Maker let her head fall back. The wind picked up. Freezing dust blew across her face and stuck to the tiny scratches and sticky blood on her skin. She closed her eyes against the sting.
Year 2153, Day 006, Hour 0430
Pain. There was so much of it, consuming her, engulfing her like a sea of acid. She was drowning in it, breathing it in. A kaleidoscope of colors – orange-red, bruised purple, overripe green – pulsed erratically. Words. Ideas. Images. They drove into her brain like a marauding army storming a castle. Everything around her was crumbling, falling, being ground into dust under the pressure. Scorching every nerve ending. Flaying her open.
WHAT. WHAT. WHAT.
IT IS. IT WILL BE.
TELL US. TELL US. TELL US.
A sharp stab. A blade, thin and precise, was cutting into her brain, she was sure. Carving out answers to questions that weren’t being asked. Things she did not hear. Questions she knew.
DIFFERENT. IT IS DIFFERENT.
ASK IT. TAKE. IT.
FIND. FIND. TAKE IT.
Fire. Hot. Searing. Burning like lightning that never ended. Never cauterized but only bored further into her. Maker could see it. Through the cacophony of lights and sounds that weren’t heard she could see the thing that was carving her up, pulling her apart and ripping out the pieces that made her. Two silvery spots brighter than the sun. She tried to curl away, tried to hide from the pain she knew was coming. Deep in her mind, it followed her, chased her. Reached for her. In the last place left, the most forgotten, narrow crevice – it touched her.
Her mouth was open. She could feel the shape of it stretched wide and the sensation of her neck tensed and forcing air out over her vocal cords, but no sound came. Time stretched, lengthened and thinned to a moment so translucent and fragile that she could see through it. Past the silver light. Past the agony and confusion. Past the searing burn around her.
She was not alone.
Time snapped back into place and with it came a backlash that threw the silver light away from her. Maker followed it. It was her turn to chase. She was on fire, but it did not hurt her. She was a flaming arrow cutting though the dark and when she hit her target she knew. Knew.
It was one of many. All alike. All driven toward the same purpose but struggling for direction. It served. Its purpose was to serve. To protect. To Make. A. Way. There was another place. Far off. Too distant in time and space to be remembered but it was still known and understood and revered. Warm, wet air. Thick water that slithered off skin as if it longed to remain. Glow of a huge white sun filtering through waxy leaves. Paternal, possessive comfort and that purpose. Drive. An instinct given to it that became a duty. Duty became obsession. Compulsion.
GET IT OUT.
Death. Of so many. Worlds upon worlds filled with the keening cries of the dying. War. Bloodshed. Victory. Again and again and again. So far from that place of comfort. Pressed forward by that memory. Pushed by the ingrained purpose to make a way. Maker drove deeper, trying to find an answer. Looking for the solution. She could taste the soft, dry texture of plant matter in its mouth. The soothing caress of gel against its skin. An enemy’s blood dripping down its talons. The others. Inside. Speaking. Knowing. Obeying. She reached for the deepest thoughts, hidden under a shadow just out of reach.
Her eyes flew open. Cold air, gusting past the broken edges of her faceplate was an almost painful relief for the inferno that was raging in her skull. A Culler stood over her, its eyes wide and silver, its chest gaping open. Beak grinding and tissues dripping with mucus. There were three others, close by although she could not see them. They were fighting another. A soldier. A human, but –
Her attention wavered and the Culler leaning towards her jerked back as though it had been abruptly freed. It scrambled backward out of view, and she was left with only the fleeting, muffled conversations around her.
Images filtered to her at the same time. They were fuzzy, muddy compared to what she had seen before. The sensations dulled and distant. Anger. Fear. Determination. Exhilaration. Satisfaction. It ran. Terror overcame the imperative ingrained within it to kill the enemy and the Culler that had attacked her ran. There were three left. Three – and the soldier.
Maker sat up, slowly, her head swimming, and struggled with the clasps that secured her helmet to her suit. Her right hand was stiff and uncooperative. She ignored the ringing in her ears and the wind tearing past as soon as her helmet came off. Instead she rolled onto her hands and knees and stood on shaking legs. Her chest hurt – ached where the Culler had sat on her. Her eyes were dry and hot, her vision beating in time to the drum of her heart and the throb in her head. Each pulse intensified the pressure inside her skull, making it seem as though at any moment her face might crack and let her eyes and brain burst out of the too-small space.
