Ashland

Part of 2100 CE.

The e-bike had been a gift from his older brother, more literally a pass-me-down when Jaimie bought a hatchback and left for college.  Jaimie had ridden that bike all through high school, usually down to the beach and back across town to the Waterfront District.  The bike had a lot of miles on it, but the little Honda electric motor—no larger than a wireless router—kept going strong.  And so, Emile used it all through his last years of high school and into his first years of college, right up to the moment Laika struck California.  He had been riding along Independence Boulevard when the brightest light he had ever seen—brighter than the sun or the moon or any star in the night’s sky—lit the entirety of the western horizon.  Lacking the electronic shielding of most major electronics, the EMP which followed fizzled the bike, leaving Emile stranded in the middle of the city amid the ensuing panic.

            I was going to pick up Julia.

            Emile sat bolt upright.  The concrete walls surrounding him dimmed Titan’s perpetual twilight to total darkness.  The room’s lone window, barren but for a lone column of rebar bisecting its opening, provided the room’s sole source of light: Saturn.

            Sitting beside the window he could just make out Pataki’s lanky form and the dark silhouette of his rifle.  Since the decision was made to remain in Ashland, Emile and Pataki had been assigned a second pair of Peacekeepers to assist them in overwatch security.  Kobayashi and Lemont had come off their own watches just ninety and forty minutes, respectively, before entrusting Pataki to the task of security and watching the streets outside.  After that, Emile would take the final watch.

            The motherfucker was sleeping.

            It was all Emile could do to keep himself from pommeling Pataki to a bloody pulp.  More than one “embedded patrol” had been ambushed by insurgents that way, making it increasingly clear that the enemy lay among the local population.

            Emile stood and began to cross the room, intent on giving Pataki a stern boot to the chest, when the sound came to him again.  The sound which had brought him from his sleep.

            Out the window he saw by the saturnine light the nimble form of an e-bike, catching glimpses of it as it passed between buildings—and was seemingly approaching.  The motor itself made no discernable noise—it was instead the sound of the wheels spinning and the tires on dirt which he recognized.  A combination of sounds he imagined few others would viscerally recognize.

            He crouched before the window and leaned against the leftmost part of the window frame, camouflaging the dark of his silhouette with that of the building and raised his rifle.  Through the optical sight he caught another look of the e-bike as it flashed around a corner, coming and going from sight once more, but now clearly approaching.  There was a kid riding the bike, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old.  He maneuvered the electric motorcycle with the practiced air of a seasoned rider.  But it was not that which stood out to Emile so much as the rider’s ability to navigate without the aid of a spotlight or headlamp, indicating a high degree of familiarity with the area and its obstacles.

            Emile glowered.  Unbidden, his finger slid toward the trigger.  An objection somewhere in the back of his mind went unheeded.  There was a curfew after all.

            The bike came to a stop just beyond the curtain of light given off by a streetlamp.  It gave Emile the opportunity to study the rider, a typical resident of Titan by the look of him, lacking the overtly caucasoid qualities more typical of the residents of the Galilean moons.  The rider was skinny, though not fit—more in line with the emaciated refugees who occasionally wandered in, escaped from separatist lines.

            This was why they were here.  This was Emile spent nights sleeping on sand and concrete, far from the relative luxuries and safety of a firebase or even the caverns underneath the Loom.  It was because of people like him, desperate, kept feeding information back to the enemy.  It was because of people like him that members of his company kept getting ambushed and killed.

            A girl stepped into the circle of light, materializing from the darkness and crossing to the bike.  Emile watched as the girl and the rider kissed, the passionate embrace of lovers.

            What are they doing?

            The girl flipped long strands of black hair onto her back before turning to wave in the direction she had come.

            The locals knew they were here, even while the bulk of the battalion withdrew.  They had been meant, as Lieutenant Jarvis put it, to blend into the scenery.  It was supposed to be the best way of ensuring the separatist guerrillas did not return and that their agents were caught.  But if they had learned anything since their entry to Ashland, it was that the locals were more than willing to exchange for simple things like food and water the location of Peacekeepers and the places where they might best be ambushed.  First platoon lost nine people that way, distracted by a ruse set by locals.

