched out as far as the eye could see. The first of three moons peeked over the horizon and washed the land with a thin yellow haze. He studied the stars and waited for them to turn. He stood there, not even counting time so that it just stopped except for the turning of the sky. He crouched down and peered into the vastness above him, holding the picture he had formed from the myth in his mind, not even knowing if the stars would align themselves that way. He would wait and the stars would either reveal their secret or he would fall over and be covered up by the wind and sand. The universe would be just. Or it would not.
General Lane, Shoan’Tu Marine Expeditionary Force, commanding, sat around a green plastic table with the command staff of his regiment – all that was left of the once vaunted Colonial Marines.
All eyes were on Colonel Dekker as he scratched the green resin of the conference table top. “The Enforcer Battalion can carry the main attack,” he said. Looking around the table, he didn’t see many believers. Maybe he didn’t believe it himself, either, but it wasn’t for the same reasons they were thinking. “We’ll do the right thing.”
General Lane’s elbows were propped up on the table and he looked at Dekker with his chin resting on interlaced fingers. “What we need you to do,” he said, “is follow orders.”
Well, there it was. Wasn’t it? After all this time, the question was still out there: Could Colonel Ben Dekker follow orders? Or would he make his own mind up about what was important when the time came and leave the rest of the regiment in a bind? He knew exactly what they were all thinking. They wouldn’t be launching an attack on the Highlands if he had followed orders. The colony would still be tilling its fields. You bet, and the Paladin wouldn’t have any Cataphracts. Where would we be then? He stared back at them, thinking he might burn that thought into there minds if he glared hard enough.
“It’s different this time,” he said.
General Lane’s eyes glazed over. “Oh?”
“For one thing, there won’t be any civilians up there.”
Colonel Mason, a warrior of African descent that Dekker respected more than the rest – except for Major Walker, of course – stared at him with half closed eyes. He put his own hands on the table and interlaced his thick fingers.
“Yeah, we know.”
Dekker closed his eyes and let the air in his lungs out through his nose, but he couldn’t help it. He stood up and brought his fist down on the table hard enough to shake it. Everyone flinched, but nobody looked away or moved back. Lane held the table down with his elbows hard enough to keep his end of it from shaking.
“I was right, goddammit,” Dekker said. He looked around the room and settled his gaze on Major Walker. The commanding officer of the Cataphract company knew what he was talking about.
“You ran a good Foot Guard,” Walker said. And that’s all he said. Dekker watched the thought float around the room. There were orders, and then there was mission. Did they get that?
“Sit down,” General Lane said.
Dekker eased back into his folding plastic chair and folded his hands on the table. Lane gave him a minute to settle down his breathing and then said, “I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here.”
Dekker fumed inside. The General had pushed a button and Dekker had barked just so he could be put in his place. Again. It wasn’t enough to ascertain that he would follow orders. No, they all had to hear, one more time, how he was an inept Marine still on probation for something that happened before General Lane was even appointed the MEF commanding officer. And yet, he was the one who was going to carry the attack. It was true: there was a difference between orders and mission. It was also true that there was a difference between giving those orders and genuine leadership.
General Lane reached for a green plastic box sitting on the table in front of him and pushed one of its buttons. A video screen hanging on the wall blinked to life to reveal a tactical chart of the Highlands.
“The mission is a deliberate attack to take back the Highlands, 500 meters beyond the MEF perimeter here.” Lane worked the cursor on the monitor and swept it across the top of the map. “Colonel Mason will take his first battalion with a platoon of armor attached and pin the left flank. Colonel Quadish will do the same on the right flank. Colonel Dekker will push right up the middle here and break the line. Once that’s accomplished, the flanking forces will enfilade the enemy and push them in towards the middle. At that point, the Guard will either have to wither while we turn their flanks or they’ll have to withdraw. Either way, we should hold the Highlands when it’s over.”
Lt. Simmons cleared her throat.
“Oh, right,” Lane said. “Simmons will take her recce platoon and scout the right flank to screen for any Terran Guard forces we aren’t already aware of.”
Dekker eyed Lt. Simmons. Her bonnet of red hair that bounced just above her shoulder – and a chest that filled out her field utility blouse in a way that no man could ignore – distracted him from the fact that she was the most capable recon leader he had ever known. But it only distracted him for a moment. He knew better. She was as deadly as she was beautiful and reminded him of what, in the simplest terms possible, they were fighting for. That didn’t mean he could trust the new commander of Bravo One Nine to keep the enemy situation up to date. That had yet to be proven. He wanted to say something about it, but he had his own merits to prove. He just blinked and looked away.
General Lane snapped off the monitor. “Any questions?”
They had been over the plan already. They had rehearsed the plan in the tacsims. Then they had discussed the results of the plan. What nobody had done was mention how bad the plan was.
Major Walker said, “Sir, if we could bring up the Cats and support the middle, I would feel a lot more confident about breaking that line.”
“Negative. We’ve been over this, Major. You will keep your Cats in reserve. I’ll assess the situation as it develops and call you up if we need you. I don’t want to expose your Cats to unnecessary risk. They’re the only ones we have.”
A very bad plan. Dekker’s neck ached as he strained to keep from shaking his head.
General Lane stood up. Everyone around the table stood up with him. “Alright then,” he said. “We’re off the LD tomorrow at zero six. Dismissed.”
Everyone eyed Dekker as they filed out of the room, but the look in their eyes had changed. Looking back at Colonel Mason, Dekker could almost hear him say, “Sorry, man.” It wouldn’t have been an apology – more like sympathy for the man who was stuck in the middle of a plan they all knew wasn’t going to work.
Both Dekker and Major Walker remained standing where they were and sat back down after the others had left.
“You can’t let him get under your skin like that,” Major Walker said.
“I know. That guy just rubs my fur the wrong way.” Dekker let his hand drop to the table with a slap. “What is it with you, anyway? You’re not exactly Johnny Eagle Scout when it comes to following orders and he doesn’t seem to notice that.”
Walker smiled. “It’s because I have the Cats.”
“So, basically you’re saying he’s a chickenshit.”
“Something like that.”
Dekker drummed his fingers on the table. “Well, ours is not to question why -“
“Ben.” Walker’s voice was low as he fixed his gaze on Dekker. “Be careful out there. If you need to call me up -“
“I know,” Dekker said. “I know.”
Colonel Ben Dekker stood next to a bunker on the MEF compound perimeter and surveyed the Highlands with his field glasses. Just 500 meters in front of him, the fertile ground covered with patches of grass and weeds that were actually green sloped up towards a small rise, behind which a full brigade of the Terran Guard was waiting for him and the rest of the MEF. He cringed as his eyes swept the last arable ground on Shoahn’Tu within reach of the MEF. He had fought here before and he had an old debt to repay.
He lowered his field glasses and studied the bunkers where his weapons company had deployed their heavy machine guns and mortars. He tapped a small button on the headset nestled just under his helmet. “Weapons.” After a soft chime sounded, he said, “Whiskey Six, Enforcer Six Actual. Are you all set up there Captain?”
His headset crackled with a faint hiss and then a click. “Enforcer Six, we’re all set except for one of the plasma guns. We’re putting in another fifty instead.”
“Smoker?” Dekker Asked.
“Yes sir. We still have powder rounds and I figured today was a good day to use them.”
“We need you to keep them pinned down as long as you can, Captain.”
“Roger that, sir. We’ve got our fields of fire out to 1000 meters along a 500 meter line in five sectors. We’ve got you covered, sir.”
“I know you do, Captain. Stand by for the signal. Enforcer Six out. Battle net.” Another chime sounded. “Enforcer Six, all Enforcer stations, com check.”
“Alpha Six, five oh.”
“Bravo Six, five by five.”
“Charlie Six, reading lima charlie.”
Colonel Dekker let out a slow breath as he inspected the line one last time. His Marines were trained, prepared and motivated. All that was left was the battle. He knew that if a bullet ripped into his forehead at that moment, his battalion would carry out their mission just as well without him.
He tapped the headset again and said, “Command radio.” After the chime, he continued, “Marine Six, Enforcer Six Actual.”
The voice of General Lane came back over the line. “Marine Six Actual, go ahead.”
“Enforcer battalion is ready sir. The boys are fired up and ready to shoot.”
“Understood. I’m tying you into the group net now.” Dekker heard a squeal of static and then the voice of Colonel Mason confirming last minute adjustments in his formation as they prepared to move off the line of departure. When he was finished, General Lane said, “Badger Six, report.”
Lt. Simmons, her soft voice crisp and precise, replied, “Marine Six, we don’t have any updates for you sir. We’ll conduct a recon in force on the right and set up a patrol to monitor the Guards’ lines of communication.”
“Understood,” Lane said. “Stand by for my signal. Break. Two Bravo Delta, report.”
Dekker couldn’t help feeling a dull stab of remorse when Major Walker’s voice filled his headset. “Right behind you General. We’re all set here, just say the word.”
“Remember, Major, you are a contingent. Stay put unless I give you the word. Hopefully all you’ll have to do today is watch.”
“Roger that, General. Can’t say we like watching, but I’ll keep the reins tight.”
“You do that. Marines, stand by for attack. Marine Six out.”
Dekker’s headset hissed and then went silent. There was nothing left to say. The air grew still as he waited for the signal for the fight to begin. A low chime sounded in his headset, a final warning and the last chance for any of the battalion commanders to report any last minute problems. Nobody said a word. After five seconds of dead silence, an electronic chime sounded five times, followed by a final one-second dual modulated frequency tone that told him and everyone in the MEF to start moving. His men, stretched out in a line a half-mile wide, stood up and started walking into the Highlands. At the same time, the air filled with the chattering roar of machine guns and the steel ring of rounds leaving their mortar tubes.
A voice spiked with urgency called out over the radio. “Flash! Infantry company strength 1000 meters front. Four tangos behind another 500. Engaging.” The transmission cut off. A moment later, he heard the crack of rifle fire and the eerie pulse of plasma rounds searing the air as they flew into the face of the enemy already advancing on them from the crest of the Highlands.
Emmet Ford felt his bones creak as he stood up. He was scanning the withering plants of his plot when the sound of battle rolled in like a wall of thunder – just far enough away that he knew they were still safe, but close enough that there was no way to tell for how long. His son stood on a mound overlooking the valley of the Military Exclusion Zone and watched the battle.
“Jommy”, he called out. “Get down off a’ there and come help me.” The boy ignored him. The man grunted and let out a long sigh, then ambled across his plot to join his son. The crack of small arms fire floated past them as Marines trundled across the flat ground between their compound and the fertile grounds of the Highlands. A sudden flash erupted at top of the Highlands, its thunder rolling over them moments later. The Marines lurched forward in loose lines as they advanced against the Terran Guard. Vehicles followed behind them, but there weren’t as many as there used to be. The years of wind and sand had scraped most of their markings off so they couldn’t tell which units they belonged to anymore.
Just as the Marines reached the Highlands, the crest at the top of its long slope seemed to come alive as a wave of Terran Guards emerged from behind the other side.
“Oh God,” Emmet said. He clasped Jommy’s hand, hoping the boy wouldn’t understand what he was seeing, knowing that he couldn’t hide it from him, either. The Terran Line looked like a long black snake that stretched all the way across the expanse of the Highlands. Their weapons didn’t produce any smoke or flash, but Emmet knew they had fired a furious fusillade when Marines started falling to the ground while the rest dropped down to hug the ground. Puffs of smoke shot out from where the Marines were lying down as they fired back, but the black snake inched forward, flowing down the slope of the Highlands like the headwaters of an oozing flood.
“Why don’t they use the Cats?” Jommy asked, pointing at Major Walker’s company of twelve robotic war machines standing quietly in the MEF compound. Formally designated as the C-2B Combined Advanced Technology Enhanced Fire and Maneuver Assembly, the Cataphract stood fifty feet above the ground, glistening with black paint and the outline of a lance stenciled underneath its cockpit perched on top. Each one carried two massive plasma cannons and two rotary guns that fired 120 mm steel bolts from a belt feed. Armor plating covered virtually every surface to protect the titanium skeleton and the complex of gyros, hydraulics, compressed air and computer systems that the pilot used to maneuver the behemoth and bring its weapons to bear. For the moment, they didn’t move, as if they were watching the battle – spectators like him and his boy, waiting to see how it came out. Emmet shuddered as more Marines flopped over while the snake advanced steadily towards them.
He jerked back when a bright flash erupted on the near side of the Marine line, followed by a billowing orange ball of fire. Tanks crested the top of the Highlands on either side of the Terran line and fired into the vehicles the Marines had deployed to either side of their line.
Emmet turned away from the battle and surveyed the other plots that populated the dry land of their last reserve – a place they simply called Dirt Hill. The plastic modular huts that looked like freight containers cast shadows over withering plants as the Shoahn’ sun rose over the morning horizon. Another peal of thunder rolled over him from the valley below.
He couldn’t help wondering how long it would be before the tanks were up on Dirt Hill ripping their huts from the ground. He closed his eyes and whispered:
“That they shall not perish.”
The hum of electric coils from magnetic rail guns filled the air. A Lance Corporal poked his head up and sighted a line of four Terran Guard soldiers kneeling in a tight line as they swept his fire team with a steady stream of steel slugs cracking the air just inches above their heads. Pinned down, the Marines fired back blindly, desperately trying to establish fire superiority.
“God dammit, we’re supposed to be suppressing them,” he shouted. “Four left 100 meters watch for my marker.” He swung his plasma rifle towards the enemy troops and fired. The chamber of compressed thermite plasma hit one of the Terran Guards square in the chest and incinerated the man in a blinding blue flash. “Right there, right there!” the Lance Corporal screamed. The other three Marines in his fire team raised up on one knee and leveled their rifles at the targets. Unlike the Lance Corporal, they fought back with technology that had proven effective for centuries: gun powder, lead and brass. The fire team collectively took a breath and held it before squeezing off their rounds. The Terran Guards lurched back as bullets tore through their chests in a burst of bone and blood. The Lance Corporal quickly scanned the line. “There’s a gap. Move it -“
Before he could finish his command, a magnetic mortar round landed just behind his foot, ejecting its casing to unleash a flurry of shrapnel that cut down the riflemen just as they started to run. Twenty meters away, the squad sergeant waved his arm and yelled, “Close it up! Close up the line!” Marines shuffled into position where the mortar had landed, stretching out the distance between the squad’s two remaining fire teams. They reflexively hugged the ground behind the meager defilade offered by the Highlands as more steel slugs peppered the ground around them. They dug at the ground with their boots and ground their bodies into the dirt to try and dig even an inch deeper.
The squad sergeant tapped his headset and yelled, “Weapons!” After a brief pause, he continued, “Whiskey Fox, Bravo One Sierra, immediate suppression, phase line Victor plus one zero zero, left two zero, infantry danger close, fire for effect when ready.” After making his call for fire, all the sergeant could hear was a squeal in his headset as more calls poured in over the weapons net for fire support.
The squeal cut off. “Whiskey Six, all stations, keep this net clear. Fire plan is tango uniform. Ping your targets, we’ll get to you in proximity order. Out.”
The sergeant rolled onto his back, keeping his body flat against the ground. He gulped harder for each breath as an endless stream of slugs shredded the air inches from his face. Looking down the line at both fire teams, he saw his men covering their heads as they flattened themselves against the ground behind the soft rolls of defilade between them and the enemy. “Hang in there fellas!” he shouted between breaths. “Just give me a second.” He grunted and pulled open the flap to one of the bags slung over his shoulder and pulled out a plastic grip. He flipped up a small monitor on top which showed the ground at his feet. If he could point the thing over the lip of defilade, he could lay the crosshairs on the troops who had his Marines pinned to the ground. If he could do that, he could pull the trigger and fire a beacon dart that the weapons company could home in on with their mortars. The sergeant ran through the sequence in his head. Pop up. Point. Designate. In the time it would take to do all that, he saw himself getting shot at least twice. The rage of steel tearing at the space above him slowed down. Maybe they were reloading? He peeked over the defilade, swung the spotter gun up, pointed it in the general direction of where he thought the enemy was and squeezed the trigger. He didn’t take the time to lay the crosshairs and he sure as hell didn’t take the time to watch the dart arc out and hit the ground. He ducked back down just as more slugs chewed at the ground in front of him.
