Chapter 12 COLONEL’S ORDERS
“Hey, kid,” one of the GIs on duty stepped out from behind a reinforced nanocrete roadblock, “you’re not supposed to be here. Back off, or I’ll put a round through you.” He said it matter-of-factly, his long-barreled pulse rifle not fully raised, but nevertheless ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
Haides fought the urge to turn and run. No matter how wrong it felt to stand out in the open, he was committed—bolting now would get him shot for sure.
The soldier with the rifle was only a handful of meters away, barely visible through the thick mist. His squadmates were no more than dark shapes veiled in white. Beyond them, Haides could make out the contours of the compound wall, the roadblocks, and the reinforced guard post. It was like the rest of the galaxy didn’t exist. It was just the GIs and the boy, surrounded by infinite whiteness.
“I want my mother,” Haides said, remaining rooted to the spot. “She’s here with the Colonel. Can you get her for me?” He got a blank look in return. “Tell her to be quick. It’s my birthday.” He didn’t say it was his twelfth birthday. Better they believed him to be younger. Most soldiers were reluctant to gun down children. The smaller the kid, the less likely they were to shoot—a slight advantage, but an advantage, nonetheless.
Tense seconds passed before the GI lets his rifle barrel drop. Just a few centimeters, but Haides knew the moment of greatest danger had passed.
Another voice, deep and menacing. “Get that auto trained.” Followed by an even louder: “Now!” A multi-barreled pulse cannon swiveled towards Haides, three gunmetal barrels whipping the mist into chaotic swirls. “Luca! Get your ass back into cover.”
“Relax, Sarge, I got this,” the man with the rifle replied.
A hairy arm with rolled-up sleeves appeared, followed by the owner of the voice, a massive soldier with the hashes of a sergeant-major. The hairy arm grabbed Luca by the back of his utility webbing and yanked him back into cover. “Mazzo. Get me a scan!” Two drawn-out seconds went by. “Now, Mazzo. Now!”
Another voice, coolly professional and bitingly acidic at the same time. “All clear, Sarge. No other life signs, no guns, no explosives. All green.”
Sarge, in a low and growling voice. “You motherfucking morons. You’re the most incompetent little fucks I have ever had the misfortune of serving with. You never learn. It’s a miracle any of you are still alive. First, you secure the area with the biggest fucking gun you have. Then scan the motherfucking area to see if there might be, I don’t know, like an ambush or a sniper or a suicide bomber or something.” He was screaming at the top of his voice by now, spittle flying. “How fucking hard can it be?” The last sentence was hammered out, word by word.
The hulking shape of Sarge towered out of the mist, like some ancient lighthouse hewn from rough, unyielding granite. “You, kid. Front and center.” Haides guessed that meant him, so he scurried over. A massive fist immediately grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him close, forcing the cool ceramic barrel-cover of a heavy pulse pistol into a hollow cheek.
“Hey Sarge,” the GI called Luca said, getting up and out of cover again, moving forward, “no need to get all worked up. I know the kid. He comes here with his mother from time to time. You know, the curvy one with the dark hair. The one that Colonel Burness likes,” he added when the mention of dark hair didn’t ring any of the hairy non-com’s bells. “That’s why I didn’t fry his little brain. He’s cool. You can let him through.”
So he was going to shoot. Haides vowed silently never to pull a stunt like that again.
Haides recognized Luca now. He was one of Mother’s ‘special friends.’ Had come by the house in the hills from time to time and later swung by the apartment. Always had chocolates or candy for the kids. He’d grown a beard since last Haides saw him. It had more red to it than his fair hair would suggest.
Another GI stepped out of the white. This one had ‘Mazzo’ stenciled on his webbing, right over the right chest pocket. The other two men, Sarge and Luca, had no name tags. Sarge had his hashes and a regimental badge on his shoulder, an eagle of some sort crushing a tank with its claws. Luca had no markings of any kind.
Mazzo had a scanner in his left hand and a pulse rifle held in his right, pointing up and over his shoulder. The scanner was a rugged square box of metal with a heavy-duty display on top. Crude compared to Akakian equipment but looked like it could take a hell of a beating and keep working. The pulse rifle was standard, except for something tube-like strapped under the barrel—a grenade launcher of some kind.
“Yeah, Luca is right for once,” Mazzo said. “Let the kid through. He’s just looking for his mom. Besides,” he added, “I’m done shooting unarmed kids.” Turning back towards the position, he shouted to a hereto unseen fourth soldier. “Roverto, point that fucking gun somewhere else. I’m getting all jumpy here.” A fourth voice, muffled by the fog, shouted back. “Fuck you too, Mazzo.” But the gun barrels disappeared from sight.
