Sighing and resting his head against his seat, Sands lazily shifted his gaze to the window on his right, staring out into the abyss of stars, nebulas and distant phenomena that conveyed by in a parade of cosmic display. “Like God’s fireworks” as some religious nut job had told him once during shore leave.
Fireworks. God. Sands shook his head, thinking back on the young girl handing out tracts for one of the dozens of absurd space-faiths that had grown up in the wake of human deep-space exploration decades earlier. Sands smirked over the memory of dropping the tract in a trash can seconds after the girl crammed it into his hand, listening to her curse at his back as he boarded his transport off-world.
“Reassignment?” Sands’ musings were interrupted by a seemingly distant voice.
Rolling his head back to his left, his vision landed on the girl sitting across the aisle from him in the cramped transport cabin. Blonde, maybe twenty or so, dressed in civilian clothes, a look of unaddressed inquiry on her face.
“Me? Yeah. Why?”
“Excited about a new location?” She questioned further.
“I’m used to seeing most of you BSA guys a little brighter-faced and excited about moving from place to place. So many incredible duty stations out in these reaches. You just look like it’s another day at the office.”
Sands’ puzzled expression prompted her to speak again.
“Have you been to Divinica before?” She asked, pointing to the flight plan on the monitor at the head of the cabin.
“A few times. Never stationed there, but I’ve had a few layovers.”
“Where are you coming from? Thoratix? I’ve been catching transports since we left the core systems a week ago. This is the first one that’s been a seating-only vessel. I had quarters on previous legs of this trip. Long move.” She chuckled.
“Yeah. Thoratix and I didn’t get along so well. Nice place to live, quiet neighborhoods and dorms, lots of things to do, but my chain of command had its share of…pleasantries.” Sands felt a twinge of bitterness in his voice as he thought about Ermey again.
“Were you wounded?”
Sands looked square at the girl.
“That’s a bit of a leap in assumption, isn’t it? I mean recovery isn’t the only unit tasking on that planet. What makes you think that?”
“Just a guess, really. I’m aware of the staging area for Zenith heavy transports and the ground force processing and training center there. Invariably, it seems like most troops make a stop through the recovery wards there. Seeing as how they’re the only ‘quiet neighborhoods’ around the BSA installations.” The girl explained, smirking a bit at her last comment.
“You’ve gotten around the BSA, that’s obvious. And yes, the recovery wards are quiet. Twenty-four hour quiet policy for medical reasons. I was assigned there for recovery after the Aurora Wind conflict in the Paxion cluster.” Sands looked forward, speaking almost to the back of the seat in front of him than the overly-curious girl.
The girl sucked in an audible breath of air.
“You were on the Wind?” Her curiosity was at an apex.
Sands debated saying anything else. Talking about the firefight was about the last thing he reveled in.
“I was. I sustained minor injuries and was treated on Thoratix.”
“Jesus. The Sector Six higher-ups talk about that incident all the time. Like it was the holy grail of deep-space catastrophes.” The girl shifted her weight and swung her legs into the aisle, fully facing the sergeant.
Sands braced himself. He’d been asked the same questions that were likely building in the girl’s head over and over again by the Thoratix psychology department heads.
“What happened? I mean even Sector Six didn’t get much other than an emergency broadcast and minimal details.”
“We were attacked by an unknown species. The ship was destroyed. Not much else to say.” Sands avoided anything that might prompt further inquiry.
“The Aurora Wind was attacked in the Paxion cluster. There are settlements out there.” The girl seemed to be rolling the facts over in her head.
“What’s your interest in it anyway?” Sands looked at the girl again.
“My office just got the reports via emergency channels, but it wasn’t our area of responsibility while I was in the core worlds. We asked for more information several times, but Sector Six got nothing. I’m not sure they have learned anything more after all this time, either. We weren’t even sure if there were any survivors for weeks after the reports came in. Transmissions to the region were sketchy, even for the colonies and settlements. Paxion III is the current “big” project out there, but from what I understand, their communications can go down quite a bit with the weather conditions and planetary atmospheric anomalies.”
Sands half-smiled and shook his head slightly.
“Sector Six. Your local intel geeks use similar lingo for ‘bad weather.'”
“I prefer ‘intelligence analyst.'”
“Not a fan of the intelligence community?” The girl asked.
“Not much experience with the command level. The intel geeks…”
“…analysts I’ve worked with in the past were local assets. Not like Sector Six headquarters operatives. I’ve heard of Sector Six operations, but I’ve heard of the Illuminati too.”