The sergeant watched his fire teams as they continued to squirm, trying to press themselves ever deeper into the ground as the enemy fire intensified. He knew that if they were pinned down much longer, some of his Marines would suddenly find that fatalistic place in their mind where danger no longer existed and compelled them to get up and run straight for the enemy. Others would do just the opposite, cowering as fear overwhelmed them and promised death around every corner. “Come on, come on,” he said through gritted teeth.
The ground 150 meters to his front exploded as friendly mortar rounds tracked in to his marker. “That’s it boys, return fire!”
His Marines poked their rifles over the defilade, straining to site targets through the dust and smoke left behind by the mortar round. Just as they leveled their weapons on the hazy outline of troops hidden behind the veil of smoke, more steel slugs cracked through the air. A Marine lurched back as a slug slammed into his face. Another dropped his weapon when a slug tore his arm away at the shoulder. He fell back, screaming, while the other two Marines in his fire team flopped to the ground behind their defilade. “Corpsman!” one of them yelled.
A corpsman who had been huddling behind the main formation crawled up to the screaming Marine and pulled a recovery kit from the small pack slung on his back. The Marine looked at him with eyes wide and stopped screaming long enough to grab the corpsman’s arm and say, “No!”
The corpsman slapped the Marine’s arm aside and slammed the kit onto his chest. “Not up to you, Marine.” He unhooked a red handle with a squeeze trigger from the kit and strung out the attached wire. He scampered back a few feet and squeezed the trigger. A thin haze of orange light spread out from the kit and over the Marine’s body. It’s glow intensified and then flashed away. The Marine was gone.
The sergeant grabbed the boom of his headset mic and yelled, “One Six, Second Squad is pinned down by Gauss and mortars. We are displacing left. First team down. Enemy platoon strength, front 50.” He flailed his arm and yelled at the remaining men in his squad. “Move it down, move it down!” He grabbed the nearest Marine and shoved him down the line. “Move!”
As the remaining Marines in his squad scampered behind the low ridge of defilade, the chatter of a heavy machine gun filled the air behind him. He peeked over the defilade to see friendly rounds peppering the ground 50 meters to their front. The smoke from the mortar round had cleared enough that he could see there were no targets anywhere near where it had landed. The bullets dug into the ground and kicked up clumps of dirt and patches of dried grass, but did nothing to push back the enemy he could not find.
“Troops left!” somebody screamed. He turned to see a squad of twelve Terran Guards bearing down on their left flank. As the hum of their rail guns spooled up, he leveled his rifle on the nearest one and pulled the trigger. The enemy soldier lurched back as his chest imploded. The sergeant pulled the trigger again and heard nothing but a click. The Marines closest to the advancing squad reeled back as steel slugs ripped into them in a hail of enfilading fire.
“Ah hell,” he said. He ripped the magazine from his rifle and grabbed a fresh magazine from a pouch on his belt and shoved it into the action. The enemy squad riddled the last Marine in his squad with slugs as he shouldered his weapon and took aim. He pulled the trigger, sending one of them flying back. Aiming for the next target, he took a breath just as a steel slug slammed into his face.
Dekker’s gut tightened as Terran Guard troops spilled in behind his men and split his battalion’s line into two sections. The enemy was already forming skirmish lines to work the shoulders of the breach while his own men fell back, firing as they retreated back towards the line of departure. His Marines ran across the flat ground between the Highlands and the perimeter bunkers, with nothing to protect them against the troops kneeling in a firing line and angling their weapons at their backs. Dekker couldn’t tell when the Guard troops fired – their weapons only made a faint clacking noise when the electromagnetic rails slung their rounds through the barrel. It was only when his Marines started to pitch forward and fall to the ground with their faces in the dirt that he knew for sure they were firing. One group continued to push back the flanks of his troops still fighting to hold the Highlands, pitching their bodies aside with a grinding hail of enfilade fire. The other group mowed down those trying to flee across the flats. Some made it to the bunkers, but most were either lying still or clawing at the ground, dragging themselves through their own blood even as more slugs chewed at the ground around them.
Dekker unslung the plasma rifle from his shoulder and extended the bipod latched to the barrel. He flopped to the ground and shouldered the weapon. An enemy soldier was gunning down one of his fire teams struggling to reset its own skirmish line on the flat ground between Dekker and the Highlands. He pulled the trigger. The plasma bolt streaked through the air and consumed the soldier with a flash of blue flame. The enemy soldier next to him looked at Dekker and the ground spat up a chunk of dried clay next to Dekker’s boot. He pulled the slide bolt on the receiver to chamber another thermite plasma cartridge. He adjusted his aim and squeezed the trigger as another steel slug dug into the ground inches from his other boot. The second target burst into flame.
Just as he reached up to pull the bolt back again, a hand gripped his shoulder. He looked over his shoulder to see Captain Brandt glaring at him. “What the fuck are you doing, sir?”
“I’m engaging the enemy, what are you doing?” Dekker wrested his shoulder free and reached for the bolt. Captain Brandt put both hands on Dekker’s shoulders and pulled him to his feet. The next slug ricocheted off the ground next to the plasma rifle. Captain Brandt grabbed the weapon and pulled Dekker along as he ran back towards the bunkers of the assembly area. “We’re running the wrong way you know!” Dekker shouted.
“Yeah. Do it faster!” Brandt yelled back. Slugs peppered the ground at their fee as they ran for the nearest bunker. More slugs snapped through the air above them as they hopped into the bunker and crouched down behind its concrete berm.
Dekker yanked the plasma rifle from Brandt and set it on the berm. He pulled back the bolt and fired at a group of Terran Guards gunning down another fire team that had fallen back to the flat ground. The round impacted just in front of the enemy, causing them to displace and reset their aim. Dekker pulled the bolt back to chamber the last plasma cartridge. He took a breath and held it. His last round flew across the ground and slammed into an enemy soldier’s leg. He heard a woman’s shriek as she spun and fell on her back with blue flames wrapping around her body. He squeezed his eyes shut and looked away.
Dekker tapped his headset and said, “Command Radio.” Even before the confirmation chimed in, he started talking. “Marine Six Enforcer Six Actual. Where are the other battalions?”
“As you were Colonel. First and Third are working into position. Resistance is stronger than expected. They’ll get there.”
“Marine Six, we’re losing the line. If they’re going to do something about it, they need to do it now.”
“You hold that line, Colonel. The rest are coming. Marine Six out.”
Dekker switched to his battalion net. “Whiskey Six, Enforcer Six, over.”
“Whiskey Six, go boss.”
“Captain, what’s the status on your fire mission?”
“Sir, we’re spread a little thin here. I’ve got a gun team for each company on the line, but everything’s tangled up over there.”
“What about your mortars?”
“Not unless we want to start killing our own, sir. We’re working what we can in the Terran back line, but most of them are up on top of our guys. We’re not doing much good.”
“Alright Captain. Tell your mortarmen to pick up a rifle and join up with your assault squad. I need you guys to plug that hole in the middle.”
Dekker reached into a large case strapped to his belt and pulled out his field glasses. He swept the entire line of battle from the far left of the First Battalion to the far right of the Third. He then fixed his gaze on his own battalion as the Marines from his weapons company moved up to join the fray. As he watched his men struggling to establish a line against the onslaught of the Terran Guard, his headset crackled with Lt. Simmons’s voice.
“All stations, flash! Enemy forces crossing phase line Mecca. Infantry and tangos.”
General Lane’s voice cut in. “How many, Lieutenant?”
“Sir, they’ve brought their entire Second Brigade on line.”
Static filled Dekker’s headset as they waited for General Lane to respond. Mortarmen from Dekker’s weapons platoon dropped to the ground and opened fire with their carbines against the advancing infantry pushing their comrades onto the flats. Smaller than the R-51 the infantry companies used, the carbines had a shorter barrel and fired a smaller caliber round. By comparison, they looked and sounded like toy guns. Dekker wanted to look away, but forced himself to watch as the mortarmen offered up a pathetic hail of small caliber fire that managed to slow some of the advancing Terran Guard troops. But the distance between the Highlands and the safety of the bunkers continued to be counted by the bodies of riflemen falling to enemy fire as they ran across the flats.
Dekker felt the hair on the back of his neck bristle and he gritted his teeth. “Come on old man.”
Finally, he heard General Lane’s voice. “Two Bravo Delta, take your heavies and set up a firing line to cover our withdrawal.”
“Marine Six, Two Bravo Delta, please confirm. Did you say withdrawal?”
“That’s Right, Major. I figure we have about five minutes before they get around us. So how about less chatter and more clatter.”
“On our way.”
The ground shook beneath Dekker’s feet as Major Walker’s Cataphracts started to move towards the line. Even at this distance, he could hear the electric sheen of their gyros, the dull whine of electric motors and servos and the the steady groan of hydraulics lifting tons of steel, all punctuated by the snap of compressed air valves as the machines walked forward. They all combined to create what was known as ‘the growl’, and it was an effective weapon against the morale of any enemy. There was nothing subtle about the Paladin’s Cataphracts – the enemy had fair warning.
The air reverberated with a heavy steel thump as their plasma cannons latched into place, followed by the crackling hiss of their plasma injectors heating their massive canisters. Dekker pulled his head further into his shoulders in anticipation. The barrels of the plasma guns flashed with a metallic screech as thermite plasma canisters leapt from each barrel and streaked across the sky. Travelling faster than the speed of sound, they created a sonic boom loud enough that it sounded like thunder as they flew over the heads of Dekker’s men.
A canister hit the ground, ejecting its outer casings to spray the surrounding ground with a mixture of thermite and ignition fluid which came together to create a super heated plasma that lit off in a brilliant blue haze. Every Terran Guard soldier within 50 meters of a canister was incinerated. Six more canisters thundered over their heads, slamming into the ground and bursting open to create a 700 meter plasma barrier putting up a wall in front of Dekker’s battalion. His squad leaders immediately took advantage of the cover and ran their man back across the flats to the MEF perimeter bunkers. A few of them fell to sporadic arms fire from Terran Guard troops recovering behind the line of plasma fire as it dissipated. Marines stopped to pick them up and help them the rest of the way.
“Two Bravo Delta, Enforcer Six Actual. That’s some pretty good shooting for a bunch of ass drivers. Fire for effect.”
“You bet, Enforcer Six. They’re falling back Colonel. I think they just needed a touch more of encouragement.”
Dekker started to smile, but stopped short when he heard the next transmission from one of the pilots. “One Charlie Four, eight enemy tangos moving fast on the line.” The tanks that were escorting the flanks of the Terran Guard infantry barreled through the line of plasma fire, which was now nothing more than a thin veil of white smoke.
The ground stopped shaking as the Cats halted their advance. Another chorus of steel thumps rang out as they swung down their rotary cannons. For a full minute, all Dekker could hear was the clatter of mechanisms preparing the guns to fire on the advancing tanks as they tracked down the slope of the Highlands. Nothing stood between them and Dekker’s men except thin air. He had to force himself to breathe as he counted off the seconds while the Cats reset their systems to engage the tanks.
One of the tanks wheeled its gun to point straight at Major Walker’s Cat. Dekker gritted his teeth when the barrel recoiled. The tank round slammed into the Cat’s left leg. The Cat started to step forward and Dekker heard the screeching wail of grinding metal.
The tanks raced towards them. A second volley from their gun rails pounded the ground around Dekker’s Marines running across the flats. Marines who weren’t cut down by steel shrapnel from the tank rounds flopped to the ground and started crawling the rest of the way to the bunkers. Without slowing down, the tanks let off another volley, peppering the ground with shrapnel that sent up plumes of dirt around Dekker’s men. Through gritted teeth, Dekker said, “Come on, come on.”
Behind him, rotary guns stuttered and jerked as their tracking computers zeroed in on their targets. The Cats creaked and swayed back as their rotary guns thumped out three rounds from each side. The steel bolts cut through the sky, cracking the air with a snap of thunder above Dekker and his men. The tanks chasing down his men stopped as the bolts ripped into their hulls and turned them into shimmering smears of molten metal.
Dekker let out a sigh when he heard Lt. Simmons say, “All stations, Second Brigade is falling back to their compound. First Brigade is setting up defensive positions just behind the crest.”
General Lane cut in next. “Marine Six, all stations, consolidate your lines and report.”
Dekker closed his eyes and let his face pull into a long grimace, stoking an aching ember of anger that welled up inside him. Marines stopped running and surveyed the ground, looking for wounded comrades and picking up men who were still crawling across the ground. Dekker watched as one of them crouched down next to a body that wasn’t moving. The Marine laid his hand on a dead man’s chest, shook his head and stood back up.
As Marines dragged their comrades to the bunkers, corpsmen scurried among the bodies, checking wounds and slapping recovery kits on those that could be saved.
Dekker stepped out of the bunker and crouched down next to a Marine with a wound in his belly oozing dark red. The man’s face was pale and encased in a glean of sweat. The Marine looked in Dekker’s eyes.
Looking over his shoulder, Dekker asked, “What’s the story here, Doc?”
The corpsman attending to an injured Marine laying next to him glanced at Dekker’s Marine and said, “He’ll have to wait.” He slapped a pain kit on the man’s arm and peered into Dekker’s eyes, not wanting to say anything more than that, not wanting to tell him that his Marine was a low priority casualty because he probably couldn’t be saved and would have to wait until they recovered those that could.
“Send him now,” Dekker said. “My authority.”
“Aye aye sir,” the corpsman said. He fished a recovery kit from his pack and slapped it on the man’s chest. He smacked the top of it and stepped back as an orange haze flowed out over the Marine and transported him to the medical recovery chambers deep below the MEF compound.
Price to Pay
Sentinels of his nightmares, the chambers stared back at him. Steel encasements choking the air inside them, with convex plastic windows so he could see the dead space trapped within, they whispered to him even as they sunk a dagger of futility into his heart. Stand there. Witness what the soul of no man can endure. And I will show you who you truly are.
Dr. Sall had long given up trying to determine which came from his nightmares and which were real – the difference between them wasn’t enough to make either a solace from the other. What strength he had to endure came from knowing that the nightmare for the Marines who would soon writhe within the clutches of the chambers was far worse. They would need his help. If he didn’t run, he could save them from their agony. If he stayed, he could bring the comfort of unawareness and pull them from the claws of suffering that was torture just to watch, but impossible for the man inside the chamber to endure. Thirty seconds was all he needed. If he could stay for that long, ease the victim to the gurney standing next to him so his technicians could flood the victim’s body with sedatives, he could save them from what the chamber had done to them. After that, it would be a simple matter of life or death.
He clenched his fist, counting his own pulse by habit as his heart rose up to his throat. One of the technicians stared at the floor. Another quietly checked the portable monitoring equipment fastened to the side of the gurney. The yellow housing was faded and scraped from years of use. The small screen still worked, but many of the red LED readouts flickered or displayed only partial segments as some had burned out and there were no replacements. A faded white sheet, frayed along every edge, was draped over the gurney’s thin pad. A needle dangled at the end of the tube from an I.V. bag hanging on a flimsy infusion pole. The rails, made from the green resin common in so much of the equipment brought by the MEF, were sturdy but scratches and deep grooves had been dug into it from the countless trips where technicians had scraped the gurney against walls and doorways running it frantically from the chambers to the recovery bays.
