Brigadier-General McMurdo, looking calm and unperturbed so far, had called again. As for herself, she felt tired and grubby. Two beers, one pill. A half an hour of television, three hours of sleep and a difficult brush of the teeth sort of grubby. She’d taken to gagging and dry-heaving lately, her throat sticky with something un-nameable.
Taking off her helmet, she’d brushed up her hair. She’d remembered to pull that zipper down…let the man see a bit of cleavage.
The wiles of a woman…use everything you’ve got, when outnumbered.
“Ah, hello, Colonel Graham.”
“Well. Hello, General.” She smiled sweetly, lifting the sternum a bit...
Like a weather girl with big boobs, she really ought to have been standing sideways.
Once again, they’d blocked the view of everything in the background. “To what do we owe this fine pleasure?”
Over the course of time and familiarity, there was the possibility of a slip—against which they all had to remain vigilant.
“I must say, Colonel. May I call you Dona? But simply ravishing, ravishing, my dear—I really don’t know how you do it.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you very much. What can I do for you, General?”
“Well, Dona. It’s just that I do so admire strong, powerful, intelligent, independent women. All of those brains and all of that beauty. Colonel Graham. It really is quite the combination—”
She snorted, shaking her head. Dona couldn’t help but smile, in a way—
What a fool.
Those eyes bored into hers. Not a shred of real humour there.
“I was hoping you might reconsider our surrender offer?”
“I wasn’t aware that you were quite that desperate, General.”
Not yet, anyways.
He slapped his thigh and laughed out loud…it was a very human reaction. It was as bogus as all hell, but his acting wasn’t bad. He had his own audience to consider. That much was clear.
She sat there, waiting.
“Still being stubborn, I see.”
A trooper was beckoning from over the walls of their hasty cubicle.
The low voice in her ear was Sergeant Kelly, calm, unperturbable, and yet there, at this exact moment.
She reached up and touched her ear.
“I’m sorry, General. It’s just that my hairdresser has a cancellation—” Hopefully the laughs that this elicited from her own crew carried over through the small microphone on their camera. “But if there was an actual point to all of this. Stories are so much more interesting when they have a point, don’t you agree?”
His head bobbed in agreement. Those beady blue eyes blazed into hers. The eyes of the true fanatic.
“I quite agree, in fact I will get right down to it. You can delay us, Colonel Graham. I have no doubt of that. You’ve already proven that. There is nowhere to run, Colonel—and I would spare all parties, civil and military, further bloodshed and, ultimately, humiliation. Let us negotiate an honourable settlement, a ceasefire—let us turn this over to the politicians, the negotiators…the bloody lawyers, if you will.” He cleared his throat. “Look, Colonel. I will go first. In the event, I hereby promise you, my dear, that all Confederation troops, male or female, or howsoever they choose to define their gender-identity, (faint laughs from his end) will enjoy full rights under the Treaty. Their lives and their personal effects will be sacrosanct. Civilian contractors will be unmolested, assuming they are under contract and from off-world…” That didn’t promise too much for any colonists or anyone else caught on the wrong side. “Honestly, Colonel Graham. I find you quite fetching. You shall be the first among my concubines.”
“Oh—and I am also aware than an army marches on its stomach.”
“What a nice man—and such a very handsome offer. Very well, General McMurdo. Thank you for bringing this up. I shall certainly take all of this under due consideration, and I’m sure my superiors will want to be consulted as well. Still, I’m the one on the spot. Hmn. I do have some influence around here. Tell you what. I think I can safely promise that you and all of your troops can expect the same or better treatment, in the event of your capitulation, and, ah, that would include private retainers, family members, or any civilian contractors that you may have along on this little adventure. Concubines, and the like, ah, male or female. You know, slaves, and indentured servants. Any minor children that you might have along. People like that. As for unauthorized personnel, that is to say any un-owned person not under official contract, whether from on or off-world, all I can really promise there is to turn them over to the police, and to the laws and the courts of this planet.” Which didn’t promise too much for them, either, did it? “I’ll tell you what, and I know we will be speaking again on this subject. As a sign of good faith, I hereby suggest that both sides respect civilian emergency vehicles. Say, fire, police and ambulance? If they’re going down the road with sirens and lights going, neither side is to fire upon them. Agreed?”
She gave a sharp nod.
It was better than nothing as she watched his eyes slide around in an attempt to outflank her somehow in terms of pure, unmitigated bullshit.
She had no time for this.
His mouth opened and he began to talk.
She cut him off without hesitation. So far, she hadn’t lost a trooper—
He was just fishing again, assessing her state of mind, and Kelly had something new.
“Yes, Sergeant.” There was a strange intimacy in the voice, and after such a very short time.
It was like they were best friends or something. All of a sudden.
One view was bigger than the rest and she zoomed in for a closer look.
“It’s a party of Denebi, Colonel. They’re headed north, up the road.”
“Go on, Sergeant Kelly.”
“They’re all adults—no children. They all seem to be armed, at least as far as we can tell.”
Dona zoomed in closer.
Those weren’t walking sticks.
They were shouldering the peculiar Denebi longbow, a straight staff of about two and a half metres. Only the ends, made of horn or something equally resilient, were bent over to keep the string from smacking the thumb or the back of the hand or whatever upon firing. Exologists believed this to be a recent innovation, perhaps only in the past five hundred to a thousand years or so. There had been so few digs on the planet, it was impossible to be sure.
