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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning

generalis Julius Caesar

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There is never truly peace in a world just invaded.
 

slothinator

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The Norrilgans have not been treated kindly by the galaxy and a scarred world will take time to return to some appearance of normalcy.
With so many species now in the governance, I wonder how long it will take for a non-vailon to be elected as Director-General.
Fern’uni was in for a tough time even just for the subject matter but the guerrilla warfare won't do anything to make their research easier.
As always, I very much enjoy how you write these interludes as it's really interesting to see how the galaxy is developing at ground level.
Also congratulation on your partner for the editing and their artwork. Looking forward to seeing more of it!
 
Interlude - Coming Home, Part II

eoncommander

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Sergeant Pathir had waited for me outside the major’s door. He directed me to the motor pool, adjacent to the main gate of the base, and said he would meet me there. I slid on alone, now preoccupied with the thought that an angry mob of saathid civilians, left behind by their government, angry and afraid and cut off from the only beings they considered to be full persons. I had never before imagined their predicament, or even that there might be saathids left on the planet at all. In my mind, it had always been a landscape devoid of any life, inhabited only by the ruins of dead civilizations. Instead it was a vibrant place, thrumming with tension.

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting in a passenger seat in the rear of a four-wheeled transport vehicle, humming along an empty road. Sergeant Pathir sat in the front passenger seat; Private Wun, a tezhnid, was driving from the seat directly in front of me, and Corporal Schieee, a mith-fell, occupied the seat next to me. Sergeant Pathir had given me a brief lecture before we departed. He had three rules for me: don’t speak to any locals without his approval, don’t walk in front of any of the squadmembers and block their sight lines, and always listen to his orders. I acknowledged them while we stood in the motor pool – it seemed unlikely we would head out if I didn’t – but I had no intention of paying them any mind once we were in the field, and I fully expected Major Vakor to back me up when we found her.

We drove in silence as I stared out the window at the jungle, which grew up to and in some place over the road. It felt different than the landscapes back home on Kampira. Thicker, heavier somehow.

Private Wun broke the quiet. “So, Fern, what’re you working on that’s important enough to get us out here on escort duty in a Delta zone?” I turned to look at her; her eyes were glued to the road. I would have much preferred that she use my full name.

“Hey.” That was Corporal Schieee, next to me. She didn’t look away from her rifle sights, pointed out her window, either. “Be nice to the civvie. He might write bad shit about us.”

“At least we’ll be famous,” Private Wun cracked in return.

“Yeah, and busted onto latrine duty.”

“That might be good for you. Disciplining. You’ll learn you don’t need to do so much preening every morning.”

“You know what, Wun? You’ll probably enjoy it. Your ancestors crawled out of that muck. It’ll be like going home for you.”

I swiveled my head back and forth during the exchange, half-expecting one to jump the other. But nothing. They barely flinched as they hurled insults, and I even thought a hint of smile played on Sergeant Pathir’s face. “Cut it out,” he ordered, but without much enthusiasm.

They did, in fact, stay silent for a moment. Private Wun, however, proved unable to sustain it for long. “But Fern didn’t answer my question! Hasn’t even said a word this whole time.” With no rebuke coming, she continued. “So how about it, Fern?” Now she glanced over, mandibles clicking.

Before I could respond, Corporal Schieee jumped in again. “That’s a fair point! What’s your deal, Fern?”

“I’m here researching the destruction of norillgan society. My thesis deals with apocalyptic trauma and the inherent contradictions of annihilation and rebirth.” They asked for it.

It was met with another silence, though this one seemed to be more stupefied than anything. Private Wun recovered first. “None of us mudsuckers know what any of those words mean. Can you dumb it down for the idiots in the car?”

“I’m trying to document the facts of the original saathid invasion and compare it to the pilgrims’ memory of the event.”

Private Wun’s mandibles clacked in rapid succession. “Well why didn’t you just say so? Makes perfect sense when you put it that way.”

Corporal Schieee let out a small shriek of annoyance. “That’s how they get trained in higher learning. Complicated words for complicated ideas.” She was defending me, maybe. “Me, I grew up on an algae farm. Not saying there weren’t smart individuals in my cohort, but it was definitely clear the types of postings we were being prepared for.”

