The Mule rumbled as turbulence slammed Hale against his restraints. He looked up from his forearm display to check on his Marines. Torni had a hand raised over her head and pressed against an ammo canister that seemed intent on breaking loose from its assigned place. Orozco had his arm wrapped around his Gustav gauss cannon. Steuben was as stoic as ever.
Hale could have fit another squad of Marines in the Mule, but as the commander of this drop, he planned to keep him and his team in reserve. Flying above a likely battlefield was dangerous, but he couldn’t find a better place for situational awareness and command and control than the bay of this Mule.
His hand tapped a small speaker box fixed to the outside of his throat armor.
“Everyone have your translators installed?” Hale asked. Bastion devised hardware for the humans and Dotok to speak to each other, based on the system Stacey Ibarra said was used on the space station. She’d given Hale specific instructions not to open the devices or the ear buds that came with them, something about ‘harmonic resonator crystals’ failing.
“How’re they supposed to work?” Orozco asked.
“Speak English normally. The translators will nullify what you say and broadcast the Dotok equivalent for the words. It works in the reverse to your earbud.
“Bailey, Standish, see anything from your turrets?” he asked over the Mule’s IR network.
“Jack and shit, sir. And by that, I mean clouds,” Standish said.
“Same,” Bailey said.
Hale rotated the display on his forearm, and icons for the four Mules and six Eagle escorts swept over the topographic peaks of a mountain range. They’d be over the settlement in a few more minutes.
“Pilot, any contact with the settlement?” Hale asked.
“Negative. Xaros are in town, have to keep radio silence. One transmission and every drone down there will make a beeline for us. Breitenfeld hasn’t got anything to relay to us from the IR line we’ve got with the ship,” the pilot said.
“We don’t know if there are drones down there,” Hale said.
“You’re the mission commander. You can risk it if you want but I think Gall would snip your balls off for that,” the pilot said.
The corner of Hale’s mouth pulled into a grimace. The planning session with his ex-girlfriend had been rather one-sided. She, as she told him in no uncertain terms, was the ranking pilot in the air and she’d get him and his ground pounders where they needed to be, and out of there, without his bright ideas.
He hadn’t found any fault with the air assault and evacuation plan she’d devised, and there wasn’t any reason to change things on the fly. He scrolled through a channel list to find the private channel to her Eagle, and hesitated. Durand’s default response to losing a pilot was anger, unfocused and unrelenting anger.
He shrugged his shoulders and opened the channel.
“What?” she snapped. “Don’t call me that when we’re on the clock.”
“You all right? I heard about Kyle and Hornsby. I’m sorry.” Hale mentally kicked himself for starting this conversation, which felt exponentially worse with each word. He squeezed his eyes shut and readied for a tongue-lashing.
“They didn’t…this isn’t necessary. You know that, right? Skipper’s got some sort of hero complex going on. We could all be home right now on an R&R chit to that resort Ibarra rebuilt in Hawaii,” Durand said.
Hale checked to make sure he was talking to the right person.
“Captain does what he wants. It’s his ship,” Hale said.
“So you agree with him?”
“I didn’t say that.” The Mule rattled through another bout of turbulence. Hale heard the whine and thunk of both turrets rotating, and he looked at the armored hatches closing off Bailey and Standish from the rest of the ship. Arrows painted on each showed both turrets pointing toward the port side of the Mule.
“I’m not the only one grumbling about this, and the couple Dotok I met haven’t exactly made me feel overly welcome and appreciated,” Durand said.
Hale felt his combat instincts rise to the fore as neither turret changed directions. What were they looking at?
Torni banged an armored fist against her bench and tapped at her helmet.
An amber light lit up on his gauntlet. Standish was trying to open a channel to him.
“You call me and then you hit me with the silent treatment? I swear, Ken, this is exactly what we used to fight about.”
“Marie, I think we’ve got—”
The turrets roared in unison. Hale killed the channel to Durand.
“—gets off the horn with his girlfriend that we’ve got drones,” Standish yelled.
“Got the one on our six,” Bailey said.
“What about the one that went around us?” Standish asked as his turret spun around and around, hunting a target.
“How many drones did you see?” Hale asked.
“Hi, sir, welcome back to the battle.” Standish’s twin gauss cannons fired a burst. “Two for sure…I think I saw another five or six between the clouds. One’s right on top of us, somewhere.”
