Rimor stopped at the outskirts of the ancient ruins of Jihad and removed his helmet.
“You sneaky bastard,” he muttered, ice crystals forming and quickly melting on the tip of his tongue as he spoke. “You probably know it’s against the law for me to set foot on a protected historical site without permission.”
He peered down at the tracks that had led him there and helped himself to a deep, refreshing breath of Northern Baltu’s crisp, frigid air.
He trudged forward, his rifle at the ready, his eyes scanning the crumbling, snow-capped walls of the ancient city . “Unfortunately for you, I’m no tourist. I have little regard for laws… or for obtaining permissions.”
Gelucera hunting, once a widely practiced tradition amongst the ancients, had been banned by Baltu’s Circle of Rule centuries prior to Rimor’s birth.
As a child, though, his father had taken him to Baltu once a year with the intention of stalking one of the vicious beasts and harvesting its tender, savory meat.
He didn’t enjoy the hunt, and he didn’t understand what drove his father to travel all the way to Baltu and risk their lives for food when anything one’s palate could possibly desire was freely available at home, on Novus.
“Nothing had to die for you to enjoy your food,” his father would invariably respond when pressed. “You don’t appreciate it because you didn’t have to earn it. No one has to earn anything nowadays, and that’s the problem. You’re soft. Pampered.”
At night, while in their shelter, warm and safe from both the cold and the Gelucera, his father would read aloud from The Tonic of Nature and wax nostalgic about days of old.
When Adelbern killed for the first time, he reawakened an unnaturally suppressed primal urge that’s hardwired into every single one of us. We’re predators by nature, son. Never forget that.
It wasn’t until many, many years later, after his father’s death, that he began to understand those words, and took up the hunt himself.
“Come on out, you clever beast,” he muttered as he made his way through the ruins.
It wasn’t about the meat, a once highly-prized delicacy amongst the ancient Colonials—he had a preserver full of the stuff at home, enough to last him the rest of his days. It was and had always been about the hunt itself; the satiation of deeply buried instincts.
He’d spent he majority of his twenties depressed and anxious, his stress levels teetering on the edge of unmanageability. When these problems inevitably revealed themselves during routine IDF psych evaluations, neural reconstruction was almost always presented as his sole option.
No way. I’m not going to let your mind butchers scramble my brain. I’ll find a way to deal with this myself.
The hunt, as it turned out, was the most ideal, albeit illegal solution to his problems that he could find. Upon returning to duty after enduring a grueling week of marching through the icy wastelands of an inhospitable world, he felt refreshed and reenergized, imbued with a renewed sense of confidence that allowed him to take on Ansharan raiders with self-righteous vigor. He understood now why his father had deemed the hunt so important.
Not even the most vile, ruthless and unscrupulous of sandbastards could match the cunning ferocity of the gelucera. Utilizing far superior firepower in defense of the outlying colony worlds against Ansharan attacks presented no challenge, but stalking a predator much more savage than man on its own turf, however, was. If he could defeat it, he could face any threat, and take on any challenge, without fear.
To his right, a clump of snow tumbled off the remnants of a mosque and fell almost silently to the ground below.
Crouching down, Rimor crept over to the mosque and pressed his back against its outer wall. He waited, and listened.
He went inside, marveling at how much of the building’s structure had remained intact after enduring both a bolligo infeststion and the ravages of time.
Must’ve been a gust of w—
The room darkened, the sunlight pouring in through the door suddenly obscured by…
Rimor fell to the ground and rolled behind a fallen pillar, bringing his rifle to bear on the doorway.
There it was, soaring through the air, claws extended, its soft white coat stained with the blood of some lesser beast.
Taking great care to avoid wasting any of its precious flesh, Rimor squeezed the trigger of his rifle and blasted a hole through the thing’s neck.
It fell to the ground upon which the Ghazi had once knelt and prayed with a heavy thud.
Before he could open his mouth to unleash a celebratory howl, the figure of a man stepped into the doorway. He was clapping. Slowly.
