Abhayda lingered on the horizon, casting Adelar in shadow. It was hot, and it would stay hot for hours past sunset as ground and stones gave up their heat. Ulysses Stillingfleet wiped the sweat from his brow; it had sopped his scalp and hair and soaked his headband, and the slightest motion would squeeze out a bit of it to trickle down and sting his eyes. He couldn’t have that on this, the last day of his tour on Adelar—the last day of anyone’s tour on Adelar. He peered out over the wastelands and towards the horizon, which was obscured by a windstorm that slowly approached.
He lowered himself below his parapet and sat, curled almost like a fetus, studying his squad. Five remained, including himself. The remaining forces holding the fortifications were Adelar, he figured thirty or fifty of them, which was difficult to know because they had competing duties. He spat in the sand, but his mouth was dry, so the effect was more that he sprayed his beard with spittle. He swore.
If anyone had asked him ten years earlier, he’d have declared he’d be glad to leave behind this godforsaken ball of dust and grief. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Oh, he’d be fine to be rid of the trouble, but the rest seemed like something that would follow. Harbinger Joost fell into place and curled up beside him. Harbinger was, for practical purposes, the Adelar war chief in these parts. He was also a close friend and the only man, Terran or Adelar, Ulysses called an equal in strength and cunning.
“See anything, Harby?” Ulysses asked.
“Nah, too much dust in the windstorm. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Irae are using it for cover.”
“Uh-huh.” Ulysses wouldn’t be surprised either. The Irae operated through guile and cover. It would be like them to arrive with the storm, which would obscure them from vision and scatter the Terran and Adelar sensors.
Ulysses resented the fact that his last day on Adelar would be spent in the terror of attack. He had friends in the village, most notably Harby himself, who he’d likely not see again. “This is going to ruin our farewells,” he observed.
Harby gave him a wide, maniacal grin. “Perhaps fortune will smile upon us. We may have no opportunity to say them.”
The nearby Adelar and Terrans laughed. Leave it to Harby to bring on the gallows humor, Ulysses thought, as he joined in. The truth was that Adelar valued battle-death no more than did Terrans. You might die honorably in battle if you had to, but the goal was to die old and happy.
Bodhi Aileen crouched by Ulysses and Harby. “We might cut the lights,” she suggested.
Harby nodded. “Good idea, Allie.” All around the villagers had strung up festive lights for the departure of Ulysses and his squad. They’d stand out in the night and make the village a better target if the Irae did move in the storm. Allie ran from door to door informing the residents of the precaution, and the lights flickered out home by home, store by store.
Ulysses did not understand why the villagers would celebrate, other than to accept Harby’s explanation at face value. “One celebrates when friends arrive, and one celebrates when friends depart. The memory of friendship should be one of celebration.” Harby’s explanation made sense, but Ulysses supposed that departures weren’t usually so fraught.
He feared that the Adelar would not fare so well after the Terrans’ departure. The Irae were a harsh people who took special delight in depravity upon those who did not embrace their creed. Ulysses had seen it with his own eyes—razed villages, mutilated rape victims, tortured and desecrated bodies. A Irae might regale its captors with the logic of the superior gender and its creed, but Ulysses understood the simple truth—that beings who inflict so much suffering are drawn to it by pleasure. The very existence of the Irae was lewd, obscene. He feared the Irae, but not as one might fear a man. He feared an Irae as one fears a rabid dog—because he knew that is what an Irae is.
Harby and Allie bore the same fear in their eyes. Ulysses could see it in the eyes of the other villagers, except that the ancient ones, who were old enough to remember the time before the Terrans came in force, held in their eyes the kind of grief that one bears only for the terminally ill. It was especially pronounced when the elderly spoke with a woman as young as Allie.
Ulysses had put the question to one of them. “Old-timer, why the long looks for the youngsters?” he had joked, gripping the old Adelar’s shoulder.