“Gall,” Hale said over the open command channel, “my gunners think they saw up to five more drones. Can we handle this or do we need to abort?”
Both turrets opened up, drowning out Durand’s response. For just a second, Hale wished this battle was happening in orbit where there wasn’t an atmosphere to host the din of battle.
Something slammed into the Mule’s cockpit and the ship dove. Hale’s restraints kept him in his seat as the Mule tumbled end over end, tossing Hale around like he was on a rollercoaster. A flash of ruby light burst from the cockpit and flooded the cargo bay.
The tumbling continued.
“Sir, drone got the pilots,” Standish said. “I’m open to suggestions!”
“Bail out!” Hale slapped the emergency release on his harness and used the magnetic linings in his boots to lock himself to the deck plating. Even with the world spinning around him, he could still make it to the exit ramp—which was shut. Hale took uneasy steps along the deck, walking like he was drunk.
As the stricken Mule nosed down, Hale felt gravity try to pull him back to the cockpit, but he bent forward and used the electro-magnets in his glove to gain a handhold against the deck.
The ship shook as Standish’s turret ejected. Jaundiced yellow light flooded into the cargo bay as Torni got the rear hatch open. Hale looked up and saw a sky full of smoke.
“Hey! I’ve got a malfunction!” Bailey’s cry was full of panic. Her armored fists pounded against the view block on the turret hatch.
Yarrow, Steuben, Orozco and Torni had climbed to the edge of the ramp. All four looked back to Hale.
“I’ve got her!” Hale shouted. He used his mag locks to climb “up” the deck, like he was climbing the sheer face of a mountain cliff. Hale reached Bailey’s turret, flipped open a yellow and black panel, and wrapped his hand around a red handle within. He locked eyes with Bailey through the view port and nodded to her. She braced herself against the turret seat. Hale yanked the handle.
Explosive bolts severed the turret from the ship and sent it hurtling away.
Hale unfastened his mag locks and used his augmented strength to launch himself up and out of the drop ship. He pulled his ripcord and went through the bone-jarring shake of his parachute catching air.
The Mule slammed into the ground beneath him, erupting into a fireball. Hale grabbed a riser and pulled hard, angling him away from the Mule’s wreckage. The air around him was thick with smoke and the smell of burning grease.
Hale pressed his feet and knees together and hit the ground. What was a textbook parachute landing fall went awry as the parachute kept traveling across the ground, taking Hale with it. Hale fell against fire-blackened soil and scraped along the surface. He unsnapped one riser, which put all the pull on the remaining length of carbon-fiber cord. His attached shoulder plowed into the ground, burying him up to his chest before he came to a halt.
Hale wiped soot off his visor and got to his feet, extricating himself from the parachute and unsnapping his rifle from his back. He’d landed in the settlement Galogesvi, or what had been Galogesvi. The adobe homes and wooden buildings that made up Galogesvi were burnt out or still on fire. Dead civilians lay scattered through the streets. Men, women and children…all victims of the terrible violence that had come to this place.
He was too late.
“This is Hale. Form up on…the only three-story building, the one that’s on fire,” he broadcast through his suit’s IR. He wasn’t surprised when no answer came back. With all the ambient heat and smoke, the infrared communication system was practically useless.
A banshee’s wail broke through the sound of the roaring flames.
With no other options, Hale ran toward the scream. He found Bailey’s turret embedded in a house wall, the parachute crumpled over the roof like a discarded blanket. A pair of banshees clawed at the metal sphere, digging their talons into the gaps between plates.
Hale thumbed his rifle to high power and drilled the nearest banshee through the spine. The gauss bullet penetrated the other side of its body and blew off a chunk of the house. The other banshee turned and managed a scream of rage before Hale blew its head clean off.
The banshees twitched on the ground as he ran to the turret. Bailey opened her turret pod and accepted Hale’s hand as she climbed out.
“To hell with this planet. I already hate it,” she said, slapping a magazine into her carbine and sighing at the Mule’s wreckage. “My sniper rifle was in there.”
“But you weren’t. Let’s find everyone else,” Hale said. Eagle fighters sparred with Xaros drones overhead. Aircraft darted around and through pillars of smoke stretching to the edge of the canyon holding Galogesvi.
“I got a good look at the place on the way down. Whole town is burnt to a crisp,” she said. “Big fire on the outskirts burning through farmland.”
The snap of gauss rifles crackled in the distance.
