Authors: Henry V. O'Neil
This book is dedicated to the soldiers and families of the
Second Battalion of the Twenty-ÂSecond Infantry Regiment
Tenth Mountain Division, US Army
Past, present, and future
But especially the outstanding Âpeople I knew
And the two platoons I was privileged to lead,
The Battalion 81mm Mortar Platoon 1986â1988
First Platoon, Charlie Company 1988â1989
Lead With Courage
The British soldier can stand up to anything except the British War Office.
From the Final Interrogation of Lieutenant Jander Mortas, Infantry, Human Defense Force:
INTERROGATOR: You keep referring to the others as your platoon. There were only three of them. A platoon has more than three members.
MORTAS: We were marooned together. We found water together. We stole food together, and we fought for our lives together. I was their lieutenant, and they were my platoon.
INTERROGATOR: Except for one of them.
MORTAS: No matter how many times you ask, I can only tell the truth one way. I had no idea Trent [Pause] the thing that was pretending to be Captain Amelia Trent [Pause] was an alien.
INTERROGATOR: That's convenient, considering you brought it to a Corps headquarters.
MORTAS: You know, you talk pretty tough for a guy whose face I've never seen. How many times have you questioned me? How about sitting across from me just once?
INTERROGATOR: You brought a previously unencountered alien entity to the Twelfth Corps main headquarters, an alien that had assumed the form of Captain Amelia Trent and was carrying a deadly plague virus. You had spent several days and nights in close proximity to the alien, and you still maintain you had no idea it wasn't human.
MORTAS: You Âpeople didn't know either. Not until the two of us were locked inside those decon tubes. It took whatever scan you put us through before you figured out she wasn't human, and you're surprised I didn't know she was aâÂwhat did you call her?âÂa previously unencountered alien entity.
INTERROGATOR: There were no indications of any kind that a member of your party was an infiltrator working for the enemy?
MORTAS: She saved me from a giant water snake that tried to eat me and Corporal Cranther. She took care of Gorman when his blisters were giving him holy hell, and after Cranther was killed she was my right hand the rest of the way. We wouldn't have been able to steal the ship that got us off that planet without her, and she killed one of the Sim pilots herself. [Throat clearing] And when Gorman died, just after we took off, she convinced me it wasn't my fault. [Pause] Not exactly the acts of an enemy.
INTERROGATOR: You still don't seem to understand that this alien was deceiving you the entire way, Lieutenant.
MORTAS: She was more decent to me than anyone here has been. You kept me in that tube for hours even though I was injured and starving. Asking the same questions over and over and threatening to kill me. Maybe I should wonder if
human. Any of you.
INTERROGATOR: We've given you food and medical attention. And we're still trying to understand how it was that you brought an enemy to the main headquarters of the Glory Corps, a corps headquarters that was a closely kept secret until your arrival.
MORTAS: I already answered that. Several times. Corporal Cranther knew where Glory Main was. [Pause] Except he just called it Main.
INTERROGATOR: No Spartacan Scout would have been given that location.
MORTAS: According to Cranther, Command loses track of the Spartacans all the time. He said you headquarters types basically forget you dropped them somewhere and that they have to find their own way back to safety. Knowing the location of the safe places helps, way out here.
INTERROGATOR: So the alien had nothing to do with finding the headquarters?
MORTAS: I already told you. Gorman was a mapmaker, a chartist. Cranther gave me the location of Glory Main, and I gave it to Gorman. He plugged the coordinates into the ship's system, we got off that awful planet, [Pause] then he died.
INTERROGATOR: Which left you and the alien.
MORTAS: Not for long. You incinerated her right in front of me.
INTERROGATOR: Am I detecting disapproval, Lieutenant?
MORTAS: There were four of us at the start, and I managed to get one of them to Glory Main alive. You have no idea what we went through, the hunger, the walking, the Sims hunting us, how four complete strangers became a unit. How they became my platoon. That means Trent was the last member of my platoon. And you killed her.
INTERROGATOR: She was an alien and an enemy.
