364-1106, Moksha, approximately 300 km north of Fool’s Landing
The bullet slammed into my chest with a deep burning sensation. I was already crouching, so I went over onto my face, my limbs disconnected. The faceplate of my combat armor ground against the gravel beneath me as the rest of my body succumbed to gravity.
“Man down!” rang shrilly in my tactical headset. The fact that it was a woman’s voice took a moment to register. It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. The searing agony in my chest made it hard to focus on anything else. Great Maker, I thought, I’ve bought it this time.
Time plays tricks with you when you’re badly wounded. I know because I’ve been through it more than once. None of those times were quite as bad as this, though. I could dimly perceive the fight going on around me – the staccato hammering of a submachine gun; the roar of a battle rifle on full automatic; the dull thump of a riot gun; the garbled and distorted chatter on the tactical headset – all of it mingling with the palpable pain in my chest keeping time with the beats of my savaged heart.
She was as beautiful as the last time that I saw her. The Baronet Atopia Kesslering stood at the top of her starship’s cargo ramp looking down at me. She was smiling, remembering perhaps, the misadventure we shared when I was her bodyguard and chauffer on Moksha. I’d told her then why I remained on this miserable world of mercenaries, villainy and desperation. She understood, or at least pretended to so very well.
“On your left, Valo! ON YOUR LEFT, DAMNIT!” The sound of an explosion – a hand grenade – thundered some distance away but I couldn’t turn my head to look. It hurts so badly now. Great Maker, it hurts so much.
I’m aboard her ship, Golden Dawn, surrounded by faces I haven’t seen before – the people of her crew. I’m watching myself explaining what we have to do. I see her face study mine as I recount the events of the past five cycles. She’s intent on me, but her gaze strays to the young girl at her side, who clings to her. The child is fearful, aware of the tension of the rest of the adults, trying to understand.
Dame Olivia Servantes, the Imperial Liaison to this world, was given permission to claim it for her fief along with the title Baroness by the Subsector Duke – provided she could end the practice of slave labor and bring the mercenary units that based there to heel. She was an Imperial Army Major and had the cooperation of Gray Twilight, the mercenary company led by the fierce Colonel Orem Kerimov. Orem had been tamed by one of my former lovers, Olga Belovol, when he shot my right earlobe off instead of giving me an extra nostril in my forehead.
The past few cycles, Dame Olivia had been waging a quiet campaign of negotiation, surgical strikes and assassinations to bring the mercenary outfits into her fold, one by one. She was doing it. The little fish welcomed the opportunity for legitimacy, but the big fish resisted until it became clear that Dame Olivia was just as willing to blow peoples’ heads off as she was to negotiate.
But there’s always one holdout – some stubborn sonofabitch who has always had it his way. In this case it was Colonel Hassan Kimani, the head of the Thunderball Lancers, the largest and best armed unit on the planet. He told the noble lady where to shove her offer in very specific and obscene detail. Slave labor in the gem fields of the Glaurung Mountains had made him very rich and powerful, so he had no intentions of giving it up. With a light battalion of mechanized infantry and a company of grav cavalry to back him up, he was confident he would force this latest upstart to back down.
“Get some covering fire on that automatic on your right!” Another burst from a submachine gun tore through the air – but my ears, muffled as they were by the helmet, told me it was too long and wild a burst to be effective. The pain had subsided some, but it was still impossible to move. My chest felt wet and was getting cold. My heart was slowing its pace.
Dame Olivia’s forces had taken out three of Colonel Kimani’s slave labor camps before he responded with a surgical strike on the starport, targeting her residence and anything else in the vicinity. Fortunately, the Imperial Marines stationed there were seasoned fighters, taking out an entire fire platoon of grav tanks before the rest of the mercenary company beat a hasty retreat. Still, there were dozens of civilian casualties in and around the starport.
That’s when I got involved. I’d been content to sit the fight out and continue minding my business up until then. But Fool’s Landing is my home. I know most of the people here by name and, more importantly, they know mine and the reputation that goes along with it. And I knew Colonel Kimani, too. I gave Dame Olivia the means to destroy him – the location of his richest war gem labor camp.
It’s hard to breathe now. I cough – the act is an exquisite agony that rivals the pain in my chest – and I see bloody phlegm on my helmet's faceplate. The bullet wasn’t satisfied with savaging my heart, but went on to penetrate a lung. I wish someone would come now. But the battle is still raging, even though the sounds are getting less distinct and further away.
She led a team of black operatives on a night strike on the camp. And that was the last I heard or saw of her and the five mercs who had gone in with her. Two days after that, Baronet Atopia arrived at the starport. I’d heard of her reputation from Orem and Olga. Orem liked her, said she had steel in her soul – very high praise from a dangerous man. If he’d had the time and manpower, he would have gone after Dame Olivia. But he could not. The Gray Twilight was leading a combined assault on the Lancer’s compound and needed every man and woman to fight.
So I asked Baronet Atopia to mount the rescue mission. She never paused to consider the matter. She waded right in. Within two hours, the Golden Dawn was in geosynchronous orbit over the site, providing up to the minute intelligence and communications security while the armed launch Daybreak flew nape of the planet through the mountain valleys to avoid the camp’s early warning sensors. As the launch skimmed that last range of hills to the west of the camp, the computer and electronics expert aboard the Dawn blinded the early warning sensors with a hurricane of static and interference.
