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W I D E   A W A K E

NEW FICTION: Resolution (Earth/Ryka War Series)

January 18, 2003

I started writing this story just before the New Year, wanting to have it finished by New Year's Day. Initially, I anticipated it would be approximately 2,000 to 2,500 words. The final draft, which appears below, is slightly over 5,300 words. Sometimes stories can be like that. Rather than serialize this over the course of two weeks, I thought it best to post it in its entirety. It really wasn't meant to be serialized...

From the personal data files of SDS Ariel Baxter (PFA Division 10-13):

If I have learned anything during my time on Saturn it’s that there are few certainties in war. I once thought there were no certainties, that nothing was guaranteed, but time and experience have proven me wrong.

The first certainty is that you will lose someone close to you, that is to say, someone in whom, through the madness of war, you have forged camaraderie, will inevitably be taken from you. They may be reassigned to another division or—as does rarely happen—shipped back to Earth. Most often, however, they are being shipped back aboard the death ship. The death ship arrives and departs weekly, bringing much needed supplies—foodstuff, fuels, munitions, and other provisions. It is a massive vessel and its storage capacity exceeds the largest of warehouses. While these provisions are unloaded from the cargo hold, the dead—having been tagged and placed into vacuum-sealed ID bags, or V-bags as they are often referred to, are loaded aboard the ship through a special access door. Another certainty is that the death ship will never leave Saturn without passengers. There are always passengers, and most likely, one of them (if not you) is someone you once knew.
Another certainty is that you will see the enemy; of this there is no doubt. The Rykan squads have grown in number and their patrols have increased in duration since the initial campaigns.

Not all of the certainties, however, are grim. For example, despite the volume of intelligence reports, or I-Reps, received by the PFA communication liaisons, it’s a given that some are erroneous. Which is why today we drink and smoke and celebrate the dawning New Year. I-Reps of a massive Rykan ground assault believed to begin during the Christmas holiday seem to have been false. COO Lt. Commander Preston Stone had been certain the offensive was going to occur—so certain, in fact, that he’d given us a box of his finest cigars—a charity he would not have bestowed upon us had he known the I-Reps would have proven false.

Thus, the week of December 25 through 31 is spent not on the planet surface, but within the man-made infrastructure of Central. However, there is little time for celebration as repairs to the west wing of Central (following an aggressive, albeit unsuccessful, Rykan ground assault of November 11) are still underway. The reconstruction project is massive. The outer structure has been rebuilt, and interior artificial atmosphere and gravity established. Much of the work that remains is aesthetic—it is work most suited for bonafide carpenters and artisans. But in their absence the tasks are given to Division G-13.
“Tell me again why I traveled millions of miles just so I can slap paint on a wall,” AGS Bobby Sawyer asks.
“It’s an exercise in irony,” SDS Preston Iberman says.
“No it isn’t. What’s ironic about it?” SDS Howie Drake asks as he welds together two sections of metal flooring.
“What he said—ya know, about traveling across the galaxy just to paint a wall.”
“That ain’t irony, Iberman,” Sawyer says. “It sucks, but it ain’t irony.”
“Right,” ASCOO Asst. Lt. Ram Phillips adds. He is seated on the floor at the deck on the far end of the room busily inputting data into a softop. He speaks without looking up. “Now, say for example that Mr. Sawyer had, on Earth, all his life wanted to work as a commercial painter, you know, painting interiors or exteriors of houses and condominiums. However, despite his persistence he’d never been able to find a single paying job. Let’s also presume that he’s an extreme pacifist who hates the idea of war, killing, and deep-space travel.”
“Yeah? So?” Iberman asks.
“That’s irony, that’s like mega-irony. I don’t think I can spell it out any clearer than that.”
“What the fuck are you talking about—um, sir?” Iberman asks, momentarily forgetting that he’s addressing a senior officer.
“Forget about it—just—just do what you’re supposed to be doing and don’t ask so many questions,” Phillips replies, and continues typing on his softop.
“Quite a mess,” Drake says, assessing the section of flooring still to be replaced.
“That’s nothing. Should’a seen this place right after the assault,” SDS Patek Strub says confidently, applying a section of FGC 4-ply sealant to the overhead I-beams. He moves from side to side on the catwalk, applying the sealant with slow, careful precision.
“Why’s that?” Sawyer asks, wiping a bead of paint from the top of his hand onto his pants leg.
“You know, I-Reps had no idea the assault was coming. I mean, a ground assault against PDF Central. Fucking suicide. But these Rykans. They were just that—they were a fucking suicide squad. Got through the initial 45-CGC barricade, though the remotes picked off about half the squad. Dropped a series of explosives similar to our PVVs and broke right through the outer hall. But we nailed ‘em. Sent each of them fucks home in a V-bag. Goddam right we did.”
“How many Rykans did you skrag, Patek?” Iberman asks.
SDS Patek Strub looks down from the catwalk and his eyes narrow.
“Maybe I come down there and show you how many, fuck-o,” he says.
“What’s stopping you?” Iberman asks, tauntingly.
“Gentlemen, if you don’t mind I am trying to work,” Phillips replies, his eyes locked onto the PC softtop.

