The Altar

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Boredom No More

Cameron opened the door to his room and turned on the light. He started to unbutton his uniform jacket, but stopped when his eyes spotted the small, white piece of paper that was neatly folded and placed on his pillow. Instinctively, his eyes darted around the room. There was no way that anybody could be hiding in that cubicle, even in the closet which was as empty as the inside of a beggar’s wallet. He unfolded the paper ever so carefully, for one never knew the dangers that could be concealed within the paper folds. Colonel Brigsby from Alpha Quadrant found out the hard way, when a poison coated needle placed by his “adoring” wife in a letter she sent him ended their marriage, as well as his life. Written in a smooth, flawless hand was a note that made Cameron’s feature’s harden.

So the rumors are true! The new sentry on Albitus IS the illustrious Sgt. Baylor. While I almost laugh at the surprise waiting for you here, I will personally see to it that you meet your demise at my hand for sentencing me to a life sentence on this accursed asteroid. Be assured it will be very, VERY unpleasant for YOU. I shall enjoy watching you die!

Until then, enjoy your stay my dear “friend”.

Cameron’s fist crushed the note while his mind went wild trying to figure out who knew him here. And what did the author of the note mean by “being sentenced here”? The nearest penal planet was Hernon in the Zercron Solar System. There was no evidence of a brig or jail of any kind that he could see since coming here. In the morning he would have to have the lieutenant join him for breakfast. And, to be sure, he would sleep very lightly until this mystery was solved. Also, the mystery of “... the surprise waiting for you here...“. This was beginning to look more and more like it was going to be an exciting tour of duty after all.

After the morning formation, which uncharacteristically wasn’t accompanied by any form of physical training, or even any drill and ceremony, Cameron made his way to the lieutenant.

“Join me for breakfast, Sir?” Cameron asked

“Why... sure. I’d be honored, Sergeant. They walked toward the southernmost dome of the complex. When he was sure that nobody was in earshot, the lieutenant cleared his throat.

“Sleep well, Cameron?” the officer asked, a bit uneasy at calling the sergeant by his first name, yet at the same time excited that such a man as this would want to be addressed so by him.

“Like the dead, Sir,” Cameron lied.

“Cameron, I would like it very much if you called me by my given name. Uh, assuming that nobody else is around to hear. You know that stuff about commissioned officers not associating too closely with the enlisted ranks, and all...” Cameron nodded with a slight smile on his face to assure his companion that he understood. “Great! My name is Brian. Brian Kendall.”

“And I’ve decided you can call me Sgt. Baylor,” Cameron said, his face seemingly made of cold granite. Kendall squirmed a bit uncomfortably at the sudden coldness Cameron displayed.

“But.... I thought you said...”

“.... unless there’s nobody else around. Then you can call me Cameron.” With that, he broke into a wide, boyish grin that looked out of place on that stern face, yet somehow it seemed to fit, as well. The lieutenant relaxed when he realized the joke was on him, and he chuckled lightly.

“Cameron, if I ask you something, you’ll be honest with me, won’t you?” Kendall asked.

“Sure,” Cameron answered, realizing that though he may be inept as an officer, this was a man that wouldn’t harm anyone if he had a choice. And Cameron felt the man could be trusted, at least to a degree.

Kendall lowered his voice and asked, “I need to quit being so, well... uptight, don’t I?” Cameron burst out in a roar of laughter that attracted more than a few stares their way. Kendall was off guard at the sudden, unexpected outburst, and panicked at the attention they were suddenly receiving. Then he realized that he was acting even more uptight than usual, and started laughing himself.

After breakfast, the day was pretty much what Cameron had expected it to be. He was shown around the post, starting from the mess hall. The administration complex was next, followed by the fitness pod, a place near and dear to Cameron’s heart. His last part of the tour was his post, where he would spend most of his on duty time. The only building that they did not tour was the science complex, and that was, according to Kendall, because of Federation security.

The sentry post was unmanned during the day, and miners could be seen entering and exiting the main cave. Most were common laborers, either pushing wheelbarrows full of lithium trihalene ore, or else taking mining supplies down the shafts. Others operated the air exchange systems to ensure that the atmosphere stayed safe for the miners below. The foreman, a big, burly, barrel-chested man of about forty-five, gruffly barked out orders that were immediately obeyed without question. Cameron approved of such disciplined and orderly employees. It was something that a military man rarely saw in the civilian world.

Cameron walked toward the main cave, noticing that the other tributary caves weren’t mined. It almost seemed as if the miners were avoiding them. He stepped in the cave and looked around. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, about thirty feet from the ground that soon went even higher as the tunnel went into the heart of the mountain. He noted that the sides of this cave opened to the tributary caves on either side, but the workers stayed in the center of the main shaft.

Curiosity overcame him, and he walked to the cave to his right, and peered in the darkened shaft. Something was lying in the shadows next to some rocks, little patches of blackness that the light from outside didn’t quite illuminate. He leaned into the shaft to see what it was....

“Whaddaya need, bud?” barked a loud, harsh voice from behind him. Cameron turned and faced the foreman. The man was easily a foot taller than he was, and about seventy pounds heavier, and that being the tight, heavy muscle acquired from a lifetime of hard labor. Cameron looked him straight in the eye, his face stern, hesitating for a moment before answering.

“Just looking,” Cameron said in the flat dangerous tone he used when something displeased him. “I’m the sentry, and I just wanted to check out the area before I’m responsible for it’s security.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know who ya are. But that don’t give ya no right to be snoopin’ in my mines. If ya wanna know somethin’, ask me first!” The foreman met Cameron’s gaze without flinching in the slightest, and Cameron instinctively knew this man had been against some stiff opposition in his time. He immediately had respect for the man.

“As you wish, sir.” Cameron said this respectfully, as to an equal, and not as someone cowed into submission. A gleam of respect showed in the eyes of the foreman.

“Just so long as we understand each other, then,” growled the huge man, but with less venom than before. “It’s just that I don’t want nobody gettin’ hurt around here. These caves are dangerous.”

“I would like to know more about the operation of the mines, whenever you have the time to show me. That is, if you would.” The foreman looked hard at the soldier, studying him for a moment. Then a big, somewhat toothless grin spread on his face.

“Sure. I’d like that, but not right now. We’re up to our chins in work, today, and I want to get a little ahead of our “projected quota” for the month so’s we can take it a little easier toward the end of the month. These guys get a little lazy when they know their pay’s comin’ in soon. Catch me next week some time.”

Cameron nodded slightly in acceptance. “Thank you. I’ll let you get back to work now,” he said, an awkward smile on his face. As he turned, he heard the now familiar barking orders of the foreman, and knew that the smile the big man had on his face was gone, as if it were never there in the first place.

Lt. Kendall was standing at the sentry’s gate, patiently waiting for Cameron. He knew better than to interrupt the bulldog of a man that ran the mines. He was grinning broadly at Cameron.

“What are you so happy about?” Cameron asked.

“I see, or should I say I hear that you met the foreman?”

“How very observant of you, sir,” Cameron responded dryly. “He seems like the kind of guy I can respect, though. And I’m looking forward to the tour of the mines he’s going to give me.”

Kendall’s grin faded immediately.

“Is there something wrong with that, Sir?” Cameron asked, noting the sudden change in the lieutenant’s demeanor.

“Uh, no. Not at all. It’s just that none of the other sentries ever cared to know about the mines in such detail, before. Most only wanted to know what was mined, how many miners worked in them, and what time the mines were vacated.”

“Well, I want to know more about the mines, themselves,” Cameron replied. “I don’t like to work in an area where I’m not familiar with the general layout of the place.” Kendall nodded his acceptance of what was said, but his face was troubled.

“We can call it a day, Cameron. That is all that’s on the agenda until two nights from now. That’s when your first night on patrol starts.” Kendall started walking toward the main dome complex, Cameron automatically falling in step beside him. Upon entering the dome, the two men removed the clear full face masks that provided moisture for them while in the desiccating outdoors. Cameron had his neatly folded and placed in the carrier at his side before Kendall was even half-finished with the same task. They walked until they came to the main thoroughfare through the dome, which intersected the hallway they were walking. Kendall faced his companion, a dour expression on his face.

“Dinner is in an hour. I’ll probably be late, so start without me.” Kendall turned and walked to the administration dome.

