Hale felt too cool air fill his lungs. He groaned and rubbed at his eyes, knocking a breathing tube loose from his nose. His tongue felt like sandpaper against his mouth and his body felt like glaciers of pain were grinding across his every joint and muscle.
“Sir, you awake?” He knew that voice, but the fuzziness in his head wouldn’t let him connect to a name. “I’ll tell the doc you’re up.”
He held a hand in front of his face; the skin was leathery and dry as parchment.
Dr. Accorso leaned over him and waved a wand across Hale’s forehead. “Ah, awake at last? I knew the last round of treatment would beat that thing.” The bed beneath Hale tilted his head and chest upwards. Hale was in a hospital ward, one with biohazard markers against the walls.
A nurse shoved a spoon full of ice chips into Hale’s mouth. He was too thirsty and weak to protest the indignity.
“You caught a very nasty infection on Takeni, something your green blood cell immune boosters couldn’t handle,” Accorso said. “Might have been something on the talons of that banshee that got a piece of you. Maybe something you ate? Any intimate contact with the Dotok?”
Hale just looked at Accorso, too tired to speak. He got another mouthful of ice chips.
“Regardless, it drove your natural immune system haywire. Really amazing reaction, we’ll be studying your blood samples for years. Had to keep you in isolation so you didn’t infect the rest of the ship. I tried flooding your system with more green blood cells, but that had negligible effects. I finally gave you a dose of nano-bot scrubbers…which cleared out the infection, all your green blood cells and a dangerous amount of your body’s hydration. We’ll get you on some wonderful IV’s and have you up on your feet in no time.” The doctor gave him a pat on the shoulder and left the room.
“No, he never shuts up,” the medic said with the same familiar voice he knew. Hale squinted at the medic and finally recognized Yarrow.
“What…what happened?” Hale croaked.
“We got hit by our own grenade. Messed you, me and Bailey up pretty good, but nothing serious. Got off world and back to the Breit and now we’re in orbit around some brown dwarf in the low-rent district of the galaxy, waiting for the engines to recharge. Should be another ten days until we can get back to Earth…supposedly. Open up, sir, you’ve got to eat the rest of this ice,” Yarrow mashed a spoonful against Hale’s closed lips.
Hale grabbed the spoon and tried to feed himself. The spoon glanced off his nose and sent ice chips down his hospital gown.
“You were pretty touch and go for a while, sir,” Yarrow took the spoon back. “I’ll tell the others you came up strong as an ox, full of piss and vinegar.”
A corpsman wheeled in a metal stand with several clear IV bags on it.
“I’ll get him hooked up,” Yarrow said to the new arrival, who left without a word.
“Where’s…everyone? We get the Dotok out?”
“Canticle’s full to the brim and holding steady. Those Dotok know how to make a spaceship,” Yarrow said, careful not to look directly at Hale when he spoke. He ran a tube from the fluid bags to an intravenous port on the back of Hale’s left hand. Hale felt cold creep up his arm.
A plastic screen slid aside, revealing a grim-looking Captain Valdar holding a folder.
“Give us a couple minutes, son,” he said to Yarrow, who left with a nod to Hale.
Valdar sat down next to Hale and watched as Yarrow left the room.
“You trust him?” Valdar asked.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I?”
Valdar shrugged at his question
Hale cringed as the cold from the IV crept through aching muscles. Hale regarded the captain, a man he’d known since childhood. The captain wasn’t acting like the Uncle Isaac that Hale knew. Valdar’s face was emotionless, solid, the mask of command officers learned to adopt early in their careers.
“Just tell me,” Hale said.
“Sergeant Torni stayed behind. The Mule didn’t have the life support for the last of the civilians. She gave up her spot so more could make it out,” Valdar said.
“We’ll go back. She’s a fighter, trained to survive behind enemy lines,” Hale said.
“No, son, she’s dead.” Valdar opened the folder and handed a photo to Hale. An orbital picture of the mesa showed a dozen Dotok lying in the dirt. Torni’s armored body was on her side. Blood stained the ground beneath her.
“It should have been me,” Hale said. “If I hadn’t been hit…it should have been me.”
“It wasn’t you, Ken. We’ve all…lost so much.” Valdar’s countenance cracked for a split second, giving Hale a glimpse at the pain Valdar hid from everyone. Valdar cleared his throat. “I’ll write up a posthumous award, handle the rest of the paperwork. Get back on your feet when you’re ready. This fight’s far from over and I need you leading Marines.”
