A Sword of Ivy, Part 8

Hana and Xeliana were quiet for awhile, just enjoying each others’ presence and trying to sort out their thoughts. Hana couldn’t quite believe how stupid she’d been. She had been trying to convince herself that she hadn’t been paying attention to Xeliana because she was trying to keep everyone at arm’s length so that she wouldn’t get hurt again if somebody she cared about died under her command. But if she was going to be honest, she had to admit that she’d been keeping her distance from Xeliana because of jealousy.

Which was stupid, because it wasn’t as if she’d ever cared about her looks. Even when she was in college, she’d been too busy, first with her classes, and then with revolution, to pay any attention to how she looked. Her best friend at Imperial University, Veshryk Jilorin, had often joked about how she would have been pretty if she’d ever bothered to brush her hair. Her usual response had been to roll her eyes and ignore him. There was too much work to be done to worry about being pretty. That had been true in college, and it was certainly true now. So why did she feel so threatened by Xeliana’s beauty?

Suddenly it dawned on her that it wasn’t even just Xeliana. She’d been keeping Vedregela at arm’s length for years as well, and for the same stupid reason. Not that Vedregela looked anything like Xeliana, but she was beautiful in her own way, and certainly more beautiful than Hana. And as she reflected on this further, she realized that it wasn’t even just Xeliana and Vedregela. Hana had kept her distance from every woman who’d ever been through the ranks of Starfengt.

“Do you remember Megoren?” Hana asked Xeliana in a quiet voice. A smile spread over Xeliana’s face, and her eyes lit up.

“Remember her?” Xeliana exclaimed. “I still get together with her every chance I get! Every time I have shore leave on Hechelen, Megoren and I paint the town red!”

“I see,” Hana said in a small voice.

“Why?” Xeliana asked, a thoughtful frown replacing her smile.

“Just…just curious,” Hana said, shaking her head dismissively.

“Wait,” Xeliana said, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You don’t mean…? That’s what happened with you and Megoren? You were jealous of her looks too?”

“No, don’t be ridiculous!” Hana said, not looking Xeliana in the eye. Xeliana just looked at her, with a firm expression on her face and her arms folded across her chest. “Okay, fine! I admit it! I kicked Megoren Vigoral out of Starfengt because I felt threatened by her beauty! Happy now?”

“Hana, I don’t understand you,” Xeliana said, shaking her head. “Every man that has ever passed through our ranks has been smitten with you. Every woman wants to be you! Heck, despite the fact that we’re the most classified unit in all of Fangalin, half the people in Fangalin know who you are and are jealous of you! You’re a hero! I just don’t understand what you of all people have to be jealous about!”

“I know!” Hana moaned. “It’s stupid! I can’t even explain it. I’ve certainly never cared about being beautiful. But maybe that’s just because I was so convinced that I wasn’t beautiful that it seemed like a waste of time and effort to even try. And then I look at you, or Megoren, or Vedregela, and I just think, what would it be like to just be beautiful?”

“Okay, first of all, you are beautiful,” Xeliana said with a sympathetic smile. “So I don’t want to hear any of this nonsense about you trying to be as beautiful as me, because you already are, whether you believe it or not.” Hana gave a skeptical snort, but Xeliana ignored her. “Second, even if you were as ugly as you seem to think you are, what do you think you’d gain by being more beautiful?”

“Yeah, I know,” Hana said, rolling her eyes. “I already told you that I know it’s stupid. You don’t have to convince me.”

“I just want you to think, Hana,” Xeliana said. “And I want you to know that I care about you, and that you can rely on me, and you don’t have to feel threatened by me in any way. You need a confidant, somebody you can trust and lean on and rely on. And it doesn’t have to be me, if you don’t think you can trust me. But I want you to know that you can trust me, and I will always be here for you, no matter what happens.”

Hana was quiet for a moment, processing this. Finally she said, “Thank you, Xel. I mean it. That means a lot to me.” Xeliana looked at her with a winsome smile on her face for a few moments, and then she stood up, walked around the table, and wrapped her arms tightly around her commanding officer. Hana’s body seemed to melt, and tears poured from her eyes, as an entire lifetime of tension and worry seemed to bleed out of her. For a long time, they stayed like that, Xeliana’s presence reminding Hana that there were still people in the galaxy who cared about her, and that even if some were lost, that didn’t mean they all were.

“Well, I suppose I oughta listen to your orders and get to bed,” Xeliana said as she let go of Hana and stepped back.

