Start The Story Here With Chapter – 1
The freed hostages were tended to, interviewed and allowed to send messages to their home planets. The majority of them were citizens of the Union of Free Worlds, the nearest galactic power. They were survivors of the plundered caravels out of Caraquador. They told us they represented only half the prisoners taken from the caravels. The missing half, mostly children and young women, were distributed, they said, among some of the pirate governors throughout the Delta sector. Commodore Alba assured them that should any of their relatives and friends be found on those worlds, the Empire would see to reuniting them with their families. And in the next few days, many did learn that their loved ones were safe in the custody of the Shimabara and La Vallette Battle Groups. Besides the UFW citizens, a half-dozen Imperial citizens were found among the hostages as were a foursome of Federation citizens. There was even an extended family of eleven Kaninu, human-canine hybrids from Nike, the capital of the faraway Legion of Free Planets.
As eager as everyone was to return to our respective homes, and as eager as we were to return to our Regiment’s HQ on Saint Ambrose, we were all, unfortunately, forced to spend another two months in the Muvurunian system affecting repairs on our ships. The horde of resources on the planet as well as the tools and machine shops on the bases were of inestimable help with those repairs. Our engineers were spared the necessity of calling in a Base Star for aid and materials.
Fortunately, the pirates had done no real damage to the place. To their credit, they did a good job of refurbishing and retooling many of the site’s systems and machinery. The pirates had done an equally good job of scouring the tunnels of the more valuable wyrm deposits. The bulk of the treasure had indeed been used to purchase all the hardware they used to murderous effect against us, but a considerable hoard remained unspent in deep-buried vaults on Muvuru 3’s moon. Besides the piles of beryllium, moissanite, vanadium, tistarite and other precious ores, the installations were loaded down with artifacts and varied and sundry materials presumedly stolen from scores of worlds.
More thorough scanning of Muvuru-3 revealed that there were tens of thousands of Ore Wyrms eating away at the planet’s mantle. Their incessant burrowing was steadily compromising the integrity of the tectonic plates. Sunken plains like the one we landed on pock-marked much of the world, the result of mantle crumbling. Our scientists estimated that a few more centuries of unabated wyrm drilling would trigger a planet-altering cataclysm. Computer models predicted massive fissuring of the world’s outer shell accompanied with increasing, ever more violent volcanic activity. Chunk after chunk of the planet would eventually begin flying off into space until the orbit became unstable and Muvuru-3 would either fall into the system’s star or spin away into the deep of the plenum.
Besides its destined doom and the pecuniary prizes of these yet unharvested resources and other plundered treasure, the mining complex-turned-pirate stronghold was itself bound to be of significant interest to historians. The more we learned, the more we realized Muvuru system was, indeed, a marvel of a find.
In a testament to old Dominion engineering, the aether generators on the various bases were still functioning nearly a thousand years after the mining operations ceased, producing just enough power to maintain environmental control and, on Muvuru-3, keep the protective force bubble around the base on so as to spare it from the ravagings of Ore Wyrms. According to the prisoners, the bases were discovered forty to seventy years ago, depending on who you asked. None of the surviving pirates claimed to be there at the discovery, so we could not know for sure.
During those two months we also explored every planet in the system, paying particular attention to every inch of each installation. It quickly became apparent that, having operated on the farthest-flung frontier of the Dominion, the Muvuru system had survived untouched by the Holy League’s crusade and the subsequent catastrophic collapse that consumed the worlds of the old empire. The Muvuru system had simply been abandoned during the war and all but forgotten.
Its remarkably still-intact, ancient computer core holding hundreds of thousands of gigabytes of ciphered clues about life and industry in the Dominion of Man, excited not a few history buffs among us. By far, the most particular cause of excitement was the discovery of alphanumeric codes interspersed among proper names on various lists of base personnel. These seemingly innocuous strings of alphanumerics were seized upon as confirmation the heretofore legendary Psion Cyborgs did, in fact, exist at some point.
It had always been believed that the Dominion of Man pursued the heresy of transhumanism along genetic and cybernetic tracks. The Orion supermen were clearly the result of their genetic ambitions but, of the race of cyborgs and the artificial intelligence that were developed alongside the Orion, no extant proof had ever been discovered. Legend had it this Psion Collective disavowed their humanity, broke away from the Dominion on the advent of intergalactic war and disappeared into farthest deeps of space. Some tellings of the legend insisted the Psion set out to cross the void between galaxies.
The finding of these files and their personnel lists, suggested that the existence of cyborgs was more than historical hearsay. No one was more excited by the discovery of the Muvuru system than the Emperor himself. Upon learning of our various discoveries, his Imperial Majesty, Andreas VI informed us that he was assembling an archeological team which would be sent to the system forthwith.
I followed the findings and conjectures with mild interest. Mostly, I was glad that it was over and that I survived my first battle with nothing worse to show for it than a bruised rib and sprained ankle. More than that, the day before we left Muvuru a decoration ceremony was held on the Lepanto’s flight deck. I was thrilled to learn I would number among the decorated.
