Sergeant Carline Sandany, first echelon Sol Confederation Marines, didn’t see civilians as obstructions or sheep, as with stereotypical military officers. She was fully in the stereotypical camp of constantly reminding herself, “They don’t know,” though. But now that shoe had switched feet, and dear Shiva was it painful.
It was her job and her responsibility to get back to the Consul, or whatever remained of it, at nearly any cost. To aid this end, her training demanded she be consistently in control of her environment, her objective, and her assets. Her assets had been taken from her, her objective turned fluid and cloudy, and she was stuck in a place with a gravitational constant roughly five percent greater than her training regimen had ever covered. Manageable in theory, hair-ripping in practice.
Now, she couldn’t even speak the language without the thing – the magical thing – looped around her neck.
When the twitchy fellow Sginer had given it to her, she realized he was providing her with something effectively priceless. They’d had an interesting discussion that first day, in what amounted to a cave with a leather curtain across it. It was a hard thing, recognizing need without admitting depth of weakness, trying to find compromise with each others’ directives.
Her initial reaction, of course, had been to pressure the man for her return.
“I need to get back to where I belong and protect the Consul,” she’d told the man who’d claimed to have summoned her from a pool of water, over a table of bread and stew on that first night.
The clarion call of her duty. She had felt it warming her as her hands clenched hard in her lap.
“Whatever can be done, to speed that process along? Do that.”
“I’m afraid we can’t go faster than we presently are,” Sginer had replied, at the head of a short span of silence.
“You said something about a… chemical,” her growl had interrupted, putting a boot on the silence’s throat. “I hope that you can guarantee this mission will procure it. Otherwise, anything I need to do to lay the roadwork to get home, anything at all…”
The man had abruptly looked like he distinctly remembered the size and use of her weaponry. “Yes, dear lady Sergeant, but-”
“And don’t call me ‘lady,’ I’m not royalty.”
He’d tipped his head, leaning across the table. His focus: some point over her left shoulder.
“Ah. I had assumed, but that is… Regardless. You may be no Lady, but you, dear Sergeant, are a lady worthy of our respect and honor.”
A hard double-blink.
“And our sympathy,” he added, with a rocky shell over his words. Curious, that that should be the only probably-lie in his spiel.
Curious, that it should actually hurt.
He’d put up a fat-fingered twitchy hand before she could reply.
“To address your concern, yes; goldbeer is… difficult to manufacture, except in tremendous quantities. It requires… well, a dash of gold, and other esoteric sundries. In general, either you can’t make any, or you can afford to upkeep the supply chain for brewing rainstorms’ worth. King Goeyren isn’t putting up a lot of effort on that front.”
Knuckles clenching and cracking at the name, just a bit, during the pause.
“As I recall, there was a tremendous stock last I checked, and no reason to use even a fraction of it. In addition, I’ve a hard truth for you: even if there were no goldbeer remaining in this nation, this still would be your best chance at getting some. Nognāt’s kindness would be the second-best option, and the old guard dictating how they conduct their affairs are stingy with their favors. At every other edge of the world, you’ll find either enemies or people occupied with their own worries.”
“If this goldbeer is so rare, I’m amazed you decided to waste it saving me from a crashed carrier.”
“No, my lady Sergeant, we did not waste it.”
He’d filled up his lungs. They sounded like accordions, empty his whole previous life. A thin phial with the barest scrim of something glittery at its bottom had given a fretful tinkling cry, being set against the table.
“I have two possible solutions to this current problem of our regent’s exclusion from this land. One is… something of an ill-gotten plan, something that came to me in the night, from a voice on the wind. I don’t know if the suggestion I heard was real, or a delusion, but it isn’t one to undertake lightly. It isn’t a plan I hope to use as the first course of action. You are the alternative. Or perhaps I should say, you are the significant superior of the two.”
“Suffice it to say that there have been other summonings such as yours in the past. They tend to bring people to us who possess spectacular traits, otherworldly knowledge. We knew that rescuing you was the best course we could take.”
Armor creaking. Eyes searching.
“You need to get back,” Sginer had stated with gentle steel, “and I need to restore my sovereign from his hiding in wretched Fanlil.”
Duty laid down by his allegiance.