“Yes, it wouldn’t do for the XO of the unit to have to be disciplined for insubordination,” Hana replied, wiping tears from her eyes and grinning at the same time. Xeliana returned Hana’s smile, and walked toward the door.

“Xel?” Hana called, just as the door slid open.

“Yes?” Xeliana replied, looking back.

“Thank you,” Hana said, her voice heavy with emotion.

“You’re welcome,” Xeliana said with her typical winning smile. “Just promise me that you won’t shut down like that again. Everybody in this unit cares about you, Hana. Even the dumb ones.” As she turned to go, Hana found herself laughing like she hadn’t laughed in a very, very long time.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 7

The celebration on Starfengt’s shuttle ride back to Numoris was not quite unrestrained, but it was close. Normally, Hana tried to keep a pretty tight lid on her squad, but it had been so long since they’d had anything to celebrate that she figured it was okay if, just this once, she relaxed the rules a little bit. Besides, everybody still had their clothes on, so it wasn’t as if things had gotten too out of hand. Yet.

“I would like to propose a toast!” bellowed Shalaminas Retico suddenly. Unsurprisingly, he was the drunkest of them all, and the drunker he got, the louder he got.

“This is the twentieth toast you’ve proposed!” Velencias Moratino yelled back. Somewhat surprisingly, he was probably the second drunkest person on the shuttle. “I know! I’ve been counting!”

“Well, this toast is different!” Retico said, standing up and swaying slightly as he did so. “This toast is for our beloved Captain!”

“All of your toasts have been for our beloved Captain!” shouted Moratino, as Hana and the others laughed uproariously.

“But this is different!” Retico yelled. “This is different! Before, I was toasting her captaining, which is the best captaining in the whole damn galaxy. But now, I wanna toast her body!”

“Careful, Master Chief!” Hana warned, but she was still laughing as hard as everybody else.

“No, I mean it!” Retico said earnestly, leaning forward and dumping a substantial quantity of Cortaran ale out of his mug onto the table. “You are one hot, sexy lady captain!”

“And you are the drunkest drunk I’ve ever seen!” Hana yelled back over the howls of laughter. “And you’d better shut your face before you say something you’ll really regret!”

“But I’ve got so much to say!” Retico exclaimed. “So many feelings to share!”

“Shut up, Retico!” Moratino yelled warningly, grabbing at his friend, but Retico brushed him off.

“I’m in love with you, Captain!” Retico blurted, causing even more laughter to erupt, especially from Hana.

“Tempting offer, I’m sure, but I think I’ll pass,” Hana said, rolling her eyes.

“But you need a man!” Retico shouted. “Ever since Commander Sidel died, you’ve been so lonely!” Suddenly the laughter faded, and a deep silence fell over the room. “What?” Retico asked, blinking in confusion.

“Whether I need a man or not is none of your concern, Master Chief,” Hana said coldly. “And if I decide I do need a man, I can assure you that there is no way in Nerzaga that it will be you.” She glared at him for a long time, her eyes like icicles, boring their way into his soul. He stared back, wide-eyed with horror, and then finally swallowed slowly and lowered his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” he whispered. “Please forgive me, sir.” She watched him stonily for a few moments, the silence in the room deepening further, and then her expression softened slightly.

“I think we’ve had enough celebrating,” she said quietly. “But I don’t see why we can’t all get a little extra sleep. The shuttle is due to land on Numoris at 1200 hours tomorrow. I don’t want to see any of you until 1100 hours.” She smiled slightly as she said this, but it was very slight, and there was still a cold stoniness to the look in her eyes. Everyone around the table nodded and departed without a word. Everyone except Xeliana.

For a long time Hana and Xeliana just looked at each other. As they sat in silence, Hana found herself thinking about how odd it was that she was the one who young men in Starfengt always seemed to fall in love with. She had never thought of herself as overly pretty, and before she’d founded Starfengt, she’d never really attracted attention from the opposite sex at all. Xeliana, on the other hand, was effortlessly stunning. From her long and shiny black hair, to her luminous blue eyes, to her supermodel-esque figure, and to her open and cheerful personality, one would expect that Xeliana would be the object of male lust in the squad. And yet, she was always treated as one of the boys, while Hana, with her plain, brown hair, practically non-existent curves, and no-nonsense attitude, was the one who was always getting drunken pledges of undying love.

“You know,” Xeliana finally said quietly, “Retico is an idiot, but he’s got a point.” Hana rolled her eyes.

“Don’t even start with me, Commander,” Hana snorted. “My bed is quite warm enough without a man to share it.”

“I don’t mean that,” Xeliana said, shaking her head. “I mean that Commander Sidel was somebody you trusted, somebody you could rely on, both to back you up when you were right and question you when you were wrong. You need somebody like that.” Hana frowned silently for a moment.

“Yeah, I guess,” she finally said. “But it’s not like confidants just grow on trees, Xel. I can’t find somebody to lean on just because I want that.”

“Are you sure?” Xeliana replied, raising an eyebrow.

“What do you mean?” Hana asked, her forehead creasing in confusion. Xeliana sighed heavily, stood up, and began pacing back and forth.

“Look, maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I think I could be someone you could lean on. I care about you, Hana! You’re my best friend, my mentor, the person who taught me everything I know! But I feel like you try to shut me out, push me away, and I can’t figure out why!” She continued pacing back and forth for a few moments, while Hana sat and stared silently at her, a shocked expression on her face. Finally, Xeliana stopped and faced her. “Well?” she demanded.

“Is…is it really that hard to figure out?” Hana asked quietly.

“What?” Xeliana asked, her hands on her hips. “It’s not because of my looks, is it?” Hana lowered her eyes to the table, an abashed expression on her face. “It is! You’ve got to be kidding me! You’ve held me at arm’s length for years because I’m pretty!?”

“I know! It’s stupid!” Hana exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “I’m sorry! It’s just…well…you’re gorgeous, and I was jealous!”

“You? Jealous? Of me?” Xeliana blurted, her eyes wide. “That’s…I…wow,” she sputtered, and then fell silent for a moment. Finally she sighed and sat down across from Hana. “You wanna know something crazy? I’ve spent the last seven years being jealous of you.”

“We are quite a pair, aren’t we?” Hana said with a small, embarrassed smile.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 6

Once the battle was over, Hana felt a feeling of satisfaction that she hadn’t felt in a long time. It was the satisfaction of a job well done. As a child, her father had always taught her to take pride in her work. He’d always told her that he didn’t care what she did with her life, as long as she did whatever she chose to do to the very best of her ability. Until his death, she had always lived by that principle. But after his death, she’d become so consumed with her quest for vengeance, so consumed with obtaining justice for her father, that she’d forgotten to honor his memory by living the way he wanted her to.

But even that quest had had a sense of purpose to it. Once Neminatrix was dead, and Hana’s vengeance was achieved, it was as if all purpose had been sucked out of her life. She’d spent so much time, and gained so little, and lost so much, that it made her feel as if accomplishing anything was worthless. How could she have been so wrong about her direction in life? How had she felt so right about something that turned out to be such a huge mistake? The loss of Arcten had paralyzed her, making her feel as if her judgment couldn’t be trusted.

But today, everything had changed. She had rediscovered her purpose. She had a job to do, and she was exceptionally good at it. Starfengt’s capture of the ridges had been spectacular, a brilliantly conceived plan that was executed perfectly. And once in control of the ridges, Starfengt had been so ruthlessly efficient at pinning down the Imperial troops in the valley that the regular army forces had been able to overrun them almost effortlessly. Because of Starfengt, the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin had captured the Arabesh Wastes, and its vast mineral wealth, with almost no casualties. Hana felt like a hero, and for the first time in a long time, she was being treated as one.

“I have to admit, Captain, I had some doubts about you and your squad, but you certainly proved me wrong,” said a voice behind her. She was standing on the ridge she and her team had taken, with her hands clasped behind her back, looking out over the troops of the 4th Battalion as they set up camp in the valley that had so recently belonged to the Empire. She didn’t need to turn around to see who it was.

“Thank you, Colonel,” Hana replied, as Colonel Vondamisk Latrafai stepped up to the edge of the ridge with her. He was a tall man with a standard military crewcut, penetrating gray eyes, and a clean-shaven face. He looked like a soldier’s soldier, and his reputation matched his look. “I have to admit, I took a little bit of offense to your attitude before the battle,” Hana continued, “so I’m glad to see that our actions changed your mind, without me having to resort to words.”

A small smile appeared on Latrafai’s chiseled face. “I should have known better,” he said, “but when the Council starts interfering in military matters, I get a little skeptical.”

“The feeling is mutual, Colonel,” Hana replied, glancing over at him, “but the Supreme Commander knows what he’s doing. When I try to convince him he’s wrong, I very rarely succeed, and when I do, I always regret it.”

“So you do report directly to the Supreme Commander,” Latrafai said, raising one eyebrow. “I thought that was just a rumor.”

“I’m afraid not,” Hana replied.

“Guess I’d better be on my best behavior,” Latrafai said, his small smile turning into a small grin.