It was, however, a part of the native legend or so it said in the literature. Apparently, they could lay on one of their backs (or was that the fronts on a creature exhibiting radial symmetry?) and hold the big bow with their feet, which would give it one hell of a draw—the arrows were anything up to a metre and a half in length and as big around as a man’s little finger. Originally of stone or bone, those points were now steel, with triple slotted cutting-blades designed to bleed out a big animal as quickly as possible after being hit…
She saw wooden swords, stone-tipped spears, shiny steel knives, and metal axes, which were thanks to the exotica traders. Such folks inevitably followed colonization in quest of captive and unsophisticated markets and the unique products that they could provide. It was a kind of commercial prospecting. Denebi handicrafts were beautifully made and some of their carvings, especially the masks and votive statuettes, were much sought-after among collectors.
Certain herbs and spices, what one of her friends, a real gastronome, called flavourings, commanded their weight in Interstellar Gold Coin.
“Do they know you’re there?”
“I’m thinking they must know something, Colonel. It could be quite a lot—they do interact with the colonists. There are people that know the language. The Unfriendlies must have brought an interpreter or two. They expect to win and take control. That plan involves talking to the natives. It must. Right? We’ve been up and down this road, more than once, without seeing any sign of them. If they were camped in the woods, especially a war party, and not using a fire—we could have driven right past them without a clue, Colonel.” The thing with the Denebi natives, was that the road was just so convenient, there was no point in sticking to the woods and their own thin and wandering tracks through the bush.
Going off the trail, even the natives could get lost, or so he put it. They were never going to get lost and lose time on the highway. And these guys were clearly in a hurry.
Also, their bodies were cool enough to blend into the background clutter in terms of infrared satellite surveillance. All those rocks, all that stone, heating up in the light of the day. The woods were full of game, big and small. The satellite and the system was pretty good about filtering, but not exactly infallible. The woods were full of light and shadow, cool spots and hot-spots, tight little valleys where the line of sight was gone and the satellite would never pick them up.
Zooming in on a known native village, sure they could be seen—the structures and the occasional little dots moving around. This was more due to the acuity of the optics, and the bright colours worn by the people, rather than by any real heat signatures. It probably wasn’t a complete picture.
Yeah, Kelly was smart all right—
“And they’re headed north—” She was busy marking that for the system.
“Yes, Colonel. That’s how it looks…” In hot pursuit of something, someone, hopefully not the Confederation, but you could never be too sure with such alien minds.
“Let us know when they’re safely clear.” There had to be a good two dozen of them, and there could be thousands just on the other side of that riotous wall of brush…
These ones were striding along at a pretty good clip. Eighty-five kilometres from the Roussef turnoff…they could be here in two days, three at the most if they really wanted to push it.
They’d be stiff and sore, but it could be done.
So far the Denebi, an unknown quantity, had been more conspicuous by their absence. Yet they must have some idea of what was going on. They would have seen all those ships coming down, day or night. They would have remarked upon the dearth of road traffic since then, and possibly even seen missiles going by overhead. They could hardly not know about it…
Quite frankly, Confederation authorities had been lax, and that meant her. She really should have tried to contact them, but there had been so little time. No one aboard that was really competent to do that, and so it had fallen to the wayside.
Strung out in a line, with bunches and clumps here and there, the last group was just coming fully into view. Trees had obscured the view, up until this moment.
“They’ve got a prisoner—”
“Who is it? One of ours?” No, that couldn’t be—
He stared, zooming in on that ashen face, clearly exhausted and as terrified as all hell…the young man stumbled along, arms bound at the wrists to a stick across the shoulders. There was a loop of cord around the throat just to make sure. He was without a jacket, but the trousers were field grey. The shirt was a crisp white, the tie charcoal. No hat or helmet.
The Unfriendlies still wore uniforms that included ties, hard leather shoes and little black backpacks, and every man-jack among them would have some kind of crucifix around their neck.
The obligatory Bibles in the side-pocket of the knapsack. So far, there was no sign of his weapon. Surely one of the Denebi must have it.
“No. One of theirs—an Unfriendly.”
Sergeant Kelly didn’t know too much about Denebi culture. He was already clicking away on his virtual buttons. He was quick with the keywords, the pictures and the text.
She read along with him, mouth open—
…they were said to ritually torture prisoners, roasting them over a slow fire and then eating what were considered delicacies—the brains, the liver and the heart for example.
As to whether they’d ever had a human prisoner before, he just didn’t know.
Probably not, or he would have heard about it, or read about it in the briefing notes.
On the bright side, it wasn’t one of their own.
Inwardly, he marveled.
But this—the adventure part of the gig, was what he had originally signed up for, all of those long years ago. By the time this was over, he might just get himself a real bellyful—if he wasn’t careful.
All he had ever really wanted to do was to live—and to feel alive.
“Go ahead, sergeant.”
“The thing to do here is to tell our troops to stay the hell out of their way—and maybe, ah, we should inquire a bit more deeply.”
“Roger that, sergeant. We’re working on it. Over.” She was already typing out the bulletin which would have to be carefully worded and thorough. “Let’s hope they keep walking through our camera positions.”
“I’ll see if we can find us some interpreters.”
He nodded and clicked off.
(End of part twenty-two.)
Image One. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image Two. Collection of Louis Shalako.
Image Three. CPCO.
Image Four. CPCO.
Image Five. Collection the author.
Image Six. Denebola-Seven Defense Force.
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Thank you for reading.
A good site for archers: