Barghest II – Chapter 20

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Episteme of Feeling

 

Year 2153, Day 016, Hour 0900

RAIRAC. Noun, acronym. Reasonably Appropriate Individual Rights and Conveniences. An oft-referenced list of standards of living and quality of life for soldiers in the field and on base, notably in square footage allotted per person, access to hygiene facilities, nutrient consumption, personal relationships, and exposure to vegetative life.

See Jane revise Dick’s RAIRAC; when in hostile territory, he does not have the expectation of a bedtime story but he may receive up to three different nutritional flavor supplements.

“You don’t need to see me off, Malak. I’m unlikely to get lost on my way to the surface. I’m not that old.” Thomas was irritated, although his annoyance was misplaced. Malak had no control over the summons that his commanding officer had received – from his commanding officer. When the Minister of Defense requested a soldier for a live meeting attendance was not optional.

“I was attempting basic courtesy.” Malak wasn’t in a particularly good mood either. Not a bad mood, a strange one.

Thomas snorted. “You? The man who I thought for the first year we knew each other might be mute? Don’t blow smoke in my face and tell me it’s perfume, Major.” Malak wondered briefly why a person would be blowing smoke, but even if he had been inclined to ask, Thomas didn’t give him the opportunity. “You want to be courteous? Stop getting into so much fucking trouble.”

“Hn.” As usual, Malak found the best response to be none at all.

“Don’t give me that bullshit.” Thomas forcefully punched the control for the lift. “You know as well as I do that no good comes from the Minister looking this closely at our actions. And who can say how sideways this will all go if they bring the new President in on this. Sudarshan was bad enough – and she never saw mission reports. Yardley could end up being a real pain in the ass.”

They stepped into the lift and Malak leaned a shoulder against a wall, only listening with one ear to Thomas’ continued rant and speculations on how soon he could financially retire. They had what they needed. The Pale Horse had returned to Keres Base days ago and the Falcons had practically frothed at the mouth upon seeing what had been brought back. There had been no losses to his pack and, if the preliminary reports from Dr. Lauraeux were any indication, determining exactly how the wormhole devices worked – and what they were intended for – was only a matter of time. Still, Malak felt unsettled. His teams were celebrating. It was a much needed reprieve from the tension of the last six months. The humans under his care were loyal and thriving. Multiplying in fact. Not only was a historic and highly classified birth scheduled to take place soon, Thomas would be requesting additional assistance from SAR to deal with the new technology that had been recovered. Malak should have been satisfied, but he was not. He could not pinpoint the reason, and that – more than anything – was unsettling him.

“-seventy-eight and then you’ll have to deal with a new commander. Or a liaison – if you’re lucky! Keep up this kind of crap and I just might agree with them that you should take charge yourself. Then you can attend endless meetings and dressing-down crap sessions in-System. You can wait for hours in a claustrophobic corridor on some diplomatic slow-as-hell passenger cruise decoy and-”

Malak had gone over every detail of the mission on the return to base. Then again as he wrote his report. And again as he deleted all of the extraneous and uncharacteristic detail he had included. And again during his verbal debrief with Thomas. From his engagement with the enemy outside the Alnitak system to the moment he had ordered the Pale Horse break orbit from 7b2. There was no decision he would have taken back. No order that would have been better unsaid. No shot fired that did not further the interests of the Legion and the Sol Coalition. He shrugged, hoping the strange tension would leave him with the motion. It did not. A soft tone signaled their arrival at the museum that served as a front for the base.

“At least the award is classified. If this legion was being made truly public, you could bet your ass we would be having a whole different conversation right now.” Thomas stalked out of the lift and through the small office that concealed the underground entrance. Malak followed, nodding to the Falcon that was on duty in the museum, monitoring security feeds and communications.  Thomas was dressed for a long trip back to the Sol System on an environmentally-controlled ship – not the below freezing temperatures of the surface.  So his sudden stop, midway between his waiting transport and the museum, surprised Malak.

“You should have killed her.” There was no need to ask who.

The words were spoken in a low voice. An even tone. It was not the volume or the stark regret that flashed across the older man’s face, but the words themselves that shook Malak to the core. Although they could not have been raised more differently, could not possibly have started from further points of view, Malak had always believed that both he and Thomas had a respect for life. A respect for battle that did not include unnecessary deaths – soldiers or civilians. Humans or Legion. For the Colonel to pass judgement, to order the execution of a woman that had fought passionately for her team against overwhelming odds – it tilted Malak’s perception in an uncomfortable way.

“Should have turned the whole squad into a smoking crater,” he continued, with bitterness. “And you know it.”