“It couldn’t hurt,” Hana said with a shrug and a straight face, but there was a twinkle in her eyes as she said it. She held her poker face for as long as she could, but after a few moments a smile crept across her features. It felt good to smile. It’d been so long since she had anything to smile about that she could barely remember what it was like.

Latrafai’s own grin broadened as he looked at her. “Thank you for your assistance, Captain,” he said, giving her a respectful nod. “The lives of my men are more important to me than anything else. Because of you and your squad, I had smaller losses today than in any battle I’ve ever been a part of. I owe you more than I could ever repay for that.”

“That’s not necessary,” Hana said, shaking her head. “I was just doing my job, using the skills I have. I’m no savior. I’m just a soldier, like you.”

“Tell that to the men who lived today, the men who would have died if you hadn’t been here,” Latrafai said, regarding her seriously. “You saved their lives. I would say that makes you a savior.”

Hana snorted and rolled her eyes. “Stop it,” she said with a frown, but the twinkle was still in her eyes. “You’re gonna make me blush like a teenager.”

A warm smile appeared on Latrafai’s face. “Okay, I’ll stop,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass you. But don’t forget what I said. Whether you believe it or not, I owe you a debt that I can never repay. Whatever you need, whatever you want, if it’s within my power to grant, I will give it to you.”

Hana raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re making a tempting offer,” she said, and then she grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to take advantage of you.” They both laughed at this, and then once their laughter had faded, Latrafai took one of her hands in his, brought it up to his lips, and kissed it.

“It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Captain, but I’m afraid the work of a battalion commander never ends. If you will excuse me?”

Hana nodded, and watched him as he turned and walked back down the ridge. What an interesting man. Her initial assessment of him had certainly been off.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 5

As soon as Hana was done speaking to the squad leader, she took a deep breath, and then said, “Okay, Echo Team. Let’s do this.” Immediately, she hoisted herself up on top of the cliff, pulled her silenced assault rifle out of its holster on her back, and crept forward until she was behind a nearby outcropping of rock. Lifting up the assault rifle and resting it on the outcropping, she peered through the rifle’s scope, and sized up the opposition.

It looked like Moratino had been right. There were at least 250 troops on top of the ridge, possibly more. They’d set up a nice, tidy camp right at the top, but they clearly hadn’t expected anybody to scale the cliff, because there were no fortifications facing it, and all of the troops had their attention trained on the battle on the slope leading up to the top of the ridge.

She trained her rifle on the nearest target and fired. The soldier dropped without a sound, but before his body hit the ground, she had already shifted targets and fired again. The targets she was selecting were out of the line of sight of the rest of the soldiers on the ridge, and the five assassins with her were also doing the same with almost superhuman efficiency, so nearly 50 Imperial soldiers had been eliminated before the rest of them even suspected that there were enemy troops behind them.

Once they’d figured out what was going on, it didn’t help them much. As soon as more than a handful of Imperial troops had turned around and started drawing their fellows’ attention to Starfengt, Hana and her squad quickly holstered their assault rifles and pulled out the other weapon strapped to their backs, a light grenade launcher. Before the Imperial troops could even open fire on Starfengt, their ranks were decimated by a dozen lightweight, but high-powered, grenades ripping through them. There were still almost 150 of them left at this point, but they were scattered and demoralized. And Starfengt still had a few more tricks left.

Dropping her grenade launcher, Hana pressed a button on her forearm, and it was as if she had disappeared. The rest of her squad followed suit. They had activated their active camouflage, which analyzed their surroundings and automatically adjusted the color of their body armor to match the color of their surroundings, thus making them virtually invisible. Once they’d disappeared they each drew long, curved mylium swords and crept forward towards the Imperial troops.

One of the most important things Arcten had ever taught her was that fear was more important than firepower. No matter how many more troops and guns and bullets your enemy had than you, if they were afraid of you, all of those advantages were nullified. And turning invisible and cutting them down one by one was an extremely effective way to terrify them.

Quickly but methodically, Hana and her five fellow assassins swept through the Imperial camp, striking down soldiers and disappearing before their companions could react. Meanwhile, the two regular army squads had turned back and were pressing toward the Imperial troops again. Slowly but surely, the number of Imperial troops on the ridge was dwindling.

Hana had to admit that, despite their fear, the Imperial troops fought hard. They knew that they had no defense against the shadows harrying them from all sides, but they didn’t give up. She almost felt bad about killing them, except that she knew they would kill her in a heartbeat if they got the chance. Besides, whether or not these individual soldiers were good people or not, they served an Empire that was corrupt and dying. They could have defected to Fangalin and joined the side of justice and truth. Instead, they chose to stay with the Empire. Hana had no compassion for fools who refused to see the direction that history was heading.