That, she realized, was the source of the faint yet potent connection she’d felt. A shared bond in showing steadfast obeisance. It convinced her that, all other differences aside, they had enough common ground for her to assist the strange man who’d given her the strange talisman. He would return his kingdom to its original rulership. She would gain access to a store of “goldbeer,” whatever it took, and a ritual to send her on her way.
So then she was rushed off to pre-medieval suburbia, while the people of the resistance cell carried their movement’s lifeblood. Protests, propaganda, problem-solving.
And now here she was, laying plans for assassination.
Focus on the work at hand. Foreshortening a regime in favor of another.
With one hand around the plain shape of the necklace, she caressed its coils, smelled the stink of dirt, heard the hooligan wind outside protest the inconvenience of artificial constructions.
Letting go, she looked around the place where she and those loyal to Rollhir the true king remained in hiding. The muscles of her jaw stood out. Her temples throbbed. Many thousands of hair-bereft follicles crawled over her scalp. Her digits clenched tight on the weapon leashed to her heavy carapace.
The Kunagi Delta PR-29 Warming Gun, almost more dear to Sergeant Sandany than life itself, was the incarnation of her frustrations.
Penetrating. Highly controlled, but also capable of unadvisedly chaotic expulsions when situations demanded. It was instrumentation suitable for the needs of these freedom fighters. It was more destructive than her pistol by several orders of magnitude, stored conveniently down the back of her armor, and symbolized the power and accomplishment of the Sol Confederation.
It also frequently was a source of potent photon radiation when it and her suit needed servicing. It also happened that servicing was required on at least a weekly basis – in this strange place away from home, she was erring on the side of caution and sticking with a five-day limit.
On several occasions, taking several different approaches, she’d explained this in great detail.
I need to go do this out where it’s safe, she said.
No, you can’t, because they’ll almost certainly find us out and our organization will crumble, they said.
I’ve received resistant gene therapy; at this rate the statistics will almost guarantee having your lifespans abbreviated thanks to being around this stuff, she said.
That may be of consequence later, but for the time being we have more important concerns, they said. Many of them said, at any rate.
Whatever her original worries were, they’d changed after she realized they wouldn’t be remedying their plans over a little bit of radiation. The closest thing to saving grace was that most of the crew planning and watching over her rotated over intervals, so the ordeal was less a law-of-large-numbers promise of death and more a significant risk, and their incurred dose might not start the domino effect of cancerous fallout.
She wasn’t happy that it was still a very likely possibility, but that was the danger of handling statistical hazards. She herself wasn’t immune, but her treatment meant the odds of significant cellular damage were very low. The Confederation took good care of its military.
She’d made her case, it had been rebuffed (and no matter how gently, it was irksome beyond belief). She couldn’t force them out, she couldn’t skimp on the venting and upkeep of her armament.
“Take care you’re out of sight,” the short gray-haired man currently managing their present and hopefully final stretch of the operation told her. She didn’t know his name. For that matter, she didn’t know any names except for Sginer and a select couple of others – and evidently there were a lot of others. What she did know about this fellow was that he talked with her as though she hadn’t been in a firefight more than once or twice in her life.
“Go back down this alley, across here, and through the door at the aft end of this house.”
He tapped a small wooden utensil that made up part of an improvised ugly map table.
“I wasn’t there when you showed it to our friends, but I understand your tool is similar to but far more powerful than a longbow,” he noted.
He looked up from where he leaned on the rough substrate, frowning.
“This vantage here would put an archer inside arrow range, keep him mostly out of sight, and still give him a clear shot up and down this street. Pity about the breeze today.”
A head-tilt indicated the door leading outside from the other main room of the building. By the door stood a man with hair like steel wool and a left ear that was half bitten off. He wasn’t bored. He also wasn’t keeping as much attention on his lookout as he ought. The outside noises muted a bit coming through that closed portal. Far louder, shouts and strange instrumental raindances poured into the open window.
“My warming gun is better with straight shots rather than curving trajectories.”
“Oh? Strange. Yes, you should still be fine.”
The wide finger stabbed the table again, hard enough she was a bit surprised the nail didn’t break. A wristband of the curious and disturbing stuff they called living-water writhed on his arm.
“If that location fails, then fall back here, here, HERE, and here, in that order. If you can’t achieve your goal by then, we’re already in serious trouble. We have other people in play, but they’re instructed to act discreetly, only if emergencies arise or they find an irreplaceable opportunity… or if it looks like we are in danger of the target escaping. But let’s be honest: you’re our best chance.”
