by Dennis K. Hausker

Invading another planet was hardly unusual for the corps, but Dadaleon was like no other planet in the universe and ultimately facing enemies of pure evil in near to no-win situations was terrifying. The war led to fundamental changes in the individual soldiers and also to the entire Federation unimaginable before the war.


Chapter One

Bret McCord sat for a moment staring at his equipment locker. It was neat and sparse, the reflection of a person who was all business with no distractions allowed in his life. Focusing exclusively on the task at hand had always been his mantra. He wasn’t a man to daydream but on this morning his thoughts were about his last mission. It had been one of the worst he’d ever been a part of.

“Are you asleep, Bret?”

“No, Lacee.”

Turning his head to look back at her, she was as physically fit a woman as he’d ever known, with her dark blonde hair pulled up under her cap. For her to be a part of such an elite military unit was a remarkable accomplishment and she deserved it.

“What’s on your mind? You’re the most squared-away man I know.”

Getting up to don his protective battle gear, he ignored her question, but she wouldn’t allow his silence.

“You’re thinking about that last fiasco, aren’t you?”

“It’s kind of hard not to, Lacee. Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Of course, but it goes with the territory. There are going to be occasions when we’re too late arriving to save the day. It can’t be helped. As grunts, it isn’t personally our fault. We’re just worker bees. If there’s responsibility for mistakes, it goes up to the top. We don’t get paid enough to make important decisions.”

“I understand that. I was thinking about those poor civilians. You know the drill. The corrupt mega-corporations dazzle them with sales presentations, presentations that don’t reflect the truth. They don’t have much and are looking for a way out of poverty.”

He glanced at Lacee. She was quiet, reflecting on his sober assessment of their life work.

Bret continued. “It makes me sick. They sign up to go, traveling to alien planets for paradise, but they never get the real story, or the risks. Those planets aren’t tame. The indigenous populations fight the invasions, and too often slaughter the settlers, including the women and children. From what I saw on that last mission it was gruesome, and they didn’t die quickly, so yeah, it bothers me. Their demise was practically guaranteed.”

“I’m sorry, Bret, but I still say, it’s not our decision to make.”

He scowled. “That’s my point. Somebody needs to take a look at what we do. We’re supposed to be defenders for the Federation, but the corrupt government has been bought off by dirty money and a lot of it. Not our decision, we’re off the hook? I don’t think so. There aren’t wars in the Federation so all that we do is these vile missions. They target primitive planets with the idea to wipe out all life so they can harvest the natural resources and line their pockets. We’re expendable pawns in the process.”

“We in the corps already know that, so what are you saying?”

“I…eh…I just can’t ignore this. Something needs to be done. Letting more innocents die—I can’t stomach it. How can that not scream at you? I can’t get it out of my mind. Now here we go again on a mission that’s probably a replay of the same old nightmare. For all we know all the settlers where we’re going are already dead. The corporations don’t care about the casualties, whether of humans or native peoples. Actually, I think they prefer them.”

Lacee shrugged. She had an expression of resignation and replied quietly. “I’m not going to argue with you. I don’t disagree, but I’m not sure what we could do, assuming there’s anything anybody can do. Whether I like it or not, we have a duty to perform. I don’t have the luxury of judging the decisions of my superiors. I follow orders, just like you.”

Bret frowned. Her answer was unsatisfying, but regretfully it was the truth of their situations. “So if they order us to march off a cliff, like a gung-ho pack of lemmings, do you want to be at the head of the line?”

She chuckled. “I’d just make sure you’re ahead of me so I have a soft landing.”

He smiled at her ruefully and then shook his head pointing his finger at her. “I’m not done with this, ma’am.”

Grabbing their weapons, they followed the stream of troops heading for the transports. Dressed in combat vests, they looked like a long line of two-legged overstuffed green beetles. The large spaceport was jammed with people waiting for flights to and from everywhere in the Federation. The military had a separate part of the spaceport exclusively for their craft and their missions. Sleek ships were lined up in neat rows, waiting to launch ferrying troops out to the massive transport crafts orbiting the planet. Those transports were the size of small moons. They could carry the various attack craft used in the planetary assaults as well as the considerable personnel needed for those battles. Storing so many vehicles and soldiers required huge stores of foodstuffs and water. The length of the fights was never known in advance, and it was therefore preferable to have too many supplies than too little.

