Aftermath (Sirantha Jax #5)

Chapter 4

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She falls sick on the third day. I don’t even know she’s feeling poorly until her knees buckle. Whether it’s something she ate, or a tropical fever, the outcome remains the same. I have to take care of her. Her skin is hot, her eyes sunken in her head. I set up camp near the river, which we’ve followed as much as we can.

The night is endless as I bathe her forehead and try to get her to take some water. There might be medicinal plants nearby, but I can’t identify them. If I could use my handheld to bounce a connection to a satellite, I could scan and identify them, but I’m completely cut off from the amenities of the modern world, and my ignorance has never been more terrifying.

Helpless, I care for Hit as best I can, but the hours drag interminably. More than once, she reaches for me, whispering, “Dina,” through cracked lips, and I let her put my palms to her cheeks as if I am the woman she loves above all others. My heart breaks a hundred times before her fever does.

Day three of her illness. Sometime in the night, she sweated out the bug. I’ve been making a broth out of grass I know is harmless, but we’re both suffering from malnutrition. We should have reached Castello by now. The fact that we haven’t doesn’t bode well for rescue attempts—or the overall welfare of the Conglomerate. Surely, if they could, they would have sent a ground team by now.

A little voice whispers, Maybe we lost. Maybe you did this for nothing.

I can’t let despair take root. I can’t.

“What happened?” Hit asks groggily, her hand on mine as I hold the collapsible flask for her to drink.

“You’ve been sick.”

“Feel like hell.”

“I’m not surprised. But you’re on the mend now.”

I hope.

On the fourth day after Hit fell ill, I forget my scruples. I can’t choose to starve down here any more than I could stay in grimspace. I have work to do yet. So I build a fire and go hunting. I provide Hit with a laser pistol, but it hasn’t been charged in days, and she won’t have many shots before the gun dies.

Leaving us defenseless.

The weapon in my hand doesn’t have much juice either. I find a likely blind and hunker down, listening to the jungle around me. I’ve grown accustomed to the insect noises over the past few days, so I tune them out. Other sounds capture my attention, and I lie in wait until something gets my scent. From the sound of it creeping toward me, it’s the same type of creature that tried to eat us once before. It thinks I’m dinner. They’re not picky about their own food, and I feel less guilty about eating something that tried to devour me first.

When the beast bursts from the undergrowth, jaws wide and slavering, I shoot it. Killing is nothing new to me; I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. But this is the first time I’ve ever slain something with the intent to eat it. I get out my small survival knife, courtesy of the skiff we crashed. It takes me ages to skin and gut the thing, and I’m nervous the whole time. The blood will draw predators if I’m not fast enough. My hands shake, and my stomach churns as I deal with the carcass.

At last, I have good chunks of meat, suitable for roasting. Hit needs the protein to recover fully and continue our march. When I return, I find her propped against a tree where I left her, laser pistol still in her hands. But she’s sound asleep, and I send up a silent thank-you to Mary that the fire kept the animals away.

I don’t wake her as I cook, but she rouses to the smell. I get that. The scent of roasting meat reminds me of the Sargasso , so I have to hold my nose in order to force down the charred flesh. It’s just nutrition, I tell myself. Protein, just like the paste. Not too long ago, this protein was running around the jungle. Gross. My stomach threatens to rebel, and Hit quells me with a sharp look.

“Keep it down. No telling when we’ll eat again.” Even in infirmity, she has more determination than I do. I admire the hell out of this woman.

We’re both lean as blades now; I could cut myself on her collarbones, but someone will come soon. The battle has to be over by now. They must know we’re on Venice Minor, somewhere. If they got our message. If anyone survived to hear it.

Someone will come. I repeat that refrain for the next two days. By this time, Hit is strong enough to move again. I use my handheld to check our course—maps are on the drive already, no need for uplink—and we set out toward Castello once more. I won’t be sorry to leave this jungle behind.

In another day, my feet are raw from wearing the same socks without washing them, the salt of my sweat eating into my skin. I’d kill to be clean. Wrong thought. There’s been too much death.

I tap my comm, which gets enough light in between the canopy and the intermittent showers to hold at nearly half a charge. Our personal units are equipped with small solar panels in the event we’re stranded on a class-P world. At this point, I’m wondering if we’ll ever see civilization again.

Just before nightfall, my comm beeps, which means someone’s out there, somebody who knows my personal code. Euphoria lights me up like the bright morning sky, clouds shot with pink and gold, and that’s how I feel, despite my mud-encrusted boots and my sodden clothes.

I fumble with the buttons to answer fast enough. “Jax here.”

“Glad to hear it, Sirantha.” Even before his face flickers onto the small screen, I’d recognize Vel’s voice anywhere. “I hoped you would come into comm range.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see you.” Relief leaves me shaky. Beside me, Hit punches the air in triumph. “Can you give me a sitrep?”

The situation report will be bad, no doubt. It only remains to be seen just how dire our circumstance. At least I can rely on Vel to give it to me straight.

“I think it best if we rendezvous first, then I can bring you up to speed.”

“Can you pick us up?”

