Trails in the regolith
The sound of the porous surface under her boots was almost more than Alexandra could take. She’d wandered for hours now, dragging her brother on a makeshift stretcher behind her. Dusty, grey and dull rock was all she could see around her.
“This would be a whole lot easier if you’d just talk to me, brother.” She looked at his lifeless face, a red streak still visible in his hair. “That looks good … you should dye it like that when this is all over.”
She frowned and kept walking. Those fuckers… She’d found the station bombed and broken, every vehicle and transport destroyed. The crew that had attacked them on the skybridge was probably waiting there for them. They must’ve gotten impatient.
It didn’t make any sense to her, none of it. She thought back on the original attack, waking up in the middle of the night, her house bathing in brilliant white light. 554 years since the first exodus … I was certain some alien race had finally found us. Then Cristopher came barging into her house, the brother she hadn’t seen in five years. The brother she cherished more than anything in the universe.
The brother lying lifeless on the stretcher behind her.
He told her he had uncovered something important, something worth dying for.
“You did die!” She’d told him in her confusion. You were completely gone for nineteen seconds! Alexandra would never forget those nineteen seconds; it was the most frightened she’d been her entire life. You left me! Then you came back from the dead and then you left again! She turned around, tears falling onto the porous surface. “I won’t let you leave again!”
Christopher had fallen out with the wrong people, and they’d beaten him half to death – or completely to death, depending on how one saw it – as a warning not to mess with them. Then he’d joined the Thousand Swords, a private military corporation based in another star system. According to himself, he went deep undercover, doing things he didn’t want to talk about. But he retrieved something, something he only trusted Alexandra with.
She still didn’t know what that was, exactly.
It had been two weeks since he pulled her out of her bed and saved her from her own burning house. A burning house in a city built on the fucking water, how immensely stupid is that? The thugs who threw the firebombs were swiftly dealt with by Novean police, but Alexandra and Christopher had suffered attacks almost every single day since he returned. It was always by the same thugs, raggedy and with poor equipment, almost as if they didn’t really want to kill them. You’re being too paranoid, Alexandra…
Novea… The blue marble, it was called. It was the third rock from Alexandria, the most powerful sun known to man. The planet was a paradise, only for the rich and wealthy. Eighty-nine percent of the world was covered by water, so they built their houses on top of it. Some were chained together, some were by themselves. Some had several acres of floating paradise to live on, while others lived in dense, bustling residential areas. All in all, it was a metropolis like many others, only with streets made of water and floating passageways.
The attack on the skybridge was something new though, something far more aggressive and advanced than all the other attacks, combined. That was an avalanche-class gunship blowing a whole in the bridge; those aren’t easy to come by. And those soldiers… Alexandra turned to look at her brother, smiling at the red stripe going through his hair. They couldn’t shoot for shit. Good equipment but poor training, perhaps? It seemed like a waste of resources, but some mercenary companies had more credits than people, and equipment could be appropriated faster than soldiers could be trained.
There were so many mercenary and private military upstarts scattered across the universe, one could fill a mid-sized planet with them. Many of them risked their lives going out beyond the Periphery, searching for rare minerals and gasses beyond the red line. Those who actually found something and survived would sell their discoveries, earning millions of credits. Only a few struck gold though, and many died. The planets in the Periphery were littered with crashed ships, eroded corpses and dead dreams.
Whoever it was chasing Alexandra and Christopher, they must’ve been among the lucky ones.
A sound caught Alexandra’s attention. There was something ahead of her, roaring.
“Wait here, brother.” She pulled her pistol and crouched down next to some jagged rocks. They weren’t taller than her thighs, but they would have to do.
Soon after, a cone of light lit up the surrounding area. It was a buggy. I should be close to K’hadmera. Maybe they’ve sent out a patrol. Alexandra looked at her brother. He wouldn’t be able to carry on much longer. If the people in the buggy were hostiles and spotted her, she’d be dead before she could fire a single shot. If they were friendly and she shot first, though…
This requires a leap of faith, she thought, standing up. “Over here!” She yelled.
The vehicle stopped.
“Identify yourself!” Someone shouted.
“Identify yourself, now!” The voice came again, a light blinding her.
“My name is Alexandra Loncar, and-”
That was all she managed to stutter before a boot hit her behind the knee.
“Listen, I have-”
“Who the hell is this?”
Alexandra couldn’t see anything, but she assumed they were talking about her brother. “That’s my brother, Christopher.” The grey sand and stone left a dry taste in her mouth. “We have important information.”
She was dragged into the vehicle by two men. From what she could see, the driver was female, though. “Some company you keep…” Alexandra mumbled, looking at the woman’s right eyebrow in the rearview mirror.
“Oh, they’re not so bad.” The woman replied. .
“You have good ears.” Alexandra could hear the men talking outside the buggy, mumbling something into a radio. They’re radioing a pickup for Topher…
The woman turned around. “So do you.”
Alexandra was taken aback.
The woman was extremely beautiful, with jet-black hair and eyes to match, but it was the insignia on her shoulder that really caught Alexandra’s attention. “Master sergeant? So you’re the one calling the shots here?”
“What … are you surprised because I’m a woman?”
She wasn’t. She was relieved. Alexandra had nothing against men, per se. She even liked them, in small enough doses. Though it’s been a while. However, Alexandra had been through some tough situations, and she’d seen some of the things men could do. Women weren’t always much better in that regard, but there was at least one thing they couldn’t do…
She smiled at the master sergeant. “I’m surprised because you’re driving.”
The woman smiled back, her eyes gleaming in the darkness. “What, you’d think I’d let a man drive me around, just because I outrank him?”
Alexandra looked back at the two men. They were stabilizing Christopher, no doubt preparing him for transport. “Not very good drivers, huh?”
“Men drive the same way they fuck – reckless, hard and fast; if either one of those had been driving, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Alexandra couldn’t help but laugh. The master sergeant had certainly removed some of the grimness from the situation. Though I’m not sure why … she doesn’t know me. We’re not pals. There was the paranoia again. Good, that’s the only way to stay alive.
It didn’t take long before another cone of light appeared. It was a slightly bigger buggy, skidding to a halt right next to Alexandra’s brother.
“See?” The master sergeant said. “Reckless.”
Another man jumped out, helping the others put Christopher in the vehicle. He gave the master sergeant the thumbs up and then skidded off into the blackness.
“Just you and me then,” she said, stepping carefully on the gas.
The buggy was extremely responsive, moving forward immediately. Even though the surface of the moon was rocky and uneven, the drive felt smooth and unhindered. She really is a good driver. “So, master sergeant-”
“Please, call me Nora. Or Sergeant Hendricks, if you must.”
“Okay … Nora; what’s going on here?”
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”
“Yes you should, but you haven’t! And I was referring to…” Alexandra pointed at Nora, then herself. “Whatever this is.”
“I’ll tell you what, Alexandra Loncar, why don’t you tell me what you think this is, and we’ll go from there.”
Oh heavens… Alexandra leaned back, taking off her vest. The men had taken her weapon, but not her armor and ammunition. “How long until we’re there?”
“You mean K’hadmera?”
“Are there any other places on this godforsaken rock?”
“You’d be surprised.” The woman turned around, smiling again; Alexandra’s relief slowly evaporating. “Twenty-two minutes.” She turned back.
“I think you’re being way too friendly with me. Instead of giving me the third degree, you’re giving me banter about men and sex.” Alexandra leaned closer. “What was all that about, anyway?”
“That man, Christopher; he’s your brother, right?”
“He’s been wounded pretty badly, right?”
“And when was the last time you felt really, really worried about your brother?”
“You mean … before-”
“I mean now, on this rock!”
When she really thought about it, Alexandra hadn’t worried since getting into the buggy. She’d been too busy trying to figure out what the sergeant’s deal was. At once, all the paranoia and worry came creeping back, but she recognized Nora’s point. “Son of a bitch…” She mumbled.
“I can see the worry in those big eyes of yours; it’s basically spilling out. I saw no reason to add more torment.”
“That’s … actually really thoughtful of you, I suppose.”
Nora shook her head. “I’ve made you more paranoid than anything, I fear.”
She’s good, Alexandra thought. There’s no way around that. Might as well try to act normal and see how all of this plays out. “So what happens now?”
“Well, we’ll do our very best to fix your brother up, and then we’re going to have a nice chat with the both of you.”
I’ve already taken one leap of faith; no reason to stop now. “We have important information.” Alexandra stuttered.
“I’m … not quite sure.”
“If I were you, Alexandra, I’d get sure. Fast.”
“My brother obtained the information, he said it was worth dying for, I-”
“You better hope your brother recovers then, because right now, all we have here are dozens of dead men, a broken piece of architecture worth more credits than you’ve ever seen, and a confused, pretty young girl with no explanation.”
What’s with this chick? “I’m sure we’ll get it sorted out when we get to K’hadmera.”
