Part of 2100 CE.
“There’s no sign of the enemy,” the gruff voice of Master Sergeant Reltic came over the radio. He sounded disappointed. “Nothing but locals who keep insisting they love the confederation…”
The town of Ashland was situated at the foot of the mesas overlooking the near bank of the Loon River. It had taken the two platoons the better part of six hours to march around the mesa before entering the town a few hours before the start of the workday. As the company trudged its way around the rocky outcropping, Emile and Pataki had gone on a hike, as Master Sergeant Reltic had put it. Where it had taken third and fourth platoon six hours to get around the mesa, it had taken Emile and Pataki the equivalent time to first scale and then cross that same mesa. They found an opportune ledge overlooking the town and set themselves up there.
With his legs crossed beneath him and his back against the cold stone of the mesa, Emile adjusted the rifle against his shoulder. Even by the low light of Titan’s perpetual twilight, the town looked to be a poor, sleepy place—a backwater town on a backwater rock. The locals were all second or third generation immigrants from the poorest countries of Earth, brought here as cheap labor on the promises of good pay and better life.
Instead they lived in a desert wasteland not unlike the slums their parents had left behind on Earth. The streets were lined with the refuse of a growing community made up largely of underpaid and underemployed refinery workers. When not caught in the middle of a warzone, they were left to contend with the ever-shifting sands of Titan and its frequent sandstorms that might bring life to a screeching halt for days at a time. The majority lived beneath the poverty line, trapped in perpetual economic purgatory where they could only just afford such basic necessities as electricity, water, and food, and were therefore incapable of making headway—they would run as fast as they could in order to remain exactly where they were. Emile had been appalled by the conditions of the Titanese settlements he had seen and by the desperation of their people to return to “civilized” space. There had in fact been hordes who mobbed the landing craft even before they had a chance to disgorge their troops. They grabbed at the Peacekeepers, imploring them to help, begging and attempting to bribe their way into orbit.
If these people truly loved the confederation, he could not understand why.
In what passed for the Ashland town square, he saw Master Sergeant Reltic emerge from one of the civic buildings, followed closely by a local who was gesticulating wildly. Whenever the platoon sergeant depressed his radio transmitter, Emile would hear the local chattering in the background. Even just a generation later, the locals spoke a dialect distinct from their original Hindi, one mingled with overtones of American English. The academic part of his mind posited that it must have something to do with Titan’s isolation and the local’s interactions with their English-speaking employers. It was like a form of interplanetary creole.
Pataki stabbed an elbow into his side. “Wake up,” he hissed.
Down in the square, Reltic seemed to be staring right up at him, even though he and Emile were separated by half a kilometer. He saw the master sergeant depress the radio transmitter on his chest. “Three-Two Mike, do you copy?”
The military part of his mind realized he had just messed up. He cursed under his breath before saying into the radio, “Negative, Three-Seven. Repeat.”
Through the optical sight, he saw Reltic’s expression grow cross—more than usual. “Anything to report?” came the response.
Despite his own musing, Emile had been paying attention—even if he had missed the radio call. Through the magnified view of the scope, he took another quick scan of the town and found nothing changed. “Negative, Three-Seven, no change. Be advised, there are skinnes”—their colloquialism for the locals—“spectating from rooftops.”
“Take the head off the first one who pulls out a weapon.”
Emile cringed and hesitated a moment before responding, “Roger that.”
Next to him, Pataki alternated between lying prone and sitting. Although they were both designated marksmen, they rotated the actual marksman duties, with one monitoring the situation through the scope of the rifle and the other acting as spotter with binoculars. “There ain’t a damn thing down there,” he said, scanning the town. “If the seps were here, they’re gone.”
Emile just grunted in response. He shifted the weight of the rifle again. It was heavier than the standard-issue carbine through the addition of a longer barrel and advanced optical sights. But after spending more than a year using the exact same weapon day in and day out, any change was awkward. He scanned another set of buildings. Although they stayed off the streets, the locals had no qualms crowding windows, balconies, awnings—anywhere they could stand or sit to watch the action. No doubt they had done the same when the separatist army had moved through here.
