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A short story by D.T. Wilby.
Dee looked around at the chaos of the huge mess room. He tried to take in the cacophony too, an aural assault from all sides. He failed. Out of necessity, the cavernous space had become a hasty expansion to their small med bay. He knew a field hospital when he saw one and there was one spawning here, where he and his comrades usually ate their nutrient enhanced gruel and traded their gallows humour. No one was laughing now. It wasn’t just the sights and sounds that gave the calamity away. It was the smell too. Blood. Gore. Vomit and faeces. Death. Stalking them all as it had done for months on this godforsaken rock and for most of them, countless years before that. Dee hated the smell. It told of loss. Loss and defeat.
The plan from the higher-ups had been for Beta Squadron to create a lot of noise and get the enemy’s attention. To create a diversion and draw them in so that Alpha and Gamma Squad to encircle the Reticulon forces in the area. Pen them in so that orbital air support could wipe them off the planet’s surface. Like shooting ducks in a barrel, whatever that was supposed to mean. Easy. Things had gone sideways quickly. They had held up their end of the bargain, but the mythical air support had never arrived. Some sort of change of plan that they apparently didn’t need to know about.
Gamma must have read the writing on the wall and had escaped relatively lightly as a result, but it had been too late for Alpha and especially Beta. They had already engaged. The Reticulon scum had a handful of Dread Leviathans in the field too. It was enough. It had ended up in a slaughter. There would be no new ground claimed today. Not for Dee’s homeworld anyway. A homeworld he’d never even stepped a boot on. Today, in the face of those odds at least, a successful retreat was their only scrap of victory. It could have been a hell of a lot worse. Dee kept telling himself that as he looked around, the heaving room of suffering showing him the lie of it all.
As the din carried on around him, Dee’s attention drifted to the flesh wound in his shoulder. His purple blood leaked out slowly across his red flesh, but even with his naked eye, he could see the wound beginning to heal of its own accord. Some lizard had managed to tag him with a laser pistol. Embarrassing really. Some hopeless officer type who looked like he hardly knew what side of the battle zone he was on or which end of his weapon to point at the enemy. A lucky shot. Then he had to make an example of the young Reticulon Aristocrat, just to save face with his unit. This was a savage landscape and his men had to know he was up to the task of leading them.
He held the anti-infection gauze over the wound and winced. The medic had given it to him after a cursory look at his injury. The doc’s look had said everything. Dee would live, as would most of these other boys currently writhing in agony. They’d live, in one form or another. In their current body or the next one out of the gene pits up on the orbital nursery vessels. Some wouldn’t be so lucky though. The docs weren’t miracle workers and frankly, the homeworld made the call that some of their soldiers, especially the inexperienced ones, just weren’t worth the effort of saving, not with new stock rolling through daily. If you wanted a shot at a second life in this hellhole, you better have some experience behind you. Looking around at this unending mess of burst flesh and suffering, Dee wondered why the hell anyone would ever want to come back after checking out.
“Sarge, we looked everywhere. Not a sign of him.”
Dee stirred from his morbid reverie, looking to his side. It was Vee, back from his rounds with the rest of Dee’s unit, Vee through to Zedd, with one notable exception. They looked dispirited. More than a little shellshocked. The calamitous retreat was bad enough for morale, but losing one of their own out there, or worse, him falling into Reticulon hands? Well, it looked as though Dee’s less than merry little bunch would struggle to take that.
“You looked everywhere? You asked all the Docs?” Dee asked.
“All of them,” Exe said. “They haven’t seen him. Doc Nine even ran a chip scan for us. Zedd’s not back on the base.”
“He must still be out there,” Vee said.
“Well, what now?” We can’t just leave him out there to rot with those lizards,” Whyee chipped in.
“Probably already dead,” Dubuya said, unhelpfully.
“Shut your mouth Dubuya,” Vee responded. “We have to do something. If there’s a chance.”
