“Anything that denotes the colour of blood we consider unsacred. Nobody wears or paints anything red.”
Macready laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Should’ve left me on the ship, Commander. Apparently I’m bad luck.”
Alison grinned and opened her mouth to retort, but before she could make a sound a low rumble jarred the floor. The blue glow of the holographs flickered and jumped, and a yellow light switched on overhead.
“What was that?” Alison asked.
M’Jin’s brows furrowed even deeper and she studied the yellow glow for a long moment.
“What does the light mean?” Macready said. He was losing patience; Alison could hear it in his voice.
“Yellow is for a storm that has breached the integrity of the city’s barriers,” she said, shaking her head. “But there was no warning of a storm that bad today and we were not warned of any sort of test.”
“What could—” But before she could finish her thought, static issued through the speaker in her ear, followed by a male voice she recognized.
“Commander, do you read me?”
“We’ve got a problem.”
Alison touched a hand to her ear, hating the flimsy comm system there. The setup in their helmets was infinitely more sophisticated. “What is it?”
“—yellow lights everywhere,” Hawthorne said, voice crackling in and out of the static. “M’Kra—ey say it’s a shield breach, but the storm isn’t—”
“Lieutenant? Sean, I can’t hear you.” Alison took a step toward the door, cursing Sarkoth’s weather and their awkward position underground. How were they supposed to communicate in a situation like this when everything was conspiring against their dated equipment? “Sean, talk to me.” She took another step toward the door, glaring at the sterile white floor. It had been a near thing, but Sarkoth was officially on the list of planets she hated, up there between Jupiter and Cernunnos. “Christ, what a miserable place,” she growled, letting her hand fall to her side.
“We thought the same, Commander Vaughn.” A shadow darkened the doorway, and she looked up just in time to see the dark barrel of a rifle—a fucking Concord-issue IR-90 rifle—staring her in the face.
Something thudded and screamed behind her, and the library echoed with Macready’s warning. In a matter of seconds, Alison was on the ground, wincing as the hard edges of her exoskeleton jabbed her ribs, and the report of the gun drowned out all other sounds. She heard the boom of it as the trigger was pulled and the whoosh as the incendiary rounds burst and engulfed their target in flames, and then she heard nothing but the echo of a whine in her ears.
The whole world shook once more. Alison rolled onto her side and hauled herself to her feet, then spun and ducked behind one of the archive shelves, her hand on the pistol at her hip. The buzz in her head was beginning to fade.
Alison winced as another round was fired and someone else screamed. At least this shot wasn’t incendiary. “Get the civilians to safety,” she ordered, and took another step back. Voices rumbled in a hum of unintelligible words and the shots cooled, at least for the moment.
She stared up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. If there really was a god, she needed help now. She checked her pistol once more, certain that its clip was indeed full, the stepped out of the relative safety of the shelf.
Three rifles turned on her and as she raised her arms above her head she realized with a twinge of dismay that all three were commissioned by the Concord Military. The coveted IR-90, a CMD-Jaeger, and the basic grunts’ CMD-50: all were impossible to get unless you were under the employ of the Concord Military.
The long barrel of the Jaeger pointed down, but the sleek IR-90 and basic CMD-50 remained locked on her. Three figures stood in the doorway of the library, blocking the exit; the small flock of youth still huddled in the corner, weeping and whispering amongst themselves. She couldn’t see Macready or M’Jin in the immediate vicinity.
“Commander Vaughn,” said the man holding the IR-90. All three wore bulky black environment suits with blackout visors in their helmets. Only by the build did she know that each was humanoid, but it was impossible to tell what race they were.
Alison smiled politely, still with her hands raised above her head. “So you know who I am. I’m afraid I can’t return the niceties until I get your names.”
He shook his head. “That isn’t going to happen, Commander.”
The CMD-50 clicked as its owner drummed gloved fingers on the butt. Overhead, the yellow light still shed a steady glow and otherwise the library was quiet, almost peaceful.
Beyond its walls, she could hear frenzied voices and sporadic gunfire.
“So I don’t get your names. Fair enough. Maybe tell me why you’re here, at least. Sarkoth’s a peaceful planet.”
The man with the CMD-50 laughed, and the one with the Jaeger let out a small grunt. The first made a gesture almost like a shrug, and said, “I don’t know if I’d call Sarkoth peaceful, Commander. It’s a shitstorm inhabited by beren. But that’s beside the point, and so is the reason we’re here. The issue at this moment, Commander, and the issue you need to concern yourself with, is your presence here.”
Alison frowned and took a step closer to them. Two shifted, uncomfortable, but the leader remained still.
There was only a metre between them now.
“Why is my presence here so bad? I’m just a soldier.”
He laughed. “You aren’t just a soldier, Commander. We both know that. Your coming to Sarkoth today was poisonous for the galaxy, and we’re here to remedy it.” He lifted a hand and flicked a knob on the rear of the rifle, and with a soft click Alison knew the rounds had switched from lead to incendiary.
Never before had a metre looked so long.
“My apologies, Commander. You should have stayed home today.”