PATH TO THE NIGHT MOUNTAINS

 

 

Book II in the Coalition/Orthodoxy Universe

 

 

J. E. Bruce

 

BooksForABuck.com

2015


Copyright 2015 by J.E. Bruce, all rights reserved. No portion of this work may be copied or duplicated without express written permission from the publisher.

 

Cover images copyright Jason E. Jenkins and Douglas Scortegagna under Creative Commons License. Cover design by Rob Preece.

 

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons or locations is strictly coincidental.

 

 

 

In memory of Red and Matilda,

and my parents, Aileen and Gene.

 

 


I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn;

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

~W.H. Auden

Chapter 1

Aboard Huui’teh, eleven years ago.

Currently in orbit above the disputed planet of Cotopaxi.

Four minutes before drop.

 

THIS IS INSANE! an inner voice screamed over the undulating howl warning of imminent hull breach.

YOU’RE A’TUU’SHAHN! another snarled, harsh and hollow, accompanied by the thumping echo of running feet pummeling along the smoke-filled corridor’s deck plates, everyone still able converging on the Huui’teh’s main flicker stage at a dead run.

Khusaaq glanced around, suddenly fearful his private, warring thoughts had been, in his desperation, yelled out loud, that his mounting panic had been exposed to all.

Within all the clamor of the rush to abandon the dying ship, even if he had likely no one would have heard him, even Gaalan Nahru’tzhri, who stood beside him, her face serene despite the organized chaos that surrounded them, the choking haze and the noticeably failing ruby glow of the emergency back-ups. Hers was the face of a true hero, smeared with a combination of blood and soot as it was, freshly disfigured by shrapnel, a face, a mind calmly anticipating, even welcoming a glorious, worthy martyrdom at any moment—the way all A’tuu’shahn aspired to die.

He wasn’t quite so ready. This was only his second tour, and one lesson he’d taken from his first was that he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Gaalan, or—he was beginning to seriously suspect—most other A’tuu’shahn’i. He was, in a word, terrified—roil-in-the-gut, wobble-in-the-knees and mouth-dry-as-sand terrified.

He’d never understood why Gaalan had appeared oblivious to such a glaring flaw in his personality—Ja’andai had certainly seen it as he saw all of his failings. Where Ja’andai was the perpetually frustrated taskmaster, whose chronic disappointment had, more often than not, taken a violent form, Gaalan was his champion, always finding examples to praise and reasons to encourage. She’d always seen him, always treated him as the perfect copy of Ja’andai he was supposed to be—yet another immaculate martyr to yet another cause not worth fighting and dying for. Ja’andai’s life and career had been meteoric in all senses of the word: intense, brilliant—and fleeting. Khusaaq had always suspected—feared—his would be equally brief, if not so dazzling and noteworthy, but he never imagined it would be quite this short-lived.

And a world without Gaalan? That was utterly unthinkable.

“Ta’ahn,” he began as the last of those headed for the flicker bay darted by, each laden down with as much survival equipment and weaponry as he or she could carry, hoping his raised, smoke- and fright-husky voice didn’t crack, didn’t fail him, didn’t expose him or the true depth of his desperation, “I beg you, there’s nothing to be gained by remaining, we need you to command us—”

“You and I have our own paths, Ruh’ta’aq,” she replied with the same maddeningly cheerful composure as her expression, albeit her voice raised to be overheard. “I’ve lived my entire life for this moment, anticipated the ultimate freedom, to experience... everything.”

The ultimate freedom—an A’tuu’shahn euphemism for death—the only acceptable escape from their lifestyle as the known galaxy’s mercenaries of choice. But Gaalan had never struck him as someone quite so eager to die. Willing, yes. But excited? And she was; he saw the intense gleam of anticipation in her smoke-reddened eyes as she again met his frightened stare. But she’d changed, subtly, since accepting this contract, her moods had darkened and her tongue had sharpened, even towards him, her acknowledged protégé.