“You’re a hard man to find, Rimey.”
Rimor lowered his rifle as soon as he recognized the owner of the voice addressing him.
“Admiral Garren… with all due respect, sir, you’re the last person I expected to encounter out here.”
Garren removed his helmet and smiled. “At ease. Oh, don’t worry, son, you’re not in trouble. “My report won’t include where I found you. Wouldn’t look good for IDF if it got out that one of its most highly-decorated officers was discovered illegally poaching an endangered alien species. Press would have a field day.”
“Ever tried it?” asked Rimor.
“Once,” admitted Garren, gazing down upon the slain beast with disgust. “Frankly I can’t tell the difference between the cloned version and the real thing.”
“No,” said Rimor, “not the meat. The hunt. Have you ever hunted?”
Garren shook his head. “No. It’s not in my nature.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Very. Listen, Captain, as much as I love a good debate, I’m not here to make idle chitchat.”
“No sir,” said Rimor, “I expect not. Sorry, sir.”
“I said at ease, Captain. I want to speak to you man-to-man, not superior to underling. Speak as candidly as you wish.”
Rimor shrugged and nodded. “Okay. Why are you here?”
“Im not, actually. You’re speaking to a nanotar. I’m at Headquarters. Had to pull some strings to purge my visit from the relay station’s logs.”
“I suspected as much,” said Rimor. “Something about you seemed a little… off.”
Rimor disliked nanotars in the extreme. A walking, talking, temporary physical replica of himself, interacting with and even touching people? It gave him the creeps, but his was the minority opinion, so he kept his mouth shut about it.
“Anyway,” continued Garren, “I’ve got a proposition for you. It’s not compulsory, but it sure would look good on your record if you accepted.”
“Let’s hear it,” said Rimor, sitting down on a large chunk of stone and crossing his arms.
Garren hesitated, which wasn’t something he typically did.
“Well, it’s a… they’re… they’re on their way. Right now.”
“Who do you think?”
Rimor scratched his beard. “I’m sorry. I’m drawing a blank.”
Garren groaned. “They are the reason Richard Kryuss established IDF.”
Rimor’s eyebrows shot up. “You can’t be serious. Is this a joke?”
Garren’s grim expression didn’t falter. “I wish it were. Unfortunately, it seems that the threat we’ve come to regard as a hoax was real after all.”
Rimor shook his head. “No. No, I don’t believe it. That’s ridiculous. What evidence do they have to prove this story?”
“A Kadallian astronomer spotted them passing through the Kohi Nebula three weeks ago. You know, kid who does all the star music: I’ve seen the images myself, Rimey. They’re the real deal.”
Rimor scratched his stubbled chin with the back of his glove. “Well I’ll be… He was right, all this time. Think he’ll come out of hiding to rub our faces in it?”
Garren sighed impatiently and shrugged. “I don’t know. No one’s seen or heard from him in ten thousand years. I have to believe he’s dead.”
“He managed to survive for well over two hundred thousand years,” argued Rimor. “I don’t see how you arrived at that conclusion. Frankly, I think he’s probably hibernating somewhere. Turned himself off, you know? They do that sometimes. Life gets boring after sticking around that long and they just go to sleep and wake up to an entirely different existence.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday, Captain,” snapped Garren. “I know what they do. And as I said, I didn’t come here for small talk.”
“You want me to lead the fleet to intercept them,” said Rimor.
“No,” said Garren. “Not exactly. Command does want you to intercept them, but with an unarmed ISA diplomatic vessel. Show of good faith, you see.”
Rimor rose to his feet. “Good faith? How do we know how they’ll interpret that? What if being weak and helpless isn’t a virtue in their culture, and decorum demands they destroy us on the spot?“
“We don’t,” Garren admitted. “We know nothing about them. It’s a big risk, and that’s why the mission is voluntary. The fleet will be waiting behind Saxum. Hopefully, the radioactivity will mask our emissions and render us undetectable. Should you fail to halt their advance or receive credible reassurance of a lack of hostility on their part, we attack.”