“Sure,” Cameron replied. There was much more going on around here than he felt comfortable with. A thousand questions burned in his brain, screaming for him to find the answers. But for the moment, he thought a good workout in the gym would be what “the doctor ordered”. An hour away from all the strangeness of this new post, losing himself in the sweat-laden atmosphere of the weight room would make a new man out of him. He glanced at the retreating figure of the lieutenant one more time, then walked toward the gym.

After a short, but intense workout, Cameron showered and went to the mess hall. He’d gotten there a little later than he would have cared to, but in plenty of time for him to eat without worrying about the mess hall staff standing around like a group of vultures, waiting for him to finish his meal. Kendall never did make it to supper, which didn’t bother Cameron too much. He needed time to be alone. To think.

So much had happened in such a short time: the note; Kendall’s reactions to his inquisitiveness; the administrator; the mysteries surrounding this base. He couldn’t make sense of any of it, so he felt a trip to the base’s library was in order. He should be able to find out some of the answers, anyhow.

Cameron shot a glance over his right shoulder. Nothing unusual met his gaze, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. He scanned the area a moment longer before turning around. He would definitely have to be more careful around here, but he shouldn’t let it make him paranoid.

Polatti, Marco Octavius. Born September 5, 2312, on the planet Mara, in the Galos System. Died --- . Served for fifteen years in the Federation Special Tactics Militia, from August 2, 2320 to August 1, 2335. Awarded the gold medal for fencing at the 2320 Intergalactic Olympic games. Awarded the Federation Medal of Achievement after the Battle of Darius-7, March 15, 2322. August 15, 2335 to August 14, 2337, served two years as personal bodyguard to his Eminence Geral Kintach, Prince of Gamma Sector, heir to the throne of the Pagathion Empire. Awarded the Pagathion Medal of Bravery and the Federation Medal of Honor for taking a Pagath dart meant for Prince Geral. August 31, 2337 -September 1, 2339, commanded the Fifth Galactic Infantry during the Relian War and awarded his second Federation Medal of Honor. Served as Sentry on Albitus Prime from September 15, 2339 his full retirement on September 14, 2341.

Cameron looked at the monitor, digesting the information. After a few moments, he had the computer bring up a listing of the names of all the soldiers that had served as sentry on Albitus. The list was surprisingly short, comprising of only twenty-seven names. Marco Polatti was the fourteenth person to hold that position. Some of the other names on the list impressed Cameron immensely.

Marner, Jake Lowell, the man everyone had nicknamed “the Jackal”. His heroic accomplishments made him a hero in Cameron’s eyes, ad well as for many other soldiers. Someone like that would surely have foregone taking the retirement clause, but the files state he took it. He died at the young age of thirty-seven while fishing in the lake behind his house. Cause of death, heart attack. Only scant months after his retirement.

The same kind of thing went for Marla Clanahan, who was the reason that the Blenian Quadrant was now Federation territory. Her files were impressive, and to Cameron, she would be the last person to retire at the age of... thirty-two? She died four months later in an obscure part of the galaxy, her body obviously ravaged by Laverian Flu.

His browsed through the list, and noticed that every single soldier took the optional retirement clause. EVERY ONE! That just didn’t make sense! Maybe for some of the people, but not every single one! Especially Carlo “Bulldog” Mattock. He was the last sentry on Albitus Prime. Although Cameron never served in the same battalion with the man, his reputation as a “lifer” in the military was well established. The man was often quoted as saying that when he died, it would be with weapon in hand. Yet the records were clear. The update had to have been done in the last two days, and they stated that Col. Mattock took the retirement option.

Cameron shook his head, puzzled, and removed the tiny CD from the computer. After turning the terminal off, and returning the disk to the librarian, he exited the library. As the soldier left, the librarian waited to make sure Cameron didn’t come back. When she was satisfied, she entered a few numbers on her phone pad. An image came up on the screen, and she looked at the door one more time.

“Yes, this is Charlene at the library. I need to speak to the administrator. I think it may be important.”

“So how come you didn’t let the previous sentry show me the ropes? I mean, if you need the best the Federation has to offer, why do you leave the post unguarded for several days?” Cameron stuffed a forkful of eggs in his mouth. Kendall stopped chewing for a moment, then resumed, but much slower. He swallowed, and chased it with a lengthy draft of boro juice.

