“You go on ahead; I’ll catch up,” said the soldier.
He was an over-equipped ground-pounder from the 501st, his armor covered in spare magazines and grenades and rockets for the rocket launcher, grenade launcher, sniper rifle, pistol, other pistol, and assault rifle. He carried them all without effort; his armor bore the weight. What made him over-equipped was the bandoleer of claymores slung over one shoulder.
“No, you’re shipping up with us.” Jerry, our sergeant, was more drill than mom in this. She had left a company behind on Beta Fortunis, and that had scarred her. She would not let any of us stay behind, because the shuttle on the pad was the last friendly shuttle on Epsilon Florentia.
He turned from me to her, drew himself up, and saluted her properly. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
Jerry scowled, but said, “Granted.”
“You’re not my officer, sir. Lieutenant James Sirboddy of the second platoon, Apple Company, Queen’s Regiment, Orange Corps is.”
Jerry sighed. “Lieutenant Sirboddy is buried under the church spire back in Reeds-on-Marsh. Temple. Mausoleum. Thing. Doesn’t matter. I’m the highest-ranking officer on the planet, and I say you’re coming with us, soldier.”
Somewhere between when the soldier last had a commanding officer and when we found him in Reeds-on-Marsh, he’d lost his rank insignia and his nameplate, and his IFF had been fritzed in a way that made his ident show up as mojibake. It had been three days. Someones had tried to give him names; he didn’t take any of them.
He fished in his pocket, and pulled out a collection of dog tags, and handed them to the nearest one of my troopers. “Make sure these get delivered.”
Jerry lay back on the stretcher that carried her. “Soldier, did you hear what I said?”
“Loud and clear, sir. But I’m Central Army, and y’all’re Outworld Marines. I can’t let the enemy get in the way of interservice rivalry.”
“At ease,” whispered Jerry, and she lapsed back into unconsciousness. I eyeballed the corpsman, and he indicated she wouldn’t be waking up until we hit orbit.
The soldier relaxed, then. “Any last requests?”
Beyond the city wall, a fuel cell lit off, zortching the sky in actinic blue glare. We were used to the sound, and so was he. A flock of bird-analogues whistled overhead, scared by the flash from their hiding places in the dovecotes under the base’s roofs. I hadn’t asked the base personnel, before they left, but common speculation in the company figured they were kinda like cats.
The Kid shrugged, stood up, stared at the soldier. “If you see one with a scar,” drawing eir finger from above one ear, between the eyes, to eir collarbone, “Shoot it in the ear for me. Gets it back for my ear.” The Kid ticked off a cleanish salute, grabbed eir bag, and walked off, joining the corpsman in pushing the sergeant towards the shuttle.
No one else said anything. Fifty-two of us, every one of us with a request, and not a one of us wanting to voice it.
The soldier turned to me. He inhaled, I spoke. What I said was what was needed. “Catch up, you hear?”
“I’ll keep the akak up as long as I can. Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch up.”
I clapped him on the shoulder, then gave him my best salute. He returned it. We turned away from each other, him heading towards the stairs off the pad. I walked down the line, pulling my troopers to their feet, carefully not watching him walk away.
Once we made orbit, our company scribe sang out.
“O Captain my Captain,
our ship has gone and sailed,
but I have the feeling
that his story has failed.”
“Save the narrative analysis for barracks-room, Jenkin. Write down that soldier’s tale for the log, and we’ll have it at the next long rest.” There was too much work to be done for me to let the company mourn this early.
“Sir, that’s the problem. What was our 501st buddy’s name?”
Murmurs in the bay. I called the name of the soldier who took the dog tags: “DeNova, is there a tag from Second-Apple-Queens-Orange-Army-Central?” Negative, was her response. “Any of you get his real name, or anything other than mojibake?”
Again the scribe: “It’s an awful hard thing to write a story about a soldier without a name.”
“What did he tell you about himself?”
“He didn’t,” said Mae De los Santos, a crew-served-weapons operator from Miami Prime. “He only asked questions. Where I was from, where I trained, how it felt to be support in a front-line company. I had answers for all his questions, and he was great at deflecting my questions.” She shook her head. “Cap, you remember when we found that nunnery-convent-school thing in Rocks-on-Marsh? I offered to take him to bed, since we had mattresses for once. He said he didn’t swing that way, but thanked me for the offer. But Jorge says the same thing, and we all know he turned The Kid down. I don’t think he was interested in parting the reeds at all.”
