Church Fleet High Command
Colonel Ibrahim Wolfe watched the details flow down and across his data slate, tutting in dismay at the information contained there. Although a Colonel in name, he was in fact an officer without troops, and without portfolio. He had been sent by his commanding officer to check on the potential of forming a further regiment on his homeworld of Luther, however he had found the planet riven by disease.
The planetary authorities had declared the world in quarantine and had turned his ship around, for all he knew, there was now no world left. Church priests had been chanting about taint and the cleansing light of Him. He didn’t really want to consider what that might mean, although it did mean that there were no more replacement troops on the way.
His anxiety was caused by the fact that his regiment had been sent as a combined force to liberate some ball of dust and in his absence had been decimated, almost entirely. There were less than three hundred active Lutheran soldiers on the lists and these had been amalgamated into the command of an apparently incompetent General Hamner, who had managed to get embroiled in a skirmish on an unnamed planet, of little significance. He knew that the 5th Lutheran Light Infantry was no more, but they were his men and he wanted them.
He had hitched a ride on a military transport and had rejoined the fleet, but no-one was willing to give him passage to his troops. Of course, he was told that they were no longer his troops, but it hurt deep down that the pride and joy of Luther had lasted for only six weeks in active combat and were no more. Also he carried a burden of guilt that he had not been there, he had left them in the capable hands of his Executive Officer, who had also been lost.
Wolfe decided to run a check on outgoing transports once again, maybe persistence might pay off, where influence failed.
Zone of Conflict
Tauran Disputed Zone
“Attenshun!” shouted the soldier at the front of the group, his tattered Corporal’s stripes flapping in the breeze as he snapped a salute in Walters’ direction.
Walters knew he had two options, he could lie, or he could shoot Berbatov. He glanced sideways at the hulking brute, whose mis-shapen teeth were on prominent display as he grinned at Walters. Then he had a brainwave.
“At ease men, Sargeant Berbatov can be a little overzealous at times.” As he spoke he watched, the grin slowly disappearing to be replaced by a puzzled frown. It looked for one moment that Berbatov was about to say something, but then the grin reappeared.
“You heard the sodding, begging your pardon sir, Leftenant. Put your backsides at ease!” screamed Berbatov, spittle flecking the corners of his mouth.
As the Corporal relaxed, he seemed to notice the tattoo on Walters’ forehead and his hand twitched towards his laser rifle. Walters noticed the movement and casually replaced his pistol in its holster. He nonchalantly removed his cap and spoke.
“I always seem to have that effect on people, Corporal ……?”
Military discipline kicked in and the Corporal replied, “…James, sir of the 5th Lutheran Light Infantry. My section here got separated from our platoon in the fire-fight and we were about to try and find our way back, Sir. Begging your pardon, Sir, but can you identify yourself? It’s just the tattoo, Sir?”
Walters could see the man fighting with the urge to call him a liar, which he undoubtedly was, and the soldiers need for leadership. He wanted to believe Walters and for this Leftenant to take over responsibility. He had also just told an obvious lie and wanted it overlooked.
Beginning to enjoy himself, Walters spoke.
“Okay, Corporal James. I don’t normally indulge in reminiscence and couldn’t give a flying fox’s fat ass if anyone takes offence at my beautiful body art. However, in the extenuating circumstances, I will make an exception.”
He paused motioning for the troopers to resume their places around the fire, rummaged in his pack for the brandy bottle he had recently thieved and sat down on a nearby rock. He took a pull from the bottle and passed it first to Berbatov, who after half emptying it, passed it around the watching men.
“As you can see, Sargeant Berbatov and I are but recent graduates of the Penal Battalion. I personally was given the choice of commanding a platoon of my fellow criminals or being shot. No, no don’t interrupt ….” he growled threateningly as James made as if to speak and his fingers caressed the holster of his pistol.
James almost choked on the fiery liquor and protestingly motioned for Walters to continue.
“I will not bother you with the details of my crime, however I was sentenced to a three month tour of duty with a CF regiment, and Sargeant Berbatov kindly offered to join me. We appear to have lost most of our platoon to a particularly unpleasant friendly fire incident and I have decided that I need to speak personally with General Hamner about this matter.
“We,” and here he indicated his Sargeant, “have decided to find a way off this planet in order to keep our rendezvous with our beloved General. If this means that we have to fight our way through the fortress up above, or we have to shoot a couple of Inspectors in the process, that is one and the same to us. If you wish to join us you are welcome, as we could use a pair of hands or two, but, if you would rather go your own way ...”
