Looks like the week is starting to get away from me. I close my eyes for one minute and it’s tomorrow. The battle draws nigh, but it’s not quite time to strap the armor on and plunge into the fight. Almost, bear with me, friends.
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The Road to Black Tide
The combination of the dry heat pounding down from two suns and several vehicles not fitted for desert conditions made the first day much longer than it should have been. It wasn’t even mid-day yet, and the trail elements were still within eyesight of Minion. Progress was limited more than anticipated due to the use of only one road, and that one being third-rate at best. Hopes were still high, even as military police worked around the broken vehicles and traffic jams, but already they could feel the burden of the desert bearing down on them.
“I’ve never liked the desert,” Nathan announced to whoever was listening from his seat at the rear of the track.
Kane looked around before settling his gaze on the man. “I’ve never known anything else.”
Snake Eyes choked on some of his own saliva and rolled over to his other side without waking.
“How do you deal with it?”
“You don’t think about it,” the Slayer said, as if it were that simple. “Things happen that we have no control over, Mr. Bourne. I was four years old when I watched everything I knew end. The same monsters we’re going to hunt now. That’s what keeps my mind off of the petty trials of surviving the Wastelands.”
“And you’ve been doing this for fifty years?”
“Exactly how old are you?”
“Seventy-seven standard years.”
Feeling his eyes widen with mild amusement, Nathan asked, “Something you care to tell me? I could have sworn you don’t look a day over forty.”
The Slayer smiled for the first time Nathan could remember. “Another mystery of the Desert. My people generally live for two hundred years. The oldest of us can still remember the first war when the wizards lost their power and the Berserkers rose from the ashes. I am still quite young by those standards.”
“How do you deal with all that rage for so long?” Nathan asked. “It would burn me up inside.”
“You learn to live with it,” Kane replied and closed his eyes. Memories of that fateful day engulfed him and quickly fled. Shuddering from the impact, Kane refocused on the golden sands. Somewhere out there, lost in the deep desert, waited the entire Berserker horde.
Helscape’s suns were already setting when the command to halt for the day filtered down through the column. Strung out troopers weren’t going to do them any good. Field rations were pulled from packs, and the soldiers got a chance to ease their aching bones from the constant jarring of the tracks.
Kane sat atop the track, already finished eating and deciding it best for him to pull the watch while the rest of the platoon sat down and ate and discussed the same things they had since the dawn of warfare. The Slayer knew better than to let his guard down, even in the midst of so many soldiers. Night in the desert held more dangers than the day possibly could. Zorinths chose to use the natural protection the night had to offer. The sun was murder to their scaled skin. Each stood tall as a horse and wailed a hideous song once they picked up the trail. Only their glowing turquoise eyes were visible to the unsuspecting eye.
There were dangers extending well beyond the zorinths, though they were the most dominant predator by far. Giant burrowing spiders hid their tunnels at random, making the traps no more obvious than another patch of sand. They waited inside for creatures to make the mistake of tripping the devices. Victims were promised a long and painful death from the poison. Leathery argots sailed the skies like fabled ships. Though they were menacing figures to behold, argots were relatively harmless scavengers that chose to squabble over the dead.
Snake Eyes finished his plate and told the squad, “Make sure this trash is policed up when you finish. I’m off to this meeting.”
“I haven’t heard such a load of squaffa in a long time,” Xill laughed as he crumbled Pierce’s message to the division.
“Yeah, but the scary thing is that every last one of the troops that came here with him believe. Keep everyone in one location in case there’s anything important that needs to be put out from this meeting.” Snake slapped his friend’s shoulder and walked off towards the APC to pick up the Slayer.
He paused at the end of the vehicle, relishing the heat still coming off the armor. It was a simple pleasure that only a soldier could appreciate. Snake looked up at Kane’s outline, still unsure of the man. They weren’t friends, and he wasn’t completely sure he could trust him, but the division needed everyone if they were going to win. And if it meant bringing most of his people back from this dance, then Snake was all for the man.
“Kane, we need to get going. They’re waiting on us,” he called out.
The Slayer shouldered his rifle with a sigh and climbed down. This was another in a long list of reasons he’d never wanted to become a soldier. There were constant meetings after meetings all putting out the same data with nothing ever being accomplished. They walked in silence, reasonably tolerant of one another. For leagues all around, the zorinths howled their calls. At least so long as they howled, Kane knew there was no immediate threat.
Nathan sat off to the side of the track by himself. This was a strange world for him, and none of the situations available were acceptable. Either way he looked at it, he was going to die. The chances of ever making it back to that green light were slim. It was a difficult thing for him to accept that he was the alien here. Here, on a planet where over a hundred life forms of every size and color walked beside each other.
He wasn’t a religious man, but recent events led him to question if that was a wise decision. His sanity felt as if it could come apart any time now, and a small part of him wished this was just a dream. Maybe his wife was right; maybe this job was too dangerous. Nathan hated the situation and circumstances through which he had arrived here, but keeping to solitude wasn’t going to solve anything. Nathan knew he wasn’t a hero — after all, hero’s usually wound up getting killed. He was just a man. And, as a man, he had an obligation to help his fellow men. Home could wait; after all, what exactly did he have to go back to anyway?