We knew we were outnumbered as the launch set down at the base of a low hill where tents and shacks served as shelter for the slaves, overseers and guards. But nobody hesitated as the hatches popped open and they spilled out onto the coarse gravel and pumice sands of the camp. Guards from the oval flat ringed in concertina wire charged toward the launch as the team’s least experienced members began spraying them with automatic fire. The rest of us sprinted for the shack at the top of the hill, hoping we could get the drop on the rest before they could respond.
“Daybreak to Dawn,” sounded in my tactical headset, “the show’s over. The target is safe. We count eleven enemies down, one captured. We have four casualties – one minor, two moderate and one critical. Tell the little one that her mommy’s okay.”
“Confirmed,” came the reply. “I’m bringing Dawn back to Fool’s Landing. My ETA is 2015 local. Dawn out.”
There’s light in my eyes – bright, blinding. My helmet is off. I’m on my back. The people around me are a blur now. I’m moving. They’re carrying me. The light is cut off. They’ve taken me inside… inside… what? A plastic mask is placed on my face. The air is cold and metallic but it lights the fire anew in my chest.
Something near me emits a high-pitched whine which drops and mingles with a ripping, tearing sound. I smell scorched fabric. Someone is cutting my combat armor off of my chest. A dark-skinned woman curses as she leans in and starts barking orders at the others. “Danforth?” asks a voice near my ear. “If you hear me, squeeze my hand.”
I can’t breathe. Great maker, I can’t breathe! The pain is fading, though. Maybe dying won’t be so bad, after all.
I want to squeeze her hand, try to get her to understand, but nothing’s happening. Something is being forced down my throat. There’s a sucking sound and suddenly I can breathe again – and the pain flares white hot in my chest again.
“Cut that sleeve off!” says the dark-skinned woman again. She points to someone I can’t see. “I need the synthetic blood packs from over there. Hurry up or I’m going to lose him!” The cutter whines and snarls. “Danforth, squeeze my hand,” says the voice again.
There’s a rumble coming from beneath me – the launch is airborne, its lifters howling on full power as the pilot punches the thrusters and emergency boosters. It’s a valiant effort – kudos for the concern on my behalf. I should try to hold on a little while longer.
The scene fades, the colors fade to gray, but I can still hear them. They’re trying to save me. They really are trying. They hardly know me, but they’re doing everything they can.
In the darkness now I can still hear one voice. “Danforth, please. Please squeeze my hand.” I want to say I’m sorry Dame Olivia, but I can’t. I hope she makes a good ruler, because I’m not going to be there. The voice is far away now, like drops of water in a cave. I like the sound. It carries me over the threshold…
“Nine Hells,” says Cassandra as she shakes her head. Her forearms and hands are covered in blood, her face wet with sweat. “Somebody tell Lisa to spare the horses; Danforth’s dead.” She looks over at Dame Olivia, who is clutching Danforth’s hand, her dirty face streaked with tears. “I’m sorry,” she says and then slumps into one of the launch’s passenger seats.
Dame Olivia shakes, sobbing silently for a few moments. Finally, the shaking stops and she wipes her eyes. “Great Maker as my witness,” she says softly to Danforth’s cooling corpse, “you will be avenged.”
Emperor’s Day, 001-1107, Moksha, Fool’s Landing Starport, aboard the Golden Dawn
-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesselering
Another Emperor’s Day is here, though I don’t feel much like celebrating. The good news is that Valo, Hawk and Cassandra will make full recoveries from their wounds in a couple more days. The bad news is that all of this has hit my adopted daughter pretty hard. She’s been my constant shadow both yesterday and today. I’ve done what I can to console her fears, but I coming to regret my decision to accompany the crew on this one. My little Olivia may be tough, but she’s only a child, after all.
Danforth's funeral is set for tomorrow. The crew is down about that. We don't like to lose anybody, even the ones we barely know.
The good news for Moksha’s residents is that the Moksha Mercenary War has ended. After returning to Fool’s Landing, Dame Olivia ordered the Marines in the starport guard to join the mercenaries of Gray Twilight in the final assault on the compound of the Thunderball Lancers. The Marines returned this morning, grim and stoic. Dame Olivia was even more so, retiring to her temporary quarters in the Marines’ barracks – probably the first time an old Army Trooper has ever done so. While the details are sketchy, there has been no word of any prisoners being brought back to the starport, and what was left of the Lancers’ compound has been put to the torch.
I like to think that Dame Olivia is waking up this morning to the realization of the price of power. There is so much that needs to be done on Moksha, and much of it will take the hand of a stateswoman rather than a soldier. That’s what it will take to hold together the fractious bands of professional soldiers that have handed her the keys to the castle – for now. Soon, she will have to come to grips with what they want for their assistance and complicity, which is certain not to be an easy road to walk.
As for me, when my crew is back to full health I’m going to do what I came here to do: sell my speculative cargo, find passengers, invest in new cargo, find freight to fill up the corners and find a new market. There are still so many worlds in the Narmada Subsector to visit, and my little one deserves to see ones that are far better than this one.
Long live Emperor Strephon. Long may he reign.