Patek is an unusual case. He and his older sibling, Wolefsney, were recruited on the same day as me; we were transported to Saturn aboard the same Warhawk (though I didn’t know it at the time).
Upon arrival on Saturn, all PFA personnel undergo a physical examination. This includes a series of injections—mostly stamina enhancers, vitamin supplements, and immune-system fortifiers. Included free of charge is standard IRS-1—infra-red surgery, in which optical infra-red vision enhancers are placed within the optic nerves, enabling PFA personnel with 24-7 night vision. The surgery is painless, lasting on average 1 to 3 seconds. Like the rest of the recruits of Division 13 who arrived on Saturn March 1, 2110, Patek and Wolefsney Strub were outfitted with IRS-1.

Days later, during G-13’s first combat mission, Patek experiences an unusual allergic reaction to the IRS-1 implants. The reaction is extremely rare, having been reported in only 3 individuals since the implant surgery was introduced 29 years earlier. Patek’s eyes swell to twice their normal size. The pupils become nonreactive and he collapses to the ground, as gloved hands claw at the life-sustaining face mask of the zero g-suit. No one notices. His cries are unheard over the sounds of heavy breathing and loud commands as G-13 intercepts its first Rykan ground patrol. During the assault, Wolefsney loses sight of his brother; he is unaware that Patek has fallen. Thus is Wolefsney’s attention divided between engaging the enemy and scanning the terrain for his younger sibling. Patek, panic stricken and nearly blind, lay on the planet’s surface, terrified by the sounds of life and death struggles heard through his headset. At once Patek feels the weight of another atop him as his Marshall-21 is wrested from his grasp by the enemy. He has seconds to live. Patek instinctively shoves forward with both arms, catching the enemy soldier unawares. He removes the standard issue combat blade from its sheath and lashes out. The blade finds its mark, piercing the airsuit of the Rykan whose body collapses atop him. Although virtually blind, Patek sees the hulking form of another charging toward him. Realizing he will likely be unable to strike down a second enemy in the manner in which he defeated the first, Patek extends his arms and frantically searches for his firearm. He feels the Marshall-21’s barrel with his right hand and pulls the weapon close to his torso. The weapon discharges 17 rounds in 3.5 seconds, and his pursuer falls atop him moments before Patek, overwrought with sightlessness and pain, succumbs to unconsciousness.
Hours later, following the removal of the IRS-1 implants and a series of antiviral injections to counteract the infection, Patek is distraught to learn that Wolefsney was KIA. Patek vows to avenge his brother’s death, never realizing (and never being told by COO) it had been his own weapon by which Wolefsney had been killed. The figure he assumed was a Rykan soldier had been Wolefsney, running to his younger brother’s aid. Patek’s lust for vengeance, however, will never fully be sated. With IRS implants having been removed, he is stripped of his combat duties. It is only through an unending perseverance that Patek is permitted to remain on Saturn with the PFA; his all-consuming yearning for revenge forevermore to be carried out by others.

