This part originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.
24th of 2028 (215-96): The Battle of Muuingigi
It had finally come, the Imperial counter offensive. This was different now, a real fight and we were losing. Muuingigi was an outpost for our main line and the Imperials had landed a week ago. We just didn’t have the strength to hold them back and we were already pulling out. Our team was behind their lines, assigned to slow them down. By a vital bridge, just making life hard for them, four of us trying to hold back a full platoon of infantry.
Sheska had been picking them off one by one as they tried to get forwards, she’d already taken out a good seven of them and they were staying back. I was forward as normal, spotting, Renal and James back covering her position. She sounded happy “So, serganet, anyone moving down there?”
I chuckled, she did so like calling me by my rank. I’d been promoted six months ago and she knew it irked me when she called me by my rank. “No, you’ve got them good and spooked, but quit with the serganet or I’ll…” I hesitated, I actually didn’t have a good comeback.
I could hear her sniggering “Oh, real quick there, aren’t you?” She turned her attention back to the job. “Renal, James, you see anything?”
I heard Renal’s deep voice, “Not here sweetiepie, same as all day. James and I are thinking of popping off for a quickie.”
I heard her deep laughter, “Not without us you’re not; we haven’t had any fun time since we got here.”
There was fire behind me, at least three rifles. I barked quickly “All team, report!”
Sheska’s voice “Here, but can’t see anything, it was in front of me.”
I waited a moment then “James, Renal, report.” Silence. “Report!” I started to make my way back as fast as I could, worried now… “Report, damn you two!” The ether was still. I called HQ “Team Tunai, need support now.”
More fire, then Sheska, “Taking fire, support if you don’t mind guys,” She sounded calm but concerned.
I moved faster. “On my way.”
The rifles barked again, steady now. I found Renal and James face down. I paused briefly to check. Both dead. No time for grief but I felt rage stirring in me. Firing continued, Sheska, “Hurry, lover.”
I tried to move faster. I made a loud smacking noise with my lips, “A kiss lover, for luck!”
I could hear her grinning as she smacked back, “And you lover.”
The rifles became silent but so was my comm. I opened my mouth to call her, but no, too risky now. I reached some low cover, I could see her position. Four dead Imperials, her on her knees, hands behind her head. Two Impies standing easy covering her, helmets in their hands and one, a woman, with a rifle to her skull. There was a sound and she fell.
The emotion drained from me as Sheska’s body hit the ground. I raised my rifle and took exceptionally careful aim. Three bursts, two of them fell instantly, price for relaxing. The other I made sure, in the legs. She fell too, rifle falling away from her. She tried desperately to reach it as I sprinted towards the scene. I kicked her rifle out of reach and planted my boot firmly in her stomach. She groaned, but I wasn’t really paying attention to her, it was Sheska I was running to. I took her in my arms and felt the stillness, lifeless. I closed her eyes and softly brushed the remains of her hair, I so wished there were lips I could have kissed. I wept.
I heard scrabbling behind me; it drew me back. I snapped around and saw the woman still trying to crawl to her gun. My eyes dried. I stood and walked slowly. One foot firmly on her back to force her into the dirt. I knelt beside her, held her by the hair and forced her eyes to meet mine. There was a look of terror, I felt nothing. I spoke without emotion, “She was my lover, they all were.” I reached down and drew my knife.
74th of 2028 (265-96): The Battle of Iguu
The support had arrived ten minutes later; they found me cradling Sheska’s body, apparently. I don’t remember much of the next few days. A base hospital, dokhtors, drugs, all a sort of haze. They’d wanted to invalid me with combat fatigue. I’d kicked up a huge stink, all I wanted to do was kill Imperials. But things were desperate and I got my wish. I don’t know how many I killed, I lost count. Iguu, the final battlefield of the campaign; if it fell our line was broken. A new team now, still strangers to me. I’d been summoned to HQ, Kirsov himself want to see me. I knocked on the door, paused a moment, I could hear explosions nearby, we’d lost this world, then entered.
He sat looking weary, he glanced up as I crossed the threshold, a steely look in his eyes “Ah serganet, just the man I’ve been wanting to see.”
I saluted and stood at ease, puzzled. “Sir?”
A brief smile flickered across his face, “Still haven’t got out of that habit have you?” I just grinned. He looked at a datapad in hands “I’ve been reviewing your file and I have a special task for you.”
I felt a strange satisfaction; I knew we were pulling out but that a stay behind force was being arranged. I’d been hoping I get assigned “Geenor, I’m ready.”
His eyes met mine, looking deep into them. One eyebrow raised, “Really? Ready for what, Ariaryn?”
“The stay-behinds, I assume that’s what you want.”
