The Altar

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Cameron had received a message from the administrator that he was to report immediately to the gymnasium. A curious order, intriguing even. Cameron walked to the fitness pod, his senses alert for anything out of the ordinary. The evening had just begun, the rocky surface of the planet turning a melancholy purple. The lights in the halls of the pods grew brighter as the outside light grew faint, keeping the halls at a constant level of lighting until lights out. Cameron would occasionally glance outside through the windows, scanning everywhere for trouble, which had become second nature for him.

The gymnasium was well lit, the overhead indirect lighting illuminating the room. The basketball court was in the center of the room, the weight rooms off to one side, the pool and squash courts on the other. But it was the basketball court that grabbed his attention.

In the center of the court, a mat was laid out, and the administrator was standing on one end. He was dressed in the characteristic white garb of the fencer, the mask under one arm. The man was striking in appearance, his lean body solidly muscled, a fact the clothing could not hide. He walked gracefully toward Cameron, a cruel smile on his face. The solid black eyes seemed to peer into Cameron, trying to find some dark hidden secret that may be lying there. Cameron walked up to his superior, snapped to attention, and executed a crisp, picture-perfect salute.

“At ease, Sergeant.” Cameron immediately snapped to the at ease position. “I hear you’re interested in Albitus.” Cameron’s face was characteristically impassive. “I’m sure in your research you read up on.... the other sentries...” his voice was level and low, not overtly threatening, but subtly so, like a cobra about to strike from the cover of a bush.

“Yes, sir,” Cameron replied, knowing that any attempt to deny it would be folly. “I was curious who the other people were that held this position of honor. I’m humbled by the choice of the Federation in choosing me to be among so many illustrious soldiers.”

Polatti smiled even broader. “Not really so many, though. What? Thirty, forty some....”

“Twenty seven, sir.”

“That’s right. Thank you for correcting me. Anyway, I’m sure you noticed that I was once a sentry here, did you not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then I’m sure you also saw that I am an aficionado of the ancient and crude sport of fencing.”

“Yes, sir.” Polatti studied Cameron with his onyx eyes, and he smiled as if at a private joke.

“You ever try this sport, Sergeant?”

“I’m familiar with it, sir,” Cameron replied flatly. Then, just to test the mettle of the man in front of him, he added, “but I didn’t want to waste my time playing with sticks. I chose to master other skills.” Cameron had lied. He had studied fervently anything that had to do with the art of war. He was just testing the waters, as it were. The smile from Polatti’s face vanished, and his eyes grew hard.

“Well, Sergeant. I think it’s a great deal more than playing with sticks, and I think you should try for yourself. In fact, as your commanding officer I insist that you have a lesson in this fine art. I feel it is one of the best ways to keep fit, and the finesse required is beyond that required of most other sports. So if you will, Sergeant Baylor, don the uniform provided in the locker room, I’ll teach you to appreciate this art!” Polatti’s eyes were full of rage, while Cameron looked at him impassively. After snapping to attention, Cameron disappeared into the locker room, a smile on his face as he left the room.

After briefly explaining the rules to Cameron, the administrator walked to the opposite end of the strip, the small, cruel smile on his lips again. Cameron held the saber clumsily, as if he had never gripped such a weapon. They both raised their weapons, and simultaneously brought them down sharply, making the air crack in the ceremonial salute. Polatti immediately crouched slightly in the characteristic stance of an experienced fencer. Cameron stood almost fully erect and stepped toward the older man cautiously.

Cameron was aware of the almost supernatural dexterity and speed of the mutants from the Galos System, and felt a little deception was necessary to even compete with this man. He dropped his guard carelessly, and seemed oblivious to his error. Polatti did a slight thrust to test his opponent. The tip of the weapon only slightly missed, Cameron barely stepping away from it well enough to avoid the touch.