Sizzling lines of white static wavered at the corners of her sight, blending with sharp burst of purple electricity. Blurred by dust and quick movements, a soldier in black fought off two Cullers. One had latched onto his neck and chest, clawing at his back while another, bleeding and shrieking, attacked from the side. He was good, his weapons more accurate than anything that Maker had ever seen, but he wouldn’t be fast enough. She could feel the death of the first alien as the soldier’s knife sliced under the chitin and into the organs. It slid to the ground. The rage of the second as it accepted a bullet in order to close the distance with the soldier. The third Culler, closing behind him and cutting into his armor. It would kill him.
The soldier knew it. Maker realized he accepted his fate even as she ignored where that information came from. He was protecting his own. Her good hand tightened on the edge of her shattered faceplate and she sprang forward. Maker had always been small, and the wind nearly pushed her off target. She brought down the reinforced crown of her broken helmet on the side of the Cullers skull with every ounce of strength she had. Her muscles screamed in protest, her shoulder ground against the socket. A crunch. A crush. A spray of blood and tissue and then her feet touched the ground. Her eyes hurt – stinging with the blowing dust. Her lungs were tight from lack of oxygen.
Maker did not know what she said, only that she needed the soldier’s help to save the base. Kerry and Gonzales and Bretavic were back there. Counting on her. He was deadly. Huge and solid and unmoved by words or pleading. He turned away, more interested in a box on the ground than the danger to her friends. He had already decided to ignore her.
She was falling, but he caught her and she held on tight – digging her fingers into his uniform to hold him there – to make him listen. It did no good. Her hands were cramping from the grip but the thin outer layer of his suit only tore as he moved away. He was telling himself it did not matter if she died. The Coalition would not care. There was a greater goal to serve.
Maker was desperate. Desperate and furious. She had no weapons left, so she ripped a force lance from the nearest alien corpse and aimed it at the soldier. She didn’t have the auxiliary tech to adapt it for humans, but the spear charged anyway. Electricity built inside. He was going to leave.
“Call in an air strike.” It was so hard to breathe! The sky was growing darker – or her eyes were failing. “Support the base – or – I’ll…” Cold made her hands numb, and she could feel the lance slipping away. He was not going to help. She did not scare him, did not move his emotions. “…kill…you…” An image, a memory of comrades and responsibility pressed against her like the blackness that was smothering her. “Mm…alak.” Her mouth was moving, her heart crying out for help, but sound and thought and sensation all blessedly faded away.
Maker prayed for death. It was her first though the moment she was conscious, before her sensory input caught up to her brain. When it did, she stopped praying and outright begged.
“Kill me now,” she whispered with a slur. “I-“ Anything else was lost to the sharp jab in her chest. She pressed one fist against her sternum and wheezed. Her tongue was swollen in her mouth. She couldn’t feel her left leg below the knee, which she was certain was a blessing.
“Battlefield regulations strictly prohibit killing a superior officer,” Kiwidinok said. She sounded tired. Maker squinted to focus in the dim lighting; the tall woman was pale, her mouth drawn tight and a field bandage wrapped around her head. “Your tech is out, but I need to check you. Follow my finger.” She held up one copper-tanned digit and slowly moved it across Maker’s vision.
“How many times do you think it happened, before they wrote the reg?” Talking hurt, but thinking about her other injuries hurt worse.
“What?” Kiwidinok pulled a narrow pen light out of her med kit and flashed it in Maker’s eyes.
Maker sucked in a sharp breath at the needles of light that stabbed right through her brain. “Officers killed by friendlies,” Maker clarified. “Can you turn that off?”
“More often than was reported, I’m sure.” The pen clicked off, and Kiwidinok rummaged through their meager supplies while Maker squeezed her lids shut against pain while her sight adjusted. “You definitely have a concussion. Bad enough that I think you’d be pulled from active duty if we had a medic here.”
“Don’t sugar-coat it,” Maker mumbled, trying to smile. Even that hurt.
“Okay. We have good news, not so good news, and bad news. What do you want first?”