He sighed. Eyes crossed the play-acted ambush references like scared mice. They didn’t blink at all.
“Is that clear, dear lady Sergeant?” the man asked, meeting her gaze again. “Is there anything else I can get you, or anything you need to know?”
His face wasn’t terribly bright, she would have said, but he was genuinely doing his best for a cause in which he believed.
“No,” she replied. “I understand, and don’t need anything else.”
She flicked up the power in her suit’s conduit network, and the readout for her weaponry and assistive motorics rapidly climbed. The hybrid batteries of the armor began compensating. Some sort of cracking process the weapons weenies had never managed to make her understand pulled energy out of some really mean isotopes faster than through what she still thought of as “normal” fission.
She began marching for the exit, brain trying to put her in autopilot by dwelling on the less-immediately-important. By best estimates her kit could cover six or seven additional fuel enrichments, so at least two years, but then she’d-
“There’s someone at the door!” hissed the scraggly man. Crouched low, eyes wide, hand on a knife handle, he wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of serenity.
Everyone in the building stopped what they had been doing when they heard the knocking of someone at the front door.
“Hello?” said a strong voice. It held earnest supplication and urgency.
Frantic whispering and gestured argument. After a few moments, Sergeant Sandany found a hidden observation point behind a set of shelves and a huge bust, either of someone fatally ugly or so poorly executed that the artist should have been forced to burn themselves in disgusting effigy. The map table was turned into a messy normal table with a lot of random things placed on it.
The lookout opened the door with an admirably calm how-do-you-do. Their visitor made him choke a bit.
He didn’t look like anyone else she’d seen in these parts; closer to pale desert sand than damp surface loam in complexion, for one. She couldn’t gauge height with real accuracy at this distance, but the thin man outside stood tall enough that he’d have to duck to get inside, even if he shed his weird pants-integrated footwear. He held a weird walking stick with ropes vining it. The walking stick would be difficult to coax inside.
His features made her think of a guy from long-long-ago comedic acts on the third rock from Sol – a fellow named Moe Howard – but a bit less social and a bit more strange.
“Ah. Yes. Apologies for the awkward timing.”
Her eyes were drawn to movement down the lane. Some sort of wildlife, she thought, shaped a little like a fuzzy alligator. It was sprinting away, and then it moved around a building, clothes flapping in the-
Her eyes flashed back to the doorway as the visitor’s body noise caught her attention. He managed to make himself ever so slightly less tall by inclining his back and crooking his knees. He smiled at the lookout.
Sergeant Sandany’s forebears had hewed to the structures and teachings of Hinduism through the years. She herself was neither as devout nor as studious as her siblings. Not quite agnostic, not quite atheist. It didn’t have practical use a lot of the time, and in her line of work the not-immediately-practical was almost always set aside.
Even so, when the man stooped to put himself at a height compatible with the doorway, she frowned.
His manner was that of a friendly neighbor, trying to help.
His smile was that of Kali, under the rage in which she slew Raktabija. Funnily enough, despite that, she didn’t get the sense that he was some incarnation of death or creation.
Whatever he was doing, however, was exactly what he was meant to do.
“I’ve… got something important to say,” the man said, glancing around the outside. “But not out here, please.”
The scraggly man and the lookout shared a glance.
“Please, come and join us, sir,” the scraggly one said, gesturing to the tall stranger.
The stick gently bumped the ceiling once. The door shut.
“Is the… is she around?” the tall man abruptly asked. “She needs to hear this, and I need to ask her a couple of questions as well.”
The two conspirators looked more than just taken aback. Sergeant Sandany was sure one of them was going to knife this fellow at first, but to say that her presence was kept ludicrously secret would have been weepingly insufficient understatement. Just knowing that she existed put this man in a ring of more-probably-than-not trustworthy souls, statistically speaking.
Or maybe not. She’d never exactly been involved in this sort of scenario before.
Regardless, her collaborators looked like they would initially humor this fellow without violence. Perhaps they would have, too.
However, one of the side doors slipped open and a depressed-faced man came into the building. He went straight across the line of sight between herself and the tall stranger. He frowned at the puzzling tableau a second, then saw the intruder.
“YOU!” he exclaimed. “YOU’RE THE ONE FROM THE WOODYARD!”
“Huh,” the tall man replied in a bored, tired sort of tone. “That’s a coincidence.”
Then things got a little crazy.