Following the brief verbal exchange between Iberman and Strub the next few minutes pass in silence as we each work toward completing our appointed tasks. Through the observation windows a transport can be seen landing. We watch for a moment as the ship slowly descends to the landing deck amidst clouds of dust and smoke.
“Another transport. Christ, I hope there’s some tail on board that rocket,” AGS Bobby Sawyer says.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Phillips replies, tapping rhythmically upon the softtop’s keypad.
“Right. We all know the PFA command has approved the transport of male and female pleasure escorts. When are we gonna get a piece of that candy?”
“Wouldn’t know anything about that,” he says. “I’m only an Assistant Lieutenant. Besides, I happen to know the lot of you have uploaded Pleasuredome 9.0 onto your PDAs.”
“Christ. Ain’t nothing sacred?” Sawyer asks.
“Nothing sacred in war,” Phillips says, still tapping.
“You got a gal back home?”
Sawyer asks each of us the same question, and but for Preston Iberman we each give the same answer. Iberman, of course, refuses to disclose any information with regard to his sweetheart. While Iberman is quick to judge, quick to complain, he closely guards every detail about this aspect of his life.
“I’ll tell you this much,” he says. “I’ve got 41 kills. Ought to be automatic dismissal after 40. I’m sick of all the blood, the death. Even through a zero g this planet reeks of death. Sometimes…sometimes, I swear to God she’s all that keeps me going.”
“Spare us the poetic sentimentality, ya goddam sissy,” Patek Strub says snidely.
The next event occurs in an instant, a moment. Iberman ascends the scaffolding with uncharacteristic speed and agility, grabbing hold of Strub’s right ankle and knocking him off balance. Strub tries to compensate and maintain his balance but stumbles off the catwalk to the floor below. He recovers quickly as Iberman lets loose his grip upon the scaffold and drops gracefully to the ground. Enraged, Strub and Iberman attack one another as if a heavyweight championship was at stake. The fight continues for several moments and Strub gains a decisive command of the situation, landing several upper cuts to Iberman’s jaw. The dazed Iberman stumbles into a paint bucket. It topples and paint splatters across the floor surface.
“Allrightknockitoff!” Phillips shouts, the words spoken so rapidly they are barely audible. The combatants disengage from their altercation, their breath heavy and fast.
“Lieutenant—” Iberman begins, but is quickly cut off.
“Not a word. Not a word from either of you. You will clean up this shit and clean up yourselves. You will report to the desk sergeant and place yourselves on disciplinary probation. You will then return here and continue the job at hand. Are we clear?”
Strub and Iberman nod briefly.
“Outstanding. The rest of you take ten.”
Iberman wears a look of disgust upon his face; his eyes are narrow slits that move slowly left to right as though he is lost in thoughts of disgust.
ASCOO Ram Phillips walks away, returning his attention to the softtop. I almost pity him. He’s a decent assistant commander, but the disciplinary responsibilities that accompany the position—it is those aspects which he most dislikes. Unlike COO Preston Stone, Phillips can recall the time (not long ago) before he held command; he has yet to adequately distance himself from us professionally. He still wishes to be one of us, but circumstances have dictated otherwise. Six months earlier when his predecessor—a short, pudgy man named Klingerman who was of German origin and who licked his lips uncontrollably when nervous or anxious—was KIA, Phillips was commissioned to Assistant Lieutenant. On the eve before his upgrade we toasted his success. He said to me, “That about seals it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Only way I’m going home now is if this fucking war ends or if I’m KIA.”
“That’s the only way any of us are going home, Ram.”
But I knew he was right. SOP dictates that on the (rare) occasions when injuries are not fatal, enlisted personnel receive honorable release from duty and a one-way ride home to Earth, an option denied to anyone above the rank of SDS. As ASCOO, Phillips wasn’t going to be returning home anytime soon; we both knew it.