A deep hum filled the room as the chamber in front of them activated. Deep inside the concrete walls behind it, coils surged with current and the hum rose until it became a steady vibration he could feel crawl from his feet and through every bone in his body. Behind the thick plastic windows covering the thick steel chamber door, cold steam started to seep into the interior with a hiss. The green LED counter above the chamber door flickered to life : 153. One of the technicians whispered, “Oh my God.” Sall clenched his teeth as an unseen mechanism squealed and then filled the room with a loud clunk. A grating buzzer started to sound at one second intervals.
“Alright people,” Sall said. “Incoming casualty.” A loud purge of steam jetted into the chamber, filling it entirely with a thick white cloud. The hum rose in pitch as another mechanism beneath the floor slammed into place with a clang. The chamber now glowed with a pale green light as a form began to emerge inside the steam. Sall closed his eyes when he heard the gurgling of something that wasn’t yet a man struggling to breathe. The hum leveled off and the form coalesced into something that looked vaguely human. The form wretched and coughed and then a hand slammed against the the chamber door window. A man screamed from both somewhere far away and just inside the chamber. A pair of eyes appeared from behind the steam.
The steel latches on the chamber door thumped open and it swung out on screeching hinges. The technicians reached in to grab the man, dragged his limp body out of the chamber and lay him on the gurney. Disoriented and swimming in panic, his eyes darted around the room. His feet flailed and his legs began to spasm as his mind remembered how to work the muscles of his body. A technician grabbed the I.V. needle and slipped it into the man’s arm while another pushed in the plunger of a syringe fastened to the I.V. tube. The man stopped flailing almost immediately, but his eyes still fluttered with panic.
Dr. Sall inspected the body. A wide swath of bandage stretched across his torso was soaked in blood. A technician grabbed another bandage from the resin shelves slung underneath the gurney and unrolled it over the old one, pulling it tight and tying it underneath his back.
“Let’s go,” Dr. Sall said.
The withering squeak of the the gurney’s wheels echoed off the concrete walls as one of the technicians pushed the gurney as fast as she could without losing control. While clear liquid dripped from the I.V. bag, the man’s head lolled as consciousness started to elude him.
“Hit him,” Sall said.
One of the technicians clutching at the rails of the gurney reached out with his hand to give the casualty a hard smack on his cheek. The man grimaced and then wailed in pain as he became aware of his surroundings again.
“Stay on point, Marine,” Sall instructed.
The man gasped, held his breath and then blurted out, “Sir.” He writhed on the gurney and started methodically punching his leg, lurching in pain each time. Suddenly aware of his surroundings, he asked, “You can fix this, right?” Dr. Sall didn’t respond as they swung around a corner and down the passageway towards the recovery bays.
As they approached the metal door to the medical bay, Sall eyed the camera above the frame and the door slid open. As they crossed the threshold, Sall’s team yanked the gurney to a halt and backed it into a recovery bay. One of the technicians pulled a stretched headband from a metal peg above the casualty’s head. Wires snaked from the headband to a yellow console filled with monitors, dials and switches. The technician lifted the man’s head and carefully slid the band over his forehead. The man’s head had gone limp and he did not react to the movement.
“Dammit,” Sall muttered. He gave a quick look to the technician, who then turned and hit the casualty again. The man coughed and gagged, then sucked in a gurgling breath.
“You still with us Marine?” the technician asked.
“four oh” the man grunted back.
Colonel Dekker walked deliberately down the passageway that Sall and his team had been running down just moments before. His field utility blouse was smeared with smoke and blood and the sheen on his boots, made from a black resin fabric resembling leather, was covered in scrapes and scratches between patches of gloss from where he had shined them before the battle. He marched stiffly and carried his cover in his left hand. A short brush of hair sprung from his scalp, almost as if called to attention. As he approached the door, he stuck his right arm straight out in front of him. As the door slid open he slapped his palm against the cool metal frame and the door receded into the wall behind him. He stopped in the bay, looking right then left until he found the casualty recovery team that was already checking the telemetry from their scans of his wounded Marine.
“Dr. Sall,” he said. The doctor looked up with a flat stare.
Dekker moved next to the gurney and looked over the Marine stretched out in front of him. His eyes stopped at the bandage. Blood had soaked through both layers almost to the point of dripping. He shifted his gaze back to Sall, but the doctor ignored him, instead focusing on the monitors as the head band extracted information from the casualty so they would know every condition that needed attention.
“Wait,” Sall hissed. He poked at a button on the telemetry console and shook his head. “He was 153, Colonel. He shouldn’t have been brought back.”
“It was on my orders, Doctor.” Dekker said.
“Meanwhile, Marines we can save are waiting on a man who is already dead.”
“Doctor,” one of the technicians said softly.
The Marine’s eyes shot to Dekker. “Sir?”
Dekker moved around to stand next to him while Sall continued to jab at the monitor, switching between displays, all of which told him the same story. Finally, the main display lit up with a final message: INOPERABLE.
“Doctor,” Dekker said. When Sall turned to look at him and shook his head, Dekker’s shoulders slumped. “Is there anything you can do for him?” he asked.
Sall’s jaw tightened. “General, it’s not a guideline. It’s policy. There’s nothing I can do.”
Dekker closed his eyes and let a thin frown tug at the corners of his mouth.
Everyone watched the I.V. in silence as the diagnostic system automatically mixed a cocktail of drugs and sedatives to ease the Marine’s pain and induce rest. A virtual rainbow of liquids flowed through the tube and Dekker felt his heart sink.
All eyes shot to the patient’s face when he grunted, “No.”
“Dammit, why is he still up?” Sall asked. Nobody responded. There was nothing any of them could do about it now.
The Marine looked at Dekker and said, “Sir. You don’t have to do this. I can still fight. I’ll get through this.”
Dekker looked into the man’s eyes. They glistened with despair and a plea. Dekker’s face sagged and he suddenly felt the weight of his own aching body.
The Marine started muttering, “No no no no no.” Dekker eased his expression and looked at the man as if he were his own son.
“That’s fine, Marine. You’ve fulfilled your duty and have earned the right to retire from battle.”
“No sir, no. I can fight. You’ll see.” A technician reached into the cabinet beneath the diagnostic unit and pulled out a long black tube. She discretely inserted it into the I.V. valve and then pulled out a black grip with a squeeze trigger that regulated the tube’s flow. She held it out to Dekker, waiting for him to take it.
Dekker reached down to touch the Marine’s forehead and said, “You have fought valiantly, in keeping with the highest traditions of honor, duty and service to your people. You reflect great credit on yourself and the Colonial Marines.”
Dekker reached out for the trigger grip as if it were a coiled snake.
“No sir. please.”
Dekker squeezed the valve trigger to start the flow of fluid through the black tubing. “Remember, Marine. So that they shall not perish.” The man blinked at him as he started to fade. “Say it, Marine. Tell me your oath.”
The Marine’s eyes fluttered and his breathing grew shallow. He took in a last breath and whispered, “So that they shall not perish.”
Dekker dropped the grip on the gurney and closed his eyes.
In a sterile voice, Dr. Sall said, “Time of death: 29.17 colonial zone time.”
Dekker swung around and pounded towards the door without looking back. Once on the other side, he leaned against the wall and stared at a flickering light fixture anchored in the concrete ceiling. Around the corner, the hum of a chamber’s coils reverberated through the floor and the clang of steel filled the air as it assembled another casualty. Dekker felt a shudder when he heard a man scream. He slumped down against the wall and buried his face in his arms. He wanted to stand up and run. He wanted to keep running until his legs gave out or the acrid air of Shoan’tu seared his lungs to the point that all they had left was his own scream of agony.
Instead, he forced himself to listen as another chamber rumbled to life while his Marines screamed out against the darkness.
Shahn’dra padded her way quietly to the radio in the corner of the cabin. The thin tendrils normally draped over the top of her head quivered and then floated up over her eyes as she reached out with a leather brown hand to stroke the radio case. He had tried to explain it to her once. It was like the way she could reach out into the world with her antennae and sense things, but it was even more magical because the words were always crisp and exact, even if they were tinny or sometimes obscured by static. There was also one other big difference: it wasn’t forbidden. The instinct to reach out to him mentally was buried somewhere deep inside. She was even tempted to try it sometimes, but her fear of the forbidden always stopped her.
The leathery skin of her face fluttered and she pursed her thin snout into a narrow tube to let out a faint cooing as her hands brushed the dials. She wasn’t supposed to. Her mother had told her to leave it alone until they they needed it. She looked over her shoulder to make sure her mother was still sleeping and then quickly flipped the power switch. She gasped softly and yanked her hand over her mouth as the box hummed to life and dim light emerged behind the window. She twisted one of the knobs just enough for the mysterious crackling hiss to jump out from the box. She always wondered what was inside making the noise and had to remind herself of what he had said: “Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that.” Her heart still beat just a little faster when she heard it. Two marks were etched on the window: one red, one white. The red mark was for trouble, for calling the Paladin. The white mark was so she could talk to Captain Brandt, a man she had only met once, but one she longed to talk to almost every day. One night, the box wouldn’t light up and it had taken several days for it to come back to life. When she had screeched out at him after it came back on, he had patiently explained that she couldn’t use it every day because it had to sleep. Since then, she was careful to count the days to make sure it had enough sleep so it would always come back on.
Shahn’dra turned the knob and moved the needle to the white mark. The static was replaced by a shining tone that slowly rose in pitch and then whined back down until she couldn’t hear it anymore. When the box sang like this, she knew she had tuned it correctly. Her mother snorted and shifted position. Her antennae fluttered for just a moment and then her breathing fell back to a deep drone. Shahn’dra closed her eyes and let her antennae sway back and forth as the box started to sing again. When the tone had reached its highest peak, she unhooked the mic and said the strange words he had taught her. She said the words slowly in a voice laden with the thick accent of her people’s guttural language. “Echo Five, Crimson Sunshine, over.” She let go of the button and waited. After a few seconds of listening to the box sing, she pushed the button again and repeated the phrase. “Echo Five, Crimson Sunshine, over.” She let go and waited. He had told her that she should only try twice unless it was an emergency. She scowled as the box sang back to her without his voice. Then she heard the click. The voice floated out to her, tinny and warped with static.
“Crimson Sunshine, Echo Five, authenticate baily.”
Shahn’dra closed her eyes as tight as she could, remembering all the combinations of sounds he had taught her. She couldn’t read the symbols he had tried to show her, so she had made a long song in her mind and sang it to herself quietly every night. She hummed and bobbed her head until she came to the one he had said.
“Echo Five, authentication is wick.”
After that, he would speak in her language, something that few Colonial Marines knew, but something that every Terran Guard learned from childhood. Because of this, he had told her it was important to never say certain things, like where they were or who they were. As far as everyone knew, there were no Shoahn’ left and if they ever found out, it could cause some serious problems – and not just for her and her mother.
“Remember to be careful, Shahn’,” he said. She started cooing again, this time with a faint purring mixed in.
“I know. I’ll be careful.” Something flashed through her mind. It left a wake of darkness that she couldn’t understand and then was gone. She stroked her antennae, forcing them back down to her head. “What happened?” she asked.
The box sang for a long time before the answer came back. “We had a battle today.”
“There is less of you,” she said, feeling the new emptiness in his voice.
“We lost many Marines,” he said in a retreating voice. “Too many.”
Shahn’dra closed her eyes and stroked the radio. “Close your eyes,” she said. Her head swayed back and forth as she listened for the wind and then she started to sing with nothing more than a whisper. Soon, a soft trill crept in at the bottom of her range. Then, she split her voice with a cooing melody that floated over the top of the trill. Remembering the cadence and tone of his own words, the melody echoed his sadness in a somber cycle that drifted higher with each round. She pulled in air through the singing gills etched into the side of her face, never stopping to actually breathe as the song coalesced into a vocal symphony. It was her song. Every Shoan had their own, but she infused it with a timbre that was meant just for him in this one moment. This particular song, like all Shoahn’ songs, was unique and would never be heard again. It never occurred to her that the radio could never do justice to her singing and she sang to him as if he were standing right in front of her. She finished with three long notes stacked on top of each other and then faded them all to a whisper that once again sounded just like the wind. She let go of the button and the radio sang back to her with its droning whine. When she didn’t hear his voice, she keyed it again and asked softly, “Jason?”
The radio crackled and then his voice emerged once again. “I’m here,” he said. She couldn’t hear the faint break in his voice that she had inspired. “Thank you.”
“Some day I will sing to you in front of me,” she said.
“I hope so,” he said.
A sudden flash of darkness swept over her, stronger this time. It was different than before. The flavors of dark were infinite and she knew the few that humans could feel. This wasn’t one of them. The Dark Winds whispered at the edge of her consciousness. Her heart raced and her antennae whipped straight up, waving frantically around her head.
“I have to go,” she said in a choked voice, and shut the radio off before he could answer. She backed away from the radio, but the darkness would not leave. She looked frantically around the room and held both hands out to keep her balance. She kept backing up and then tripped over her mother and tumbled to the floor. Her mother was already sitting up, her antennae flitting back and forth. She reached out and held Shahn’dra against the wall, as if to protect her.
Together, they huddled in the darkness, their antennae dancing together as they pushed back at the forces trying to stampede into their consciousness. “It’s stronger this time,” Shahn’dra said. Her breath came harder as she concentrated to control the forbidden instincts that welled up into her mind. She was afraid of them, not just because they were forbidden, but because they seemed to have a mind of their own. The Dark Winds surged and she let out a gasp. She felt like something was looking at her.
Then they were gone.
All eyes were on Dekker as he glanced around the room. “Before we get into all that,” he said, “I want to know how the Terran Guard managed to get their second brigade into line just in time for this battle. It is more than a day’s march from their compound, under the best of circumstances.”
“What are you getting at, Colonel?” General Lane asked.
Dekker eyed Lt. Simmons. Taking the cue, she placed her palm flat on the table. “Sir, my mission was to conduct a recce followed by a combat patrol if the opportunity developed. After we found the enemy flank, we immediately observed the Guard’s second brigade deployed in line moving decisively for the center of our own lines. Our estimate is that they were conducting a spoiling attack to secure and exploit a breach right down the middle.”
“Given that the Enforcer Battalion couldn’t hold the initial line, I can only imagine what would have happened if the Guard’s Second had reached their objective,” General Lane said, looking directly at Dekker.
“That’s not the way it was, sir,” Lt. Simmons said. Colonel Harris, the regiment’s S-2 and her boss, nudged her with his elbow, but she ignored him.
Lane leveled his gaze on her. “How’s that, Lieutenant?”
“Colonel Dekker’s infantry was engaged with forces from the Guard’s Second before the withdrawal. By my estimate, he was up against the bulk of their armor company and two companies of infantry in addition to the Third Battalion of the Guard’s First Regiment.”
The room fell silent as everyone’s eyes turned towards Dekker.
Lane squinted at Lt. Simmons. “Thank you for your report, Lieutenant.” Turning his attention to Dekker, he said, “Did you know you were up against that much resistance, Colonel? I don’t recall receiving a report on the disposition of enemy forces at your location.”
“As I recall, sir, I was told to hold the line and then the General closed the net. But that’s not what’s important here.”
“Alright, Colonel, let’s have it.”
“As I said, I want to know how the Guard’s Second Brigade knew to be in position just as our attack was starting. You heard Lieutenant Simmons. Those tanks weren’t moving to contact. They had been brought forward from the Guards compound at least a day in advance and were rolling into the attack. They knew. What I want to know is how.” He paused to assess the room – still finding no allies. “We hit a spoiling attack right off the bat. I’m not saying we could hold the line, but there might be more of us left if I’d had some help from another battalion or even an extra weapons company. You deployed a single battalion to breach the middle – “
“Hold,” Lane said. “You were to hold the center. You weren’t the main effort here, Colonel.”
