Idiot. What a goddamn stupid son-of-a-bitch I was… I mean, hell knew I’d made mistakes before but this one was absolutely inexcusable. I was slipping, and that worried me. Sometimes my fingers felt a little stiffer than they ought to have done. And I couldn’t train for as long as I used to be able to. Rich Confederate families used to be able to buy regen treatments back before everything went to hell, but now no one had the tech. It was all guns and grunts, these days. I’d seen Mitchell’s autopsies on some of the newer marines. They had an implant that manipulated their cell division, made them not age half as fast. But me? I had hair fast turning grey. I did have one consolation – my face might have been scarred so much my own mother wouldn’t recognise me, but at least I wouldn’t show many wrinkles. It wasn’t just physical defects, however. I felt old. God, Fearless was going to kill me when he found out. He was going to- No. No, that was the emitter talking. I knew I should have signalled Dravere from orbit. He wouldn’t have liked it, but the situation was more important than his hate for society. Especially considering the things I’d said to Corso. God, I hope he could forgive me. With a decent amount of trepidation, I dialled Dravere’s frequency into my long-range comm unit and directed the signal through the Nevermore’s own communications array.
For a while there was just the quiet burbling of wavelength adjustment, channel alignment and mutual protocol recognition. Then a deathly silence. He wasn’t listening. He wanted us afraid, disorganised so we could be ambushed. I should close off the signal, otherwise he might backtrack it to our location. It took the sound of his gravelly voice to shake me out of my paranoia.
“Who in the name of sweet flying fuck are you?” Dravere rasped, his Russian accent just the same as it had been back in the Academy. “You got ten seconds, then I break. And when I break off there’ll be a missile coming to your location.”
“Dravere, it’s me! It’s Vik.”
“Viktor? What in all hell are you doing here? You don’t respect a man’s privacy any more?”
“I’m sorry, Dravere. You know I’d never-”
“Yet here you are.”
“Of course it is. Your precious little Confederacy is in danger again and you come running to old man Dravere.”
“No! No… Dravere, the Confederacy is dead. Has been for years. You wouldn’t believe how much you’ve missed…”
“And I wouldn’t give a flying fuck. Go home, Viktor. You aren’t wanted here.”
“Oh, I don’t know… is the existence of two alien species enough to pique your interest?”
“Aliens? Viktor, I hate my own kind with a virulent passion. I’m a tightly-wrapped ball of self-loathing. Why would I care about aliens?”
“Look, will you at least deactivate the psi emitter? It’s driving us crazy.”
“Us? Who’s with you?”
“Tom Rico, Dravere, you remember him?”
“The last Marine I ever taught at the Academy…”
“Before you got disillusioned with the whole thing and ran away.”
“You come here, bringing all these memories I want gone, and you expect me to help you.” It wasn’t a question. I had to convince him. Fearless was relying on me.
“You used to care. You taught, to protect us from ourselves.”
“Only to be sent straight into the meat grinder by your vaunted superiors.” He was taunting me, and I couldn’t believe it.
“Just because I used to believe in the chain of command-” Then I realised he was laughing at me.
“Oh, Viktor, you’re still so easy to rile!”
“If I was always so easy to rile, why did you keep doing it?” I snapped, and then hated the petulance in my voice. I sounded like a child, not a battle-hardened veteran living in the shadow of his advancing years. “Oh, forget it, you always were a miserable old bastard – even when you cared, it was buried beneath all those layers of rock-hard cynicism.”
“Yeah, yeah, like I give a flying fuck. Psi-emitter’s offline, tell me what you’re here for.” I breathed an audible sigh of relief as I felt the abnormal paranoia recede. Corso flicked me a thumbs up, but he still looked pissed. I didn’t blame him.
“We need some of those old AIS-70s you managed to appropriate. And anything else you want to give us… like… I dunno, co-ordinates to Project Ragnarok?”
“Tanks and a death machine, hmm? What exactly are you chasing?”
“Look, would you just let us come to your base and talk things over?” Again that deathly silence lengthened, like I was leaning out over some yawning abyss.
