It was a short while before the attacks that Kiela found herself in the doorway of an Earth-lit pod on Finnis IV. Walking through the encampment was a nightmare to her senses. The words of hundreds of minds bled into their rhythmic shouting and cheering. She was mentally crippled. With her reanimation post-hibernated jaunt across the galaxy to this fringe world only hours behind her, her eyes muddied by the blend of the rotten cherry sky above and electric light beyond, it was a wonder she was even still conscious. Perception skewed and body tense, she dared to read deep into the pod for any sign of activity. An alarm sounded, and what was at first a feeling of anxious rage became a curious lust and an affront to her very presence: Mind yourself, woman! There’s nothing for you in these dark thoughts.
“Cease alarms.” And they obeyed. “It’s a read-scanner…lets me know when one of your kind starts misbehaving. Of course, I didn’t expect you here so quickly. For fuck’s sake I only got of the V-comm with the bastard a second ago!”
“You, you are General Rae, yes?” Kiela stuttered, still barely maintaining her composure.
“Damn, woman! Kiela, was it? You sound like a wreck, come in.”
Her legs wobbled, feet lifting a flush of dull, red silica, but carried her far enough for the pod’s door to slip shut. She closed her eyes, grabbed her head, and prepared to faint. All at once the General was at her side. He guided her to a chair by a large, tidy desk. He stared down at her a moment to be sure she wouldn’t fall. He got down on his haunches. The grunt he made was short and well hidden, enough to coax Kiela’s left eyelid to rise and explore.
“The Starports accept dozens of ships a day, here, with little time or regard for passengers just out of hibernation. War world or no, I apologize. You’ll be fine, shortly. Drink this.
“Drink wha-“ and then she was drinking something. It was smooth and sweet and she did not cough. “Thank you, but what was-“
“It’s a stim; Marine-juice. Here.” The General handed her the cup, now less than half-full. “Personally, I hate the stuff. You looked like you needed it though. And besides, we need to talk. Can I trust you to respect my wish? Will you keep out of my thoughts?” His words were nervous but not without conviction.
“General Rae, it is hard to trust someone without reading them. It’s sort of a habit these days.” Honesty, at least at the start, Kiela felt, was simple courtesy.
“The nature of our conversation requires perfect transparency, Kiela. I’m sure that snake Dorn gave you some files on me, while here I am calling you by your first name. I was about to call up your papers when you…call me Kethel, by the way.” He sighed deeply and cradled his rocky chin. The pause gave Kiela a moment to consider the offer he was making, or trying to make; as he began again. “This world is a wreck, strategically. I assume you’re talented, since Dorn sent you, but I’ve also assumed you’re a spy. Tell me why you’re here and maybe we can figure this out.” He was finished and had no idea what to expect.
They both waited.
“He gave me all your files, Kethel, and I have no idea why I’m here. Dorn is an old friend from Earth,” she lied, “and demanded I come. He made it seem urgent. I was desperate to leave home anyway, so that’s why I spent ten years snoring across space to almost die walking across your little party. I was hoping you’d have more to tell me, really.”
“My readers are worthless,” he continued, “colony-bred; and the Earth-Readers planet-side are Dorn’s personal lackeys. If you’re here for anything I would hope it’s to end this ridiculous siege, but that asshole up in orbit may just be playing a joke on the both of us. How are you feeling?”
“Better.” And she was. “But I can’t shake this feeling of dread since I’ve arrived.”
And then the ground swelled and shook and split open. A whirring like a thousand high-frequency drills pierced the air. Kiela and Kethel grabbed their ears, the latter forced flat on his back in a sudden loss of footing. But as abruptly as the wailing stopped so did the fighting begin. Kethel crawled to his feet and released his sidearm. Grabbing Kiela, he ran toward the pod’s exit. It opened, a mouth revealing catastrophe and chaos. “COME ON!” The General screamed.
Kiela froze and gawked at the spectacle before them. Some enormous machine, some spear, had erupted from the deep. Compartments along its metallic rims were erupting alien warriors. Dead humans encircled the crater like some sophisticated, macabre drama. Lasers cut through the smoke and dust, and a final tug on her arm dragged her and her focus toward the aging General. They were charging.
“How’s that stim treating you now!?” Kethel bellowed.
Kiela shook off her stupefied face and cupped her free hand to her open mouth. “It’s- HOLY SHIT!”
The plasma shield of a Lancer just to their left was pierced by shrapnel. It dug into a large tube on his back which emitted a crescendo of squealing energy. The Lancer burst, a nearly invisible shockwave sending Kiela, Kethel, and some of the late-Lancer soaring thirty meters through the air. They crashed into the soft wall of another pod. Kiela opened her eyes and let the thick, angry sky engulf her. Everything ached, but when she looked around the General was already standing and firing. His wide stance revealed a severe gash down his left leg, and before anything else could register his free hand was searching for Kiela’s shoulder. Kethel pulled her up close to him, pistol squawking intermittent death, and said, “We’re leaving.”
Another charge, this one more direct with a clear target in sight: a rover in the distance untouched by the spreading destruction. Kiela couldn’t help but question this gambit as she witnessed the growing field of dead men and monsters. She was reading them all, and she was overwhelmed with sorrow and fear. Plasma shields were bursting all around them, the soft crimson orb of each expanding and enveloping the two as they dashed through, raining warm dust upon them. General Rae laughed when they reached the rover, exhausted and bruised. He tossed Kiela aboard like a pack of gear and lit the engines. As they swirled away and picked up speed, she observed the panorama of camp. Never had she wished more to be back in the Wastelands of Earth.
With fierce revelation she shouted, “That’s not what I’ve been worried about, Kethel! It’s something else! What the HELL is happening here!?”
Kethel pushed hard on the throttle and leaned back, checking his pistol before turning to his new companion. This lovely woman had brought with her more trouble than he could have possibly imagined. So pretty and so cursed…aren’t they all, he joked to himself. Her breathing was erratic, still charged by that magical stim. Kethel relished how her looks were magnified by the disaster upon which she was now the foreground...maybe even the cause. And, deciding to ignore her beauty for a moment, just a moment, he gave her an answer:
“If you’re ready for another trip up into space, Kiela, I know just the bastard to ask.”