Out of the Darkness – Act I

orphan-squadronIn the thirty-fifth century, the military breeds identical twins to serve as disposable space warriors. When a twin is killed in combat, the survivor is shipped off to a labor colony — or worse. They call these forgotten soldiers “orphans.”

But one man believes these discarded and broken men still have a purpose. Against orders, he has recruited the downtrodden . . . the forgotten . . . the hopeless . . . to fight again. And to lead them, he has chosen a legendary veteran who has vowed to kill no more.

With nothing left to lose, they take the missions that no one else wants — or dares. They are . . . the Orphan Squadron.

# # #

Rendios. Where some people go when they want to be forgotten. And where the rest end up when the Conglomerate wants to forget about them.

The main spaceport is the largest city on Rendios, only because no one wants to venture too far away from the steady supply of alcohol and psychotropics that flows through there. The city doesn’t even have a name; everyone just calls it “Port” — when they bother to call it anything at all. Port is squalid, dark, and in a state of perpetual collapse. Streets are little more than clearings between piles of debris, often marked by fire pits that burn constantly through the bleak nights and grim days, fueled by the bottomless reservoirs of petrochemicals that lie just beneath the planet’s greasy surface.

Down one of those streets, a tall, bald, muscular man strode through a crowd of lingering, aimless people whose clothes and skin had become permanently stained in the same drab earthtones as their surroundings. His clean-shaven head, his epauletted waistcoat and camouflaged cargo pants, and his self-assured stride signaled to the others that not only was he a serving military officer and newly arrived, but also that he wasn’t to be trifled with. 

He approached one of the younger men, seemingly oblivious to the suspicious glances being cast at his every move. In response to a question from the stranger, the man pointed resignedly down a side alley and shambled mutely on his way. The stranger nodded his thanks and continued on, turning the way the man had just indicated.

At the end of the alley squatted a large shack surrounded by personal vehicles of all sorts — motorcycles converted to run on the local petro-brew, surplus military uni-trucks fitted with oversize tires, and even a couple of ancient jet skimmers. A sign above the shack’s front door spelled out “THE GENE POOL.” The man walked confidently through the tangle of parked vehicles and pushed his way through the saloon-style doors. No one paid attention to the man, and he in turn paid attention to no one as he threaded his way to the bar and caught the bartender’s eye.

“I’m looking for Jig Cypress,” the man shouted over the din.

The bartender looked around the room and jutted his chin wordlessly over the man’s shoulder. The man turned around, spotting his objective at a barstool against the far wall, under a spluttering neon logo for some long-defunct beer brand. The man nodded at the bartender and headed over to the wall. Cypress turned as the man noisily dragged the empty barstool next to him and sat on it.

“Colonel Brookbine,” Cypress said after a moment of puzzlement, his icy blue eyes widening in recognition. “Who did you cross to end up here?”

Brookbine chuckled. “Nice to see you, Jig. I’m actually here by choice.”

Cypress gave a quick, derisive laugh. “You don’t strike me as the suicidal type.”

Brookbine let that pass. “I’m here on business.”

Cypress took a long pull from his mug, never taking his eyes off Brookbine. “What kind of business?” he finally asked.

“Recruiting.”

Cypress’ laugh was a combination of surprise and ruefulness. He slammed his muscular arm down on the narrow counter, jostling his stein. “Is that right?”

Brookbine nodded, his face a mask of seriousness. “I need the best pilots for a new squadron.”

Cypress picked up his stein and waved it around the smoke-filled room. “Look around, Colonel. You see any pilots here? Because I sure don’t.” He took another swig. “Just orphans,” he muttered into his stein.

Brookbine leaned close. “Look. I know the Conglomerate’s official line. ‘It’s more cost-effective to grow a new pair of fighters than to keep feeding a veteran who has lost his twin.’ I hear it all the time. It’s a waste of manpower and experience, neither of which we can afford at this stage of the war. But they won’t listen to me.”

Now it was Cypress’ turn to lean in close, fixing Brookbine with a piercing, knowing gaze. “This business you’re here on,” he said. “It’s not exactly official business, is it?”

Brookbine stared at his stein.

When Cypress spoke again, his voice was no longer that of a bellicose drunk. “You of all people know that genetic twins like me are bred to fight because we have a subconscious connection to each other. It’s like we are of a single mind. We can react to a threat dozens of times faster than you naturals. When we lose our twin, we don’t have that same connection anymore.”

Brookbine nodded. “But you do have the training, the experience, and the skills that can only come from a decade or more of front-line combat experience.”

“We’re also alone,” Cypress said, almost in a whisper. “Alone in a way that you naturals could never possibly understand.”

To that, Brookbine could only nod in sympathy. In order to prevent Cypress from sinking into despair, he changed direction.

“Look, just hear me out, OK? Meet me here tomorrow morning at zero-eight-hundred.”

“Why not just tell me now?”

“Because I’m going to ask your old buddy Able Sequoia to join us.”

Cypress slammed his stein on the counter, his eyes widening in an instinctive, wordless rage.

“Now hear me out…”

“Able Sequoia is a traitor!” Cypress bellowed, the energy nearly knocking Brookbine off his stool. “He got most of his squadron killed on Shalamand! And for what?

“You weren’t there!” Brookbine shouted back, jabbing his finger into Cypress’ massive chest before turning it on himself. “I was! And if that’s what you think happened, you have it all wrong. All of you.” He met Cypress’ glare, neither of them blinking.

“You heard that he renounced killing, right?” Cypress sneered. “Man’s bred to be a killer, then he gives it up. Not the kind of man you want leading a combat squadron, Colonel. Sounds pretty broken to me.”

“You and I both know he was the best pilot in the Conglomerate.”

“That was before he got his twin Baker and all his squadron mates killed.”

“I told you, that’s not what happened!”

“Yeah, well, pardon me if I’m having a little trouble believing you. Colonel.”

“What you choose to believe or not is none of my business. But finding Able Sequoia is. I’ve been asking around ever since I got here, but everyone I ask reacts like you did just now. And that’s not very helpful.” He said that last sentence with a rueful smile.

Slowly, Cypress defused from his confrontation. “He lives somewhere in the forest,” he said with weariness. “The wilderness to the west of Port. Spends all his time doing martial arts or something. No one talks to him when he comes into town, and he finally stopped trying to talk to anyone else. Just comes, gets supplies, and goes away.” Like he should, he telegraphed.

“Where?”

“About five pops due west. Just follow the Vertigon trail, then left when you get to the sulfur lake.”

Brookbine stood. “Thanks, Jig. It’s good to see you again.”

Cypress snorted. “Wish I could say the same.” He shrugged. “Circumstances, is all.”

Brookbine nodded sympathetically and extended his hand, which after a moment’s hesitation Cypress shook. “Think about it, will you? I could really use your help. I hear tell that everyone here respects you.”

“No promises.”

“That’s better than an outright ‘no,'” replied Brookbine with a faint smile. He slapped Brookbine on the shoulder and left. “Tomorrow at zero-eight-hundred.”

Jig Cypress took a long pull on his beer as he watched his former commanding officer disappear into the smoke and the crowd. Memories of their time in the field came back to him. Memories of the death of his twin, Item, and how Brookbine had talked him off the ledge following that final mission. Only for Cypress to be shipped off to Rendios without Brookbine’s knowledge. It was too much to hope that Brookbine was here again to offer him a new life. Every orphan knew that when their twin died, their own life was as good as over.

Or maybe not. 

Cypress shook his head. Of course this would never work. The Conglomerate would never allow it. Damn Colonel Brookbine for holding out a straw for him to clutch at. Because Brookbine knew that, no matter what else he felt, he probably would.

# # #

Colonel Brookbine picked his way carefully along the Vertigon Trail that led away from Port, in the direction of the rising pale-green sun on the backward-rotating world. The trail was too dangerous to walk at night. Not that it was safer during the day, but at least in the light you could see the threats coming.

The denizens of Rendios used the rough-hewn trail to reach the Vertigon methane fields and their abundant free fuel. Every few minutes, Brookbine passed another person going in the opposite direction, carrying or rolling every variation of pressure vessel imaginable. Some of the people he even recognized from past campaigns, but they stared right through Brookbine as they passed, lost in their own personal hells.

When Brookbine’s tracker alerted him that he had reached the five-pop mark, he began scrutinizing the dense thickets of tall, ancient trees for a path that would indicate the trail to Able Sequoia’s dwelling. Several hundred yards down the road, he spotted a break in the trees and a lightly worn path. Whoever made the trail tried hard to give it the appearance of a natural break in the tree line; Brookbine smiled at the obvious signs — to his experienced eyes, anyway — of a soldier trying hard to avoid being seen.

Finding no signs of either booby traps or surveillance devices, Brookbine stepped on the side trail and was quickly swallowed up by the darkness.

Careful to make no sound, Brookbine stepped around fallen branches and large seed pods that resembled fist-size pistachio shells as he followed the meandering trail. About a half-pop down the trail, Brookbine noticed the surroundings beginning to lighten up, and soon he found himself in a man-made clearing of treeless ground covered in knee-high grass that undulated gently in the refreshing breeze.

As he stood on the edge of the sunny field to cool himself from the steamy forest and looked around, Brookbine noticed an old heavy-duty cargo supply container near the center of the field. Like the path, the placement of the large metal box was meant to appear random, as if it had merely fallen off the loading deck of a passing freight shuttle. Brookbine nodded, confident he had found his destination, and set off toward the container.

As Brookbine came around to the side of the cargo container in search of the access hatch, he saw the back of a man sitting cross-legged in front of a fire pit. Even without seeing his face, Brookbine knew that this still, poised figure was the legendary Able Sequoia. Unlike many of the former soldiers and pilots that Brookbine had seen in Port, Sequoia looked like he was still in fighting shape; the dark-skinned arms emerging from the tattered combat vest were still muscular, and his head was still shaved bald, as he had always preferred.

“What are you doing here?” a deep, resonant voice said with infinite calmness. Sequoia didn’t even turn around to confront the intruder.

“I came to see an old friend,” replied Brookbine without missing a beat, not surprised that his comrade’s super-sensitive hearing was as good as ever.

In a smooth, calm motion, Sequoia stood and turned to face the intruder. Instinctively, he snapped to attention and saluted. “Colonel Brookbine, sir.”

Brookbine waved Sequoia’s arm down. “None of that. We’re off-duty.” He walked confidently toward Sequoia and extended his hand. “How are you, Able?”

Sequoia hesitated for a moment before accepting the handshake with a grateful grip. “It’s been a long time since anyone has offered to shake my hand, sir.”

“Sorry about that.”

“I don’t blame them,” Sequoia said with a hint of resignation. “I’ve heard the stories they tell about me. I’d feel the same way.”

He gestured in an arc, encompassing the cargo pod, fire pit, and field. “I’m sorry I don’t have much to offer in the way of hospitality. Don’t get many visitors, you know. Come on in, I have chairs inside.” Sequoia ushered Brookbine through the pod’s access hatch.

The pod was furnished with remnants and jury-rigged equipment, including an air conditioner rigged from a life-support system scrounged from a Type 4 fighter and fed by a knot of flex hose. Scavenged illuminating panels provided the light. Sequoia scrounged up two crates from a corner and offered one to Brookbine. The two men regarded each other in silence across a table made from an upside-down landing gear assembly. 

“I’ll get right to it,” Brookbine finally said, breaking the tense silence. “I’m here to offer you a squadron command.”

Sequoia’s neutral expression cracked in surprise, accompanied by a sharp exhalation. His dark eyes betrayed the confusion and disbelief he was suddenly feeling.

“I know it goes against everything,” Brookbine conceded. “But hear me out . . . ”

“No,” Sequoia said, emphatically, before adding, “. . . sir. I’m . . . I’m done, don’t you get it?” Brookbine could see Sequoia tensing up, the pent-up pain of the past two years flash-boiling to the surface again. “In case you haven’t heard, sir, I took a vow to never kill again. And now the Conglomerate wants me to fight for them again?”

“Not the Conglomerate,” Brookbine said. “Me.”

Sequoia stared at Brookbine in confusion.

# # #

Stay tuned for Act II of Orphan Squadron: Out of the Darkness, right after these messages!

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