I woke up in an infirmary. It was better than waking up in a training barrack. Im not sure how Id have handled that. For a while, I just lay there. It was peaceful. At least, it was physically. I could still remember what had happened. I still felt the pain of losing my team.

Someone walked in. I didn care. I kept lying there.

e awake, good. ” The tone was clinical. ”Can you get up? ”

I sighed. I wasn going to be left in peace. ”Yes. ”

”Get up. We have to give you a complete set of tests. ”

”Isn that a bit extreme? ” It didn make sense. Id been tired after the battle, but nothing that required a complete set of tests. I think losing your team after having captured a Black Commander was reason enough to be tired.

Whoever it was sighed. ”You came in contact with a Bright Ones mind, ” came the explanation.

I finally looked over. A Kishne was standing there. Several marks denoted a doctor. I got up. Doctors generally outranked grunts. The fact that he knew the truth about a Destroyer, indicated a reasonable rank. Decency was maintained by a very thin shift. I sometimes wondered why we bothered. The species of the Alliance aren compatible. Why should nudity matter? It didn matter in a squad that was for sure. It wasn the time to worry about that.

The Kishne led the way out into the corridor.

”What about the others? ” I was referring to those who had been fighting.

”They are being checked on Mautera. ”

That was good news. It meant the planet hadn been lost. When a Destroyer appeared, thats what usually happened. I couldn bring myself to ask further. Wed probably lose but we had at least made a gain.

”And the target? ” It was best to refer to the Black like that.

The Doctor turned back, obviously judging what I already knew. ”Major Iael has already taken the prisoner to the Bright Ones. ”

I wasn sure what I felt about that. I knew it would happen, but it seemed quick. ”How long was I out? ”

”Just a day, ” the Doctor was used to answering that question it appeared.

We went into a treatment room. I didn recognise most of the stuff. The Kishne conducted tests. I had no idea what they were for. I knew what some of them were, but I had no idea what they were going to reveal or what they were looking for. I must have done okay. The Kishne Doctor eventually waved me away.

e on leave for the next three weeks. You have the run of the facilities here, and theres a civilian town reasonably close. ”

I nodded. I knew that. Id visited it in the brief down times we had during training. What else could be done? I wasn being given a choice, the Docs tone told me that. I was going to be on leave, and that was that.

I had almost gotten to the door when the Doc spoke again.

”There will be a memorial in two days, along with an award ceremony. ”

”Award? ” It shouldn be singular.

The Doctor looked at me oddly. ”Yours was the only team to succeed. The others failed when the Destroyer emerged. I would suggest you take it easy for another day before doing anything strenuous. ”

I just nodded. My team succeeded. Did no one see the problem? The team didn succeed. The squad wasn successful, not when I was all that remained. That wasn a team. Success had come with their deaths. I didn want to take any award for simply surviving. I wasn going to be able to argue. And the Doctor was just relaying the message from on high.

I nodded and then walked back to the room I had woken in. My armour and other possessions were there. I didn know what to do, so I just sat there. There was some food on the side table. I ate. It was routine. It was comforting.

The day passed until the lines of shadow told me the Qaoloes sun was setting. I needed a drink. I was about to go to the mess when there was a knock on the door. I wasn expecting anyone.

It was Pickering. She didn look good.

Ive always been a soldier. I was born as part of the quota. I have seen others die. Id never had my entire squad die before. But Id also never thought about what it meant for the Trainers. She had trained us. She had taught us. And not just us, the other teams. She had trained us all.

I was the only one to come back. I never thought about how that might feel. Im ashamed to admit I didn really think about it then. All I cared about was that she was familiar. I needed familiarity then.

Shed brought food. It was probably against the rules. I didn care. She didn either. We ate in silence. I cared more for the liquids then. I was beginning to feel their lack.