He spoke slowly, softly, as if a father to his son. “No, you’ll not be staying, Ariaryn. I want you to supervise the evacuation of the last group of wounded. You’ll be handling their transfer to the liner… Cleon II”
I was transfixed, he couldn’t be serious, it was a milk run, I wanted to stay and kill and… die. I felt fury rising in me, my voice grew loud, “Geenor, you can’t be serious. I’m needed here, I can do something here, I’m not playing nurse to cripples!”
A brief flash of anger went through those eyes, then passed. He looked at the pad again “I’ve been studying your medical file, the recent entries. Combat fatigue, that’s the diagnoses they gave after Muuingigi. You should have been taken out of the line then for treatment.”
I tried to compose myself, I really did but the anger and rage just exploded “Combat fatigue! Combat fatigue my arse! They murdered my lover and I have to make them pay!”
He remained calm. “Serganet, may I remind you who you are addressing?”
I stood fist clenched, wanting to speak but not able to. I took several deep breaths and regained some balance. “My apologies, Geenor.”
He nodded, “It’s okay, Ariaryn, I am sorry too, let’s just forget our ranks for a moment.” He spoke again, as a father would, “For the last two months you’ve been consuming yourself, pretty damn obvious you are trying to get yourself killed. We, the Protectorate, can’t afford for men like you to be killed unnecessarily. We’re going to need you; the war isn’t over and we’ll need every good soldier we have now.” He stood, walked to me and took my hands. “Ariaryn, sit, please.” I took a seat and he perched on his desk “She died, a lot of people have died, your death will not bring her back.”
I cradled my head in my hands and wept, the first time I’d wept since she died. “I know, but how do I keep living without her?”
He embraced me, “We just do, Ariaryn, we just do.”
He let me cry, holding me and letting me cry. Finally I looked up. “But, Geenor, all the same, I can do more good here, surely?”
“No, you need rest, son, I want you off this rock and back safely. A few months to grieve properly. You will supervise the evacuation of the wounded.”
I wanted to argue but part of me knew he was right. I stood, saluted, “Geenor,” wheeled, and left.
76th of 2028 (267-96): The Battle of Iguu
Cleon II was a pig of a ship, Ex-Imperial apparently. Getting the wounded up had been easy, but now we seemed to be having trouble leaving. The ship was taking a pounding; I’d been assigned to damage control. Engineering had taken a lot of damage and the jump drive was down. I could see the chief engineer working furiously on it. A fierce woman, slender, blonde hair, typical strong Verasti Dtareen features, I smiled as she cursed her precious drives. The ship shuddered as another blow hit home, she nearly lost her feet but kept working. I saw a bright blue flash then the sickening stomach churning lurch as we entered jump. She laughed in triumph and made her feelings known in no uncertain terms. Her face changed as she tried to raise the bridge. She barked at me, “Damage control schematics to this console now!” I could see her hand, scorched and burnt as she worked. The colour drained from her face. I heard her whisper, “Greg?” and she collapsed. I rushed and caught her, eyes fixed into the distance. I’d seen this look before. Luriani, our emotions are our strength—and our weakness. I remembered Alsuy and Despi. I swept her up, hair falling against me and headed for sick bay. Odd how much she reminded me of Sheska.
102nd of 2028 (293-96): Base hospital on Askiimir, psychiatric ward.
I sat in a very pleasant sunny room looking out over the gardens, thoughts lost in times so long ago before this horror had started. Kirsov Geenor had apparently filed an order for my treatment, compulsory psychiatric assessment and treatment. I felt like a child, sent to his room without his supper. I hated it here, the lone survivor. But I wasn’t alone. “Hey you, want to head out and have some fun?”
Her name was Jane, Jane Alexon Komanda. Both of us basket cases from Cleon II. She was lively, not Sheska, but lively nonetheless. We attended group sessions together and for some reason on the way back she seemed to have latched on to me. I smiled, “Komanda, don't you think we might get into trouble?”
There was an odd frenetic laugh, “I could make it an order, serganet.”
I’m no dokhtor, certainly no psychiatrist, but even I knew her demeanour was a front. She drank far too much, she slept with just about anyone who so much as looked at her. Hell, she’d tried to get me into her bed at least seven times, now. She was going out and nothing would stop her. I tagged along to keep an eye on her. Don’t know why, just did, better than sitting around watching the flowers grow. I sighed “Okay, but promise me you’ll keep your clothes on this time, please. Don’t want any trouble, do we?”
Her grin was mischievous but there was desperation in those eyes “Ahhh, but I’m sure a big strong Guard like you will keep me safe.”
156th of 2028 (347-96): Armistice day, Gami’s bar, Verasaryn
Over, it was finally over. Officially just an armistice, but everyone knew the war was over. There were parties going on, drinking, cheering, people hugging one another with wild abandon. Jane had tried all her powers to make me come with her to one but I had something important to do. I’d promised I’d see her later. I knew she’d need me, she was going down fast and nobody seemed able to stop her.
