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The Hostile Stars

XVII. Casualty

Plieznabr peered cautiously around the corner of a hallway junction and let his armor's sensors sweep in both directions. So far he had not encountered anyone, Zhodani or Imperial, since leaving his escorts outside Engineering. He hoped his luck would continue to hold.

He began to edge down the corridor, keeping to one wall, moving in little bursts of speed that carried him from one covered location to another. He was felt tense, but not afraid. He was still too young to realize when he was terrified.

When he had been a small boy, before he had left his family for training in the psionic arts, his father would often take him into the hills above their little farm to hunt with the rest of the community for sassaqal, a scaled scavenging animal with a long tail and four legs. A Terran would have thought that it looked like a meter-and-a-half long salamander. The sassaqal was a threat to all the farmers in the region; it liked to break into their grain stores, and was not adverse to killing their smaller livestock or pets.

The sassaqal had remarkable camouflage abilities, allowing it to stay hidden in the dense undergrowth that was its preferred habitat. It could lie without moving for hours, making it difficult to flush, even with their hunting beasts. The only way to hunt it was to form a large circle, sometimes over a kilometer in circumference, and gradually tighten it shut, beating the bush with clubs until the sassaqal was forced to spring up and fight its way out of the circle. Then it was everyone's job to assist the person who lay in the path of the enraged creature. Sassaqal were not particularly deadly, but had poisoned fangs that could make their victim quite ill; they would lock their jaws onto a victim and hang on until killed or pulled off.

Even as a child he had found the coordination demanded by the sassaqal hunt demanding. Now he wondered how it was possible at all. The farmers lacked any psionic training. They had relied on hand signals and imitations of animal calls to coordinate their movements. When they had cornered the beast, they had fought it with large forked spears, moving so that each person blocked the sassaqal's escape, working in near-perfect unison.

Now, who are the hunters and who is the quarry? he thought. He felt very alone. Since discovering that the Imperials were using a psionic of their own, he had been afraid to open his mind. Cut off from even the low-level "static" of the hundreds of human consciousnesses onboard Rhylanor, he felt alone and pitiful. It didn't help that he was only sixteen standard years old and naturally prey to these emotions anyway.

He moved through an area that had been heavily fought over. Blast marks darkened the walls. Explosions had punched through the walls, leaving gaping holes with twisted, sharp metal edges lolling out around them. Struts and conduits jutted out into the hallway like spears. Bodies were scattered in broken positions on the floor, Imperial and Zhodani, alone in the brotherhood of death.

He moved through them slowly, a deep sadness dragging his limbs. How many, of both sides, had been farmers' sons? Why had they been ripped across the horrid, empty distances between the stars, to fight and die in the frozen outskirts of a cold, dim sun? Politics seemed a feeble reason to do this. Were the differences between these two peoples so irreconcilable?

He tried to clear his head and calm down. He was an officer of the Consulate, after all. It wasn't his duty to rhapsodize the horrors of war, but to fulfill his orders. And what he knew could keep people on both sides from dying.

Even the optics of his helmet had difficulty resolving images in the corridor's dim light. So he almost missed it when one of the bodies began to move.

Terrified, the barest memory of the ghost stories of his youth fleeing across his mind, he swiveled to face the figure, rifle readied. It had some strange object like an oversized pistol with a large bowl at the end of its barrel in one hand, aiming it at him. He shouted something wordlessly and prepared to fire -

Agony filled his head. In an instant, all his defenses vanished. His mind was painfully aware of the mental chatter of Rhylanor's occupants. He had never been so sensitive before, so filled with the presence of other minds. Some one else was rushing at him from the darkness.

He fell upon him with an unnatural strength, trying to pin Plieznabr's arms with his massive hands. Pliezanabr, still dazed, struggled weakly against the big Imperial in his powered battle dress. He tried to gather his mind to lash out at his attacker, but whatever the other Imperial was doing to him seemed to block all but the most feeble of his abilities.

Just at the edge of his vision he saw the other Imperial moving slowly towards him, still holding the strange weapon. With his free leg Plieznabr kicked out, tripping the Imperial. As he fell, he tried to steady his gun -

The Marine clutched his head with both hands. And in that instant, Plieznabr, still sensitive from the effects of the strange weapon, felt the other's mind open to him, felt the horrible pain of the feedback from his psionic shield - and felt, in that moment, the awful hatred the man had for him, the terrible, seething rage directed at him.

It was like a blow to his stomach. He felt physically sick, and doubled over. Too much! he thought weakly. Too much to take. Too -

Desperate, Plieznabr delved deep into his conditioned responses, trying without thinking something that Tlienjpraviashav had taught him once. He stretched out his awareness, searching along the belt of grenades that hung around the Imperial's waist. One suddenly armed itself -

The blast swept over them, knocking them to the ground. Plieznabr's helmet smashed into the corridor, bursting open. He tried to stagger up, but the Marine was upon him almost before he could move, chopping down at his shoulders with one armored arm.

Plieznabr hit the floor and felt all the air rush out of him. Something stabbed through his chest. I've broken a rib, he thought weakly. Something was wheezing wetly in his ears. He dimly realized it was his own breath.

Are you in pain?

He couldn't place the mind that was contacting his. "No," he croaked, his provincial accent as thick as the day he had left his father's farm. He couldn't feel his legs.

Everything's all right, now.

"Master?" He had to talk to Tlienjpraviashav, to warn him...

"Yes, I am here." The handsome, mustachioed face of the Zhodani commander appeared in front of him. "Don't be afraid."

Oh, master. He opened his mind to his teacher, fully, completely, laying bare every part of his mind. Something must be wrong with him. He was having trouble maintaining the link. And there was something else, something unfamiliar...

Magnificent, purple and gold to match the autumnal foliage, the sassaqal arched its back and hissed, forked tongue shooting out in defiance. His father lunged forward with his forked spear and lifted the beast up by its neck, straining to keep its feet off the ground, the spear bowing under the weight. Plieznabr laughed and laughed...they were riding back to the farm, the body of the sassaqal in the wagonbed behind them, and he leaned against the warm side of his father as the wheels turned and turned, their motion lulling him into sleep...

Anton stepped back from the Zhodani officer who was slumped against the corridor wall. "He's dead, isn't he?"

"Yes. For several minutes now. It's amazing what this equipment can do even with a recently dead brain." Arkadian was removing tiny electrodes from the Zhodani's face. He began to put away his tools, folding up the parabolic reflector on his strange pistol.

Anton walked up to the Zhodani and ran a finger along his ashen face, pale beneath its blond hair, growing chalky now with death. The neck was swollen and the color of a bruise where Anton had broken it. "Just a boy," he said.

"Quite a boy. An Intendant, personal aide to the Zhodani commander."

"I didn't mean to kill him...I don't know what got into me."

"It's all right. I got quite a bit of useful information from him."

"I'm glad," Anton said. "So very glad you got what you came for."

Arkadian glanced at him sharply. He had his helmet off, and his sharp features remained impassive. "This is war."

"I understand that, Commander. Far better than you do, I think."

Arkadian opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. He picked up his helmet, placed it on his head, and closed the seals. He turned away from Anton and began to walk up the corridor.

Anton leaned forward and closed the Zhodani boy's eyes. He sealed his clamshell helmet again, then lifted his body up. The head lolled sickeningly. He laid the body back down on the corridor floor gently, crossed its arms, and then followed Arkadian back up the hallway.

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