She placed her hand on his armored shoulder. “Someone needs to remain aboard, to keep the Matarii distracted for as long possible—which in truth won’t be all that long. With luck, they’ll attempt to board, take the ship as a prize, finally get their hands on our technology—with a large number of troops I’d imagine as they’ve already proven themselves to be extremely reckless—and only I can synchronize the destruct codes on our dead and dying for the maximum effect. The colonists are counting on you—I’m counting on you.”

Of course you are! Everyone’s counting on me! He swallowed convulsively then managed tightly, “May the Elkanasu guide and guard you, Gaalan Nahru’tzhri

“And you as well, Khusaaq Ruh’ta’aq,” she replied, her steady voice barely audible over the muffled concussions and ominous groaning of a ship in its death throes. “Now go—hurry!”

He donned and secured his helmet but as he turned to leave, to follow the others, no more accepting his fate than he’d been moments before despite the awful finality of it all, she grabbed him once more and spun him around to face her and he felt an intense surge of relief: She’s changed her mind!

She pressed her bloodied face against his blast visor. “Do me and Ja’andai proud, Ruh’ta’aq.” Then she was gone, swallowed up by an especially thick, black and acrid cloud that had belched from the airlock leading to the ruined bridge—towards the eternal and welcoming embrace of the Elkanasu, her actions guaranteeing she’d take their dead, the fatally injured with her.

He stared after her, momentarily tempted to follow, then, with a rattling intake of breath, he instead turned and ran as fast as he could down the passageway in the opposite direction, leaping over or dodging debris, the free-floating flotsam of the dying ship, feet pounding in cadence with his heart and...

....skidded to a stop in the center of the staging bay. The bulk of the surviving crew had already flicked to the planet, only a handful awaited his arrival—there was just enough power left in the failing mechanism. They stood closely packed, nervously checking their equipment or praying with unusually intense piety—or both—clearly fighting the same panic coursing through his veins. They were depending on him, too. Do me and Ja’andai proud, Ruh’ta’aq...

Khusaaq placed himself among the others, tapped the chin plate of his helmet and said in a dry, strained voice that didn’t sound at all like his own: “Ready, Nahru’tzrhi.” He unholstered his pistol then glanced around to make sure the others had their maser rifles held at the ready.

The flick-down site was a collapsed cistern complex on the outskirts of the Rimmer colony of Cotopaxi, and while the survivors who’d already flicked down had done so safely and going by their terse communiqués hadn’t run into any resistance from the colonists—hadn’t, in fact, run into any colonists, period, as A’tuu’shahn’i they’d all been schooled in the knowledge that it never paid to be overconfident as to the warmth of welcome to one’s arrival—an unexpected one doubly so.

“Hunker down everyone,” Gaalan’s unruffled voice crackled harshly from his earpiece, “you’re flicking into really tight quarters.”

Khusaaq had no sooner dropped to a crouch, the rest following and forming a tight, outward facing circle, when he felt familiar tug of the flicker effect start to wash over him. It suddenly and briefly wavered as it sucked the remaining lifeblood from the dying ship, then grabbed hold with a jolt so violent it came close to knocking everyone off balance. He clenched his teeth and held his breath as the brightly-lit staging bay abruptly receded in a series of smaller and smaller images, his universe collapsing in so many ways—and then came a blinding flash, a massive, eerily silent explosion that bloomed within the confines of his helmet, viciously shaking his brain, rattling his teeth and dazzling his eyes, followed by the stomach twisting sensation of falling...

...and abruptly, the awareness of something solid under his feet. He reflexively tensed, but instead of the expected killing shock of impact, he realized he was still holding his crouch.

He cautiously reached down, startled and at the same time greatly relieved when his gauntleted fingers touched firm, albeit broken ground.

Still blind, unable to make out the readouts on his blast visor much less his surroundings, he pressed the palm of his armored hand against the shattered flooring, then he cautiously ran his hand further afield, bumping into another booted foot which immediately reacted by flinching sideways, followed by a startled oath. Only then did he become aware, over the near continuous muffled booms of distant explosions, of the chorus of panicky breathing—his own, overlaid with that of the others—and he eased himself down onto his knees, waiting for his eyes, still dazzled by the explosion, to recover.