“That’s a fire support mission, sir. Giving us an extra weapons company makes even more sense if that’s the case.”
General Lane leaned away from the table. “I should have known better than to engage in a debate on tactics with the Enforcer.” A flurry of nervous chuckles floated around the table. He leveled his gaze at Colonel Harris. “I think we all got taken by surprise on this one.”
“What’s important here,” General Lane continued, “is how we’re going to get them back. Today’s attack showed us how not to do it. The question is what to try next.”
The rumble of Colonel Mason’s voice reverberated across the room. “Next? Sir, we have three under strength battalions – one of them hurt bad – and, what – a company of tanks? – against almost a full division of infantry and a tank battalion. If there is going to be any ‘next’, we need the Paladin here to get in the fight.”
“Yeah, well,” General Lane said, “the idea here was to take on a single brigade and then defend against whatever the Guards had left with whatever we had left reinforced by the Paladin’s Cats.” Lane folded his hands on the table and let out a sigh. “You guys know we can’t replace them. If there is any way to do this without risking them in the attack, I’d rather not resort to that just yet.”
“Sir,” Mason persisted, “If we don’t use them now, they’re all we’re going to have left. Things are not getting better. We need to get the Cats into a full attack while we can.”
“Alright, Colonel, we know where you stand. What about the rest of you?”
Colonel Quadish spoke next. “General, we can defeat them. It would be better with the Paladin, yes, but I don’t think we have to try that just yet. I agree with you.”
Turning to the S-2, Lane lifted his brows. “Colonel Harris?”
“It’s clear they’ve consolidated their forces. But I don’t think they’re going to leave their compound wide open for us to just walk in. They’ll have to pull back at least a battalion as a rear guard to keep the lines of communications open. We’ll have real trouble dealing with the rest, but with the Paladin -” He looked at the table and rubbed his forehead.
“If we put the Paladin in, it would be an even fight.”
General Lane raised a brow. “Even? That’s all?”
“Even,” the S-2 said.
“What about it, Major, are you ready to get in the fight?” He ignored the glances at Dekker, who had not been asked his opinion.
“All I need is a company of infantry for a Foot Guard to keep their guys off our fenders.”
“Hell, you can take two of mine,” Mason said.
“As you were, Colonel,” Lane said.
“Just give me the word, General,” Mason said. “I’ll lead it myself.”
Dekker cleared his throat. “It’s not what it’s all cracked up to be.” He made sure Mason was looking at him before continuing. “But I know you’d do a fine job, Colonel.”
“Passing the torch?” Lane asked.
“I was relieved of those duties by your predecessor, sir,” Dekker said.
Major Walker glanced down at the table and then leaned forward, looking straight at Mason. “I’d talk to the Enforcer about it, Colonel. It’s tough duty.” He turned his gaze to Dekker and said, “It takes a special kind to guard a Cataphract.”
“Major, what’s the status on your team now?” Lane asked.
“We’re set up just behind the compound. My rig is down for repairs.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“At least a day.”
“Alright,” Lane said. “Let me know when you’re back on line. In the meantime, I’ll take the issue of committing your team to the main line under advisement.” General Lane stood up. Everyone around the table stood up with him, waiting for his final orders. “That’s all for now. Carry on. Dismissed.”
Shoan’fal crested a low rise to find himself looking down at nothing more than a boxy structure jutting up from the ground. Moonlight glinted off its smooth surface, giving it a cold sterile sheen. At first glance, it resembled one of the prefab buildings the humans had brought with them, but this was different. He pulled the Revealer from the bag slung over his shoulder and held it in his palm. He pointed it at the building and a green glow pulsated on the face of the device. He turned to point the device away and the glow dimmed. His antennae fluttered and a grin crept onto his mouth just beneath his snout. His body surged with a shiver of glee and he looked into the sky above him to let out a long sigh of satisfaction.
He trundled down the hill until he was close enough to touch the structure. He stared at it for a moment and then carefully placed his hand against the wall. It felt cold and sucked the warmth from his hand. He stepped around the corner to find a slab of the same material lying on the ground. There was an opening in the wall where the slab had once been a door. He peered carefully through the opening and saw nothing but black. His snout jutted out in front of him and he sniffed the air as he poked his walking stick through the opening. Holding the stick out in front of him, he stepped into the building and padded his way across the floor until the tip clicked on the far wall.
Wind swept past the building and wisps of sand swirled in through the door, but he could only hear the silence of the room. He tapped the wall with his walking stick and walked forward until he bumped into a shelf jutting from the wall. He brushed its surface with his hand and jumped back when it came to life with a dull glow. As the shelf brightened, symbols began to emerge. He recognized some of them as names for villages he knew. Others he had never seen before. Circles of varying sizes were drawn next to the names. Some were a simple black circle while the rest were colored in red. Lines snaked in between many of them while the whole picture was overlaid with a series of lines crossing each other over the entire screen.
The glow from the display washed the room with just enough light to reveal a smooth surface embedded in the wall above the shelf. He leaned forward and tapped the surface with a claw. Nothing happened. He pressed his palm against the surface. Now, a blue glow shimmered on the surface and traced a thin haze around the outline of his hand and fingers. He drew a breath and held it, closing his eyes. A part of him still cowered at the warning against the ancient words. They were words that would unravel the world and plunge it into the darkness of an ancient past. The words hadn’t changed, but their meaning probably had. Words to be spoken by his ancestors from countless generations before had become a shrine to the Forbidden. Why would such words be remembered? Knowledge of such things was never without purpose. He opened his eyes. His mouth was dry and his voice quavered as he spoke words that had not been heard by Shoahn’ ears for more time than anyone knew.
A metallic click filled the room, followed by a faint hum as the surface unlatched and slid up into the wall to reveal a shallow alcove. The case sitting inside stared back at him. Small enough for a man to carry with one hand, its brushed metallic surface was embossed with a blue triangle. He tugged at the handle fastened to the top and it tipped forward. Heavier than he expected, it fell on the shelf with a thud. Startled, Shoan’fal took a step back and his snout quivered. He eyed the case for a moment, waiting to see if it would do something. His breath came in short pants as he approched the shelf and groped around the edges of the case, tugging at the seam. His hands brushed across an indentation. He dug into the indentation and tugged at the latch holding the case closed. He gasped when it snapped open. He tugged at the case some more, but it still wouldn’t open. He found another indentation and opened the second latch, which allowed him to pull the top of the case back on its hinges and stare down at its contents.
The case was lined with a synthetic black material that he was able to push in with his finger. A video tablet was nestled into the lining, next to a thin black box with metallic tabs protruding from each edge. Again, it all seemed similar to what the humans had brought to his world, but was still different somehow. The markings next to the thin buttons on the bezel of the tablet were in the ancient form of the Shoan’ language that only priests were taught. The tablet itself was bulky and less elegant than what the humans used. His people didn’t make things like this. The Shoan’ were people who made carts from cord wood and lit the night with torches and candles. And yet, here he was, staring at something so far beyond all of that, but clearly from his world. Nobody had brought this to Shoahn’Tu. It had been here for generations beyond counting. A tingle of excitement welled up inside him. It had been waiting for somebody who dared step beyond the gates of the Forbidden to rekindle its power. It had been waiting for him.
He pressed one of the buttons on the tablet and the screen came to life. The words were written cryptically and he had to concentrate to read the ancient dialect. As he read, he began to understand why only priests were allowed to learn the ancient tongue. His heart started to hammer as he realized that he was reading the source of all the mythology he had been taught about the Time Before and why he and every Shoan’ had been warned to never set foot in the Fallen.
He had found the Old Scrolls.
He licked his leathery lips and a low rumbling purr poured out from his chest and through his snout as he continued to read. It all flowed through him and came together in a single vision that he now knew was his destiny.
He was going to set the world on fire.
Shahn’dra crawled across the dirt floor towards the radio. Her vision was blurred and her head was spinning from the visions that flooded her mind’s eye. Instinctively, she unfurled her antennae to project a defensive aura to shut the visions out. But it was forbidden. She smoothed her antennae back down, but they seemed to have a life of their own and sprang back up to protect her as she struggled to keep from unleashing the full strength of her aura. If her mother hadn’t collapsed on the floor behind her, she probably would have just let the visions consume her until they were done with her.
She groped for the power switch and flicked on the radio. Static poured from the speaker, along with a round hum that slowly rose in pitch. She grabbed one dial and twisted it until the needle in the display moved under a red mark etched just above the window. A stark image infested her mind – visions of fires climbing out of the towering cord trees outside blinded her completely and she let out a whimper as she fumbled with the radio. She clutched at the microphone hooked to its side, but couldn’t pull it free. The fire in her mind blazed out of control and all her strength drained from her. She collapsed to the floor with a groan.
It was forbidden. Something deep inside clawed at her mind, desperate to escape and run wild. She was blind. She couldn’t feel the ground. All she could hear was the roar of the fire that threatened to consume her sanity. She let her antennae unfurl to their full extension and unleashed the forbidden from its cage. The visions blurred as her mind pushed back against the intruder. The radio came back into view and she lunged for the microphone, ripping it from its hook.
She squeezed the transmit key on the side and shrieked into the grill. “Two Bravo Delta, Two Bravo Delta, Crimson Sunshine, over.” She let go of the key and strained to listen for the response. Static floated out from the radio as the visions kept swirling in her mind. She kept them close enough to the edge of her awareness that she could still see the radio, but she didn’t know how long she could hold them back. She whimpered and keyed the microphone again. “Two Bravo Delta, Two Bravo Delta, Crimson Sunshine, Broken Arrow -” She lost her grip on the microphone and it fell to the ground. She rolled over on her back and tears welled up in her eyes. Her body shuddered with a sob and her snout tucked itself tightly against her chin. She thrashed the ground with her hand, searching for the microphone.
The fire roared into the sky. Buildings she had never seen before collapsed and were swept away by a harsh wind that swept across the land. Faces she had never known looked at her, imploring her to help and then disappeared behind a wall of flame. An avalanche of screams poured over her and suffocated her as they sucked the air away from the sky. Then she was alone, standing in an endless sea of smoke and wind.
She found the microphone and tugged it towards her face. She keyed the microphone just as the vision broke through an invisible wall and wrapped itself around her entire being.
The throttle was already jammed against its forward stop and the jump jet’s engines whined with the strain of running at full power. Major Sam Walker pushed the throttle grip in his left hand forward anyway, huffing when it wouldn’t move any further. Captain Holt, his Executive Officer, sat in the right hand seat monitoring the navigational display. Petty Officer Graham, the unit’s chief corpsman, sat in one of the two passenger seats behind them; his eyes were a little too wide as the Paladin flung the craft through the towering spires of cord trees that stood between them and the Pyramid.
Major Walker keyed the intercom. “Try again, Captain.”
Holt checked the frequency readout on the floor console between him and Major Walker and squeezed the microphone key in the chord attached to his headset. “Crimson Sunshine Crimson Sunshine Two Bravo Delta is inbound two minutes, please acknowledge.” He let go of the key and waited. He glanced at Walker and shook his head. “Crimson Sunshine, key your mic twice if you can hear me.”
Major Walker tried again to push the throttle forward as Holt eyed the engine status monitor in the center console. “Inter-turbine’s getting a little warm boss.”
“We’re almost there,” Walker said. The squealing whine from the turbines slowly rose in pitch. “I hear it. We’ll be alright.”
The jumpjet shot out from the cord trees towards a rising slope. As they crested the rise, the Pyramid rose up before them. A blue haze of light permeated its sloping sides from the inside as it stood sentinel over the sun-baked ground, waiting for somebody who had long forgot it was there.
The lone hut sat nestled in its shadow on the edge of another island of cord trees. Walker pitched up the jet’s nose and settled into an approach course. “Flaps 10,” he commanded. Holt reached down to the center console and clicked the flap lever to its first position. The whir of electric motors filled the cockpit as the inboard trailing edge of the jet’s wings slid out. The digital readout of the radar altimeter flickered to life as they descended below 1000 meters. “Gear.” Holt pulled down the gear handle in the main console, rewarded by a low hum and then the sound of metal latches as the landing struts unfolded from the airframe.
“Three green” Holt said, confirming the landing skids were locked in position.
“Ball” Walker said. Holt pushed a button on the strip at the top of the front console deck and twisted a knob until a reticle appeared on the front canopy and settled over a point on the ground just short of the hut.
“Call it,” Holt said.
Holt pressed the button again to lock the landing marker in place. As two additional markers appeared above and below it, Major Walker worked the control stick to keep the reticle centered between them. As the craft reached just ten feet over the ground, the reticle flashed green. He pressed a button on the throttle and the side turbines swung down to hold the craft off the ground as the rear turbines kicked off. The craft slowed to a near standstill and he eased the throttle back, allowing the craft to float to the ground and ease its weight onto the skids. He pulled the throttles all the way back and flipped off the ignition switches just behind the rear stops.
All three men unbuckled their flight harnesses as the canopy hissed open. Major Walker looked over his shoulder and said to Petty Officer Graham, “Sit tight.” He and Holt hopped out on either side of the craft and crouched down. They each unbuckled a storage box on either side of the craft to remove field glasses and their P-28 short barrel carbines. Holt scanned the hut and the surrounding area with his binoculars while Major Walker picked up a magazine for his weapon.
“Nothing out there,” Holt said.
Walker clicked the magazine into his weapon and smacked the bottom to make sure it was firmly seated. “Alright, cover,” he said. Holt shouldered his weapon while Major Walker trotted towards the hut. When he arrived at the door, he crouched down and waved for Holt to follow. He showed his hand and then curled three fingers down, signaling Graham to move up as well. The corpsman unbuckled his flight harness, jumped to the ground behind Holt, and followed the XO as he ran up to join Major Walker.
The hut was little more than a shack made from twigs cut from a cord tree and welded together with clay. The door hung on hinges made from strands of the tree’s sinewy bark. Walker knocked and called out, “Shahn’.” There was no answer. The only sound from inside was static hissing from the radio he had given her. He pushed the door open and peeked inside. Shahn’dra sat against the far wall staring blankly at the dirt floor while her mother slept on a strip of blanket on the floor. “Shahn’,” he called again, but the girl did not seem to hear him.
Major Walker shouldered his weapon and stood up. As the three men stepped inside, he signaled for Graham to check on Shahn’dra’s mother while he stepped over to the radio and switched it off. Holt crouched down in front of Shahn’dra and unfastened a small flashlight from his belt. He snapped it on and pointed the light into her eyes, but she still did not respond.
“Major,” Petty Officer Graham said, pointing at Shahn’dra’s mother.
Walker knelt down next to her and asked, “What’s the story here, Doc?”
“I’m afraid she might be in a coma, sir. Or close to it.”
“Stim pack,” Walker said. Graham looked at him for a moment, as if he wanted to say something. “What else have we got?” Walker asked.
“Alright, sir,” Graham said, digging through his pack to retrieve a small gray plastic kit. A faint whine filled the air as he placed it on her leathery forehead and tapped it. A web of thin wires extended from its innards and then latched onto her skin. Graham removed a small monitor from his pack and tapped the screen. He sucked his breath in through his teeth as the monitor lit up with readings from the wires now probing everything from her heart rate to her alpha wave brain patterns.
“What you got?” Walker asked.
“Let’s give it a minute to stabilize, sir,” Graham said.
The woman moaned softly as the stim pack hummed and buzzed with the small electric currents it sent through its web of leads.
“Shoahn’Kra,” Walker whispered. He put his hand on her shoulder and glanced at Graham. The corpsman nodded. “Can you hear me?”
Her breathing deepened and her expression turned from a waxy mask of near death to one of growing pain. “Doc,” Walker hissed.