“What’s so funny?”
In addition to housing the richest dirtbags in the known universe, K’hadmera also happens to house the most expensive research facilities. Everything happening there is classified, and it takes almost half a year for people to be processed and give clearance.
“So; you’re not going to K’hadmera, and neither is your dear brother.”
Alexandra looked at her watch, then outside. It had been twenty minutes, and she saw nothing even remotely resembling a floating city. There wasn’t a structure in sight, only two giant rocks, marking the entrance to a valley, shrouded in pitch black darkness.
“Don’t you leave me, Christopher…”
Christopher opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Where am I?
“I can’t lose you, Topher…”
There was a train somewhere, but he wasn’t sure. Everything was so white and bright, bathing in light. Is this Alexandra’s house? She was gone. She’d left for somewhere else. “The skybridge!”
“Open your eyes!”
He ran all the way to Shul IV, entering the first train. She was there, sitting in one of the seats in the rear. “Alexandra!”
“I already lost you once, Christopher.”
Something was wrong, the train didn’t move.
“Christopher, hold on to my arm!”
“Actually, I was thinking of letting go…”
There was a hole in the skybridge. They attacked us. I almost died here.
“Open your eyes!”
He could see the sky above, a million stars dancing. He could also see a brown planet hovering ominously close. Shul IV; which means we’re on-
“Open your eyes, Christopher!”
He opened his eyes.
The room was dimly lit by a small light fixture in the ceiling. Orange lines were glowing along the dark green walls. Christopher would’ve recognized those colors anywhere. I’m in a bunker.
“You’ve been shot, are you aware of that?”
The train … those people on the skybridge. “Yes.”
“Who shot you?”
A soldier… The one Alexandra- “Where’s my sister?!” Christopher tried to look around the room, but he was too stiff and sore. All he could see was the light fixture and the dull, green walls.
“She’s safe. Don’t worry about her.”
“I’d be less worried if I could actually see you!”
A few seconds passed, then Christopher could feel his bed rising. Slowly, his back was raised and more of the room revealed. He could see several empty beds lined up next to the far wall, a few wheeled tables containing surgical equipment and a gorgeous woman sitting next to him.
“Surprised?” She asked.
“Is it because I’m a woman?”
Christopher shook his head.
He studied her, looking at her insignia, then at her face, then finally her body. Her uniform was black and neutral, but tight. From what he could tell, it was in two pieces though. Not one of those damn gimp suits, fortunately.
Their eyes met again.
Or, unfortunately, I guess. Her vest was on the table next to her, but her gun was holstered by her left thigh. She’s professional, but relaxed. She had her jacked zipped halfway down. It wasn’t as tight as the rest, but the black top underneath still revealed an impressive cleavage. And she doesn’t consider me a threat. Or maybe she just assumes I’ll be too busy staring at her tits.
She assumed correctly.
“You’re left handed.”
The woman leaned back and crossed her legs. “And you’re observant. Here I thought you were just staring at my breasts.”
“I caught a glimpse of those too. They’re very pretty.”
The woman laughed. “Thank you.”
“Being a female master sergeant, you probably get this a lot but; any chance I could see the rest of them?”
“Actually,” she replied, leaning forward. “I don’t hear it all that often.” She leaned back again, pulling the zipper up.
“You must be a stern woman, then.”
“When it’s needed.”
“And velvety soft when that’s needed, I see.”
“Aw, would you like me to be firmer with you?”
Christopher shook his head. “No need, I can’t really feel my waist anyway.”
“That would be the pain relievers. A rare concoction made right here on this desolate rock.”
“It’s working great, I can’t feel a thing, but my mind is still clear.”
“That’s the idea.”
Christopher felt a sinking feeling. “Because you’re going to interrogate me, right?”
“Aw, when you say it like that, it sounds so bad. We were off to a good start here, with the banter and the boobs and whatnot.”
What’s her deal anyway? “You’re remarkably easy going.”
“It wasn’t a compliment.”
“I’m a female master sergeant, Christopher. Half of the people under me can’t handle that. I get crap for being a woman wherever I go. Instead of acting like a man, I own it.”
Christopher smiled, looking at her again. Her shoulder length, raven hair cascaded naturally, flowing away from her face, gently resting on her shoulders. Most of the women Christopher had seen working as a mercenary or in the military had buzz cuts, or their hair tied up in a knot. This one might as well be on her way to a ball.
“You do own it,” he said. “You’re absolutely gorgeous and you’re flirty and easy going. That makes me nervous as shit!”