December 30: 15:00

SDS Bobby Sawyer and I walk toward the mess following a 30-minute cardiovascular in the gymnasium. We zigzag through the station, opting for the shortest route to the mess even though it seems our path is less direct.
“Yo, check it out,” Sawyer says softly.
Approximately 50 meters distant Preston Iberman stands at a bank of video-relay terminals. The terminals are available for all personnel at no charge though they’re seldom used, probably because they afford the user so little privacy. Iberman’s back is toward us and he’s attached a headset to the VRT. The soft-monitor is 12 x 12 and displays an image of a woman’s face. The face is young and pleasant, with midnight-black hair on either side that hangs just above slender shoulders. Caramel-brown eyes blink slowly and her soft lips move with a gentle casualness. Her nose is small, though not exaggeratedly so. She appears relaxed and calm, and whatever words she speaks are heard only through Iberman’s headset. He leans against the VRT, his hands pressed tightly on the terminal’s housing. Iberman is oblivious to our approach. He seems to be talking over her words, speaking while she speaks.
“I don’t know how you can say that,” Iberman says. “Well, that’s a little bit hard to do seeing how I’m a few million miles away and in the middle of a goddam war!”
The lips of the woman on the VRT continue to move, unaffected by Iberman’s outburst of emotion. He is oblivious to our approach.
“If that’s the way you want it, fine by me,” he says.
“Hey Preston, say hello to your girlfriend for me,” Sawyer says, tapping Iberman on the shoulder. He turns, startled, his face a mix of anger and anxiety. We don’t bother stopping but continue toward the mess.
There is something familiar about the face of the woman. Something unnervingly recognizable. I try to explain to Sawyer as we wait in the mess queue.
“You think maybe you’ve seen her before?” he asks.
“Exactly. I know I have.”
“Stranger things have happened. Maybe you went to school together.”
“No, nothing like that, but I know I’ve seen that face before.”
“Wonder what she was tellin’ him—though I guess it was kind’a obvious.”
We move through the queue; foodstuffs are dropped onto our trays with a haphazard indifference that would make the most unscrupulous of restaurateur blush with embarrassment. We join Strub and Drake and begin dissecting the day’s meal. Iberman enters a few minutes later, loads a tray, and joins us.
“What’s wrong, Iberman?” Strub asks, obviously pleased at Preston’s visual displeasure. “You look as if you just lost your best friend, as if you had one.”
Iberman says nothing for several moments and picks through his meal with the discretion of a five year old.
“Fucking women,” he says, quietly.
“That’s the spirit,” Strub says, egging him on.
“I’m sick of this fucking war,” Iberman says.
“Hold on there, chief. Let’s not say things we can’t take back,” Drake says, trying to lighten the tone at the table.
“I’m fucking serious, Howie. I’ve had it with this war, this planet, this shit they call food, and all this goddam killing.”
“Jesus Christ, Iberman, lighten up,” I offer. “Relationships end; it’s no BFD.”
“Fuck would you know, Baxter?”
“I’m just trying to be pragmatic.”
“Fuck pragmatism.”
“Hey Preston, lemme ask you something,” AGS Bobby Sawyer says. “Chick that dumped you, Baxter here thinks he recognizes her.”
Iberman gazes toward me.
“That a fact?”
“Says she looks familiar.”
“Well, you’re mistaken.”
“Can we possibly change the topic?” Drake asks. “No offense, Preston, but you’re really beginning to harsh my New Year’s buzz.”
“Whatever,” Iberman says distantly.
“Preston, I’m almost afraid to ask given your light-hearted demeanor, but have you made any resolutions for the coming year?”
“That’s a good question, Drake,” a grin of false optimism on his lips. “I’ve made several. First, I’m never again going to allow myself to get fucked over in a relationship; second, I’m not going to do any more killing for the PFA; third, I’m not eating this shit any more. Any questions?”
“You, uh, going to eat that?” Sawyer asks, pointing at the crisp on Iberman’s tray. Iberman throws a spoon onto the table and walks abruptly out of the mess.
“Boy’s got a serious attitude problem,” Sawyer says. He reaches across the table and removes an uneaten freeze-dried square of wheat gluten from the discarded plate.

New Year’s Eve quietly arrives on Saturn.