“Old-timer” was the village’s nickname for the only elderly defender; the rest were too frail. The woman just shook her head. “What’s coming will be harder for those who don’t remember.”
Ulysses didn’t have a yardstick to judge by, so he had to take the old woman at her word. It was true, at least, that Harby and Allie had been born and grown to adulthood under the protection of the Terran Occupation. Until recently, a village like theirs, close enough to a spaceport, had been sheltered in the shadow of overwhelming Terran force. Adelar force was no joke, but the Irae would test its resolve.
During the Terran occupation, the Irae had become a monstrosity of the Borderlands and beyond, something Harby and Allie had seen on tour, not a reality they faced in their village. Ulysses imagined that the old woman was right. Dying at the hands of the Irae—they might be able to imagine that. They had seen that. But living under the yoke of the Irae was something they could not hope to understand—and why would they? He certainly did not understand it himself, except as an abstraction of the old taboos: subjugation and cruelty.
Ulysses could see that his squad was concerned. “Gin, what’s the trouble?” he asked. He could read the anxiety most clearly on Gin’s face, which didn’t surprise him, as Gin was a novice.
Gin shrugged. “Shouldn’t we be calling in reinforcements?”
“Nah. The duststorm is everywhere, but the Irae are not.” The Adelar were no tactical slouches. Sending reinforcements without confirmation of the enemy would unbalance Suryast’s defenses. Ulysses wouldn’t ask Adelar Command to do that. In all likelihood, the Irae would attack somewhere else, and Command would concentrate its response there. This was evidently no comfort to Gin, who gripped his rifle tight and stared at his feet.
Abhayda had been swallowed by the duststorm, bleeding out a deep red shroud over the western horizon. Twilight approached. Ulysses let his gaze wander over the village. A young girl, perhaps seven years old, stood in the schoolhouse doorway, studying the defense forces. Her mother emerged from the schoolhouse and ushered her off, down the street, clinging to her hand.
“That’s a sight…” Gin began. Ulysses waved him down. There was no hope in speaking the fear that sights might soon pass from living memory.
Old-timer sighed from her nearby position. “There’s no cause to silence him, young Terran.” Her rifle leaned upward against the stone parapet while she mended a torn robe—a pack of them lay by her. Old-timer was always busy, and she expressed her opinions in the manner that comes with old age. It did not bother her that Ulysses was the Terran lieutenant or that Harby was the warrior chief. No one was safe.
“Apologies.” Ulysses’ chin gave a little bow. “It’s a sorrowful thing to speak at parting.” He wiped away the muddy dust caking above his brow.
Harby nodded. “It sure is.”
Allie returned from warning the villagers to cut the lights, and she crouched by the old woman, cradling her own rifle against her chest. “The swine won’t take it away,” she muttered to herself, unconvinced.
Ulysses struck the butt of his rifle sharply against the ground and gave a short, involuntary groan.
Just then, a lookout shouted. Ulysses and Harby leaned over the parapet, peering through their field glasses. Ulysses’ heart fell as he made out the shapes of the Irae.
Ulysses and Harby crouched behind the wall, shoulder to shoulder. “I estimate a thousand,” whispered Harby. Ulysses nodded. “At least that many.” Harby called it in to Command. When he was done, he shook his head. “At least three hours,” he said. The Irae were perhaps two hours from striking.
Ulysses had fought the Irae many times. They would stay under cover of the advancing storm for as long as possible, then blitz into the clear to overrun the village. Thus, he could judge the time of their arrival by the rate of the storm’s approach.
It was pointless to retreat. If the villagers left their only cover and showed their meager strength, the Irae vehicles would race across the wastes and mow them down in the open. The only hope for survival was in the defense of the village.
Allie rested her rifle against the stone wall and scooted to them. “If only we could stall them for perhaps fifteen minutes, we will face better odds in the storm.” Harby nodded, then shook his head. Allie was right, and a frontier village might well be prepared to stall the Irae. But there was nothing to be done here, with such little time.