I expected the place to be packed; I was surprised when walked in how few people were there. A few instructors drinking quietly in one corner, a few solitary rekhots sitting like wall flowers wondering where everyone was. I glanced at their faces and felt so glad they’d be spared. I wondered if she’d turn up. Our last meeting had not gone well. I ordered a lightning ale, been a long time since I’d had one. The taste had not improved. I sat and waited.
I didn’t have to wait long; she walked with an odd gait, stiff, sort of limping but not quite. Her face had changed, almost the same but not quite; if you hadn’t known her before you’d never notice. I looked at her in trepidation as she approached. An officer’s uniform now, a lekhtenant, I wondered at that. She sat across from me, and signalled the bartender, “Whiskey.” I didn’t recognise her voice. But again, you wouldn’t know unless you’d known her before. Her eyes met mine for several seconds, then she spoke, “The others?”
I looked down at my drink, a heavy voice, faces in my mind, “Just me, Melissa, just me.”
She stared at the table as drink arrived, a heavy sigh, “You know, worst thing about these damn eyes is I can’t cry. I so want to cry.” She sighed again, “I guess the wonders of medical science only go so far.”
“We lost Despi and Sharik on Alsuy, not long after…” My voice trailed away.
“After me, you mean.”
“Yes, I do remember.” She took a deep drink then looked me in my eyes, “I am sorry, Ariaryn, so very, very sorry. I know it was unforgivable, but please, can you forgive me? I am so very grateful you saved me. I wish I’d never said what I said on Alsuy.”
I looked at her and took both her hands. “There's nothing to forgive and you owe me no apology, Melissa. But thank you, and yes, I am so sorry, too.”
She kissed me, on the lips and hugged me across the table, “Thank you, Ariaryn.” Another drink, a look of relief “So, Renal, James, Sheska?”
“They lasted almost to the end. A few months before Iguu, all of them in one go,” tears formed in my eyes.
“I do so envy you those tears, Ariaryn.” Her turn to take my hands, “Did you and Sheska ever match?”
It made me smile, happier memories, “Yes, and Renal and James, as well.” a chuckle “We actually formed an ami, we were going to all live together after.”
Her eyes grew soft, “It would have been an excellent ami, damn this war, damn it to all the hells of all the gods.” She stood and took her glass, “I don’t want to drink to victory, Ariaryn; it’s no victory. But I do want to drink to those we’ve lost.” I stood and joined her, we recited their names and drained our glasses. I look around, the bar was standing and they drained their glasses.
We talked for hours, I told her all of what had happened, the sadness and the joy. We remembered them. We laughed, we drank. She told me of her recovery, a year of therapy, then a commission in intelligence. Something hush-hush she couldn't talk about. We sang and saluted them all, not just Barii, Sharik, Despi, Renal, James, and Sheska, but all of them. All the lives cut short. I didn’t make it back to Jane that night. I found peace in Melissa’s arms instead.
192nd of 2028 (018-97): A startown bar, Daramm
I’d been offered a permanent rank in the Guards; I’d refused. I’d had my fill of war and wanted nothing more than to forget it all. I spent a lot of time with Jane now, she needed someone to look after her. She’d lost her spouse at Iguu, and with him, herself I think. I tried to keep her safe as best I could. I was fighting a losing battle. I hadn’t seen her for three days now. I found her in a bar, wrapped around yet another sleaze. I sat beside her. I looked at the drunk beside her and glared. She left. Jane glowered at me, her voice slurred by the liquor “I was intending to have her company tonight!”
“You have company most nights. You are drunk, Komanda, and you do no honour to yourself or those you have lost.”
She was angry, “Not a komanda anymore, jkomovaa, and don’t talk to me about loss, what do you know?”
She raised her hand, it came towards me. Mine rose automatically and caught it, “I know more than you might think, Jane Elizabeth Charles Pederson Alexon Komanda. You are not the only one who couldn’t save a spouse. Her name was Sheska Victoria Eneri Eadaasa Mman Korpial, and I am most definitely not a jkomovaa!”
“Eadaasa Mman,” she snorted, “So you were matched, not the same!”
“I watched her die and couldn’t do a aneer thing to save her! So yeah, I think it’s close enough.”
She slumped back and laughed, “You know, Ariaryn Despi Ora Mman Eadaasa Serganet, I think that is the first time I’ve heard you swear,” she reached for her glass, “Aneer, now there’s an idea. Since you’ve scared away my date, how about you and me go find somewhere private?”
I took the glass from her, “How about I take you and pour you into a shower then put you to bed”
She draped her arms around me and planted a large, sloppy, neither exactly pleasant nor unpleasant, kiss “That was kind what I had in mind, sugar.”
I didn’t argue; I just led her out.