Valdar tried to take the photo back, but Hale refused to let it go. The captain left without another word.
Hale stared at the picture for a long time. There were tears, but none he could ever admit.
The armory was quiet. Racks of rifles and all the Marine’s weapons of war had been cleaned, accounted for and stored since the Breitenfeld left Takeni’s orbit. Even though there was no such thing as night and day aboard a starship, the crew and Marines still stuck to a twenty-four-hour cycle. This close to “midnight” there shouldn’t be anyone in the armory.
Hale looked over the room, failing to note anything out of place or in need of cleaning. Good, he thought, Cortaro’s been keeping them busy. Focused on their jobs. The sound of laughter bled through one of the storage bays.
Hale went to the door and raised his hand to knock, then grabbed the handle and yanked the door open with the little strength he had in his body.
His Marines and Steuben were there, sitting on ammo boxes arrayed in a circle.
“Sir! Knew you’d come looking for us eventually,” Standish said.
Square patches of pale skin dotted Bailey’s face and exposed arms, cloned grafts that would look more natural in time. Orozco’s right hand was missing two fingers.
“What are you all doing here? You two all right?” he asked the recovering Marines.
“Still got my trigger finger,” Orozco said.
“Robo-doc patched me up just fine,” Bailey said.
“You look…you’ve looked better,” Standish said.
“I feel like a hammered can of shit,” Hale said and sat down on an ammo box.
“Took the words out of my mouth,” Standish said.
Chuckles filled the space.
“You missed the memorial ceremony for her,” Yarrow said, not willing to say Torni’s name. “Captain decided to have one big ceremony for everyone we lost. Get it all over and done with. Chaplain Krohe…said a little extra about her. Did a good job.”
“I understand,” Steuben said, “that your warrior tradition will offer a toast to the departed.”
“Yes, Steuben, that would be appropriate,” Hale said. “Have to wait until we get back to Phoenix for that, though.”
“Oh, what’s this?” Standish reached behind his seat and picked up a clear bottle. “I seem to have found a bottle of vodka. Absolut, Torni’s favorite.”
“‘Found’?” Hale asked, giving Cortaro a sideways glance. The gunnery sergeant feigned innocence and shrugged his shoulders. Cortaro scratched at the join between his leg and the new prosthetic, complete with an articulated foot and ankle that had replaced the peg.
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies, sir,” Standish said. He passed out paper cups from the mess hall and poured a shot for everyone. He hesitated when he got to Steuben.
“You OK with alcohol?” he asked the alien Karigole.
“I will experience some discomfort,” Steuben said. He shook his cup and Standish obliged.
Hale waited for Standish to take his seat. The lieutenant rubbed his fingers against the cup, searching for the right words. He raised the cup to eye level.
“For Staff Sergeant Sofia Torni, one of the finest Marines I’ve had the honor to serve with. We are less without her,” he said. The alcohol burned down his throat and did nothing to heal the pain in his heart.
Lieutenant Douglas watched with anticipation as a waitress carried a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs to his table. The sight and smell of a meal not made by a robot brought back memories of time before the war with Xaros, when he and his family would eat at a little pizza joint down the street from their home in upstate New York.
Vinny’s hadn’t been open for too long, and to get a table you had to know somebody who knew somebody and could vouch that you wouldn’t let slip that the place existed to the general populace. The meals were free. Vinny kept the place open in memory of his family and to keep himself busy after his job processing methane from Titan’s atmosphere never materialized. The pasta, calzones and a little bit of wine were gratis, but any “donations” of military gear were greatly appreciated…and a sure way to get invited back the next time the place opened.
Douglas had found an old set of armor plates used by the last generation of powered armor during a walk around the Kilauea forests. They’d held up remarkably well for being buried in mud for thirty years since the invasion, and Vinny seemed happy with them. Coming from R&R on Hawaii to a proper meal had done wonders for Douglas’ morale.
“Hey, Ibarra’s on TV,” someone said, pointing to a screen mounted against a wall. “Turn it up.”
Douglas took a bite and scooted his chair around so he could see the screen. His appetite threatened to flee as anxiety reared its ugly head. The last time he’d heard Ibarra speak had been right after that God-awful time shift that side-stepped the fleet out of the Xaros’ path.
