Can you believe it has been 20 weeks since I first started teasing you this story? 5 months already? No way. At any rate, this week has flown by. Perhaps it was the solar eclipse. Perhaps it was me starting grad school at UNC Chapel Hill- thank God it is online and I don’t have to be trapped in liberal snowflake central. Perhaps it is my son’s 13th birthday this week. I don’t know, though it is probably the combination. But you don’t want to hear me ramble. You want the story. Read on, my friends. Read on!
Nathan spent the majority of the night staring at the empty ceiling. His hands were locked behind his head, forming a comfortable pillow he’d used during many lonely nights. Part of his dilemma came from the sharp effects of the native alcohol he’d had. It was far stronger than any on Earth, and he knew he was going to be paying for it come morning. The rest stemmed from the roads on which his decisions lay. Most of him wanted only to go home, which was a daunting task in itself. But there was something about this place he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Everything he’d seen thus far had an exotic air about it, deepening his desires to explore this strange new world and conflicting with the urge to return home.
When the dawn finally came, he was up and moving, though a bit sluggish and with a pounding headache. He was just splashing some cool water on his face when there came a knocking at his door. Nathan knew it could only be one person, so he called for Kane to enter. The Slayer stepped in, fully dressed and feeling fine. He took a seat at the table and waited for Nathan to finish getting dressed.
“What are you smiling at?” Nathan asked after a few minutes of the Slayer’s ridiculous smirk.
“It takes some time to get used to our ale here,” Kane replied. “You have seen yourself in the mirror already?”
“Funny,” Nathan said. “Sounds like you went out and got laid last night, smiley. This is the most you’ve said to me since I got here.”
Kane cocked his head with the mentioning of getting laid, for it was term he hadn’t heard before, but he went on to say, “Matters are beginning to look up for both of us. We’ll be able to set out for Rook Mountain within the week if you still wish to return to your world.”
“You know, that’s sounds really nice, and I can’t wait to make the trip, but I made a deal last night with that big gray guy. The one with the red eyes,” Nathan replied.
“A deal? I don’t think that’s wise.”
“Well, while you were off chasing some broad with red hair, I decided to find out exactly what the hell is going on around here. After that, we can see about getting me home,” he said matter-of-factly. “Let’s eat.”
The Imperium inprocessing station for scouts was practically empty. Less than five hundred men and women had answered the call, put out nearly a year ago, and it didn’t look like many more were coming. Honest men chose to stay home with their villages and families rather than confront their fears in open warfare. The spaces were easily filled by men, women and aliens who all had that same look in their eyes. This war was personal for them, a means of closure. Bounty men and local mercenaries came for the challenges, while Slayers came to put an end to a horrible task.
A burly sergeant with thick, black hair and a number of faded tattoos on his arms manned the applicant table. Clouds of light-colored smoke trailed from the end of the dark body cigar in his mouth. He eyed the natives with casual indifference, not really caring if they chose to defend their world or not. By his own admission, he hated this place more than any other world he’d seen. The only reason he was even here was to ride out the remainder of his time in service. An old wound from his previous campaign had permanently removed him from combat status. Now he was relegated to watching broken men and women struggling through life. He narrowed his eyes at the staggered mass approaching his station. One thing he hated worse than Helscape was drunken infantrymen.
A hung over and slightly staggering Snake Eyes, supported by the equally bad Xill, eventually found his way to the gates. The twin suns were already blazing, and it was only a quarter hour past sunrise.
Snake groaned as he gently lowered himself to an empty chair next to the inprocessing tent. “Tell me again why we are doing this?” Snake asked while rubbing his aching temple.
Xill grimaced. “Because I made a promise while you were taking paystubs.”
“Which I’m surprised you can remember right now. I have to tell you, this doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
“Too late for that,” Xill said. “Here he comes now.”
Nathan squinted in the direction of Xill’s pointing finger. This time, Nathan Bourne was nearly indistinguishable from the locals. Xill was surprised to find the man in good spirits after his first taste of Telgeise ale. Right now, that was cause for envy.
“Why so glum?” Nathan asked. “I’d have thought troopers like you would have been able to hold their own when it came to drinking.”
Snake Eyes spit. “Laugh while you can. I’ll be ready to do it again by sundown.”
“I am glad you arrived, Nathan,” Xill nodded.
Nathan offered a shrug. “Are we going to stay out here and talk, or can we go somewhere more private?”
“Preferably out of the suns,” Snake Eyes added.
Nathan led them away from the dulled activity and back into town. He was still a stranger here, but his sense of direction was quite good. It only took a few wrong turns before they were back at the inn. They passed under the watchful eye of the owner, who sat silent as the three filed past her. What they did was their business, so long as it didn’t endanger any of her other patrons. She sensed they were soldiers, just something about the way they looked, and that almost always meant trouble. Reaching out with her foot, she reassuringly ran it along the polished finish of her rifle.
After politely opening the door for them, Nathan ushered the two inside. Both men smiled, grateful for the dimmed lights, and entered the room. They stepped back from shock upon seeing the gaunt Slayer from Rook Mountain sitting in a high-backed chair in front of the window. What little light allowed in was shining behind him, casting him in a radiant glow. Snake Eyes passed a devious glare towards Nathan. He should have known there was more to this than the simple facade shown in the beginning.
“Gentlemen, please come and have a seat. We have much to discuss.”
The door closed with an eerie groan.
“That’s really all they’ve told us so far,” Snake Eyes finished, and picked up his cup to finish the last of his coffee. He didn’t care much for the way it warmed him up, but it did have a soothing effect on his aching body.
“Your Imperium does not believe in letting the common citizen know until the last possible minute?” Kane asked.
