Half an hour after Daniel's latest battle, after more attempts at contact, Cory and his transport frigate finally materialized before them. "Hop in, mates," he spoke with false friendship.
"Whatever took you so long?" Daniel criticized his superior.
"Technical difficulties," Cory lied. "Only got a fixed a few minutes ago."
Daniel approached Christopher. "Why did the dropship take so long? I thought it was just about instantaneous!" He always asked Christopher the technical questions; he could answer them.
"No, it's not, actually."
"Explain that to me, please?"
"Well, the dropship has two ways to drive itself: the Quantradyne rockets and the Gravitic hyperdrive. Quantradynes are of course standard rocketry--just really silent ones. Now the Gravitic hyperdrive can only be done at regions of reduced atmosphere, hence the need to get to thirty thousand feet or higher. The lower altitude, er, the denser the air around the dropship when it uses the hyperdrive, the greater the strain on the drive, and the greater the chance of failure. Near the ground it has no chance of success--oops, I mean, Nearly none. Plus, there's the chance of damage being done to things around the gravity well."
"Gravity well?" By this time the others, military and civilian, were beginning to listen in on the miniature lecture.
"Well, it's named the Gravitic drive for a reason, yes?" Christopher smiled. It changes gravity throughout and around the dropship, and like a gravity well, it sucks the dropship forward, faster and faster, and does so very quickly. Within a few seconds the speeds achieved can be as great as the speed of light relative to the rest of the world, all without so much as a tinge of acceleration from within the craft."
"So if it's that fast, why did it take so long?"
Christopher sighed. "Mankind's technology isn't perfect yet."
Well then, I'll have to find a race whose technology IS perfect, thought Daniel forcefully. Someday, a marine in that kind of condition wouldn't have to die...
"All right, I think we'll just make this place our temporary home," said Daniel, with sadness dangling in his voice. "SCV driver, I'm giving the okay for construction of four bunkers around New Haven."
It was time for another war of attrition. Or was it?
Christopher turned to Sarlena. "Any idea how the hydra lisks knew where we were?"
"Naturally," she replied in her firm, nearly masculine-sounding voice. "The lisks we fought earlier today. We hadn't killed them all; some of them managed to burrow away into the ground, and we couldn't spot them."
"So you're saying--"
"Yes, that's what I'm saying! --But they could probably still see us, and told the others-"
"I don't know, You tell Me!" replied the woman indignantly.
"Oh, I see, the lisks have radios and they can chat with each other, eh?" Outwardly, he expressed scorn at such a reply.
Inwardly, he knew she was right, for he had come to the same conclusion himself before even speaking to her.
His dreams had taught him something that few other humans knew. The ultimate strength of the alien menace.
And he didn't want to burden the others with the knowledge of the dismal truth. He didn't want Michael to think any more about the war and the troubles, the stress that had been crushing his mind. He didn't want Sarlena to learn of it either; she had already become too steely in the last few weeks to be a proper lady any more. He didn't want Christopher to learn of it either, for he would know very well that humanity on its own stood little chance against the insidious nightmare. He didn't want anyone else to know, especially the civilians. Spare them some last bit of peace, while they can still enjoy it, Daniel thought to himself.
For it was a tortuous feeling to have, and he vowed that he would do all he could to prevent it from entering as many minds as possible. Yet, he knew, it was just delaying the inevitable.
That thought kept his mind from relaxing even as the skyline of New Haven finally appeared on the horizon of the darkening skies.
"What news about the private we had you send to Los Andares Hospital?" asked Sarlena.
"Oh, he's all right. He's resting in the back room right now," said Cory.
"Well what're we waiting for?" asked Sarlena, grabbing Christopher and Daniel over to the back room of the frigate. Intrigued, the rest of the team followed. Upon opening the door they found the private talking to the bureaucrat Daniel had met earlier that day.