“I’m not so sure, Cameron,” Kendall said evasively. “You might want to ask the administrator.”

“I think I might,” Cameron agreed, stuffing more food in his mouth. The lieutenant suddenly looked a little withdrawn, but Cameron acted as if he didn’t notice.

“You say you were born here?” Cameron asked.

“Yes,” Kendall replied. “I was born in the infirmary. Dr. Giddens, the post doctor here, he delivered me.” A smile was creeping onto Kendall’s face.

“Were your parents born here, also?” Cameron asked, just before gulping down a glass of milk.

“No. My mother came here when her ship made an emergency landing here. My father had been here for a few years, and worked the mines. They met, fell in love. You know...”

“So what crimes did your father commit to be sentenced here?” Cameron asked light-heartedly. Kendall simply gawked at him in total surprise, shocked that his companion had asked such a question. Then shame flushed his face, and he looked at the table.

“What makes you think he committed any crimes? I just told you he was a miner....”

“I happen to know that this is a penal colony, and chances are, that the only reason your father was a miner was because he was sentenced to be one.” Cameron’s face was set, no hint of what he was thinking or feeling behind the stone facemask he now wore. He meant the comment as a rough jest, but realized that he hit a nerve in the young lieutenant. Kendall shifted nervously, like a schoolboy caught doing something wrong.

“Look, Cameron...”

“Sgt. Baylor, please, Sir.”

“But... I thought we were friends...”

“Wrong, Sir. I don’t make friends with officers. It’s totally unprofessional. Now, what did your father do to get sentenced here?” he asked relentlessly. Kendall was shaken thoroughly, and Cameron didn’t know whether the younger man was going to hit him or cry.

“This is a penal colony, isn’t it?” he asked. “Answer me!” he barked, drawing stares from some miners a few tables down. Kendall jumped.

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “Yes! It is!” Cameron immediately felt bad about what he’d just done, and his manner shifted radically when he received the information he wanted. His face grew softer with compassion, and he reached over to the lieutenant, and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. Kendall flinched at the unexpected contact, and looked at Cameron, an alarmed expression in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Brian,” Cameron apologized. “I’m sorry I did that, but I didn’t think you’d tell me the truth if I didn’t catch you off guard. It’s an awful habit I have, but it works. Can you forgive me?”

Kendall was totally bewildered by the rapidly changing moods that Cameron was exhibiting. But he saw the gentleness in the eyes of the older soldier, and calmed down, a little. The miners had gone back to their business when they realized nothing was wrong.

“How did you know, Sergeant?” Kendall asked.

“You can call me Cameron,” he replied. “I just had my suspicions. Take the foreman, for example. He’s been around the block a few times. You can see that on his face. I can’t see him as the type to choose this life voluntarily. Some of the other miners, too. They’re too hardened to be raised on a quiet little rock like this. I’ve seen their type before, in the penal camps of Valius 5. The same hardness in their features and actions, the same bitterness etched into every line of their face. That hopeless far-away kind of stare of the condemned. Many of the men here have those same features.”

“Albitus has been a penal colony since before I was born. Actually, almost since its colonization. I don’t know much about it, though. My father hated being here, but always said it was better than being tortured to death with Jerillian leeches. After all, he had killed an officer of the Federation, and that kind of crime usually dictates the death penalty. I guess that since he’d killed the guy in self-defense, they put him here. Normally he would have been acquitted, but the officer was high ranking, and some of his family had ties with the emperor. So they sent him here, and it was here that he met my mother. He never seemed to mind this place so much after that, my mother told me.”

“Where’s your father, now?” Cameron inquired.

“Both my parents died in an accident in the mines.” Kendall drew into himself. Cameron was curious as to what kind of accident, but decided now wasn’t the best time to ask. He’d put the young man through so much already.

“I’m sorry,” Cameron replied sincerely. Kendall sank into deep thought, again. After a moment, Kendall looked at Cameron, conflicting emotions flashing across his face.

“I need to talk to you, Cameron, but not It’s important.” Kendall’s voice dropped almost to a whisper, and the urgency in his tone told Cameron that he would soon learn more about Albitus than maybe he cared to know. “I’ll get with you tonight. After lights out.”

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