WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!
This scene was originally part of Outrageous Fortune, and contains mild spoilers for Soldier of Fortune. If you've already read Soldier or Outrageous, you're good.
If you don't mind a little knowledge beforehand, go to.
If you really don't like spoilers of any kind, consider your notice to stop reading and return to the main menu!
All good? Then, read on!
14 Treicember, 1442 AF (After Landfall)
The suns were setting, bringing a pleasant chill to the previously stifling plateau and making the Infantry long coat welcome after the long, sweaty hike.
Lt. Eitan Fehr, newest member of the Twelfth Company — the Dirty Dozen under Colonel Quinn — crouched in the abal bushes at the edge of the plateau, watching night swallow the valley below.
A rustle of movement had him momentarily tense. “Who goes there?”
“Quinn, Colonel of the Twelfth.”
“Advance and be recognized,” Eitan gave the rote reply. “And have a care, sir,” he added, unfolding from his cover. “That last step is very final.”
The colonel joined him, carefully, and peered over the cliff’s edge. Eitan followed the gaze down to where the last rays of Nemesis set the river to glittering. “It is a beautiful place,” he said as the colonel retreated from the precipice. “Temperate, fertile, plenty of room for wind farms, and water from the river.” He nodded down to where the Ares ran quickly along the base of the escarpment. “I wonder how it is none of the Coalition states have settled here, yet?”
“No crystal, I guess.”
“There is more to Fortune than crystal,” Eitan pointed out.
“Pretty sure there was more to Earth than oil,” the colonel replied, then paused and tilted his head. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear — ah,” Fehr said as it became clear.
The telltale thrum of an airship.
Quinn raised his spyglass, waited for the 'ship to bank away from the glare of the setting Nemesis. “She’s one of ours,” he said, at last lowering his telescope. “The Kodiak, Destroyer Class.”
Eitan accepted the 'scope from his commanding officer and raised it.
“Radio?” he heard Quinn ask Corpsman Carver.
“No contact from the Kodiak, sir,” she told the colonel. “If they know we’re here, they’re not reaching out.”
“She is a fine ‘ship,” Eitan observed, edging closer to the precipice to view the incoming vessel.
“Careful,” Quinn warned.
Eitan lowered the ‘scope and took a cautious step back before raising the eyepiece again.
Because of the difference in elevation from their plateau to the valley below, the airship was approaching at eye level.
It was—disconcerting. “Who commands her?” he asked over his shoulder.
“I have heard of him,” Eitan murmured, recalling the mess chatter from Epsilon Base. “They say he is a good man. A Fordian, is he not?”
The colonel grunted in acknowledgment. “He and the Kodiak provided air cover on one of our ops a few months before you joined up. He was solid, maintained support under heavy ground-to-air fire. Still, I can’t help but wonder what he’s doing here with his very fine airship.”
There was a moment of silence, and Eitan used it to run the telescope over the bulk of the Kodiak's gondola. “Her cannon are moving into fire position,” he noted, with the first stirrings of concern. “Should I call the company to arms?”
“We are not going to fire on one of our own ‘ships,” the colonel stated flatly, then continued, “Radio, hail the Kodiak with my compliments and ask why they’re hovering over our super-secret rendezvous.”
At that moment, the radio squawked for attention.
“Or not,” Quinn murmured. “I’m guessing that’s for us?”
“Sir, yes, sir.” She paused and looked up. “Colonel,” she said, pulling the headphones off, “Kodiak requests our identification and purpose in this location.”
Quinn’s response was to demand the mic and the next words Eitan heard were from Quinn. “CAS Kodiak, this is Colonel Gideon Quinn, Twelfth Company, Sixty-third Regiment, currently engaged in a classified mission.”
There was the usual static-filled pause, then, “Kodiak to Colonel Quinn please specify the nature of your mission and provide your Ident number for verification, over.”
Eitan glanced briefly at his colonel, then nodded a greeting as Sgt. Mulowa joined the party.
“Any reason her cannon are live, sir?” she asked quietly.
“Technically we close to enemy territory,” Eitan told her.
“Technically, so are they,” Quinn pointed out.