Colonel L’Amour called twenty-one of us forth from the ranks of Imperial Marines. Fifteen Princedom of Austros Troopers were called forth by Lord Zoltan. Then one by one, we were called further forward to stand before the line of officers. Our actions cited for commendation were described succinctly and we were given our rewards. I was called right after Corporal Bucci received a silver cross and promotion to third sergeant. In my turn, I too was honored for my actions in the ore wyrm pit. Colonel L’Amour likewise pinned a silver cross on my uniform and handed me a pair of corporals’ stripes. The Colonel then shook my hand, as did lords Zoltan and Kolchic, Commodore Alba, Captain Obey and the officers of the other assembled companies.
Our comrades gave us the old three cheers salute and then the decorated congratulated each other. When Bucci and I shook hands, the new sergeant couldn’t help but tap my stripes with his and say, “Always one step behind me, aren’t you Zippy?”
I smiled, refusing to let him taint the experience for me. “And congratulations to you, Sergeant.”
We all then took a knee for Father Ochiro’s prayer and blessing. Ceremony complete, the officers and priests left us to the flight deck turned rec deck and our extra rations of mead.
At the end of the night, we lined up in two rows and every surviving Imperial Marine shook the hand of every surviving Princedom Trooper before the latter returned to their ships.
A short time later, I headed for my bunk. Sergeant Hayes fell in alongside me halfway across the flight deck. “Congratulation to you, Corporal Zapatas.”
“Thank you, First Sergeant.”
“Do me a favor, will you?”
“Sure thing, sarge.”
“Please don’t make me regret greenlighting your promotion.”
I stopped and turned to face him. “Sarge?”
Sergeant Hayes tapped the silver cross on my breast. “You earned this fair and square, you did. Your actions in the pit were truly commendable but, we both know you should never have been in the pit. Don’t we, Corporal Zapatas?”
Sergeant Hayes would have had plenty of time to review the various feeds and records of the men under his command. I spent the first couple of weeks after the battle wondering when he might address my decision to stay in the battle against his exacting instructions. And then I stopped thinking about it, figuring he didn’t believe it to be worth mentioning. All’s well that ends well and all, I thought until looking into his searching gaze. I had no doubt about what he was going to say, but I asked anyway. “Are you talking about my temporary loss of full comms?”
“I’m talking about you disobeying my order to stand down if your armor’s reboot was anything less than perfect.”
Sergeant Hayes’ tone was calm and collected. His demeanor was friendly as ever but his gaze was intense, deeply probing like he was reading fine print scratched onto the inside of my occipital bone. I found it more disconcerting than the high decibel, spittle-spraying harangues of my boot camp drill sergeant. “We were fortunate your compromised armor didn’t cause anything more serious than bumped shoulders with a Princedom Trooper, but it could have easily become a serious problem for you, the men around you and even endangered the whole company.”
“Yes sir,” I said, my head dipping. “I’m sorry about that, First Sergeant Hayes.”
“I hope so Corporal,” Hayes continued, his tone becoming gentler. “I understand why you did it. Believe me, Zapatas, I do. It’s an admirable thing, wanting to stay in the fight, backing your brothers to the end. A lesser man would’ve jumped on any opportunity to bail out of a fight like the one we had on our hands. I’m glad to see you are a better man than that. But you didn’t accept the Emperor’s invitation just so you could be a better man than most. You accepted his invitation to become an Imperial Marine, to become the very best of men. Is that not so, Corporal Zapatas?”
“Yes, First Sergeant.”
“Imperial Marines follow orders because obedience is the glue that binds us into a corps, a body greater than the sum of its parts. ‘If you love me,’ said our Lord, ‘then obey My commandments.’ It’s the same for us, Corporal. We demonstrate our love for the corps, the Emperor and the Empire by our obedience to the lawful commands of our superiors.”
“You’re right, First Sergeant,” I said nodding emphatically. “I should have known better. Disobedience of legitimate authority has been fouling things up since Eden. I will decline the promotion immediately.”
Sergeant Hayes put an avuncular arm on my shoulder. “Now, now Corporal. Let’s not go overboard. If I didn’t think you deserved the promotion, believe me, I would’ve torpedoed the very suggestion of it. Just promise me that you will earn the next promo as fair and square as that cross on your chest.”
Hayes dropped his hand from my shoulder and offered it to me. I clasped it and said, “I promise, First Sergeant Hayes.”
He pumped my hand vigorously and said, “Good. Have yourself a good night, Corporal.”
“Thank you, Sarge.”
Before retiring to my bunk, I stopped at the chapel for an examination of conscience and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Once on my bunk, I lay for a long time on the border of sleep feeling rather content. More than content. I was feeling sure of myself, more confident than I have ever felt about the path I have chosen for my life.
Don’t get me wrong; I never had any doubt that soldiering was my God-given vocation. What I was not nearly as certain of was my decision to accept the invitation to join the ranks of the Emperor’s Own. That free choice of mine, like all decisions, necessitated the rejection of certain alternatives. One such alternative in particular had been haunting me since joining the I.M. three years ago.
Jacinta Placidia was her name.
The Story Continues Next Week.
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