His breathing slowed and he heard movement, tentative scrapes of campaign boots on pulverized plastacrete, followed by soft grunts as those around him also dropped to their knees or eased themselves into a seated position now that the surge of panic was subsiding. “Anyone injured?”

He counted the unsteady denials—nine in all, so none, amazingly, had been lost. “Stay exactly where you are until you’re fully recov—”

BOOM!

The particularly loud report rolled down the length of the cistern, startling everyone and raining down bits of ceiling in its wake; it was a truly eerie patter in the all-consuming darkness, and sounding like approaching footfalls to nerves already on edge.

He waited a moment then added, “Can anyone see anything?”

More denials from the oppressive dark.

Then, as comprehension set in, someone close by—Telipinu?—cursed softly. Another— Tanaali?—muffled a sob. Yet another began reciting the Elkanaghalli prayer for the dead—this voice he was positive about it: Saar’kali.

“Shut up!” he snapped, his panicked rebuke aimed at Saar’kali, but the effect was immediate: utter silence. Even the labored breathing stopped.

He was relieved no one could see him trembling, could see tears rolling down his own scarified and tattooed cheeks. He tried blinking them away, blinking away the lingering blindness, shaking his head to clear the dizziness from the force of the explosion his visor had been unable to react to, frozen as it was, as he was, as they all had been, within the flicker effect when the their training corvette, and their beloved commander, were blown to bits.

Slowly, painfully slowly he began to make out dim shapes, light and dark... then dusty-blue sunbeams streaming down through a curved and cracked ceiling... and shadowy, faintly glimmering forms all around him. Forms that, like him, cautiously shifting position, slowly turning this way and that, taking in what they could see of their cramped and ruined surroundings as they all came to the same startling conclusion: they’d just survived a catastrophe judged unsurvivable.

Telipinu, who’d been kneeling beside him, abruptly staggered to his feet, dusted himself off then offered Khusaaq his armored hands, which Khusaaq gratefully accepted and Telipinu jerked him to a wobbly-legged stand.

Khusaaq took a deep breath and tried as best as he could to collect his wits as he looked around. Those who’d flicked down earlier had emerged from the deeper, darker recesses of the cistern and quickly gathered around them, urgently, quietly asking about Huui’teh, about Gaalan. They found not a shred of solace in the hushed and stammering answers they received.

It was anyone’s guess if their distress calls, the colony’s distress calls had managed to pierce the Matarii’s jamming, if anyone was mounting a rescue or counterattack, be it Rimmer or A’tuu’shahn’i. The only certainty was that he was now in command of a grand total of forty two A’tuu’shahn’i, all younger and even less experienced than himself, all but two others—Qharubi and Telipinu—on their first tour and on what was supposed to be little more than a training exercise, now with orders to protect an isolated Rimmer colony at all costs... against the full wrath of the Matarii Star Empire.


Chapter 2

Abandoned Coalition outpost, Rasal Ghul Seven.

Five days ago.

 

Qar’qaah ever-so-slowly lifted his head from the bony cradle of his arm, drawn out of an exhausted half-sleep by the annoyingly harsh, rhythmic blat of a perimeter alarm. He peered with sunken, gritty eyes at what lay beyond the nearby open doorway: the painfully bright glare of yet another scorching-hot, strength-sapping and dusty Rasal Ghul afternoon.

The others, huddled next to him in the only semi-safe shelter remaining, the long-derelict outpost’s plastacrete emergency bunker, raised their heads to stare muzzily around them.

Qar’qaah motioned to the others to stay where they were, then he managed, after several false and wincing starts, to lurch to his feet as he muttered angrily to himself for having set the alarms on far too high a sensitivity in the first place. He’d been meaning to change the adjustments after several earlier warnings had been triggered by nothing more sinister than an especially strong gust of dust-laden wind, but each time he thought about it, he’d found the task of walking—stumbling and staggering to be more accurate—to the perimeter control station, in the process leaving the protection of the base’s failing diffusion screen just too daunting, just too risky that this time he might not make it back.