“It’s alright sir. She’s coming out of it.”
“Is she in pain?”
“Yes, sir. That’s a good thing right now. I can give her something once this all evens out.”
“Shoahn’Kra,” Walker repeated.
The woman gulped and then drew in a stiff breath. Her voice was little more than a harsh croak. “Dren’Vil,” she said. She took another breath and repeated the word. The furrows of pain on her face tightened as she repeated the word, over and over. “Dren’Vil.”
“That’s enough,” Walker said.
“Negative, sir,” Graham said. He nodded at Shahn’dra, whose lips quietly repeated the word each time her mother spoke. All they could do was wait as the two women worked their way back from whatever void they had fallen into.
“Here we go, sir,” Graham said. He studied his monitor for a moment more and then said, “I have a shot.” He tapped an entry into the small numeric keypad on the monitor and hit the COMMIT key. Shoahn’Kra gasped and then her eyes flew open, round bulbous orbs staring once again into nothing more than the emptiness of the room.
“Shahn’dra,” she called out.
“Here Mama,” the girl answered.
“Are you safe, child?”
“I’m sorry Mama. I have -” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I know what I have done is forbidden.”
Shoahn’Kra took several deep breaths as the stim pack worked to stabilize her metabolism. She looked in Walker’s eyes and showed him something he had never seen in her before: fear. “It is never forbidden to defend yourself, child,” she said.
Graham tapped the keypad to transfer a new sequence to the stim pack. “Think I’ve got it, sir,” he said. The monitor gave a single low chime and the stim pack shut down. “She’s all yours, sir.”
Petty Officer Graham pulled a small vial of liquid from his pack and snapped it open. Placing his hand gently behind Shoahn’Kra’s neck, he raised the vial to her lips and said, “This won’t taste very good, but you’ll feel better.” The woman nodded, raising her snout slightly so he could pour the vial’s contents into her mouth, and then gulped down the liquid. Her face screwed up in a grimace of displeasure and Graham smiled. “She’ll be fine now, sir.”
“Thanks Doc. Well done,” Walker said. He looked into the woman’s eyes and asked her, “What the hell happened here?”
“Dren’Vil,” she said.
He smiled. “We heard that part. Can you tell me what that means?”
Shahn’dra spoke up from the other side of the room. “It’s- Dark Winds. They are forbidden.”
“I can see why,” Walker said.
Shahn’dra shook her head and fluttered her snout, then stood up and crossed the room to sit down next to him. “It is a way of thinking, of sharing thoughts,” she said.
“I’ve heard of that,” he said.
“The sharing is forbidden, but so are the thoughts that came. They are the Dark Winds.”
“Why would somebody share their, um – Dark Winds, if they’re forbidden?” he asked.
“Because they cannot be hidden if they are too strong. If you lose control of them.” She swooned and Graham caught her before she fell back.
He pulled a small plastic bottle of water from his pack and broke the seal. “Here,” he said, holding out the bottle. She cradled it with both hands and then uncurled her snout through the opening to drain it dry.
“Thank you,” she said, handing him the empty bottle. Graham quietly tucked it back into his pack. “These came from Shoahn’Fal,” she continued, “a priest who once sat with the Pyramid as my mother and I do now.”
“So you know him.”
“Yes. And he knows us.” She peered into Walker’s eyes and unfurled her antennae. “This, too, is forbidden, but you must understand,” she said.
“It’s fine. I trust you.”
Her antennae fluttered and then swayed gently over her head as she looked into his eyes. A vision flashed through his mind. The world went white and then the air swept over him in a wave of searing heat. The white faded and became a rolling orange ball that boiled into the sky. Everything around him burst into flame and was swept back into a roaring column of smoke and fire that rose into the sky and blacked out the sun. The Paladin’s heart stopped as he realized what he was watching. Just as quickly as it had entered his mind, the vision was gone.
She wrapped her clawed fingers around his arm. Still staring into his eyes, she said, “He must not come here.”
Major Walker stood in front of General Lane’s desk, still trying to think of the best way to tell his commanding officer that he was moving the entire company of Cataphracts.
In a tired voice, Lane asked, “What is it Major?”
“I need to move the Cats.”
Lane raised his brow. “Really? On whose authority?”
Walker thought one last time about his decision. He could still tell the General that his intent was to set up a garrison for the Pyramid because a Shoahn’ girl nobody knew was even alive had revealed something that nobody would believe. He wasn’t even sure he believed it himself. The line between duty and loyalty felt like something scrawled somewhere in the desert sands of Shoahn’Tu. He felt like a man staggering against the wind as it swept over that line, blurring it to the point where he didn’t know where it was anymore. The only thing he knew to be true beyond question was the terror he had seen in her eyes.
“Mine,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” He pressed his palms on the General’s desk and leaned forward. “Look, the truth of the matter is that you have been holding us in reserve for a while now. I’m not contesting that decision. That’s your call. But we’ve spent so much time standing around and watching that my guys are rusty. I think we know the time will come – and soon – when we are going to have to step up and help out with the close fight. We need to get ready for that.”
“So you’re requesting -“
Walker cut him off. “I’m advising you, sir. I’m advising the General that I’m taking the Cats to an undisclosed location to conceal them from the enemy while we conduct exercises.”
Lane leaned back, his face devoid of all emotion. He narrowed his eyes. “It would have been better if you had made that a request. You are under my tactical command, Major.”
“I’m only under your command during tactical operations, General. You initiate a tactical order for operations that include engagement with the enemy and we’ll be there. In the meantime, they belong to me.”
“That can change,” Lane said. “Real quick.”
“I have a responsibility, General, one that goes back long before you took over MEF. With respect, you don’t have the ability to train somebody else to do what I do. As for command, the Paladin has always been chosen by his peers. It is not an appointed command.”
“Why are you doing this, Major? Do you feel like you have something to prove or are you just a renegade?” Lane leaned forward and smiled. “You know, I can relieve you of your command. I can also do things like convene courts martial. Traditions are fine, but there is a line and you have your foot half way over it.”
“Maybe I do have something to prove, General.” Walker unfolded his hands and held them up. The rumors he had heard about Lane’s ignorance of his own need to develop as a regimental commanding officer were turning out to be true. But Walker couldn’t wait for Lane to learn how to trust him. “I agree with Colonel Harris. You need to commit the Cats to the main line. And we’re not ready for that. Let me get them ready.”
“Well, Major, that’s starting to sound like something that resembles a request.”
Walker felt his jaw tightening. He had been the Paladin for twenty years. General Lane had been at his post for six months. Was the MEF really this short on general officers who could fill the billet? “With respect, General, you sound like the one who has something to prove.”
Lane glared at him, jutting his chin forward. “I will take your request under advisement and let you know, Major. In the meantime, I want to know the current disposition of your Cats, their readiness state and your current supply status. If any of your men take a single step without my order, I’ll convene a court. The Cats stay put. Are we clear?”
Major Walker stood back up, letting out a sigh as he rolled his shoulder back. “General Lane, you go ahead and convene that court. In the meantime, I have training to conduct. Sir.” Before Lane could respond, he wheeled around smartly and marched out the door.
The General had been right. He had crossed a line. What the General didn’t understand, though, was that line was one of his own making, not one drawn by the MEF. If circumstances had allowed, he would have waited until the General figured it out for himself. But Walker didn’t have time for any of that. He only hoped that General Lane figured it out before it was too late.
As soon as he was back in the compound, Walker jogged to where the Cats were crouched in tight box formations at the rear of the MEF compound. He ducked into one of the tents that had sprung up behind them to find Captain Holt and the Company First Sergeant huddled over a folding table discussing the status of their supplies and ammunition.
“Top, I need a word with the XO.”
“Yes sir.” The sergeant ducked out of the tent, leaving the two of them alone.
“What’s up?” Holt asked.
Walker shook his head and sealed the tent flap. “You need to get the Cats moving to the Pyramid.”
Holt cocked his head and then nodded once. “Alright. What about you? You’re rig isn’t ready yet.”
“I’ll be along as soon as I can. Just get to the Pyramid.” He looked over his shoulder and then took a step towards Holt. Placing a hand on his executive officer’s shoulder, he said, “And if anybody tries to stop you -“
“I understand, sir. I didn’t think General Lane would think much of the idea.”
“Indeed, he did not.”
Edge of Extinction
The lines etching his face were as desolate as the ground that he hacked at with a hoe. Carefully working the blade around the dried leaves of a plant that anybody else would have taken for dead, he dug out clumps of dry dirt and clay to expose its withering roots. He set the hoe down and knelt next to the plant, whose leaves were as frail as burnt paper. He pulled a thin plastic vial of water from the pocket of his field shirt. Holding it up against the orange glow of the sun, he counted the tick marks on the vial. He leaned down and carefully poured a thin stream along the roots. The water washed over the roots in a feeble rivulet and then disappeared as the parched ground sucked it away.
“You’re a miracle worker, Emmet.” He looked over his shoulder and saw Colonel Dekker standing at the edge of his field. Emmet stood up, pushing against the ache that never left his bones, and stretched. He ambled towards Dekker with a slight limp while blood worked its way back into his muscles. By the time he reached Dekker, he was almost walking normally. When he shook the Colonel’s hand, he felt his own skin scraping against Dekker’s like sand paper.
“It’s a living,” Emmet said. The two men walked together to a small rise overlooking the MEF compound and the flats beyond its perimeter. The fertile ground of the Highlands, now covered by the neat formations of the Terran Guard, weren’t more than a few miles away, but it might as well have been a thousand. Smoke still seeped from the ground and curled away from burning vehicles. The men who could be recovered to the medical bays were already gone. The rest had been dragged off the field and tossed as ceremoniously as possible onto a burning pyre. As the two men surveyed the scene, Emmet said, “I guess it didn’t go too well.”
“Sorry,” Dekker said.
Emmet put a hand on the Colonel’s shoulder and said, “Come on inside. I have some root tea left.” He led Colonel Dekker back to a boxy structure made from the same resin that prevailed in most everything the Exodus Fleet and the MEF had brought with them. The sides were streaked with deep grooves from years of wind grinding the grit of Shoan’Tu’s dry ground into it. Faded black markings composed of partial letters and numbers that were barely readable denoted its family group and function as a temporary shelter for three persons. A small array of photovoltaic cells attached to the structure by a bare coil of wire – its protective sheath long stripped away by the wind and grit – fed enough electricity into the module to power a single light and a small coil stove. On cold nights, the batteries it charged provided just enough power for a vent blower to distribute a meager flush of heat throughout the structure.
The two men ducked in through a ragged cloth covering the door way. The plastic hut wasn’t quite tall enough for a man to stand up and they both had to stoop once inside. Emmet took a thin aluminum pot from the plastic shelves molded into the side of the structure and placed it on the coil burner stove. A clear plastic bottle half-filled with a rose-colored liquid sat on the shelf next to it. Emmet unscrewed the cap and poured a small portion into the pot. The coil was efficient and the liquid was almost boiling within a minute. Emmet rubbed his chin, eyeing a small box made from the bark of a cord tree sitting on one of the shelves. He took a quick breath and snatched the box from the shelf. He set it on a cube of plastic molded to the floor that served as a table and took off the lid.
“Please, sit down Colonel,” he said, gesturing at the small bench molded to the wall next to the table. He sat down on the opposite bench, eased the lid off the box and pulled out two crudely crafted clay cups. Keeping his eyes on the cups as he set them on the table, he said, “Jommy made these from the clay field when it rained last year.” He turned his gaze to Colonel Dekker, waiting to see what he would say.
“It’s alright, Emmet. How much water did you folks manage to extract from the field anyway?”
“Enough for a season. Barely.” He stood up and leaned over to fetch the pot by its insulated wire handle. “He did the best he could, but it dried so fast. He didn’t have time to really finish them properly.”
“It’s a nice gesture, Emmet. Be sure to compliment him for me.”
Emmet poured root tea into each of the cups, then placed the pot back on the coil burner stove and turned it off. He lifted his cup and made a toast. “That they shall not perish.”
Dekker picked up his own cup. “That they shall not perish.” Each man took a small sip. Dekker blinked hard. “A little bit goes a long way, doesn’t it?”
Emmet chuckled. “One of the few things around here that does.” He took another sip and shook his head as a shudder ran through his body. “But I think you need it today.”
Dekker carefully placed his cup on the table and leaned forward. “Emmet, be honest with me.” He glanced around the small cube that felt like the inside of a freight container. “How much longer can your people hold on?”
Emmet let out a slow breath through tight lips. “Yeah, that’s a good question.” He took another sip of root tea. “With the new rationing schedule, we’ll lose another 10% of the colony this season. Our stockpile will be gone by then, too.”
“How long can you make it after that?” Dekker asked.
“They don’t tell me these things. I’m sure the mayor’s made his report.”
“Reports are for politicians. I need to hear the truth from a man I can trust. You’ve been here longer than anybody.” Dekker picked up his cup and took another sip. His body swayed and he grunted as he set the cup back down. “What’s the story, Emmet?”
“Well, as we lose more people, the crops we manage to scrape from this ground go further, of course. But the real problem is we’re losing women faster than men.”
“And you’re not breeding right now.”
“Nope. Generational decline.” Emmet took another sip of his tea and leaned back against the wall. He levelled his gaze on Dekker and said, “Seems like we’re back to square one.”
“Yeah, maybe we should have just stayed home.”
“Nah. No chance there at all.”
“How long, Emmet?”
Emmet shook his head and bit his lip as he thought of the farmers like himself scratching at dirt, forcing it to yield to their will and the bit of magic that came from chemistry. “We can’t make the ground here grow anything more, Ben. Whatever we pull out of the ground this season. Well, that’s all we’re going to get.”
Dekker froze. He stared at Emmet and his eyes washed over with a glaze of panic that he couldn’t quite hide. “What?”
“After this harvest, we start starving to death.”
“If we get the Highlands -“
“We start having babies.”
The doorway curtain rustled and Jommy burst into the room. A twitchy 11-year-old wearing the same faded field service overalls as his father, he stopped in mid stride when he saw Dekker. Turning to the Colonel, he stood up straight and gave an exaggerated salute. “Sir!”
Dekker smiled. “Hello Jommy. How have you been?”
Jommy stared at the cups and pointed at them. “Do you like them?”
Dekker smiled and said, “I like them very much.”
“Dad said it’s against the rules.”
“It is.” He winked at Emmet.
Jommy looked at his father and asked, “Am I in trouble?”
“I don’t know, son. That’s up to the Colonel here.”
Jommy’s eyes flitted nervously between the two men.
Dekker lightly tapped his cup and asked, “Why did you make these?”
Jommy knelt down next to the table and rubbed his fingers along the surface of the cup sitting in front of his father. Staring into the root tea, he said, “I made them for Mama. I wanted her to have something nice.” He pulled his hand away and looked at Dekker. “They’re not very good, are they?”
Emmet eyed the Colonel, seeing the man choking back something.
“They’re fine Jommy,” Dekker said. “They’ll be our little secret.”
Jommy looked up at Dekker and a toothy smile spread over his face.
“Go on outside,” Emmet said. “Check the roots for me.”
“Yessir.” Jommy stood up and bounded out the door.
After the boy left, Emmet said, “There’s something else.” He lifted his cup, took a sip and leaned back against the wall. “Some of our farmers went to talk to the Guard.”
Dekker scoffed. “Any luck with that?”
“They never came back.” He took another sip. “I don’t understand them. Why won’t they help their own kind?”
“That’s a question that’s been asked for generations now. The Shoahn’ are gone and they still keep fighting like they’re protecting something,” Dekker said.
“I don’t know. Power, I guess. Or maybe just because they were here first.”
“Ben, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.”
“Go ahead, Emmet. No secrets between us.”