Aside from those personnel assigned to monitor duty, all combat recruits are given permission to stand down between 20:00 December 31 and 02:00 January 1. The mess is sparingly adorned; a single banner proclaiming “Happy New Year” constructed from foil paper and wire is suspended atop the entranceway. There are liquid beverages such as concentrated vodka and whiskey, and various inhalants including dehydrated sniff and hershey. Although these contraband are illegal, PFA command realizes the mental and physical pressures we’ve endured. PFA Brigadier Styles McTierman abandons the relative safety of the off-planet base on Saturn’s inner moon and delivers a speech that is emphatic and impassioned. Having lost both his son and daughter in the Colinyan raid in September 2109, it would be understandable if McTierman’s thirst for vengeance, not unlike that of Strub, had become an all-consuming demon. Likewise, it would be reasonable to assume that, because of his position in the PFA, McTierman would be indifferent to the loss of his offspring, citing them as acceptable casualties of a violent, alien war. However, he maintains a delicate balance between both extremes—never becoming reckless in a desire to obtain personal vengeance or distancing himself too far from the value of each individual under his command; never realizing that the cost of a successful campaign is often paid in human lives. His address is broadcast throughout Central. It is short and direct; and it is exactly what we need to hear:

“Tonight, as we celebrate the dawning New Year, our thoughts turn toward friends and loved ones who are light years away. We think of them fondly, with a longing to rejoin them—and we shall. We shall because we of the PFA are the best at what we do. We shall because this cold, distant hell was not meant to be inhabited by man or woman. We shall because victory is destined to be ours in the days and weeks ahead.
“At present, an additional 5,000 combat personnel are en route to Saturn with an ETA of 06:00 January 1—that’s about 8 hours from now for those not wearing watches. The Rykans will not find peace in this, our new solar year. We will continue to sabotage their infrastructure. We will continue to infiltrate, dissect, and decimate their technology. And we will not rest until we have triumphed. Too often the I-Reps have proven unreliable as we wait for the next Rykan strike. No longer. Tonight we celebrate not only the dawning of the New Year, but the beginning of a new war—a war that will culminate in a total, unequivocal victory for mankind.”

The room erupts in cheers and applause as McTierman raises a glass as a gesture of the victory to come. There is an overwhelming sense of hope and optimism that has been lacking throughout the autumn months. The hope of a quick end to the war is never far from anyone’s thoughts; it is reassuring to know that McTierman shares this desire.
SGS Bobby Sawyer enters the mess and joins us at the makeshift bar.
“Where you been, Bobby?” Drake asks.
“Workin’ late. Someone has to. Old man delivered quite a speech.”
“Got that right,” Patek Strub replies. He is slouched against the bar, a half-dozen sniff papers scattered around him. With his right hand he places a fresh paper to his nostrils and inhales deeply. His left hand involuntarily quivers for several moments. “Got that right,” he repeats, softer.
“McTierman may know how to boost morale, but there ain’t no way this war is ending anytime soon.”
“The fuck you talking about?” Strub asks.
“Tell you when I return. Got something I wanna to Ariel.”
He leads me out of the mess through several of the lesser used passages. With nearly all personnel engaged in celebration at the mess, the corridors are vacant. We take the lift to the second level and continue toward the end of a narrow passageway. He points a finger toward a bank of VRTs in the distance.
“Seems like they’ve kissed and made up,” Sawyer whispers. Iberman’s voice is only semi-audible; it is soft and relaxed.
“Not to worry, Tracie” he says into the headset, “I’m resolved to this.”
“Tracie? Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve obtained a name,” Sawyer whispers.
“C’mon, Bobby. This is just…wrong,” I explain.
“Okay, chief. Okay. Thought maybe you’d want another look at that gal’s face seein’ how it looked familiar to you is all.”
Even with Iberman’s back partially blocking the VRT screen, the digital image upon it seems recognizable, disquietingly so.
“Can’t place it, Bobby. Let’s get back to the mess; I’m starting to feel slimy.”
Sawyer agrees, then coughs unexpectedly. Iberman turns quickly, but we depart quickly and are unseen.