The bureaucrat caught sight of them, and immediately smiled. "Ah, come at last. It's been a long wait for you, and it seems you are very eager to find out about the status of one of your subordinates who was injured today. Now as you can see, he's quite all right. He was infected by... something that I'm sure you would like to get a report about soon, but rest assured that he has been fully treated and is fighting fit once again. Oh, no need to stay by the doorstep; come on in!" As Daniel's team entered, he continued amicably, "Well now, it seems like you didn't lose anyone at all in your mission today, a most remarkable accomplishment!"
Daniel blushed. "Why, the honor should go to fate and to luck and to any deity that watches over us," he replied meekly.
"Nonsense! It was through your work and your quick thinking that your team remains intact after a successful, hard mission while other squads and their leaders are entirely wiped out by minor actions in the field. Don't let your modesty get the best of you, Daniel. I've seen what clips we have about your battles since we last met. You did exceedingly well against the hydralisks, then against the houndlisks, and even against the sunken colony. Time and again you have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and you have a record far superior to that of any other sergeants today. I see you in the near future being one of humanity's most prized commanders... and I believe it's my duty to make you get at least one step closer to that. From this day forth, you won't be needing your chevrons any more."
Daniel warily unpinned the chevrons from his shoulder badge and handed it to the bureaucrat, who opened his hand to reveal a bar - one rank above that of a sergeant. "Now, ordinarily we would promote someone up a rank if they achieve something particularly notable, and so I would make you a platoon leader. But in the less than an hour since we last met, you have done much more than just that." He placed a second bar into the palm of the first. Now the two bars represented a captain - yet another rank above that of platoon leader, and in command of a company. Was he going to skip that grade altogether? Daniel could scarcely believe it. The bureaucrat extended the two chevrons over to him. "Take it; you deserve it, Daniel."
what? A second promotion in a single day?? "Wow, sir, I... I just don't know how to respond..." he faltered, though his eyes shone with excitement.
"Take it," repeated the bureaucrat, gently placing the badge with the two chevrons into Daniel's hand. "Keep up the good work, and you'll soon end up an admiral. We'd need the likes of you." Then he turned to the others. "And, ah, we're not done yet here. "For your bravery and accomplishments, all of you are promoted to private-first-class, though I believe Daniel here will be promoting some of you still further in a short while. Oh and uh, on another issue, Magistrate Collins has decided that you, who have defeated countless aliens without any fatalities, you who have devised novel ways of coping with them, you who have destroyed one of those large growths, will be given the honor of naming this alien race."
Everyone gasped in astonishment.
"I... I get to NAME them!?!" Daniel could barely hide his excitement and quickly gave up trying. This was big news! In fact, it would probably be the one thing to get his name in the history books: he had named the first alien race humanity has ever encountered! "Hmm... Well back out in the wastelands they seemed to approach with power and numbers of a wave of sand sweeping across the dunes, reminiscent of the sandy ergs... And they're exotic so... How does ZERG sound?" He turned around, seeking others' approval or criticism. He found that they were all in agreement: The name was simple, clearly unusual and had a symbolic meaning. They were all nodding in no time.
Daniel turned back to the bureaucrat. "Well then, I guess it's decided: Zerg."
"That's a good choice for a name," remarked the official.
"Okay, sir, I didn't have a real-time map when we went in to assault their base, so just how big is the contribution that we have made to the war effort? Be honest with me," asked Daniel.
The bureaucrat sighed. "According to our Telsat scans, there are numerous bases across much of the far end of the planet that have been covered in creep. The aliens seem to be emerging from within the earth - or the creep - or the structures - there. And they seem to be sending yet another subspecies to slowly build outposts. What you destroyed was one such outpost - a young base, not nascent, and definitely with the possibility of growing into a larger base. Now, it's still too early to determine how much of an impact you have actually made, but your success fuels us with renewed confidence. Especially the part where you took out the hydralisks that had followed you out from the base initially. From that point on our military analysts have kept tabs on what you've been doing, and your success continues to astound us. Keep it up, Daniel - from what I see you're headed to general in a few short weeks." He gave a final smile, then bid them good-bye.
"I did as you said, and together we saved your private," said Cory at the exit. "Happy now?"
