Hello. Since I returned to writing for TMC and now INN, I’ve written a few short stories for the site that were well received. I even published the first chapter of a book proposal that ultimately fell through with CCP. Rather than rework something that was incomplete into something that might be merely okay, I decided to start with a fresh story. I created new characters and places and a setting wholly my own. This is not about EVE, or DUST. The characters are not immortal, and the danger is real.
Winter Three is a complete novella, not a short story. At one hundred pages of text, there’s just too much to publish at once, so it will be serialized on INN with a new chapter coming every Monday and Thursday. The complete novella is also available for purchase on Amazon for Kindle here! If you do purchase the book, dear reader, no spoilers.
The most important thing that a captured Sassael Union Marine needs to know: the Corps will not forget her. No matter what dark hell she might be dumped into, the Marines will come for their own. Over the days of torture, I tried to remember that. I prayed to God. I believed in God. But I had faith that my brothers and sisters in the Corps would come and rescue me.
From the faint explosions I could hear, that rescue would come sooner rather than later.
I was chained in the cell that had become my home between torture sessions when the door cracked open and a small metal cylinder was tossed inside. Immediate action in the event of a flashbang being tossed nearby was not to stare at it like an idiot, but that was exactly what I did. After several days with no sleep, I was more than a little out of it. I tried to slam my eyelids shut; I was almost in time. The bang was as bad as the flash and set my ears ringing.
Through the spots in my vision, I saw four Marines storm through the door. They were wearing powered armor suits in white and grey arctic camouflage. Those armored suits weighed more than a metric ton and turned an already cybernetically-enhanced, superhuman Marine into a god of war. The first two through the door already had their railguns shouldered and sighted and placed hypersonic rounds into targets on either side of me.
Even though I knew they were not shooting at me, the rounds flying past my head were terrifying.
“Room clear,” one of the Marines said.
Five days of no sleep had clearly made me delirious. Through the ringing in my ears—not even aural cybernetics can dampen the effects of a point-blank flashbang—I thought I recognized that voice. Unless I was hallucinating, that was Captain Mako Nizumi. Captains are not normally on a point breaching team into a hostile building. It seemed my longtime friend had decided to lead the rescue effort herself. My vision was still full of spots, so I couldn’t see the name stenciled on her armor’s chestplate.
The presumed Captain Nizumi continued, “Falcon Six, this is Alpha Six. We have the objective secure and are moving to exfil point zero-one.”
The long awaited rescue had finally arrived. Thank God.
I’d evaded the enemy for three days, crawling through mud and the underbrush, eating bugs and what real food I could scavenge. The bad guys still caught me. Then it got worse.
I descended into hell. After what seemed like days of continuous light, all of it artificial, I lost track of time. I was chained in a standing position, in a sitting position, sometimes up against a wall for a variety. Every time I went to sleep, my captors came in and woke me up. Sometimes, it was merely a slap to the face. Or if there had been enough of an interval for me to recover, they would torture me some more.
They ripped out the fingernail of my index finger in the first hour after my capture. I was beaten: slapped, kicked, punched. They strapped me down to a board, stuck a rag in my mouth, and poured water in every time I tried to take a breath. I admit that was when I almost broke, but I was a Marine, the elite of the Sassael Union ground forces. Marines don’t break.
We were the Spearhead of the Sassael Union, the first to fight. The Sassael Corps of Marines fought the only offensive battle of the Sassaeler-Lutean war on the enemy’s home planet: the Battle of Aquitaine, where a whole battalion of Marines fought to the last to bring the war to the enemy. Marines cleared out Martin’s Station and retook Erika’s World. I was the heiress to a three hundred year legacy, a legacy that screamed at me not to give up. If I didn’t give up; neither would the Marines. They would find and rescue me, even if they had to burn the whole galaxy to do it.
My captors didn’t give me anything to eat, only water to drink. On the third day—I think—they prepared a feast. I didn’t just get to smell it; they took off my blindfold so I could see it, too. That was the only time I ever got to see one of my captors, a grizzled man with a dirty face and unkempt brown hair. He had a leering sneer with crooked, yellow teeth. After I turned down the meal, the blindfold went back on and I was beaten again. He was the only one I saw; there were at least two more that remained a mysterious ‘them.’
The last time I came close to passing out from exhaustion, they smacked me pretty hard on the side of my face. In the process, my blindfold was knocked to a less secure position. With some effort, I managed to use my shoulder to get it the rest of the way off, so I could finally see.
Which led to me looking dumbly at the flashbang the rescue team tossed in, but hey, a rescue is a rescue.
“God. She looks like hell,” one of the Marines said.