Command would do what it could. The rockets began screaming incessantly overhead, targeting the leading band of the storm. As twilight dimmed, the flashes and percussion of bombs punctuated a horizon that drew ever closer. This was the best Command could do—fire into the storm and thin out the numbers a bit.
A barrage was never all that effective—the necessity of advancing under cover of storm meant the Irae were always spread chaotically. Ulysses had taken the equipment off a dead Irae—it would advance blindly, guided by nothing but its helmet heads-up display, which became progressively less accurate during a storm, until the Irae finally burst out of the storm, allowing their sensors to sync and recalibrate. This randomness was an advantage in avoiding calculated fire.
Harby called the villagers to the square. Those unable to fight would take refuge in the town’s storm bunkers, guarded by a few novice fighters. The able but untrained were assigned positions throughout the town’s buildings, ready to fight house to house if needed. The defense forces and Ulysses’ squad would take positions along the parapet to soften the wave.
Harby motioned the villagers to remain in the square for a word of encouragement. He shouted over the high whines and low percussive booms of the rockets and bombs.
“The Irae believe that when the Terrans are gone, that we will crumble! They believe that without the Terrans we will gladly accept the Irae yoke. Well, they are wrong! Sister Allie, when the Irae come, will they extinguish your knowledge? Your sisters’ schools? Perhaps they will, but they will take nothing that the Terrans gave us, because the Terrans gave us nothing. The love of the open sky, the town square, our freedom and equality, our prosperity and strength, all run through our veins. They are our birthright! They belong to the Adelar!”
The small crowd gave a weak roar and dispersed among its assignments. Morale is never high among people who face the Irae, Ulysses reflected.
The time between flash and boom shortened as the horizon marched closer. Then, Allie sprinted to Ulysses and Harby and threw herself down into cover. “Shorten the range,” she gasped. “Keep them in the storm.”
Harby and Ulysses exchange nods, and Harby called it in. Allie’s tactic made sense. Focusing artillery on the storm would hasten an attack once the Irae were within striking range, while shifting it somewhat outside the storm would encourage the Irae to make a delayed rush. It was necessary simply to trust that the adjustment had been made, because nothing about the dark and flashing horizon would confirm it. Harby sent Allie along the parapet to withdraw most of the defense forces back into the village. Harby, Ulysses, Allie, Old-Timer, and Gin remained along the parapet.
Soon the glare and boom were constant, close, and blinding, and the five tucked themselves tight against the stones, eyes shut, until the sound of small arms broke out from the village to join the whine and concussion of the rockets now bursting mere yards away.
Ulysses peaked over the parapet to see Irae erupt through the edge of the storm, to rush at last through the artillery barrage. They were a fearsome, otherworldly sight, clad neck to toe in clay-colored environmental suits, their heads encased by a hard clay-colored skull helmet, visor raised in the open, eyes still covered by goggles. He fired over the parapet, downing a group of infantry as it emerged from the dust clouds.
He saw rockets stream from the nearby rooftops, dealing death to the remaining enemy vehicles. At least the village would not need to deal with those; however, eliminating them came at a cost as a wave of the Irae’s lethal infantry took advantage of the focus on vehicles to approach within a stone’s throw of the parapet.
He fired calmly and efficiently as possible, cutting down the charging Irae, as the rocket teams began hurling grenades from the rooftops. The idea was to assure that it was suicidal for any Irae to stop and aim; although, as with every choice, the tactic came at a cost—it encouraged the Irae to breach the parapet at maximum speed.
He glanced at his watch—it had been five minutes since the charge began. He looked through his sights, downed a few more infantry, and saw in a detached and clinical way that their efforts could not be enough. Fragments of the Irae lines, forged by fire into spearheads, began to breach the parapet as Command’s artillery abruptly faded.