There wasn’t much of a chance, they all knew that really, but Vee was right. They had to do something. He had to do something. Some of these Red Infantrymen were pretty new, but Dee and Zedd had been together since they fell out of the pits in the same batch like wobbly-legged deer, back on their nursery ship. They’d started as grunts together before Dee had got a leg up to sergeant. Zedd had never been officer material, but he’d never held it against Dee either. He’d followed him into hellscapes across the sector, never complaining, never asking why. Always there like a forever buzzing wise ass. They were friends. Brothers even. Some nights even more than that, though the Red Infantrymen seldom spoke of it. Regardless, it still happened. He cared deeply for Zedd. He wasn’t about to let him die out there, alone in that blue dirt, or worse, allow him to be taken back to some filthy Reticulon hive world. If he was honest, Dee felt a little guilty now too. He’d caught little glimpses over the last few months. Seen Zedd slipping. Becoming more reckless out there. He should have pulled him on it. They should have talked, but there was never time. Always smashing headfirst into the next deployment.
His choice already made, Dee stood, grimacing at the strain, then took up his plasma rifle and pack. They had to do something, no matter how slim the chance. Zedd would have done it for him in a heartbeat, for any of them, “Vee’s right, we owe it to Zedd to try, but I’m going out there alone.”
“The hell you are,” Exe said.
“It’s the best way. No chance of us all getting back out there with the base under lockdown, plus I’ll have a better chance of creeping around out there on my own. I’ll find him. I’ll bring him back. Just keep the higher-ups off my trail while I’m gone. Vee, you’re going to have to head to the Squad debrief for me. Exaggerate my injury for now. Buy me some time.”
It was a big ask, he knew. This all sounded a little too much like disobeying orders and they all knew the penalties for that. They would just have to hope that Dee’s act of heroism came good and gave the higher-ups a positive story to spin around all of this mess. Vee nodded in agreement, followed by the rest. It was done now, whatever came next would just have to be. Dee nodded back to them all, before slipping off alone.
After managing to scramble to the top of the hill in relative silence, Dee lay low for a while, listening to the sounds of the battle zone below. The myriad noises reaching him from his hiding place were all too familiar, but still no less sickening. He could hear the sounds of the Reticulon Infantry below, elated. Drunk on their relatively easy victory. Then there were the moans and cries from the injured and dying. Some still cried out for help, others begged only for that long, final release. Some spoke in the Unified Tongue, others in Reticulon. It did not matter; it was all the same old song.
Above the battle zone, the Reticulon drones busied themselves looking for any enemy survivors. Where they were found, the steady thud of an artillery barrage was never far behind. Further off beyond that, Dee could just make off the metronomic chatter of the behemoth printers, hastily churning out the new Reticulon front line fortifications. The smell of dead flesh and brimstone lingered in Dee’s nose. The rolling landscape before him was ravaged by flame, pockmarked by impact craters. Momentarily he wondered if there had ever been any beauty here. Any peace, or if this had always been the way. For him it was all so grotesquely routine. This battle zone, this planet. All the same really, insidiously reaching out across time and space.
Dee was no stranger to death either. In his experience, it made it hurt no less, knowing that the end may not truly be the end. With every new body, he had assumed, the first thing he did was carve his number into the left forearm with his Valadian combat knife. Nice and deep so that it would heal quickly but wouldn’t heal pretty. Looking down now he saw the jagged number 4 sitting there. He hoped it would still be there tomorrow. That he wouldn’t have to begin again.
The first time he’d died, he had still been a private. Stepped on an A.I. mine on Altruria which promptly blew him into a thousand or so pieces. Silly mistake, but he lucked out. His experience and the fact his relatively intact head had been recovered by his brothers in arms, earned him a fresh skin. He’d managed to keep hold of his second chance for a good number of years after that, but after his promotion, Dee had soon found that as a sergeant, he had an even bigger target on his back. He’d died three more times in quick succession since. Three deaths in three years maybe as he moved throughout the sector, following the slaughter. You should have seen the other guys. On some of those occasions, there had been little left of him beyond the scorched earth where he had just been standing, but as a sergeant, he qualified for neuro back up before every deployment. He was a valuable commodity now, a useful cog in the Red Infantry’s murder apparatus.
Lowering his field goggles from the top of his helmet, Dee scanned the field below him as best he could from the bolt hole he’d managed to stash himself in. As he did, the goggles cycled through signatures, mostly Reticulon, most of them living. Dotted across the killing field, there were also a smattering of his comrades in various stages of mutilation and mortality. He felt like a real fiend, leaving them all to it, but he did his best to shut that sensation away somewhere deep. He couldn’t save them all. Not alone anyway. But he could save Zedd maybe. If he could find him, or at least whatever was left of him.
