David drew the middle shift for sentry duty that night. Their threat level hadn’t been upgraded by the Shackleton; they were still in ‘admin’ mode -- meaning no sentries were required -- but the colonists unnerved them, and the squad agreed as one that they’d keep regular sentry shifts through the night, rotating at three hour intervals.
David and Maeng lost the toss for the shift starting at 2 am. It was the worst time; right in the middle of the night so that one had barely gotten to sleep during the first watch before he was being hauled out of his rack, then hardly back again before reveille. Though he doubted any of them would sleep much anyway.
He and Maeng moved out of the “hooch”. Ogumbembi and Carter were standing outside waiting for them, rifles slung. Carter took a last puff on her stub of cigarette and threw it to the ground, the bright orange embers sparking in the blackness.
“Bo’, it’s even darker tonight,” Maeng said. “Where are the lights?”
As the night before not a single street light nor table lamp peeking through a hab window was on to illuminate the silent streets; the sky was overcast so that not even Typhon lit their way, nor the stars. Their own tent was blacked-out, too, since uneasy soldiers are less uneasy when they cannot be seen.
“Dunno, M,” Carter said.
“Did you do a patrol into the colony?” David asked.
“No way,” Ogumbembi spit. David heard the spittle smack into a rock in the direction of the town. “There’s something way way wrong with those boofs, I ain’t spending more time with them ‘n I have to.”
“Yeah, Farro thought maybe they found some bless drug or something,” Carter said. “But they’re not just kelping; there’s something really, really wrong with them.”
“Let’s get some rack time.” Ogumbembi said.
With a muffled swish of the blackout curtained entrance closing behind them, Ogumbembi and Carter were gone and David was alone with Maeng.
“C’mon, Wakker, Let’s go check it out,” Maeng whispered. “I wanna see what they’re up to.”
“What’re you afraid of?” David heard his fireteam partner cock his rifle with a loud click. “We’ve got B.F.G.s.”
“Let’s ask;” he keyed his mike to the Shackleton’s frequency. “Shackleton, this is Nowak, over.” There was only faint static in response.
“Prolly all asleep, dog---ers,” Maeng said.
“Alright, let’s just go.” David pulled his night vision goggles down over his eyes.
By instinct borne of years of training, they moved stealthily, but even ghost-walking seemed painfully loud. David winced when he kicked an unseen can which bounced with a loud bang off the plascrete sidewalk then fell with a swish into the tall grass alongside. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears. He was a child again, hesitating at the top of the stairs leading down into the black crawl-space beneath the family home. His mother had asked him to get something from down there ... why did Mom have to always can all that stuff? There was perfectly good food in the megamarket. Always sending him down there ...
He shook his head. He wasn’t a child. Mother and Father had complained he was still a child when he left for New Parris Island -- but that seemed a lifetime ago; he was a trained soldier, now. But the silence was driving him loopy. He panned over to his right, and noticed a hundred metres off, in between a group of three habs there was what looked like a copse of short trees -- although in the monocrhomatic world of night vision it was hard to say. He hadn’t seen any trees within the colony during the day, though.
“M,” he whispered.
“What’s that over there?”
They paused for a few moments, David dropping to one knee. There was no movement whatsoever.
“I dunno man, looks like a bunch of statues or something.” Maeng whispered.
“There aren’t any statues here, either.” Now that he thought of it, there even any adverts, not even a potted plant.
He heard Maeng fumbling with his beltgear. “F--- it, let’s use some light. We’re supposedly on level one anyway; why the f--- are we sneaking around like we’re level three?”
David pulled off his night vision and groped for his own moon beam. They activated them both and waved the almost painfully bright lances of light down the alley.
“F--- me.” David exhaled slowly.
They walked closer. About a dozen colonists were standing bunched together, almost touching one another. As David and Maeng got closer, they could see that their eyes were all closed as if asleep. They were completely still.
“What the ...?” Maeng stepped right up to them while David held back, fixing his light to the upper hand guard of his rifle. Maeng shone his light right into the faces of one of the colonists without the slightest reaction. He swung the beam left and right.
“Where are the rest of them?”
“Maybe they’re in their habs.” David pointed down to the left through a gap in the habs. He was feeling suddenly bolder. “You check down that way, I’ll go up the street. Keep in radio contact.”
He’d moved about a hundred metres down the road when his moon beam picked out another cluster of colonists near the wall of a larger building, possibly a manufactory of some sort. Through the comm bead in his ear, Maeng whispered,
“Got another group here ... twenty of them this time. This is really weird.”
“I think I see more, too,” David said. “Let me check it out.”
