It’s that time again. A new day. A new week. What better way than to start it off with a bang! Have a great one friends.
The drums of war were beating by the time the squad made it back to Fort Evans. Minion was still asleep, but the army was up and moving well before the dawn. Cadence calls from units running the streets and the grunts and groans of others as they pushed their bodies to the physical limit echoed throughout the base. There was a tinge of excitement riding the air, and it soon spread to Snake Eyes and his troops.
The calamity over the last few days was minor at best but much anticipated. Word came down that the invasion fleet was entering the far end of the system and would be making planet fall in a few days. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Berserker attacks along the Frontier were increasing, and equipment was finally starting to give out. They were taking heavy casualties, and it looked like the maintenance personnel were going to be the heroes of the day, provided they had the capabilities to work miracles with aging machinery.
Artur Russell found himself marching through the fabricated hallway of the command center. Instinct told him something big was about to happen. The air choked from the rising tension. The great war that everyone had feared and wanted for the past four hundred years was coming. The taste of battle reviled him. Too many men and women had died under his command here. Once a staunch supporter of the war, Russell often found himself tired and with little patience. He hoped this was the last campaign on this damned world.
An uncharacteristic fog had settled over Minion and the neighboring Fort Evans during the early morning. Many of the soldiers saw the fog as a sign of good things to come, but Russell knew better. He knew that Pierce and his division were going to be hard pressed to win. Pierce was good, but he had no idea what he was facing out here. The last time the Berserkers were beaten, it had taken nearly everyone of fighting age on the entire continent, and then they’d lost but barely. Regardless, the garrison was ready to go home.
The graying executive officer looked up from his computer. “Sir?”
“I need you to run down to the main gates and see firsthand how well our efforts are going with finding scouts to lead the division. I know what the reports say, but I don’t put much faith in that. Also, have a runner go down to the barracks and inform Sergeant Kimel and his men that they need to report for debriefing in one hour.”
“Is there any word on that man they found? Either him or the Slayer? I’d like to get both of them to join us if I can.”
“I’d have to check on that, sir. Apparently, they split company when they returned to Minion,” Gregorson replied and then disappeared on his mission.
He nearly balked when he noticed how young the private addressing him was. The boy couldn’t have been more than nineteen standard years, and he already looked aged. “Yes son, what is it?”
“Ah, sir, we were wondering if this new offensive means we can finally go home?”
Russell allowed himself a smile at the thought. “I sure hope so. We all need some time with our families after this.”
Giving the boy a final, reassuring nod, Russell headed for the stairs. The question was as good as any he’d heard in his career, but it was hard to digest. No one knew what was going to happen in the next few weeks, and only a fool would let his emotions take control. But still. He suddenly realized how much he missed his wife and kids, making the hurt that much more. Going home was a pleasant enough thought, but he’d long since left the dreaming to the new generation.
Aradias Kane marveled at the contrast between Minion and Black Tide. He’d been here before, but that was long ago. His business kept him in the far north with no need to come this far south. His amusement doubled when he saw the look on Nathan’s face. There was no way to know what was going through the man’s mind. He did know that the man refused to trust him. When Kane had asked Nathan why he chose to stick with him, the man had merely grunted, saying that there was no room for him in the army life.
Two soldiers ambled by. Hardly ever around the foreign soldiers, Kane stared after them. He immediately noticed an air of defeat about them, and it showed in the appearance. Their uniforms hadn’t been pressed in a good while, and their boots, once sparkling from the shine, were crusted and dull. The pride they’d made planet fall with was long gone, reflected in the hollowness of their eyes. It was a sad thing to see.
Minion itself was quite the opposite. From here, it was only a few days right east to the Orn Bridge and the green half of the continent. This city was a symbol of strength and perseverance against the impossible living conditions of the Wastes. There was a thriving community, mostly underground and relatively safe from the threat of attack, all secure behind a ten-meter-thick steel wall plunging deep into the ground. Life actually prospered here, due mainly to the presence of Fort Evans only a click away.
Securing rooms in one of the more respectable inns, Kane led Nathan down into the heart of the city. Both of them stared at a hundred different species of life passing here and there. For Nathan, this was right out of a sci-fi movie. A bounty hunter with leathery skin bumped into them when they tried entering a nearby bar, and Kane braced himself for the unexpected. The drunken bounty hunter merely mumbled his apologies and staggered off.
“Nice place,” Nathan commented.