”It was… ” Id never seen the Lieutenant at a loss for words. She was hesitant now. I realised we weren ranked now. In that room, at that time, we were just two beings who knew each other. ”It was successful? ”

I could tell she almost didn want to know but at the same time was driven to find out. If not success, could she expect more teams to be trained?

”It was, ” I answered, barely a whisper. I nodded once. ”It was. ”

Im not sure what Pickering wanted to hear. I didn know if she knew it was a Human beneath the armour. A Human who had fought and killed those she had trained. A Human we had freed. Earlier I couldn bring myself to hate them. The Human had been controlled. They didn know what they were doing. All the excuses that could be applied to a Black had held back the hate. Nothing held it back now.

I hated that Human. I hated everything it stood for. It had fought. It had killed. It had taken too much. Did it not know that the Alliance was freedom? That the Bright Ones watched over them. Did it care?

Did it care now? Maybe that was the better question. Had it woken up? I didn know if it was male or female. Did that matter? Id only ever really had Pickering as an example.

Pickering returned my nod. She let out a little breath that sounded relieved and resigned. Some weight had left, yet another had settled. She lifted one hand to her collar and rubbed along the length. ”I thought so, ” she said finally. ”Id hoped so. ”

We sat in silence. The shadows lengthened into everything as the sky darkened. We sat into the night. The noise from the base was a comforting buzz. It let us know things were normal. As normal as they could be after battle.

”The Destroyer wasn meant to be there, ” Pickering said finally.

So she had heard some specifics.

”No one ever expects them, ” I replied. I didn know if she knew what they were. I deemed it best not to speak of that. I knew enough to know my reply was true. No one expected a Destroyer. They prayed to the Bright Ones that one didn come. The Bright Ones… How could the Enemy do that? ”It wasn the issue. ” I added.

It would have been easy, so easy to let Pickering believe the Destroyer was what had caused us to be lost. For the other teams, that had been true. It wasn for us. ”We were evacuating when it emerged. ” The truth was brutal. I didn want to remember. She didn want to hear. It had to be this way.

”They died well? ” In the darkness, I could see that Pickerings eyes were closed. Liquid glistened on the small hairs that lined the skin covering her eyes.

Is any death a good one? ”They died well, ” I confirmed. Wibowo had made his choice. He had died doing what he thought was right, holding the Black Commander so that we could capture it. The other had followed suit.

Tiro was a lucky shot. Fannar knew what he was doing when he turned away.

They died well. As did the Kishne that tried to help.

”The Blacks are pushing hard to capture Mautera, ” she announced.

”It won hold? ”

”It can hold. ”

I should have known the response. No one had ever fought a Destroyer before. Well, they had, but it destroyed the planet. Fall out was not pleasant. The Blacks didn use Destroyers much. Now that I knew what they were, I knew why. They couldn have that many.

It didn take me long to figure out why information about the Destroyers was classified. It would ignite the Alliance but what could they do? The Bright Ones were protected yet at the same time, they were our leaders. They had to lead. If the Alliance knew, thered be an initial push, and then wed make mistakes. And the Blacks would profit from those mistakes. Theyd make more Destroyers. It was better that the Alliance as a whole didn know. I almost wished I was part of that whole yet knowledge was comforting in a way. It was too early yet, but I could use it to fight back the pain of losing my squad.

”Where next? ”

”Tacticals working on that, ” Pickering told me.

I translated. Tactical had no bloody idea. Someone would guess. Wed hope they got it right.

”You are still training? ” The question was callous. I know that. I needed the familiarity.

Pickering seemed to realise it. ”No. You don think the regulars could handle me? ” There was a ghost of a grin curling her lips. Id learned how to read her expressions.

”What about Special Forces? They could use your training. ” If she trained them, theyd be good.

”Theres others for that, and I won train Intel. ” That was an interesting titbit. Intels units were the best. I assumed Pickering had been on their training cycle. ”Not even when a Bright One asks. ”

I stared. She refused a Bright One? That thought was paramount. No one refused a Bright One. They had given us so much. A more obvious thought caught up. She had seen a Bright One?