“Sounds like us,” Bailey said.
“No time to waste.” Hale ran toward the sound of gunfire.
They found the rest of their team on the second floor of a wrecked building, one of the few that had a Dotok language sign across the façade. A dozen dead banshees lay in the street around them.
A lance of blood-red light slammed into the Marines’ position, slicing through the thin walls and nearly hitting Steuben.
Hale swung around a corner and saw a banshee, head and shoulders taller than the rest they’d encountered, its right arm replaced by a cannon that glowed from within. Banshees loped past the weaponized creature, running on all fours like charging gorillas.
Hale aimed for the tall banshee’s head and saw the weapon swing straight toward him. He fell to the ground as he squeezed the trigger, sending the shot into the sky as a beam of red energy sliced through the air right where his head had been. The beam scythed down, severing the wooden frame of the adobe building. The walls creaked, and collapsed.
The Marine rolled out of the way as one side of the building toppled toward him and he snapped off another shot, hoping to foul the banshee’s next blast. He came to a stop with his belly to the ground and managed to half aim his next shot. The round clipped the banshee on the shoulder, knocking it back a step. Gauss rifle fire stitched across its torso and it slammed into the ground like a felled tree. The cannon arm burned from within and disintegrated, leaving the rest of the banshee behind.
“Hey sir, good job not being dead. Real proud,” Standish said, forgoing the IR and just shouting so his lieutenant could hear him.
“Did you find Bailey?” Torni asked.
“Bailey? She’s right—” Hale looked back at the collapsed building and saw the Australian Marine’s foot sticking out of the rubble.
Tossing rubble aside, Hale tried to uncover her head and chest first so she could breathe. He pushed a lump of adobe away and found her limp arm sticking out of a void.
Steuben grabbed the edge of the mostly intact wall and heaved it off Bailey. She sat up groggily, the top of her helmet dented in. Hale pulled her clear. Steuben dropped the wall and a waft of pulverized concrete dusted the three of them.
“That got me wobbly. If my head’s going to hurt like I’ve got a hangover, I could have at least been a little shit-faced,” she said.
“Yarrow, check her out,” Hale said over his shoulder to the medic.
“Raider Six, this is Gall,” Durand’s transmission came over radio waves.
“This is Raider.”
“Mission abort, I repeat, mission abort. This valley is crawling with drones and I don’t have the fighters to clear them or get you out of here safely. Everything I’ve got in the air is going back to capital, New Abhaile. The Dotok say they can sortie a couple dozen fighters to help us out. You’ll be on your own for a couple hours,” she said.
“What else is new,” Hale mumbled. He pressed the transmit button on his forearm display. “Roger, Gall. I’ve got six for pick up. Crew of Mule Eight is KIA.”
There was only static for several seconds. Hale repeated his message.
“Hale…civilians! There are civilians to—” Durand cut in and out. “East. Say again, civilians to your east—side of the fire—hostiles present!”
There was no response.
Hale looked to the east where a raging inferno crept toward the edge of the town, throwing up a wall of smoke and flame from one end of the canyon to the other.
“Bailey, you good?” Hale asked her. She was on her feet, her gauss carbine in one hand, the barrel bent at an ugly angle. She tossed the useless weapon aside and drew her pistol.
“I ain’t getting any better just standing here, sir.”
“Let’s go.” Hale took off to the east. They passed over the bodies of a few dead civilians and more than one defeated banshee. By the time they reached the edge of the fire wall, there was no sign of what Gall had been talking about.
Hale lowered his rifle, his eyes glued to the raging inferno ahead of him. What had once been an orchard of neatly spaced trees had become a field of torches. The intense heat from the fire activated the auto-cooling system within his suit.
“When she said ‘side of the fire,’” Torni said, “she meant the other side of the fire. Didn’t she?”
“There’s no way around,” Yarrow said, pointing to the cliffs.
There were civilians beyond that fire, innocents that needed Hale and his Marines. His choice was easy.
“We don’t go around,” Hale said.
“Sir,” Standish said, “sir, you’ve got that crazy ‘I’ve got a great idea’ look in your eye, don’t you?”
Hale turned around and steeled himself. Selling this wouldn’t be easy.
“Button up,” Hale said. “Set your suits for void. We’ve got the air to make it.” Hale tapped a command onto his forearm and felt his suit tighten against his body. His helmet plates constricted and the smell of recycled air filled his visor. The rest of his Marines and Steuben followed suit.