Private Wun cut her off. “That’s some kind of bullshit! We all know you joined up because you couldn’t stand the stench of the hatcheries back home.”

“Now, now,” Sergeant Pathir chided her. “Let’s not get all personal and offensive. I’m sure Corporal Schieee doesn’t think her own broodmates stink, do you, Corporal?”

“No, sir, I don’t.” Her tone of voice was eager, as if she was anticipating wherever it was the sergeant was headed.

“That’s right, because the corporal knows that there are only two reasons any individual would choose to join the UGF.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Reason number one: navy brats think they are the supreme form of intellectual and physical achievement and are completely insufferable.”

“One hundred percent, sir.”

“Reason number two: if you’re like the good private here, and you can’t find any lovers back home, you might think the lack of options at an army base would make some individuals desperate.”

“Private Wun might certainly have thought so, sir.”

“Unfortunately for our friend, her fellow soldiers are not that desperate. We all feel bad for you, we do. But we’re discriminating enough to know better than to jump into bed with you.”

Private Wun had taken this abuse with levity. “You’ve got me there, sir. I live a very sad life. But I want to get back to Fern here. What exactly are you expecting to get out of the ‘nids?”

“I don’t expect to get anything from the saathids.” I chose not to use the derogatory word for them. “I didn’t come here for that.”

“So what’s the deal then? We’re out here protecting you for, what? A nice walk in the countryside?”

“I’m here to gather evidence and document it for further research. Things like death camps, mass grave sites, abandoned towns. Hopefully all very far away from saathid population centers, to be honest. I don’t want to have to deal with them.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Private Wun’s mandibles clacked again. “But we’re heading to a saathid town right now. We’ll see how well we can keep them away from you, eh?”

“Leave the civvie alone, Private,” the sergeant ordered. And she did.

--------------

We arrived in Skom about twenty minutes later. Private Wun was apparently constitutionally incapable of keeping quiet for more than a few minutes; shortly after she left off interrogating me, she had started up a new conversation, ostensibly with Corporal Schieee but actually very one-sided, about the meal regulations at the base’s mess hall, which I came to understand required all foodstuffs to have pre-approval from Central Command and thus forbade the serving of any local fauna that might have otherwise made for good game meat. The private knew about that bit because she had herself gone out hunting with some friends from another platoon and had personally bagged a big six-legged ungulate, only for the head chef to shove the animal straight into the incinerator. This had been very upsetting for Private Wun, who had filed a formal complaint to the lieutenant who oversaw the mess hall and spent thirty minutes of our trip alternatively boring us to death (with detailed descriptions of the biochemical differences between the life found on this planet and some of the animals she raised back on Varba) and making us laugh uproariously (with stories of the travails of the hunting party).

PrivateWun.jpg


Once we arrived in Skom, though, she quieted down. Even in broad daylight, the glittering carapaces of the saathid residents were eerily reminiscent of the horrifying stories of destructive cleansing and xenocide that we had all seen in holos. The locals – or should I call them newcomers, since they had usurped this land within living memory – were emerging on the streets, staring at our vehicle as if calculating their odds of survival if they all rushed us simultaneously. As we rolled through town, Sergeant Pathir kept muttering, “Stay frosty,” to the others; the air in the vehicle was very tense. None of the locals made a move, however, and no weapons appeared, thankfully. I learned later that scout platoons from the base made regular searches of homes and community centers, which at least reduced the likelihood that any individual civilian might still have a gun. Instead, they remained in passive hostility.

We found Major Vakor near the eastern edge of the town, a lone vailon in the midst of a crowd of saathids. We stopped the vehicle at a nearby intersection and slid (or walked, as the case may be) over to the group. She towered over them – saathids averaged a little under one meter “tall”, and typically measured themselves by their lengths instead. As we approached, I heard her saying, “Look, I know this is hard for you. The way to make it easier for yourselves is by cooperating. All the captain knew was that his unit was attacked by some type of insurgents, and they escaped into town that way” – and here she pointed over their heads, in the direction we had come from – “and there’s little I can do to protect you when you don’t give him intel he wants.”