MORTAS: I didn't know that. Don't you get it? I thought she was Captain Amelia Trent, a Force psychoanalyst. I promised her I'd get her off that planet, that I'd get her to safety. I did it, too. And then I watched you pussies kill her by remote control, trapped in that tube. You killed the only remaining member of my platoon. You murdered my platoon.
INTERROGATOR: You make no sense at all, Mortas.
MORTAS: You murdered my platoon.
End of transcription
ieutenant Jander Mortas gave off a small, forced grunt of exertion as he pushed his chest away from the floor. Completing the last push-Âup in this particular set, he dropped to the cold surface with a long exhalation. He'd been alternating different kinds of push-Âups with an assortment of abdominal exercises, a workout designed for confined spaces like the one he now occupied. The cadre at Officer Basic had referred to this as a prison camp workout, but Mortas doubted they'd expected him to be practicing it in a Human Defense Force lockup.
His current quarters were larger than his first cell had been, but that wasn't saying much. The bunk in the other lockup had been too short to accommodate his six-Âfoot frame, a mattressless sheet of metal so hard that he might as well have been sleeping on the floor. That cell had been kept dark most of the time, but Mortas believed he'd spent only a Âcouple of days there.
Mortas was uncertain of the time frame because he'd awakened in his current accommodations with no idea how he got there. The dryness of his mouth and the fuzziness of his vision suggested he'd been drugged, and he suspected he'd been transported off the giant space rock that concealed the main headquarters of the Twelfth (“Glory”) Corps of the Human Defense Force. Glory Main was located a fantastic distance from Earth in a vast region of space known simply as the war zone, and he'd initially been carried there by mankind's greatest technological achievement. Knowing how far the Step had already brought him, Mortas feared it could have been used to transport him an even greater distance.
In other words, he could literally be anywhere.
Though concerned that his captors intended to make good on their threat never to reveal that he'd returned to Force control alive, he was mildly encouraged by the way his surroundings had improved. The bunk in the new cell was long enough to stretch out on, and it even had a thin foam mattress and a blanket. He could take five long strides from the back wall before reaching the door, which was outfitted with hatches for the delivery of food and commands. Mortas could also turn the lights on and off, although he was sure that his guardsâÂa trio of military policemen who'd been his only human contact since his detentionâÂcould override his decision if they wished. So far they'd shown no desire to interact with him beyond the most basic requirements of their job, and he took their refusal to engage in conversation as a potentially ominous sign.
After all, they knew who Mortas was. Which meant they knew who his father was. And that meant they knew someone was going to pay a heavy penalty for this mistreatment if he was ever released. It was disconcerting to recognize that their behavior was exactly what Mortas would have expected from Âpeople who intended to claim never to have seen him.
Coming to a sitting position, Mortas rotated his left shoulder as if trying to see if it still worked. He'd injured it while stealing the ship that had taken him and TrentâÂ
the alien impersonating Trent
âÂto Glory Main, but it seemed fully healed. He grimaced slightly at the memory, the typhoon slap of wind that had tossed him through the air, the heat from the explosion, the pain when he'd landed on the joint. The terror and loss he'd felt upon rising, with flaming debris raining down around him in the darkness, seeing Trent and Gorman both felled by the blast that he'd set off as a distraction.
Even now, knowing that Trent had not been Trent, he cringed at the mental image of what his diversion had done to the two of them. Gorman had already been badly injured, but the blast had peppered him with shrapnel, and Mortas believed that was what had ultimately killed him.
The alien pretending to be Trent had been impaled by a flying splinter the size of a javelin, and if it had actually been Amelia Trent, she would have died on the spot. Instead it had pulled the spear from its side, claiming the wound was minor, and got them up and moving again, chasing the ship they were going to hijack.
No matter how hard Mortas tried, it was impossible not to think of Trent and Gorman and Cranther in the long hours he now spent by himself. All of the terrible things they'd been through, how hard they'd fought to survive, and that he alone had lived. Although it felt like an extreme betrayal, Mortas had good reason to limit the recollections. He'd been questioned several times by the mocking, disembodied voice, and it was absolutely vital to stick to the story as he'd first told it. He hadn't exactly lied yet, and even suspected that the voice didn't know the right questions, but still it would have been far too easy to slip up.