“Follow me!” Hale charged into the inferno.
Caas grabbed her little brother’s hand and fought to get him out from under the toreen tree roots as soot-stained fruit fell from overladen branches, the spikey skin stabbing through her tunic. Ar’ri barely fit into his chosen hiding place; the noorla would find him in seconds. A gust of wind sent choking smoke over her.
“Come on, Ar’ri. You can’t stay there!” Caas coughed and yanked at his arm again. She was only six, but she was still Ar’ri’s big sister. He had to listen to her.
“No!” The little boy tried to pull his hand to his chest, but Caas’ hold on him was absolute.
“The monsters will get you, Ar’ri. You have to come!”
A noorla’s wail sent a chill down her spine. They’d attacked during breakfast with no warning from New Abhaile or the village guard. Mother and Father promised that Galogesvi was too far away, too small, to be attacked. Once the tunnels were repaired, they’d go to New Abhaile and leave with the good aliens Ancient Pa’lon promised were coming. That was their promise, and her parents had always kept their word. But the noorla were here.
They’d sent her and Ar’ri with the schoolmaster through the orchards, promising they’d catch up with them at the storm shelter. Father had been holding one of the family rifles; Mother had the other. They both promised over and over again that they’d see their children at the shelter.
Then the fire cut off the village, and noorla were waiting for them in the shelter.
Dotok screams came from behind her. She glanced back and saw dark shapes moving through rolls of straw in the harvested fields. A woman ran from the edge of the field, but a dark arm shot out and dragged her behind a tractor. Her screams cut off suddenly.
A noorla stepped around the tractor, claws dripping blood. It looked right at her. Caas’ fear melted away, replaced with resolve. There was no escape. Nowhere to run this time.
Caas pulled her brother up and buried his head against her chest. He sobbed, clutching at the back of her arms just like every time he’d wake up from a nightmare.
“Don’t look, Ar’ri. Don’t look.” She hugged her brother close and stared into the fire. She said a prayer, asking forgiveness for all the bad things she’d done. She hadn’t been to a shrine in weeks, and Mother always said that the bad things you did would weigh down your soul.
A monster charged out of the fire, flames clinging to its arms and shoulders. It held a rifle like her parents’, but it wasn’t as big as the noorla. It raised the weapon and pointed it right at Caas. Caas pulled her brother close and closed her eyes.
She heard a snap break in the air overhead and waited another second, sure her life was almost over. She opened a single eye and saw the new arrival fire again as a white flash from the end of its rifle sent another snap past her.
She heard the noorla roar in pain and felt the ground shake. The noorla lay dead, its claws contracting against its chest.
Their savior got closer, and Caas saw that it wasn’t a noorla. Its armor, once white, was fire blackened and covered in soot. Flames still licked at its arms and the back of its helmet… and there were more just like it coming through the fire.
“Caas, what’s happening? Can I look?” Ar’ri asked.
“I think…I think more demons are here,” she said.
The new demon fired over their heads, and Ar’ri squealed and tried to worm his way back beneath the tree.
“I count three more around the barn!” the demon shouted in Dotok and ran toward them. Terror petrified Caas as it got closer and then went to a knee next to them. The armor wasn’t anything like the noorla; it looked more like what her father wore to the monthly battle training.
It turned a mirrored faceplate to them, and the helmet expanded slightly with a hiss of air. The visor swung up and a pale-skinned alien with short blond hair looked at her with pale blue eyes.
“Are you OK?” The words came from a speaker attached to its throat.
Caas took a deep breath and screamed at the top of her lungs. Ar’ri joined in sympathetic fright.
“No! No!” Torni raised a hand and tried to calm the children. “I’m human, a Marine from the Breitenfeld. We’re here to help. Please stop screaming. I’m a friend. Ugh … meln. Meln.”
Caas recoiled from Torni’s touch and finally stopped screaming.
“Breitenfeld?” she said. She remembered the word from the news broadcasts that her parents had watched over and over again. Ancient Pa’lon said help would come from the Breitenfeld.
“Yes, Breitenfeld. Is this thing not working?” Torni grabbed the speaker against her neck and flicked it with her finger.
“You’re ugly,” Ar’ri said. He peeked over Caas’ shoulder with tear-streaked eyes.