He’d learned a long time ago that there was strength in numbers, especially when it came to moral support. Doing his best to ignore a heavy heart, Nathan turned his attentions to the conversations the rest of the squad were having. It was blatantly evident that none of them wanted to be here either. They laughed and complained all in the same breath about things no one alive had the power to change. Lal-owk, the primate medic, was keeping to himself. His night vision was more advanced than that of the other species present, so he found the quiet of reading a book more enjoyable than the cussing and smell of smoke.
Nathan had managed to befriend Xill a while ago, and he was the only link to the rest of the platoon. Most of the others had been there when he came through the portal, and a few he met in the bar back in Minion, but he didn’t really know any of them. That made him uncomfortable. Nathan shifted his weight and listened.
“The only reason you joined up, Klausky,” Seli argued with a wagging finger, “was the fact that the authorities were looking for you!”
Laughter grew even louder.
Klausky threw his hands up and said, “At least I’m not here to meet men.”
“Jealous?” Seli laughed as she threw a canteen cup at him.
Xill noticed Nathan standing there and asked, “Care to join us? Or do we have to guess about you the entire trip?”
Nathan offered a thin smile, keeping his greater joy of being accepted to himself, and walked to a spot in the rough circle. He’d often wondered how men and women facing death managed to find time to be jovial but finally gave up and assumed it was just how things were. Even before his own invasion on another world, in another life, Nathan remembered how they’d all carried that same tense humor. That laughter was the one thing that cooled their nerves before the bullets cut loose. Seeing his chance to fit in, Nathan joined in.
“So,” he asked, “who smells like they haven’t washed in about a month?”
Seli T’lain gave him a big smile and doubled over laughing as she pointed to Klausky.
Snake Eyes had always been taught at different stages in his military career that good leaders were made. No one just came into the army being a leader. Experience and time showed how wrong that was. Time and again, he’d seen textbook leaders run off and get their people killed just because the book said it had to be done that way. Leaders were born, not made. He questioned anyone who believed otherwise. That was exactly what he found himself doing now as he shifted his gaze to each of the non-commissioned officers standing in the circle before him.
A green lieutenant stood next to his jeep where he had a map of the Wastelands laid out. Snake snorted. There was no way that man had any inkling of combat leadership before going through the academy. And every line sergeant knew the academy taught you just enough to get wasted on your first mission. A familiar insecurity crept back into Snake. The lieutenant was barely out of his teens and looked clean cut. That meant he was the kind who never deviated from the standards. He made a mental note to watch his back if any of his men were to make it home.
“For those of you who came late,” the Lieutenant said, looking right at Snake Eyes and Kane, “my name is Lieutenant Hosking, platoon leader for the unit you’ve been assigned to. I’m not in the habit of having to tell my NCO’s the same thing over again, so listen up the first time. When a hard time is out, I expect everyone to be there five minutes prior. This isn’t the reserves, and we’re not on an r-n-r world. You’re all front-line supervisors, and I expect you to behave accordingly. Am I clear?”
“This guy is going to get us all killed,” Snake Eyes whispered to Kane.
“Patience,” Kane urged.
Hosking snapped a glare at the two. “What did you say Sergeant? Please, share it with the rest of us.”
Damn it! Snake Eyes stepped forward so everyone could see his face, took a breath, and repeated, “You’re going to get us all killed, sir.”
A burly female staff sergeant leaned in and barked, “Clear out, people. This is between those two.” She had a smile only Snake could see as she walked by.
“Perhaps I failed to make myself clear, Sergeant,” Hosking told him once they were alone. “I am in charge here.”
“Sir, you were perfectly clear, but may I make a suggestion?”
“All that in charge squaffa doesn’t mean a damn thing out here. You can take that and your general’s motivational words and roll ‘em up to swat the new recruits with. This is the real world. Most of my troops have been here for three years, not three days. Not a single one of you has any notion about what you’re running up against. This war is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and I hope for your sake that your people catch on quick. I’ve seen too many good soldiers die to carelessness. Right now, this division is walking into the fight blind, and it’s going to come back and bite you on the ass.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying, Sergeant,” Hosking said in the attempt at biting back his hostility, “but I am more than capable of handling my own.”
Hosking was cocky and overconfident to the point where it might actually help save his life despite his lack of experience, and Snake Eyes wanted to get as far away from the man as he could.
“Are you really, sir?”
“That’s disrespect,” Hosking snapped.
“Just remember one thing, sir,” Snake said as he threw his hands up. “Remember my words when you’re looking down on what’s left of a man who used to be a soldier. It’ll all make sense when you’re trying to rub his blood off and it leaves a deep stain. This is something that’s going to live with you forever.” Snake Eyes stalked off into the night where he found Kane waiting for him. The Slayer gave a grim-faced nod and started walking with him.
Alone in a hostile environment, Yonash Hosking knew he still had a lot of growing up to do if he was going to be half the man his father was. But then again, maybe that was the problem.