Daniel walked up to him threateningly and showed him his new captain's badge. "You don't want to get on my bad side. Trust me." Stunned, the warrant officer backed off.
Daniel hoped that there would be no more close encounters with these aliens. While nothing had been happening, they were dying for something interesting to happen. Now, he had gotten his fair share of adrenaline and lethal firepower, and he didn't want to play the hero any more. Being a hero was much like what the stories had promised it to be - full of terror-filled moments and victories, but also very taxing. Too much of anything could drain one of one's "batteries", and Daniel believed he was no exception. He certainly wasn't in the mood to fend off any more Zerg assault forces, for example. He was going to quit this fighting the moment he could. He would get off this planet if he had to, and meet up with family...
As the fire team walked off the frigate ramp, Daniel could sense others' apprehension. Who would be chosen to be corporal? Sergeant? And most of all, platoon leader?
Daniel stopped mid-step, and as he expected everyone else froze in their tracks and turned to him. "Well, like the man said I'm going to promote some of you," announced Daniel, opening a channel with HQ's HR department. "This is captain Daniel Travincal. In light of our successes, I'm making Christopher and Sarlena platoon leaders." The named ones beamed and thanked him, then proceeded to both offer to be a sergeant serving with the other's platoon, causing Daniel to wave them off heartily. "And Michael, I would have made you one as well, but for now you'll be a sergeant. Do your best to overcome the psychological problems you're facing." Michael nodded knowingly. Daniel then proceeded to give promotions for the others to sergeant rank.
The sunlight had begun to fade. The team dispersed, with Christopher rushing to set up a field radar/ladar scanner, and Daniel (now unsuited) following right behind him, particularly interested. About the scanner, of course.
So Christopher explained, while at the same time very carefully setting up the instrument: "Radar is for its use of radio waves--it sends radio waves all around us, and that information bounces back to us after it hits a target. The radar is projected into the air, can can find all but stealth craft. Ladar is for its use of light waves--or rather, for its picking up of changes in light wave patterns. So any time something moves, the ladar lights up. That way, we cover the ground, which radar can't do. Now, there are also certain crafts and even individuals that can avoid detection..."
It was gradually becoming too much information to be absorbed at one time, so Daniel shook his head to signal his failure to understand the last part, then set off to the center of the settlement, where the other marines had set up an encampment for the night. In the distance, he heard the rumblings of the automated mines drilling into the ground, bringing up the minerals needed for the sustenance and expansion of the colony.
Ah! The cool night breeze was a splendid feeling to behold. It seemed that a spirit was whispering into his ear, washing across his face and neck, as if attempting to gently seduce him, like the night.
Shortly after the meeting with the bureaucrat, he had been informed that he was now suddenly in charge of the defenses of the town, as well as the company of approximately two hundred soldiers sent to guard it. And of course, he immediately knew what he would have to do in his role as captain.
He went to inspect first bunker, which was now nearly complete, with its installments of gatling guns and slots for gauss rifles; its multilayered carbon shell; its stores of ammunition; the comfortable seats within. What's with making the crafts of war so fancy? It only matters if it works... right?
Daniel walked next to a tired civilian, asking, "how are the evacuation plans?"
Yawning, the boy replied, "it's nearly done, and we're moving out ten o'clock in the morning..."
Daniel then came across Christopher again. "Not asleep yet, eh? Wondering how Los Andares will fare?"
"Aww, quit worrying, Daniel! The main city will fare just fine. It's got four of those surface-to-space Goliaths, so we're safe from the air, and a dozen Mjolnir siege tanks, so any ground invasion will be hit pretty badly. Those bunker busters--" to illustrate his point, Christopher feigned a flinch. "Now come on, listen to me, you'll need to sleep, it's night already and you'll have another hard day ahead of you..."
And the squadron gradually went to sleep, leaving the SCV driver dutifully performing his critical role as the bunker builder while Vultures went about the town perimeter, planting smart land mines all around it. "Those'll take down plenty of the lisks," said Sarlena.