“Has anybody considered that it might be time?” He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “-maybe it’s time to surrender?”
“Can you carry a weapon, Emmet?”
“I’m too old for that sort of thing. I was thinking more about Jommy. You know?”
Dekker picked up his cup turned it in his hand, studying the imprints of the boy’s hand where he had formed the clay. “They don’t have much use for things like this over there.”
“Really, though, how bad could it be?”
Dekker leaned back as a cold mask fell over his face. As the Colonel spoke, Emmet felt a shiver run through him. “Guys like you, the old and the sick; they’ll be put to sleep and tossed on top of each other to burn. The young fellas; they’ll get to the Highlands just fine, in shackles, working the ground until they can’t keep up and then tossed on with the rest. They’ll draw your blood, match up the women with the strongest traits and let them have just enough babies to maintain their ranks. And when they can’t have babies any more, they’ll put them in the fields and wait for them to fall behind quota before tossing them on that pile. And boys like Jommy. He’ll be fine as long as he can shoot straight and take orders. And they won’t care when that order is to toss you on that pile.”
“Come on, Ben, this isn’t Old Earth.”
“No, but it’s the same story. You think they see us as human.”
Emmet felt his hand starting to shake and placed it flat on the table, hoping Dekker wouldn’t see. “How do they see us, then?”
“As less than that. That’s when it really begins. Once the last ties to our history are swept away, they’ll indoctrinate our children in The Way. They’ll try to make us forget who we are.”
Emmet took a long breath and let out a sigh. “But we would be alive.”
A thin eerie grin crept across Dekker’s face as he pulled the cup to his lips and took another sip. He set the cup down slowly and the grin disappeared. He folded his hands and leaned forward.
“Then you and I have different definitions of what it means for a man to be alive.” The Colonel took a long drink, wincing as he set the cup back on the table. “The Way is a hoax. A lie to smother their own regret because they can’t admit they were wrong. We can make something of this place. You’ve said it yourself. All they had to do was let us. Surrender to the Terran Guard? No. We didn’t come all this way just to give up on who we are.”
“It was just a thought.”
“Oh hell, Emmet, it’s an option. You’re not the first one to consider it. I just don’t think that’s why we came here.” Dekker’s expression eased and sadness filled his eyes as he seemed to be choking something back again.
“What is it Ben? No secrets.”
“Alright.” Dekker took another sip and visibly had trouble putting the cup back on the table. “You wouldn’t be asking about surrender if it wasn’t for me.”
Emmet knitted his brow. “How do you mean?”
“I’m the man who lost the Highlands in the first place.”
They both sat in silence as the words hung in the air. Part of him wanted to reach across the table and grab the Colonel by the throat and scream. He had heard it before, but now, coming from the man himself, he couldn’t deny it. The reason his people were starving was sitting right in front of him. Except that wasn’t really true, was it? The real reason was miles away, oiling treads aching to run through his home. They hadn’t done that yet. The man sitting across from him was the reason for that, too. Embarrassed by his own thoughts, Emmet let out a chuckle. “You’re a good man, Ben. You need to let that go.”
“No, I don’t.” Dekker turned the cup slowly on the table, gently grinding it’s dried clay against the green plastic. “I just need to be a better Marine.”
Shoahn’Fal struggled up the last rise between him and the valley where the Pyramid stood. Its blue aura of light rose just above the top of the rise, promising him his prize. Driven on by the seething hatred growing inside him and his unslakable thirst for revenge, he dragged the case through the sand as he pushed down on his walking stick to take another aching step towards the top. His mind was fully immersed in the forbidden as Dren’Vil consumed his very soul. He had already lost control of it all and seemed to be more a servant of its will rather than his own. But it seemed so right, that he gave into it now and swam freely in its currents. The forbidden told him to take another step even as his body screamed for rest, just a moment of respite from the searing pain cutting through his muscles. He dug the stick into the sand. He dragged the case along. He took another step.
Cresting the hill, he fell to his knees as he looked down into the valley and saw the Pyramid standing as he had left it so many years ago. It was as if time had not passed. The blue glow permeated its surface, telling him it was still alive. His eyes wandered to the base, where he saw the shallow alcove etched into its side leading to a sealed portal. Nobody had ever really known what was behind it. Until now, they hadn’t known how to open it, either. Until now, nobody had even thought of doing such a thing. It was forbidden. His parched throat croaked when he scoffed at the thought. The forbidden had become a gateway to a newfound power he never knew existed. Why he had believed it was something to be hidden and controlled he no longer understood. He now knew that the forbidden made his the true heart of a Shoahn’. This is who he was. This is who his people had been long ago. A twinge of sadness ran through him when he realized this is all they would ever be and that it was too late to save the rest. For that, the humans were going to pay – all of them.
His eyes scanned the ground around the Pyramid and his heart sank when he saw them. Eleven of the human walking war machines stood neatly in three groups next to the pyramid. Humans were scattered around them, working under the lights they had erected on thin poles to look down on the machines. Another group with weapons slung over their shoulders walked past the portal he had come to open and then turned to walk along the side of the Pyramid.
He was suddenly aware of how tired he was. The pain that had consumed him now became a dull numbness that made him feel so heavy he didn’t know if he could stand back up. He let go of the case and reached into the ragged sack slung over his shoulder. He pulled out the last morsel of clay root that he had brought with him and gnawed its tough hide to release the scant juice inside and let it trickle down his throat. A part of his old self flickered inside him, thankful that the Shoahn’ could extract far more strength from a bit of clay root than the human invaders. What they needed to live for a day would carry him for seven. Next, he pulled out the plastic bottle of water that he had stolen from the Terran Guard compound before entering the Fallen. This, too, would last him far longer than it would have for any human. The bottle was nearly empty, but he only drank half, saving the rest for the next day.
He turned away from the Pyramid and sat quietly in the sand, letting the nourishment revive him until he felt strong enough to stand up. As his strength returned, the glimmer of his old self faded and the Dren’Vil returned, stoking his vow to kill every last human left on his world. But it told him something else, as well.
He needed them to help him do it.
General Godfrey stopped in front of the door to the interrogation bunker to smooth over the front of her utility dress blouse. She glanced at her boots, which reflected the Shoahn’tu sun in their black sheen. A beige beret sat perched on top of jet black hair cut to length just below her jaw line. The Terran Guard sergeant standing next to her was just as immaculate, right down to the fresh oil he had used to clean the action of the weapon slung over his shoulder. He carried a thin black briefcase in his right hand.
“Alright,” she said. “Let’s go.” The sergeant leaned forward and tapped a code into the numeric keypad next to the door. He stepped back and General Godfrey placed her hand on the small screen next to the pad. After a moment, the pad chimed, indicating that the code was correct and that it recognized her palm print. Steel latches flipped back and the door, made from a full inch of steel plating, eased back automatically on well-oiled hinges.
The room was lit just enough that she could see everyone clearly, but just dim enough to give anybody brought in for questioning a vague sense of uncertainty. The floor was shined to a high gloss and the walls, sloping outward towards the ceiling, were painted in a flat gray. A stainless steel table took up the center of the room, with two armed soldiers standing against the wall behind it. A man dressed in black field utility dress and wearing a side arm stood up when she entered.
“Ten ‘hut” he hollered, stiffening his stance.
General Godfrey stopped mid-stride, staring at the Shoahn’ sitting in a metal chair at the far end of the table. He was slumped over, staring at the brushed steel case sitting on the table in front of him. His snout was curled out as he purred softly with a submissive cooing.
“Shoak’tra ‘Val,” she said in the Shoahn’ language.
He looked up at her and returned the greeting. “Shoak’tra ‘Venal.”
She stepped up to the table and studied his face, noticing a faint dark blush on one side.
She looked at the man still standing at attention. “What’s that?,” she asked, pointing at Shoahn’Fal’s face.
“He wouldn’t answer any of our questions, General.”
She stepped sideways to stand just inches from the man. He was taller than she was and she had to look up into his face as she spoke. “The first Shoahn’ we’ve seen in twenty years, and you felt the need to interrogate him?”
“We didn’t think there were any left -“
“Nobody thought there were any left,” she interjected, raising her voice.
“We had to make sure he wasn’t -“
“Oh my God, are you all six kinds of stupid?” she blurted.
“General, we were following procedure. He’s not injured.”
“We’re supposed to protect these people, not beat them!” she said, raising her voice even further.
“I was following procedure, General.”
A look of shock flashed across her face and she stepped back. “Get the hell out of my briefing room, Captain,” she demanded.
“General, I think it would be better -“
General Godfrey whipped her sidearm from its holster and pointed it at the man. “Oh wow, you’ve invented a whole new kind of stupid. Get the fuck out of my briefing room!” The man opened his mouth to say something, but stopped short and bolted for the door when she pulled the hammer back on her pistol.
“You, there in the back,” she said. “I want a full report on what happened here from the moment this Shoahn’ walked in the door.”
“Yes ma’am”, the guards said in unison.
“Dismissed.” The guards strode stiffly towards the door without another word.
Godfrey and her sergeant stood alone, watching Shoahn’fal as he continued to coo. She cocked an ear, listening for the nuances in his voice. She detected a pattern, straining to recognize it. Her eyes flew open when she realized who he was.
Speaking in his language, she said, “You are a priest.”
“Have you had service?”
Looking up from the table, he said, “Not in a very long time.”
“We have a temple.”
“You are too kind.”
“Would you like to take a meal? I can have something brought for you.”
She hadn’t spoken to a Shoahn’ since she was a buck lieutenant and had forgotten how excruciatingly polite they could be. Despite his words, she could tell he was tired, hungry, thirsty and in great pain.
“We are honored by your presence and I must ask that you forgive me, but we have to be sure.”
“Go ahead Sergeant.” He placed the case he was carrying on the table and opened the lid to expose a clear fragment of oblong crystal with a myriad of haphazard facets. She walked along the table, sliding the case along with her. She slid the crystal in front of him and said, “Please.”
Shoahn’Fal nodded and wrapped his leathery fingers around the crystal, his claws scraping the surface as he did so. He closed his eyes and unfurled his snout to its full length and began with a low droning coo that immediately caused a soothing sensation to wash through her. She had forgotten about this as well and realized she greatly missed the Shoahn’. As he filled the room with the ancient voice of the priesthood, the crystal began to glow. At first, a few specks of blue light fluttered inside and then started to swirl. As his cooing grew louder, the flecks coalesced and came together until a dull haze of blue light formed a perfect sphere inside the crystal.
Godfrey stared at the light, unable to look away. Slowly, the room around her began to fade and she felt herself falling into the light until she was surrounded by a universe that went on forever. Time stopped and her mind became one with a great expanse of nothingness that was beyond everything. Her mind settled into it and she felt herself swimming in a pure state of peace.
Shoahn’Fal stopped his drone and the light faded. The room around her shuddered back into place and she heard herself gasp. The place her mind had been retreated into a thin point on edge of her consciousness, and then was gone, like a forgotten dream.
Godfrey squinted and shook her head, shaking of the effects of the crystal. “Are there any more like you?” she asked.
“No,” he lied.
She carefully closed the lid and slid the case towards the sergeant, who stepped next to her and removed it from the table.
She eyed the case Shoahn’Fal had brought with him. “What have you brought?” she asked. When she reached for his case, Shoahn’Fal quickly placed his hand on it and slid it to the side.
He gently scratched it with a claw and then pulled it towards him and flipped it open. He turned the case around so she could see the contents. “These are the Old Scrolls,” he said.
“I’ve heard of them.” She studied Shoahn’Fal’s face more closely now. He had to be old, even by Shoahn’ standards, and she couldn’t help wonder if sanity abandoned the mind of old men for the Shoahn’ just as it did for humans. She studied the contents of the case, which looked like an old MFD display replacement for one of the older jumpjets. She looked at the sergeant, who simply shrugged. She decided the kindest thing was to humor the old priest. It wouldn’t bring any harm and if it made him feel important, she could call an old piece of forgotten avionics the Old Scrolls.
“May I show you?” he asked.
“But of course,” she said with mock enthusiasm. “What do they say?” The boredom that was starting to set in halted abruptly when he touched the screen and it lit up showing the blue triangle. Her first thought was to wonder how the thing could possibly still have power. When he touched one of the buttons on the bezel, the page changed to something written in a language that looked vaguely familiar but that she could not recognize. He touched another button and the device revealed another page showing a graphic of the Pyramid. Godfrey’s boredom vanished entirely and she felt a new sensation clutching at her chest as adrenalin surged through her. He touched another button to reveal a line drawn from a section of the Pyramid to a list written with the symbols that were tantalizingly familiar, but still inscrutable. He touched another button to reveal a list accompanied by simple graphics depicting several different objects: oblong, short, long, square, boxy, round. Each had a label underneath depicting what it was. When he touched another button, her heart stopped. The page showed a topographical map with a red circle in the center. A series of concentric circles expanded out from the first: orange, red, white and finally a black circle that was too large to fit on the page.
“What is this?” she hissed.
“These, General, are the Old Scrolls. They are a catalog of what’s inside the Pyramid.”
Godfrey’s eyes widened in disbelief. “And what’s that?” she asked, pointing to the black card nestled next to the tablet.
Shoahn’Fal tapped lightly on its surface and said, “This, General, is the key to rule the world.”
Her voice was barely a whisper. “It unlocks the portal.“
“That is correct.”
“Why are you bringing this to me?” she asked.
“Your Terran Guard is sworn to protect the Shoahn’,” he said. “And even though you have failed, you have come to understand us. In you, my people are preserved by the observance of their culture, a respect for who they were. You are now as close to being Shoahn’ as anybody could be without being one of us.”
“I’m afraid we’re a little less polite than your people.”
He tapped the rim of the case. “It seems we were once a little less polite, as well. This is the Ancient Technology from the Time Before. Reading the Old Scrolls, I have come to understand who we once were. We did not adopt the way of the Shoahn’ as you know it because of our kind nature.” He leaned forward and gazed into her eyes. She felt something touch her consciousness, something that seethed with anger, and then it was gone. “We became who we are in order to survive.”
“Show me,” she said.
Shoahn’Fal nodded and the mouth beneath his snout widened into a leathery grin. “Of course. But there is one more thing you need to understand. Your human friends with the walking war machines have set up guard around the Pyramid.”
Godfrey leaned back and let out a sigh. “Do they know about this?”
Shoahn’Fal thought back to his first tantrum and how his initial indulgence of Dren’vil must have touched the priestesses he had left behind. “They might know it’s important, but they can’t know what’s inside. Only the Old Scrolls tell us that.”
“How long do you need to open this portal?” she asked.
Godfrey stood up and started pacing. “It’s not enough to just seize the Pyramid; we have to hold it. And then we have to figure out how to use whatever’s inside without the Colonial Marines getting wind of what we’re up to.” She sat back down and pointed at the tablet. “I need to understand everything that’s in there if we’re going to figure out how to make this work.” She kept her hand suspended in the air, pointing, waiting for him to respond. “I need you to trust me.”
She saw the antennae on his head ripple for just an instant and then settle back down as a grin once again enveloped his face. “Of course, General. Let me show you.”
The Terran Mandate
General Lane sat at his desk – a cheap looking assembly of lightweight resin that was supposed to look like wood – and rearranged, again, the assortment of writing instruments and photographs of his troops in action. The truth was he didn’t have much to work with in terms of making a good impression, but he hoped to appear vaguely intimidating somehow. His steward had swept out the dust that seemed to invade every interior space on Shoahn’tu with a mind of its own. Most of it was gone, but a fresh coat was already gathering in the corner. Other than the desk, the only other furniture in his austere workspace was a plastic bookshelf that held a few hardbound copies of military manuals and a small frame for his medals. A small round porthole looked out over the Shoahn’tu dessert, barely letting in enough light to notice. Flimsy fluorescent fixtures that hung from the low ceiling provided the rest of the meager light that he had to work by.
