(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
‘What do we do now, captain?’ asked Sergeant Grundig as he stared indignantly at the writhing smoke in its glass tomb.
Captain Thrace didn’t have an answer for him. Inside that case lay a being of impossible power, a giant, by human standards, a deity by others. Prefects were post-human, though still resembling their birth species in appearance they were towering demigods, augmented to perfection, and born with the sole purpose of ruling over the myriad star-realms of humanity. Diplomats without peer, warriors without equal, leaders so versed in their craft that not a living soul came close. They were the true masters of the Protectorate, and the rulers of all mankind.
But more than that, they represented the apex of human achievement, in their size and power, their wisdom and ferocity.
It was the latter that concerned Thrace. In his years of service he had only ever served under one Prefect, and though he had never met the man directly, the effect his presence had on both the enemy and his own soldiers, was a mixture of wonderment and pure primal terror.
‘Nothing,’ said Thrace. ‘We do nothing. We leave it here. This isn’t our problem.’
‘Shouldn’t we wake him?’ asked Private Amos, his voice wavering slightly. ‘He might know what happened.’
‘How do you know it’s a he?’ teased Grundig.
‘All Prefects are male,’ said Amos, though his face turned scarlet.
‘No they’re not,’ laughed the sergeant. ‘Medea’s a Prefect, she’s not male.’
Amos considered this, and looked away uneasily.
‘You two, stop fooling around,’ said Thrace sternly. ‘I don’t know who it is in that sarcophagus, and frankly I don’t care. We were sent to secure the ship, and we’ve done that. If command wants to retrieve the Prefect, that’s their concern. Our job is to hold off any nasties until they get back to us.’
A warm feeling rose in his chest as he spoke the words aloud. There was comfort in giving and receiving orders, a feeling of purpose that could sometimes overcome the nagging sensation that things were not quite that simple. On this occasion, he was at least partially successful. There was no way of knowing how long they would be waiting, or if they would even need to defend their holding at all. Initial sensor sweeps hadn’t disclosed any nearby settlements, or nomadic packs, so it was possible they could just hold out without incident.
It was possible, but unlikely, and as luck would have it, it was not to be the case.
A distant cry echoed down into the bowels of the ship. Far above someone was calling, but it was far too muffled to hear exactly what was said.
‘What was that?’ asked Grundig.
‘Time to move out,’ said Thrace, who had already raced over to the metal rungs and was speedily ascending them.
Grundig and Amos followed without so much as a glance back at the sarcophagus. Whoever it was entombed within would have to wait. Something far more pressing had come up.
‘Captain Thrace here, report,’ yelled Thrace as he clambered out of the hatch and into the uppermost chamber. All around him the data banks were still softly humming, but the room had taken on a darker appearance, and the lights from the terminals now glowed with an ominous crimson.
‘Hostiles, sir,’ said Private Vonz, his normally jovial expression replaced by one of pure terror. ‘There are hostiles… everywhere…’
‘Control yourself, soldier,’ said the captain, holding the private firmly until he regained his composure. ‘Natives?’
Thrace felt a cold chill well in his gut. ‘Then who…?’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ said Vonz, his expression now was almost pleading. ‘They came from the trees, but they’re not… they’re not human, sir.’
‘Not human?’ Grundig was beside them now, with Amos following behind. ‘Have you been sniffing the ammo canisters?’
‘I saw what I saw,’ said Vonz. ‘They’re not human, and their guns and armour… we can’t fight them, sir! We can’t!’
Thrace and Grundig looked at one another, then turned back to the blubbering private. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, private,’ said Thrace, the tone of his voice as controlled as he could manage, ‘but I do know that if you don’t pick up your gun and get back out that hatch it won’t be aliens that shoot you dead, it’ll be me.’
Vonz gulped and nodded, clumsily pulling his weapon up to his chest before glancing back at the escape funnel. He took one long look and then turned back to his captain, eyes filled with tears and shook his head pathetically.
Once more the captain exchanged a look with Grundig, and then he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and rushed the private, pulling the spit-gun from his hands and ripping its ammunition canister free in one fluid movement. He clipped the canister to his belt and shoved the gun back into the crying man’s hands.
‘You’re not worth my time, private,’ said Thrace. ‘Stay down here and cry if you think it’ll help. Come find me when you grow a backbone.’
Pathetically, the man saluted, but Thrace ignored it as he hurriedly climbed up the escape funnel. Amos followed closely, but Grundig remained for a moment, staring down at the whimpering man as though he were the most disgusting thing he had ever seen. For a second his fingers flickered over the holster of his weapon, but instead he turned to follow the others, looking back only long enough to spit in the private’s face.
Outside the Smithsonian, chaos was ensuing. No sooner had Thrace raised his head over the rim of the hatch when a stream of crackling black lightning streaked towards him, narrowly missing him and instead rampaging past into the night sky with a hideous cackle. In one fast movement he grasped the edge of the hatch, pulled himself forward and rolled behind a mound of earth. Two more shots zoomed overhead and he cursed himself for having allowed his curiosity to get the better of him.