Sarge let go of Haides, waving his pistol in the general direction of his own men instead. “You fucking morons. These people are the enemy, remember? Rebels and traitors. Ring any bells? Any one of them could be a gunman. Or a bomber. Or a spy. You want to live through this or not? This isn’t the time to get sloppy. A few weeks more and we’re done with this shit.”
Luca seemed about to reply, but instead, he snapped to attention. After a moment of confusion, the rest of the men followed suit. A man wearing a long Coalition bleu storm coat and the tall cap of an officer had walked into the group’s midst. Unlike the soldiers, the Colonel was immaculately groomed and dressed. Haides felt strangely intimidated and safe at the same time.
“I am very disappointed,” the Colonel said in an even voice, “by the lack of discipline and skill your men display, Sergeant Blano.” He let his gaze linger on each man in turn, causing them to cringe ever so slightly.
“Guard duty,” the blue-clad man continued, “should be simple enough that even the men of the 57th Loches can manage. It was covered during basic training and is well documented in the Infantryman’s Handbook. That you’re combat veterans is no excuse for laxness. Quite the contrary, you should strive to be exemplars, role-models to soldiers less experienced than yourself. You will do better next time, or there will be reprisals.”
He waved around a small camouflage-colored book with the Seven Roses of the Coalition on the front cover. “The Handbook has details on that too. You can find it under ‘Punishment for dereliction of duty’ and ‘Punishment for lack of vigilance.’ Both involve shooting the offender if I’m not much mistaken. Questions? No? Good. Luca, bring the boy. Sergeant Major Blano, guard the gate—as best you can,” he added with a certain irony.
The Colonel turned on his heel and walked quickly and purposefully back inside the compound. Haides and Luca followed him, having to hurry to keep up. As the three made their way through the Coalition compound, the sun started breaking through. It would not be long now before the mist lifted.
Haides would have to take the long way home. He suddenly burst out in laughter: he’d have to take the long road anyway—no way he could sneak Mother through the Forbidden Zone.
Luca, looking a bit perplexed. “What’s funny, boy?”
“My mother, I…” Haides couldn’t really explain it, so he gave up without trying. They walked the rest of the way in silence.
“You two, inside,” the Colonel said, pulling open the door to a prefab field accommodations unit over by the compound’s west wall. Haides ducked under the camouflage nets strung up above and entered.
Inside lay the Colonel’s personal quarters. It was actually quite homely: several candlesticks, opened books, and personal mementos. A pulse rifle sat partially disassembled on a table, next to the skull of some strange alien beast. “Luca, watch the door. Kid, sit.” The Colonel indicated a chair. Haides sat down and put on his listening-intently-to-the-grownups face.
“My name is Joaquin. Colonel Burness to the men, but you can call me Joaquin if you like.” He rummaged through a drawer in his desk and produced a couple of candy-sticks and an energy bar. “Here, eat it now if you’re hungry. Or save it for later if you’re not.”
Haides hadn’t eaten the bars he’d brought from the apartment but wasn’t about to turn down an offer of extra food.
The Colonel took a seat opposite the boy. “You’re Haides, aren’t you? Lydia’s youngest?” Haides managed a nod. His mouth was too full of candy to answer. “I saw you two in the market once. And she’s spoken of you many times. Showed me your picture.” An uncomfortable silence followed.
Haides gulped down the last of the candy. “Where is she? It’s my birthday, and she promised me a cake.” He put a liberal dose of childish concern into his voice, hoping to sound like a suitably distraught kid.
“That,” Joaquin said, “is what I’m wondering myself.” Haides let the second candy-stick drop to the floor, unopened. The Colonel grabbed the boy’s hands and looked intently at him for a few seconds. “I heard you at the gate, asking for her.”
Haides found his touch to be oddly calming. As a Coalition officer, Joaquin was the enemy. A friendly enemy maybe, but still an enemy.
“She did come here yesterday. Said it was your birthday. She needed a few things for the cake.” He paused. “We came to an…arrangement. She left well in advance of the curfew. Luca here followed her to the square with the red statues.”
Haides tilted his head a bit and looked expectantly at Luca. If they had lost Mother, there would be consequences.
Luca scooped up the candy-stick Haides had dropped. “Sure did kid. All the way along Main and up to Red Square. She only had to loop around the Forbidden Zone, and she’d be over on the indig—civilian—side of town.” He handed Haides back the candy. “Should have been safe enough. She’s gone there many times before. All the…wh…women go by that route.”