Polatti slashed at Cameron’s head, only missing it because of the younger man’s reflexes. He stepped up the attack, forcing Cameron to step back several times. Cameron slashed haphazardly at his opponent, leaving himself open. The administrator took advantage of the mistake and slapped Cameron’s side.

“Touché’!” Polatti exclaimed, grinning wildly. “Can’t you do better than this, Sergeant? Or is this ‘stick playing’ too much for you?”

“Nice going, sir. I’ll try harder this time.”

They started off same as before, Cameron still clumsy in stance and grip. Polatti came in quicker now, more sure of his prey. He feinted a slash to the head, and brought it down, trying to strike Cameron’s sword arm.

But as the blade came down, Cameron changed his stance slightly, grasped the hilt properly, and parried the blow, with a quick riposte to Polatti’s chest. Even caught off guard as he was, the older man parried the unexpected blow with a speed that made Cameron jump in his skin. Polatti reflexively struck at Cameron’s chest, but Cameron had slid his blade along his opponent’s, and slapped Polatti’s forearm before being touched by Polatti’s blade.

“Well done, Sergeant,” Polatti said tensely, his eyes flashing anger at Cameron. Cameron seemed not to notice. They stood at opposite ends of the strip, and began again. Polatti sprang to the offensive, reigning a barrage of blows on Cameron that was all but invisible to the eye. Cameron focused more on Polatti’s guard than anything else, but still had a difficult time warding off the attack. After a minute of furious attack, Polatti was rewarded with a touch on Cameron’s shoulder.

Both men went to their side of the strip, Polatti almost racing to his position. Cameron walked casually to his position, and stepped back for a moment.

“Very nice, sir. I’m impressed a man of your years has such vigor. I’m truly awed,” Cameron said, slightly emphasizing the comment on the man’s age. Cameron was rewarded almost immediately. He stood at the ready, and Polatti came at him with even more fury than before. But this time, Polatti was bent more on hitting his opponent than on thinking strategy. Cameron easily slid his blade through the flailing weapon of his opponent’s.

Polatti was furious now, and allowed Cameron two more touches before he realized the younger man’s strategy. With Herculean effort, he regained his composure, focused on the objective, and with the skill he had won the Olympics so many years before, he easily gained the three more touches needed to win the match.

“Very nicely done, Sergeant!” Polatti said, taking his mask off, and extending his hand to Cameron. Cameron took it and congratulated Polatti. “You really had me going for a moment there. Almost to my complete undoing. Very clever.”

Cameron smiled a little, happy to have done as well as he had. Polatti’s face was dripping sweat, dozens of tiny rivers running off onto his jacket. Cameron was sweating heavily as well, but he wasn’t breathing very hard, while Polatti’s chest was heaving steadily.

“I need to do this more often. Care to try again?” Polatti asked.

“Sure, sir. But in all honesty, you outclass me by far. I had to resort to trickery that will not work for me again.”

“True. I’ll not lose my head like that again. But do me a favor, will you?” Cameron looked at Polatti. “Don’t harass my officers like this either. I don’t like it.” Polatti had a look of pure intensity that showed Cameron the ferocity of a top man of war.

“As you wish, sir.”

“Good. I’m glad we understand each other. Now let’s call it a night. I think I’ll have you start your duties a little early. Tomorrow will be your first night on duty. I’ll see you in the morning. Good night, Sergeant.” With that Marco Polatti walked out of the gym. Cameron watched him go, the feeling of dislike even stronger now, but tempered with the knowledge of just how dangerous his new commanding officer might be.

Two hours later, Cameron left the fitness center. He’d decided to exercise some more while he processed all that had happened to him this day. The halls were no longer well lit, it being almost time for lights out. His footsteps seemed to echo down the hall almost deafening in the otherwise silent corridor. Cameron could barely see twenty yards in front of him, the only light coming from an occasional bulb in the ceiling at twenty foot intervals.