”Quanna was correct, ” Pickering spoke with a bittersweet amusement. ”All Humans have seen a Bright One. ”

I wasn sure how to answer that. I wasn sure how she knew that!

”All of us, ” she reinforced.

”So why did you say no? ” I had to know.

”This is an Alliance, ” Pickering replied. ”Not a dictatorship. I don have to train them. ”

”But, if you were ordered to- ” Pickering outranked me, but she didn outrank the Major. She was only a Lieutenant. How did she get away with such defiance?

She looked at me as if the answer should be obvious. In some ways it was. She was Human. That was enough. They had sacrificed enough. ”I don like what they stand for, ” Pickering told me. It was an odd statement. Intel was there to help us fight. Sure, their Special Forces had a nasty reputation but they were on our side. They weren Blacks. That was enough for most.

”I can - ” The Lieutenant tensed. I tensed as well.

An alarm sounded. We listened.

”Shit! ” Pickering swore. I shared the sentiment. The tone was invasion. ”They
e here. ” There was no need to say who they were.

”Why? ”

I initially thought the question stupid the instant I uttered it. The answer should have been obvious. The Blacks were after their commander. But that didn make sense. Why were they after this commander? Wed picked one at random from the line. The rank tokens were the same as others on Mautera. Then speculation ran through my mind.

What had we captured? The Major had said the Black was Human, but were they more than that? Was there something special about that Commander? Is that why the Destroyer had been there?

How had they managed to follow us? I could accept that there was a tracking signal in Black armour. We would have disabled it, and it wouldn have worked in FTL. The Majors men would have ensured that, wouldn they?

It was useless speculation. Did it really matter if I knew all those answers? The Blacks were here. Thats really the only point that mattered.

”Get your armour, ” Pickering ordered. She was still familiar, except now she was an officer. I obeyed. If the Blacks were here, I wasn on leave. No one was.

It might have only been two or three days, but it was a comforting weight. I was quick. Id been on the front lines. You knew how to sleep, eat, piss and shit in armour. By the Bright Ones, Im sure some could ** in it. Not today. Today, I was likely to get **ed. Not without a fight.

The main parade grounds were a staging area. Perhaps it was a mistake to gather so openly but this was a training facility. There were lots of newbies here. Lots of those who just didn know what to do. I found myself in charge of a platoon. Battlefield promotion. They were green. They managed to walk in step but that was about it.

They were gonna die. I felt bad about that. It wasn my fault. I knew that. It was the Blacks fault. They had still been regulated to my charge. I felt bad that I couldn do more. We were assigned Training Ground One. The irony. I knew that place too well. At least I knew the way.

Maybe, wed be lucky. We didn know where the Blacks would target. Here for sure. Here was the only facility on this rock. That and the small township down the road. It wasn much. It was here only for the base. Qaoloe was going to fall quick. I couldn help the fatalistic thought.

At least the Black Commander wasn here anymore. Major Iael had been right to haul out of here. She probably pushed me out the airlock herself. No, she had men for that.

I cleared my head, and set the babies up as best I could. I hoped they didn shoot themselves in the dark. I hoped wed only be on the periphery. I hoped I wouldn die. I had a lot of hopes. At least the pain was dulled. Its hard to feel pain when you have so much to do. That was something. The training ground had lights. I didn allow them on yet. Why advertise a landing ground?

Then, cutting through the atmosphere, the Black ships appeared, like wicked cutting knives. You couldn hear them yet. They were all we could focus on. Their hulls glowed in the dark.

Until, it appeared. Another Destroyer. I recognised it from the bright centre. Even at this distance, it seemed to writhe. Now that I knew what it was, I couldn help but think that. Then it screamed. It was all I could do to keep standing. Most of my greenies weren that lucky.

I knew what it meant. Qaoloe was lost.

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