The diffusion screen itself required constant maintenance, its ancient generator sputtering to a stop at irregular intervals and for no apparent reason except age, but at least that only required a short walk around the bunker to the generator shed in the blinding sunlight, the freezing darkness of night or in the midst of a sandstorm, followed by maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour, maybe an entire day of intricate, knuckle-bloodying work to get it rattling and coughing back to life, each time fighting the worry that maybe that would be the time he wouldn’t be able to get it started again, and of course all done without even the miniscule protection from the killing radiation offered by the bunker’s laminated plastacrete dome.

It was a job only he did—only he left the bunker to work on any of the base’s crumbling equipment, only he risked the exposure. The others had protested, Endooki even going so far as to suggest they take turns, but he was adamant and they, albeit unhappily, acquiesced. He was, after all, their commanding officer and it was his responsibility to keep them safe, just as it was his responsibility to hold the base until Khusaaq returned. Those had been Khusaaq’s orders after all and this time he was determined to live up to those orders, not to mention Khusaaq’s always unreasonably high expectations.

Only Khusaaq and the others hadn’t returned when expected, even taking into account rough seas and untrustworthy Blatto boat crew. Days of mounting apprehension, of desperately scanning what he could see of the surrounding ocean for any sign of the appropriated Blatto boat returning from a trip that should have taken no more than four days, had stretched into a week. And then another week, and another... There was no mistake, no losing count of time. He’d carefully scratched a tick mark on the outer wall of the bunker, where none of the others might see it, recording each passing day. Eighteen days in all since he’d seen Khusaaq and the others off, twelve since a tatter-winged Blatto arrived, only to make the devastating claim that the returning boat had sunk in a storm with all aboard presumed lost.

He’d thought about stopping his recording, briefly pondering the point of continuing. If the Blatto had been truthful, then there really was no purpose other than keeping a macabre record of just how long it took for him and the others to succumb. Then he reminded himself that if he stopped, it meant he’d truly given up all hope, that he’d accepted his fate and the fate of his men as a forgone conclusion, and that simply wasn’t what an A’tuu’shahn was supposed to do. A’tuu’shahn’i were engineered to survive, or so he’d been told so many times he’d lost count. A’tuu’shahn’i didn’t give up. A’tuu’shahn’i were supposed to die as they lived: fighting. It was an intoxicating image, especially to the young, the impressionable. He’d found himself taken in by it, to die a courageous death, always battling a worthy foe. He’d never considered the messy edges of reality, where death wasn’t clean, wasn’t heroic, where one was marooned and left to the mercies of a binary’s pitiless radiation—a slow, agonizing and very shambolic death.

He wobble-stepped closer to the open doorway, using the wall for support, then grabbed the doorframe and shielding his eyes as best he could from the glare, scanned the visible horizon, looking for what might have possibly tripped the alarm. There was a breeze—there was always a breeze, a hot, bone-dry breeze despite the island base being surrounded by a vast but slowly evaporating ocean—but it was not so strong to pick up and carry enough of the fine dust to trigger the motion sensors. Perhaps a Blatto?

Despite the less than warm welcome he and his four companions had given the one claiming to be a survivor of the sinking of the boat, other Blatto had been spotted along the perimeter of the outpost, digging holes, for what purpose he could only speculate, and while they did take flight at the first hint of danger, they always returned, on foot or on wing—hence the decision to increase sensitivity of the motion and pressure sensors in the first place.

Perhaps they’re testing us, toying with us. Trying to determine if we’re still alive. That had been Laihiri’s voiced theory the first time the alarm was tripped in the midst of a powerful nighttime dust storm, leaving them with jangled nerves, unable, unwilling to sleep until the following day, when dust-driven wind again triggered the alarms. Exhausted, more than ready to believe they’d found their culprit, something no more menacing than the wind, they’d shared a meager meal from their dwindling food stocks then slept away the rest of the day.

A week had passed with no more strong wind-storms—and no false alarms, validating their belief. Nevertheless, the pointless panic the alarms had caused needed attending—the sensors needed to be adjusted, again, only this time to a slightly lower threshold. He just hadn’t gotten around to it, and now, another likely false alarm, one that burned up precious calories in heart-pumping fright, in unnecessary movement during the worst heat of the day, calories all needed simply to survive. He mentally kicked himself again. I’ll do it now, today—no excuses. And while I’m at it, I might as well check the diffusion generator and the filters on the water purifier. He nodded to himself, cementing his plan, then, hearing the scrape of movement, glanced over his shoulder.