“So it’s okay that they just came around and beat us for it,” one of the saathids wanted to know.

“Hell yeah!” Private Wun shouted, causing the crowd to scuttle around to see who was there. Sergeant Pathir gave her a withering look, as if to say, not helpful.

Major Vakor did what she could to calm the increasingly restless locals, shouting over their muttering. “Hey, hey! What Captain Khaww subjected you to last night is illegal! It is against regs, and I will see to it myself that he is disciplined for it.” Her job must be very lonely, I thought, if she was filing reports on every incident of over-eager commanders being too aggressive with the civilian population. I felt a twinge of sympathy for her doomed cause – until I remembered the crimes of the very same saathids that Major Vakor was trying to protect. “But you need to look out for yourselves. Hostile action against Governance forces will create the circumstances for reprisals. I am in no position to prevent something like that.”

From what I could tell, the major’s words were having an effect. Some of the individuals appeared to be nodding along, resigned to their circumstances and hoping to make the best of it. But the tension was rising anyway. Voices were being raised. I sensed the squad tightening their grips on their rifles as the threat of violence intensified. Sergeant Pathir muttered to the others, “I think we may have to go get her.”

A few more saathids were now crawling up to the group, their eight legs skittering over the pavement. Private Wun tracked them with her rifle.

Major Vakor continued reasoning with the civilians, but increasingly she was just being ignored and shouted down. Things seemed to be degenerating quickly.

“We gotta do something here, boss,” Corporal Schieee said with some urgency, or creeping alarm. “There’s a whole bunch of spiders over who look like they’re spoiling for a fight.” She was covering the north road from one knee; I looked over her head, and saw numerous saathids emerging from buildings, looking at the commotion with curiosity and growing hostility.

Sergeant Pathir kept calm, but the squad was now outnumbered twenty to one. I was very nervous at the idea of a battle breaking out with me at its center, but I also felt a curious sense of arousal. I tried to prepare myself for if the shooting started, but my mind was buzzing and I was struggling to form coherent thoughts. The thing the sergeant told me was stuck in my head on repeat: “Stay out of their lines of fire. Stay out of their lines of fire.” I looked at him, hoping for reassurance, but he was focused on the crowd.

The next thirty seconds felt like an hour. Sergeant Pathir finally came to a decision. “Alright, let’s go get her. Private, on me. Corporal, stay with our friend.”

“Got it.” Corporal Schieee moved to my side, rifle raised, as the other two pushed their way into the crowd. I squished down next to her, which seemed like it would be a good idea but actually probably made little difference. It did mean that I couldn’t see what was going on with the rescue attempt, so I tried to count my breaths to stay calm.

More angry shouts were coming from the crowd. I looked up; Sergeant Pathir was pushing Major Vakor in front of him; the major was visibly upset. Some of the saathids kicked at their shins. Others threw rocks. One large stone connected with the major’s head. Sergeant Pathir shouted at us, “Get to the vehicle!” I scurried over as fast as I could. Corporal Schieee followed, muttering under her breath, “Why didn’t he have Wun get the vehicle ready while we went to get the major?” Once we reached the car, she turned around and trained her gun on the crowd as we waited for the others, still being pelted with projectiles by the saathids, to catch up. But, finally, we all piled in, Major Vakor having been practically thrown in by the sergeant before he jumped into the front seat and slammed the door. “Go!” he shouted, and we zoomed backwards, away from the impending riot.

“That went well,” Private Wun observed, sarcastic cheer in her voice.

Major Vakor was sprawled across the back row, her horn squishing into my side. She righted herself before laying into Sergeant Pathir. “What the hell were you thinking? You could have set them off! There could have been a riot!”

The sergeant replied, “There might still be a riot.” The vehicle sped away from the town, towards the north.

“You need to take me back,” the major stated flat out. “I need to defuse the situation before it gets out of control.”

“It seemed like it was getting out of control in spite of your presence,” Sergeant Pathir growled in return.

“Well it would be a lot easier if grunts like you weren’t undermining my work every time you stepped outside the fence!”