“Only one bad thing? I thought we were doing worse than that. Go ahead with the good.”
“The electrical shock to your leg was high enough that it cauterized the blood vessels and nerve endings. You won’t bleed out and you can’t feel it.”
“That’s the good news?” Maker tried to inhale shallowly and glanced down. Kiwidinok had cut away her armor to expose the wound and probably treated it with some anti-bacs and anti-fungals. Neither kept her from seeing straight through to the edge of white leg bone and the ground underneath her. Chances were high that she would lose it to amputation.
“Not so good,” Kiwidinok continued, lifting a transdermal syringe and pressing it into Maker’s exposed neck. “The transport is out of commission. The base is a twenty kilometer hike over rough terrain, and as you can hear, the storm hasn’t let up.” A pinch and a faint hiss and analgesics trickled into Maker’s system. Her relief was tarnished by the much louder howl of wind and occasional thump as rocks or other debris slammed into the side of the bunker.
Kiwidinok didn’t respond right away, but held up Maker’s tablet instead. What was left of it. One side was almost completely intact, but two compression points had shattered the screen and left frayed circuits dangling . “We can’t complete the communications signal boost for Rodriguez.”
“Well.” Maker tried to come up with anything that could help their situation. Anything at all. Her mind was getting fuzzy with drugs and her heart felt like a lead weight in her chest. “That sucks.”
“We’ll have to wait for Awls to send someone for us once the storm lets up.” Kiwidinok did not say what they both knew – with the Cullers on the surface it was doubtful that Awls or anyone else would survive to rescue them. “How did you get back here, Maker?”
She tried to focus on Kiwidinok’s face, but things were getting soft and blurry.
“I must have passed out for a while – but then I wake up an hour after we got here and you’re lying inside. The door is shut tight and you’re messed up so bad I don’t think you could walk if you wanted to. My suit says there are at least twenty bodies out there – all stone cold now. How the hell did you kill them all? How did you live through it?” Kiwidinok’s expression wavered between admiration and concern.
“My charming personality.” With her swollen tongue, it came out a little garbled, but Kiwidinok must have understood because she chuckled and stepped away.
“Okay – don’t tell me. But don’t think for a second Awls will accept that answer.” Kiwidinok fiddled with the console and warm air began to filter through the vents.
Maker relaxed against the hard wall and pulled her injured hand into her lap. Her fingers were stiff and curled into a loose fist, but there was something held there. She used her good hand to pry it out, smoothing the scrap of fabric against her leg. The Sol star, silver instead of gold, on a black background. On one side was a series of artistic sweeps – like a wing. The other side had three curved lines. It had ripped off of the soldier’s uniform. Outside when she had asked for his help she had pulled on his shoulder, tearing the insignia badge away.
Involuntarily, Maker held her breath. It was proof. Proof that there had been anther Sol unit on the moon during the attack. Proof that someone had killed all those Cullers. Proof, she bit the inside of her cheek in anxiety, the Legion is real. The soldier had been special forces, his skills made that obvious, but Maker knew the Raiders. She knew their badges and their attitudes – she had served with them. That soldier in the storm had been different. Not just bigger and faster, but something…not entirely human. Her fingers traced the fraying letters below the star: Mortem. Death.
A Legion soldier killed her enemies. Saved her. And she knew what he had been thinking – that it would be better for his mission if she died. More than that – the throb in her head increased in tempo – she knew his name. Malak.
Day 015, Hour 0300
“You sure you don’t want me to run some scans in the infirmary, Maker? The Kahlid has much better equipment than that old Runa. I’d hate to think I missed something in your initial exam.”
Maker shook her head and forced a smile at the medic that had been part of Awls’ team. She considered herself lucky that between lack of supplies and surplus of injured soldiers he had not taken a lot of time to review or question her wounds. The last thing she wanted was the Coalition taking a scan of her brain.
“LT is so fine, my man. So fine.” Rodriguez jogged up beside them in the corridor, carrying his pack and gently elbowing the medic aside. “As a close, personal friend, I will make certain to inspect her for any worsening conditions.”
“In your dreams, Fuzz,” Maker rolled her eyes and repositioned her own pack on her good shoulder. It meant she had to hold onto the strap with her bandaged hand, but it kept the weight off of the recently dislocated joint. Re-dislocated. Her arm was beginning to feel like a snap on accessory.
