Part of 2100 CE.
The skies were different here, nothing like home. Here there were no white clouds against a backdrop of blue. Here there was no blue at all, or even white, or green. Everything was a uniform orange-brown—a burnt landscape against a burnt sky, decorated by brown clouds laden with dust and grit. They would gather in the coldest hours of the day, clogging the air in a dense morass that made it hard to breathe, and there they would sit for days on end, thicker with each passing hour.
And then without warning, the temperature would rise a degree or two, and from seemingly nowhere massive gusts would rip across the desert plains, filling in dried up riverbeds bringing with it the rage and power of sandstorms. In the flicker of an eye they would be surrounded by screaming currents of air, tearing at their clothes and at any part of their skin unfortunate enough to be caught uncovered—and then it would be gone, the wind and the clouds, gone as quickly as they had come.
And in those few hours before the process could begin anew, the skies were clear.
In the east occupying fully one-third of the sky sat god-like Saturn, resplendent in robes of yellows, purples, and oranges. Against Titan’s eternal twilight, the planet stood out brilliantly, framed all around by a corona of flickering starlight. Somewhere in that yellow-black curtain lay the blue light of Earth—though just where and which one he had never been told, and he doubted anybody knew. It was a constant reminder of just how far he was from home—and the reasons that had brought him here.
He studied the sky a while longer, wondering at the sheer distance he had traveled and the distance he had yet to travel home. It had seemed so fast, his time occupied with training, sleeping, eating, and then more training—all the while giant nuclear engines accelerated the transport on its way across the solar system, bypassing the orbit of Mars, the asteroids, and their expected target of Jupiter, accelerating at speeds faster than spaceships were once thought capable of traveling. It had felt like the blink of an eye. No time to rest and no time to think. Only time to act.
A sharp shout came across the camp, followed by a roar of cheers and laughter.
Emile sat alone in an isolated part of the camp, leaning against the berm wall of the camp’s perimeter. He had long ago realized he was nothing like the rest of them—not more intelligent or better, just different—and so he chose to spend what little spare time they were given on his own, indulging his private hobbies: poetry and creative writing.
Another round of cheers cut through the dense air. The last communication from the fleet in orbit included the last five games of the baseball Stellar Series between the Tharsis Blue Sox and the Hanshin Tigers.
He scribbled a few lines of verse in his notebook, reflecting on the strange contrast between the beautiful view of Saturn and the burning air he breathed. Titan might once have been beautiful—conceived to one day be beautiful, but greed and haste had rendered the moon an unhappy, desolate rock dominated by a global desert. Its undulating surface, so beautiful from orbit, was a harsh wasteland covered by coarse, razor-sharp sand broken by odd rock formations and dry riverbeds that once ran with liquid ammonia. Shifting sands revealed and covered over much of the landscape, forcing the unfortunate souls who populated the moon’s surface to live in walled settlements not unlike medieval towns or the familial compounds of Central Asia. More than once some unlucky patrol discovered a massive gorge, kilometers in size, its existence attested only later by the homing signals coming from their bodies. Few such individuals were ever recovered, their bodies lying some hundreds of feet below the ground and covered in tons of quick-running sand.
Aerial and orbital reconnaissance, the hallmark of warfare on Earth, were virtually useless here. The amount of grit in the air grounded the army’s few aircraft, while the fleet in orbit was too busy evading its enemy counterpart to provide any real support—and that assumed the skies were clear enough for the fleet to see down. More often than not the skies were not clear, and if they were the risk of being targeted by enemy surface-to-orbit emplacements was so great that the fleet could rarely do more than pass on transmission bursts of information before moving on. The complicated game of cat-and-mouse the two fleets were playing in space made it impossible for either side to gain the upper hand. And so after the failure of Operation Rosebud and a grinding two weeks on the banks of the Loon River, nothing could happen—they were in a stalemate. Neither side was strong enough to force the other out of their positions, and neither one was capable of retreating. For all intents and purposes, they were trapped.
He turned back to his notebook. He considered for a moment what it meant to be a soldier in the Peacekeeping Ground Forces. In any other army, he would be called a soldier, but here he was called Peacekeeper. A peacekeeper who was trained to seek out and destroy the enemy—but then a shadow blocked what light Saturn offered.
He looked up and frowned.
The voice—and its owner—was an offensive caricature of the stereotypical New Jerseyan, down to pronouncing it Joy-see.
“What, to your girlfriend?” Pataki said.
Emile closed the notebook. “Not exactly.”
Pataki gave him a wide grin. “More poetry.”
Pataki laughed and, uninvited, sat down next to him.
Either because God hated him or had a sense of humor, Emile and Pataki had been paired as a fire-and-maneuver team from the very first day of training—“battle buddies.” It didn’t matter to Emile what they called it; Pataki was quite possibly one of the single most irritating people he had ever met.