“Nice,” Corporal Schieee interjected. “Right in front of the civvie.”

Major Vakor seemed to finally register my presence.

“You’re Fern’uni?” She knew how to pronounce my name.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” The major stroked her right horn apologetically. “Sorry about this mess. And sorry about…” she trailed off and gestured at my midsection, which still had a horn-shaped indent.

“It’s okay,” I reassured her. “It’ll reshape itself soon.”

“Fuck!” Major Vakor shouted, presumably not in response to my assurance. She was touching the back of her head, now matted with blood.

Corporal Schieee took notice. “You alright, major? I’ve got bandages in my pack.” She reached up to feel the wound.

“Ouch!” The major whirled instinctively, forcing the corporal to duck her head out of the way of the onrushing horn. “Don’t do that!”

“You’re gonna need a concussion check, too,” Corporal Schieee noted as she straightened.

“Later,” Major Vakor spat, turning back to Sergeant Pathir. “That little stunt of yours ruined an entire morning’s work. They were almost ready to move on.”

The sergeant turned towards the back seat. We were in the open countryside now, miles away from Skom. “I heard the end of the meeting, major. With respect, you were not calming the crowd. They were getting more agitated.” His observations, delivered in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, as if it were patently impossible to disagree, only heightened Major Vakor’s frustration.

“If you don’t let me do my job, if you’re constantly focused on the immediate danger, they will never trust us. They will never live peacefully alongside us.”

“Sorry, major, but that is not my concern,” Sergeant Pathir retorted.

“I wish you would make it more of your concern,” the major snarled. “You might actually save some lives instead of taking them.”

“If you want to go over the line every day in a foolish attempt to change hearts and minds, that’s your business. But it makes it my business to go extract you before you get yourself killed.”

Major Vakor snorted, but didn’t say anything. After a moment, she began to fidget with her vest, trying to straighten it, but she only managed to bang her head against the ceiling. “Fuck!” she shouted again, once more holding the back of her head, which had been jarred by the bump.

“Stop the vehicle,” Corporal Schieee called out. “I need to patch up the major.”

We pulled over into a field and piled out. Soon the corporal was dabbing at Major Vakor’s injury with a salve; the officer, on one knee so the mith-fell could reach her wound, was wincing with each touch but no longer crying out with pain.

“Fern’uni,” the major said, beckoning me over. “I’m sorry about all of this. Being on the front lines isn’t like what they show in the holos back home, eh?”

“I suppose so,” I replied. I’d seen more than a few “realistic” portrayals of militaries in war, but those holos weren’t exactly popular and I thought it easier not to have to explain.

“There’s just so many absolute idiots. So many patrols running around, thinking they can just rough up civilians whenever they feel like it because we won and they lost. They act like there are no consequences because they have guns and locals don’t.” I nodded along, as it seemed like she was building up a head of steam. “Then I have to come along and clean up their mess. I’m trying to build relationships with the population, but every trip over the line I hear, ‘This squad stole my food,’ and ‘Some vailons started a bar fight.’ And we need these individuals! If we don’t want to be an occupying force, if we don’t want to be colonial masters to a repressed minority, then we need to find ways to show them the benefits of life in the Governance. Otherwise it will just be rebellions followed by reprisals followed by more rebellions forever.”

There was a ripping sound. Corporal Schieee, preparing the bandage. “Don’t mind me,” she said, as we had both swung our eyes around. “Just a worthless mudsucker here, fixing you up before getting back to beating on some ‘nids.”

The major grunted and shook her head. “Present company excepted, I guess.” She paused for a moment, then sighed. “Truth is, Sergeant Pathir is one of the good ones. And he was probably right about earlier. That’s between you and me, Corporal,” she said sharply, turning to the mith-fell.

“Sure, major,” she responded, turning the officer’s head back around so she could access the wound. “Now hold steady for a sec.”