The evening passes swiftly, as periods of celebration and relaxation often do. I abstain from the inhalants but consume several ounces of dehydrated whiskey. The liquor burns and makes the eyes tear up; when I close my eyes, I see her image in my mind. As midnight approaches I decide to look for Iberman. I must know who she is and how it is that I seem to know her. Driven by this compulsion, aided no doubt by a slight intoxication, I walk through the mess, amidst talk, laughter, and well wishing. Iberman is not in the mess quarters. I decide to walk to the barracks, but am intercepted by Strub and Drake.
“Ariel! Where ya going?” Patek Strub asks, his eyes bloodshot from excessive sniff.
“Just…out for a bit.”
“No, listen man, it’s 11:55.”
His words are slurred and he has difficultly in standing without swaying.
“I know, but—”
“No buts. C’mon. Have a drink. Drink with us,” Drake says.
We walk toward the bar and meet with the our colleagues in G-13. There will be time later to satisfy my curiosity. Soon the cheers of the New Year echo through the mess, and for a moment our memories lapse. We forget we’re soldiers. We forget we’re at war. We forget how far away from home we really are. Shortly after 02:00 we stumble toward our barracks, the evening’s festivities still well entrenched in our hearts and minds; sleep will arrive easily. Several thousand miles distant, the men and women of Division 14 are awakened from the hiber-hives as the Warhawk transport carries them silently through the vacuum of space, ever closer to us and to the war.

Martinez points a finger toward Iberman’s bunk and asks, “Weren’t you looking for him earlier?”
“Yeah. I guess so. Thanks.”
I walk toward his bunk and speak his name. Iberman doesn’t reply. He is stretched across the thin cot, legs dangling off the edge. A blanket, stained across the area covering the abdomen, is draped unevenly across Iberman’s body, partially exposing his right hand, the fingers of which are locked tightly onto what appears to be a bottle. Stepping closer I realize it’s not a bottle he’s clinging to, but rather, a standard-issue Zodiac .036 revolver. I run toward the VRT on the far end of the barracks and slam my palm upon the Hot button. A smiling, electronic face greets me.
“Welcome to the PFA Automated Emergency Distress Channel,” it states, pleasantly. “Please state the nature of your emergency.”

08:05 January 1

“Hell of a way to attempt suicide,” SDS Bobby Sawyer says. He sits on the edge of his bunk, inhaling from a freshly lit Ciabo.
“Medic expects he’ll survive,” Drake adds, watching as Sawyer exhales and a ring of smoke dangles up into the air.
“’Course he’ll survive; ya don’t shoot yourself in the abdomen with a Zodiac if you’re serious about takin’ the final exit.”
“He told the COO he was depressed,” Drake replies.
“Said he just couldn’t deal with killing any longer and watching his colleagues die.”
“Colleagues? He referred to us as colleagues? Christ. I’m glad they’re shipping his ass out of here; otherwise I’d kick it up and down this center. Colleagues.”
“They’re shipping him home?” Patek Strub asks, scrolling across the pages of an online.
“Damn straight. Not going to patch him up just so he can reinjure himself or his ‘colleagues.’ Thanks, but get out and don’t come back anytime soon.”
Through the observation windows and far across the horizon a bright light cuts into the blackness of space. We watch as it vanishes behind the planet’s inner Shepard moon.
“Looks like Division 14 has arrived. Iberman’s timing couldn’t have been better. He’ll have immediate transport inside of 36 hours.”
“Well,” Sawyer says, “least he’s got someone waitin’ for him back home.”
There is a strained sigh of relief, a feeling of uneasy comfort, of embarrassed jealousy at this observation. We all want to return, to flee this war and hold onto those who are closest in our hearts. Yet Iberman’s approach to realizing this desire is one that very few of us would consider, much less act upon. He will return to Earth not as a hero, but as a civilian who’s been stripped of PFA association; he will be looked upon with sorrow and indignity.
And I do not have the heart to tell SDS Bobby Sawyer that he is wrong. I do not have the strength of will to dispute my friend’s statement, to explain what I have seen and what I now know, nor to share it with others. In the excitement of the situation it did not earlier occur to me; it was overshadowed and obscured by the emergency at hand and by too many drinks. But I checked again and now have no doubt.
Iberman has been lying to himself, lying to us all. The woman to whom he’s professed his love is a fabrication; she exists only in his mind and only within the circuitry of the PFA’s data communication system. It should have been obvious, but I never made the connection, never saw a reason to doubt his honesty—his strength of mind.
The PFA employs three operating systems for communications existing on three separate frequencies. The main system, PFA-Radio1, is the primary means through which all wireless communiqués are transmitted. The second system, an in-house configuration, is used for general announcements and incorporates the PFA Automated Emergency Distress Channel. The third communications conduit processes all personal transmissions from Saturn to Earth via an elaborate network of orbiting relay satellites positioned across the stars at intervals of 2.5 million miles. Developed in 2060 by the former Bell-NASA Laboratories, the program incorporates self-sufficient artificial intelligence technology. Because many of the deep space exploration missions of the late 21st century involved individuals rather than teams, the program featured an artificial person who would assist with long-range transmissions and who would serve as a virtual companion in hopes of preventing isolation-induced madness. The program was dubbed the Telecommunication Relay Activation Channel for Interstellar Exchanges or TRACIE.
Iberman’s sweetheart exists only within the microcircuitry of an off-planet mainframe; a fact unknown to anyone but him and me.