"Well, assuming the lisks are so stupid that they'll come into a ghost village--"
"They won't know the difference. Look right there!" Daniel followed Sarlena's pointing finger, and saw several pigs being herded into the center of the village. Sacrificial animals. For real, this time. "Bet the lisks will take interest in those juicy pigs, they have awfully sharp teeth to be herbivores."
"IT'S NOT FUNNY," said a marine nearby. The foursome quieted immediately.
"Hey, watch your tongue, private," Daniel lashed back. He wasn't about to let a subordinate order him around.
"How would you like it if you were in that position?"
"Hey looky here, why don't you shut up before WE put YOU in that position of sacrifice, all right?" Sarlena could get tough if she wanted to, realized Daniel. But this definitely wasn't the time to bicker with one's ally.
"Everyone, calm it!"
The others looked at him. What for?
Daniel used the lull to take a good look at the marine. "Tell me, private, do you sense anything--out of the ordinary?"
The marine at first refused to speak and shrank back, but with a bit more prodding, he continued, "I sense--I sense a bit of fear emanating from the pigs." Those who were listening burst into laughter. Who cares what emotions pigs have?, wondered some.
"Of course it matters," replied Daniel, not realizing what was happening. Turning to the pigs, he could see why the private had 'sensed' their fear. "It matters every single bit to me, because as far as I'm concerned every person on this planet are helpless pigs unable to escape from the clutches of the aliens, even should they run!"
Silence. Complete silence. Then:
"What's come over you?" asked Christopher. "You don't seem to be the normal Daniel any more."
"Yeah, I realize that I'm making an internal transition, so?" Daniel shouted. He then calmed himself; no advantage getting angry at another person. He shrugged, not knowing how to answer to the queries practically written on the faces of the civilians.
"Just... Just leave the guy alone, he's--he's got something special in...in him," shouted Daniel, before turning to run off.
Daniel tossed and turned in his bed. For the last two or so weeks, he had had a rather calm mind, and the spirits hadn't returned, but that didn't mean he didn't have the "space problems", the jet lag of being at the wrong time at the wrong place. As did the rest of his team, while the civilians had all been snoring.
He didn't sleep all night, but instead spent his time watching, along with the scheduled guards, at the basic scanner, for any signs of alien activity. The night was dark, and the little-polluted skies of Mar Sara were filled with the jejune twinkling of countless stars. Star light, star bright...
He had to snap out of it...
And then there was the gigantic moon. Gigantic, as it was so close; it was a massive round shining orb that hung over the sky, partially illuminated in the solar light, basking the night-times in brilliant illumination... Such tranquility...
Would that he ever see it again...
He kept half-drifting to sleep, but didn't get any. It wasn't his sleeping time yet. To his circadian rhythms, it was still in the small hours of the afternoon.
He stayed awake, and from the stirring, he knew that there were quite a few soldiers in his contingent that were also wide awake, unable to adjust.
He stayed awake, so that he saw the breaking of dawn for the first time since as long as he cared to recall. At first, the first glint, beam, of brightness, then gradually the layers of clouds turned violet to orange, the skies illuminating pink, showers of radiance beaming upward, through the drifting mists; the faint thin green edge along the outskirts of the celestial orb, followed swiftly by the majestic grandeur of the rising of the Saran sun; the ever-increasing radiance as brightness itself streaked from the horizon across the landscape, racing across the endless stretch of exotic desert, breathing life into the sporadic cacti, calling forth the morning...
Somewhere else, he knew, the lone SCV was busy constructing the bunkers.
Unlike the other towns, this one was not going down without a fight. With him here, he was going to ensure that the aliens would pay for every acre of ground.
This invasion has gone on for way too long.
Then he looked at his new badge as captain. Needless to say, it was insignificant in the face of planetary invasion. How he could ever stop the aliens, he had no idea.
But that doesn't matter; all that matters is my resolve. Where there is a will, there's a way, isn't there? Though he didn't see just how that was true. After all, didn't every captured criminal have a will to escape prison? And only a few of them ever managed to escape.
Not too far away, out in the open, Christopher and Sarlena were by themselves, sitting beside each other, their backs resting on a boulder, facing the horizon where they knew the sun would rise.