When he got within a few dozen paces, he saw Her. She was on the outer edge of the clump of colonists. She was standing just off-centre of face-to-face with the other woman he’d seen with her that morning. They were almost touching, standing so close that each had a foot between the other’s. There was something sensual about their posture and David felt his heart quickening again. He licked suddenly dry lips and moved in closer.
He detached the light and slung his rifle. Getting as close to the women as they were to each other, he shone the light first in one face, then the other. Were they even breathing? Her eyes were closed and her face and expressionless mask like death. Pulling off a glove, he touched two fingers to her throat. He couldn’t feel a pulse, but the skin was warm and soft. She did not move at all; almost as if she’d braced herself for even that light contact.
He was trembling now, and leaned in closer to see if he could hear her breathing. She was the same height as he with her heeled boots. The light, though at his waist, still let him make out her perfect features; the high cheek bones, symmetrical jaw line, smooth, pale skin. He could hear no breath. Maybe something that would draw a reaction ... he closed his eyes. He was so close he had to move forward only a fraction of an inch to kiss her cheek. Time seemed to slow as he became intensely aware of the soft smoothness on his lips.
He quickly stepped back a few paces. That was wrong, he thought. Like taking advantage of a habuji. Why the hell did I do that?
He swung the light back up to her face. Still and silent as marble. So was her partner. Taking a last look at them almost pressing against each other, he felt an urge to approach again and do more. No one would know. He swatted away the random thoughts. He turned and trotted back down the street, breathing hard.
Stupid. Crazy. Pervert. He chastised himself inwardly. Maybe they were right. Away from home, the sacraments, alone ... it was changing him.
He stopped at a crossroads to collect himself. Pulling out his FIDO, he checked his position with the Shackleton’s GPS. He was about to signal Maeng that they should return to the hide when he heard a clicking or a scratching sound behind him. He dropped to a knee and swung the light around, fumbling to get his rifle unslung as he did. He nearly dropped it. She was walking down the road with her brunette friend.
He stood. “Ah, look I’m sorry about ... are you okay?”
Whereas the first time he’d encountered them, they’d seemed skittish and fearful, now they approached him boldly, and without a word, one encircled each of his arms with one of her own.
“We’re not afraid of your thoughts,” She said. “You shouldn’t be either. Come.”
“Where are we going?”
“To show you something,” She said.
Her friend reached down and switched off the light and they walked in darkness for some minutes. David couldn’t see his own feet, but the colonist curves were surefooted in the black and guided him without hesitation. They took him into a building and up a flight of stairs. He had a sense of being on a balcony that overlooked a large open enclosure, like a warehouse. They stopped and released his arms. Hands started moving over his arms and chest.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“We can see in your mind that you want to take us.”
David’s heart jumped as he could feel they were unfastening his webgear. He had no idea where his rifle was. One of them pulled the comm bead from his ear. His belt crashed a metal floor. He knew he shouldn’t do this, he felt his rational mind and his desires war within him.
Holy Mary, conceived without original sin ...
“Don’t do that.”
“We can’t hear you when you do that.”
“Don’t leave us,” her voice was almost pleading, the first hint of emotion he’d heard in that bland voice since he first met her. “This is what you want.”
She kissed him. Somehow, he knew it was her. Her lips moved down onto his neck and then the second pair touched his lips. They were almost frantic, now, as they pulled at his uniform, getting his combat vest off. Damnit, he’d had enough of resisting. He took them both into his arms.
“Hey, slow down a bit,” he said.
A strangled scream startled him suddenly back to himself.
“That was nothing,” She said.
“Oh, s---, Maeng!” He pushed them back and scrabbled on his hands and knees among his gear. Grabbing the comm, he jammed it back in his ear. “M, where are you?”
There was only static on the other side. He pulled a glow stick from his pocket and cracked it, casting a pale green light. He gathered up his his gear as quickly as he could, pulling his vest back on and draping the belt over his shoulder. He didn’t dare look at the two women.
Oh God, what did I do? He wondered. He sensed them back away as he thought that. Their boots must have been off for they made no sound. No, don’t even think that! Holy Mary, conceived without Original Sin ...
He sprinted down the stairs with the glow rod lighting his path. He nearly fell down them and stumbled out into the street.
“Maeng!” Somehow he managed to get his FIDO back out and found his fireteam partner’s locator on the GPS. He pounded down the road. It said he was in a hab at the end of it. Dropping his beltgear he kicked the door open and charged in. Maeng was on the floor ...
“Stand-to!” David shouted as he burst through the blackout blinds of the temp hab. “Stand-to -- Sarin, get over here!”
