The Imperials sat in disarray, no one having given any indication of what would come next for them. They had seen to the wounded, of which there were not too many, as most of the men the Stonegald had reached did not survive for more than a few seconds. While the great lizard was felled, their continued stagnation was likely caused by the betrayal of the very man that had saved them. It was not that Fedaro the mercenary had endangered any of them, but rather that he decided to run off with the girl called Gloria that would be viewed as nothing less than treason by Doma Arak. Mestarés knew that treason wasn’t even an exaggeration of the seriousness here; the girl posed a threat to the very highest of the Imperials.He had just confirmed over the radio that Fedaro was not returning the girl to their custody. He had since tried to call Fedaro again a couple of times, but the mercenary would certainly have disconnected his communication device by now or thrown it away completely.Not in Mestarés’s worst nightmare had he thought that this endeavour might turn out as badly as this.He would be lucky to have a job still by the end of the year.The main reason for his rapidly shortening career came trudging towards him.
And this time Sternroe was right; Mestarés should not have had Fedaro aboard this operation. But how was he to know his most valuable and trustworthy contact would go rogue?
Standing over Mestarés where he sat, Sternroe took his sweet time saying something, which made it worse.
‘Having an astute mind of some magnitude I am more than capable of doing deductions under normal everyday circumstances, but can you tell me what is going on here? Seeing that I’m at a loss as to why we have civilians running around endangering our operations and kidnapping our target?’
‘We lost the girl,’ said Mestarés sullenly, not meeting his eyes.
‘I know that,’ snapped Sternroe. ‘Who was that rogue that made off with the target? Your drinking buddy?’
‘This is not a situation to make light of Sternroe.’
‘You’re telling me!’
’We needed backup. I paid Fedaro to cover us because I knew we would run into things the men aren’t prepared for. It was a mistake.But I couldn’t possibly know he would have an interest in the girl!’
‘You will have a lot to answer for Mestarés. I would leave this in the hands of the officials to deal with you accordingly, and in my report I will have to be truthful of what happened here, of course... but lucky for you this girl is deemed a priority.’
Mestarés perked up. Not because he expected some kind of reprieve from what is surely going to be a harsh punishment, but rather resolute to stop Sternroe from taking this mission for bad to worse.
‘If some kind of redemption is an option for you, get your men together. You owe it to them to at least give them a chance to complete this mission. We’ll capture the girl by tomorrow evening at the very latest, but we need to get moving now,’ said Sternroe.
‘I don’t think we should pursue this any further,’ Mestarés said sternly. ‘Take it from me, we are chasing two very dangerous individuals into even more dangerous territory.’
‘You might be happy failing this mission, but I...’
‘We can contain the area,’ Mestarés interrupted him. ‘Let’s risk no further men, and let the Garden and whatever forsaken place they venture into take care of them!’
‘I will not take that chance. The rumour mill about this girl is that she is much more important than anyone cares to reveal.’
I know exactly what a threat she poses you arrogant fool, much more than you do, thought Mestarés.
‘I’m going to pull my men out,’ said Mestarés. ’We’ll go home. I can send back-up for you if you want... experienced men that will be more suited to the task,’ said Mestarés.
’Luckily your command doesn’t carry much weight here. Of course you can take your men home if you really want, but I think that if you have to utter your retreat and your responsibility in letting the girl escape in the same breath, you might take the girl’s place in The Hold, let alone face a dishonourable discharge.’
Mestarés didn’t respond.
‘How good do you know this man?’ asked Sternroe.
‘If you’re asking how well I would perform in anticipating his movements, then no better than you,’ said Mestarés.
’Wrong answer Mestarés. You better come up with something fast.’
‘He would have shut down or destroyed his comm. device by now. I cannot trace his location.’
‘Very well, we’ll track him the old fashion way.’
Sternroe assembled the men and Mestarés did not contest him, deciding to see this through and try and keep the men out of harm’s way. They went in the last known direction of Fedaro and Gloria. Sternroe headed out in front, often stopping the entire group so that he could scan the area. When they came to a solitary wall, the only remains of a building now topped by soil, Sternroe halted the entire company again, insisting that no one ruin the tracks that he studied. Mestarés marched forward, keen to see if Sternroe had found something.