“Yeah, good luck with that, Rodriguez.” The medic chuckled and gave a lazy salute to Maker before splitting off down a side corridor. Most of the crew from their mission followed. Those that were walking. Those that weren’t – like Awls and a few others – had been transported to the infirmary as soon as they docked with the Kahlid. At some point, the Major would be declared fit to debrief, and then he would have to explain to Captain Jones and the other senior officers why they had been six days late to the rendezvous – limping though space with an ISG that looked like it was held together with dental floss and chewing gum. Then he could explain about the Cullers. And how several hundred of them had been mysteriously slaughtered. The investigation could drag on for weeks. The paperwork would be a nightmare.
Rodriguez gently steered her away from the group, and Maker protested, “Whatever you’re thinking, Fuzz. Stow it.”
Kerry was waiting around the next corner, casually leaning against the wall. As casual as a GMH could look covered in a week’s work of sweat and grimy almond-white dust. Maker’s exhaustion parted for a new tension to take hold of her. “Clear,” he said quietly, keeping his eyes scanning the corridor.
“Perfect,” Rodriguez grinned. “This way my-”
“If I don’t get a shower in the next ten minutes, someone is going to pay.” Maker’s threat was idle; she was too tired and too preoccupied to do anything about it if her friends wanted to talk. But she didn’t want to talk. Not about her injuries, or the mission, or the torn insignia hidden at the bottom of her pack.
“I would never deprive a beautiful woman of her absolutions,” Rodriguez declared. He hit the door controls and escorted a reluctant Maker into an enlisted shower room. Lockers stood in tall rows on her left, faced with benches. To her right was a series of showers, each large enough for two or four people and separated from the one next to it by a low plastisteel wall that enclosed the space like a squared ‘C’ of imagined modesty. Wet tracks from the open showers to the lockers indicated that the room had been recently occupied. “Somebody in here?”
“Yeah,” Bretavic said sarcastically. He stepped out from one aisle, shirtless and barefoot. “We thought this conversation would go a lot better with an audience.” He muttered under his breath and leaned against a locker, “Idiot.”
“Settle down,” Gonzales said calmly. She finished undressing and draped a towel over one low wall, reaching in to turn on the water. “There were a few stragglers from second shift in here looking for privacy. I convinced them they had somewhere else to be.” The door shut behind Kerry and Rodriguez moved away to fiddle with the control panel. Maker locked her eyes on the steam that was rising in the shower enclosure and the expensive looking bottle of soap Gonzales had set next to her towel. Maker sat on an unoccupied bench and began removing her clothes on autopilot. With one foot she discreetly tucked her pack underneath her seat.
Bretavic had already showered, and he pulled on a clean undershirt and then sat next to Maker. Everyone remained quiet until the door controls let out a low tone and Rodriguez nodded with satisfaction.
“We’re good. Locked up and off of sensors for another twenty minutes.”
Kerry was at Maker’s side in an instant. “You okay?” he asked quietly, helping her to ease her sore shoulder out of her armor suit.
“Nothing a hot shower and about two days of sleep won’t fix.” She turned her gaze on Bretavic and stood. “What’s with the cloak and dagger?”
Bretavic sighed and scrubbed one hand through his short hair. Maker gave him a few moments, using the time to ease out of the rest of her uniform and step under the water. She couldn’t help letting out a hiss of pain as hot liquid ran down her skin and across her wounds. The discomfort was worth getting clean.
“What I don’t get,” Gonzales said conversationally, “Is how we could hold off six hundred Cullers. Even if we could have hit them all – we didn’t have enough rounds. And Kerry and I did the perimeter check once the storm died down – before Awls sent us after Maker and Kiwidinok. There was a lot more going on out there than rail gun fire.”
“Knife wounds,” Kerry elaborated.
Maker stiffened. She had seen someone use a knife with precision. “Did you report it?” She asked quietly.
“Fuck no,” Gonzales responded. “I’m not Bretavic. I might like to get a promotion someday. I’d rather not spend the next twenty years as a private.”
“You should reconsider that,” Bretavic said seriously. “There are a lot of decisions – a lot of secrets that come with being an officer.”