Haides’s mind reeled. So they had lost Mother. Between Jan and the Coalition Army, they had abandoned her halfway between the camp and the apartment.
Joaquin was still holding Haides’s hands, but now he felt only revulsion at the touch. “She must have gotten lost,” the boy said, “or maybe she didn’t make it back before nightfall. I must go and look for her.”
The two men looked at one another for a moment. Nothing was said, but something was agreed upon, without the need for words.
“I’ll take the kid and go look for her. Could be nothing, but we’ll go make sure. I’ll bring a comms set and report back if we find anything.” The Colonel nodded. “Acceptable. I’ll be in the command post, listening in on the comms. QRF will be standing by in case there is trouble.”
Luca held the door open for Haides. “Come kid. I’ll just grab my kit and a comms, and we’ll go find your mom.” He moved further down along the wall where more hab units had been positioned. “Just wait here. I’ll only be a minute.” He disappeared inside.
A couple of other soldiers passed Haides by. They seemed indifferent to his presence, except for one fellow who pretended to shoot him in the head with his finger and an odd couple—a giant of a woman and a more normal-sized man, both half-dressed, watching him from the opening of their tent.
From within his inner sanctuary, Marcus analyzed the situation. He knew those two: Shiloh and Jarra. The Order had cut them loose, and they had ended up in Thira. I didn’t see that one coming, but perhaps I should have guessed. All of this is connected somehow. I’ll check up on you two later. No need to involve the gatekeeper.
Luca reappeared. He had added several more pouches to his webbing. Usually, Haides would have tried to guess what exciting stuff was hidden inside, but his mind was busy elsewhere. “Come kid. Over to the gate,” Luca said, urging Haides to follow.
The soldier headed back to the gate with the kid in tow. Sarge and the other two GIs, Rovo and Mazzo, were still on duty, looking a bit livelier than before. “There you are, Luca,” Sarge said. “I wondered if you’d turn up again or if I had to go look for you.”
“I’m sorry, Sarge. I have to go outside. Colonel’s orders. I’m to find the kid’s mother and escort them both home.”
“Say again?” Sarge looked like he couldn’t quite understand the words coming out of Luca’s mouth.
Luca picked up a compact comms set and hooked it to the webbing on the left side of his chest. “Boy’s mother. Locate and retrieve. Colonel’s orders. End.”
He rummaged through a couple of boxes stacked inside the small guard shed, producing a brace of hand grenades still inside their cellulose boxes. They seemed bulky to Haides, even for Coalition equipment. As an afterthought, he threw some power cells into his combat pack. Sarge clenched his jaw, blinked three times, shook his head, and backed out of the shed.
Mazzo and Roverto were waiting for them outside the shed. Roverto was the taller and more massive of the pair, but for some reason, it was Mazzo that drew the eye: there was more substance to him, irrespective of size.
Mazzo looked squarely at Luca. “This is a bad idea. We stick together. You know what happens when we don’t.” Roverto nodded in silent agreement.
Luca was having none of it. “Look, guys, I appreciate the offer, but no. The Colonel said I was to go. The rest of you have duties to attend to.”
Mazzo wasn’t going to let him get away that easily. “Tell him, Rovo. Tell him again what happens if we don’t stick together.”
“A brother dies. That’s what,” Roverto exclaimed.
“That’s bullshit,” Luca said, but his voice betrayed his inner turmoil, “and besides, this is different. I’m not going into action. I’m just helping the boy find his mother.”
“Tico,” Mazzo asked rhetorically. “How did Tico die?”
Roverto replied on cue. “Alone.”
“And Recozzo?” Mazzo continued, “Where his brothers near when he died?”
“No, he died alone,” Rovo supplied, sounding solemn.
Sarge reappeared before more of the dead could be named. “Forget it, morons. Let that freak idea die a stillborn death. Saves me the need to smother it for you.” He made a short pause, daring them to gainsay him. Neither man did.
“If Luca wants to go out and die alone, that’s his call. It’s a shit call. A shit call, made by a shit guy who thinks he’s better than his brothers. Fuck him, I say.”
“Yeah, fuck me,” Luca said. “And besides, none of you saints are very stealthy.” He turned to face Haides. “Time to go, kid,” he said, “time to go.”
Haides turned his back to the guard post and the three GIs, following Luca back into the streets, just as the last fog lifted, revealing the city in all its devastated glory. “Mother, I’m coming for you,” he whispered. “And when I find you, I’ll have my cake. If not, I swear on the ancestors that I’ll make them pay for what they’ve done.”