He eyed Pataki a moment, trying to dismiss him with a glare. When that failed to deter the other, he said, “I thought you were watching the game.”
“Baseball between some Japs and Martians?” Pataki shook his head, his hair radiating a small cloud of dust. “Forget it.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket on his sleeve. “Want one?”
Emile shook his head.
Pataki shrugged. “Besides,” he said, lighting one, “the Blue Sox were winning. If there’s nothing worse than watching foreigners play our pastime, it’s watching a bunch of Martians beat us. Know what I mean?”
Emile sighed. “I guess.”
Pataki shot him a disapproving look. “What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t want those spacelings to win, do you?”
“I honestly don’t care.”
“Oh, right,” Pataki said, taking another drag. “You’re not into sports.” He gave off another small cloud of dust as he shook his head.
“You don’t have to be out here…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Pataki said with a wave. “It’s fine, man—forget about it. I don’t mind.”
Emile took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “No,” he said, carefully modulating his tone, “that’s not what I meant—”
“It’s fine, man, take it easy.” Pataki took another long drag, finishing off the cigarette and stubbing it out against the berm. “I’m just yanking your chain. I’m not here to bother you. Just… Listen, you still go that letter I gave you?”
Emile blinked in confusion. It took a moment for the question to register. “Well, yeah…” he said, reaching into his uniform top—
“That’s fine, that’s fine,” Pataki said quickly, waving a staying hand. “Just wanted to check. That’s fine.”
The letter he was referring to was a copy of his last will and testament in the form of a letter home. Because camps were often temporary and early battles had shown how units could easily get split up, even down at the platoon level, soldiers had taken to giving their battle buddy a copy of the dreaded “final letter” in case anything happened. It was a way of “guaranteeing” it would survive the owner. The letter was the hallmark of every fire-and-maneuver team, so much so that anyone who did not carry their battle buddy’s letter—even dead battle buddies—was considered bad luck. And within an army that had seen it numbers cut nearly in half in such a short span of time, superstition could be the undoing of morale and unit cohesion. It could quite literally be the difference between life and death.
“I’ve got yours,” Pataki was saying. He stood and played with his lighter a moment, flicking it on and off a few times. The flame sparked strangely in the alien atmosphere, mesmerizingly. Suddenly he slammed his hands into his pockets. “Doc Price says we’re moving tomorrow or day after. Sergeant Clarke, too.”
Emile nodded absently. He thought that might be the case. They had been monitoring a nearby settlement for the past week and a half, so it seemed obvious that they would eventually act on the information they gathered. It had just been a matter of time.
“So, yeah.” Pataki kicked a rock across the small clearing between the perimeter wall and nearby shelter. “I guess if you need to make any updates or whatever…”
Emile cocked an eyebrow. “Do you need to—?”
“No,” Pataki bit back, shaking his head agitatedly. “But listen, we need to get more range time. Sergeant Clarke said the new optical sights are ready. He wants us to take some time with the S/S team, if they have the time.”
Emile nodded slowly. The Scout/Sniper team had been training pairs of soldiers for the past few weeks to train “designated marksmen” who would provide overwatch for each platoon. He, Pataki, and two others had been selected by Sergeant Clarke to undergo the training. What their role would be in practice, outside the camp perimeter, was still a little bit of a mystery to him. Scout/Sniper teams operated as the company’s eyes and ears, far ahead of the main body and working autonomously. Would they do the same?
“So,” Pataki said, “we should meet up with them. I’ll try to find them. Say, one hour?”
“Okay.” Pataki took a step towards the center of the camp and hesitated, rocking back and forth on his heels a moment. “So, do you need to make any updates or…” He shook his head, blowing dust in every direction. “Never mind, never mind,” he said sharply and stalked away.
Emile watched him go. The platoon had gone through this cycle before: patrol, scout, move, and settle. And then they would repeat the process. Sometimes they engaged the enemy, but most of the time they just moved into the enemy’s last position, while the enemy moved on to somewhere else. They would do it over and over again in the same cycle: one step forward, one step back; two steps forward, two steps back. Both sides were too scared to re-engage in a full-fledged battle. Both sides were scared because they were hurt, badly hurt, and risking an engagement meant risking total defeat. So now it was a game of chess in which the generals moved pieces around the surface of Titan and pawns all too often died.
He leaned back against the berm wall and looked back up at the sky. Saturn continued to burn brilliant in the sky, but the halo of stars around the planet was already beginning to fade in the rising dust. Among them he imagined he saw the earth twinkling towards him. His home was there: the ocean breeze, the sun, the beach.
Somehow, he would make it home. Somehow, he would find a way back to her.