Chapter 3: Beneath a Red Sun


Jekh struggled against the discomfort, trying in vain to catch some rest. Their bunk wasn’t bad at all – psychically-generated insta-barracks tended to come well-furnished – but the armor chafed against their rocky skin at odd angles. Their chest and hip plates were neatly stacked on the ground, but arms and legs took longer to armor up than the customary three minutes’ readiness, so they stayed covered up, and ached.

God damn that fool to the shadows, they thought. It was Colonel Athadon’s idea, outfitting all the troops in the same standard-issue platemail, all neatly patterned like a proper army. In Jekh’s long experience with deniable-assets mercenary work, Athadon’s company, Evrand’s Chosen, was the only one that didn’t let soldiers pick their own gear, resulting in a haphazard battalion that looked like a band of raiders or pirates. And if that wasn’t enough, whatever ignorant clods that were in charge of inventory thought human-standard armor was just fine for an eblian such as Jekh. Sure, the general size and shape were more or less the same, but when it got to details – slightly different proportions, muscles in all the wrong places, and dear God, why do humans have such skinny arms – wearing that thing was a nightmare.

Well, at least they had the barracks’ foul odor to keep them distracted. Normally, they’d be more than happy to sign up for scouting, patrolling or even ditch-digging duty just to catch some fresh air, but after over a hundred hours of unrelenting sunlight, they were feeling just fine inside the cool dimness of their quarters. And, judging from the mugginess of the atmosphere inside, most of their fellow soldiers felt the same way. Even the natives preferred to get away from the continuously-up sun as much as they could – well, when they ventured away from the twilight ring and into the sunlit portion of the planet, anyways.

The alarm bell rung briefly across Jekh’s quarters. Well, not like this bunk was doing me much good anyway, they thought. Two and a half minutes later – ahead of most of their squad, they noticed – the mercenary was standing to attention, fully armored and equipped, sword and shield at the ready, near the back of the briefing room.

Polosius, one of the company’s lieutenants, stood up and faced the squad once the three minutes were up, squinting at the absence of a couple stragglers. “Here’s how it goes,” he said, with no introduction. “We’re taking this pass here” – he pointed at the bare-bones map of the battlefield that took up most of the wall behind him – “and we’re doing it fast and quiet. I’m talking shank in the prison showers. Scouts have placed enemy posts here and here, and we don’t want them on alert until our fellas from 2nd through 6th have crossed over to the sunward side, you hear me? Telok’s running point.” He waved his chin at Jekh. “We’re on a tight window, so get cracking. That’ll be all.”

“You heard him, fellas,” Jekh bellowed as they marched toward the exit. Their squadmates followed them, sneering and whispering among themselves. “What is it?” the eblian asked. “You don’t like me as your leader? Well, tough biscuits, you’ve got your orders.”

“Oh, no, we like you just fine,” sniggered Volkor, a human local. “Real nice of ‘em to give you a job like this, huh? Whole mission depends on it, high chances of failure… If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this sounds like a great way to make you leave the company in disgrace.”

“Why, thank you.” The spring on Jekh’s step showed they really appreciated it. The rest of the squad chuckled at that. “And yes, glad you don’t see it that way either. I thought you looked like a coward, the sort that takes only small-time, easy missions… Guess I misjudged you.”

“Hey, get bent, rock-biter!” Valkor yelled. “I hope I’ve got a nice view of your ass getting blown to pieces by those bastards out there, jackass!”

Jekh was so taken aback at what they perceived as a sudden shift in attitude that they forgot to address the flagrant display of indiscipline. “I wouldn’t have any teeth left if I bit rocks,” they muttered, as the squad made its way out of the hyperspatial barracks and into the blazing sunlight of New Eugeron’s day side.

Austolus, the large red sun that loomed unmoving in its mid-morning position (or was it mid-afternoon?), beat down on the mercenaries as they climbed the ridge up to a suitable vantage point. To their right, they could see a small impromptu fortification down in the mountain pass, with a couple palisades and a prefab watchtower; to their left, up in the mountain, stood another enemy position that dominated the sunward side of the ridge, although they couldn’t see that due to the glare.

“Listen up, folks,” Jekh yelled. “Up there” – they pointed at the unseen soldiers hiding by the sun – “stands our death. If they catch us, we’re roast. So, what we do is, we snake our way up among the shadows, until we make it to –”

“Hey boss,” a new guy from Chertan asked, “what’s that down there?” He was looking back the way they came.

“Hey, you shut the hell up while I’m…” Jekh’s train of thought was derailed as they turned to the man and saw what he was looking at. “What in Delemmir’s name are those clowns doing?!”

About halfway up the mountain path, marching toward the squad’s objective, was a large battalion of Athadon’s men, with a couple flightpods hovering above for air support. While they were too far away to actually identify, they were clearly the invading force whose path Jekh’s crew was supposed to clear.

Valkor laughed. “Looks like your mission’s a bust, huh?” he said. “Those guys down there are getting butchered, and it’s on you for not clearing the way!”

Our mission, you mean,” the eblian grumbled. “Unbelievable. I expected some incompetence in this company, but this is ridiculous.”

“So, uh…” another soldier tentatively spoke up. “Does that mean we’re not…”

“The hell we’re not,” Jekh roared. “Least we can do is lend a hand. No time to sneak up on them, and the flanks are going to be on alert anyways, so let’s join the main force. We’re pushing through.”

“Are you insane?” Valkor exclaimed. “You know that’s a suicide mission, that with the pass closed…”

“You know what,” Jekh smiled. “I’ll think I’ll give you one last chance to show you’re not a coward. You’re joining their vanguard. Now move, all of you!”

The battle, predictably, was a disaster. While the squadron at the pass held against the attacking force, raining crossbow and psych-repeater fire down on the invaders as the sun at their back made retaliation difficult, the two detachments from the adjacent mountains descended upon them from the flanks, making short work of their air support and cavalry. Lorian, the lieutenant in charge of the battalion, was a nervous wreck; it was only after a large portion of his soldiers broke away and fled on their own that he ordered the retreat.

Jekh was patiently waiting for their turn back at the infirmary, armor already off, when Polosius walked up to them, a grim look on his face.

“Kick me to the curb if you want to, I don’t care,” the eblian said. “But you know damn well those idiots marched too soon. There was no way we could clear the pass in time.”

“Yeah, well… this isn’t going down in history as one of the finest days of Evrand’s Chosen, to say the least.” Polosius looked like he’d discussed the battle’s outcome far too much for his liking already. “There’s lots of finger-pointing around, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think you could’ve done any different.”

“Which only means you’re not that stupid,” Jekh muttered.

“But that’s not why I’m here.” The lieutenant ignored that insult; he was used to eblians and their lack of tact. “Whatever happens to us now, it’s no longer your problem. Seems you’ve got a new job now.”

Jekh’s crystalline eyes turned up to look at Polosius, with an amethyst glint. “I’d love nothing more than that right now, but I’ve still got a couple weeks left on my contract, and the termination clause…”

“Don’t worry about the fine. They’re buying you out clean. The Colonel himself signed off on it… if you’re up for it, of course.”

“Well…” Jekh stood up, wincing at their wounds. “Let’s see what they have to say, then.”

Continue Reading in Chapter 4: The Interview