Thouabin hadn’t exaggerated much when he said that a blank piece of paper was a map. Everything was white. The ground was covered with a ground level fungus and air was draped with a hanging fungus. The houses were either white to begin with or covered with the ground level fungus. However, at night, everything was black. Mercy was just prepping his G4 landing pod for take off when Thouabin silently came out of the brush beside him.
“I cant figure you out,” said Mercy without turning. “Why does a Tobis trooper call for help with a problem that he can solve himself? And why does he call for help to a person with no previous experience?”
“You were the most qualified.” They both chuckled. “I’m not going to be here when the soldiers get here. I just learned that my brother is alive. They said he was on some place called Casnaly.”
“Casanaly” corrected Mercy.
“Yeah, how did you know that?” questioned Thouabin.
“I’ve been there,” replied Mercy as he put a box in his ship.
“What did you do to get kicked out of the Dalfins?” asked Thouabin in reference to the infamous soldiers of Casanaly.
Mercy stopped dead and turned to looked at Thouabin.
“How did you..?” Mercy stammered.
“That knife,” Thouabin quickly explained pointing toward his belt. “It’s a Dalfin graduate’s knife. The gold hilt means you were in the top three graduates in your group. That makes me think that you got kicked out.”
“Why do you think I got kicked out?” asked Mercy.
“Because you’re here,” replied Thouabin. “Why would a Dalfin just get up and leave for no reason?”
“Well you’re right. I was a Dalfin but I was only there to learn some skills. Best two months I ever spent,” said Mercy.
Thouabin burst out laughing and only stopped when he realized that Mercy wasn’t joking.
“The average is six months. You could have been leading them in a year!” gasped Thouabin.
“I have something else in mind,” replied Mercy. “How are you getting off the planet anyway?”
“I’m a Tobis! I have a ship hidden 200 meters in that direction.” Thouabin pointed back the way he came. “I’m leaving tonight.”
“So which of us gets to tell the troops that you’re not going to lead us?” asked Mercy.
“I’ll leave the fun of that to you.” said Thouabin. “I think we’ll see each other again someday.” With that he started walking away.
“I know I hired the right guy.” Mercy heard Thouabin call back from inside the brush.
“I won’t let you down,” Mercy said to himself as he got inside of his small ship and took off. “I just hope they go to Reen and not Tankin.”
Seven Days Later
“I still can’t believe that you’re only telling us now that Thouabin abandoned us,” said Tarlish.
“Well, I was hoping you would have figured it out by now,” replied Mercy. “The problem is that now we have three super soldiers about to crash land somewhere nearby, and our only defence is a girl and three farmers who haven’t fought in years!” continued Mercy.
“Hey!” Ferin jumped in, “Tarlish may be a girl but she was one of the best hunters on Talramango!”
“Well that must be very useful when you’re gathering branches,” said Mercy. He ducked quickly to dodge the knife that Tarlish threw at him.
“Three months and already you’ve lost your mind!” said Mercy from the ground. Parlin grabbed Tarlish before she could jump on Mercy.
“Okay, so a sniper and three farmers who haven‘t fought in years,” Mercy corrected himself.
“Radios aren’t going to work out there,” said Ferin, handing Mercy a black piece of metal. “So we use these. You just stick them on your helmet.
They pick up the signals from your radio and then send it out on a sound frequency that people can’t hear. The others pick it up and amplify it until you can hear them, but they have a limited range. So stay close together.”
As they were speaking there was a loud bang, everyone turned to see a ship trailing a cloud of smoke streak across the sky.
“Did anyone see where that landed?” asked Varkin six seconds after they lost sight of the ship.
“That way,” answered Tarlish as she started off in the direction of the ship.
Tarlish had been right. Mercy had only been in the forest for a few minutes and he was thinking of the fungi as trees. There were tall chimneys of volcanic ash that the fungi hung from in ropes of varying sizes and they did look a lot like trees. There were so many of them it was hard to see seven meters in front of yourself.
Tarlish led the way, hacking through the dense forest with a short sword. Before long their armour was slick with oil from the trees. They started seeing smoke after a while. At first it was just wisps floating through the air but it soon became as thick as fog. When they could barely see their feet, they spotted a black shape looming through the fog. They got on their stomachs and crawled over a high ridge.