The Kid blushed, awkwardly rubbed the shaved part of eir head. “Yeah, uh, he said no. Why are you asking me about that? You already know. The whole company knows.”
“I needed to hear it from you.”
Because the soldier left no stories in our company, I thought.
“Because they were rumors, and I wanted to hear the story from you directly. It’s better to command based on knowledge than on rumor and hearsay. Remember that, when you get placed in command,” I instructed, and The Kid straightened up a little.
“He said no, and left it at that,” said Jorge. “We didn’t talk much. But ask Michel or Pierre; he spend a lot of time talking with them.”
Jorge MacCañón, combat engineer, loader for Mae. He’s from Miami Segundus; they met in a bar after Basic. One thing led to another and they landed here, seven unit transfers from where they started. They’d probably transfer out once we hit the jump ship. I had never planned on keeping them, but I’d be sad to see them go.
“Mostly he was curious about Paris,” said Michel O’Lopez. Michel had long claimed he was born in Paris. His papers did not note his place of birth any more specifically than Earth.
“Lyon as well,” said Pierre. “He really appreciated architecture.” Pierre MacFernandez had long cliamed he was born in Lyon. His papers did not note his place of birth any more specifically than the Sol System. Rumor had it that he was a Foreign Legions transfer, but that was before my time.
“Do you remember the time he went off about the fluting on the pillars in the shrine in Reed-on-Marsh?”
“He had to have been a classicist.” I perked up; this was a detail the scribe could use.
“Mmm,” demurred Michel. “A modernist, I thought. He wasn’t commenting on the spires.”
“Maybe classically trained with modern tastes? He knew how to shatter the fallen spire to get the dog tags of …”
“… At this point in the campaign, I think everyone has smashed a dozen.”
“So maybe he isn’t classically trained. But what do we know of him, then?”
I could see that they were entering into a bicker, so I thanked them quietly and backed off.
“Neither of us knows anything about him, Biblically speaking.”
“What would you know of him?”
“Where’d that scar come from? The one that started about here, and ran down to here?” I heard Pierre purr under Michel’s finger. “And what else did it scar?”
Our medic, as it turns out, had never treated the soldier, and didn’t know the answer to Michel’s question.
Our medic was brand spanking new, this deployment. As in, we acquired the medic on the way to the launch pad, I think. I’d have to ask The Kid about how that happened later.
By the time we were settled back in quarters aboard the range ship that would ferry us back to the jump ship on the edge of the system, I’d talked to half my soldiers, and still knew nothing about the soldier from the 501st who had stayed behind.
The medic, on the other hand, had a story miles long and entirely uninteresting. She told it at bunk time and knocked out the entire barrack. She ended up with us because The Kid had found her locked solid with fear when e raided the clinic, and gave her the sergeant to tend to. She was the last living person besides us on base. The clinic’s air scrubbers had saved her.
I found our intelligence officer holed up in a cubby outside the entrance to our pod, in one of her usual choices of hiding spot. Or at least that’s where her chip reported her being, and when I banged on the door it opened.
“Where’d the 501st guy go when we took off?”
“I put that on your drive an hour ago.”
“You always know what I’m thinking.”
“Read your briefings.” She pulled the door shut, eyes already back on her screens.
Strapped into a seat as the range ship slowly flipped for its deceleration burn, I pulled up the day’s briefings. Half were about the situation on the ground, which was no longer relevant. The most-recent ground update was fifteen minutes’ sped-up satellite and spycam footage, following the soldier as he stepped out of the base, walking through the charred streets of town, cutting through the alleyways that only humans would see, placing charges on the steps the enemy would take to get to the akak cannons that denied their flyers the air. The audio was mostly cut out, but the flickers of akak fire were not. Those cannons were the one thing that let us hold onto the planet as long as we had, I thought.
The cannons were spread all over this town, evenly gridded, each defended with a kinetic barrier that would hold off the enemy’s bursting rounds, which as far as we knew were the only ground-borne tactical weapons they had that could take out the cannons. The kinetic field would even hold off soldiers.
But the spy sats caught a glimpse of a new weapon: one of their ground-attack aircraft, stripped of wings and engines, mounted sideways on the crawler vehicle that the enemy used as a general transport. Its beams, meant to pierce armored fortifications from ten klicks up, would easily burn the akak cannons from the ground.
