The sun drowned at the horizon and bled a reddish hue across the desert. The salvaged rover had good pace; a twisting dust cloud unfurled behind them. They drove fast and didn't look back, and slowed only when the rally point emerged moonlit against the dusty, rocky plateau. They were a kilometer from the temporary base when a search light blasted harsh fluorescence into their visors. Laser sights from watch towers found their marks.
A raspy voice sounded though the com link: "Captain Wilkes? Is that you?"
"Yes. Tell the Admiral I've brought our ace-in-the-hole."
"Damn good to hear from you. Come on in."
The rally point was hastily erected; tech crews still worked into the night as they torched dry foundations with portable plasma cutters. Watch towers loomed, stacked around a triad of three tents, and all of it enclosed behind a chain link fence.
A Staff Sergeant appeared from the third tent and briskly paced to greet them. He wore his duty cap at an angle and cradled a wounded arm in a cast as he trotted to a stop.
"Admiral Limbani is waiting, ma'am. Let's get you up to speed. He's worked out a good plan to retake this hemisphere, but I wasn't sure we could pull it off without your help."
They marched into the third tent. There, the African senior officer prospected a bank of salvaged starship computer systems. Around him, a detail of security personnel stood at attention. The soldiers went pale the moment they saw Unit 03: seven feet tall and splashed with congealed dark red, her face a mystery beneath a cold visor. Most solders had heard of her and the things she did, but they'd never actually seen her.
Admiral Limbani stood from his work. The senior officer loomed over Captain Wilkes like a dark wraith, but his face reminded her of an old lion, brown eyes dark with thought. "Where is the rest of the Solstice's compliment, Captain?"
"We're all that's left, sir."
The senior officer pursed his lips. The Solstice was an assault carrier with a compliment of five hundred. Barely on the ground and his new operation already lost over a third of its personnel. He considered postponing the mission...but then looked at Unit 03. The rules of her deployment made her pale in comparison to five hundred good soldiers, but even with those limits, she'd have to be enough.
"Staff Sergeant Velasquez, break out the special provisions for Unit 03. Get the starship officers on those telemetry screens ASAP, see if there were any breaches in her restraints."
Unit 03 and Staff Sergeant Velasquez marched out. The Admiral gestured at the mouth of the tent to Captain Wilkes. "Walk with me. I'll give you the grand tour of the base."
They stepped out into the desert. A jaundiced moon hung pale in the sky. The Admiral looked in the distance, where a cold front whispered across a sand dune and sent off a rippling arc of dust.
"Earth. Haven't seen it in years."
He darted a curious eye at Captain Wilkes as they strode toward the guard perimeter. He wondered if she cared about Earth as he did, or knew what it felt like to see her so barren, so desolate.
"Strange, isn't it?"
"Sir?" Captain Wilkes turned.
"When our ancestors ventured beyond the solar system to colonize other worlds, and encountered the plague. Green house gasses and overpopulation may have been a problem, but good old Earth was right there. All Earth needed was a helping hand. Now the planet is nothing more than a staging area. Humanity doesn't even have a home world anymore."
"Perhaps it was good our ancestors found other worlds," she replied. "They gave us shelters among the stars, and the knowledge we needed to create the means to survive."
"You think the knowledge of creating life is our salvation, Captain?"
"I only hope the demons we created were the right ones."