Endooki, despite being signaled to remain where he was, now joined Qar’qaah at the doorway, silently lending his eyes to the visual search. After several minutes and seeing nothing, the two looked at each other. Endooki shrugged, shoulder bones visibly sliding under salt-rimed and badly blistered skin. Besides dust and the Blatto, nothing moved beyond the perimeter. The ceaseless wind had long ago scoured the landscape clean of any vegetation that might have survived the suns’ radiation; it had also removed any hiding places, having reduced any outcrop or hillock to little more than low, softly rounded hummocks while filling any depression with dust so fine that a deep pool of it could swallow the unwary whole.

There’d been a good reason the Coalition had placed this clandestine satellite base where they had: on an isolated island, one of a dozen or so that made up an otherwise unremarkable and utterly barren archipelago far from the closest mainland—the last place anyone with any sense would bother to look, believing that the island, just like Rasal Ghul Four, home of the Coalition’s primary research station, was just too hostile to support anything worthwhile, least of all a secret outpost. At one time the small satellite base had been guarded by elaborate sensory camouflage where, if by some marvel it was discovered, no one could approach from land, sea or air without being detected in plenty of time for the base’s staff to mount a defense.

Most of the abandoned outpost had fallen to ruin in previous hundred years, its sophisticated sensory disguise and impressive defensive weaponry cannibalized by the Blatto for uses unknown since they appeared to employ only the most basic of technologies. What was left was beyond even Qar’qaah’s abilities to repair or repurpose. Only the perimeter monitors and the absolute basics needed for survival—the diffusion screen, food synthesizer and water purifiers—had remained in a fixable state, a matter of luck due to their placement within the base, and silent testimony to the tenacity of the original inhabitants, who, Qar’qaah judged, had managed to last for some time after losing contact and therefore resupply, from the parent research station.

It was obvious by what he’d found when he set about getting the diffusion screen up and running again that none of the surviving base staff had much engineering expertise and when critical components finally broke down due to simple lack of maintenance, none knew how to fix it. There was still a supply of the basic chemical compounds needed to synthesize food, still sealed after almost a century, although he and the others limited their consumption of it, just enough calories to keep them alive once they’d run out of their own emergency food packs as one never knew what the radiation might have done to the chemicals on a molecular level, and the outpost was surrounded by an ocean after all, the purifiers able to turn the viscous brine into potable water, so it wasn’t hunger or thirst that killed the original inhabitants. In the time since, the wind had scattered their remains, or maybe the Blatto had collected the corpses along with bits and pieces of equipment. All he knew was that aside from a scant few personal effects—a name badge, an expensive stylus, an earring—no sign of the original occupants remained.

Endooki, his bony knees knocking from the strain of standing, turned to shuffle back to their sleeping spot, close enough to the doorway to avoid the dangerously stagnant air of the deeper corridors, but not so close as to be fully exposed to the grit-laden wind. Qar’qaah hesitated, tempted to follow, but the matter of adjusting the sensors remained. If he returned to his sleeping spot, even for a brief rest, he wasn’t sure he’d find the energy, much less the interest to get up again.

Just the thought of making the short trip was daunting and he found his earlier resolve immediately start to crumble, despite the continuing blat of the alarm. His hips and knees ached, the furnace-like afternoon heat burned down his throat with each intake of breath and his eyes, already dry, were now risking an even more painful dusting of grit as a small dust devil began to spin lazily nearby.

Maybe this evening... when it’s cooler. He nodded to himself. Yes, this evening—definitely this evening. With that, he absently hit the kill switch, silencing the alarm which continued to flash its warning, but just he started to turn, to follow Endooki, he caught out of the tail of his eye the briefest flicker of white.

His heart skipped a beat and his wheezing breath caught in his throat. Could it be?