After what seemed like an aeon under the milky glow of the blue planet’s moon, Dee finally found what he was looking for. As he scanned over a seriously deep impact crater, his goggles lit up with alerts, highlighting the positive match. Zedd. Alive too, or making a relatively good fist of it, based on the vitals Dee was picking up.
That was the first part of his mission sorted, but recovery and extraction were not going to be easy. He was already picking up a unit of five Reticulon Infantry to the east side of the impact zone and three more just over the ridge to the north. That was just for starters. Ending up in the crater had probably saved Zedd, but getting in there now undetected and pulling him out without getting them both killed in the process was going to be awkward as hell.
Struggling up into a crouch, Dee adjusted his plasma rifle, concentrating the beam right down. Minimum dispersal, maximum punch. Stealth mode. Next, he took a moment to focus his mind, forcing the red of his flesh deeper until it reached the deepest of deep purples. Not quite the ultramarine of the landscape surrounding him, but a better fit nonetheless. In the night, it would have to do. Towards the bottom of the hill, there was a tree line that could help get him some of the way. He was told that in what counted for springtime on this rock, those trees would come out in huge purple berries. Right now though, they were sparse and skeletal. Spectres of death.
Preparing himself to go, Dee took a deep breath of the murderous air. There was not much that could live in this place, but with all the genetic modifications, he could live pretty much anywhere for a few days without too much impact. Dee got to his feet. He’d seen hundreds of battle zones like this, all across the galaxy. Deep sleeps, warp jumps, high altitude drops into hellfire and carnage. All for resources, ores. Securing strategic outposts. It was all so tiring. Nothing changed. Seemingly, all the higher-ups could manage to do was find more and more lethal ways for units like Dee to kill and more and more situations for them to be killed in. To just stop and maybe consider another way seemed ludicrous to them. They were all dug in too deep now. Generations pushing in the same lunatic direction.
It was not a thing that Dee could change. He could change things for Zedd though. Time to go. He began to descend.
By the time he reached the rim of the cavernous impact crater, Dee had already needed to deal with the three Reticulon infantrymen closing in from the north. Two of them he had caught cold, squeezing the trigger on his rifle and tearing holes right through their reptilian snouts. Easy. He’d fluffed the third shot though and the Reticulon Officer, vastly more battle-worn and wily than the one Dee had come up against earlier in the day, had been on him in an instant. They had wrestled in the dirt, this way and that until finally Dee had got the upper hand and silently forced his combat knife into the thing’s scaly throat. Harder work, but he had survived it.
Up close the crater looked even larger, a gargantuan open wound in the landscape. If Dee had been forced to guess, he would have said it was the end result of a negative zone grenade. Zedd must have snuck down there after the blast and holed up. If he’d been anywhere near when it had gone off, there wouldn’t be a single trace left of him left. The crater was as deep as it was wide. Dee began to make his descent, trying his best not to feel exposed. Penned in. Trying not to dwell on it. It was difficult. He needed to find Zedd as quickly as possible, whatever condition he was in and get back to camp.
After scrambling down the blue shale embankment, he found Zedd, slumped at the rear of the newly excavated cavern. It was black as the void, but Dee’s enhanced eyes could see well enough. Gingerly, he made his way over to where Zedd lay. He hoped this cave was stable enough to be moving around him or they were both screwed. Reaching Zedd, he whispered to him, “there you are, you stupid son of a bitch, are you hurt?”
“No,” Zedd said flatly. “No, I’m fine.”
“Well come on then, let’s get the hell out of here. Let’s get you home,” Dee grabbed Zedd firmly by the wrist and tried to pull him upright so that the pair of them could make off, but Zedd resisted, rigid in his perch. Vacant. Dee had seen it enough times before and quickly rummaged around in his pack for his shellshock shot. It would get Zedd moving at least. The docs could stitch what was left of Zedd’s collapsing brain back together once they were safely back in the barracks. Once more Dee felt those pangs of guilt. He should have seen this coming weeks ago. Done something about it. Some friend he was.