Kane could only nod. A cat-like female with red fur and a near perfect female form caught his eye from across the room. She smiled affectionately and sauntered their way. Nathan passed glances to both of them but held his tongue.
“Ooh, Kane, it’s been so long,” she purred. “And you brought a friend too!”
“Aren’t you a long way from home, Kazad-ayre? It’s a hard ride to Black Tide from here.”
She laughed. “And it has nothing on this place. Besides, there are so many lonely soldiers here. So easy to take from. What’s a girl to do?”
“They’re also trying to fight a war.”
“Everybody needs to relax once in a while.” She leaned towards him and gave him a sinful kiss on the cheek before dashing off into the thinning crowds. “That’s your business, Kane,” she called over her shoulder. “I deal in pleasure.”
Finding an empty table away from the bulk of the crowd, Kane ordered for both of them. Nathan struggled with his surprise at how much business a place like this was capable of so early in the morning. Then again, most of the patrons were either entirely intoxicated or in a uniform of sorts. He was told they were members of the Night Patrol coming off duty. His food had a bitter tang to it, and the water wasn’t much better, but it was free. Kane paid the bill and did his best to avoid small talk. The only reason he agreed to keep Nathan with him was that the military would interrogate him to death, provided they got the chance. No one deserved that.
Nathan ate and watched the locals. It was then he decided he had two immediate problems. The first was that he needed to get some new clothes that would allow him to blend in better. The second was almost worse than the first. He had only a pistol and no ammunition. He was defenseless. His deliberations were cut short by the subtle gaze the Slayer had. Kane watched the crowds, clearly hoping to find someone.
Nathan leaned forward and asked, “Just how long do we plan on staying in here? Much longer, and I’ll be hungry again.”
“We stay until I find who I’m looking for,” Kane answered in a low voice.
Nathan had always hated the type who never said anything more than what was needed to get by.
“So what does he look like?”
“She is an old friend who happens to be somewhat important to things at hand.”
Nathan let out an exhausted groan and settled back for what he believed was going to be a long wait. It seemed like home was an ever dwindling possibility.
Even before he opened his eyes, his first instinct was to strike down the man responsible for shaking him awake. Letting out a deep growl, he partially opened his eyes. The murk reduced everything to dark blurs, and the blinding light from the nearby window wasn’t helping much either.
Snake Eyes sat up and spat, “This had better be good, trooper.”
The trooper swallowed timidly and said, “The Colonel wants you and your squad up in the debriefing room in one hour, sergeant.”
Figures, he thought. Even on a day off, the army still liked to play. “All right. Tell the Old Man we’ll be there, shined and pressed. Now get the frig out of here before you really piss me off.”
Corporal Xill burst out with a deep, resonating laugh from across the bay as soon as the door closed behind the scurrying private. “Rise and shine, Chief! Our R and R is over. I already woke the rest of the squad”
Snake Eyes heaved his pillow at the man. “Doesn’t anyone believe in sleep around here? Just once, I’d like to be able to control my own actions.”
“Not in this army, Sarge.”
“On your feet!”
They snapped to attention as one, heels clicking in the sharp precision brought about by endless hours of drills. A ragged mix of hardened line soldiers and clean-pressed officers stared forward as their commanding officer marched to the podium form the rear of the room.
“Carry on,” he ordered when he was halfway there.
Colonel Russell took his place behind the podium and sipped the glass of water already prepared for him while he looked over the squad’s mission accounts.
“Good morning, gentlemen. I trust you’ve all had the chance to get a bit of rest and a hot meal in you?”
The Colonel smiled, knowing it was a lie. He’d been that young lieutenant once and knew exactly how these troops felt. Those were the glory days of his career, and he suddenly found himself missing them. There was no comparable feeling to when you took your men out and came under enemy fire for the first time. But that sort of thing was for the young now. He was much too old.
He took another drink and leaned down on the podium, studying each of their faces. “I have finished your reports, and I must say that this was not what we were expecting when Major Gregorson dispatched you. Sergeant Kimel, would you please begin from the time your squad made contact.”
Snake Eyes groaned to himself and began the long tale. He told the story faithfully, careful not to miss anything vitally important. But Snake was a seasoned trooper and knew when to hold his tongue about certain issues. Like any good storyteller, he softly twisted the truth a bit here and there so as not incriminate himself in the death of Scoops, a man who never should have been there in the first place.