He leaned forward, as far as his throbbing knees would allow and fixed his full attention on where his eyes had caught the faint glimmer within the quivering air and was immediately rewarded by spotting another flash of white. This one he was sure of... well, almost. Rasal Ghul’s mismatched suns had a nasty habit of playing tricks with the light, but rarely did those tricks take on the appearance of something white, quite the contrary—and white was the color of an A’tuu’shahn duty uniform under such conditions, where high visibility, to avoid unfortunate mistakes in identity, and reflectivity of the suns’ harshest rays were paramount. And the flicker appeared to be getting closer—or larger, he couldn’t tell which with the very air itself refusing to cooperate.

He took an incautious step beyond the doorway, swaying slightly as he let go of the supporting doorframe, in the process drawing the attention of Endooki, who’d only just resumed his seat, along with that of Laihiri, Raudah and Nihaal. All staggered to their feet, curious, suddenly wary as to what had such a grip on Qar’qaah’s attention, strong enough to pull him out into the open, into the merciless sunshine.

As Qar’qaah squinted at the tantalizing, fluttering speck of white, he allowed himself a small glimmer of hope that it wasn’t some mirage, some trick of the light—or simply a hallucination brought on by little food and worsening radiation poisoning, that Khusaaq and Matoosh and the others hadn’t drowned as the Blatto claimed, a shattering assertion that had cost the hapless creature its life. Qar’qaah had refused to believe it, couldn’t use his A’tuu’shahn synesthete’s abilities to tell if it was lying, as Blatto, they’d quickly discovered, were one of only a few alien species—all of them insectoids—who had no perceptible aura whose change in hue would warn of deception, and out of frustration he’d strangled it with his bare hands when the creature refused to recant its story. While intensely satisfying at the time, his actions had put everyone on edge as they waited for the presumed retaliation, hence him increasing the sensors’ sensitivity levels to their maximum.

And now... hope that he had been right, that the Blatto had lied, or, at the very least, had, along with its fellows, abandoned the boat at the first sign of trouble and didn’t look back. That the weeks of waiting, constantly propping up the others’ dwindling hopes for rescue while struggling with his own mounting despair, of cobbling together fixes that would keep the generators running just a little longer no matter how exhausted he was, how sick they all were... that it might all have been worth it.

Laihiri and Raudah came abreast of him, breathing hard, and a moment later, Endooki and Nihaal joined them, the five standing shoulder to bony shoulder, using each other for support against the gentle buffeting of the breeze. Then they saw what he’d seen, and as they watched, the flickering white speck abruptly separated into two, and a moment later, five... and then eight distinct figures, still too far away to see clearly through the eeling air.

“They’ve... they’ve c-c-come back!” Nihaal managed to stammer. Heads bobbed in stunned response, blistered lips drew back in tired, intensely relieved smiles.

Qar’qaah took an unsteady step away from the others, then another. He wanted to cry, would’ve, if his eyes weren’t so dry, and he really wanted to run, knew if he tried he’d fall flat on his face within a few paces, yet the draw was suddenly almost overwhelming to greet the officer as befitted Qar’qaah’s position of being in charge of the outpost in his absence, at its periphery. He cautiously increased his speed to an awkward, joint-jolting lope, the others immediately following at the same incautious, clumsy speed.

As more white-clad figures precipitated out of the heat-shimmer, Qar’qaah came to an equally sudden, equally ungainly stop. His companions mirrored his actions, and again gathered around him, everyone wheezing loudly, coughing sporadically and shaking from the exertion, despite only covering a short distance. Qar’qaah wasn’t sure, with the approaching figures shifting and flickering, but he thought he could now count sixteen separate white forms.

A cold chill ran down his spine. Something’s not right—Khusaaq only took eleven others with him... He risked a sidelong glance at the others, managed a hoarse, “Get—get back to the bunker—quick.”

The others turned to him, hesitant, their hopeful, breathless smiles instantly evaporating.

“Go!” he rasped.

“And you, Kon’ta’aqNihaal asked, starting to back-step.

“I’ll join you shortly, now do as I say—go!”

The others started to lope as fast as they dared, towards to the bunker.