Almost as soon as the battle had begun, it was over. Less than two dozen Imperial soldiers were left, and they had surrendered, as it was painfully obvious that they were not going to win this fight. Only two of the regular Fangalin soldiers had been killed, and one more had been wounded and was currently being evaced. The rest of the regular soldiers were herding the disarmed Imperial soldiers down the ridge, while Hana and her team members set up their positions facing the main Imperial army camp. They hadn’t been able to bring their sniper rifles up the ridge with them, so they were collecting their grenade launchers and preparing to rain death down upon the clustered Imperials, while their assistants brought their snipers rifles up the ridge.

“That was spectacular, Captain,” said Vedregela with a grin as she knelt down beside Hana and set her grenade launcher on a rock outcropping to stabilize it.

“I suppose it was pretty good,” Hana allowed with a small smile. “Of course, we’re not done yet.”

“Of course,” Vedregela said, her grin broadening. She adjusted her grenade launcher, made sure it was fully secure, and then turned to look at Hana. A serious look had replaced the grin, although her eyes still twinkled with delight. “Welcome back, Captain,” she said. Hana turned to look at her, her own eyes somber but grateful.

“Thanks, Ved,” Hana replied. “Let’s kick some more Imperial ass, shall we?”

“Yes, sir!” Vedregela replied, her grin back and broader than ever.

“Echo One to Echo Two,” Hana said over the radio.

“Echo Two here,” Xeliana replied. “Go ahead.”

“What’s your status, Two?”

“South ridge is secure, One. We’re getting ready to start the second phase.”

“Acknowledged, Two. Begin the second phase at your discretion.”

“Understood, One. Two out.”

Almost as soon as Hana stopped talking, she saw a flash of light from the opposite ridge and then a series of explosions in the Imperial camp below. “Echo Team!” she yelled. “That’s our cue! Let’s light ‘em up!” Immediately, she and the rest of her squad began emptying their grenade launchers into the Imperial camp, unleashing death and destruction and chaos once again.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 4

“Echo One, this is Fox One,” came a voice over Hana’s earpiece suddenly.

“Echo One here, Fox One,” Hana replied. “Go ahead.” Fox One was the commanding officer of Giant Hammer, Colonel Vondamisk Latrafai.

“Captain, I need Echo Team to take up flanking positions on those two ridges to the northwest,” Col. Latrafai said. “You’ll be providing covering fire for our advance up the middle.”

“That’s a pretty good position, Colonel,” Hana replied. “What are the odds the enemy doesn’t already have troops up there?”

“I know they do, Captain,” Latrafai shot back in a slightly condescending tone. If Hana cared about such things any more, she’d be annoyed at the emphasis he put on the word “Captain”, as if her rank was lower than hers. If she had been a captain in the Army, she would be several ranks lower than Latrafai. But she was a Naval Captain, which meant that she was the same rank as Latrafai. But it didn’t really matter what Latrafai thought of her. “That’s why I’m sending four squads with you to secure the position,” he continued.

“Are you sure that will be enough, Colonel?” Hana asked, her brow slightly furrowed.

“My scouts tell me there’s only 50 troops on each ridge,” Latrafai retorted. “General Belvanoi says that your squad is the best in Fangalin. Two squads per ridge ought to be plenty of backup.”

“Understood, Colonel,” Hana said. “Echo One out.” She looked around at her squad. “Okay, Echo Team. We have our assignment. We’re going to be laying down covering fire from those ridges up there,” she said, gesturing to the sweeping ridges stretching out to either side of them. “The main enemy encampment is in between them, so we’ll be perfectly positioned to support the main push up the middle.”

“Too perfectly,” replied Moratino sourly. “The Empire is sure to have those ridges heavily defended.”

“Colonel Latrafai assures me that there are only 50 troops on each ridge,” Hana said. “We’ll be assisted by four squads from Giant Hammer.”

“Which will be plenty, if there really are only 50 troops up there,” Moratino grimaced. “But what if his information is wrong? If I was defending this valley, I’d have ten times as many troops up there. If they lose those ridges, they’re done for. Any commander worth his salt would know that.”

“Maybe we’re lucky and the enemy commander is an idiot,” Hana said in a slightly exasperated tone.