“Hello, Phoenix. This is Marc Ibarra.” His hologram stood behind a podium, like he was the president about to announce a new war. Admiral Garret was with him, standing off to the side. “There have been some changes since the last time I addressed you. For the better, all things considered. The Xaros were defeated, we reclaimed the Earth…Now things must change again. The Xaros will return. You all know that. But they will return in numbers far greater than we can defeat…as of now. Some of you have already figured that out.
“So, we can either all die or find a way to beat them. I didn’t spend sixty years working on a way to save humanity just to throw my hands up when things looked bad. There is a solution. One that’s already being implemented. New people, born of man and woman just like all of you, are here. They remember lives from before the invasion, just as you do. They have jobs and a purpose in our city, same as you. They will fight to save us all.
“But they aren’t like you, exactly. Their bodies were grown. Their minds are the product of advanced simulation software. But they are human…as human as we can make them. As for souls…that’s beyond my ability to influence.
“There are many procedurally generated humans listening to me right now, and not one of them thinks they are any different from the true-born.” Ibarra looked hard into the camera. “Just like you.”
“Many more will join us in the coming months and years. Don’t bother trying to find a way to discover them. Knowing who is and who isn’t true born is a waste of time and energy. Let me be clear; there is no future without them. Go about your lives and your duties. We still have a war to win.”
The screen returned to a football rerun.
Low conversation broke out through the restaurant. Patrons pointed at each other, swapping stories from before the jump, confirming shared stories about people they’d all known for years. Douglas, sitting alone, felt a sudden urge to leave.
He stood up and made for the door. A very angry-looking Vinny, holding a sawed-off shotgun, got in his way.
“Hold up,” Vinny said. “Where you going to so fast after Ibarra’s little public service announcement?”
“I have a platoon of soldiers that’re probably going crazy right now. I should get back to the barracks and get things under control,” Douglas said.
“Don’t seem like we’ve got things under control here,” Vinny said. “Does it, boys?”
Rough hands grabbed him from behind and slammed him against a table. A hand the size of a dinner plate against his neck pinned him against a red-and-white checkered table-cloth. More hands held his shoulders and arms down. He struggled uselessly, devoid of any leverage or ability to strike out.
“See, Clyde and Frank here both know me from the old neighborhood,” Vinny said. “I know I’m not some sort of procedure-something-or-another freak. I know they ain’t that. They know I ain’t that. Who knows you ain’t one of them?” Vinny put the shotgun on the table, the barrels pointed straight into Douglas’ eyes.
“My platoon, I’ve been with them for almost a year. Way before the jump,” Douglas said. Sweat broke out across his body as he looked into the twin dark pits.
“That good enough for you, boys?” Vinny asked.
“No, Mr. Vinny,” the one with a hand to his neck said.
“My brother! Call my brother, name’s Robert. He’s on my cell,” Douglas said. A hand went into his pocket and tossed the device to Vinny, a cheap device that couldn’t do anything but text and call.
Vinny flipped it open and hit a few buttons. Long seconds ticked by as it rang.
“Yeah, hi,” Vinny said. “I found this Ubi down around 4th and Baseline. You know who it belongs to, recognize the number? Yeah. What’s he look like? Military guy with short hair? That’s most of the city. Tell me a little something only he’d know and I think I can get it back to him. Thanks, bud.” Vinny closed the phone.
“What was the name of the dog you two got for Christmas?” Vinny asked, his hand on the shotgun.
“Gizmo! Little mutt my dad picked up off the side of the street,” Douglas said.
“Let him go, boys,” Vinny said.
Douglas faced off against the two men. Both had sheepish expressions on their face.
“Sam, I apologize,” Vinny said, putting an arm across Douglas’ shoulders and shaking his hand. “Look, this whole alien invasion crap’s got me thrown off my game. Then Ibarra gets up and starts telling me there are a bunch of fakes walking around. I overreacted.”
Douglas looked back at the shotgun still on the table.
“Now I wasn’t going to…probably not,” Vinny said. “Look, you eat here for free from now on. No reservations, no donations. We good?”
Douglas nodded and went for the door again.
“Hey, bring your brother next time. He sounds legit,” Vinny said as Douglas left the restaurant.
His cell started ringing, a call from his commander. He put the phone to his ear and saw the orange glow of fires in the distance. Phoenix was burning.