“It is working. You see that shelter over there?” Torni pointed to the squat building the village used to weather storm squalls. “Go in there and wait for me. We’ll get you out of here once it’s safe.”
Caas and Ar’ri shook their heads.
“No! Monsters,” Ar’ri said.
“There are noorla inside,” Caas said.
“Inside the shelter?”
The children nodded.
The Marine put two fingers to her ear. “Sir, this is Torni…”
Hale vaulted over a low stone wall and spotted a banshee holding an iron bar like it was a club. The banshee stood along a canal, poking into the water with the tip of the bar.
“Contact! One on the canal,” Hale said. He slowed to aim when the banshee swung around and hurled the bar at him like it was a javelin. Pain exploded across his arms and forehead as the bar deflected off his rifle and smashed into him. Hale staggered back and tripped against the wall he’d just jumped over.
The banshee roared a challenge and lumbered toward him.
A crack in the air from a gauss pistol sent a round into the banshee’s arm. The thing looked at the source of the annoyance and snarled. Bailey fired her pistol faster than anyone else Hale had known until it clicked empty. She replaced the noise of her shots with a string of profanity as she reloaded.
The banshee turned its attention to her and swung an overhand strike down on the squat Marine. Bailey rolled to the side and put a round in the banshee’s exposed jaw. The bullet shattered bone and tendrils of gray blood dripped from the wound. The banshee gagged on its own blood and lashed out at Bailey.
Hale found his rifle in the dirt and got off a shot, hitting the banshee in the stomach. The beast fell to its knees, then to its elbows. Bailey jammed the muzzle of her pistol into an eye slit and sent a bullet careening through its skull.
“What I wouldn’t give for a real weapon right now,” she said. She looked at her pistol like it was a child’s toy and shook her head.
“Sir, we’re outside the shelter,” Orozco said through the IR. “Steuben and Yarrow are at the edge of town. They say we’re clear of banshees. I can see people moving in the shelter, but no one’s answering. Want us to go in?”
“Stand by, I’ll be right there,” Hale said.
Hale got back to his feet, his ears ringing from the impact with the iron bar. Some of the farm plots were partially flooded, and green stalks stuck out of the mud, drooping with fat grains. Rows of bushes with bright white berries rustled in the wind that carried the inferno ever closer.
A squat semicircle of a structure was built into the side of a canyon and a stairway cut into the earth leading to the main entrance. Orozco and Standish waved to Hale from a waist-high stone wall around the shelter.
“Torni?” Hale said into the IR.
“She was with some kids last time I saw her. Figure she’d bring them to the shelter?” Bailey asked.
“Makes sense,” Hale said. He jogged to his waiting Marines.
“We took out three around some kind of melon patch,” Standish said. “Damn things were eating. Eating! You believe that? Since when do Xaros need to eat?”
“Since when are Xaros anything but drones?” Orozco asked.
“Great questions for later,” Hale said. “Let’s get this shelter open.” He looked back at the approaching fire. “We may need it.”
Hale went down the stairs and knocked on the door. He heard a rustling within.
“Marines from the Breitenfeld,” he announced, knocking against rusted metal. There was no answer. “To hell with subtlety,” he said and reached for the handle.
“Sir!” Torni’s warning came before he could open the door. She was at the top of the stairwell, panting, a pair of Dotok children in her arms. “Sir, step back very, very slowly.”
Hale backed up the stairs, his rifle trained on the door.
“Kids say there are banshees in there,” Torni said. The children nodded as Caas nibbled on her fingernails and pointed to the door.
“Caas, no!” Ar’ri pulled his sister’s hand away from her mouth. “Momma said.”
“Kids say a lot of things,” Orozco chided. “I almost got my head blown off by an IED because some little Malaysian brat promised me his family’s shed was safe.”
“Cover me.” Hale pulled a magnetized disk off his belt and pulled out a few yards of thin wire attached to it. Marines used them as cams against a ship’s hull as an extra safety measure when working in the void. Flying off the side of a ship, “Going Dutchman,” was a harrowing experience and not one that guaranteed survival. Hale tossed the disk at the door and it snapped on. He gave the line a jerk and the door swung open with a squeal.
“I see bodies,” Orozco said.
The Dotok kids started whimpering.
A hulking shadow marched toward the open door. Standish snapped off a shot, then pulled a grenade from his belt.
“Flash bang out!” He threw the grenade through the open door and ducked aside.
Hale turned to the Dotok kids and saw Torni was already shielding them with her body.