“It’s windier up here,” commented Varkin as they neared the top.
“Less of that smoke too,” added Parlin
They were trying to cut the tension that had built up as they neared the crash site. No one had any idea what could be waiting for them on the other side of the ridge.
Mercy reached the top first followed by Ferin and they both moved under a fallen tree.
“Don’t, move, a muscle,” Mercy said, so sternly that their hearts stopped beating.
“Tarlish, get up here.” Mercy instructed after a few seconds.
Tarlish obeyed and slowly crawled up to Mercy. The crash had made a clearing in the trees and wreckage was littered everywhere.
“You see those three black things over there?” asked Mercy.
Tarlish surveyed the wreckage for a couple of seconds.
“In the trees,” Mercy added.
Tarlish turned to the tree line. She saw three people as still as statues in menacing black armour crouching in a hole with each one facing a different direction. Tarlish nodded.
“Get your rifle set up and watch them.” Mercy paused and looked at the range finder in his helmet. “They’re 50 meters away… Do you see that box?”
Tarlish nodded as she spotted a green box one meter from her head.
“That’s where one was standing when I got here.”
The group lay there frozen for ten minutes and the black soldiers didn’t even twitch.
“Are those even people? Could they be statues?” asked Parlin.
“Set up by…?” countered Mercy. “They’re waiting for us.”
“Well what do we do now? I don’t see how we can sneak up on them or how we can sneak away without them seeing us,” said Ferin.
“I’ve got a plan,” Mercy said, as he opened a panel on his armour. Underneath were 25 switches, he looked back at the crouched soldiers and flipped the switch.
Somewhere close by they heard a load explosion, the black soldiers didn’t even flinch.
“Way to go. Why don’t you try running toward them next?” said Varkin sardonically.
“Wait for it,” replied Mercy.
The black soldiers watched the clearing for another minute, then without a hitch, two of them turned and ran, dodging though the trees toward the explosion.
“There, now there’s only one,” said Mercy.
They waited for another minute.
“They should be far enough away that the wind should cover the gunshots,” said Mercy. “Tarlish?”
Tarlish pulled the trigger and the soldier went down.
“Head shot!” she exclaimed.
“He’s getting back up!” yelled Ferin.
Mercy and Ferin stood up and brought him down again with two long bursts from there machine guns.
“Parlin, go get that body.” Mercy said without turning.
“Right, because I’m just dieing for another Falmango incident!” Parlin said, in protest but none the less he started toward the body.
Mercy turned his attention to the crashed ship. There was a pilot slumped over in his seat.
“Tarlish, will you shoot that pilot?” asked Mercy.
Tarlish cycled the action on her rifle and shot at the ship. The bullet cracked the windshield. Mercy pointed his rifle at the ship and fired a three shot burst. The windshield exploded in a dazzling cloud of glass.
“What kind of battery is in your gun?” asked Mercy.
“3.7,” responded Tarlish.
“3.7! They haven’t put those in guns in 60 years!” yelled Mercy.
“The gun is 70 years old,” responded Tarlish.
“Oh, hand that over here,” instructed Mercy.
Tarlish handed him the rifle and Mercy popped the battery out. He took one of his spare handgun batteries, tapped it into place, then put the cover back on.
“Here, try it now,” he said.
Tarlish pointed the gun at the ship and pulled the trigger again. This time instead of a crack there was a solid THUD as the rifle went off. The bullet made a thirty centimetre crater in the armour of the ship along with a four centimetre hole.
“That’s shooting a lot hotter!” laughed Tarlish.
“Yeah, but the battery will burn out after about fourteen shots. So take these,” said Mercy. He handed Tarlish two small batteries and a roll of tape. “Ferin, follow me in two minutes,” he continued.
Ferin nodded and Mercy ran across the clearing to the ship. The emergency door was open so he climbed in. The inside of the ship was pretty shaken up but it seemed intact. The exterior didn’t even look dented and the interior, aside from the clutter, looked like it could still fly. Mercy knew differently though.
Those Seaportians can make a decent ship, thought Mercy.
There was a gunner lying on the floor and a dead pilot in the cockpit.
“That’s two, now where are the other two?” Mercy mumbled to himself.
