Once inside the bathroom, Gideon switched on the light, locked the door, and placed his hands on the edges of a small sink, above which hung a small mirror.
He looked into that mirror for a long time, but it wasn’t his reflection he was seeing.
It was his past.
* * *
The suns were finally setting over the Nasa escarpment.
The 12th Company was settled into the apiary, the watch set, and Gideon, walking the perimeter of the camp, was on edge.
And not just because he was walking on the verge of a cliff.
“Who goes there?” Fehr’s voice called softly.
“Quinn, Colonel of the twelfth,” Gideon responded to Fehr’s query.
Another thing to like about the lieutenant, he didn’t quibble about taking a watch along with the enlisteds.
“Advance and be recognized. Have a care, sir,” Fehr added as he unfolded from his cover in a clump of abal bushes. “That last step is very final.”
Gideon stepped closer, carefully, and peered over the side of the cliff.
It was, indeed, quite a drop.
The suns setting behind them rendered the river valley below into a sea of shadows, with only faint golden flickers from the river catching Tyche’s last rays as she followed her sister, Nemesis, to sleep beneath the horizon.
“It is a beautiful place,” Fehr observed as Gideon retreated to a safer viewing distance. “Temperate, fertile, plenty of room for wind farms, and water from the river.” He nodded down to where the Ares ran quickly along the base of the escarpment. “I wonder how it is none of the Coalition states have settled here yet?”
Gideon shrugged. “No crystal, I guess.”
Fehr looked at him. “There is more to Fortune than crystal.”
“Pretty sure there was more to Earth than oil,” Gideon said, then paused, tilted his head. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear… ah,” Fehr said as it became clear.
The telltale thrum of an airship.
* * *
“She’s one of ours,” Gideon said, lowering his telescope, which, with its night vision activated, clearly revealed the oncoming ‘ship’s name. “The Kodiak, Destroyer class.”
He handed the telescope to Lt. Fehr, then looked down to where Corpsman Carver was crouched before her equipment. “Radio?” he asked.
“No contact from the Kodiak, sir,” Carver replied, holding the headset close as she monitored the receiver for any incoming signals. “If they know we’re here, they’re not reaching out.”
“She is a fine ‘ship,” Fehr observed, edging closer to the precipice to view the incoming vessel.
“Careful,” Gideon echoed the lieutenant’s earlier warning, though he understood the fascination.
Because of the depth of the escarpment, the airship seemed to be coming straight at them.
Fehr lowered the ‘scope and took a step back before raising the eyepiece again, while asking, “Who commands her?”
Gideon searched his memory, found the name. “Captain Pitte.”
“I have heard of him.” Fehr nodded. “They say he is a good man. A Fordian, is he not?”
Gideon grunted in acknowledgment. “He and the Kodiak provided air cover on one of our ops a few months before you joined up. He was solid, maintained support under heavy ground-to-air fire. Still, I can’t help but wonder what he’s doing here with his very fine airship.” He paused, considering his options.
They were ostensibly on a top-secret mission, so waving a big flag at the first airship to pass seemed contraindicated. Logically, they should sit quietly and wait for the Kodiak to either make contact or fly on.
“Her cannon are moving into fire position,” Fehr, still looking through the telescope, reported. “Should I call the company to arms?”
“We are not going to fire on one of our own ‘ships.” Though if one of their own ‘ships believed enemy forces were lurking in this grove, it’d be a bad day all around. Gideon made up his mind. “Radio, hail the Kodiak with my compliments, and ask why they’re hovering over our super-secret rendezvous.”
At that moment, the radio squawked for attention.
“Or not,” Gideon said as Carver leaned close over the machine, adjusting the signal. “I’m guessing that’s for us?”
“Sir, yes, sir. Colonel.” She looked up, pulling the headphones off. “Kodiak requests our identification and purpose in this location.”
“Give me that.” Gideon held out a hand for the headset and held it to his ear, the mic curving close enough to speak. “UCF Kodiak, this is Colonel Gideon Quinn, Twelfth Company, Sixty-Third Regiment, currently engaged in a classified mission.”
There was the usual static-filled pause, then, “Kodiak to Colonel Quinn, please specify the nature of your mission and provide your Ident number for verification, over.”
“Seriously?” Gideon looked from his tense officers to the rapidly approaching airship, now ominously close.
Mulowa had just joined the little tea klatch. “Any reason her cannon are live, sir?” she asked Fehr.
“Technically, we are close to enemy territory,” Fehr pointed out.
“Technically, so are they,” Gideon said.
“Kodiak to Colonel Quinn, please respond, over.”
“Right.” He hefted the mic. “Colonel Quinn, here, ident number Echo-seven-niner-four-delta-zero-zero-four, requesting you a) look up the term ‘classified’ and, b) put Captain Pitte on the line, over.”
He waited, the radio sizzled. “Quinn to Kodiak, do you read? Over.”
“They are taking aim,” Fehr said.
“At what?” Gideon asked, though he knew. Somehow, he knew.
The lieutenant let the telescope drop to his side and looked back at his superior. “At us.”
Gideon was already calling for the company to take cover when the first shot struck the escarpment, just below where Fehr stood.
The lieutenant’s expression never changed as the precipice gave way beneath him.
That was what Gideon remembered most about the young lieutenant’s death.
He hadn’t had the time to look surprised.
* * *
In the bathroom of a diner in Nike, nearly seven years after the Kodiak fired on the ridge at Nasa, Gideon’s hands were wrapped around the sides of the sink, his knuckles white, as the memory of that day, and those deaths, washed over him.
Because Fehr had been only the first. Carver, Siska, Pride, Mulowa and Walsingham—half of the company—had also died that day.
And so it was that every night spent in Morton, as he collapsed in his bunk, Gideon would close his eyes on the names of those six soldiers, painstakingly scratched into the wall at his side.
Those years in Morton, those were on Rand, and Gideon meant to see about that.
But the names on the wall? Those six dead soldiers? Those were on Pitte.
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