“Kodiak to Colonel Quinn, please respond, over.”
Eitan continued to observe the approaching airship as the stirrings increased to tremors, only half-listening to the colonel providing the requested information, following up with a request to speak to the ‘ship’s captain, then silence.
“Quinn to Kodiak, do you read? Over.”
“They are taking aim,” Eitan said, his own voice sounding strange in his ears.
Almost as strange as the dull roar of the plasma batteries charging.
“At what?” Quinn asked.
Eitan’s hand dropped to his side and he looked at Quinn and saw the colonel already knew.
“At us,” he said, just as the first burst of plasma spat from the Kodiak.
And then he fell.
Or rather, the earth upon which he stood fell—the cannon’s aim had been low, striking the escarpment rather than the plateau—and Eitan fell with it.
This came as a surprise to Eitan, who’d expected to be burning, engulfed by the same streaks of plasma he could see, even as he dropped, setting the grove above to flames.
Then he was otherwise occupied, tumbling, scrabbling at the rock face, bouncing off the springy abal bushes which clung stubbornly to the cliff until, at last, everything just…stopped.
It was, therefore, an even greater surprise when his eyes flew open and everything started again, showing him skies no longer burning, the Kodiak no longer hovering, and only faint wisps of smoke trailing across the blue of a new day.
Brand new, he noted, for Tyche was just cresting the low eastern horizon.
The shock of simply being had him drawing a deep breath, which then led to a guttural curse because breathing hurt.
Without moving he mentally tallied a host of scrapes and bruises, likely a cracked rib or two—and had anyone seen the giant who’d crossed his spine with an iron rod?
Not that there was anyone to answer. Eitan closed his eyes, better to sense his surroundings.
What his senses told him was, he was alone, here. Which meant, he supposed, if any of the company had survived the bombardment, they had long since fled.
He hoped they’d fled.
Still, he would never learn what had happened to his company unless he survived, which meant it was time to put some thought into his situation.
Unfortunately, Eitan was discovering that thinking hurt almost as much as breathing, so when the gray rose up behind his eyes, dimming the brightening glimmer of the suns—for Nemesis was now cresting the horizon to join her sister—he didn’t offer much in the way of resistance.
The next time his eyes opened, the suns were cresting overhead.
Sweat dampened his shirt beneath the long-coat, and stung every abrasion.
His tongue was thick with thirst and his eyes felt gritty as he blinked away the glare.
He could hear the call of a hunting bird, the rush of water that reminded him there was a river at the base of the escarpment, and an odd creaking, like wood under stress.
He turned his head to his right, where he saw nothing but sky and a flickering shadow that proved to be the bird he’d just heard, stooping on its prey.
Then he looked, slowly and with great care, to his left, and the perpendicular face of the escarpment.
Angling his head further showed the rest of the story, in the shape of the twisted, needle-leafed branches of a tree growing stubbornly from the cliff face.
A tree in which he was currently entangled like a very large, very battered and—he thought as he felt the limbs of the tree shudder in a passing breeze—very heavy piece of lichen.
He wondered how deep the tree’s roots went into that cliff.
Then he wondered how high up he was.
Eitan grit his teeth, convinced his left hand to wrap around the branch nearest, and turned his head to the right and down—and further down—and got the answer to both questions.
Not very, and very, respectively.
It was then, in that very moment of realization, that the tree chose to release its hold on the cliff, as if following the plot in one of Corpsman Walsingham's beloved penny dreadfuls.
This drop was, at least, less eventful than the first, if more shocking.
For this time he missed any bumps and outcrops and fell straight down, and into the river.
Landing in a cool splash, he had the space to think, at least he'd solved the problem of his thirst.
Which only left the problem of potentially drowning.
With limbs numb from a night spent slayed in a tree, cracked ribs, a probable concussion, and the weight of his coat and sword dragging him down, the river may well finish what the Kodiak’s cannon had started.
Indeed, the rushing Ares seemed determined to do just that, the current tossing him up or dragging him down with capricious whimsy, and it was while he was slipping beneath the surface that his sword became fouled in a beaver den.
