As my friend’s words sank in—that we could be trapped in this cave—I coughed up bitter dust. The taste of granite, sweat on my upper lip. A hammering in my ears—my own heart racing.
Oh satok, this is bad!
Someone else moaned, hurt. Nearby. Here in the cave with us, me and Prubius. We weren’t alone.
For better or worse, I was a captain in the Trieste Union Fifth Army, Special Forces. The training came to mind, standard response procedures. Name and rank. I coughed to clear my throat and swallowed what I could, first.
“Attention! Captain June Vereeth. Who’s with me?”
“Me, Captain,” Prubius’ voice said.
Others sounded off.
“Dhani. Hurt,” he croaked.
“Bohlshivra.” A Tchushkin, people with better hearing and eyesight than regular Humans like myself.
“Rogers was next to me,” someone said.
Nobody else announced themselves.
“Madam—Captain. Dhani.” A grunt of effort. “I’ve got a—problem. M-my arm’s pinned.” There was muted panic in his voice—worry and pain.
“Just sit tight a min.”
We needed light. Carefully—a cave had just come down on us—I felt around my left shoulder and thigh pockets. My fingers found the tubular shape of a stick light.
My off-white uniform and boots materialized out of blackness and dust. I checked my surroundings before I moved another inch. The only thing I could recall about cave-ins is that nothing could be taken as stable, anymore.
“Careful, careful,” I advised when another stick light illuminated across the cave. “Sit tight. I’ll come to you.”
My breath showed in plumes. I was by the cave’s right wall. A gray boot next to me lead up to Prubius’ powder-blue kneepad and leg. Above that, a boulder appeared to be sitting on him.
But he sounded normal, unhurt.
“Yes, I am okay. There is a crease. In the Names of the Fathers!”
I concurred with his Pashunderran curse. My head must’ve bounced off his leg when I fell, and both of us narrowly missed being crushed by couch-sized rock.
“Can you get out first?”
There were scraping sounds as he edged himself free. He grunted some more and said, “Okay, I am out. The ceiling is low right here.”
With both eyes on the looming rock—as if I could do anything if it shifted—I got to my feet. Before me was dark destruction. I crept toward it.
The cave’s opening was gone, sealed up. The sniper’s nest was likely no more. Right where I’d been, a black-gloved hand stuck out of the rock pile. It wasn’t moving. I touched the fingers. Nothing. Its owner’s arm disappeared at the elbow, crushed between boulders. I fought off an urge to wretch. Slowly, reverently I guess, I pinched the fingers and pulled the black glove off. The weathered, hairy hand beneath had a scar across the back and a lavender marriage ring. It was Joffe.
His fingers were motionless.
“No,” I heard myself whisper.
I gave them another shake. No reaction. They seemed cold.
He’s been crushed. He…knew the cave was collapsing…he grabbed Prubius and me…shoved us out of the way. My boss. It’s not right.
I shined the light around. “Sit tight, guys,” I told the others, over my shoulder.
The collapsed wall in front of me was made of several huge rocks. Zero light shone through the web of cracks. However it happened—tank fire, impact from a Sky Claw, risky cannon shot from orbit—the wall seemed impenetrably solid, now. It seemed foolish to even start groping for a weakness. That could’ve been a fatal mistake.
This rock could be the one that crushed Joffe, that went through his skull.
I shut my eyes for a min, trying to force the vision from my mind. He didn’t feel anything, I told myself. It was instant.
Another stick light roved about. It focused on a form, boots and legs vanishing under a rock.
“Mick Rogers. Satok! He’s gone.”
As I made my way over, the light changed direction and focused on one of the supply crates on the wall. The one who wanted the light, Eschelbach, rooted around in the crate.
“Here it is,” he said. “Eyes. Light coming.”
Brighter illumination filled the cavern. Prubius and Bohlshivra went toward it. Dhani was sitting awkwardly against a boulder. Blood ran down the left side of his face. The way he sat pressed to the rock screamed problem. Bohlshivra, a Tchushkin soldier, wiped dust or grit from his large eyes and leaned over Dhani. He remembered to bring a medical aid kit, in one of his thigh pockets. I was bad about not carrying any into battle.
“Let me look,” he told Dhani.
Orange flashes filled my eyes for a sec. I squeezed them tight until the sting passed. Someone else protested.
“Easy, easy,” Prubius said.
“Sorry, God!” That was Dhani.
It was a burst from his rifle, fired in error. A small rock tumbled free in the distance. It sounded loud here because everything else was so quiet. The din of battle outside was lost to us.
I’d forgotten how bright the blasters are in darkness. I’ve never known how night-fighters do it with their sensitive goggles.
“Touchy weapon,” Prubius said, sliding the rapid-fire rifle aside. “Do not bring that to the dinner table.”
“Sorry,” Dhani said again, not amused by the joke. He grunted. “I must’ve grabbed it when the cave started coming down.” Pain and panic in his voice again.
The residual flashes drained from my sight. When I could see better, I found Bohlshivra holding a medical swab to Dhani’s head. Dhani was breathing rapidly and looking up at Prubius, who leaned over him.
Prubius pinched part of his arm through the material. “Can you feel that?”
Dhani nodded. I approached slowly.
Another part. “That?”
Dhani swallowed and shook his head. He was sweating like mad.
I watched Bohlshivra pick his way over to the wall. Just ten mins before, there at the ledge beyond, we were all too concerned with picking off Mitasterite infantry to think about a cave-in. I know I wasn’t thinking about it.