I half carried her, half dragged her to my room. A cheap hotel, but clean. I pushed her in the shower fully dressed and turned it on cold. She screamed and swung wildly. “Not nice, sugar!”
I held her in and let the icy water play over her. She struggled but wasn’t going anywhere. I held her there for about five minutes before I let her out. Her eyes were daggers into me for a moment, then she collapsed into me and kissed me again. “Okay, so now to bed.”
There was no point arguing, so I simply led her to my bed. She fell onto to it, dragging me with her. Her lips locked awkwardly on mine again. I pulled away. “Jane, you have been trying to bed me since we met. Has it ever worked?”
She sighed heavily, “No, but always a first time, sugar.” Obviously the shower had not sobered her up any.
She fumbled at her blouse. I sat beside her. “Jane, tell me about your spouse.”
Her face turned to mine, and, I swear, her look could have killed. “Why? You tell me about yours!”
“Okay, I will, but then you need to tell me of yours.”
“You’ve tried this before, it never works.”
“Always a first time.”
She turned away. I touched her shoulder. She rolled back, grinned and slurred “If I do, you have to lay with me tonight.”
I hesitated. She was so drunk, it went against all my sense of honour to lay with a women in that state and she knew it. This was her way of ending any argument. I was tired, I guess too tired. I just said “Deal.”
She sat bolt upright, stunned, then grappled me, pulled me down and began to fumble with my clothes. I pulled back “Our deal, Jane.”
She looked like I’d slapped her. She was fuming. She fumed several minutes then fell back, “His name was Greg.”
I woke the next morning and she was gone.
220th of 2028 (046-97): A diner, startown, Daramm
I’d been surprised to get Jane’s message. After three weeks I was beginning to think I’d never see her again. All the more surprising in that she said she had a job for me. I’d ordered a light lunch and wondered at what it might be. To be honest, my thoughts had been turning to my future again. I was thinking of going back to the Ecole and finishing my studies. After the war, cooking didn’t seem half so bad any more. I poked at my lunch and knew food should not taste like this.
I heard the door as she entered; she wasn’t alone. He was obviously Mmarislusant and walked with an air of confidence and self assurance. I’d seen that demeanour before; he reminded me of Kirsov. She looked better than I’d ever seen her. Hair neatly arranged, nails clean and manicured, her blouse straight and skirt crisply pressed. And she was smiling, not the smile she’d found in a bottle before but a real, honest smile. For the first time I realised how damn good looking she was.
She sat on my right, the man my left. She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “Ariaryn Despi Ora Mman Eadaasa…” she hesitated, “Lul, may I introduce Siishubuu Manish Khaadii Mmarislusant Kaptan.”
I nearly fell off my stool. All I could manage was a squeaky, “A pleasure.”
He sniggered. We exchanged greetings and he picked up a menu. “So, what would you recommend?”
I whispered, “Eating elsewhere.”
He laughed, “Well, a sense of humour, always a plus.” He ordered a coffee and a seafood salad.
I turned to Jane, “You’re looking well, much brighter than last I saw you.”
She kissed me again, “And with more clothes.”
I turned bright red, the kaptan looked at me and then her, “Do tell, Jane.”
Her mouth turned up in a wicked grin, “Oh Siish, nothing to tell, honestly.” I nodded furiously.
His eyebrows raised as he looked us both up and down, “Mmmmm. If you say so…”
I tried to change the subject, “Jane, you said something about a job?”
The kaptan answered, “Jane, here, tells me you’re a qualified gunner.” He took a bite of his salad. His face twisted just a little, I was impressed by his self control. “And you can cook.”
Jane had ordered a burger, she looked a bit sheepish. “It tasted… different, a month ago.”
I couldn’t suppress the snicker. “A month ago, most things would have tasted… different, to you.” I turned to the kaptan and replied cautiously “Yes, I was trained in gunnery in the Guards and yeah, I’d say I’m a half-decent cook. May I ask why?”
A smile. “Straight to the point; I like that.”
“Seems not a lot of reason to avoid it, so why?”
The smile broadened, he was sizing me up. “Jane speaks highly of you and I have a small ship. I need a crew, including a gunner,” his gaze returned to his lunch, “and a cook.”
I considered a bit, a ship—a small, probably independent ship; my plans were rather more pedestrian at the moment. But then again Madam Manish’s son seemed unlikely to get into too much… mischief. “And, kaptan, what would this ship be doing?”
“Wandering, Mman lul, just wandering. After the war I find myself wishing to just wander awhile.” His face had taken on a look I knew, I’d seen it a lot recently, including in the mirror. “So, would you like to join our merry band? There would be myself, Jane and a dokhtor of my acquaintance.”
I stared at my food, I looked at Jane, then the kaptan. “I prefer just plain Ariaryn.” I considered, wandering, somehow it did seem attractive. “I would be honoured, kaptan.”
“Just Siish, everyone calls me Siish.”