“Do I?” From anyone else, the question would have been facetious. Malak was genuinely curious. He though back to that moment, with the dirt blowing past and making it impossible to see anything but the small crumpled heap of battered flesh, tangled hair, and determination that lay at his feet. The decision hadn’t been conscious. In that moment he was staring down at her, speculating on the fragility of human life. In the next, he had slung her over one shoulder and was stepping toward the communications bunker that would provide her some protection from the elements. He had the authority, the training, the killer instinct to protect his mission at all costs. To murder even innocent children if they saw him, or his team, or anything that might reveal the mere existence of Keres Legion. He had the responsibility. But he hadn’t done it. He had thought about it, and then he just…didn’t.

Up close, the wind hadn’t been able to completely obscure his senses. She had smelled like sweat. Water. Salt. The bite of iron from her blood and the sour odor of fear. She was drenched in it. Scorched flesh and burned ceramic armor and the unwelcome tang of cetacholmines. All that, and she had still come to his defense. Asked for his help. Begged – threatened – a clearly superior warrior to save her comrades. Pathetically weak. Unfathomly brave.

Foolish, as well, he thought.

That one soldier was the best and worst of what he knew of humanity. So frightened, so fragile. Tenaciously unwilling to die.

“If you don’t know that,” Thomas said, his breath creating a frosty cloud in the air between them, “then you had better learn it.” He looked over to the transport and the stoic soldier waiting for him at the ramp. “Humanity is dangerously close to learning what the Coalition has created to defend them. When they do…” Thomas took a deep breath and caught Malak’s gaze. “You should consider how you want the future of your people to begin. There will only be a moment, a single chance to set your course, and you may not even recognize it at the time. Once that is past, you will be out of options, Malak.”

He tucked his hands into his pockets and turned away. “If you aren’t ready for that, then you really should have killed her.”

Malak watched Thomas walk away. He waited while the Colonel boarded the transport and it took off, blowing ice crystals into the air as it rose. His superior body temperature regulation was beginning to fail him when he re-entered the base. Security behind the desk gave him a curious nod as he passed. The lift seemed to move more quickly than usual. He automatically headed towards his office, then remembering the flighty assistant he abruptly changed directions. Malak pulled his tablet out of his pocket, determining to make a visual inspection of the base and read through reports, but for once he was having trouble focusing. It would have been easy to wipe away any traces that the Legion had ever been to 7b2. Protocol stated he should have done it. Common sense demanded it. But he didn’t. And he wasn’t certain why.

He passed by the renovated family quarters. All traces of his outburst after Giltine’s death were gone. Construction was complete; the expecting parents had already moved in and Malak anticipated at least one more request for new accommodations in the near future. He walked down a corridor lined with windows, overlooking the new recreation area. Several soldiers were enjoying a shade tree under the artificial sunlight. For more than an hour he walked, crossing the base and working his way through several levels without coming to a conclusion.

Noise drifted to him on the recycled air and alerted Malak that he had nearly come to the end of the base. The thirty-series had been assigned the quarters furthest from the main entrance and tended to take advantage of the lack of traffic they received. The media room was fairly blasting chatter – to sensitive ears like Malak’s – including news feeds, an entertainment program, and at least one instance of prohibited gambling. He walked quietly, but took no other precautions to conceal his approach. A male reporter’s voice, the broadcast probably several hours old, rose above the other sounds.

“-downward trend in Culler attacks. The Alnitak system was only the latest in a series of high-alert statuses that have been issued by the Coalition and then resulted in drastically fewer losses than estimated. Overall, nearly twenty-two percent fewer lives were lost in 2152 than in the previous year. Official comment from the office of the Defense Minister gives credit to a revised strategy, excellent intelligence gathering, and adequate budget allocations. It remains to be seen if the financial resources critics have called ‘bloated’ will continue to flow into Defense under the new administration. However, sources close to the Ministry of Defense attribute many of the recent successes to a special forces unit that is so confidential the official designation has never been recorded. Although such claims were dismissed in recent years, increasing reports from soldiers in the field – including one eyewitness account – are beginning to lend credence to the story.

“Fredrico Ulbrect, our correspondent embedded with the terra forces on the Kahlid, reports on a recent mission. Are you with us, Fredrico?”

“Yes, thank you, Brenton. This footage was taken while on a routine investigation on a deserted moon – the location of which is classified. Although the squad had a difficult landing, due to local weather, there was little of interest until we came under heavy fire from an attack group of Urchins.” Laser fire grew louder, making Malak tense. The sound concealed his last few steps to the open doorway of the media room. “You can see that the team put their lives at risk to defend the abandoned outpost where we took shelter, and protected myself and my camera woman. The commanding officer was injured and things were looking grim – damaged ship, low munitions, few options, and not many soldiers.”