Here, Berbatov belched and then stretched his hand out to the nearby halberd.
“Sir, we’re with you, sir”, agreed Corporal James rapidly, “we don’t have much of a regiment nor army left, sir”
Grinning, Berbatov took the bottle of alcohol out of the Corporal’s rigid hand and raising it on high, made a toast.
“To Walters’ Army,” he roared and the soldiers gladly joined in.
K’san remained hidden behind the rock outcropping at the top of the hill, staring curiously at the group of humans below. The pack was now bigger, the new members behaving correctly and deferring to the lead male, as was expected. At first he had wondered if it was wise to continue with this new pack, as they were alien to him and all of his teachings preached the foulness of the human scum. However, he had been accepted by the pack leader, they had fought together and paid respect to his fallen brother.
He lifted his head to the breeze as he recognised a familiar scent, which was closely followed by the howling call of a hunting pack. He saw the leader swiftly rise to his feet, calling something in his strange tongue to the others and without conscious thought stood and moved to take his place by his side.
The recently christened Leftenant Walters scrambled to his feet, as the now familiar howling of the K’ran reached his ears. He saw the rest of his makeshift army scrabble for their weapons and take up a hastily formed defensive circle. Corporal James stiffened and almost subconsciously Walters knew that the “puppy” had returned.
“Hold,” he barked, as the silver furred beast glided to his side. He could see the awe of the faces of the troopers, as the K’ran calmly approached and faced outwards.
“But sir …..” protested James.
“Shut the frak up and take cover,” spat Berbatov, moving close to Walters and turning to face the same direction as the beast.
Walters raised his hand demanding silence and looked at the K’ran, he could almost feel the lack of nervousness in the beast, see the quiet confidence in its posture.
“They’re close, but are not hunting us. We do however need to move. Sargeant?”
“Yes, sir”, responded a smirking Berbatov.
“Let’s get our gear together and move out. Away from the fortress in the first instance. We need a couple of troopers flanking us, our friend here,” indicating the K’ran, “will take point.”
The beast glanced at him and then began to move away from the slowly receding sound. As though it had understood every word and again the men looked at Walters almost reverently.
Berbatov motioned for the Corporal to take over and hung back next to Walters.
“Got a plan, sir?” he asked in a barely concealed stage whisper.
Walters waited until the men began to move about before he spoke, “Yup. My plan is to make this up as I go along. You got me into this and now we’ve got to play it out fully. “
He glanced around the makeshift camp, adjusted his pistol in its holster and thought hard before he opened his mouth again.
“Listen, Berbatov. My little impromptu speech yesterday wasn’t far off the mark. We have got to get out of this warzone and if at all possible off planet. Our lovely leader could not give a damn about us. In fact he did his best to kill us. Probably, his Inspectors and personal troops have direct orders to shoot us on sight and we have an army of crazed beasts and half human soldiers who also want us dead.
“I personally don’t want to hang around and find out who gets the first chance at us. Our situation has improved and we have convinced the Corporal and his men that their best chance of survival lies with us. But, you know that this charade can only last until a real officer or Him forbid, an Inspector checks up on us.”
“Don’t agree.” mumbled Berbatov.
“With which part?” questioned Walters half-sarcastically.
“About the checking up on us,” replied the huge man, nervously switching his halberd from one shoulder to the other. His face twisted into an unrecognisable grimace and Walters suddenly realised he was thinking. Then he began to talk in a surprisingly reasoned voice.
“It’s like this, Sir.” he began, “Most officers know shit about being an officer. They tell people what to do and the Sargeants and Corporals do what they were going to do in the first place, as you well know. Any trooper will follow the cap and greatcoat, without asking too many questions.
“You’re right that some jumped up tart of an officer could question you. However, they probably won’t if you act the part. The Church-loving Inspector who asks too many questions, can be easily convinced,” and here he affectionately patted the weapon on his shoulder, “not to.”
Walters looked enquiringly at Berbatov, “When did you become such a frakking scholar?”
Berbatov furrowed his brow, spat on the floor and resumed his usual expression. “Don’t need to be, that’s why we made you the officer.”
Watching the big man move away, Walters wondered again where Berbatov had come from and what real chance they had of pulling this off. The truth was that they were committed and could not back out now. He realised that he needed to be convinced that he was an officer and not just playing a part. Reflecting on the good and bad of his situation, he decided that he really had nothing to lose. Shaking his head, he followed Berbatov, at first slowly and then with more confidence as he finally accepted the paper he had chosen to play.
Guest post with D.P. Prior
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