Mercy walked toward a door at the back of the ship. As he neared the door he kept looking behind him thinking that one of the soldiers would come up behind him at any second. He reached out and tried to turn the knob. Locked. He slammed his body against the door. Nothing. He put his rifle on his back, pulled a skinny knife from his belt, and stuck it in the door frame. As he did this, the door swung open and a man with a cut in his forehead shoved a pistol in his face. Mercy grabbed the barrel and flipped it around breaking the mans finger in the trigger guard. He kicked him over and landed on top of the man with his knee on his chest. He put his knife to the mans throat.
“Where are those soldiers going?”
The man’s eyes raced wildly around the room.
“Where are the soldiers going!?” Mercy yelled at the man.
“I don’t know!” the man croaked.
“Really?” Mercy pushed the knife so that it cut into the man’s skin.
The man erupted with information that had nothing to do with the question, he even shared the exact weight of the ship.
“Do you know where the soldiers are going?” Mercy repeated sternly.
“No!” the man said in a trembling voice.
“Is that your final answer?” Mercy asked again.
The man nodded.
“Ok then.” Mercy leaned on the blade of his knife cutting the man’s throat, then pulled the blade back and stuck it through one of the man’s eyes.
“Is everything alright in there?”
Mercy stood up and turned to see Ferin coming through the door of the ship.
“I have good news and bad news,” Mercy said.
“What’s the bad news?” Ferin asked.
“One of the pilots escaped and I have no idea where the soldiers are headed so we’ll have to follow them,” Mercy answered.
Ferin sighed and lowered his head.
“And the good news?” he asked.
“One of the pilots escaped and I’ll bet he has some idea about what’s going on,” said Mercy.
“Just like that guy had some idea about what was going on?” asked Ferin.
“Well that guy’s a gunner, he doesn’t have to know what’s going on,” replied Mercy.
“How much of a lead do you think they have?” asked Ferin.
“Oh I’ll bet they’re coming back as we speak,” answered Mercy.
The two retreated back to the group. When they got there, Tarlish wasn’t with them.
“Where’s Tarlish?” Ferin asked, panic in his voice.
Varkin and Parlin shrugged.
“Well which direc-” Mercy tackled Ferin in mid sentence.
“Do you hear that?” whispered Mercy.
They listened for a few seconds and heard someone stumbling across the ground and cursing. There was a crashing and thumping sound like a short fight, followed by a scraping sound. They lay there for a couple of seconds with their hearts in their throats.
“They’ve got Tarlish!” said Varkin in a shaky voice.
“Stay here! I’m going to check it out,” said Mercy and he silently sprinted off between the trees. “It isn’t over until she stops fighting.”
When he was out of sight he suddenly stopped in his tracks. Why are they making so much noise?, he wondered. They didn’t make any noise before! Mercy cautiously continued through the trees.
“Where are you going?” someone asked.
Mercy turned around to see Tarlish sitting proudly beside a white blanket. Mercy hadn’t even seen her sitting there! That white armour is great camouflage.
“You look awfully pleased with yourself,” stated Mercy.
Without saying anything Tarlish lifted the blanket to reveal a bound and gagged pilot shivering from the cold.
“Ferin, can you hear me?” Mercy asked.
“Yep,” came Ferin’s voice cracking over the radio.
“We’re going to stay here until the soldiers show up,” Mercy informed him. “Tarlish you can start talking again anytime you feel like it.”
“Hum, you’re just upset because you didn’t catch him,” said Tarlish sounding very smug.
“Just because that’s true doesn’t mean you’re right,” shot back Mercy as he got into position facing the clearing.
Twenty minutes later.
“It’s been twenty minutes! I think we can safely say that they aren’t showing up!” yelled Parlin over the radio.
“Quit your bellyaching,” responded Ferin. “Mercy, they aren’t coming back. They must have set up a regrouping point somewhere else. How much of a lead do they have now?”
“Quit complaining! How far could they possibly go with no ship? Just start following their tracks,” Mercy spat back. “Or maybe our friend has an idea of where they are going.” Mercy lifted the blanket over the pilot. “Do you know where they are?”
The pilot shivered and tried to say something through his chattering teeth but gave up. He pointed indicating the direction they went.
“Is there a village that way?” Mercy asked Tarlish.