“She is a lieutenant colonel, Lance Corporal Itsumi,” another said. Even in my delirium, I recognized the ‘I’ve had it with your screwing around’ voice that sergeants have. “And this exercise is not over. Get your head and your rear wired together. Go help the lieutenant colonel out of the chains.”
The Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School’s portion of the Tactical Antimatter Deployment Officer’s Course is not just another school. It’s even worse than the SERE courses for high risk individuals, pilots and the like. The list of actions the instructors cannot do is much, much shorter. By the fifth day, I had forgotten it was even training.
Like all SERE courses, it ended with a simulated rescue. The reason was twofold. It gave Marines a chance to practice a hostage rescue. More importantly though, it reinforced in the mind of all Marines, including the one that went through hell, that the Sassael Marines would never leave anyone behind.
Lance Corporal Itsumi moved forward and ripped the chains apart with the strength of his armor. Then he threw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and carried me out of the building.
Once clear, they bounded for the exfiltration point. A dropship swooped down as we got there, and I was tossed in the back.
“Water,” I said weakly.
Nizumi pulled off her helmet, shaking out her black hair. With her helmet off, I could finally see her face, and I was happy to know I had not been hallucinating back in the cell.
“Here,” she said, pulling the drinking tube out of her neck seal.
The armor’s water supply was internal, surrounding the powerplant on the back as part of a measure to keep the powerplant from exploding if punctured. Sometimes it worked.
With some assistance, I got up in the seat next to her, and resting my head on her shoulder, took several greedy gulps.
“Not too much,” she said, nudging me away. “The doctors don’t want you drinking too much until we get you to an actual infirmary.”
“Fine,” I said, falling back into the seat. “Let’s never do that again.”
Nizumi nodded. “Yeah. You really do look like hell, ma’am.”
The dropship landed after a few minutes; I thought it was a few minutes. As I said, my sense of time was still a little screwy. A medical team was waiting with a stretcher that I was happy to lay down on. My commanding officer, Colonel Stern, was standing by the dropship ramp.
“Lieutenant Colonel Voss, welcome back” he said and turned to Nizumi and her team. “Good job. After watching the live feeds, it looks pretty textbook. We’ll call this exercise a success.”
Colonel Stern had completed the same SERE component a couple of weeks ago, and the executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Weiz, had completed the component last week. As the regiment’s operations officer, I was the last officer to have to pass the course.
I fell asleep on the way to the infirmary.
I ᴀᴡᴏᴋᴇ in an infirmary bed, with a couple of IVs in me and a full set of biometric monitors attached. The doctors had repaired my ripped out fingernail—the rules of the school say no permanent damage—knitted back together a broken rib, and reduced the bruising and swelling.
“The doctors say you’ll be out of here tomorrow, good as new,” Nizumi told me from her chair.
“How long have you been sitting there?” I asked her. My mouth wasn’t quite as dry; I could taste the saline from the IV.
“Not too long. I still had to debrief the team, get the weapons cleaned, do maintenance on my armor, and grab some chow. You were actually out several hours while they stuck you in a regeneration tank.”
“Still tired,” I complained.
“I can understand. You went five days without any real sleep, according to what I heard,” she replied.
“That’s all? It seemed like longer.”
“I was actually worried when we picked you up; you really did look like hell. But here. The nurse said you could have a little something to eat.”
Nizumi opened a chocolate pudding cup and handed it to me along with a plastic spoon. Food. After five days with nothing to eat, I was starving.
“Don’t eat it too fast,” she continued. Mako paused a little bit while I was eating, before asking, “just what did they do to you, Kara?”
“They freaking tortured me,” I said after a spoonful of the chocolaty goodness. “No sleep. No food. Ripped out a nail. I got beaten. They even waterboarded me.”
“You held out, though?” she asked.
I nodded. “But, another day, more . . . I doubt that I would have been able to hold much longer. I still don’t get why all this was necessary. Do they really expect us to use tactical antimatter on our home?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “But, this is the big one; so I guess they’re pulling out all the stops.”
“It seems like it. Maybe we’ll actually go. Thank you for the pudding,” I said. “But I am going to go to sleep now.”
Sleep was calling to me. With a little something in my stomach, and extreme fatigue still tugging at my consciousness, I was about ready to pass out.
“Alright, Kara. Sleep well. Hey, tomorrow night. First battalion chow hall. Join me for dinner?”
“Sure,” I mumbled. “Just remind me in the morning.”
I was completely asleep before she answered.
The next day I was awake and well enough for a debriefing. Colonel Stern and Captain Beck both joined me in my infirmary room after kicking out the corpsmen and activating a privacy field. Captain Beck had cleaned up. His teeth were no longer yellow and were much straighter. His brown hair was back to uniform regulation, and his face was clean.