Hale wrapped an arm over Torni and added his mass to block any shrapnel.
The ground shook as the grenade exploded. Standish rushed into the shelter and three shots sounded from within.
“Clear!” Standish shouted.
Hale pulled away from Torni, who held the children close to her, whispering into their ears.
“It’s OK. I’ve got you and I won’t let anyone hurt you,” she said to each Dotok.
Standish trotted up the stairs and brushed gray blood off the edge of his rifle. Hale tried to step around him to get into the shelter, but Standish put up a hand to block him.
“No, sir. You don’t want to go in there,” Standish said, his ever-cocky tone subdued.
“Got some civvies,” Orozco said. He took a hand away from his cannon and pointed at the plot of bushes. A handful of Dotok stood between the rows of bushes, staring at the Marines. All were filthy, covered in dirt and grime.
Hale pointed to the shelter. “It’s safe now.”
“You’re…humans, I presume. From the Breitenfeld?” a middle-aged-looking female asked.
“That’s right. Where is the rest of your village?” Hale asked.
The speaker shook her head. “I think we’re all that’s left.”
“We can get everyone out in two Mules,” Orozco said. “Maybe one Destrier if the life support can hack it.”
“Right now we don’t even have one Mule.” Hale’s gaze crept up the cliff face, the top obscured by haze and smoke.
“How’d these civvies ever get to and from their capitol? I don’t see any landing pads or airstrips,” Orozco said.
“There is, or was, a tunnel, leading from each settlement to New Abhaile,” Hale said. “Cut right through the planet’s crust, forty-five-minute travel time. Decent alternative when a hyper loop isn’t an option. Briefing I got said the Dotok blew all the tunnels after the Xaros hit the ground. Dotok were shuttling settlements back to New Abhaile. Looks like they couldn’t get to them all.”
“Sucks to be that guy making those decisions, huh?” Standish said. “Who lives, who dies …guarantee there’s no right answer.”
“There is always a correct answer to any tactical question.” Steuben walked over with Yarrow at his side. The medic saw the Dotok as they gathered at the end of the field of berry bushes and looked at Hale expectantly.
Hale nodded toward the civilians and Yarrow broke off from Steuben.
“‘You save the most,’ isn’t that right, Steuben?” Hale asked.
“A worthy answer,” the Karigole said with a nod.
“Philosophy aside, how’re we getting out of here?” Bailey asked.
“We can squat and hold…or we send up a balloon.” Hale looked at Torni. “Sergeant Torni, we did bring an IR balloon, right?”
Torni stood up and brushed dirt from her knees. “The IR balloon is specialist equipment, and I assigned Corporal Bailey to carry it as part of her kit.”
Heads swung toward Bailey.
“I was trapped in my turret, remember? You think I had room for anything but me in there?” she said.
“So the balloon is a non-starter,” Hale looked back to the fire, on the other side of which was the wrecked Mule.
“You mean this kit?” Steuben said. He slung a pack from his shoulder and handed it to Bailey.
“Crickey! You saved Bloke!” Bailey unzipped the pack and took out the two halves of her sniper rifle. She hugged the weapon like a child with a favorite toy.
Torni reached into the pack and found a rectangular box. “We’re in business,” she said.
“With Bailey unable to extricate herself from the pod, and our rather abrupt descent, it seemed prudent to grab whatever I could,” Steuben said.
“Prudent?” Hale asked.
“Timely. Apropos. Inspired. Serendipitous,” Steuben said.
“I know what it means, Steuben. Good work,” Hale said.
“Sir, you want to come see this,” Yarrow said to him over the IR.
Hale trotted over to Yarrow, who was wrapping a compression bandage on an elderly Dotok’s forearm.
“What is it?”
“Minor injuries, mostly. I can’t give them any drugs. Something as innocent to us as Motrin might send them into anaphylactic shock,” Yarrow said. He smoothed out the bandage and got a smile from the old Dotok.
“That’s not why you called me over here,” Hale said.
Yarrow touched his neck and switched off his translator. Hale did the same.
Yarrow held up a dirty swab with blood congealed against the tip. Gray blood. Hale’s mouth went dry as the implication became clear.
“I got that cleaning out a laceration,” Yarrow said. “I don’t have a DNA scanner, but I’d bet you a steak dinner that those banshees,” his voice lowered, “the banshees are Dotok.”