The girl chuckled.
“We’re not quite that cloak and dagger. The analysts I work with are similar to your local assets. We’re just regional level. Your guys were probably getting their intelligence reports from us.”
“So the Aurora Wind, huh.” She re-iterated.
Another nod from the sergeant.
Sands braced himself. The Thoratix psychology department, in previous months, had enjoyed a field day with Sands’ and Dietrich’s reports of the incident. Dozens of other patients had been returned to Thoratix for treatment as well, but none of the personnel were allowed to discuss the incident outside official channels. The Wind’s mission was classified anyway, but with the number of civilian and military authorities asking questions, the Public Affairs office had been tasked with minimizing classified information compromise to the general public.
Sands cut her off.
“You ask lots of questions, don’t you?” The irritation in his voice was apparent.
The girl blinked at Sands’ comment. She was silent for several long, uncomfortable seconds. Even Sands could feel the awkward tension from his own disrespectful tone.
“Better than making a habit of being an inconsiderate, unfriendly asshole, I suppose.” The girl sat back, picking up her personal data unit and falling punishingly silent.
Sands tilted his head a bit, looking at the girl’s downward expression, focused on her PDU.
“Look, I’m sorry. the Aurora Wind conflict was a black mark on the Borderlands Security Administration. That’s all I know. It was a shitty operation and we lost the ship. It was hard enough to talk about then, but there’s still quite a bit that isn’t high on my priority list to reminisce about.” Sands explained.
The girl looked up from her PDU.
“I wasn’t asking for your life history on the Aurora Wind, sergeant. It’s my job to understand what’s going on out here. Sector Six is your mission support if you’re an operator in this area. As a survivor, I’d hoped you might have something that could help me do my job. Clearly you don’t.” The girl’s eyes returned to her PDU.
Sands turned to his front again, staring at the back of the chair in front of him. The last half-hour of the flight to Station 156 was awkward and deafeningly silent.
CHAPTER TWO: ARRIVAL
25 AUGUST 2138, 1115 HOURS
AURORA 156 PLANETARY DEFENSE STATION
For as large an installation as Aurora 156 was, the terminal managed to be peacefully silent, even during peak travel hours. Because the station was BSA-owned, civilian passengers never came through the terminal, only BSA staff and associated personnel. A hub of eight docks, the top of the station spider-webbed into a cluster of heavy transports, Zippers, and maintenance drones at all hours. Stepping from the umbilical breezeway connecting the Orion to dock, Sands inhaled fresh-yet-recycled air, his ears welcoming the silence of the terminal. Pacing the distance across the sparsely populated commons, a glowing screen reading “Transfers” indicated his path to inprocessing. PDU in hand, he called for a speedskiff and stood silently, giving his orders a final once-over before stepping into the plexi-flex glass tunnel onto his transport.
“WRATH Headquarters, Colonel Atkins’ office.”
“Acknowledged, Sergeant Marcus Sands.” The elevator cited as it read from his PIC, hanging from his pocket.
With more than enough on his mind already, he scarcely noticed the arrival on the elevator next to him. Stepping into the transport car, his overly-zealous and chatty companion from the Orion stepped on next to him, without so much as a nod in his direction.
“Sector Six, Headquarters Office.” She said flatly.
“Acknowledged, Agent Clarissa Summers.”
“Are you always this stiff?” Sands turned and faced the girl.
“Are you always an asshole when people try to talk to you?” Clarissa fired back.
“Look I don’t know what they taught you in training, but prying into people’s lives at random isn’t exactly going to win you any friends. There’s a reason the Aurora Wind wasn’t talked about by command, and there’s a reason I don’t like to talk about it either. There’s not some big secret, some conspiracy. It’s not all about what you intel geeks don’t know.”
“Analysts!” Summers snapped.
“Agent Summers, I’m not going to argue semantics with you. The point I’m trying to make is that you chose to butt your nose in where you shouldn’t have. You want to know about the Wind, you’ve got everything you’re going to know at this point. The stories we fed the Thoratix psychology department weren’t enough for them either. You think I’m an asshole…”
The elevator stopped at Sector Six.
“Yes, I do.” She interrupted as the door opened, walking off without another word.
“Jesus Christ…” Sands shook his head, watching the agent walk into the headquarters office.
“Resuming to WRATH Headquarters, Colonel Atkins’ office.” The elevator’s eternal optimism made Sands wince.