“You’ve been very helpful.” Mercy said as he pointed his rifle at the pilot.
“What are you doing!?!” yelled Tarlish in astonishment
“We can’t take him with us.” responded Mercy
“Yes we can.” Tarlish said. She stuck a needle in the pilot’s chest and he stopped moving.
“So you killed him with a needle? What did that accomplish?” asked Mercy.
“He’s not dead,” Tarlish said. She took a three meter heating roll out of her backpack and wrapped it around the pilot. Then she wrapped the blanket around him and tied it with rope. Next she pushed her arms through the ropes and picked up the unconscious man like a backpack.
“I thought you were being sarcastic,” said Mercy as he followed behind her.
They regrouped with Ferin and Parlin (who was still complaining) and Mercy went to look at the tracks.
“Wow, it’s a good thing we know where we’re going because I don’t think we could follow these tracks! They’re five feet apart and are scattered all over the place!” exclaimed Mercy.
“Yeah, that’s interesting. Hey I’ve got a fun idea! Lets all go lie down on the frozen ground for an hour,” Parlin said sarcastically.
“I thought I told you to shut up,” said Ferin.
They walked through the forest for more than an hour taking turns carrying the unconscious pilot.
“I’m never doing this again! It’s so damn cold out I can’t feel my legs,” complained Parlin.
“How do you think Tarlish’s boyfriend feels?” asked Mercy.
“Stop teasing her, we might need him again later.” said Varkin.
“We’re going to die out-”
Parlin’s complaining was interrupted by a resounding gunshot. The sound echoed off the trees and everyone jumped into action. Everyone except Varkin who slowly sank to the ground.
“Tarlish! Ferin!” Mercy yelled as he ran. “Try to get around them. I’ll-” Mercy fell to the ground. He spun around on the ground to see Parlin sitting in a hole.
“That was the only way to stop you I could think of,” apologized Parlin, “Now get in the hole!”
Mercy complied. All they could hear was the sound of Ferin and Tarlish shooting and the black soldiers shooting back.
“Can you see the black soldiers?” Mercy asked Parlin.
“No, Tarlish and Ferin are the only ones with clear shots,” Parlin said quickly.
“Then take an unclear shot!” Mercy said as he started machine gunning the trees. Parlin just stared at him.
“Guess where they are! Just shoot!” Mercy clarified.
Inside the crossfire all you could see was dirt, ice, and bits of fungus flying everywhere. There were bullets whizzing all around and no cover whatsoever. If you hid yourself from one person, you were in view of someone else. There was nowhere for the black soldiers to run. It’s truly amazing that both soldiers escaped. Then it was over.
“Alright who’s not dead?” asked Mercy as he stood up and shook off the debris that had covered him.
“I’m here.” said Ferin.
“I’m fine.” said Tarlish.
“Varkin’s dead.” said Parlin.
They gathered around Varkin’s body.
“Where’s Tarlish?” asked Mercy.
“She’s changing the battery in her rifle,” answered Ferin.
They stood in silence for a moment.
“Someone should say something.” said Mercy.
“Yeah. Let’s go kill those #$%&#^@*! yelled Parlin.
“Watch your language! There are lady folk present,” said Tarlish as she approached the group. “Did anyone else hit one or am I the only one?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” said everyone else.
Tarlish looked back at where the soldiers had been. “Well someone did.”
The rest of them looked where Tarlish was looking. Blood stood out like red on white in numerous places.
“I shot one through the leg,” she said.
“Are you bragging about that?” asked Parlin.
“No, I got a couple body hits too, but how is he still walking?” Tarlish asked.
“There is a lot we have to learn about these soldiers but it should be a lot easier to find them now,” said Mercy.
“Actually no, it won’t be. It’s almost night,” said Tarlish.
“I don’t think we even have to find them,” said Ferin. “They’ll probably bleed out and then we just go get the bodies.”
“No they’re too resourceful to just die from blood loss. They’re probably already running,” said Mercy.
Tarlish bent down and started wrapping up Varkin body.
“All he ever wanted was to help us,” she said holding back tears.
Mercy bent down and picked up the wrapped body.
“Should we make camp?” asked Parlin.
“Do you think they’re going to make camp?” countered Mercy.
“Unless you want to get murdered in your sleep we keep moving,” said Ferin.