“We’ve made the mistake of underestimating the Empire before,” Vedregela said somberly. Hana gave her a long, searching look, and suddenly something occurred to her. She cared about these people. As much as she tried to make herself stop caring, she couldn’t. Xeliana, Vedregela, Moratino, Retico, and the rest…they belonged to her, and she belonged to them. They could never fill the void in her heart where Arcten was, but they didn’t need to. If she lost any of them, there would be new voids in her heart.

“Okay,” she said softly, and then she repeated it, louder and firmer. “Okay! Here’s what we’re gonna do.” She leaned forward and told the squad her plan, and as she did, grins spread across all of their faces.

***

“Now this, is devious,” said Vedregela in delight as she, Hana, Retico, and three other members of Starfengt stood at the foot of a cliff, looking up at its sheer face.

“I certainly hope so,” Hana said dryly. “Otherwise this is going to be a one-way trip.” She looked around at the members of her team. “Everybody ready?” They all nodded in determination. “Echo Two, this is Echo One,” Hana said over the radio to Xeliana. “Ready to execute?”

“We are in position, Echo One,” came Xeliana’s response. “Ready to go on your mark.”

“Very good, Echo Two,” Hana said. “Execute.” As soon as she said this, she grasped the wall of rock directly in front of her and began climbing. The plan was simple. If Colonel Latrafai’s scouts were wrong, and the Imperial commander wasn’t an idiot, then a frontal assault on the ridges with the number of troops at Hana’s disposal would be suicide. Instead, Hana was just sending the squad that Latrafai had loaned her up the slopes of the ridges, but their attack was simply a diversion. Their objective was to engage the enemy, and then fall back and draw as many enemey troops with them as possible. Meanwhile, Starfengt would scale the cliffs on the sides of the ridges and assault the enemy encampments from behind. Once Starfengt began their attack, the regular squads would turn and push back, catching the Imperial troops in a vice.

Of course, if Moratino was right, there would be 250 Imperial soldiers waiting for them at the top. 250 Imperial soldiers versus 20 regular Fangalin troops and 6 Starfengt assassins. But at least this was a challenge worthy of Starfengt’s skills.

Climbing the cliff meant that they couldn’t carry as much gear into this battle as they usually would. In theory, they could have used floatpacks to hover up to the top of the cliff, but floatpacks gave off an energy signal that could be detected by anyone paying attention, and if Hana’s plan was going to work, they needed to catch the enemy completely by surprise. They were wearing special gloves and boots that attached themselves to the surface of the cliff face, so they didn’t have to worry about losing their grip, but they still had to use their own muscles to pull themselves up. This meant carrying a light load, but a light load for a Starfengt assassin still meant that they were bristling with weaponry compared to a regular soldier.

As soon as they reached the lip of the cliff, Hana signaled a halt. “Echo Two, what’s your status?” she said over the radio.

“We’re in position, Echo One,” Xeliana replied. “Waiting on your signal.”

“Sigma One,” Hana said again, this time contacting the leader of the squads assaulting the ridge, “give me an update.”

“We have made contact with the enemy and have begun falling back!” yelled the squad leader over the sounds of battle. “You were right, Echo One! There’s a lot more guys up here than we thought!”

“Hold tight, Sigma One,” Hana said reassuringly. “We’re coming.”

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 3

Hana supposed that there must have been parts of Weblish that were nice to look at. After all, it was a habitable world with millions of people living on it. There must have been plants growing on the planet somewhere. But every area she’d seen in the three weeks she’d been there had been more desolate than the last. Sector Bravo Seven, or, as it was known by the locals, the Arabesh Wastes, was no exception to that rule. Long stretches of flat, dry, brown land were periodically broken by massive spikes of dirt and rock that soared thousands of feet into the bright blue sky.

The Arabesh Wastes weren’t just harsh to look at, either. They were also treacherous to traverse. The seemingly unbroken flatlands hid deep, jagged chasms that were nearly invisible until you were right on top of them. For that reason, the vehicles of the 4th Battalion, nicknamed “Giant Hammer”, were creeping along at a snail’s pace. Even though the APCs they were riding in, known as “Groundhogs”, were hover vehicles, they could only hover a few feet above the ground. If the distance between a Groundhog and the ground suddenly went from 3 feet to 300 feet, the result would not be pleasant. Hana figured, with a tiny smirk, that their pace fit the unit’s nickname pretty well. It would, after all, be hard to move a giant hammer quickly. Hopefully they also hit as hard as their nickname suggested once they reached their destination.