Major Vakor drew a sharp breath but successfully held her head still. “The saathids are not our enemy,” she continued. “Sorry if that upsets you, but it’s true. We’re not going to expel them from the planet, and we’re not going to make them second-class citizens permanently. Either would be a major violation of the Accord of Governing.” I didn’t need the civics lesson, but I let her speak anyway. I wondered briefly if there was some part of the officer curriculum that encouraged speechifying. “Whatever political settlement Tebazed eventually imposes, it is going to involve some path to citizenship.”

“For these xenocide fuckers?” Corporal Schieee burst out as she smoothed the edges of the bandage around the major’s wound.

Yes, even for these xenocide fuckers, I thought. I said, “Well, it only makes sense. The Governance has few ironclad principles at its heart but one of them is the fundamental equality of all sentient lifeforms. If we excluded them, we wouldn’t be ourselves anymore.”

Corporal Schieee scoffed. “Even for a civvie you are naïve. They were taking advantage of your misfortune. They murdered your friends and stole your land, and you want to let them keep it.”

The major stood, gingerly touching the back of her head. “This one’s a true believer,” she said, waving towards me. “Like all converts, inevitably the most zealous in any group.”

Slightly embarrassed, I shifted my body around. “I grew up in the Governance. I don’t remember any other way of life. This is what I know.”

The corporal laughed again. “My family immigrated when I was young. Came up in a cohort, went through the indoctrination process just like you, and you,” she said, pointing at the major and me in turn. “But I can see the practicalities of the situation anyway. What I don’t understand is, doesn’t some part of your brain, buried in all that fat and flesh, isn’t there some corner of it that just wants to kidnap a couple of ‘nids, take them somewhere dark, and flay them, just like they did to your grannies?”

It was a valid question, I supposed, though not exactly how it was phrased by my friends on back Tebazed. “I grew up with people like that,” I replied, cautiously. “But they were too angry for me.”

“I’d be angry!” The corporal flapped her wings in emphasis. “Hell, I am angry!”

“Well, that’s not me,” I said in return. “And from a more political orientation, I would say we shouldn’t stoop to their level.”

That earned renewed laughter, this time from both my companions. I looked around; Private Wun was inspecting one of the tires on the vehicle, while Sergeant Pathir was talking into his headset a few meters away.

Major Vakor was saying, “If only more individuals thought that way,” with a hint of mockery. Corporal Schieee continued, “That’s like me saying, when Wun steals my wing ointment to lubricate his mandibles, eh it’s fine, take as much as you want, instead of swapping out the actual ointment bottle with a decoy filled with glue.” Now it was the major and I who reacted as one, looking at the corporal with concern. She shrugged. “What do you want? The stuff is really hard to get out here! I had to teach her a lesson. And the medics set her right within a few hours anyway.”

“Alright,” the major said, with a chuckle.

Sergeant Pathir took the brief pause that ensued as an opportunity to rejoin us. “I just got off the hook with base; they gave us the go-ahead to continue.”

Major Vakor nodded. “Good.” She turned in my direction. “So, where would you like to go first?”

I was not prepared for this question. I had anticipated a fight, from either the sergeant or the major; I had a whole speech rehearsed, extolling the virtues of research and understanding and public awareness. “Uh,” I responded, stalling for time. “Where are we?”

Sergeant Pathir tapped out instructions on his wristband and called up a map projection. “Here,” he said, pointing. “About twenty klicks north of Skom. Do you have your site coordinates? I can overlay them.”

“Uh, it’s in my bag, I think.” I heard snickers as I slid over to the vehicle. I rummaged through my pack, very conscious of the several sets of eyes watching and waiting. Finally, I found the data disk I was looking for. “Got it!” I called, waving the disk unnecessarily as I came back to the group, followed by Private Wun.

The sergeant took the disk and tapped his wristband with it. Several locations on the projection were highlighted, descriptive text hovering above each. I touched one, and the projection zoomed in for details. It was incredibly seamless, much more so than anything I’d seen in the civilian world.

“It’s mith-fell,” Major Vakor explained, sensing my admiration. Made sense – the projection had a green glow I was familiar with from my stay on Tripitit. “Part of our latest round of trade negotiations, I believe.”

Sergeant Pathir wrenched us back on topic. Tapping some more on his wristband, he scrolled the projection to the region around Skom, and highlighted three locations. “These are closest to us,” he said.