“Firstly, ma’am, I want to apologize for anything that was done back there. I don’t enjoy beating up on people; I just happen to be good at it. So the Marines make me do it,” he said.
“You were just doing your job, captain. I’m sure if the Allies get me, it will be a lot worse,” I replied.
“Much,” Captain Beck said.
“Anyways, lieutenant colonel,” Colonel Sern said. “After looking at the report, your performance was above the standard set for passing the course, both classroom and SERE. You did well. Once we’re aboard ship, you’ll have access to the antimatter weapons section. Your deployment codes will be locked in a safe. You will have to memorize all of them before we drop, and you won’t be allowed to take the codes out of the room with the safe.”
“I understand,” I answered.
“Here’s hoping that we’ll never have to use them. God knows I don’t want to, not on Sassael, not on our home, but we’ll have them if we need them,” the colonel said.
Captain Beck added, “if for some reason you are in the position where you might be captured, the triple delta codeword to Deployment Command and Control will void your codes.” He borrowed the colonel’s phrase. “Here’s hoping it never comes to that.”
“After spending a few days with you, captain, and knowing that the Allies will do worse, I’d rather call down a tactical antimatter strike on myself than go through something like that again,” I said.
“Lieutenant Colonel Voss, after spending five days just like yours with Captain Beck, I rather agree with you,” Colonel Stern replied.
Nᴏʀᴍᴀʟʟʏ a lieutenant colonel doesn’t eat dinner with a captain. However, Mako and I had been friends since we were both fourteen, our first year at the New Sassael Military Academy for Girls. She was from the Fakima system. Fakima had only joined the Sassael Union seventy years ago, so Mako had experienced the slow promotions that came with being Fakiman in the Sassaeler dominated Corps of Marines. She was an excellent officer, though, and an amazing company commander. God knows she’d had enough time to practice at it.
“I might have influenced the mess officer,” she said. It was an inside joke; Nizumi was the mess officer that month.
“In this case, I approve of your abuse of power,” I replied, taking another bite of the breaded pork. The gravy was excellent, too.
“So, all better then?” she asked.
“Pretty much. I’m on light duty for the next two weeks. So, while you are in the field next week, I’ll be watching the feeds from my office.” I grinned. “Sorry, not sorry.”
“I would cheerfully spend a month in the field rather than go through what you just did,” she replied.
“Yeah, I think I would, too. And it’s mandatory that I get some therapy to make sure nothing that happened creates some PTSD or something. Yay for hypnosis and fun drugs. So, that’s an hour a day for the next two weeks, too.”
“All this so you have some access codes for a weapon we’re not going to use.”
“Well, here’s hoping we won’t have to,” I replied, also stealing the colonel’s phrase. “But, they’re like ammo: better to have it and not need it, than need it, and not have it.”
“This assumes we even go,” she said. “How many times have we been given a warning order?”
“I’ve lost count, but I think the new Prefect is serious this time. It was all he talked about before his appointment. I don’t think the Council would have appointed him if they didn’t actually intend for him to follow through. And, word is that the Allies are sending a delegation to try and negotiate an agreement.”
“As if the Union would accept anything less than full sovereignty over Sassael,” Mako said.
For the past three hundred years, our—well, not Mako’s—planet had been occupied by the Luteans. The planets Sassael and Lutetian were both in the Apina Binary System, but orbited different stars. Four hundred years ago, the Sassaelers and the Luteans had formed the Apinan Stars Alliance as equal partners and gone forth into the galaxy. After the Luteans had decided that some partners were more equal than others, the relationship soured.
Our refusal to bow to their dictatorship led to a war. A war which we lost. In the early years, the Luteans sieged our planet and forced us off our homeworld, but we fought on for over a hundred years. Even after the United Sytems-brokered peace agreement—viewed by many Sassaelers as more of a ceasefire so long as the Alliance (dominated by the Luteans) controlled our homeworld—we’d kept planning and training to retake our home. The United Systems might think itself the interstellar congress of all the civilized polities, but when it came to our homeworld, we couldn’t care less what the rest of the galaxy thought.
The Sassael Union was comprised of the twelve daughter colonies founded by Sassaelers in the Alliance period, but our flag was thirteen white stars on a red field. The last star was Apina Minor, our homestar and homeworld that we would never forget. It was our promise to return it to our Union. (The Fakima system didn’t get its own star.)
The new Prefect, Eutland, had promised to see three hundred years of Sassael Union policy realized. He promised his people that we would return home. Like so many times before, the Sassaeler Marines had mobilized for the liberation. All of us were wondering if this time it was real.
“As if,” I replied. “If it’s real, we go. I’m just glad we wound up in the same regiment for this thing.”
“Yeah,” Nizumi said. “It’s good to be serving with you again.”