“Hey, Captain,” said Lt. Velencias Moratino to Hana suddenly, “look at this.” He was sitting across from her in the transport, and he handed her a tablet that she took with a slight frown. She stared at the tablet for a moment, and then rolled her eyes and flung it back at him with an expression that was half disgusted and half amused.

“Very funny, Lieutenant,” she said dryly as Moratino cackled in delight.

“I figured you could use a laugh, Captain,” he said with a broad grin on his tanned face. Moratino was short but thickly muscled, with a shaved head, a thin beard across his jawline and chin, and no mustache. He had always been something of an enigma to Hana. Normally reserved and serious to a fault, every once in a while he’d do something or say something that revealed a surprisingly deep sense of humor. “We haven’t had much to laugh about for awhile,” he continued, his grin fading and his normal somber expression reappearing.

“Hey, cheer up, man,” said the soldier sitting next to him, Master Chief Shalaminas Retico. Retico and Moratino were best friends, and opposite each other in just about every way. Retico was tall and thin, with long, wavy brown hair, no beard, and a thick, ridiculous mustache that he curled up on the ends. Where Moratino was generally somber, Retico almost always had a boyish grin on his face, and he seemed to consider it his life’s mission to get Moratino to laugh. “Things are never as bad as they seem, ya know? I think better days are just around the corner.”

“You always think better days are just around the corner,” Moratino grunted sourly. “And yet, here we are, riding in a Groundhog across the ugliest desert I’ve ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on.”

“Well, yeah,” replied Retico, “but at least we’re in a Groundhog and not an Adralack.”

“An Adralack would be pretty terrible out here,” Moratino admitted, “but it sure wouldn’t make our surroundings any uglier.”

“Oh, but just think about all the arvinium that’s under our feet!” Retico exclaimed. “Enough to make us wealthy beyond our wildest dreams!”

“I’d rather not think about it,” Moratino sighed. “If there wasn’t arvinium out here, we wouldn’t be bothering to conquer this pitiful rock.”

“Okay, enough!” Hana ordered as Retico opened his mouth to reply. He snapped his mouth shut with a frown, but even frowning, he had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Hana glared at him and said, “Don’t even think about it, Master Chief. I’m not in the mood.” Retico sighed dramatically and turned his twinkling eyes on Vedregela, who was sitting next to him, on the opposite side as Moratino.

Hana almost smiled at the way Vedregela rolled her eyes when Retico began chattering away at her in his enthusiastic manner, but it was hard to really smile about anything these days. She sighed and turned so she could look out at the Arabesh Wastes as they crawled by. The unbroken expanse of brown and gray fit her mood perfectly. She wished it was cloudy, so the sky would match the ground. The bright blue of the Weblish sky was the only cheery thing she’d seen in the past three weeks, and she hated it. She wanted it to rain, to pour even, but she got the impression that it rarely rained on Weblish.

“Not much to look at, is it, sir?” said a voice near Hana’s ear. Hana turned and saw Sergeant Cadalar Veska sitting next to her. Sgt. Veska was a member of the 4th Battalion, in charge of the particular Groundhog that Starfengt was riding in. He was a grizzled veteran, with hard, dark blue eyes, a shaved head, a long scar across his left cheek and a short one across his chin.

“That, Sergeant, is the biggest understatement I’ve heard all day,” Hana replied dryly. Veska smiled slightly.

“I forget, sometimes, what this place must look like to outsiders,” he said in a somewhat melancholy tone.

“You’re from Weblish?” Hana asked in surprise.

“Not just Weblish, sir,” Veska replied. “The Arabesh Wastes. I was a miner before the war started. Imperial Army rounded a bunch of us up and forced us into service. I fought for them for a few years, but then I wised up and came over to Fangalin. Never regretted it.”

“No, I can’t imagine why you would,” Hana murmured.

“It’s good to be home,” Veska said, gazing out at the desolate landscape. “I never realized how much I missed this place. Being an arvinium miner was a hard life, but it was a good life. It’ll be satisfying once this planet is firmly under Fangalin control.”

“I bet,” Hana said, thinking. Home. She hadn’t been home in so long. She barely remembered what Bliddle was like. Maybe reconnecting with her roots would help her gain some clarity.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 2

Hana Lodimeur’s expression was carefully blank and never changed as she pulled the trigger on her sniper rifle and obliterated the head of her target. Her expression stayed blank as she swept the battlefield through the scope of her rifle, selected another target, and did it again. Every time she pulled the trigger, she saw the head of Emperor Neminatrix IV explode, but she kept doing it anyway, because she did it better than anyone else in Fangalin. Maybe she should have allowed her memories of Neminatrix’s death to affect her, but why? She didn’t have any regrets about killing him. Yes, she had regrets about other things that happened that day. But that specific act did not dismay her in the least. And yet she saw Neminatrix’s face every time she killed an anonymous Imperial soldier.