Lacee looked at the seemingly endless line of troops.

“It looks like the whole corps is going on this one.”

“That’s a good sign we’ve got big trouble ahead.”

“Do you know where we’re going?”

“It’s a planet named Dadaleon. It’s beyond the Barrier, so it’s a mystery what we’ll find. I repeat: we’ve got big trouble ahead.”

“We’re crossing the Barrier now? When did that start?”

“I’m not sure, but it hasn’t been long. This colonization attempt on Dadaleon might be the first time we’ve tried to secure a planet outside the safe zone of the Federation. There could be more than just the natives of the planet to deal with this time.”

“Well, I guess I can get caught up on my sleep then if we’ve got a long ride ahead,” she joked.

He stopped and looked at her. “I’ve got a bad feeling, Lacee. We need to be ready from the time we land.”

“You know I’m careful, and I’m always ready. Now you’re starting to spook me. You don’t get nervous. What’s different this time?” She eyed him intently, trying to gauge his level of worry, and mask her own escalating fears.

“I don’t have an explanation; it’s just this worried feeling. I hope I’m wrong, but stay frosty.”

“Is Dadaleon our name for the planet or the native’s name for it?”

“I don’t know, I never asked.”

The solid line of soldiers started to separate as they approached the numerous berths.

“We’re leaving from Berth 32,” Bret mentioned.

Walking through the security check point they went up to the spacecraft to climb aboard. The quarters inside were cramped with the large number of troops being ferried up to the interstellar transports.

“Damn,” Lacee muttered, scowling. Bret looked to see her nemesis, Rob Rakich, a man who couldn’t cope with women being in his combat unit, a fact he shared with every woman he met.

“Hey Lacee, did you get your nails done?” he asked her with a snide smile.

“I was going to, but you got the last appointment, Rockhead.”

Rob scowled while Bret smirked.

They filed in to find seats. Lacee touched Bret’s arm. “Let him sit down first so we can go elsewhere. I don’t need his mouth even for a short trip.”

“Sure, Lacee.”

Rob bumped into Lacee as he moved past, which she chose to ignore. Bret followed her to the back to sit down.

The flight up to the transport was a short one before they landed inside the massive ship’s hanger. Getting out, carrying their gear into the living areas, the berths were single occupant, stacked in two tiers, with very little privacy for any female soldiers—nothing more than bunks with a curtain to pull across. That was only a part of their issues avoiding unwanted attention of male soldiers. Men like Rob tended to exercise little class, dropping their towels after showers in front of the women, another means to taunt them. Regardless of the supposed advances in civilizations, the flaws in individuals never improved. Un-tempered, dark impulses resided in every living person to greater or lesser extents. In these individuals, lust was only one of them.

The fleet launched before they could get settled in, the haste being a departure from usual procedure. Lacee leaned over to whisper to him.

“Wow, what’s their hurry, Bret?”

“I think things have probably gone south already out there so they’re trying to get us into action as soon as possible. Sending this level of military power and personnel makes me think this will be a major event and not in a good way.”

Lacee pondered his sober assessment. This did nothing to put her mind at ease. However, Bret was a perceptive person and she accepted his opinions without question.

“Nothing we can do about it,” she muttered. “Why don’t we go to the mess hall to beat the crowd? It beats sitting here stewing about what we can’t control.”

“Good idea, let’s go.”

They walked toward the mess hall area. All of the ships were designed the same way, so the configuration of the interiors never varied. The smells of food would have guided them if they didn’t already know where to go.

Lacee’s idea proved to be a good one as they were near the head of the chow line. Carrying their trays to a table toward the far end of the hall, they picked an empty table to sit down. Rather than sit across the table, Lacee sat beside Bret. The meal consisted of roast beef, mashed potatoes, corn, and Jello. Instead of coffee, they both drank cold water. Turning her head toward him, she spoke softly. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For accepting me, as a comrade rather than…well, an annoyance. There aren’t many men willing to be friends with us. Either we see loudmouth idiots like Rob, or we see guys that want…well, you know.”