Qar’qaah gave the approaching white shimmers one last glance, but just as he turned to follow his companions he caught a dazzling flash out of the corner of his eye. An instant later the beam swept past Qar’qaah, barely missing his right shoulder only to strike Laihiri square in the back and the soldier crumpled.

Nihaal, Endooki and Raudah staggered to a stop, believing Laihiri had simply tripped and fallen and started for him.

“RUN!” Qar’qaah screamed, but not quite quickly enough. Another shocker beam streaked past, hitting Raudah in the belly. He was thrown backwards only to land spread eagle and inert on the ground not far from Laihiri.

Qar’qaah dropped to a crouch, then onto all fours and tried to reach Laihiri as Endooki and Nihaal scrambled for Raudah, each grabbing an arm. They tried to drag Raudah but another shocker beam sliced through the dusty air and struck Nihaal and he too fell, face first, onto the hard-pack.

“DON’T MOVE!” a voice boomed in trade use Standard, the command seemingly coming from every direction.

Qar’qaah glanced wide-eyed at Endooki; A’tuu’shahn’i never surrendered—that was another truism hammered into one and all since birth—but none were wearing armor, only trousers and under tunics from their duty uniforms and while they were armed, they were totally exposed, absolutely no cover but the crumbled bodies of their companions and now only two against... he had no idea. In the brief seconds he’d been distracted, more grubby white figures had appeared as if condensing out of the breeze-blown dust.

He squinted into the glare and quickly counted twenty-one separate figures and they were in the process of spreading out. He fought the temptation to glance around, to see if more were approaching from behind. It didn’t matter. Then his burning eyes caught another telltale flash—only this wasn’t weapons fire, it was sunlight on something shiny; it briefly dazzled his eyes. That was the cincher: Rimmers, wearing Rimmer battle armor. 

“STAND UP!” the encircling voice boomed again. “KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE WE CAN SEE THEM!”

“Kon’ta’aq Endooki whispered, having drawn the same grim conclusion, “what are your orders?”

“A’tuu’shahn’i don’t surrender,” he replied, to which Endooki dipped his head. Then Qar’qaah slowly gathered his legs under him, and somehow managed to get to his feet, wobbling and staggering as he did so, with Endooki following his lead, just as unsteady, watching him closely, awaiting his final order.

“STAY EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE AND RAISE YOUR HANDS ABOVE YOUR HEADS—DO IT!”

Qar’qaah hesitated, his hand hovering near his holstered pistol; beside him Endooki, about to lose his precarious balance, widened his stance ever so slightly.

In response a shocker beam struck Endooki from behind and he fell, sprawling across Raudah.

Qar’qaah risked a quick glance at him then fixed his now utterly enraged stare on the approaching Rimmers. “You bloodless cowards!” he hissed, then glanced around him, realizing he had a choice to make, and make quickly. He could vaporize the bodies of his troops—his friends, thus denying the Rimmers corpses to dissect, to identify. But they’d still have a body—his. He couldn’t vaporize them and himself—not before the Rimmers would unleash their weapons on him. Or he could take out as many Rimmers as possible before they in turn struck him down. The choice was obvious.

He whipped out his pistol and screaming obscenities began shooting. Four Rimmers fell before a shocker beam brushed him, sending joints of agony through him. He toppled, somehow managed to squeeze off three more shots, two of which hit their targets, then as he desperately tried to get back to his feet, he was tackled from behind, knocking the wind out of him and his pistol from his hand.

He screamed, tried to shove his attacker off of him, tried to reach his pistol, but three more Rimmers joined in. He was just too weak, too ill to fight them off and suddenly he found himself pinned, face down, a Rimmer painfully grasping each of his limbs and holding them outstretched, with a fifth kneeling on his back. He could barely breathe, he couldn’t move.

Then a shadow fell over him and he managed to turn his head, just enough, and through the tangle of hair, he peered up at yet another Rimmer. In fact he was now totally surrounded, a solid wall of white Rimmer armor, and all had their shocker rifles pointed at him. The Rimmer who stood over him pushed up his mirrored visor, exposing his face along with an expression of pure hate. Then he smiled coldly, said, “Calm down you stupid yowie. We’re here to recue you.”

 

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