Allie was huddled against the wall, reloading, as a squad of Irae stormed her position. Gin turned his fire to cover her, bringing them down, and Ulysses fired off a few rounds to suppress the Irae about to overrun Gin. Old-timer withdrew from the parapet to the nearest building, as Allie withdrew while peppering the squad attacking Gin long enough for him to break free. Ulysses turned to see Harby thrown to the ground by an Irae who lunged at him with a bayonet as Harby rolled desperately aside. Ulysses felt a sting on his shoulder and turned to see a wall of Irae rushing him.
He was sure it must be the end. Then, suddenly, the storm caught up, and he could see nothing. He threw himself to the ground and crawled for the village as the wind and dust swirled around him. His eyes stung. There was no visibility at all. A boot fell on his back and he rolled over, twisting the boot’s leg and bringing its owner down by his side. He wrestled the shape, and when it swore in Irae, he grabbed for its face and muffled its calls for its brethren. He wrapped his arm around the figure’s neck and squeezed hard until it went limp, then knifed it several times for good measure.
The struggle had disoriented him. Ulysses was unsure what direction would take him to the village or to the knee-high stone wall surrounding it, so he chose a direction at random. He kept his knife in his right hand, at the ready, crawling on his fist. As he adjusted to the adrenaline surge, he thought better of his choice, and stopped, held still, and listened. Small arms fire to his right! He turned and crawled toward the sound.
His scalp bumped into a body that lay still but breathed. “Ulysses,” it moaned. Harby’s voice. Ulysses sheathed his knife and felt Harby’s torso, muddy with blood and dirt. He dressed Harby’s wound by touch—the field foam to seal and immobilize the wound, the shots for antibiotics and pain, and the fluid-pack for the blood loss. He dragged Harby towards the small arm fire until they reached the wall of a village hut, where he propped him up and placed Harby’s sidearm and knife in his hands. “Go!” Harby urged.
Ulysses nodded, although Harby could not see. It was an involuntary response. He made his way along the side of the hut, dragging one hand against its wall, leading with his unsheathed knife in the other. He heard an Irae countdown roared over the wind and felt a presence before him—an Irae, standing against the wall, no doubt ready to wheel forward along the hut, around the corner, and storm through the hut door. He held the man’s mouth and cut his throat, lowering him quietly to the ground. He worked his way through the line, cautiously but quickly, until he rounded the corner. He would now be near the door. He readied his rifle, knelt, fired quickly and blindly along the wall, and rolled away from the hut’s side as return fire smacked into the walls and mud behind and around him. He swept the wall once more. He crept over the bodies, knifed each in turn, and knocked gently on the hut door.
The door opened, a great, thick blanket hung between it and the wall, from which Allie emerged from a fleeting sliver of light. Ulysses valued her coolness, aim, and cunning—she would not be the one to give the enemy a guiding light. He took her by the arm and led her to Harby, bumping on the way into an Irae who must have rushed in behind his assault, only to be subdued by Harby. “Knife,” said Harby, groping at the body. Ulysses joined in and found Harby’s knife buried in the man’s boot. Harby, not much able to move, must have brought the man down with that stroke and then throttled him in the confusion.
Allie and Ulysses carried Harby into the hut, which was dimly lit, enough for Allie to evaluate his condition. She cut away his garments and shined a flashlight on the side of his belly, revealing a stab wound. “Bayonet,” confirmed Harby, flinching at her touch.
Allie diagnosed the situation. “You’re lucky. It doesn’t look like he got in a twist.”
Harby grinned. “Nope, he got a bullet between the eyes.”
She continued. “Yeah, well, mostly he cut some skin and muscle away from your side. It’s gross and you lost enough blood for it to be dangerous, but you should be fine with a good long rest.”
“Ha!” laughed Harby. “And when exactly will I get that?”
“Not tonight,” said Ulysses, whose eyes now noticed Gin and some villagers in the dim light. They huddled, barricaded between upturned furniture and the walls, their weapons trained on the doorway, as the hut lacked windows from which to fire or keep watch.