And here crept the soldier, placing mines in potholes, explosives under cars, everything to obstruct the roads that had the clearest line-of-sight to the cannons.
Five minutes into the video, thirty minutes into his trek, he was out of explosives. So he took to sniping, from places where the architecture guaranteed echoes to confuse shotspotter microphones. Fire once, move, fire again. He worked his way across town, never staying in one place after firing. Soon the enemy artillery caught up with him, calling fires aimed at each nest moments after he fired. Akak took out most mortars. He caught the edge of a blast and was thrown halfway across a park, bouncing off the shield of the akak cannon embedded in the park’s pond.
The briefing contained a note: yes, they did put the cannons in parks in this town. It made them slightly less of a threat to civilians if they were attacked. Cannons on top of buildings meant more collateral damage when they were killed, and the open space let the kinetic shields work better. Plus all the arguments the urban planners made.
The soldier pulled himself from the pond, dripping with algae, only to fight off a goose that wanted the slime. From the way he looked at his sniper rifle, it was jammed or bent, and he left it with the goose.
He was the last human on the planet, but our tactical automation would wait for him to die before burning itself out. His HUD tracked the advances of the ground-mod attack aircraft: five inside the city walls now. One had already slagged an akak cannon. He made for that one, and took out its front crawler with a well-placed shot from half a klick away with a rocket. At the same time, one of his mines took out a beam cannon that had found a straight-shot street leading to an akak cannon. The enemy grew cautious; their beam cannons were preceded by mine-shredding tanks. One claymore managed to disable a flail tank under a narrow bridge, blocking one of the main paths into the high-rent district.
By this point in the video, our shuttle had safely reached orbit, beyond the enemy’s ground forces, out of reach of the enemy airborne cannons that could have destroyed us from the troposphere if not for the city’s akak cannons. We were free of the curse of gravity.
Still he roamed the city. No longer did he shoot; he crept quietly to the city’s main plant, where lay the controls for the demolition charges laid within the industrial quarter and the factories that the enemy so desired. He checked that the lead timer had been set by our battlefield automation: it had. Follower clocks across the city had taken its lead, and now ticked down to their own, independent dooms.
He ran for the edge of the city, found the river, found the marina, and cut boats free one by one until he found a trawler with a solid iron freezer unit. He cut it free, jumped to the dock, cut several more boats free, then jumped from boat to boat to boat to his trawler. With the military overrides he tasked each boat’s AI to book it downriver, and then he climbed into his refrigerator, closed the door, and rode his flotilla downstream.
His feeds got blippy as the surveillance network began to fail; the enemy’s ECM was getting dense enough to fritz our radios. Our higher-value bots were leaving the area anyways.
He was miles outside the city, around a hill and a bend in the river, when the factories started to blow. The enemy rushed into retreat; they must’ve had a commander who had seen our denial tactics. Too late for them, though. The final round of timed charges were for the city’s generators, which powered our akak cannons and their kinetic barriers.
One of the many problems with this continent, this planet, was the water table. It was too high to make the land really solid. A wet planet. The city was built on a detached armor plate of a jump ship, dropped from orbit, flipped upright until it sat like a bowl in the marsh. The colonists who so vandalized their jump ship provided the engineers with the stablest land on the continent: a meter-thick plate of stuff that would withstand even the starstuff that made beam cannons look weak. The plate was a tremendous waste of material, but a fantastic reflector dish to focus the city’s final explosion.
City generators fail safe, but not when they’re instructed to die. The flash lit the continent, searing the clouds from the sky. An attack that would spite the enemy. It blew out all our tech still on that side of the planet, and a couple spysats in low orbits. The soldier’s trail was lost.
The city’s explosion would not deny the enemy access to the armor plate: Our mission had not been completed. We had left materiel behind that we could not afford to have lost to the enemy. Their jump ships had poorer armor, were less capable. If they could shape that dish, then the fall of Epsilon Florentia had given the enemy enough material for a small, reliable jump ship. It would change their strategic capabilities.
That change was why we were jumping out of Epsilon Florentia so quickly. High Command had ordered the planet razed to protect the plate, and had started mucking with the orbits of asteroids to make it happen. Epsilon Florentia would soon be pounded into lava in the hope that the jump ship plate would sink beneath it. The mess that tug ships were making of orbits in the system would make it a no-fly zone for millennia to come. The first rocks were already on the way, orbits changed the moment High Command knew we had lost the city. They evacuated this planet and sacrificed its biosphere, because to do otherwise endangered human worlds that could not be evacuated.