“You have us all wrong,” Xill replied. “We aren’t here because we want to be. The army sent us here and made it our mission to end the war. We need as much help as we can get from your people. My own home world is engaged in a terrible civil war with no end in sight. Do not think for an instant that I take lightly what we do here.”
“There is more to this invasion that what appears on the surface,” Kane went on.
“How can you explain the arrival of hundreds of shuttles over the past cycles? Or is this merely some build up to the invasion?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Snake answered. “Where are these shuttles being kept? I can’t remember seeing any build up.”
“They’ve been coming in one a day for the last six cycles. They come in and are taken out beyond the city to the desert somewhere. I haven’t met anyone yet who knows a thing about them. No cargo, nothing.”
Kane eyed them both, sensing that neither was lying. “There is more to this invasion than meets the eye. The mysterious shuttles stink of nefarious intent. I warn you, nothing good can come of it. Nothing.”
Xill and Snake exchanged nervous glances. Maybe things weren’t as hopeful as the command was making them out to be.
“Maybe we should check it out,” Snake offered.
Xill balked. “On what grounds? We are rank and file. Not Imperium investigators. Should we get caught…”
Growing uncomfortable with the thought of subversive military activity, Nathan decided to change the subject.
“And my question is simple — at least to me, anyway,” Nathan said. “Do you people really know where these monsters live? Or are you just going to bounce around the damned desert hoping you get lucky?”
“That’s where the locals come into play,” Snake answered. “Common sense says that more than one of them knows the location of the hive. And there is always one. Always.”
Kane let out a sigh before speaking. “There is, and I think I know where to find him.”
They subconsciously crowded a little closer to him, but Kane was finished. He rose in one smooth motion and donned his jacket and pistol belt. The Slayer set his wide brim hat on his head and smiled once.
“Gentlemen, I have business to attend. If you will excuse me.”
“Just like that?” Snake Eyes asked out of confusion. “You haven’t even heard my offer yet.”
“I’m listening,” Kane replied, hand on the doorknob.
“Okay, here’s the deal. I can get both of you in and assigned to my squad. It’s a win-win situation.” He turned towards Nathan. “You can’t go home until you find a way, and you’re the one who came to us. I think a big part of you wants in on this fight with the Berserkers.”
He focused back on Kane when he got the nod he was looking for. “You can’t rest until the enemy is vanquished. We can’t win without the help of men and women like you. This can be mutually beneficial. Once the offensive is over with, I will lead the squad personally to take Nathan back to the portal.”
Kane stepped into the empty hall and called back, “You have a deal.”
Snake allowed a smile to crack his face for the first time. “Your turn, slick. What do you say? Or do you have something else worked out?”
Nathan cracked his knuckles. “I need to think about it. My first concern is getting home again, not getting killed in some damned war I’m not a part of. If I do decide to play along, we do it by my rules. No one learns my real name, and no one knows where I came from, or the deal’s off.”
“A wise idea,” Xill commented. “The base interrogator wants to get his hands on you. He thinks you may provide important information. Secret information.”
“And what do you think?” Nathan asked Snake Eyes.
“Me? I’m just a plain old line sergeant. What does difference does my opinion make in all this mess?”
Emerald Razorback tied back her flaming red hair and sat down to eat a cold meat sandwich. The meat was left over from the feast at the inn the night before. Probably a desert goat, she guessed from the salty taste. A cool drink of water from her canteen washed the food down here throat. At least the water was better than usual, she thought.
The man she’d killed last night was already a fading memory. Authorities had recovered the corpse at sunup and quietly took care of it. With so many Slayers and bounty men about, it was best to cover such matters up.
A shadow cast over her solitude, and Emerald smiled. “You can’t talk me out of it, Aradias.”
“But I must try. I can see you have already enlisted, and it saddens my heart. I came here to try and get you to consider the dangers in this. This entire expedition to find the Hive and destroy it is folly. We’ve tried for generations with no success. Can these soldiers do better? You and I both know they’ve failed thus far. How many do you honestly expect to come home alive? And do you truly believe the Imperium is going to give their hold up once the offensive is over?”
Emerald gave him a sour look. “Ever since that first day I came to you and Skrapp, I’ve thought of you as a father, but now you’re acting like an old man. I have grown up, like it or not, and I am fully capable of taking care of myself.”
She laid a gentle hand on his forearm, “Don’t you want to know what it will be like without the Berserkers around? This may be our one chance at true freedom, Kane. I can’t pass that up, not when I know they’re going to need every last one of us they can get. This may well end the struggle!”
Kane smiled. “I have spent over fifty standard years thinking about what you speak, but this doesn’t mean anything. The Imperium soldiers will go into battle and fight bravely with banners held high and full of hopes and dreams. They will die just as bravely. I cannot see the end to this conflict, not yet.”
The sadness marking his voice pained her.
“I honestly don’t think you want this to end,” she whispered. “For so many years, this is all you’ve known. You need more than revenge, Aradias. The war can’t go on forever. We have the opportunity to do what our father’s fathers couldn’t.”
“Revenge is all I know, I’m afraid. What, then, would become of me should this land find the peace it deserves? You have given me much to think on, Emerald.”
Kane excused himself with a kiss on the cheek. She offered a quiet goodbye, and that was that. Stepping out into the dying day, Kane was surprised at how empty the streets were. A silence greeted him, one he was unaccustomed to. A faint whisper from the shadows behind warned him, and he spun with blaster in hand.
Casually leaning against the nearby wall, the Viper lit his long stem pipe and exhaled a thick plume of smoke. He smiled at the look of shock on Kane’s face.
“Surprised, boy-o?” he asked. “I couldn’t leave just yet. There’s one bit of information I have that you might find useful.”