He shakes his head. “We managed to get inside their line after your first message went out, but we cannot move until you get here. I prefer not to increase our chances of detection. Scout ships are still buzzing the surface, and it would be unfortunate if they found you first. I do not imagine you are in any condition to fight.”

Talk about a gift for understatement.

“So where are you?”

“On the other side of the ruins.”

Ruins? He must mean the city. Shit. The Morgut leveled it, just like Hit predicted. It occurs to me then that their attitude reflects ours with their La’heng. I remember Loras saying, When humanity first visited La’heng, we did not greet them warmly. We killed all of their delegations, rebuffed all attempts to establish contact. They correctly adjudged us a hostile alien race and took steps to civilize us. They seeded our atmosphere with a chemical that dampened our ability to fight.

And then Doc had added, RC-12. It’s generally only used to sedate violent criminals. It had never been used on a global scale before.

He’s gone now. I’ll never hear him explain in that pedantic tone again. He never judged my overspecialization, my ignorance of larger galactic events. Now it’s up to me to remedy my lack of knowledge.

Loras concluded, They took La’heng bloodlessly and fed us more drugs to keep us compliant. They didn’t take into account our physiology. We adapt quickly, integrate changes. The RC-12 produced a new generation of La’heng young incapable of fighting, even to defend their own lives. We’re helpless.

The Morgut look on us as we did the La’heng. They don’t see us as capable of making our own decisions, just as we didn’t respect the La’heng desire to protect their insular culture. It seemed incomprehensible to us that they would fight us for no reason, so we changed them. I imagine the Morgut finding a way to render humanity docile, uncomplaining meat, and a shudder runs through me, chased by shame. Sometimes I don’t like what it means, being human. We are an ambitious, driven people, but sometimes the dark side spills out, and we’re like selfish children, unable to see beyond our own desires.

Heartsick, I realize I’ve been quiet too long, check our position, then reply, “We’re not far. Just sit tight and give us an hour. We’ll get there.”

“I will come to meet you at the city center and guide you to the ship.”

“Can’t wait to see you. Jax out.” I hit the button to terminate the connection. “Looks like we have an exit.”

“Let’s move,” Hit says.

“Double time.”

Buoyed by hope, I speed into a jog. The day is bright and new as we break from the jungle, feet pounding over mud and fallen leaves. Droplets splash up, spattering my knees, but I can hardly get dirtier than I already am. There’s no benefit in slowing down, but I do pace myself, so I can manage the last kilometers as quick as humanly possible.

Flat farms occupy the no-man’s-land between jungle and city, but even those fields have been scorched. Blackened patches radiate outward, crops destroyed, homes decimated. We move past the destruction, but it doesn’t get better. As I jog toward what used to be the largest city on Venice Minor, even at this distance, horror steals my breath. No buildings stand; they’ve been reduced to chunks of stone and ash. Great pits have opened in the streets, a web of cracks raying outward. It makes our passage precarious, and more than once, Hit and I save each other from a painful fall.

The silence is oppressive. No birds. No people. I have never stood in ruins like these. Never. On Dobrinya Asteroid, where my fellow soldiers fought the Morgut and died beside me, I thought I knew the face of war. But this is a monstrous visage, the magnitude of which I could never have imagined. In time, the grasses will grow up through the rock, moss will soften the loss, and animals will nest here. If permitted, Venice Minor will erase all signs of human passage, and that would be better than the alternative, for when they’re done raining death from above, the Morgut will come down and build.

We can’t let that happen. They will not have this world; my mother gave her life to save it, and I will yield them nothing more. It ends here. Somehow. They will not take the war to New Terra.

.CLASSIFIED-TRANSMISSION.

.AFTERMATH.

.FROM-SUNI_TARN.

.TO-EDUN_LEVITER.

.ENCRYPT-DESTRUCT-ENABLED.

Mary herself must have been instrumental in your timely reply. Between the Ithtorians who arrived at Venice Minor just before the twofold catastrophe and the gray men hunting the Morgut in other systems, this war may be won, and at a lesser cost than I feared, all told.

Yet the lives were lost in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a regular battle, and there will be inquiries. Indeed, my comm is already alight with demands for information. I hardly know what I will say. I am ambivalent about the outcome. I have no doubt that Ms. Jax did what she thought best, but she is notorious for her lack of regard for authority. My constituents will wonder—and perhaps rightly so—whether there was a cleaner alternative.

I have reviewed the circumstances, and she did save lives on a grand scale, provided we can manage the prohibition on interstellar travel in the interim. That will prove no small feat, and will cost billions of credits as trade is restricted. But I would be a heartless man if I cared only for that aspect. I’m also concerned about the colonies that will suffer from a dearth of supplies, but they would be far worse off if they had Morgut dreadnaughts on the horizon. I am loath to punish a brave soldier for acting in such a fashion, but the public will accept no other outcome. So I fear I have no choice but to step back and permit the legal process to take place. Ms. Jax will take this for spineless disavowal, I have no doubt; she does not tend to see the world in subtle shadings. Sometimes I wish I didn’t, and that I had gone into my father’s business instead of pursuing a career in politics.

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