We left that soldier from the 501st behind, the greater sin.
I do not know how he would have gotten off the planet; with the death of that city there were no human facilities left on the planet. No pads to launch from, no shuttles to launch. No range ships to launch to. No jump ships to take him home.
Our man had left himself behind.
The cabin chime rang; our range ship flip turn burn was complete. We braced for thrust, and the floor reached up to greet our long-floating feet.
The medics aboard the range ship woke Jerry that hour; I was called to her presence.
She would not be awake for long; the medics needed more of her time. But for now, I could inform her of our status. She had only one question: “Who was he?”
I had no answer.
Aboard the jump ship, the scribe said he was ready. And we had time, on the long leap between systems. So we gathered in the mess hall one night shift, and told the stories of the dead.
Isidore Allende died shielding a child from beams. She joined in ‘86, and rose through battlefield promotion to lieutenant. The backbone of third platoon, who forged it anew in the fires of the northern continent of Epsilon Florentia. She died of complications of smoke inhalation, we think, but with what-all was burning there it’s hard to say whether it was pneumonia or poison. Third platoon had held a memorial when we left that ashen ruin, and consigned her cremains to that windswept field. All that we brought back to orbit was her tags, because everything else she brought had been pooled as spares. She hadn’t cultivated personal effects.
Blanca MacMackenzie, third platoon. She who said little, shot less, and always hit her target, got nailed by a counter-sniper barrage from an enemy tank. No one had been shooting that day. We guess the enemy’s battlefield analytics recognized her. She left behind ten kids in the favela of Outer Outer Appalachia, six and all of whom were hers. We pinned their photos to the memorial wall with her mugshot from the time the MPs hauled her off for playing darts too close to a jumpy major.
… Ten more names, in third platoon. Isidore wrote their obituaries; find them in her files. The scribe read them at the wall. Here I record only the ones I wrote.
Herald MacCheshire, last survivor of third platoon, who was on the shitter behind a frond when a beam-cannon aircraft took out the mess wagon serving third platoon dinner. Herald came from a religious family, and was so allergic to any religion that they couldn’t stay in earshot of the division chaplain’s certified-non-proselytory speeches. They liked to stand watch at those times.
Jeroboam MacArthur Vince-Helsely, a noble from the Core Worlds, who in basic training spent three weeks cleaning the shitter, became a medic, and died during surgery to remove an enemy’s foot from Herald MacCheshire’s ass when the enemy shot the aid station.
We had a lot of Macs in the company. Most hailed from Outer Appalachia or its post-quake diaspora. Most from the planet wanted to visit someplace where the horizon wasn’t another mountain, where the oceans weren’t ripe with phytotoxic sludge, where the houses weren’t built on shock absorbers to block out the planet’s youthful excitement.
Inez MacWilliamson had some of the best eyes in third platoon, and had the knack of climbing frond-trees. He needed social contact, but could never take too much, so often he’d balance the two by sitting in on conversations and parties from someplace higher up. Maybe he watched the ceremony from some higher orbit.
Pinto “Bean” MacDoral, the inveterate musician, who trained our scribe to sing during the jump in, and whose singing in the frondlands brought a birdkiller to his throat. We buried its flesh with him, but the feathers went to the memorial board.
Banderas “Bam” MacBride, who set off an enemy mine while laying his own. The less said of him, the better. Still, we mourned him.
Cassandra “If you call me Cass I will cut you” MacLaughlin-MacLaughlin (no relation) got the shits one day, and never recovered. Battalion diagnostics couldn’t figure it out. Whenever there was a spare moment, she was whittling, carving vegetation and soft stone into little statues. Her self-portrait was lost, but Kerri Santos coughed up a little bird, which now sits atop the memorial wall.
▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓ “Jerry” MacArthur survived, barely. She said nothing in the memorial, just watched from her medbed, doped to the gills. The medicos wouldn’t permit her to exert herself enough to speak, let alone salute the victorious dead. Yet she was present, and the medics hadn’t wanted to let her be. I know the favors that were pulled in to make sure she was conscious, and she knew the loans her body was making to the drugs that kept her awake and lucid and at functional levels of pain. She was in a coma the rest of the way back to Haven.
But of the last soldier, there was nothing to tell.