Ulysses checked his own shoulder—he’d been lucky, and the wound was not much worse than a gouge. He dressed it and nodded to Gin. “Ready for patrol?” he asked—although, truly, it was an order. Gin and several Adelar nodded back, somewhat reluctantly. Ulysses understood. He was not eager, either, to venture back out into the storm. But it had to be done—otherwise, they were simply waiting for the Irae to kick down the doors. Gin and Ulysses slipped out, accompanied by three Adelar.
Now that he had his bearings, the patrol would be much simpler. Unlike the Irae, the Adelar did not need walls for guidance in this, their own village. They made their way slowly and silently through the centers of the streets, listening for the Irae, until they found another group feeling its way to a door. Ulysses tapped the Adelar on their shoulders, and they scattered into ambush positions. He and Gin lay on the ground and fired up, spraying the walls and listening to the thump of bodies falling into the mud, barely audible over the wind. They rolled away from their firing positions and lay alongside an opposing wall as the sound of small arms and struggle rose briefly over the storm. That would be the Adelar cleaning up the Irae who rushed in to aid their brethren. And then the small group scrambled and formed up again, silently, some distance away.
It was brutal, nerve-racking work, but Ulysses’ little team ground away at it for their allotted time, withdrawing to Harby’s hut while the wind and dust still swirled through the village. Harby had explained that rotation would keep the Adelar and Terrans fresh, as if that were possible, and build in a means of reinforcement even when operating blindly and without communications. It wouldn’t do to have more than one team operating blindly on a street, nor to assume that a team that failed to report for relief still survived. The patrol now fell to another. Ulysses lay down between an upturned table and the thick stone-and-mud wall of the hut and rested his eyes until Allie shook him awake.
She pointed to her watch. Dawn approached, and the howling of the wind was softening. He understood. With the windstorm gone, and with the light of day, the defense forces could no longer move with much stealth. It was time to take up fixed positions and bleed the Irae as much as possible. With providence, it would be enough to save a few residences until Command’s reinforcements arrived.
Ulysses groaned and slammed his rifle butt sharply against the floorboards. He and Gin slipped out into the night to take positions covering their street. They had to move more carefully and quickly, because the faintest outlines of form now appeared through the swirling dust. His goal was a building a few blocks away with a rooftop parapet, through which he and Gin could punch several holes from which they could fire onto the streets below.
As the two reached the building the wind died briefly, and Ulysses felt a pain in his leg as a shot tore a small gash. He threw himself back onto the ground and scrambled into cover as several forms—was it three or five? He could not tell—rushed towards him. A form he knew must be Gin fell onto his attackers from their rear, dropping three of them. The remaining two turned on Gin as Ulysses regained his composure and fired on them. Gin ran to his position, then jerked and fell to his knees, shot through the back. Ulysses fired above him, and then, a gust of wind filled his eyes with dust and mud. He seized Gin by his jacket and dragged him away under the cover of the storm.
He took cover in the alley by his destination and placed Gin against the wall, who Ulysses could feel rested there limply, his head lolling to the side. He had no pulse, and his lips were wet with blood. Ulysses punched the wall and suppressed a groan. There was no time for grief or rage. He made his way to the back of the alley and climbed the rough ladder to the rooftop, praying that no-one awaited him. He kicked the ladder away and prepared for morning.
As the storm faded and the grey of dawn spread over the village, the squads of Irae formed up to storm building-to-building. As Ulysses harried the Irae teams from his overwatch. All throughout the village, harassing fire sprung up, redirecting the Irae’s efforts, slowing their advance, and making Ulysses’ work more precise and deadly. But Ulysses knew that the resistance could not last against so many. Harby’s hut would soon be overrun. Against the settling gusts and dust of the storm, tears of sorrow and rage kept Ulysses’ eyes clear.