"This may be the last time we are with each other," said Christopher in a near whisper to Sarlena.
"Don't say such things," she admonished him, "you'll just end up ruining whatever time we have left." She hugged him closely, looking upward into his eyes.
How she wanted to be just a lady... But such hopes were a thing of the past. Now...
She had become too armored within the shell of the military. She had seen things not meant to be seen, things that society should have been ridden of long ago but which kept coming back. She had seen imprisonment, horror, torment, death, agony...
These things left such a stronger mark than love.
It was tearing them apart.
Sarlena saw in Christopher something that was half-meaningful: the hope of romance, of love, of bliss, in a sea of destruction.
A tidal wave that was encroaching.
"Just the two of us; no one else," said Christopher. "I wish I could be like this, enjoying the peace. Don't you?"
"Absolutely, honey." Sarlena rested on Christopher's firm body, as they looked outward to the first tint of scarlet in the far distance, breaking the overwhelming darkness of the night. The stars shone brightly above--
"Wish I could be with you for all time," Sarlena said in a hushed voice. "We could tour the stars--"
Christopher smiled as they looked at each other. They were quiet for a long, loving moment. Lost in thought, in utopia.
"Ever wondered if there were a way to merge, more intimately than marriage is possible of providing?" asked Christopher.
"Because if there were a way, I would take that path, sweetheart," he said, stroking her hair slowly and contentedly, allowing the feeling of smooth strands of hair rushing past his fingers immerse him in a sense of the infinite, the eternal...
Christopher did not understand this miracle, but he knew that his sense of wonder was stimulated whenever he was right next to her. Passing an arm around her back and firmly grasping her far shoulder, he gently drew her inward. Both of them had their eyes closed, enjoying the moment.
Quite unexpectedly, Sarlena kissed Christopher on his chin. He blushed, but only for a moment. "Oh, you want to kiss me, don't you? Don't you?" he said a bit louder, and stood up, carrying her and swirling her around. Sarlena cried out in shrieks of delight, intermittently changing between laughter and light-hearted enjoyment of the sensation of being whirled around and going dizzy.
Finally, Christopher set her down on her feet, and concluded his sentence, "well guess what, I want to too!" and he buried his lips onto her fair skin, giving a quick and forceful kiss on her cheek before retracting and looking at her with joy.
My prize! he thought to himself, delighted.
Not to be outdone, Sarlena returned the favor, kissing him gently on the forehead. "How's that?" she asked, exultatively.
Christopher took in a very deep breath, and let it out slowly. "When should we get married?" he asked with a smile on his face.
Sarlena snuggled close to him. "Whenever you want to," she replied with her allure.
"How does tomorrow sound?" asked Christopher.
"Oh, that would be wonderful!" Sarlena said, smiling gracefully at her lover. "Tomorrow it is, then."
"Have any plans for our honeymoon?" asked Christopher, leaning even closer to her.
"Absolutely. Let's get off planet." She looked into Christopher's eyes, hoping for agreement.
Christopher smiled. "Running away from the scene of battle, are we? Oh, all right... If you insist..."
"If we go to another planet, we won't have to worry about these aliens we've been fighting lately."
"Well... yeah, but what about the people here? They can't all get off planet that easily. Which leads me to wonder--how are we going to get off planet? Unless you already have a plan?" he asked Sarlena.
"Well, I haven't considered that point yet..." she blushed.
Christopher took the occasion to kiss her nose. "How about not so fast? Tell you what, let's get married once it's possible to get off planet. I would prefer to have the marriage ceremony on some other planet."
"Whatever you wish," Sarlena agreed heartily, and rested her had on his shoulder while he caressed her arm.
They remained in that position for a long time, watching as the sun steadily rose into the morning sky. By and by, Sarlena fell to sleep, leaving Christopher holding her sleeping in his arms. He watched as the sky turned brighter and brighter, streaks of scarlet, orange, and lavendar breaking through the dawn sky. The sun rose steadily, calling forth the morning...
...and illuminating a swarm of hundreds of approaching lisks.