“Has somebody caused you trouble, Lacee?” He turned his head to look at her with concern.

“We women all face it. It’s nothing I can’t handle. Guys at this level aren’t going to try anything, that was mostly in basic and the other lower level assignments. There are a few comments, some implications, but they’re smart enough to realize if a woman can get this far, we’re not going to be victims. We’ll kick ass if we’re threatened, and they know we can do it. Weak women don’t get into this unit.”

Bret smiled. Lacee smiled back at him. “Boo-ya, ma’am.”

She laughed, “Boo-ya.”

She maintained her stare until he looked away.

“Bret, in all the time I’ve known you, you’ve never really said anything about a girl back home. It’s hard to believe a man like you could be out there free without some woman snatching you up.”

“Well...I’m not committed to a woman right now, if that’s what you’re asking. Once I decided to go the military route, I knew I would try for the best unit in existence. It wasn’t a good idea to have somebody in your mind you’re worried about. It might cause a distraction in the middle of a serious fight. Plus, if you leave a girlfriend behind for long stretches, it isn’t long before you get a ‘Dear John’ letter. Somebody else has moved in on them, and probably because your girlfriend wanted it. Women have needs, Lacee. Nature runs its course.”

She laughed. “Needs, eh? Sometimes, you’re a real bonehead, Bret.”

“I am that, no argument here.”

“So...have you written off marriage...and kids?” Glancing at her face, Bret was unsure what to make of her shy expression and not looking in his eyes. What she had in her mind, at that moment, was unclear to him. Lacee never acted tentative, unsure of herself, or interested in romantic topics. At least, he’d never picked up on it anyway. If there was another explanation, he was in the dark.

“I wouldn’t say that. Postponed is probably a better explanation. Why do you ask?”

“I’m curious if guys handle it the same way women do. Right now, I’m all fierce to be combat ready, so I doubt a man would see me as a future wife. Someday, I hope to change that, but will I wait too long? Will I end up a woman nobody would want, alone in my old age? People like Rockhead think I’m…”

“He’s an idiot, Lacee. Don’t pay attention to his rants. He’s trying to irk you.”

“Good answer, Bret. That’s one of the reasons I let you hang with me.”

“Oh, you let me hang with you, eh?” They chuckled and bumped fists.

Two other female troops wandered over to join them. The rest of the table filled up quickly with men. The women nodded to Bret and smiled.

“Ladies,” he replied with his own smile.

Turning their heads, they spoke in unison. “Hey, Lacee.”

“Marcie, Megan,” she replied.

Marcie spoke. “Are you ready for this?”

“Are we good to go, yes ma’am,” Bret replied, mimicking a recruiter’s fever pitched tone.

Megan commented, “Something seems different. I get the feeling we’re not getting the whole story here from command.”

Bret paused for a moment in eating his meal. “I know that feeling. I feel it too.”

All the women eyed him with concern. Lacee then looked at Marcie and Megan.

“I know,” she added. “I don’t think I ever remember Bret being worried before a fight. I’m starting to feel anxiety. It’s not like him and it’s definitely not like me.”

Glancing around the table, Bret noticed all of the men at the table watching him, and eavesdropping on his conversation. They also had the same worried expressions.

“Don’t pay attention to me, fellas. It’s probably nothing.”

They glanced at each other, their eyes filled with uncertainty. The usual swagger and playful banter was missing at their table. Even throughout the rest of the large mess hall the general mood was subdued. Normally cocky troops were abnormally reserved. A number of them had been on the same prior mission that bothered Bret. A chirp over the speaker system got their attention.

“Attention corps members, there will be unit level briefings at nineteen hundred hours. That gives you one hour to finish eating and clear the mess hall. These are mandatory meetings in your assigned sleep areas, by unit.” The announcement was brief, with no follow up.

The already subdued troops became even quieter.

Bret, Lacee, Megan, and Marcie quickly finished their meals and carried the trays to the disposal area before hurrying back to their sleep areas. The lieutenant was already there shuffling through reports. The others of the unit assembled around him and waited.

Dennis K. Hausker - "Kragan"


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