“Fine. Come.” He said at last.
Since Dravere’s legendary escape from the Confederate Military Installation and Training Academy on Tarsonis – during which he stole loads of high-tech mil.spec equipment and earned himself the dubious honour of being the only traitor to have a whole battleforce permanently on station in case he ever resurfaced – he’d lived in a mobile command centre. I should know – I helped him nick the damn the thing. It was a prototype – heavily armoured, equipped with warp engines. I guessed he wouldn’t have left the original décor up. Probably covered it in those priceless artworks he robbed on the same day from the Tarsonis Historical Artefact Repository. This man was a god among thieves – and I mean ‘god’ in the sense that he was prayed to by robber barons, space pirates, raiders and bandits. Some even had little statues of him. I knew Fearless also revered him as well – after all, he was our mentor. He taught us everything we knew – every operating procedure, every tactic and stratagem that we pulled out of our arses and roundly slapped the Dominion with. There was one reason we’d lasted as long as we had with the Doms searching for us everywhere, and that was Dravere’s training. Adaptation, evolution, improvisation, experimentation – in us he’d done what every teacher longs to achieve, which was to teach us how to teach ourselves.
As we came across the command centre, nestled amid two high ridges of jagged ice and twisted stone, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment. He’d clearly modified the centre, turned it into a red and black-painted fortress of neo-steel and titanium. It was studded with arc cannons and automated chainguns and missile tubes, swathed in extra plates of heavy armour. But in doing so he’d sacrificed mobility for increased static defence. One of Dravere’s first lessons had been about the superiority of a fluid, mobile attacker over a stationary defender. Being stuck in a structure like that would force him into siege tactics, while an offensive force would have no such limitations. Then again, coupled with the psi-emitter, perhaps static defence was viable – after all, the sight of such an imposing façade would instil a massive amount of fear in someone already thoroughly perturbed by the terror device.
Our party made its way along the narrow defile leading up to where the command centre squatted, its ugly, geometric utilitarianism a dark blot against the ferocious beauty of Shathal’s craggy surface. Despite its inhospitableness, the icy moon was one of the most startling worlds I’d visited. And sights like these still managed to evoke feelings in me even after years of travel. I wondered if Dravere even saw the surface any more, looking out after years of isolation. As we drew nearer I spotted two or three yellow lights that must have been viewports. He was probably watching us on surveillance equipment right now. I waved idly with my gauss rifle. He’d probably find the gesture amusing.
This whole business was strange. On the one hand I was looking forward to seeing my mentor again, but what if he’d changed from the purposeful, intelligent and above all resourceful man who once taught me? He was probably an old man now – would he have lost the dynamism and courage that had evinced such respect from Rico and I? Would his own infirmity and age reveal what the future had in store for me? Most marines didn’t live long enough to grow old, but I was a survivor. I had decades more left to live. Years in which my teeth and hair would drop out. My skin would wrinkle. My limbs would weaken and my mind would degrade until I couldn’t even remember who I was, let alone how to lead an assault squad in a series of lightening raids against a hugely superior force. Well, only one way to find out.
As we approached the base of the semi-spherical building a massive out-rush of white gas disguised the lowering of a ramp. When it was down light spilled out of the aperture, which was wide enough for two marines to walk side by side. We walked amid the heavy pistons responsible for its operation, only to stop in our tracks as huge cannons mounted on sophisticated armatures hissed out of concealed wall panels and pointed at us, barrels glowing cherry-red. These were C-32 autocannons, considered too costly for most of the prefab command centres Dominion armies now used to co-ordinate their battle efforts. They could fire six hundred rounds a minute, and continuously at that. These variants had automatic feeders connected to the walls – possibly we might have been able to shoot them out, but the ammunition in the fun itself would have been more than enough to finish them off. We called them shredders, on account of the 15mm explosive-tipped tungsten rounds they fired. They were accurate up to about six hundred metres as well, so we couldn’t run away if they started firing.
Alright, you cantankerous bastard… I thought. We’re here.