“So it was a compliment, then?”
“Damn it, woman, you’re too smart for both of us.”
She gave him another smile, a little broader than the last one. It seemed honest – or so he thought, at least. “I’m master sergeant Hendricks,” she said. “Just call me Nora; it saves us time.”
“I’m Christopher Loncar, but you already knew that. And there’s no way in hell I’m calling you Nora.”
“Wow, I guess you really were in the military. Your sister was much less formal.”
“PMC. And yes; she’s not really one for formalities.”
“I just told you that I’ve met your sister, don’t you want to ask me something.”
“You said she was okay.”
“And you believed me just like that?”
“Not necessarily, but I can’t really do anything right now, can I? Besides, I was busy staring at your tits. Wasn’t that your plan all along?”
“I guess you have a point.”
Christopher crossed his arms, looking around. There was just one entrance to the room, and judging from the colors on the code panel next to it, it was unlocked. People can come and go as they please, and they don’t expect me to run … good. There were some vents near the back of the room, but they were barely making any sound. The air is fresh and clean, so they’re either extremely silent, or we’re above ground. Next to his bed was a hovering table, containing a silvery plate with three apples and a banana, and two plastic cups. Oh, nice! One seventh of a meal, just what I needed!
“So, should we get this interrogation started then?” He smiled. “I like the hovering table, by the way. Magnets, right? Mind if I take an apple?”
Master sergeant Hendricks nodded. “Go right ahead.” She pushed a button next to her chair, and the table levitated over.
“Aha! That’s awesome.” Christopher said, drinking some water before taking an apple. “Stupid lazy, but pretty awesome!”
“I’m glad we’re entertaining you, Christopher.” She stood up and grabbed a data pad from a shelf Christopher hadn’t noticed. She plotted in something and the screen lit up, reflected purple in her dark eyes. “I must say that I’m fairly … irked you haven’t asked yet.” She paused, pressing a few more buttons. “You’re here!” She said, showing him the pad.
It was a map of sorts, detailing the moon they were on. He could easily spot K’hadmera – the floating islands to the north-east – and a red blinking dot gave away their current position. Pretty far from the mark, but this one is K’hadmera security, so she would be well served with the information.
“Your sister is being held here.” She pointed at another installation a few clicks away. “And when I say ‘held’, I mean she’s got access to food, water and clean clothes.”
Christopher nodded. “Good.”
Hendricks sat down again, shaking her head in disbelief. “Are you close with your sister?”
“It’s complicated, but yeah.”
“Is it complicated because she shot you?”
Christopher couldn’t help laughing. “What?!”
“We matched the bullet in your chest with the rifle she was carrying when we intercepted the two of you.”
“Well, she picked it up from the man who shot me!”
“Did you see it?”
Christopher leaned back, closing his eyes. “Wow, I figured you were both smart and beautiful, but now you’ve got some convincing to do.” He opened his eyes again, looking at her. “Of course I didn’t see it, I was busy being shot, remember.”
“So, who’s to say she wasn’t the one who shot you?”
Christopher laughed again. “You’ve seen too many movies, master sergeant.”
“I’ll admit, I was hoping for a juicy conspiracy.”
Christopher threw the half eaten apple away and took a sip of water. “I’m afraid the only juicy thing in here is you, master sergeant.”
She smiled and leaned closer. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” She leaned even closer, her lips close to his ear.
Christopher felt a tingle, even though he tried not to. A knot in his gut pushed through the anesthesia. He wanted this woman, and now it was too late to hide it.
“So, about this information you have…” She whispered.
Well played. Christopher cleared his throat and frowned, turning towards her, their lips inches from one another. “It warns of an imminent attack.” He said coldly.
Hendricks stepped back. “On K’hadmera.”
Christopher nodded. “K’hadmera, too.”
“Where else? Alexandria? Bryden? Sorimone?”
“Those too.” He said.
Master sergeant Hendricks was exceptionally good at her job. She’d kept Christopher on his toes ever since he woke up. She’d flirted with him, allowed him to flirt with her and in the end made an assessment. She’d arrived at two conclusions; he was telling the truth, and he wanted her. She would be able to use both of these things to her advantage upon receiving the information Christopher was carrying.
Or so she thinks.
“Where else? What kind of attack is this?”
Christopher leaned forward, the cockiness gone from his turquoise eyes, the arrogance faded from his voice. “This isn’t about an attack on a colony or a planet; or even a system. This is about an attack on the human race.”