He turned down the corridor that led past the mess hall when a slight, almost imperceptible noise from behind him made him stop. He hesitated for a moment, listening intently. The smell of cooking grease tinged the air. Cameron stood for a few moments longer, the started walking at the same pace as before.

He had taken five steps, then ducked to one side, just as a body flew past him to sprawl on the floor. Cameron immediately pounced on the person like a panther on its prey. The attacker swiftly rolled on their back and swung an arm toward Cameron’s chest. A slight glint warned Cameron of the knife’s presence, and he blocked the blow with his left arm, while simultaneously grabbing the knife hand with his right hand. A quick twist had the assailant rolled onto their stomach with their arm in the air behind them. A man’s voice grunted in pain.

Cameron took the knife from the now senseless fingers, and swiftly put the point of the poniard under the man’s throat. He let go of the attacker’s hand and grabbed a fistful of hair, pulling the man’s head back so Cameron could see him better. He grunted in surprised recognition.

“So you’re the one who wrote me the love note, eh, Keller? How’d you manage to get lucky enough to be sent here? I thought murder was a crime punishable by death, especially since you killed the prince of one of the Xenar moons.” Keller glared in vile hatred at the man he’d tried to kill.

“This rock is a death sentence!” he spat. After you had me arrested, the royal family asked the tribunal to sentence me to the worst place they could think of. They sent me here, to mine, and eventually to be executed in the usual fashion around here.” The man called Keller visibly shuddered, which sent a small chill along Cameron’s spine. Keller was one of the most ruthless men he’d ever known, and to cause him to react that way, it had to be bad.

“I just want to know one thing, Keller, before I decide what I’m going to do with you. In your note, you mentioned something about the surprise waiting for me here. What kind of surprise?” Keller just glared at Cameron. Cameron pulled harder on his hair, making his neck bend back painfully, and causing the man to gasp. The tip of the poniard was dragged slowly down Keller’s throat, small streams of perspiration running along either side of the pointed metal. “Well?” Cameron asked.

“I think I’ll let you find out yourself, you pig!” Keller spat. Cameron pulled harder on Keller’s hair, eliciting a choking gasp. Then he let go, pulling the knife away, and Keller started coughing violently. Cameron stood up, looking down on the man with a face totally devoid of human compassion.

“Well, I’ve got no more use for you, Keller. Why don’t you scamper off into your little rat nest and lick your wounds. I have important matters to attend to. But, if you ever so much as get in my way, I’ll finish what I feel would be the proper ending to your sentencing.” Cameron turned his back to the man on the floor, and seemed about to leave. The moment Cameron’s back was turned, Keller reached into his shirt, and pulled out a second, smaller blade. He pulled his hand back and was set to throw it at the soldier.

Cameron heard the rustle of Keller’s clothing, and knew what it was. He spun lightning quick, throwing the blade in his hand. The knife neatly stuck through Keller’s wrist, causing him to drop his knife. He looked in terror at the metal that protruded from his arm, and looked back at Cameron, fear rampant in his eyes.

“I figured you would try that, Keller. In fact, I’d hoped you would. Now, because you assaulted me with the intent to kill, I shall watch you die. Don’t worry about the little wound in your wrist. It will hardly have a chance to heal before they sentence you to die....” Keller’s face changed expression, causing Cameron to stop talking. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he started choking. Tremors racked his body, making him shake violently. His head smacked the floor spastically, and his hands opened and closed repeatedly. After thirty seconds, Keller lie still, a small river of blood oozing from the gash in his head that a piece of shattered skull poked through. Keller’s lips were pulled back in a grimace of ultimate agony, teeth bared in a permanent snarl. His eyes were open wide, his gaze locked in the upper right corner. A green drool slimed out from his mouth to drip slowly to the floor.