I pointed to one, pretty much at random. “This one.” It was a suspected mass grave site. As good a place to start as any.

“Okay.” The sergeant turned around. “Hey, Wun! How’s it looking?

“All set boss! We can head out whenever.”

The sergeant looked at the major, who nodded. “Alright, let’s pack it up,” he said.
 

eoncommander

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There is never truly peace in a world just invaded.

Depends on what kind of peace you are going for.

The Norrilgans have not been treated kindly by the galaxy and a scarred world will take time to return to some appearance of normalcy.
With so many species now in the governance, I wonder how long it will take for a non-vailon to be elected as Director-General.
Fern’uni was in for a tough time even just for the subject matter but the guerrilla warfare won't do anything to make their research easier.
As always, I very much enjoy how you write these interludes as it's really interesting to see how the galaxy is developing at ground level.
Also congratulation on your partner for the editing and their artwork. Looking forward to seeing more of it!

One might wonder what kind of normality could exist on their homeworld if they have to live alongside members of the very species that tried to wipe them out. On the other hand, it is unclear how many active insurgent groups are left planetside. I think the activity we see and hear about is merely the death rattle of a true rebellion. Despite the experience of the characters here, it is tapering off, not ramping up. But a pattern like that is really hard to pick up on when you are so close to it.
 

Nikolai

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Part one is up! Parts two and three to come later this week. Full credit for the artwork goes to my wonderful partner, who, in addition to serving as my editor for the whole series, has generously offered to create some illustrations for this story.
Very nice one! Give my (and I’m sure others’) compliments on the excellent artwork.
 

generalis Julius Caesar

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Interlude - Coming Home, Part III

eoncommander

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Back on the road, heading northwest. It was only a short trip to the first site, a mass grave near an abandoned farmstead. According to eyewitness testimony, there had once been a small village, a few klicks away, with around two thousand residents. The saathid invasion had come early to this part of the plane; atmospheric strikecraft had bombed the village to rubble on the second day of the war. Still, most of the residents, with nowhere else to go, had remained in the ruins of their homes. For two weeks, they waited and hoped in vain, until a saathid regiment rolled through. At first, they fired at the villagers sporadically and randomly, while the unit set up camp on the outskirts of town. Once darkness fell, the roundups began.

I know even this much about the fate of the village thanks to a norillgan survivor, wounded instead of killed by his would-be executioner. He hid beneath the bodies of his friends and family for eight hours of consistent gunfire, until dawn came and the saathid regiment rolled out. He fled, just ahead of a second unit, this one presumably tasked with burying the thousand or so corpses, judging by the heavy digging equipment it carried. Gabb, I remembered, was the name of the survivor, this brave soul who stowed away on a garbage scow to escape offworld, who spent weeks in the stinking refuse until the ship was captured by a passing mith-fell patrol. I met Gabb on Tripitit Station. He had made the pilgrimage back from Governance space in order to find any surviving records of his siblings, who had all left the little village to make their ways in the big city in the years prior to the invasion. His recollection, decades after the fact, was one story of a million identical-but-for-the-details stories, only a handful of which I was able to hear during my time at Tripitit.

As we approached the farmstead, I saw that most of the buildings were still standing, though the main house had partially collapsed. We left the vehicle there and proceeded on foot. Gabb had remembered scrambling up and down a small hill after he escaped, before stumbling on the farmstead, where he was able to scrounge up some food to carry with him on his journey. Based on his story and some time with scans of the area generously provided by the Labor Directory (who were evaluating disused agricultural land for reconversion to food production), I thought I had been able to pinpoint the likely location of the executions. I had some hope that the mass grave or graves would be near that spot, as it would have been a tremendous waste of resources to transport the bodies elsewhere before burying them. A waste of resources, I chuckled to myself as we moved in silence over the abandoned field, long gone to seed, towards the woods. What part of the death and destruction hadn’t been a tremendous waste of resources? I’d heard stories from a few soldiers that the saathids had actually taken units off the front lines during the Governance invasion of 288 in order to finish off the few norillgans still living in the labor camps, hampering the defense of the planet but ensuring that the vailons would not be liberators.