In the town, third and fourth platoon worked their way methodically down the streets, going door to door and inspecting each room for signs of the enemy. Although it was unlikely that they would find anything connecting to the separatist army positioned on the far side of the river, reports had surfaced of enemy commandos living among locals, presumably gathering intelligence and conducting the occasional strike at the rear of the expeditionary force. This operation into Ashland was intended to mitigate that problem by checking for individuals who did not belong to the community, their hiding places, and their potential caches.
The problem was multifaceted, however; it was long acknowledged that the Jovian separatists were better acquainted with Titan and its people, giving them a cultural advantage which foreigners from the Terresphere would never possess. In the minds of military planners, that translated into fertile ground for guerrilla-style operations. If the locals sympathized with the separatist cause, as the Earth forces suspected, it was only a small leap in time before they started seeing locals take up arms against them. If that happened, then it would stop being a hunt for the odd Calistolese or Eurusian commandos and become a siege against the Earth forces on Titan—if it wasn’t that already…
“Runner,” Pataki broke through his revelry. “Three-Seven, Four-Seven, you have a runner booking it for those trucks at the edge of town. North.”
Emile scanned the streets through the optical sight.
On the radio, the company’s XO, Lieutenant Jarvis, barked, “Three-Two Mike, do you have it in sight?”
In the distance, running as fast as his feet could carry him, Emile spotted him: it was a kid, male, unarmed, probably fifteen or sixteen years old. Through the scope he had a close up of the boy’s sweat-streaked face clogged with dirt and grime. His clothes were patched and stained, and he wore little more than pieces of plastic for shoes. But his eyes: they were brown and wild, starting from the boy’s face. He was the image of determination—or maybe just terrified.
“Morales…?” Pataki started.
“Yep,” he replied mechanically. “I see him.”
“Roger that, Five,” Pataki said into the radio, “we have him.”
Emile paused, taken aback by the sudden order. There had been no hesitation. Just the order to shoot.
And it was just a kid.
“Request repeat,” he said to Pataki.
“Dude, he said to ventilate him.”
“He’s unarmed. Can you request a repeat?”
“Morales, just take the—”
“Will you just fucking request a repeat!” The last word echoed off the mesa and across the town below.
For once, Pataki looked surprised. “Five,” he said hesitantly into the radio, “be advised, target is unarmed.”
“Fire. Fire. Fire,” came Jarvis’ response.
In the scope, the kid was turning towards a small parking area surrounded by chain-link fence. Its interior was littered with old, battered trucks and the scavenged remains of military vehicles. A foot from the fence, the boy leapt into the air and caught the chain-link fence with his hands and feet before starting a frantic climb.
“Three-Two Mike, acknowledge,” Jarvis demanded.
The kid was now at the top of the fence. Careful not to get caught on the sharp metal protrusions at the top, he swung a leg over. Balancing himself with shaky hands, he started to swing the other over—
The 7.62mm round entered through the boy’s left ear and exploded out his right, taking with it a large portion of his brain. To an observer on the ground, it would have looked like his right ear suddenly exploded, spraying a fine layer of bright red blood across the sand topping the parking lot. A moment later, the report from the rifle reached the town and the startled observers on nearby rooftops who scattered like startled pigeons.
For a moment the body sat motionless atop the fence, seemingly unsure what had just happened. Through the scope, the boy’s eyes squinted and blinked, looking out in the direction of the gunshot. His mouth hung open, frozen between breaths. It held there for what seemed like an eternity, and just as Emile had felt Reltic could see him half a kilometer away, the boy’s gaze seemed to stare back at him and see who he was. Then it slid from view, and the body fell to the ground with a dull thud.
Emile lowered his weapon and depressed the transmitter on his own radio. “Acknowledged, Five,” he said. “Three-Two Mike confirmed Echo-Kilo-India-Alpha.”
A string of orders followed as Lieutenant Jarvis detailed two squads to proceed to the parking lot and secure the body. Reltic also barked out orders that resulted in Emile swapping roles with Pataki and the deployment of the designated marksmen from fourth platoon to assist them. Emile hardly took notice, moving with trained ease into his role as spotter, thankful to have the radio to blot out the report of the rifle still ringing in his ears and the binoculars to use against the image in his mind’s eye, of the kid’s head exploding and his body falling to the ground—staring at him.