Later he’d have time to be relieved that there were no beavers in evidence, for the seven foot mammals could, in a temper, take a man apart… and then use the bones as part of their constructions.
But in the moment he’d no time to be grateful for the lack of hostile herbivores, for the sword was truly entangled.
Rather than waste precious time struggling with the weapon, Eitan chose to unfasten the belt, itself, but even this was a trial as his fingers fumbled with the swollen leather and the tightness in his chest increased until his lungs were begging him to take a breath, even if that breath were liquid.
Finally the tongue of the belt came loose, and Eitan kicked upwards, barely breaking the surface before he inhaled the first humid gasp of valley air.
With the immediate threat of drowning past, he also noticed the water slowing—a pleasant side effect of the beaver dam—and allowing him to drift shorewards with the barest stroke or kick to guide him.
Once in the shallows, he pulled himself from the water, making it all the way to a dense tree-line above the bank before, for the third time since the Kodiak’s assault, his body gave way to the need for rest.
How long he slept he did not know. All he knew, upon waking, was that he was no longer in neutral Nasa, but in the Adidan territory of Illyria.
And the reason he knew this was that when he woke, he woke in chains, in the encampment of a party of Adidan infantry.
Their captain, at least, was a pleasure to look upon, with his braided cornsilk hair and eyes of a mottled hazel that looked out of a face seemingly chiseled from marble.
Less of a pleasure were the captain’s words, as he informed Eitan that any enemy officer found within Adidan borders was automatically presumed to be a spy.
All this the captain explained when Eitan was brought inside his tent, one of the richly furnished yurts the Adidan forces were known for.
Eitan thought he made an incongruous centerpiece, stripped down to his shirt and trousers, hands and feet shackled as he waited under the warm traveling light, sodden boots sinking into the layers of rug, stomach grumbling irately at the savory scents escaping from the covered tray on the captain’s low desk.
The captain himself was kneeling at the desk now, head bowed as he carefully searched Eitan’s still-damp long-coat, removed, Eitan supposed, while he slept.
Already the desk’s glossy surface was littered with Eitan’s belongings.
The pocket watch, compass, and map tubes sat beside the ident tags and wallet.
A waterlogged pamphlet regarding the effects of crystal on Sensitives had been set apart.
“If this were Exxon,” the captain broke his long silence, running his hands over the long-coat’s pauldron, “you would already be hanging from the nearest branch.” Giving up on the pauldron, he turned he turned his attention to the lining. “If you were in Midas, you would be in the hands of an interrogator.”
“But this is not Midas, nor Exxon,” Eitan said in a voice still rusty from the day’s earlier traumas. They were his first spoken words beyond his name and rank, given to the Adidan sergeant, on waking.
“No,” the captain said, letting the coat drop to the desk and rising to face Eitan. “It isn’t.”
The captain crossed the floor, his boots not even a murmur on the soft carpets, and stopped directly in front of his prisoner. “This is Adidas,” the captain said, his mottled gaze holding Eitan's gaze. “Here, we have different methods for dealing with spies.”
“Should I be relieved?” Eitan asked.
The captain’s pupils widened and, just under that razor sharp jaw, Eitan saw his pulse quicken.
Eitan had often been told he had that effect on people.
Desire, made manifest in human form, one of his lovers had once told him.
But then, she had been a poet before becoming a soldier, and Eitan left an offering of honeycomb at her tree in the Forest of Memory, whenever he returned to Epsilon.
“No,” the captain said, reminding Eitan he'd asked a question, then cleared his throat before taking a deliberate step away from his prisoner before adding, “It won't be of any comfort, but I am sorry for that.”
At that Eitan managed a small, sad smile. “So am I,” he said to that beautiful captain, while his thoughts strayed again to his long lost poet, and the question of who might leave the comb at his tree, come the day.
A brief note on the Ares River Beaver
It may seem outlandish on 21st century Earth, but the Castoroides species of the Pleistocene era did exist, and have made a comeback on Fortune. Large as their pleistocene forebears, but with the landscape engineering skills of the North American beaver, Fortune's giant herbivores are a force to be reckoned with.