We crested the hill and looked down on a clearing. “We’d better stop here,” I said to the group. “Don’t want to accidentally trample the site.” I continued down the slope, Major Vakor behind me, while the others dropped their packs and scouted the area with their scopes. At the foot of the hill, I too put down my bag and paused to look around. The major stood next to me, respectful of my quiet. The clearing was roughly rectangular, about fifty meters by one hundred. A sparse forest spread out in front of me; the village, though not visible, was located on the other side of the woods.

Clearing.jpg


I fished out the N-Dimensional scanner from my bag. I had it on loan from the Archaeology Section; getting approval from them for field use had been a nightmare. Apparently they were very fragile, one administrator had sternly informed me as he rejected my application. When I asked him why they had made a general scanning device that couldn’t be used to scan things outside of a lab, he kicked me out of his office. The eventual permission I gained was only under the condition that I share my research data and co-publish a paper with one of the Section’s top archaeologists (which actually meant allowing him, a notoriously self-important figure, to be the lead author).

I had been able to use the scanner a few times at Tripitit Station, as a dry run, but out in the field it proved to be as good as advertised. Every type of scan or material analysis I could want – topographical, soil, atmosphere, chemical composition, DNA, magnetic, and on and on – I could call up in less than a minute. All the more impressive that it had been developed by a team of vailon researchers, rather than relying on secondhand mith-fell or mirovandian tech. Major Vakor was as amazed as I was at its capabilities, at least at the beginning. After a while, though, she grew bored watching me slide around the clearing hitting different buttons on the scanner, announced she had some reports to file, and sat down a little ways up the slope with her portable computer.

We spent much of the afternoon like that: Major Vakor, sitting on the hill and working through reports, the rest of the squad camped out on the hilltop keeping a lazy watch, and me, exploring and mapping the site. With the sun dipping towards the horizon, I finally powered down the scanner and closed my notebook. The major looked at me as I let out a loud breath of relief, slid over to her perch, and plopped down next to her. “So, what did you find?” she asked.

I pointed to our left. “Edge of the field. All the way to the treeline, and twelve meters wide. Big enough for a thousand bodies.”

She nodded gravely, and I continued. “They were held here, in the middle of the clearing. Maybe a dozen at a time marched off into the woods to face the execution squads. Bang. Bang. Single shots to the head, one at a time. That’s all they would have heard while they waited. It was night, so there was little to see. Just the warmth of each other’s bodies, dwindling over the hours.”

The major was looking at me now. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I said, though I wasn’t certain that was true. “I knew it would be like this.”

“What will happen to the gravesite?”

“For now, nothing. I’m going to leave a marker for future researchers. Tonight, I’ll assemble my notes into a file to transmit back to Tebazed.”

“And later?”

“Later there will be more, many more researchers. Probably there will be specialized academic institutions established on the planet. Perhaps they will want to excavate this site. But there are many other mass graves. Perhaps these folks will be able to rest in peace.”

“What about you?”

“Tomorrow I go to another suspected mass grave, or a labor camp, or a city ruin. I’m planning on being here for eighteen months. I have a lot to see.”

We sat in silence for a moment, watching the sun setting over the horizon. “It’s getting late,” the major eventually said, unnecessarily. “I’ll talk to the sergeant about returning to base.”

“Okay,” I said. I was staying in civilian accommodations in Jalin, a short walk from the base. A question occurred to me. “Are they going to wind up accompanying me every day on my field trips?”

Major Vakor shrugged and stood up. “Probably you’ll want them to.”

I thought back to the scene in Skom. “True.”

With that, she trudged up the hill, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
 

slothinator

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As always, this was an excellent interlude and a detailed look at the problems and horrors at ground level.
I have a feeling that Fern’uni will require some time to be really ok but it's important work and a Norrilgan would be the best person to start it, hopefully the future will be more kind to this scarred planet.
Also.
(which actually meant allowing him, a notoriously self-important figure, to be the lead author)
It's good to see that every galaxy has valiant et al.s doing most of the research.