Amos was next out of the hole, he appeared oblivious to the danger, and Thrace was forced to physically grab him by his chest-plate and haul him aside as a shot of the same dark lightning exploded against the spot he had occupied mere seconds before.
‘Stay low,’ ordered Thrace, but Amos didn’t need to be told. He was lying flat against the ground and breathing heavily.
Lastly came Grundig, a vicious snarl on his face as he unloaded a barrage of shots in the direction of the hostiles before leaping from the hatch and sprinting for cover. More lightning followed, and he dove forward, yelling in pain as a bolt seared the meat of his left thigh.
‘Sergeant, are you all right?’ asked Thrace.
‘I’ll live,’ said Grundig through gritted teeth. ‘Stings a bit though.’
Thrace smiled and patted his old friend on the back. Sergeant Grundig was tough as nails, a real veteran. He’d survived situations that would have killed lesser men, and always came out of them with a victorious grin and a story to tell. He had no doubt that some of these stories were greatly exaggerated, but they had shared enough time in the field together for him to know that many of them were true.
‘Good man,’ said Thrace. ‘Amos, how’s the data-pack?’
Amos shook his head by way of reply. ‘Not good, sir. One of those bolts fried it up good. If we had a day I could fix it, maybe get a warning signal out…’
‘We don’t have a day,’ said Thrace bluntly. ‘Leave it. We’re on our own.’
The private swiftly unbuckled the backpack and knocked it aside.
Thrace looked back down the hill, careful not to expose himself to the incoming fire. Private Nagra was faring far better than Vonz had. Huddled behind a makeshift wall consisting of a line of supply containers interspersed with mounds of dirt, she had assumed control, ordering the other soldiers to lay low, and take potshots only when an opportunity arose. Glancing back she saw the prone form of her commanding officer and saluted briskly. He did the same, but noted that she did not look at all surprised by the absence of Vonz.
‘Private Amos,’ said Thrace, ‘we’re going to sprint down the hill together. When we get to the bottom, drop into the water and try to crawl towards those boxes there.’ He nodded in the direction of the furthest section of Nagra’s makeshift wall.
‘Aye sir,’ acknowledged Amos, ‘got plenty of flak for slipping over in the water on the march here, now you’re ordering me to do it.’
Thrace grinned, and to his surprise Grundig did as well. The boy had gone up in his esteem considerably. Certainly his fear was palpable, it was written on his features just as it had been from the start, but he had pushed past it. He’d risen to the challenges, and followed orders. Perhaps he had been wrong about him all along.
‘What about me, sir?’ asked Grundig. ‘I don’t think I’ll be doing any running tonight.’
‘I know,’ said Thrace, ‘and I know it’s not very dignified, but I’m going to need you to roll down the hill after us.’
‘You either roll down the hill, or I push you down,’ said Thrace. ‘Either way we’re moving out in five.’
Grundig grumbled something under his breath and pressed his hands down on the firmest section of dirt he could find. Thrace turned to Amos who nodded his readiness and the captain placed his hand where all of them could see. Slowly he counted down on his fingers until only one was left, then both he and Amos leapt up together, pelting down the hill as quickly as they could. More lightning blasts hit behind them, and for a horrifying moment Thrace felt a searing heat at the back of his neck, but still he kept running until his feet touched the water and he fell, face forward, emerging only a second later to press his back against the side of the container.
He turned to see Grundig unceremoniously splash into the water after rolling all the way down the hill. When he resurfaced and brought himself up beside his captain, his face was covered in dirt and his helmet was trickling water like a broken shower head. His eyes continued to roll for a moment before another blast of lightning overhead brought him hurtling back into the present.
‘Where’s Amos?’ asked Thrace, though he already knew the answer.
‘Didn’t make it,’ said Grundig. ‘Bastards almost tore a hole through your spine but he jumped forward just in time to take the blast himself. Stupid, kid.’
Thrace put his hands up to his face, and wiped away the grime as he tried to collect his thoughts. He’d seen comrades die before, he’d even seen them sacrifice themselves for him, throwing themselves on grenades or into the field of fire, but those had been die hard veterans, older men who had learnt duty through decades of fighting. He didn’t want anyone to die for him, but at least they had lived full lives. Private Amos had been little more than a boy.
‘Got to keep moving, sir,’ said Grundig. ‘Kid died so you’d save the rest of our asses. Better get on that, eh?’
Captain Thrace nodded grimly. There was never time to mourn death on the battlefield, that would come later if they ever made it off this miserable planet. For now the only way he could honour Amos’s sacrifice was by making damned sure it counted for something.
Reluctantly, Thrace slid along the wall, ducking at points where its uneven height would leave him exposed. He sidled up beside Private Nagra who saluted him once more and looked at him, her bright hazel eyes boring into his as she waited expectantly for his orders. It was time, Thrace realised, to take control.