Three loud knocks sounded on the door. He suddenly felt embarrassed. He decided to stand up and smoothed the front of his formal dress uniform, which suddenly seemed out of place. “Come,” he finally said.
Two Marines in worn field fatigues opened the door and escorted General Godfrey into his office. Catching the impertinent look on her face at having her movement subject to the whim of enlisted enemy combatants, he nodded at the Marines and said, “dismissed.”
“Sir, if I may,” one of them said.
“And give her back her side arm,” General Lane said.
“Very well sir.” The Marine retrieved her pistol from a cargo pocket in his trousers and handed it to her with a curt nod. She grabbed the weapon and hastily shoved it into its holster and snapped the black fabric strap that held it in place.
As the two Marines hustled out the door, she came to attention and saluted smartly. “General Godfrey, Terran Guard, Commanding,” she said
General Lane hesitated and then decided to return the salute.
Snapping her hand back to her side, she said, “I forgot, you people don’t salute indoors, do you?”
“Typically, no,” he said. “Thank you for the courtesy, though.”
Both officers looked each other over, trying to size the other up. General Lane had tried for the better part of a day to remember when the commanding generals of their two forces had met to parley in person. As far as he could tell, this was a first.
“Please General,” he said, pointing to a thin plastic chair in front of his desk, “have a seat.”
“I’ll stand for now,” she said in a curt voice.
“As you wish, General.” Lane decided he would rather sit down even though it meant having to look up at this woman who had somehow come to command the troops that his own couldn’t contend with in the field. The fact that she was actually a good general just made it that much more difficult. After taking his seat, he propped his elbows on his desk and asked her, “What can I do for you then?”
“I’m here to propose a ceasefire, General.” She had said it as if she were reporting the morning muster – as if what she had just said wasn’t the most profound utterance between two human beings on the Planet of Shoahn’Tu since the Garon Ultimatum.
He stared at her blankly as her eyes continued to flit around his office, taking inventory of everything as if conducting some kind of reconnaissance. When he didn’t respond, she finally stopped and looked at him. “Didn’t your people tell you?” she asked.
“Just that you wanted a parley.” Based on what he had seen of the vaunted Terran Guard commander thus far, he began to wonder if this was some kind of joke by his staff. It would have been in poor taste if it was.
“Good officers are in short supply these days for both of us then,” she said.
Thinking back to the fiasco of the aborted battle for the Highlands, he said, “Indeed.”
She opened her mouth to say something and then stopped. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve never seen an office -” she paused and knitted her brow. “-like this.”
“Ah,” he said. “Yes, everything is about function for us. Something about delta V and the mass ratio cost of hauling a gram light years from Earth. I guess we figured we’d better come with everything we needed right up front.”
“That was good thinking, actually,” she said.
“After all these years,” he mused. “We’re still using pretty much what we landed with.”
General Godfrey pressed her palms together and then pulled the chair out and sat down.
General Lane decided it was time to get to the point. “You have two full brigades of mechanized infantry, a tank battalion and, if I remember correctly, a reserve company of artillery somewhere. Me, I have three battalions of Marine infantry, with attached armor companies and a single squadron of some very old aircraft with no ordnance.” He figured these were all things she already knew. “Beyond that, I have a few thousand starving colonists who all need the Highlands, which you have ably defended.” He leaned back and held up his hands. “Why would you want a ceasefire? Why now?” In effect, he was all but admitting that she was winning and there wasn’t much he could do about it.
Godfrey nodded and frowned. “All true, General,” she said. “But I think we’re both running out of just about everything we need to carry on this fight.”
“I have colonists that keep me going, General. Because of them, I’ll carry on with sticks and rocks if I have to.” It sounded clumsy, even to him, but she had to know that surrender was not on the table. “I also have the Paladin.”
“I know,” she said. “But our mandate has changed.”
“Especially since there aren’t any Shoahn’ left,” he said.
She glanced at the ceiling and said, “True enough. But that doesn’t really call for a group hug.”
Lane raised a brow and said, “General,” a dull edge of caution in his voice.
“What I mean is that I think we know best how to run things around here. There’s more to Shoahn’Tu than scrub desert and sunshine. There are serious issues that need to be taken into consideration. Issues that we understand best.”
“Have you come here with some kind of moral mandate?” he scoffed.
“In a way, yes,” she said. “A way for everyone to move forward.” She leaned forward and fixed her eyes on his. “Under our guidance.”
“I think we’re just about done talking here, General,” he said.
Godfrey rolled her eyes and retrieved a tablet from her breast pocket. “It’s all right here.” She gently laid the tablet on his desk. Lane didn’t respond, his eyes descending into a dark scowl. “Beginning with access to plots in the Highlands – more than enough to feed your people.”
General Lane looked away and leaned back, hoping she wouldn’t notice the flash of shock on his face. This was a real proposal that could save the colony. But he knew better than to take anything at face value, especially from the enemy. There was always a price.
“And in return?” he asked.
“You will retain your rank and your command. You will govern the colony. My personal guarantee,” she said, tapping the tablet. “It’s all right here, signed and sealed.”
She was offering a lot. Lane had to admit to himself that it was appealing, but he recognized a bribe when he heard one. He decided to change the subject.
“It’s a shame what happened to the Shoahn”, he said.
“It’s exactly what we said would happen if you came.”
“We had nowhere else to go and no more time to look. What did you expect?”
“To be honest, we expected this to be over long before now,” she said, dismissing the subject out of hand. It was history, dead and past and he could see she wasn’t going to waste time debating the merits of any of it. He would have to bring it up again someday, if there was a someday.
“There’s more, General,” he said. This was a military parley and he knew there was something she hadn’t brought up yet, something he would have brought up already.
“Your Paladin,” she said.
“I wish I had more of him,” he said.
“He’s the one thing that can keep this from happening.”
They paused, each taking measure of the situation like boxers between rounds. The Paladin was his one best advantage, but all the Cats had done was ensure a perpetual stalemate. What she didn’t know was that Major Walker’s Special Combat Armor Team was burning through its resources at a horrific rate. The dwindling weld compound that repaired their armor, the highly refined fluids, the precision-machined parts made from materials they had brought with them but could never manufacture in situ – these were all things that had cost an enormous amount of delta V and could never be replaced. Soon enough, the Paladin and his Cataphracts would be nothing more than museum pieces. They had some fight left, but their real value came from being a deterrent. And that was something he was not willing to give up just yet.
“What about him?” he asked.
“The Paladin will be transferred to my command,” she said.
“Good luck with that,” he scoffed. “Major Walker and his men are fanatics, more than you. He would never submit to your command. Honestly, he barely submits to mine.” Godfrey seemed genuinely surprised by this. Had he gone too far?
“Then you need to decommission him,” she said, as if it were a simple matter of arresting the commander of the most powerful combat unit on the planet.
“I can’t do that,” he said.
General Godfrey stood up and planted both fists on his desk. She leaned forward and looked down at him, her eyes focused to narrow slits. “I will dispatch a full brigade to Dirt Hill, turn every single one of its plots into a smoking hole and put your colonists in chains to farm the Highlands for food that you’ll never see. I’ll make sure you can watch them doing it, too. If you’re lucky, one in ten of your Marines will get a meal a day. The rest I’ll burn for fertilizer.”
General Lane shot to his feet. “And what happens when the Paladin tears into your remaining troops? He would kill you to a man and take every single one of his own with him doing it. You do NOT understand this man.”
General Godfrey lifted one hand and tapped the tablet. “Or it can be this, General. There is a way out of all this that can work for everyone. I’m handing it to you. All you have to do is say yes.”
General Lane realized then that he was dealing with the most dangerous kind of enemy: one that believed they were right in a world where everybody was wrong. There were no more moves left. All he had left was yes or no. And he would have to decide soon. He picked up the tablet and tucked it under his arm. “I’ll take it under advisement, General.”
Godfrey waited a moment longer before standing back up and stepped back from his desk. “I look forward to your response in the next 30 hours,” she said.
“Thank you for your visit,” he said. She nodded and saluted. This time, he did not salute back. With that, she turned and marched out the door where the two Marines were waiting to escort her back to wherever she came from.
General Lane let out a long sigh and shook his head. He didn’t like being scared. They had come here with everything they needed to win. They had a full Marine Expeditionary Force – three divisions – made up of the finest fighting troops ever assembled in human history. They came with a company of 12 monstrous war machines that had survived every battle they had fought and still gave his enemy something to be afraid of. What happened? Even as he asked himself the question, General Lane put it out of his mind. There wasn’t time for that now.
He reached down and punched the keys of a floor safe next to his desk, one of the few things in his office actually made of metal. He yanked the door open and pulled out a boxy blue controller with a molded pistol grip at its base. He tapped the small screen on top and it flickered to life. He waited until it acquired a signal and a small green dot popped up along an orbital track. The satellite was still there. And she hadn’t mentioned it.
A thin laugh escaped his lips as he watched the dot crawl along the track. The satellite tracked miles upon miles of nowhere important. He could destroy a full square kilometer of anything that lay beneath it. If it had come anywhere near the corner of Shoahn’Tu they had been backed into, it might have mattered. It might have made trusting her unnecessary. It might have even won the war. Instead, the last Strategic Target Interdiction charge belonging to the MEF floated uselessly in space, taunting him with a power that could have ensured Godfrey kept her promise. He laid the device on his desk and stared at the com panel embedded in his desk. He had been given nothing less than a mandate from the commanding general of the Terran Guard. And he had no choice but to concede.
He tapped a button on the com panel and said, “Sergeant, a word if you please.”
Major Walker’s maintenance chief stood at the top of the ladder extending from the roof of his converted troop carrier which carried the special tools and materials used to maintain the Cats. He struggled to work a flat box with metal clamps into position where the knee joint of Walker’s Cat was still showing damage. a black coil of cable snaked down to a yellow metal box sitting on the ground, it’s lid tossed to the side. Major Walker knelt down next to the box to check the readout.
“I don’t have a contact light yet!” he yelled at the chief.
“Working on it, sir!” the chief yelled back. “Come on you sonofabitch,” he muttered to himself. Struggling to keep his balance as he reached out from the ladder, he grabbed the repair plate with both hands and shoved it as hard as he could against the steel struts that made up the interior of the Cat’s leg. Finally, the clamps closed down and latched onto the frame. “Alright, Major, hit it!”
Major Walker checked the readout to confirm the clamp was in place and then pushed several buttons nestled under thick rubber covers to activate the repair sequence. The repair plate sparked and hummed as a stream of microscopic particles suspended in a stream of hyper-cooled nitrogen flowed through the tubing. Each particle contained its own microprocessor, embedded instructions for its portion of the repair process and a map of the assembly where it was supposed to attach itself for the repair. As one bot completed its repair, the next in line would move in to continue the process for its assigned section. In this manner, millions of the bots could assemble themselves to repair any part of the Cat’s assemblies.
“I don’t have a latcher!” Walker yelled. The problem was the first bot needed to identify a point on the existing structure to latch on and begin the repair process. This depended entirely on the precision with which the repair plate was attached.
“Hold on!” the chief yelled. He swung out from the ladder to plant his boot squarely on the plate, jamming it into place. The steel latches reset themselves and rewarded him with a resonant clang as the plate aligned itself with the existing structure.
“Yeah, alright, there it goes!” Major Walker yelled.
“Coming down!” his chief called back.
As the maintenance chief climbed down the ladder, Walker saw a pair of Marines walking from the headquarters building in the center of the compound. They walked deliberately, but in no real hurry as the chief hopped off the ladder and stood next to Major Walker.
“The box says it’s going to be about 30 minutes,” Walker said.
“She’ll be able to walk right after this one.”
“I don’t like how much patch weld we used for this. How many patches does that make – ten?”
“Whoever hit you had a magic bullet, sir. It wounded her pretty deep.”
The Marines were close enough that Walker could see their eyes. They were stern, official.
“What’s this all about?” the chief asked.
“Invitation to dinner?” Walker mumbled.
“Makes sense. The only way to get somebody to eat the chow they put out tonight would be at gun point.”
When they were 20 feet away, Walker called out, “That’s far enough fellas.” He jammed a thumb towards the maintenance carrier. “Classified and all that.” They didn’t stop.
When they were close enough to salute but didn’t do so, Major Walker took a half step back and quickly surveyed the first Marine, seeing he wore a side arm and handcuffs but was not carrying a weapon.
“Major Walker, the Commanding General would like a word,” the first Marine said.
“Then tell him to send Marines who know when to salute an officer,” Walker said. As he spoke, the chief quietly stepped back to the maintenance carrier.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the Marine said as he grabbed Walker’s arm. The second Marine placed his hand on his own side arm, but did not draw it from its holster. Walker jerked his arm away, took a full step back and put his hand up, trying to stop the Marine from moving any closer.
“Whoa! Hold on there, Marine.”
The Marine latched back onto Walker’s arm and started to twist it behind his back. “I’m sorry, sir. General’s orders.” As the Marine reached for his cuffs, Walker lunged forward, smashing the Marine’s nose with his forehead. The Marine stumbled back, covering his face with his hands.
The second Marine whipped his side arm from its holster, leveling it at Walker’s chest. Reaching up with his other hand, he tapped his headset and said, “We may need some help out here.” He took a step forward, holding his side arm at arm’s length and said, “Please sir, I need you to get on your knees.”
Walker kept his eyes glued to the Marine’s side arm as it bobbed slightly in his hand. Before the Marine knew what was happening, Walker stepped up, slapped his arm to the side with one hand and jammed the palm of his other hand into the Marine’s nose. The Marine dropped his side arm and stumbled back, covering his face with his hands. “You should have saluted, dumbass.” While the second Marine struggled to stay on his feet, Walker saw four more Marines bolt from the headquarters building at a dead run with rifles in their hands.
The first Marine let his hands down to reveal blood trickling down his face. He reached for his own side arm, but before he could raise it, the chief flung a wrench as long his arm that knocked the Marine out cold.
“Sir, you need to leave,” he said.
“The patch isn’t ready.”
“She’ll walk funny, but she’ll walk.”
“Alright chief. You too. Take the carrier straight to the rendezvous.”
“I’ll be right behind you, sir.”
“You better be ahead of me.”
As they both turned to run, the chief lurched forward and fell face-first to the ground. Walker reached down to help him, but the chief didn’t stand up as he tugged at his arm. He knelt down and rolled the chief over to see a patch of blood seeping out in a wide circle over his shoulder.
“They shot me,” the chief said, surprised.
Rounds pecked the dirt around them as Walker tugged at the chief’s arm, trying to pull him to his feet.
“Screw it, sir, I can’t move. You gotta’ go.”
“Negative, get on your fucking feet Marine.”
“I can’t sir.” The chief looked down at his own belly where a second swath of blood was soaking through his utility blouse. He smiled a toothy grin. “I can’t feel a thing. Go.”
Walker looked up to see the Marines fanning out into a firing line and getting ready to kneel. They wouldn’t miss after that. Turning back to the chief, he said, “Watch this.”
Walker forced himself to stand up and run towards his Cat, bounding onto the ladder extended from the cockpit. He moved as fast as he could to present a moving target, but braced for an incoming shot. He knew they would be ready to shoot before he got to the top. As he passed the halfway point on the ladder, he felt a burning bite in his left leg. Grimacing with pain, he crawled up the rest of the ladder, dragging his left leg like a dead piece of wood. Reaching the cockpit, he heaved himself in and sprawled across the pilot’s seat and the consoles next to it. As rounds smacked against the front canopy, he reached down and pulled his leg in.