“And the news crew?” Maker held her breath.
“They didn’t get any footage of anything we hadn’t taken out with our weapons. Once he got the Runa running and we had you back on board, Rodriguez kept them busy.” Maker was too relieved to question Gonzales on exactly how that had been accomplished. Not that she really wanted to know.
“They still want an interview,” Rodriguez warned. “They already talked to Kiwidinok, but she was pretty vague about the whole thing – and her tech reported that she was unconscious for a while. You suit doesn’t have any data. Electrical charges shorted out the whole storage system.” His easy expression fell. “What happened out there, Maker?” She ducked her head under the water to avoid the question.
What had happened out there? She had been thinking about it for days. Maker thought she had a pretty good idea. SIS or an even more clandestine party had gotten a tip that something was going on at 7b2. Coalition command sent a special ops team to investigate and end a threat – Maker and the rest of the team had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She shivered, even under the hot water, at the ghosting memories of the minutes after the Culler attack outside the comm bunker. She had known what that Legion soldier was thinking. Leaving her for dead would have been better for him – better for his mission. And yet-
“-need to make certain we all report. We turn this over to the brass, and they can deal with this shitstorm.” Gonzales grabbed her towel and rubbed vigorously at her skin as she walked back to a locker. The first five in every row were stocked with generic clothes that could be used by any soldier and then left with the ship’s laundry.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Bretavic pointed out with a frown, “shit rolls down hill. Even in space. I don’t know who was out there killing Cullers and saving our asses – but you can be damn sure they are farther up the hill than we are.”
“We’re just enlisted,” Rodriguez pointed out. “Awls will be the one to answer for what happened.”
Bretavic snorted. “Pay attention pretty boy. There isn’t a single officer on this ship that would take blame for mistakes when there is a group of enlisted available to point a finger at. Awls spent the entire siege either unconscious or higher than a kite on synth-adrenaline and painkillers. He has a solid reason for not knowing what went down.”
“Clara is an officer.”
Maker kept her back to the room, but she could feel the attention shift to Kerry. He was right, of course. And obvious. It was a truth that she hadn’t wanted to think about. Awls had never turned command over to her – but she could have taken over and been perfectly justified due to his injuries. That would be a point of contention if the review of the mission did require that someone take blame. Maker really hated taking blame. Especially for something she hadn’t done. Or hadn’t not done.
“We aren’t letting Maker take the heat on this.” Gonzales made her statement a question too, and Maker turned around to deny that it was necessary. She was a big girl, and it wasn’t like she hadn’t been in trouble before. Because you should be, this time, an irritating voice whispered in the back of her mind. You know something, and you’re not going to tell. You are going to lie to a superior officer. Lots of them. During the flight back to the Kahlid, she had decided that the Legion deserved to stay hidden. The soldier had saved her life. He must have, because there was no way she could have gotten herself out of the elements and into the bunker. Even though it would have been easier – better, mission-critical – for him to let her die. Aside from that, there was nothing she could say that was going to make the debriefing or the consequences of 7b2 easier for anyone. Keeping quiet might get her some undeserved blame, but it would keep the rest of the squad out of trouble and pay back a little of what she owned the Legionnaire.
She didn’t get a chance to say anything. “Of course not,” Bretavic replied. “Why the hell do you think we are in here?”
“Because you wanted to see me naked?” Rodriguez grinned as he stripped off the last of his clothes and stepped into the shower bay next to Maker’s. Bretavic leveled a scowl at the mechanic that could have melted stone. His teasing smile slipped, “You remember what happened the last time we got wrapped up with classified information?”
“You got a medal,” Gonzales pointed out as she started to dress.
“Yeah, but I didn’t earn it. I don’t even feel right about using it to pick up dates,” Rodriguez complained.
“You think this is a joke?” Bretavic stood up, fuming. “You reviewed the damn data. Over six hundred lobsters we left to rot on that moon – and we only ever saw one Coalition ship on our sensors. Do you know what kind of people send a Cicuta class to take out that many aliens?” He didn’t wait for a response, “The kind who authorize blackout ops.” Bretavic sneered, “You won’t be getting a fake medal for this one.” In the silence that followed, the sound of water hitting the floor was loud.