As the squad tumbled out of their cots and groped at weapons, David shifted Maeng off his shoulders and down onto his own cot. The glow stick he’d cracked earlier gave the only light, bathing the domed room in a green glow.
“What the h---’s going on?” Ogumbembi asked, pulling his combat vest over his head.
“They did something to Maeng.”
“What happened?” Sarin was now kneeling beside Maeng, her medical bag open on the floor beside her.
“We got seperated ... I don’t know ...”
“Damnit, Wakker!” Carter cursed as she dove out of the temp hab clad in only her underwear and combat vest, but with her weapon ready.
Farro was taking the time to pull her pants and boots on. “Where’s his gear? Why’s he naked?”
“I don’t know!”
“And what happened to you?”
David’s belt and attached gear lay on the floor next his his left knee. His combat vest was hanging open at the sides, he’d lost his boonie hat, and his comm bead was hanging down his back. How in the ‘verse would he explain what he was up to when Maeng went down? He just grit his teeth and watched Sarin run her scanners over Maeng’s limp form.
“Bio-scanner’s still not working!” she groaned. She threw it down and pulled a stethoscope out of her kit and listened. “I’ve got a weak heartbeat -- he’s alive -- but what the --?”
Ogumbembi stuck his head back into the tent. “It’s dead out here, what’s going on, Wakker? Did the colonists attack him?”
“I don’t know ... I mean, there weren’t any around when I found him.”
“Anyone following you?”
“We need to get him up to the Shackleton,” Sarin said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. But the bio’s not working and I’m hearing some weird-ass stuff ...”
“Well, we’re not humping him all the way back to the lander,” Ogumbembi said. “Farro, get the comm pack rigged so we can bring it in on remote.”
In ten minutes, the howl of the assault lander’s V.T.O.L. engines screamed into the night, rising to a deafening pitch as Farro guided it with a laptop down onto the field separating their encampment and the colony. The Shackleton had not responded to any of their transmissions as they dashed aboard, Carter and David bringing up the rear after keeping an overwatch of the surrounding area.
“All clear!” Carter shouted as the lander’s rear ramp slammed shut. “Do we have clearance?”
“Screw it,” Ogumbembi said. “Still nothin’ on the radio. We’re leaving.”
“We’re gonna be in quarantine forever, bo’,” Sarin said, her stethoscope pressed to Maeng’s chest.
“Yeah, thanks a lot Wakker,” Ogumbembi said. “What to f-- were you and M doing?”
“I said I don’t know what happened,” David said.
The engines roared and they rocketed into the sky.
“F-- that, Wakker,” Carter said. “Look, your gear’s gonna tell the whole story when we get back.” She pointed to the communications pack on his web gear that transmitted everything he saw and heard up to the Shackleton. “You level with us. You are part of this squad aren't you? Semper fi mean anything to you? So what the f-- do you mean when you say you got seperated?”
It probably means more to me since I actually understand some Latin, David thought. But it was true, he couldn’t hide what he’d done, and this squad, as rough and crass as they would seem to his parents and Fr. Vinogradov, were his comrades. He quickly recounted what they’d seen in the colony.
“I was on my way back to link with M, when those two curves came at me. They took me to this building, and I was with them …”
“Huh? I thought you were asexual,” Sarin said, clearly confused.
“Obviously it was just an act,” Carter said hotly and turned her cheek to him.
“Awesome timing, bo’,” Ogumbembi said. “You know, you’re a real --”
“Recon Alpha this is Shackleton,” the radio cut-in. “You have not been recalled. Send SITREP, over.”
“Ogumbembi here -- we are conducting emergency medevac.”
“Negative. You will comply with quarantine procedures.”
“‘Bembi this is Captain Ho,” the voice of their C.O. took over. “You know you need permission for that you dumb-- what the?”
David could see through the canopy surrounding Farro at the front of the craft, that they had made it out of the atmosphere and were already in visual range of their mothership, a long latticework structure with engines at one end and an armoured crew area at the front. The view suddenly changed as proximity alarms sounded and Farro threw them into a roll. Now Ladon flashed past along with spinning stars. She righted the craft again and he could see a missile of some sort barreling towards the Shackleton. It missed the bigger ship by mere metres, and a second was blasted out of the sky by the Shackleton’s defensive weapons.
“Those look like colony landers,” Farro said. “Oh --”
A third rocket slammed into the Shackleton’s engines and a flash of white light blinded David. He was thrown against his harness as the lander bucked and rolled. New klaxons sounded and he knew they were going down.
“Oh my God! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”CLICK HERE TO READ THE CONCLUSION ...