Propping himself up on one elbow, he stepped into the right foot well and screamed in pain as he jammed his left foot in the other. He sat up, grunting, and felt sweat dripping from his forehead. The Cat was partially powered for the maintenance they had been conducting, but most of his systems were powered down and he didn’t have time for a checklist. He quickly prioritized the tasks he needed to accomplish before he found himself staring down the barrel of a 120 mm tank cannon. “Maneuver” he said through clenched teeth. He reached up to the overhead panel and thumbed the APU switch. Panting from the pain searing his left leg, he watched the EGT meter fill up from red to green as the small turbine engine spooled up. Releasing the switch, he flipped up a red cover over the starter switch for the main turbine engine. The faint sound of rounds plinking against metal rang outside the canopy. He leaned over and saw the weld patch spark as rounds impacted its surface. “Nice try boys,” he grunted. He turned his attention to the engine display on the center console as the main turbine came to life. As soon as it gained enough power, he pulled all four switches for the hydraulic system. The turbine whined under the strain as pumps activated, flooding the lines and pistons that drove the main mechanical drives of the Cat. He jerked back on the left control handle, manually forcing the left leg of his Cat to take a step back. Without the stabilizers on line, the cockpit lurched to one side as the Cat took a drunken step back with the faint sound of metal scraping from the incomplete repair. Next, he flipped two switches on the overhead panel to activate the main generators that provided the electrical power for the stabilizers, computers, and most importantly, the heavy servos that controlled his weapons.
Just as the generators came to life, he saw a second detail of Marines running up with an anti-armor missile launcher. “Don’t do it,” he hissed. He tapped the side of his head and realized he didn’t have his headset on. He looked down at the carrier, where he had left it while he was helping the chief with his work. “Fire,” he whispered to himself, moving onto the next step in his ad hoc checklist. The gyros for the weapons guidance system took 15 minutes to spool up. He didn’t have time for that. He reached up and flipped a switch to activate the weapons control system. The display in front of him flickered to life, screaming at him with the banner: NOT READY. He jammed a button along the side of the display and the banner changed to MANUAL. He ran his fingers along the bottom and selected the button for the machine guns. READY FOR ARM. He grabbed the weapons control stick, flipped up the red cover and jammed the arm switch forward. One machine gun on either side of his canopy swung down and he heard the whir of feeders stuffing belts of .50 caliber steel slugs into their feed trays. ARMED.
The weapons reticle filled with a red X as it floated across the canopy in a repeating box pattern. Beyond that, he saw the missile detail preparing to load their first round. He squeezed the trigger and a flurry of bullets flew from his guns, spattering the ground between him and the detail. The Marine loading the missile launcher stopped while the rest of the detail went to ground. “That’s right,” he said. The loader looked him straight in the eye and smiled as he resumed loading the missile. Walker squeezed the trigger again and watched to see where the first rounds impacted, then pulled back on the control to walk the stream of bullets up to the launcher. Sparks flew off the launcher as his rounds landed home and then he watched in horror as the loader was tossed back in pieces. He let go of the trigger and started to hyperventilate. “You can question an order that is immoral or otherwise unlawful,” he yelled.
His vision began to blur and he looked down at his left leg, now slick with blood. He reached over his shoulder, ripped a small red box off the bulkhead and dropped it in his lap. He snapped open the plastic cover to rummage through its contents, until he found a compress patch. Holding the spongy patch in his mouth, he grabbed his leg with both hands and pulled it up so there were a few inches between his leg and his pilot’s seat. Grunting in pain, his hand shook as he pulled the patch from his mouth and unrolled it around what looked like the bloodiest part of his leg. Sucking in his breath in tight gasps, he put his finger through a plastic ring fastened to the patch and yanked it free. The patch fattened up as a small canister injected a stiff foam gel into the padding so it tightened around his leg. “Alright,” he said in between pants. “Alright.”
Peering back through the canopy, he saw another Marine pick up the missile. “Well now they’re just pissed off,” he said. He reached down to the console next to his right hand and flipped a switch to turn on the cabin microphone. He dialed in the frequency for the main command net and pressed the mic button. “Two Bravo Delta -” He let off the mic button as a bolt of pain surged through his leg. He took deep breaths through his nose, waiting for the pain to pass. He keyed the microphone again. “Two Bravo Delta, all nets. You guys down there need to rethink this thing. You tell General Lane I’m not granting you permission to arrest me tonight. So just stand down and I’ll be on my way.” He let go of the mic button and saw the Marines in the first detail look at each other.
His cabin speaker crackled. “Sorry Major. Orders.”
Walker closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “Fucking orders,” he said to himself. He moved his hand to the right control lever and yanked it back. The Cat’s leg moved smoothly back and the gyros, now on line, held his cockpit steady. The reticle was still dancing in front of him with its red X. He pressed another button along the bottom of the weapons display and the heavy barrels of the plasma cannons swung down and locked into place with a loud clunk. He pressed another button to select arm coupling so both weapons would fire at the same time.
He squeezed the release trigger on the left control handle and shoved it forward. Releasing the trigger, he pulled the handle back and the left leg groaned with grinding metal as it slowly stomped back, moving him another step away from the Marines getting ready to shoot him. He could hear the servos on the left side of his Cat whirring as they struggled to stabilize the damaged leg. Clutching the weapons controller, he eyeballed the missile team as best he could and pulled the trigger. A blanket of blue fire enveloped the team in a glowing ball. Walker looked away, his face wet with tears and sweat. He let out a quivering sigh when he saw the Marines from the first detail pick up and run.
His maintenance chief’s body was still lying next to the carrier, unmoving. He clutched both control handles, working them in concert to walk the Cat back out of the compound until the chief’s body was hidden from him behind the carrier. He cranked the Cat around until it was facing away from the compound and stopped. Reaching up to the console above him, He grabbed a wide red handle mounted on a large swivel and yanked it forward. Two jets straddling the side of the Cat lit up as two small wings flipped out above them. The Cat lifted off the ground, slowly at first, and then picked up speed until it was 200 feet in the air. Working the control handles, he steered the Cat in a long jump towards the low sandy ridges outside the compound. The ground shook hard when the Cat landed, the hydraulics easing it into a crouch as they absorbed the impact. He punched a button in the center display to confirm that the stabilizers were on line and then dialed in a heading on the thin strip of navigation controls along the top of the console deck. He flipped a switch and eased back in his seat as the autopilot took over and moved his Cat forward in a steady walk away from the compound.
Letting out a long sigh, he looked at the patch on his leg, relieved to see the blood from his wound had not soaked through. He reached into the medical kit and pulled out a small bottle of water. He ripped open a packet of antibiotics, washed them down with the water and let both drop to the floor. He briefly eyed the packet of pain killers and closed the lid.
Through the canopy, he watched the far horizon ebb into a dark blue haze as the brightest stars began to twinkle in the shimmering air. He felt a warm haze infuse his body and struggled to keep his eyes open. As his mind raced to unravel the meaning behind what had just happened, he fell asleep as his Cat stomped and whirred across the desserts of Shoahn’Tu, carrying him to the safety of his comrades.
Colonel Dekker tucked his cover under his left arm and pounded on the wall with the palm of his hand three times.
Through the closed door, he heard General Lane say, “Come.” Dekker took a breath and waited until he was sure his mind was settled before he swung the door open and stomped up to Lane’s desk. He clicked the heels of the black resin dress boots he had shined to a mirror polish. He raised his voice, as if the General were standing ten feet away instead of sitting behind the desk in front of him, and said, “Colonel Dekker reporting as ordered sir.” He stood as still at a statue and stared at the wall.
“This is the Marine Corps, Ben, not the SS. At ease.” Dekker didn’t move. General Lane came out from behind his desk, kicked the plastic chair on the other side at Dekker and said, “Siddown!”
With a steel edge in his voice, Dekker said, “Aye aye sir,” and sat down, sitting straight enough to keep he back an inch away from touching the chair’s back.
Returning to his seat, General Lane said, “We don’t have time for this shit, Ben. I know you think I left your guys hanging the other day, but we don’t need to go through all that again, do we?” The two men sat in silence as Dekker continued to stare at the wall. The image of the Marine he had put to sleep forever pushed its way into Dekker’s mind.
General Lane smiled like a politician. “You did a damn fine job, Ben. You should know that.”
Dekker wanted to believe the General believed his own words, but he knew better. Dekker lowered his gaze to General Lane and said, “Yes we did. And we would have done it better if we’d had some help.”
General Lane closed his eyes and nodded. Looking at Dekker as if they were discussing the weather, he said, “I know, Ben. You’re not the only one who makes mistakes around here. I screwed the pooch. Alright?”
Dekker’s mouth opened slightly and he cocked his head to the side. “That’s right sir, you did. But I guess I don’t have a lot of room to talk about it, do I?”
Lane raised an eyebrow. “Sure you do. Do you want to?” He folded his hands and leaned back.
“I guess not. None of us could have known about the Second Brigade.”
“But -” General Lane prompted.
“But somebody did.”
“I agree. And we’re going to find out who it is.” He beamed the politician’s smile again. “I promise.”
“Thank you, sir. Is that it, then?”
“I called you in here to talk about something more important. We may not have to worry about doing better next time.”
Dekker eased back into his chair.
“Had a visitor yesterday,” General Lane continued. He leaned forward, beaming. “One each General Godfrey of the Terran Guard.”
Dekker squinted. “The Red Bitch herself?” he asked.
“That’s right. She was bouncing off the walls about troop dispositions and the Highlands.” Lane turned back to pull the tablet from a desk drawer and slid it towards Dekker.
“I want you to take a look at this, Ben. Tell me what you think.”
Dekker picked up the tablet and tapped the screen. His pulse quickened as he scanned the text confirming everything Godfrey had said: the stand down, consolidated lines, retention of ranks and units, integration of command, and, most importantly, safe passage to the Highlands.
Dekker looked up to see General Lane smiling – again. “This ends the war. I think we’ll want to be careful here. Keep the battalions in place. Keep the Paladin someplace safe to make sure they mean it. But, if we can trust her – .” He frowned. “That part’s kind of tough.”
General Lane stood back up, keeping his fingertips on his desk and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought, too.” He walked around the side of the desk, watching Dekker from the corner of his eye. “But we have a problem.”
“Not everybody agrees. We have enough parity to make it work. I don’t think she can screw us too badly here, but you and I both know we can’t win this thing. “
“True. Who’s pushing back?”
Lane sat on the corner of his desk and sighed. “The Paladin.”
Dekker scoffed. “Can’t say I’m surprised. Major Walker is a man of his own mind.”
“It’s worse than that, Ben.”
Dekker heard a faint ring in his ears as General Lane stepped to the porthole overlooking the MEF compound and placed his hand on the wall. With his back to Dekker, he said, “I told the Paladin about this plan last night.”
“What did he think?”
“He went into a rage. I’ve never seen him like that before. He was furious, going on about how the Terran Guard are sworn to destroy us and every man, woman and child in the colony. He was frantic.” Lane shook his head and turned around, leaning his back against the wall. “And then he resigned his commission.”
“What?” Dekker asked, choking the word past the lump in his throat.
“Said he would rather fight alone and die to a man than give in to the tyranny of the Terran Guard.”
“No.” Dekker scratched the back of his head. “He’s a bit of a rogue, but he’s not insane. This doesn’t make any sense.”
Lane’s eyes drifted to the floor. “There’s more.” He sat back down behind his desk, propped his elbows on top and cupped his fist in his hand. “He stormed out of here, mounted his C -2B and started shooting up the compound.”
Dekker tried to imagine Walker mounted in the cockpit, leveling his guns. The picture wouldn’t come together. It was a picture that couldn’t come together.
“I sent out a detail to try and talk him down and he just gunned them down.”
The picture still wouldn’t form in his mind, but he had already heard the rumors. Listening to his commanding officer confirm those rumors brought a new reality to them. He tilted his head and whispered, “My God.” He rubbed his brow and let out a sigh. The two men sat in silence as Lane’s words swam through his mind.
“Where is he now?” Dekker asked.
“We don’t know. That’s where you come in.”
Dekker took a deep breath and put his hand up – a reflex, as if he were trying to stop an enemy tank barreling towards him with its gun aimed directly at his face.
“I know, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself,” Lane said.
“What does this have to do with me?”
“You know him pretty well, yes?”
Dekker shrugged. “Yeah.” He stared at the wall, remembering something from a lifetime ago. “He was my Combat Trials Instructor. After that, he chose me to command his infantry escort company. That was back in the days when the Cats had their own infantry and a detachment from the air wing. My God, we were a sight to see.” His voice trailed off as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“As I recall, that was a position of some prestige.”
“Yes sir. You could spend your entire life to become a regimental commander and have something to really be proud of. Serving as the Paladin’s Foot Guard – that was in a league of its own.”
Lane pulled his mouth into another smile, more forced this time. He was officially the MEF commander, but the truth was he was noting more than a regimental commander himself because that was all they had left.
“No disrespect to the MEF commander, sir,” Dekker said.
“That’s why I need you, Ben. You know him better than anyone and this ceasefire doesn’t have a chance with him starting a one-man war with the Terran Guard.”
“Oh, it won’t be just him, sir. His men are loyal to him. And him alone. If he goes up against the Guard, they’ll be right behind him.”
“Yeah, I know. Before that happens, I need you to find him and talk him down.”
Dekker felt the room closing in around him.
“I don’t see how that’s possible, sir.”
General Lane reached down to open his floor safe. Dekker watched Lane’s hands as they moved from the safe and placed the blue control grip on the desk. “You know what this is?” Lane asked.
Dekker’s heart stopped cold. “That’s an STI grip,” he said. “I didn’t think we had any left.”
“Neither did anybody else,” Lane said. “We found a satellite six months ago. I had some guys who used to work for Orbital Assets Command take a look and they confirmed it has one shot left.”
“Well, hell, that right there could make sure Godfrey plays ball.”
Lane scoffed. “Yeah, except the track is way the hell and gone in the middle of nowhere. Totally useless anywhere around here. But – .” He raised his eyebrows and slid the device across his desk. “If you can’t talk him down, you can maybe lure him into the track.”
Dekker felt the world crash in on him. He couldn’t breathe. His hand began to tremble and he let it dangle next to him, hoping Lane wouldn’t notice.
“You want me to kill him.”
“No. I don’t. I want you to bring him home. But if he won’t come home – .” He glanced at the device before saying anything more.
Dekker’s hand started shaking again as he picked up the device. He clenched his fingers around the grip hard enough to make his knuckles white as he tried to force his hand to stop trembling.
It felt heavy and cold as he stared at the faded blue plastic of the control casing and the cracked grip used to hold it in place while the operator punched in drop coordinates. He stared at the red trigger running the length of the grip.
“Call me for the codes if it comes down to it, Ben,” General Lane said, as if he had just given him an order to pick up provisions or conduct an inventory of his battalion’s supplies.
“It won’t, sir,” Dekker said. He set the grip back on the desk and pushed it towards Lane. “I don’t need this.” What he really meant was that he couldn’t. He could find the Paladin. He could talk to him. He could knock him out cold with a punch to the face and drape him over his shoulder if he had to. But he couldn’t even think about killing him without his stomach turning.
“I hope you’re right. But know this. The MEF and the colony are depending on you to stop him.”
Lane nudged the grip back towards Dekker.
“If you don’t,” General Lane continued, “I don’t think any of us are going to survive.”
He looked at the grip and then leveled his gaze on Dekker. “If it makes it any easier, Colonel, consider it an order. You’re at liberty to take whatever action is necessary to stop the Paladin. But you must stop him. Take it with you. Keep it with you. If you run out of options, call me for the codes.”
Dekker closed his eyes and picked up the grip. His hands still trembled, but he didn’t bother to try and hide it any longer. He opened his eyes and turned the device in his hand as if it were a loaded gun that he was supposed to point at his own head.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence