Clara furrowed her brow in thought. They needed to return to Penan if they had any chance of getting a result from the EU-2 investigation. Their best bet would be to get in contact with Sparek’s CO, Lieutenant General Teach, whose support would be vital in getting them back to Penan. Teach, however, was notoriously hard to get hold of. In fact, during one of their many attempts to contact him they had learnt that he wasn’t in office for a while. Thus the goose chase began. Teach’s reputation preceded him.
Clara glanced over to Sparek. Hopefully; they wouldn’t be heading back to medbay any time soon. In her estimation of the man, Voldojo was dangerous – to dislike someone so intensely and then completely cease showing the fact was altogether suspicious. Being the 9th’s chief medic made him not only hazardous, but entirely capable of causing serious damage should something unmentionable occur. Clara had felt it in everyone’s best interest to regard him with wariness.
As the pair exited into the court, the captain raised her hand against the flood light’s glare. The sky above seemed clear but the air was distinctly sour, causing Clara’s nose to crease in distaste. They must be upwind from Penan. She could only guess at the state of the seaside town.
The mobile comms-unit was fairly central and regularly used but recently it’d been monopolised by their attempts at nailing down the elusive Lieutenant General. They’d spent the majority of the last few day cycles in and out of the outdated unit attempting contact, to no avail, and Clara was sick of the place. The electro-static from the badly maintained mechanisms could knock her sick and the whole process was grossly inefficient. As such she generally stayed away and found something else to do while Sparek engaged with the attempts.
There were little words exchanged while the colonel hurried to discover the revelation of a message. Sparek waved his hand before the sensor aside the entrance and it chugged aside with an audible grind. The compartmentalised structure took up no more room than a civilian habitat house. Clara doubted that this was in any better condition than any homestead at this point in the war though.
“Did you hear the message?” he asked.
“Any idea what it’s about? Was it Teach?”
“No idea. I came to get you as soon as it came through. Brennan must have had it delivered straight to you. There was a runner fidgeting at your office when I got there.”
Brennan was a woman who’d been part of the Earth Union military for only a matter of months. She came from a satellite above Callisto, as Clara and Sparek had learned from their conversations, and she’d been placed in an engineering company not long after her recruitment. As it came to be, Brennan was later bumped around a few other outfits, including an engineer’s regiment that she’d since forgotten the name of, but came to rest in the Union Correspondence & Communications branches.
Apparently, from her file, Clara had found she was ‘brilliant’ with technology and ‘showed potential’; as if Clara wasn’t skeptical of the filing system already. It was Brennan’s job to keep the comm-puters running and stopping the holography node from shutting down mid-message, or at least try to.
Walking into the C&C unit revealed nothing new to the captain, Panelling had been removed and not replaced whilst wires were naked bundles hanging loose. This trend continued throughout the stubby room in which leaves had lounged themselves on the floor near the entrance in non-discreet lumps. Some, but not many, gathered themselves into the reception desk’s corners just a few steps away.
The colonel wiped his boots on the small threshold. Considering that the reception room was littered with mess, Clara didn’t see the point of it.
There was nobody here. He rapped his fist across the steel desk’s frame.
“Brennan didn’t say anything about just going in?”
“She said nothing,” replied Clara. Sparek raised an eyebrow. “She sent a runner to your billet, asking for you.” She corrected herself upon seeing his curious face: “your office.” Sparek knew that he didn’t quite have an office here. It was a bedroll on a frame behind a commandeered desk with various storage units scattered around the room.
When the pair came to this mobile surgical hospital the colonel was given his own room and, somehow, had acquired a desk the next day. He never found out where it came from but every now and then he’d take note of how the orderlies his adjutant a nervously wide berth. He caught on quickly.
Sparek rapped his knuckles against the desk again. Growing impatient at the absence of response, he lurched himself over the counter, looking around the other side. He shouted Brennan’s name before swearing at the silence that followed.
Beyond the booth and the threshold of a stalled automatic door was the flashing of lights. No sound. Just light; the blue and green flashing between a constant orange glow.
Clara grew impatient, stepping to the other side of the booth. Sparek made his way past her and stuck his head around into the next room.
Inside, nestled amongst the messy sinew of wires and frames, was a cone of light, made of hundreds of luminescent globes and sparks that floated in and out of each other. The fuzzing holographic lights met from the corners of the apparatus to create a distinct cuboid of various images. The room was silent but for the grumbling hum of the dusty hardware.
Facing away from him and leaning in her seat was Antonia Brennan. Sparek saw why there was no noise – and why Brennan hadn’t heard. The headset sat huge on her head, her brow furrowed in concentration. She leant further forward. Heavy plastic gauntlets with wires both thick and thin snaked from the back of the knuckles. Brennan had her hands in the air and her fingers stretched out as she manipulated the items in the holograph field; various lengths of differently coloured cuboids lined up in rows along long strips of lines whilst various tabs floated unused in a cluster above them. Brennan’s hands flicked about before what looked like a heart monitor to Clara came to life with violent pulses of spikes. The engineer’s head began to move, bobbing up and down like a bird.
Clara and Sparek shared a look before Clara made a move. She strode over with impatience and kicked the skeleton of the harddrive that Brennan was sitting on. With a shrill shriek she started violently – her eyes grew large and her hands ripped the headset from her head, dragging some of the brown mess of hair with the frame. She stood up, barely taller than Clara’s collar, and stumbled back before she realised just who it was who’d startled her. She looked up to the impatient captain and looked around to see Sparek. Her face grew red and she couldn’t look Clara in the eye. Brennan could feel the gauntlets weighing down at her hands.
“The message,” demanded Clara. Brennan looked to her, still red, and mumbled to herself.
Sparek motioned to speak. “If there is a message from Teach then I need hear it.”
“Not that General, sir,” said Brennan. “Acker. Technically. It’s from the desk of Major General Acker.”
Sparek frowned. He glanced to Clara before looking to Brennan again, who shifted her look from Clara to Sparek for the second time.
“What’re you waiting for? Put it up,” he ordered. Clara noted that he was getting impatient. He had been waiting for days for a reply and now that he has a message it’s not even from Teach. Brennan followed up with fidgeting. With both hands she thumbed her index fingers with the control gloves and the pillar of light at the holograph receded away. It was replaced quickly as the engineer moved her hands in mid-air, directly manipulating the graphics that appeared soon after. A glowing orange option was selected and that in turn was replaced by a silhouette of a figure, completely inanimate save for the rotation of his person. He was a humanoid consisting of blocked pixels of multiple, deranged and displaced colours.
“Beginning decryption.” Another moment passed as Brennan typed at the hologram console. “Colonel, I need your authorisation codes,” she said, and nodded at the console at the holograph unit.
Sparek ran his fingers over the keyboard, relatively quickly inputting the long coding necessary for the final phases of Brenner’s decryption. He had done this for what felt like a hundred times in the past few days, just sending out messages and trying to get in contact with his superior officer.
The pixels unfolded and shrank away, forming what they were hiding from the room before.
What stood there in greater definition now was a man with mouse-like features. Delicate glasses framed his doughy eyes that sat beneath thinning brown hair. It was plain to everyone in the room that this was not Lieutenant General Teach. The figure who stood there wore a uniform that was slightly spoiled in colour from the sickly green hue of the holograph lighting, but it was red in its coat and black in trouser.
Brennan questioned it. “This is Major General Acker?”
“No,” said Clara.
“He’s Espionage Unit,” interjected Sparek, surprised at the uniform. “He’s from ODIN.” He rubbed his jaw “Scorched earth, what the is this?” His sudden, raised voice made Brennan flinch. Clara glanced sideways at her and returned Brennan’s attention to the holograph. “Play the message, Brennan. I’ve not waited a week cycle for more silence.” Sparek hadn’t been this irritated for a while. His impatience and irritation impulsively drove him to pacing.
Clara watched him. He would sometimes get this agitated and his mood would swing from his usual grin. For day cycles he had waited for some kind of contact and now that it’s here it’s from the adjutant of a completely different commanding officer. A member of Office of Defence Intelligence Network no less, and that meant all the political danger on Demeter. Sparek had dealings with them in the past and knew that these were a major power behind the scenes in the Earth Union military. Their Espionage Units reached all along known space, even across the colonies, so it’s said.
She continued to watch him when the lights changed the colour on their faces. The agent was swung around to face Sparek with a twist of Brennan’s plastic hands and the message began to play. It wasn’t pre-recorded visuals – the figure had taken the time to address the colonel properly. When he spoke the figure moved with the audio and his speech patterns matched his movements.
“For the attention of Colonel Sparek Nifelheim, Commanding Officer of the 9th Marines of the Earth Union Navy, temporarily under the command of the Commanding Officer of the South Thule theatre of war. This is a message from the desk of Major General Acker, newly appointed to the position of Commanding Officer of the aforementioned theatre.” The eyes looked down and through Sparek, as if talking through him, but the message’s sender spoke to the recording system itself, addressing his body language at the medium before him.
So Teach isn’t the CO anymore, Sparek thought. That might actually explain the lack of communications but all information available on the theatre should have been transferred to this Acker. So too should the contact of officers in the division. It didn’t seem to add up.
“Who are you though?” The question was voiced by Sparek, beneath his breath, reflecting what the three were thinking. He said it aloud but didn’t expect a reply.
The message began. “Colonel Nifelheim of the Ninth Marines, I am Captain Birch, adviser to Major General Acker, commanding officer of the South Thule theatre of war.” Clara watched Sparek scowl, but she saw the way that his body was angled towards the holograph message – he was engaged with this new information. “I am messaging you to congratulate you on your success with Operation Elanor. I am pleased to hear that you met mission parameters with no fatalities.”
Clara was still watching Sparek’s face. She looked back to Acker’s green face just before Sparek voiced. “I didn’t do it to please you,” he said, speaking to the recording.
“No, I know. You did it under orders. Earth forbid that you do anything for somebody out of your own free will,” replied Acker. To this Sparek was clearly surprised. He instinctively stood up after finally leaning on a railing, eyes wide with the same shock that Clara had shown too.
Brenner had it wrong! Incompetent girl, Clara thought, that she couldn’t tell the difference between a recorded message and a real-time signal. Sparek looked to the holograph, expecting more from Birch.
“I thought it more prudent to give you the message in person, colonel.” Birch’s hand disappeared out of the recording’s view, typing at something. “More or less.”
Sparek looked over to Brenner, not bothering to disguise the irritation she’d caused him in her mistake. Looking back to Birch. “Thank you, Captain,” he stated. “I would have appreciated a straight message though.”
“I wouldn’t dare miss the chance to speak to the commanding officer of the Marines attached to South Thule. I wanted to speak to you properly. We may not get another chance like this.” Which was true, to Birch. He wanted to gauge Sparek’s character without looking at his file – a file which was usually riddled with black ink that covered detail upon detail, but not so with Major General Acker’s permissions. The same went for Clara, whom he took some few moments to regard whilst speaking to Sparek.
Sparek was far from impressed but still on guard; Espionage operatives have three angles going at any time, he thought.
“You aren’t just congratulating me,” he said. “What’s the other reason for the communicat?”
“An invitation,” levelled Birch.
“I didn’t wait a week for an invitation to a party. I need orders.” His hands gestured as he said “the regiment needs orders. We’re being wasted.”
“And you’ll get them.” Birch’s face was an unreadable measure. This is Sparek under some stress. He wondered what the colonel was like when outwardly attacked. His file could attest to that at the very least. What is he like when he’s content? He put that thought to the back of his mind and continued, seeing the stare on Clara’s face. She was clearly in contempt of him already and that itself was more interesting than what he was tugging on with the colonel.
“An invitation to what?”
Sparek hid the full extent of his agitation this time, growing in size as it was. “The Mandate is sowing unrest and remnant pockets of resistance from Penan have taken guerilla warfare, whilst terrorist attacks continue on civilians all over Demeter and you want what? Dinner!”
Birch chewed the inside of his cheek, measuring his response, and said “Major General Acker wishes to speak to each of the regimental commanders under his command in order to establish relations outside of a name on order packets. He’s hoping to build rapport with you and others.”
“The truth at last,” said Sparek. One of them, he thought. To Sparek’s surprise Birch grinned.
It was a bold remark to make; as Birch expected, Sparek didn’t disappoint him after all.
“A truth, Colonel Sparek.” He paused. “The major general will expect to see you tomorrow evening, colonel. I trust you know what to wear. The address is attached in a separate file for security purposes.” He looked at Brenner, who shifted herself in her seat nervously. “I trust that you can decode that?” At first it was a sarcastic insult to her incompetence so far but what he said to her next was surprising. “You’re talented. You may go far if you can stay away from your music for long enough.”
Sparek ignored this. He watched Birch go on.
“Sparek?” Birch asked for his attention. “Congratulations on the success of Operation Elanor. I look forward to speaking with you in person.”
Sparek levelled with him. “It wasn’t a complete success. I’m sure that you’ve read about the death of Reinhardt Blake.”
Birch echoed the words that Acker spoke just days before. “A parameter that wasn’t possible considering the 9th’s accounts of how he was found. It wasn’t a complete success but the Major General believes that it wasn’t at the fault of the 9th.” He blinked, letting that sink in. Sparek wasn’t sure that it was meant to appease him. He recalled in detail the sick form of Blake, crucified to the wall of the courtroom. “Congratulations on your relative success, colonel.” He paused again. “We will see you soon enough. Good day,” he said, and reached out of shot. His form evaporated into a digital mist and the communication was severed. Brennan’s automatic scrambling followed.
Sparek took a deep breath. He turned to Clara who gave him a sympathetic smile. “That went well,” he said. “Didn’t it?”
Clara ordered Brenner to open the attached file. They turned at the holograph as it cycled itself into legible words and sentences. The colonel hummed at what he saw. The detail didn’t surprise him.
That name almost echoed in the room. A dozen thoughts flashed themselves in Sparek’s mind. He may be able to investigate on Jin’s information sooner than he’d thought. He briefly thought about what his friend in the 502nd had said before.
+ + +
– by Kier Sparey
© Kier Sparey 2015