“How long until they’re supposed to be here?”
“At their current velocity, ETA is estimated at approximately sixty years.”
“I see,” said Rimor. “So it’ll take us twenty or thirty years to rendezvous, and then twenty or thirty years to get back. I just got engaged, you know.”
“Yes,” said Garren. “I’m aware. I’m also aware of the fact that you never wanted to join IDF. You went for ISA, but you tested so well in combat and strategy that the Administration had no choice but to place you exactly where you are.”
“So you’ve read my psych file.” said Rimor with a shrug. “What’s that got to do with this mission?”
“This is your big chance to do what you really wanted to do with your life,” said Garren, leaning forward and grasping the other man’s arm. “The chance to command an ISA ship.”
Rimor jerked his arm away. “What I really wanted was to explore. To discover. To contribute something of significance to the human races. Not go charging off to meet a potential enemy blindfolded with my pants around my ankles.”
“That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose,” said Garren. “Consider it, though, from this perspective: you and your crew would be the first of Earth’s children ever to encounter another sentient life form. You’d be mentioned in the same breath as Armstrong, Adelbern, Tyrek and the like.”
Rimor sighed and watched the resulting cloud of exhaled breath freeze and evaporate. “If I agree to this, I’ll lose her.”
“She might wait for you.”
Rimor’s eyes flashed with anger. “That’s a hell of a thing to say. I wouldn’t want her to wait for me. What kind of selfish monster would I be, to expect a woman to endure four decades of lonely nights while I snooze worry free in stasis and never age a day?”
“Put her in stasis until you get back, Rimey, come on. You know how this works.“
Rimor shook his head. “She’d never agree to it, and I can’t blame her. They say you’re never the same after you come out of it.”
“They say. Who is they? Stop putting stock in junk science, Captain. It’s a bad look for the Force.”
“I don’t give a volcrat’s turd how I make the Force look. If you guys at the top weren’t so inept at running the show, it wouldn’t be that easy. One unhinged Captain with a penchant for bending orders shouldn’t be enough to tarnish your reputation. Or is it, perhaps, already tarnished, and men like me represent the only remaining unblemished spots?”
Garren snorted. “You’ve got some ego, haven’t you?”
“Damn right I do,” Rimor replied. “It’s what’s kept me alive.”
“You’re probably right,” Garren conceded. “I need an answer by this time tomorrow. We can’t afford to drag our feet.”
“Why not just wait for them to show up and take our chances?”
Garren smiled humorlessly. “Rimey.”
“Sorry,” said Rimor, annoyed at his suggestion being dismissed as childishly naive, “I just thought it might be possible that these guys are potential allies. You know, an alternative to shooting first and asking questions later.”
“Damn it, Rimey, you shoot down sandbastards all day long. You’re one to talk.”
“I know Ansharans. I know their intentions, and I know their capabilities. I know what they represent, and I know that I hate it. I don’t know a single thing about these beings.”
“That’s why we’re taking the diplomatic approach. Haven’t you been paying attention?”
“The defenseless approach, you mean,” countered Rimor. “I don’t want to preemptively attack them, but I also don’t want to show up unprepared. That ship needs to be carrying some kind of weaponry.”
“The decision on that front is firm. Either accept the mission or get out of the way for someone with bigger balls to take it on.”
You’re not going to goad me into calling off my plans for the next forty years by calling my bravery into question.”
“What convinced you, then?”
Rimor thought of Moyra. He thought of the way she felt… the way she smelled. He thought of the way her silky black hair glistened in the light of the sun. He thought of a lot of things. He thought about how she fulfilled him in nearly every way, except one.
“You had me at Adelbern, you smug bastard,” he said, and Garren’s lips slips spread into a wide grin.
“Report to base four as soon as possible. Garren out.”
The nanotar crumbled to dust, and faded to nothing.
Rimor looked down at the dead creature at his feet.
He knelt down, removed his glove and placed his bare palm against the Gelucera’s thick, blood-matted fur.
“Thank you,” he whispered.