            Both the girl and the rider were listening to something they were being told by whatever person stood just beyond Emile’s field of vision.  A parent or sibling—or an intelligence handler?  They knew that there was at least one, perhaps two separatist agents living in this part of the settlement, but it was unknown how they managed to distribute information to their superiors on the other side.  With all the remaining reconnaissance and observation drones deployed along the Loom river-valley, the task of tracking and eliminating whatever network might—or might not—exist here fell to peacekeeping patrols, like his.

            For all the purported security of the settlements on this part of Titan, he was struck more profoundly by the deafening silence to all the artillery, small arms, and screaming which he had witnessed in the first days of the invasion.  There was in the silence a form of malevolence, more dangerous than the blatant abolition of orbital bombardment or of burning up in the upper atmosphere.  There was in that silence something stalking them, seeking their piecemeal destruction where their conventional opposite numbers fought out of a mere desperation for survival.  Here the enemy lurked in the twilight, operating before your very eyes and yet invisible, seeking not recognition of the Galilean League or even their own independence, but instead the eradication of Emile and the rest of company ostensibly there to liberate them.

            In the constant haze of sand and grit, blood might be readily shed, but the source might never recover.  The members of his platoon were covered in hundreds of scars, the result of being unable to maintain clean wounds.  A lot of good people died that way, Emile reckoned, based on the way even Doc Price seemed at a loss of what to do in the face of rationed water and antiseptic.  He promised them the certainty of death if they were unable to clean and sterilize a wound or reach an enclosed med station in time.

            The figure with whom the couple had presumably been speaking stepped into the light.  He was tall and wore a hood to hide his face, at once lacking any of the discernible features typical of the local population.  If he could just see his face—

            But then there the silhouette of a pistol appeared in the hooded figure’s outstretched hand, and Emile acted without thought.

            The first round struck the hooded figure in the side of the head, exploding red on the other side of the reticule.  The second took the top off the head off the motorbike’s rider, leaving him propped up for a moment by sheer inertial will.  The third round dropped the girl less dramatically than he had anticipated, striking her in the back of the neck where, he imagined, he struck the C7 vertebrae.  She slumped forward like a ragdoll, knocking into the rider before bringing them both down with the bike.  It happened in four seconds, Emile traversing the rifle faster than the couple could react to the sudden death of their associate or the sound of that shot.

            Mechanically he noted the imperfection of his second shot, mentally logging it as most likely due to exhaustion.

            Pataki was all at once on his feet, rifle raised to the window and scanning—only for his eyes to wander to look at Emile.

            Kobayashi and Lemont landed next to them a heartbeat later, woken by the rifle’s report.  “What the fuck?

            Emile locked eyes with Pataki, who looked sheepish and stupid, and who averted his gaze by looking back down his sight.

            “Three down.”

            Kobayashi looked through his own sight, scanning quickly before finding the three bodies.  In the buildings around them voices and the rushing of feet on concrete announced the waking of this part of Ashland.  Despite the routine nature of the war, gunshots within the vicinity of the settlement were these days rare, and it was only a moment later that they heard a scream as onlookers entering the streets saw and possibly recognized the deceased.

            “The tall one was providing the others with a weapon,” Emile went on, still staring at Pataki whose head he saw explode like of the targets down below.

            “Go down and take care of the bodies?”

            More screaming from outside the window.

            “No.  Leave them.  It’ll look like a mugging gone wrong,” Emile heard himself say.  “It might draw the enemy out to investigate.”

            Lemont looked horrified by the response but said nothing.  Kobayashi remained stoic, still observing the scene through his scope.  In the distance they could hear the rising wail of a civilian ambulance.

            They were up to no good.

            Emile turned from the window and crossed the room once more, returning to where he had left his sleeping bag.  “Call it in,” he told them.  He set his rifle against the wall beside him and climbed back into his bag.  “One of you take watch and alternate in an hour and a half,” he growled, turning away from them.  “Don’t wake me if you don’t have to.”


Continues in Venatio.

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