‘Caldorian lodith venom!’ Cameron’s mind screamed. He quickly examined his hands, dreading the thought that even a slight break in the skin was evident. He breathed a sigh of relief.... no cuts. He would have been a goner for sure if he had stuck the tip of his finger. The venom of the reptilian creature called the lodith was so deadly, that one drop could kill a hundred men. But it had to enter the blood stream. Careful not to touch anything with his hands, Cameron smashed his elbow on through the glass of the fire alarm box that was next to the kitchen door. This action automatically tripped off the alarm, and in moments all the lights in the hall lit up, and the siren could be heard throughout the complex.

“Why did this man attack you, Sergeant?” Polatti asked, obviously displeased with the situation. His cold black stare didn’t help Cameron feel any more at ease, either.

“I arrested him some years back. He had murdered the prince of Tyr, in the Xenar system, and was implicated in the murder of at least fifty others. He just wanted to pay me back.” Cameron looked straight ahead, holding the position of attention. Polatti chewed on his lower lip in thought for a few moments.

“How do you suppose he came to be on Albitus, then?” the administrator asked, watching Cameron with a cold, calculating stare.

“I don’t know, sir. He must have escaped from incarceration. He did have quite a few associates that would help him if they thought it possible.” The answer seemed to please Polatti, who sat back in his chair, interlocking his fingers and resting his hands on his chest. He sighed deeply before continuing.

“I wasn’t aware of this, Sergeant, and I deeply and sincerely apologize for this mishap. I shall see to it that it doesn’t happen again. Have a good night.” Cameron saluted crisply, did an about face, and marched out of the office. Polatti pushed a few buttons on the phone pad, and after a few seconds, a middle aged man appeared on the screen.

“Yes, sir?” the man asked.

“Report to my office immediately. I want to discuss your.... record keeping skills.” The man on the screen grew noticeably pale.

“Yes, sir. I-I-I’ll be right there.” The image faded from the screen. Polatti sat back in his chair, his face stern, and his black, hard eyes full of anger and venom.

Cameron walked to his room slowly, his mind racing. ‘Lodith venom! Man, Cam! One little nick from that knife, and you’d have been gone! No more mistakes!! Think, man, THINK!’ He never suspected that such a controlled substance could find its way here, but it would figure. The plague of the black market would ever be a blight on civilization, so long as there was money to buy and contraband to be had.

He rounded a corner and opened the door to his room. Without conscious thought his hand slid to the laser pistol at his side and whipped it out, the laser site on and making a bead onto the forehead of.... Kendall!

Cameron rushed into the room, closing the door behind him.

“Brian! That’s a quick way to find yourself dead! I’m a little on the edgy side right now, anyway!”

“I heard. I’m glad he didn’t hurt you, but I knew someone like that wouldn’t be able to. You’re too good a soldier,” Kendall replied, admiration in his voice mingled with a heavy, gloomy note.

“Don’t be so sure. If I had nicked myself with the knife I’d used, I’d have been lying on the floor next to him, just as dead. Anyway, what’s the matter?” He looked hard at the lieutenant.

“Cameron,” he started unsteadily, “you need to leave here, somehow. Your life is in extreme danger.”

“So I noticed, but...”

“That was nothing!” Kendall interrupted with uncharacteristic brusqueness. “There’s something else here.... something that will kill you if you don’t leave. Please! Get off Albitus.” Something akin to panic was in Kendall’s eyes, lighting them with an almost maniacal gleam. A chill ran up Cameron’s spine.

“What’s this something?” Cameron asked, his voice flat.

“I... I can’t tell you that. Just trust me on this, PLEASE!” Kendall grabbed Cameron’s shirt in pleading, the knuckles of his fists grinding into Cameron’s chest. Cameron said nothing, but did realize that this was the main secret of Albitus he had to find out. Why he was chosen to be here.

“Does this danger have anything to do with the mines?” he asked. Kendall jumped up, and walked toward the door, his face a mask of pure fear.

“I can’t tell you any more. I have to leave.” He turned, and left, leaving Cameron thinking that this was becoming one of his more exciting tours of duty after all.

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