The air was cool as the Swordsman marched. It was filled with the scent of blossoms, which danced in its midst as a whirling tide of pink and pale. Pink, like the setting sun had been the night before, and Gods willing, would be this night to come, if all went well. A good and powerful omen, they had said, but a sign of danger also.
Underfoot, the valley made for difficult travel. It was steep in places, deceptively so, and the mildew had slicked the grass on the smoother paths making them slippery and hazardous. Still, it was into this blossom-scented valley that the Swordsman descended, and he did so with a grace born of years of training. Not one foot faltered, not one foot slipped.
In the centre of the valley stood a small orchard of cherry trees, with bark the colour and texture of obsidian, smooth and shining in the noon light. Their flesh was silky, and their leaves were as liquid to the touch. They were beautiful, the Swordsman thought, and would serve their purpose well.
Were he a bard, doubtless he would find many words to write, and turn to lyrics so that he might share the wonders he perceived. No doubt such a man would render the landscape into a musical delight, the likes of which would rouse the soul, and yet still barely grasp its true beauty, for such things denied translation. He was not an artist though, at least, not of words.
The Swordsman’s art was of a different kind, and though he cut many a tune from the air with his sharpened instrument, there was little left to share with the world, when the last note ran its course.
Sergeant Grundig was sweating, and that was never a good sign. Big, black droplets of muddy sweat were drawing dark snail trails down his neck and forehead. He made no attempt to halt their course. That was another bad sign. If they weren’t in trouble yet, they would be very soon.
The long slog through Memphis fen had been largely uneventful, that is, if you ignored the treacherous depths, barely visible beneath the opaque water that they were forced to wade through, and the constant threat of attack by any number of scaly predators that dwelled therein. Perhaps through luck alone they had avoided all such contacts, but that hadn’t made their situation any less dire, and looking at a newly formed bead of sweat racing down his sergeant’s scalp, Captain Thrace knew they were a long way from safe.
The men hadn’t noticed it yet, thankfully. Most of them were fresh, greenies brought in from Baradas or first-bloods from Niktor, still high on their first victory, and believing themselves invincible. Only he, and Sergeant Grundig, knew this wasn’t going to be quite as simple as they all hoped it would be.
‘I don’t like this,’ grunted Grundig under his breath, careful to keep his words from the ears of the other soldiers. ‘Intel says we should have made it to the dropsite by now, but where’s the ship? Where’s the gaw-ramned land for that matter?’
‘Could the intel be faulty?’ asked Thrace, though it was a foolish question. High in orbit the Victory in Silence would be running continuous sensor sweeps of the entire area without fail. On a clear night like this there was little chance of atmospheric interference, and the galleon’s matrix processor made digital corruption nigh impossible. If they said the ship was here, it had to be.
Grundig shook his head. ‘Got an update thirty minutes ago. Still there. Must be buried beneath all this muck.’
‘Is that possible in so short a time?’ Thrace felt suddenly very vulnerable as the water sucked at his boots.
‘Logically, sir?’ Grundig shook his head by way of reply. ‘Could be the locals did something. There’s a lot we still don’t know about them.’
‘Unlikely,’ said Thrace a bit more quickly than he’d intended. ‘They’re primitives. Let’s just keep to the facts.’
Captain Thrace turned his attention back to the long march ahead of him. He wanted very much to simply discard Grundig’s words. They were foolish notions, utterly foolish. The natives of Gyptica, like many of the fringeward colonies, had regressed into tribalism, rather than maintaining the technology they had been granted when first they had arrived.
It was impossible to say what had caused the regression, perhaps the machines had been defective, or the humidity of the world had been too much of a challenge for the colonists to overcome. It was equally possible that some civil unrest tied to these events, or not, had caused the colonists to rebel against one another, splitting them into feuding bands that over the course of the centuries had long forgotten their roots.
Realistically, it was of no consequence. Worlds like Gyptica were generally considered beyond redemption, and either left for study or aggressively re-colonised so that the world’s resources might not go to waste.
Gyptica’s ultimate fate didn’t matter to Thrace, nor did the fate of its people. What would happen to them was beyond his control, and far beyond his pay grade to interfere with in any case. His job was simple, or at least, it should have been.
An observer-class science vessel, the Smithsonian, apparently named after some archaic repository of knowledge, had been forced to ground for reasons unknown. They had taken casualties in the touchdown, but other than being rendered incapable of a future take-off, their craft was intact. The survivors had sent out a distress signal, urging rescue of their crew and the valuable data they had collected. Then the signal had gone quiet.
It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment, that perhaps it wasn’t the crew they’d been sent to retrieve at all.
Information was power in the Protectorate. What little the Prefects relinquished to the common man could, if used wisely, make unimaginable fortunes. A crafty planetary administrator, sitting on data that leads to the discovery of a mineral rich world at a point when such minerals are in demand, stood to make a great deal of money.
The lives of soldiers had been spent for much less, Thrace mused.
Still, there was nothing they could do if the ship was submerged. They were armed with spit-guns and combat knives, not industrial salvaging equipment. If they were lucky they’d soon be called back to the ship, and the entire action would be abandoned, but Thrace had never been lucky in his life.
‘Captain!’ yelled a private that had been scouting out ahead. His next words only cemented Thrace’s growing feeling of dread. ‘We’ve found something.’