Shaky video showed a flash of light, then an explosion. A bulky soldier hefted a heavy rifle as an Urchin spun out of control in the background and crashed to the ground. Two soldiers in the foreground helped another, designated by the gold pips under the Sol emblem on his shoulder as a Major. The officer was clearly injured, his head lolling strangely and one leg dragging. The camera spun around quickly before focusing on a new soldier who was dragging the reporters out of the doorway. As they moved, the footage panned across a room covered in debris. It cut to two soldiers loading up in a damaged land transport. Malak recognized both figures. One thin and long-limbed – she had been unconscious in the bunker where Malak dropped the second soldier, the short woman that stank of fear and threatened him with a stolen weapon.

“These two soldiers, Lieutenant Maker and Corporal Kiwidinok, were sent out on a daring – and certainly suicidal mission to alert the fleet to the Culler presence on the moon. While we waited for the message to be sent…” the image cut again to a dark skinned, clearly modified human, speaking with a handsome man holding a circuit board. Recognition and suspicious dread tingled across Malak’s brain.. “…the squadron worked tirelessly to hold off a siege of several hundred Cullers – from what we later discovered was an Amber Class ship.”

“How is that possible, Fredrico?”

“Nothing can be proved at this time, Brenton, although we continue to look for the truth. All that is known for certain is that when the storm calmed we were faced with an unimaginable sight.” The footage kicked in again, this time showing pale dirt scattered with dozens, hundreds, of Culler bodies. Enemies his people had killed. “The threat to our safety had been removed, and the team sent out into the storm was recovered.” The mechanic, Fuzz, she called him, came into view again, assisting a medic with a gurney out of the bunker. Behind him was the GMH soldier, carrying the smaller soldier. Malak’s arms fell loose at his sides, but it did not notice. Nor did he bother to glare at the younger pack members that were beginning to sense his presence and turn to stare. He had seen their enlistment photos, years ago. She had been almost unrecognizable, on the moon, with blood smeared and crusted on her face and her eyes wild. Malak swiftly shut down his reaction.

“It is likely that this was the work of a special forces unit so clandestine that the government refuses to acknowledge their existence. Even these soldiers that owe their lives to this ‘legion’ refuse to comment.”

A clip from an interview took over the screen. “Secret forces?” The mechanic laughed and flashed a white smile, the dark and well-worn interior hull of a small Runa-class transport behind him. “I didn’t see anything like that. But if you think they were helping us out,” he grinned again and looked straight at the camera, his expression and tone clearly indicating he thought it was all a joke, “then thanks to them. I can use all the help I can get!”

Fredrico’s face came back up, split screen with the desk anchor. “That was Dan Rodriguez, grandson of Venezuelan mining magnet Gaspar Rodriguez, serving his first voluntary tour. No other soldiers were willing or able to give us any information.”

“Fredrico, you mentioned a legion. Does this one have a name?’

“Well, none that we have learned. Yet. Rumors abound within the fleet, and this special forces group, if indeed they do exist and I am beginning to believe it, are nicknamed the Thirteenth. Although their identities may be closely guarded by the Ministry of Defense, eventually the truth will win out. The question remains, who are these individuals, and can the government justify these secrets under the guise of security?”

“Thank you, Fredrico.” The field reporter disappeared and the anchor returned full-screen. “Whomever these mysterious soldiers are, we can all agree that they deserve our thanks for the risks they have taken to protect Sol and our people fighting on the front. For many out there, they may indeed be the lucky Thirteen. In other news, raids on commercial cargo transports are down, but one strange report near Alnitak has a cargo captain claiming his crew, stranded during repairs, was saved from Culler attack by an unmarked Coalition ship…”

Someone turned down the volume, and Malak forced himself to look calmly around the room. One table was playing cards, another a game with figurines, dice, and credit markers. Several off-duty Falcons were mixed in with his own people. A throat cleared.

“Would you like to join us, Major?” The beta for the series stood from his table, and Malak took note of his composure. If they didn’t already know, then they could guess that the report was about his latest mission. They would be wondering why there was anyone alive to speculate on the Legion. Wondering, but not questioning his motives. His leadership. They trusted him to do whatever was necessary, whatever was right, to protect them and decide their future.

“Hn.” He turned with a nod at the beta and followed his trail back toward his office.

It had been Zulu. Sergeant – Lieutenant – Clara Maker. He should have killer her. Twice. He still didn’t understand why he hadn’t. He wondered, if he met her again, if he would be able to let her live a third time. If he even should.

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