“Blackout?” Gonzales asked quietly.
Bretavic clenched his jaw tight, but Kerry answered. “Step above the usual black ops.”
“What’s more classified than a mission where you will be disavowed if you fail?”
“One where you can kill anyone who sees you – enemy or friend.” Bretavic looked around the room. “I knew a guy,” he reluctantly explained, “he got transferred to the Raiders, and then to some special unit. A few years later I say him planet-side and we had a beer. He never said what they do, just that nobody ever gets to know. Ever.”
Gonzales asked the obvious question. “If that’s what we’re dealing with, why is Maker still alive? Why are any of us? Why not just bomb the surface and leave no witnesses?”
“They could have,” Maker said slowly. She reached for the standard all-purpose soap provided for enlisted and kept her eyes away from the others. If she told her friends and the Coalition put them through a stress test it would be clear if they lied. Then again, they were already planning on lying. “The soldier – there was someone out there, with me.” She gave a brief overview of how Kiwidinok had been injured, up until she woke up on the ground. She left out the details of her torture. Conversation. Mind combat. Whatever it had been, with the Culler. “I asked him for help – asked for them to give air support to the base.”
“The enemy had already been neutralized,” Gonzales pointed out.
“I didn’t know that at the time.” Maker rinsed her hair. She put her forearms up on the shower enclosure and rested her chin. “He seriously thought-” she swallowed and corrected herself, “he wanted to leave me for dead. Would have saved himself some time if he had.” Kerry pulled some grey sweats and a long-sleeved shirt out of a locker and left them on a bench for her while he prepared to shower. She gave him a nod of thanks.
“A covert team with a license to kill let the only witness to their activity live, and if anyone finds out that we know about it, chances are good we will be interrogated, demoted, and or sent somewhere so distant and dangerous that we won’t have the opportunity to tell anyone before we are killed.” Gonzales finished slipping on her shoes and stood, looking at each of them in turn. “That about sum it up?”
“So,” Rodriguez shut off his shower and stood dripping and naked, “we’re in agreement that none of us know anything?”
“Some of us less than others,” Bretavic muttered.
“Yeah,” Maker responded, hoping she was doing the right thing. Hoping her friends wouldn’t suffer from her decision. “I think that’s for the best.” She dried off and slipped on her borrowed clothes. Everyone else was ready by the time she finished. Maker stuffed her ruined suit into her pack; she would have to turn it in to Supply to requisition a new one. She couldn’t see the patch at the bottom, but it felt heavy. The white star on a black background. Mortem. Death.
Day 016, Hour 2100
Maker tossed her entire hand onto the table, not even bothering to attempt a bluff, and looked around the repurposed cargo hold on the Kahlid. Kerry and Gonzales were sitting at another table, their game serious. Rodriguez was laughing and flirting more than he was paying attention to his cards. Bretavic sat across from her, and their eyes met over the piles of chips and handwritten IOUs.
Debriefing had been surprisingly short, quick, and lacking any questions of what, how, and why things had happened on 7b2. Even Commander Soon was unusually quick to close the matter. It only made Maker feel more uneasy. She had tucked the patch in her pocket when she went on duty that morning, and it was still there. She had fought the urge to touch it when she found out one of the injured soldiers under Awls command had died.
The winner crowed and began scooping up his take, and Bretavic’s eyes met hers once more. He refilled his thermos with the moonshine concocted illegally on the ship and raised his glass and the first two fingers on his opposite hand. A Coalition toast.
“Here’s to a hard road a quick one.
A straight shot and a clear one.”
Another soldier joined in on the third line,
“A long kiss and a sweet one.
A good life and a merry one.”
Rodriguez stood, and several others followed, all repeating the well-worn words. Maker stood too, and her mouth moved, but the worry dragging at her, the feeling of a burning knife cutting into her skull. Slimy fingers probing at her face. Blood on her chin. Fear that there was something wrong with her. Something broken. Fear that she knew what that might be – and fear that anyone else would ever know. Thick embroidery of an unfamiliar symbol under her fingers. Mortem. Death. It all swirled and tightened inside her and kept the sound locked in her throat.
“Here’s to a soldier and a brave one.
A knife and a sharp one.
An enemy and a dead one.
A quick death and an easy one.”