Mortas stood and began to jog in place, lightly because he was barefoot. He'd been given a pair of paper slippers that he wore when taken from the cell and when sleeping, but they were too slippery for the room's smooth floor. His feet were still heavily callused from the days and nights of walking on the planet where they'd been marooned, which suggested that his captivity could be measured in days.
He'd kept two crucial facts from his questioner so far, and was certain his fate would be sealed if either of them was uncovered. One secret would merely get him executed, while the other would probably get him scanned, examined, tortured, and then dissected.
Now he mentally reviewed the most important things to remember if he wanted to keep the voice from discovering his secrets. The first one was simple enough, the omission of the fact that he and the others had encountered Force personnel on the enemy-Âcolonized planet. Those men had been the remnants of an assault battalion that had been defeated within minutes of arrival on the planet's surface, their armored vehicles bogged down by a new enemy weapon that turned solid ground into mud.
The only officer in that ragtag bunch had been an insane major named Shalley, a staff guy who'd wanted to use Mortas and his Âpeople as cannon fodder. They'd been saved from that fate by a sudden enemy attack on the ravine where Shalley and his Âpeople had been hiding, but Cranther had been mortally wounded during their escape. Mortas had altered the story so that the veteran scout had died in a chance encounter with the enemy. It had been hard to do that because Cranther had received his death wound after pulling Mortas out of the doomed fight in the choked ravine, when they had both been running away. He had carried the dying man a great distance after that, believing the two of them were alone.
Major Shalley had somehow survived, pursuing Mortas in the belief that he and the other maroons had brought the enemy to the unit's hiding place. Mortas could still see the maw of the Scorpion rifle pointed at his chest, enemy flares lighting up the night sky behind him, Shalley babbling his accusations. Cranther pouncing on the man, killing him with his fighting knife, but also ripping open his earlier wound and speeding his own demise. Mortas squeezed his eyes shut, blocking the tears that threatened to overflow, sure that he was under constant surveillance in the cell.
In that self-Âimposed darkness, Mortas remembered how Major Shalley had just started saying something about Trent when Cranther had killed him. It had been an accusation that Mortas now understood, that the female officer had spoken directly into the major's mind when they'd been arguing back in the ravine. Shalley had been wrong to suspect that Mortas had led the enemy to his position, but he'd turned out to be right about Trent's superhuman ability.
Mortas shuddered at the second secret, the one he was sure would get him killed with no word to his father that he'd been recovered alive. The thing masquerading as Trent had been identified as an alien while trapped in a decontamination tube at Glory Main. Mortas had been locked in a duplicate tube only a few feet away, confused by the flashing lights and blaring alarms. The alien had locked eyes with him, knowing it was doomed, and somehow communicated directly into his brain just as Major Shalley had said.
In only a few seconds, it had explained that the whole thingâÂthe crash landing on the barren planet, the seemingly random set of skills possessed by each of the four maroons, even Mortas's status as a brand-Ânew lieutenantâÂhad been part of an elaborate ruse to get the alien inside a major headquarters.
Collapsing under the mental assault, Mortas had seen images that only the alien could have witnessed. His own face, unconscious inside a transit tube on the ship that had been transporting him to his first combat assignment. Sedated for the multi-ÂStep journey and unaware that he'd been captured. Searing scenes of the torture the real Amelia Trent had undergone while the alien had penetrated her psyche in order to replace her. How the real Trent had fought the alien until it killed her. How the thing, trapped in the decontamination tube and knowing that its time was up, had asked Mortas to cry over it as he'd done for Cranther and Gorman.
Mortas stopped jogging, surprised to be so winded and not willing to acknowledge that his elevated heart rate came from the dreadful recollection. From reliving that experience and the sensation of having had his mind completely taken over. From the certainty that he would never be released if his captors ever even suspected the truth of what had passed between him and the alien.
As he'd done so many times before, when the images the thing had drilled into his mind jumped into his awareness, Mortas looked around the bare walls in search of something, anything, to occupy his attention.