How things change.
I wondered if Bohlshivra’s superior had detected good news that I couldn’t. Prubius’ tests on Dhani continued behind me, though I was afraid to look.
Bohlshivra adjusted one of his lavender crips, frowning at me and Eschelbach. “This is no exit. I cannot even hear what is going on out there.”
“Flick. Flick,” Eschelbach swore in anger.
“Calm down. Level,” I said. We met eyes. “Okay, back the way we came in,” I told them.
Eschelbach quickly threw up a hand in mock defeat. Prubius came over to talk quietly. In the sharp cold, he was close enough for me to smell the pigrahb root stew he had for breakfast. Bohlshivra joined us.
“Dhani has three-out-of-six nerve damage, and there is blood loss. His arm is stuck.”
“Yes. I fear trying anything delicate.”
I looked at him, my stomach seizing up at the idea of issuing a grim command—my first one. “Satok, do we have to…?”
“If we do not, he will die of infection before we can return with better help. If there still is help around.”
Eschelbach was kneeling and holding Dhani’s hand. Dhani looked up at me, scared. I crept over, pondering my words. Kneeling down beside him, I hoped my voice was soft enough and clear enough for this.
“Dhani, we’re going to remove your arm. It’s the only way.”
He cried out in a whimper and fought off tears. “Oh, satok,” he said. “No, please!”
I looked at Eschelbach, who was up and adjusting a weapon.
“We need to work fast,” Prubius reminded me in a whisper.
“No, wait Captain,” Dhani said, staring at me. “Are you sure? What if we…”
A pit opened in my stomach. I’d heard of the pleas before—in battlefield medical tents of eras past. Not here, in a cave, with me in charge. My call.
Sometimes, you have to be firm and absolute. They told us that in Officers School, a two-week crash course on being in charge (in case a sniper was forced to take over a unit). Who would’ve guessed that could happen?
I swallowed. “Dhani, be strong. It must be done.”
The fear in his eyes nearly broke me. This was as bad as shooting those Mittie infantry, the ones with no weapons. Except, this time, we’d have to shoot to save a life.
Dhani looked down at his trapped arm, the limb he was going to lose. When Bohlshivra held out a rolled-up patch of cloth for him to bite, he nearly wretched.
The men moved quickly, with Prubius and Eschelbach deciding which rifle to use. There was nothing in the field medical kit for this kind of surgery. I hoped there were enough bandages and painkillers.
Bohlshivra leaned on the wall with his head bowed, either praying or listening for something. Eschelbach came over with a weapon and nodded to me. Time.
On the floor, I hugged Dhani awkwardly—the best thing I could do. His head was on my shoulder, looking away.
“Okay. Close your eyes. It will be over soon.”
Dhani whimpered on my shoulder—quick, scared breaths. Through the bandage wad in his mouth, he sounded like a terrified animal. I would be. I closed my eyes, too.
The insectoid buzzing followed in three quick bursts.
Dhani grunted and his weight shifted, leaning more into me. Quick movements I felt were the men applying bandages. I couldn’t open my eyes, yet. If they’d done it right, the beams cauterized the wound—a man’s upper arm—and no tourniquet would be needed. Up close, that could work. I remembered the alternative mentioned in Basic: Use a weapon on low power to transform a flat metal surface into a heated press. Then press hard.
Please, anything but that!
“Okay,” Prubius said. “I think we are good. Dhani?”
There was a pause.
“Yeah,” he said, sniffling and tearful. He released me. “Yeah, I-I’m okay.”
We helped him to his feet, where he leaned on Prubius. His bandages stood out stark-white in our dim cave world.
I started thinking about that—the visibility—then stopped. As if on cue, the men formed a ring around me. I was the shortest. A woman. A sniper. A captain, the ranking officer, but I’d never lead a group before—there was always a commander ahead of me. I was not a leader.
“Okay,” I said, thinking it through. “There’s five of us, and we’re going to have to move. We have no communications. Everything runs through Base and we can’t get through. The rock, or whatever. We have no idea how things are going out there?” I asked, jerking a thumb towards the cave-in wall.
Bohlshivra shook his head.
I took a deep breath. “We have to assume the Mitties will break through, which means the contingency plan goes into effect.”
“The what?” Dhani asked. As a support man, and not an officer or even a regular soldier, he may not have been included in any strategy meetings. So I was the one to break even more bad news.
“Chief Karran had the szellenyte cache wired with detonators, in case things go south. We can’t afford to let the Mitties have it.”
“Contingency plan. Ka-boom,” Eschelbach remarked.
Dhani stared in the direction of Base, then back at me. “All that?!” There was a different fear in his voice, now.
“All that,” Prubius repeated in a sort of sigh.
Bohlshivra clarified it aloud for us. “So, either the contingency plan works, or the Mitties find a way around it.”
“Satok,” Eschelbach swore.
I couldn’t agree more. Who would like those choices?
Prubius asked, “What about Cecilia? The defense rockets?”
Yes. Why didn’t the global defenses work?
“They must have found a way to beat it.”
“We’re past that point, now, aren’t we?” Eschelbach looked stern.
“Yes,” Bohlshivra stated. “Either way, we have to expect trouble coming up that tunnel.”
“And that presents a bit of a problem,” Prubius added.
I glanced in that direction. Any sec, soldiers of friendly or foe allegiance could come running in our direction. We couldn’t count on them being friendly.
“We need to find another road. Quickly.”