Before Dee could administer the drug, he heard tumbling rocks behind them. Zedd didn’t seem to register it, but Dee turned around just in time to see a Reticulon Marshall, resplendent in his black and gold battle armour, and his four grunts descending quickly. The five clicks from before. He should have cleaned them up when he’d had the chance. Sloppy. Acting on instinct, Dee grasped for the rifle he’d set down in the rubble, but it was too late. One of the Reticulon soldiers already had his pistol drawn and as it rasped, Dee’s guts burst from his stomach. Half stood already, Dee sprawled backwards, collapsing on his side. His rifle went clattering away somewhere. Never to be recovered. He could hear death beginning to call to him again already.
“Oh, how excellent. He came just as you promised he would Private Zedd,” the Marshall said roughly in the Unified Tongue. As the words registered, their barbs sunk deeper into Dee than the laser wound in his stomach ever could. No. It couldn’t be.
“Wh…Why?” Dee just about managed to gurgle, life rushing out of him on all sides. Some kind of set up? None of this made any sense. Dee was running out of time for it to become any clearer. Maybe it was better this way. Better not to know.
Finally, Zedd managed to turn and look at him. There were tears welling in his eyes now. His shoulders bounced along with his sobbing, “I’m sorry Dee. Sorry, I had to do this to you, but I have to get out man. I can’t take this life anymore. I’m done. These Reticulons offered me a chance to escape off-world. A ticket out of the service, where the higher-ups can’t reach me. A chance at a real life. This sucks for you brother, but you’re that ticket and I’m taking it.”
Zedd stood now, but seemed caught between approaching Dee’s pre-corpse or keeping his distance. Dee tried to speak, but couldn’t. The grunt his throat managed said enough. Traitor. So Zedd wanted out that bad, he’d sold the whole battalion out to make it happen. Maybe Dee should have seen it coming. Instead, he’d acted on instinct. Worse, acted on emotion. He’d allowed himself to be drawn out here on some wild goose chase to save his man and now he would die for his stupidity. Some sergeant he’d turned out to be.
Now, these reptiles would take his head, once he was done with it he hoped, and use the data contained within it against them all. Data from every mission briefing he’d attended, now in enemy hands. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The kicker was he’d probably get to live again soon enough to see the Reticulon’s plan play out too, routing his brothers across this planet and beyond, all thanks to him. Him and Zedd anyway. Not that he’d remember any of this once they recovered him from his off world back up.
“Finish the sergeant off, Quelgrax, then relieve him of his head. Keep it safe. No slip-ups,” the Marshall barked.
“And what about me. My reward?” Zedd said between sobs, seemingly keener than ever to be away from this life. Away from Dee’s eyes, accusing as he lay dying.
“Of course, Private Zedd. Kix, give our friend the freedom we reserve for our traitorous scum.”
Dee vaguely perceived another rasp from a Reticulon pistol. Zedd sagged to the cavern floor, a gaping laser hole in his forehead, a perfect circle.
“Enjoy your peace, Private Zedd,” the Marshall laughed, before continuing to prattle on to his underlings in their mother tongue.
As he lay beside Zedd, Dee managed to feel just a little disappointed that the Reticulons had reneged on their side of the bargain. The deed was done now anyway. Zedd may as well have benefitted from his betrayal and gotten away to his new life. Chances were now that he’d have no life. For your bog-standard infantryman, there was no coming back from a laser pistol wound like that to the brain. Perhaps Zedd would have preferred it that way though, as the consolation prize. For him, maybe anything was better than going back.
No such peace for Dee. He’d be back soon enough. Body number five, with not a clue about all of this. How many questions he would need to answer about this sorry situation from those more in the know than him would depend on what the Reticulons did whilst he was away. There was a chance now that the whole battalion could be wiped out before anyone was any the wiser, with the info Dee was about to gift to the enemy. Dee could be part of a fresh deployment here, or even on another planet entirely, waging war against another foe in another part of the sector. Sensing his life ebbing away in that old familiar style, Dee prayed for the end, but above all else, he hoped that once he splashed out of the gene pits again, he’d remember nothing of Zedd’s betrayal and there would be no one left who could remind him of it. Even if he wouldn’t be allowed a real death just yet, desperately he hoped that the memory of this betrayal would. This was one injury he didn’t want any scars from. The Reticulon chatter went on around him, as he heard that familiar rasp one last time.