“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” came a female voice over her in-ear radio. “Please respond.”

“Echo One here,” Hana replied. “Go ahead, Xeliana.”

“Command is ordering us to relocate to Sector Bravo Seven,” Commander Xeliana Merane replied, just barely keeping the irritation out of her voice at the fact that her CO had called her by her name instead of her code number, even if this was a secure channel. “We’re needed to support the 4th Battalion.”

“What? Why did they send that order to you?” Hana exclaimed in exasperation. “What happened to chain of command!”

“They’ve been trying to get ahold of you for the past 10 minutes,” Xeliana said, more patiently than she felt. “You haven’t been responding.”

Hana frowned silently in response to this, thinking, but then she shook her head and dismissed her thoughts. There was probably just a glitch in the radio system. It happened from time to time. “Understood, Echo Two.” She paused for a moment, and then said, “Echo One to Echo Team. We’re relocating to Sector Bravo Seven. Acknowledge.” She nodded in satisfaction as all 12 members of Starfengt voiced their acknowledgment, and then she picked up her sniper rifle and crept down off the ridge she’d been hiding on.

Her gaze swept across the desolate wasteland around her as she picked her way down the slope back to the base camp for the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Division of the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin. Although Starfengt wasn’t part of the Army, they’d been ordered to assist the 9th Brigade in their invasion of Weblish by the Supreme Commander himself. Once Hana would have been offended that Starfengt’s skills were being wasted on such a mundane battlefield, but now she didn’t care. She couldn’t make herself care about much of anything these days.

As she reached the foot of the slope, she handed her sniper rifle to her assistant and took off her helmet. Her short, brown hair was slicked down with sweat, and she ran a dirty hand through it, making it stand up on end. She looked around at the bustle of activity in the base camp, and spied Starfengt’s number three, Lt. Commander Vedregela Holomein, jogging toward her. Vedregela’s wavy red hair was streaming out behind her as ran, but the cheery glint that usually lit up her green eyes was missing as she glared at her commanding officer.

“What in Nerzaga were you doing up there?” Vedregela barked as Hana turned her emotionless eyes toward her. “Sir?” she added belatedly.

“There must have been a glitch in the radio system,” Hana replied coolly.

“That’s garbage and you know it, sir,” Vedregela snarled. She glared at Hana silently for a few minutes, while Hana gazed back at her impassively. Finally, Vedregela took a long, deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Look,” she said firmly, “we all miss Arcten. And I know you were closer to him than any of us. But you need to let him go, okay? You know better than anybody how pissed he’d be if he knew you were letting your grief for him get in the way of your job. He built Starfengt for you, and he’d be furious if he knew you were letting it fall apart because of him.”

“You and Xeliana give me this lecture at least once a week,” Hana replied, rolling her eyes. “And I’ll tell you the same thing I tell you every time. I’m done grieving Arcten, and Starfengt is not falling apart. The Supreme Commander wants us to shore up the war effort. It’s our duty to go where the Supreme Commander sends us.”

“The Supreme Commander knows you can’t handle anything tough, so he’s sending us to backwater worlds where you can sit on a mountain, pick off greenhorns from 3 miles away, and pretend you’re doing something important,” Vedregela shot back.

“That’s quite enough, Commander,” Hana said in a soft, dangerous voice, the color draining from her face. Vedregela’s face turned as red as her hair, and she dropped her eyes to the ground.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she whispered. Hana glared at her for a moment, and then the expression on her face softened.

“I know, Ved,” she said quietly. “And I know you’re frustrated. I’m trying my best, I really am. I hope, deep down inside, you realize that.”

“I know, sir,” Vedregela replied, still looking at the ground. “And I hope you realize that I care about you. I don’t want to see you destroyed by grief.” Hana just looked at her appraisingly for a moment, and then sighed deeply.

“Come on, Ved,” she said, starting to walk toward the center of the camp. “Let’s gather up the rest of the team and figure out what’s happening in Sector Bravo Seven.”

“Yes, sir,” Vedregela said with a resigned sigh, trotting after her CO. As they walked, Hana thought for a moment about what Vedregela had said. Was she being destroyed by grief? That was probably a pretty good assessment. But what could she do about it? Everytime she cared about someone or something, the universe stole it away from her. It seemed the only solution was to just stop caring entirely.

To be continued…