13:30 January 1

Iberman gathers his few personal belongings from the barracks. Most of the personnel are either in the mess or engaged in other recreational activities. Sawyer and I are midway through a game of checkers. Iberman is uncharacteristically quiet, though perhaps that’s for the best. He wears his embarrassment across his face as if it were a mask that’s become forged to his flesh. SDS Bobby Sawyer breaks the silence.
“Goin’ home, then?”
“Yup,” Iberman says, quietly.
“Hope she’s worth it.”
We resume our game. Preston Iberman packs a few final items into a shoulder bag and nods a silent farewell.
“Send Tracie our regards,” Sawyer says, not bothering to look up from the black and red game board. Iberman turns, looking back at us.
“What did you say?” he asks quizzically.
“Your girlfriend. Tracie. Send our regards,” Sawyer replies, jumping two of my chips with one of his own. Iberman looks at Bobby then at me. My eyes reveal far more than I would have preferred; they possess an understanding and an awareness, and that awareness burns through Iberman’s glance into his mind, body, and soul. He knows what I know.
Preston leaves without further exchange. At 14:00 the transport departs for the inner Shepard moon. From there, Iberman will board the Warhawk and be placed into hiber-hive for the return trip. Concurrently, the skies bustle with activity as the newly arrived Division 14 personnel are shuttled from the Shepard moon planet surface to the Saturn command center. McTierman greets many of the new PFA arrivals before boarding a shuttle to return to the moon where the majority of the recruits are still undergoing IRS-1 implants, etc.
Exactly two minutes after departure, McTierman’s shuttle explodes. An orange fireball ignites the skies for several seconds until the vessel’s O2 supply is exhausted. The craft disintegrates into dozens of fragments that hover like broken shards ice, hopelessly caught in the gravitational pull of the planet. As information is learned regarding the catastrophe, a general alert is sounded. All squads, including the D-14s, are ordered to a standing alert.
COO Preston Stone enters the barracks at 17:21 and the squad jumps to attention.
“At exactly 16:25 today a PFA Class I ‘Shell-Head’ short-range transport exploded en route to moon command killing all aboard including PFA Brigadier Styles McTierman. I-Reps have confirmed the shuttle was attacked over the no-fly zone by a Rykan fire. The deployment of escorted D-14 personnel will continue until all squads are combat-ready; a full-scale ground assault begins at 19:00. You know what needs be done. Semper Fi!”
The ensuing 90 minutes are spent checking equipment as we hope for the best but prepare for the worst. SD-Bombs are primed, Marshall 21s cleaned and loaded with FP-007s, bayonets sharpened and properly mounted, translators charged, anti-grav stabilizers calibrated, PDA-keyboards programmed. Stat-packs are filled with life-sustaining K-rations and meds; all personal belongings are removed.
At 17:55 New Year’s Day we prepare for deployment. At the same time, miles distant but already a world away, former SDS Preston Iberman is placed into a hiber-hive unit aboard a Warhawk bound for Earth; his resolution has been fulfilled, and whatever thoughts his unconscious may weave—be they real or imagined—are his and his alone.

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