Then, above the sound of fire, he heard the Command reinforcements rumble through the village streets in their armored vehicles, cutting down the Irae and driving them back into the wastes. He watched the last of the Irae run from the village, abandon the attack on Harby’s post, leap the parapet, and run for life. The Command forces set up a fire-line at the parapet and cut as many of the fleeing Irae down as possible—Command had learned the wisdom not to pursue the enemy into the desert. Ulysses watched the Command snipers exchange bets on who could make the longest shot, and just to show them he was no pushover himself, he picked off a few of the Irae scrambling in the distance, watching with satisfaction as they crumbled into the underbrush. Then, Ulysses rolled onto his back, stared up at the brightening sky, and breathed.
He found Harby in the town square, having his wounds examined by Command. The other three members of his own squad awaited there. “Gin?” they asked. Ulysses shook his head.
An Adelar lieutenant approached. “Your team will extract with us back to Suryast, where you’ll evacuate.” It was not an order, but neither was it a suggestion. It was a reality that Ulysses could not avoid.
Ulysses managed a farewell with Harby. Command’s withdrawal couldn’t happen immediately, so there was time. Harby and Ulysses sat under a lean-to atop the roof, overlooking the village, sipping juice and munching on sandwiches. The cleanup still dragged on as the troops piled the Irae high onto flatbed trucks and dumped and burned them outside the village.
“I could stay,” mused Ulysses, knowing it was untrue, but feeling differently. “I feel bad about leaving. What’s going to happen to Allie and all the others if the Irae win?”
Harby clasped Ulysses on the shoulder, who winced. “Oh, sorry,” apologized Harby, thumping him on the back. “You know what we say about nature, here, right?”
Ulysses laughed. “Yeah, like it or not, you’ll find yourself part of the natural order soon enough.”
“Exactly,” Harby confirmed, laughing and then wincing, holding his side. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I don’t want you to stay. I’ve read the words of your philosophers and statesmen about self-determination and non-interference, but the truth is that there’s no cheating nature. You Terrans are smart but not so wise about how to live with that truth.”
“True,” acknowledged Ulysses. “So, you’re saying we’ll be back here again?”
“Yes,” answered Harby. “Adelar means nothing to Terra but commerce, but commerce is enough.”
Ulysses and Harby sat in silence for some minutes, eating their lunch. Ulysses broke the silence. “I know it wasn’t my choice to come here, but I can’t begin to say how guilty I feel about leaving.”
Harby sighed. “Adelar has faced the Irae for a thousand years and may face them for a thousand more.” He patted Ulysses on the back once more and continued. “You are the greatest friend of my youth, Ulysses, but I want you to take your guilt away from this place. It’s a dirty sort of guilt you Terrans have. Think of yourself as an exile with a mission. Your guilt is too much for Adelar to bear, but perhaps it can guide Terra as it discovers others who do not bear the weight of its origin.”
Ulysses could see that Harby’s eyes had misted over. They sat in silence for a few more minutes before amusing themselves by striking up conversation about Harby’s crush on Allie, the men’s league championships, and other trivia, and by playing a few quick games of pocket chess.
Ulysses followed Harby down the ladder and to the town square, where Allie and the other defenders awaited. She broke open a bottle of dark, sweet liquor, swigged, and passed it around. Old-timer began a sing-song chant, clapping, which attracted the village musicians and a few of the more talented soldiers from Command. Ulysses forgot the smoky sting in his eyes and saw that Harby had forgotten the stiffness in his side. He thought that this is how he should remember Allie and Harby, plainly and simply, as his dearest friends.
That night, Harby watched the Terran engines blossom like nova, pushing his friends back home. He took a sharp breath, winced, touched his side, and steeled himself. On the horizon clouds gathered, perhaps days away, perhaps to disperse. He lay back and gazed upwards. The sky above was clear, star-strewn. His lookouts peered into the gathering storm.