‘Here he caught up to the girl, and another pair of tracks comes from this side. Only the Hippo’s boots can be this big! That bastard caught the girl just like he said he would! Impressive, I had thought the imbecile to be quite useless,’ said Sternroe.
‘The big man has a degree in mathematics, he might be dumb world-wise, but he is not an idiot,’ said Tony.
Sternroe shot Tony a warning look.
Be quiet Tony, thought Mestarés. This was not the time to run his mouth, even if Sternroe did deserve it.
The other captain continued his inspection of the ground and surroundings; his tracking abilities have always been an enviable talent for anyone out in the field.
‘Signs of a slight struggle... but it stopped... Mestarés’s drinking buddy interfered... they were here for awhile, we probably would have caught them already if someone bothered to pursue them.’
‘Should we search the area for bodies?’ asked Mestarés, thinking that either one of Gloria or Beluka might be dead.
‘No need. They took off. Think the girl’s injured. Look here, the mercenary and the Hippo’s tracks lead off. But the Hippo is carrying slightly heavier from here on,’ said Sternroe pointing all along the fresh tracks leading north. ‘The Hippo is carrying the girl!’ Sternroe turned to Mestarés. ‘Is everyone in your company a turncoat?’
Mestarés was stunned by the information.
‘Captain Mes-ta-ries here is much more of a man than you are,’ said Tony.
The entire group of Imperials grew quiet, anticipating a horrendous backlash.
Sternroe approached Tony and Tony seemed to shrink. Not that he was tall to begin with.
‘And now the lot of you are arrogant as well...’ started Sternroe softly.
’I don’t care what nobody says sir. I’m not stupid. If Captain Mes-ta-ries didn’t call in backup we would have all died. I don’t know why that man with the Musket ran away with the girl, but he sure as hell saved our asses when the chips were down. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful sir, I’m just really, really glad to be alive.’
Somehow, that last bit Tony said was maybe just enough for Mestarés to have some moral high ground when he returned home. Right now, more importantly, he had gotten enough of Sternroe’s attention that Mestarés had a small window of opportunity. Sternroe wasn’t going to let that little insult go, so he went into a tirade of belittling Tony in front of everyone. During which Mestarés ducked out of sight. He should’ve intervened right then, or at least divert Sternroe’s fury away from Tony.But Mestarés needed this time.
He had been thinking, if Beluka was with Fedaro and he still had his helmet with him...
The helmet of the Imperials was the supposed masterpiece of modern day infantry. That was the rhetoric cried out to all corners of the Empire. It partially earned that title in that they were individually fitted to each recruits’ head, which covered everything from the base of the skull, the jaw line, the head and the eyes sitting behind a sophisticated visor. Only the mouth and nose was left open. It was also fitted with a communication device that allowed any lowly soul within the Imperial military to communicate with any number of brothers-in-arms. Of course some channels were private, but the moral here was that men could coordinate and identify each other in combat situations. If you thought communication was important in a marriage, it’s even more critical in combat. Life and death stuff, thought Mestarés dryly.
Behind closed doors the generals lamented that the Imperial helm cost more than what any wretch’s life was worth.
Sure, it could stop a stray bullet, a small one, and being wrapped around your head was ideal for absorbing concussive blasts. But the reason it amounted to such a cost was the high-tech fitted inside. The visor fed information back into a CPU all the time and also contained communication links. The computing power of any given helmet was often bragged about in the fancy functions Mestarés had to attend where the military based computer scientists convened. Apparently, it was their effort to install some brains onto the heads of some very vacant minds. That was their general rendition of it.
Mestarés had painfully listened to the snotty scientists belittle the soldiers, when that beautiful woman had entered the hallway back home at Millennium Park, the one he had instantly developed a crush on, and the one that had called him a rat-face in so many words, shortly after he had done the effort of introducing himself to her.
Mestarés chortled and shook his head at himself, promising himself for the umpteenth time he wouldn’t think about that night again.
He dialled Beluka’s helm, as discretely as he possibly could.