by Brian C. Mahon
Suddenly, in the moist, windless cirque basin, the crack of the last rifle sounding off startled Lime. His earpiece chirped to pre-alert an incoming message.
“Sir, Nguyen, grid alpha four check complete, all Zetas cleared.”
“Nguyen, Lime, copy check completed. Report if all skull, collar, and pelvis cortex minors verified destroyed and report status of purple pigmentation, over.”
“Sir, Nguyen, all cortex minors verified destroyed, and all Turned faded. Sergeants Benitez and Roth are supervising second checks. I watched the last one blanch, over.”
“Understand all, over.” Lime sighed in wearied satisfaction. “Connect command.” He waited for the bell, stiffened up, and reported as formally as exhaustion would allow, “Colonel sir, Eighth Company reports all grids checked and deceased verified, over.”
The Colonel, Phillip “Mad” Madrigan, was a man to deliver, and he delivered the day’s victory.
Mad’s 104th Space Expeditionary Regiment was the only tried and true combat unit effective against the Zeta’s Turned. The 104th cut teeth scouring New Babylon of Mars with flame and gamma bombardment and, with exquisite meticulousness, later obliterated every Zeta spore on the Europan and Enceladian forward stations. The Colonel’s thorough nature was his strength. Where Mad left a footprint, resurgence didn’t dare follow. Sometimes, Mad’s nature got the best of him, and tales of 104th’s CO bleaching and scrubbing his office’s tile grout until nightfall was part of his legend.
A response chirp preceded the Colonel’s voice. “Allen, Madrigan, you did well. You did a great thing today.”
“Thank you, sir,” Lime smiled from behind his air-fed copolymer mask. “Eighth Company follows orders, sir. Gunnery Sergeant Nguyen reports second checks in progress.”
“Very well. Allen, you got that nickname ‘Lime’ on lunar liberty two years ago, right?”
Lime chuckled and slung his rifle to check his wrist display: rebreather green, in-line spectrophotometer showing no contaminants. “Yes sir, that was the, um, the margarita incident, with the, er, entertainment. Hoped they would forget, but no one did.”
The Colonel laughed, full and generously. “We all have a story like that. JO’s believe us old men don’t have them, and CO’s like me hope you never hear them!” After a pause, the Colonel’s tone took an abrupt about-face. “Lime, the Zetas know where we live now. It’s a blessing Space Warfare New London’s Atlas Net is sensitive enough to detect spore pods. Earth will always have a chance.”
Lime nodded along.
“I’m proud of you, as I am the rest of the 104th. You, Captain Allen Prairie, and your fellow company commanders Captains Caila Luhr, Jim Cook, and Dejounte Johnston, as well as battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Atkinson, and our orbital team. We are… well, we’re fortunate phases two and three were not required, and only First Battalion hit the field.” Lime heard a sniffle, and the Colonel’s voice grew quieter. “I’m proud to have been down here with you all. We did a great thing today.”
Lime waited to respond. Words like “tension” and “anxiety” did not capture the eviscerating dread of the previous twenty-one hours since orders came down to deploy to India. No one slept. Everyone was quiet but active, automatons getting battle ready. It was Earth, after all. Lime was certain the Colonel was just letting his emotional stresses go, so he blurted with forced enthusiasm, “Yes, sir! Mad’s 104th always delivers!”
The Colonel did not offer the immediately expected “oorah”. Lime shifted his weight uncomfortably between his feet.
“Lime, we, um, we all understand the significance of a Zeta pod on Earth. You saw Mars. It’s a sinister, a real malevolent, uh, intelligence that creates something like this, and I tell you, I would have thrown every warhead in all of Earth’s inventory at their planet if I could. I absolutely would have.”
“We’re getting there, sir. At least we know their direction of origin now,” Lime awkwardly responded, now less certain of the conversation’s direction.
“You can’t let one spore go,” the Colonel said in a dull monotone that caught Lime’s attention.
“I agree, sir. That’s why we’re here. And we stopped them, sir.”
Lime crouched down. “Yes. Sir.”
“You’ve heard my standards. A leader leads. A leader shares victory and shoulders defeat, and a leader, a good leader, never gives an order they would not execute.”
“Sir, I’m… sorry, sir, I’m not tracking.”
“You understand, we had to strike fast, keep them occupied, keep them from running or firing up triple-A’s, but this isn’t the Europan scenario. Too many variables. Air currents. Microbes, insects, pollen. We can’t afford half-measures.” His voice trembled, but he continued, low, with forced measure, “This is Earth. And we did a damn fine service. Everyone on the field today will have their names emblazoned in Victory Hall. I made sure of it.” The Colonel’s voice changed again, either in anger or exultation Lime could not tell, but he noticed now their discussion was broadcasting on all channels. “The world will know our names, and no one will ever forget what the 104th Space Expeditionary Regiment sacrificed for their home! All of Earth watches and bears witness to our deeds! When we take the oath, we dream of moments of glory. We hope to walk away heroes, legends, but most retire without ever tasting the vindicative sweetness of doing something history remembers. This is our moment. This is ours. It was an honor, everyone.”
Lime crumbled backwards. This should have been a surprise. He knew the Colonel meant to be certain. The man never suffered half-measures. The man was always so very thorough, so obsessively thorough. There could be no half-measures here. It was home, after all.
Discarding his rebreather helmet, Lime drew in the stinging sweet and acrid mixture of spent munitions among the spring blooms and dewy underbrush. It was the scent of fleeting catharsis. He felt a calm pride, a muscular release and serenity in a smile, as a triad of hypersonic bombers zipped overhead to deliver several thousand degrees of irradiated, sanitized certainty.