Torni entered a message onto her forearm screen and waited for it to upload to the communication balloon. A green light blinked twice, and she removed a wire that ran from her gauntlet to the balloon case.
“Ar’ri, Caas, come here,” she said to the two children who were doing a terrible job of hiding behind a wrecked cart. Caas led her brother over by the hand.
“He doesn’t think you’re ugly,” Caas said. “He’s sorry.”
“I’ve been called worse. You two want to do something fun?” Torni asked.
They nodded in unison.
“Here…put your finger on this button. When I count to three, push it. Ready? One…two…”
Ar’ri pushed the button and a balloon inflated from one end of the carry box. It expanded to nearly a yard in diameter and rose into the air. Ar’ri laughed and clapped his hands while Caas crossed her arms, brooding.
“Do you know what that was?” Torni asked. “It will float into the air and call for help. Our planes use special technology that…only we can use.” Ar’ri waved to the departing balloon while Caas kicked at the dirt.
Since the last banshee was killed, none of the other Dotok had come over to check on the two children. All the other survivors were children, women with babies, or the elderly.
“Caas, where are your parents?” Torni asked.
The girl pointed a finger toward the fire. “They sent us with teacher to the shelter, then the flying noorla used their lasers to start the fire. Can Mommy and Daddy run through the fire like you? They have the hard clothes too.”
Torni took the little girl’s hands in hers and squeezed her fingers.
“Oh, Caas…” Torni choked up, then forced her emotions away. She was a Marine and a non-commissioned officer; she wouldn’t look weak in front of anyone. “I…we’ll look for your parents when we get to New Abhaile, all right?” Caas’ pale green eyes looked on the verge of tears, but she nodded and looked up, watching as the balloon faded away into the haze.
Torni felt a tug on her shoulder. Ar’ri held a hand under her face.
“Hungry,” he said.
Torni reached into the cargo pouch on the small of her back and fished out a small box of chocolate-covered cracker sticks. They were her favorite, and possibly the last box in existence that had chocolate and almond sprinkles. She’d found it at the bottom of a sea bag when she moved into the barracks in Phoenix, and she didn’t have the heart to eat the very last of her pogey bait from before the Xaros invasion.
Torni tore open the box and made a presentation out of giving a single stick to Ar’ri. The little boy snatched it from her hand and devoured it. Torni tapped Caas on her elbow and gave one to her.
Caas sniffed at it and took a tentative bite. “What is it?”
“A Pocky stick, they were my favorite when I was your age,” Torni said.
Caas looked at the cracker like it was an ancient artifact, then gave it to her brother.
“Sarge, Yarrow said these are safe for us to eat.” Bailey walked over, carrying a handful of white berries. “And the others say they’re in season.” Bailey knelt down and held the berries while Caas and Ar’ri ate them one at a time.
“Let them eat. We’ve got ration paste,” Torni said.
“Umm, ration paste,” Bailey chuckled. “I’ve had vegemite that tastes better than that garbage.” The sniper smiled and tussled Ar’ri’s hair. “When was the last time you saw children, Sarge?”
“I saw a few in Phoenix.”
“You have kids? Before?”
“No. I had the Corps. You?”
Bailey’s mouth twisted. “Baby girl. Left her with my sister when I signed up for the Saturn mission. Plan was to send for her once we got settled, Titan station up and running.”
“What was her name?”
“Abigail.” Bailey sniffed and wiped a tear away. “She looked like her deadbeat father. Only thing that bludger ever left us were my Abbie’s eyes and her curls. Ah, look at me gettin’ all clucky.”
A high-pitched whine filled the air. Torni stood up and scanned the sky.
“Doesn’t sound like Xaros, does it?” Bailey asked.
The children latched onto Torni’s legs and whimpered.
“It’s OK. It’s OK.” Torni made out a Destrier heavy transport craft descending through the haze, the anti-grav thrusters whining like a bone saw. “They’re on our side.”
“Gall, this is Raider Six,” Hale said through the IR. “Thanks for getting here so quick.”
“We saw the wreck of Mule Eight and were looking for you on the wrong side of the fire,” Durand said. “Good thing you sent up a beacon. How many more transports do you need over there?”
“One Destrier is enough,” Hale said.
“I thought there were…roger. Load up and we’ll get the civvies to New Abhaile,” Durand said.
Torni hefted the children up in her arms and carried them to the waiting ship.