18 – Svalti

“Set us down over there; in that clearing,” Minister Gresken ordered the two pilots. He was standing over them in the dropship’s cockpit as they flew over the forest’s canopy. This was the world of Duborik located in the distant reaches of Republic space. When the transport was landing, Gresken noticed the retreat of the native quadruped wildlife and said in his deep, booming voice, “Yes! That’s it! Run away so we can hunt you!” Following his excitement-fueled laughter, he climbed back into the passenger compartment of the craft. “Are you ready, Svalti?” Gresken said, grabbing the shoulder of his hunting partner. “I hope hunting game is as fun for you as hunting people.” The minister burst into laughter again. At this time, the Akkain research station attack and the beginning of the Kelsor’s mission would not occur for another three months.

     “I’m thrilled,” Svalti said, lacking enthusiasm.

     “Of course you are!” said Gresken. “Put a big smile on your face! And grab your gun.” The minister latched onto a handhold just before the craft touched down and rocked everything inside. The side wall of the transport folded down into a ramp, and the first to leave were six guards clad in the Republic’s glossy, bulky, slate gray Novekk Type-M battle armor. An identical transport landed a few meters away, and as its door opened, a swarm of spheroid camera drones liberated themselves from the craft and gathered around Gresken and Svalti as they walked together down the ramp. Moments later, the drones’ human masters—journalists, most from the Republic, some from the Federation, and a few from the rest of Civilized Space—crowded around to speak with the Minister of War and the “Hero of the People,” as they called Rikter Svalti.

     Svalti was an Elestan man with just enough jet black hair to manipulate. He had been letting it grow during his first two weeks of leave, and was taking a liking to it. Minister Gresken was four times his age, and that age showed only psychologically, though mostly in a good way: centuries of experience and a low-stress attitude. The minister was Svalti’s second father in a manner of speaking, and it had its perks—such as extended leave. Svalti would never tell Gresken, but he was ready to return to his family: the Quietus of Hiracet, his team of elite Republic Marines.

     “Smile, Svalti!” Gresken shouted, wrapping his arm around the marine and posing for pictures. A female Federation journalist close to them asked “Minister! Can you speak about the rising tension between the Republic and the Alliance in the Persean Rift?”

     “I will say nothing today,” said the minister, waving his hand dismissively. “But, please take all the pictures you like! Hurry though. We have hunting to do.” He grabbed Svalti’s shoulder, and Svalti smiled as the drones took several more pictures and several seconds of video.

     Gresken and Svalti stepped off of the ramp of their dropship, and Gresken leaned toward a guard, whispering, “They’ve seen enough. Take them back.” The guard signaled to his comrades, and the soldiers herded the journalists back to their transport. The minister took a deep breath through his nostrils as he and Svalti ventured into the forest alone. The trees were conifers, and they scented the air with the sweet smell of pine. A loose layer of stratus, like a lifted fog, hung on the forest’s canopy, hiding the tops of the trees. The green leaves of the undergrowth were damp with dew which collected on their black trench coats and metallic boots as they both walked along. A flock of small, black birds, flapping their wings in unison, took off from the top of one of the trees and flew deeper into the forest.

     “You could at least enjoy your time here,” said Gresken as they marched across the soggy ground. “After your leave is over, your team is being relocated to the Rift.”

     “I look forward to it,” said Svalti, grinning.

     “The Alliance has started construction on two-hundred new bases out there,” said Gresken, “and they’re buying local omnium to do it. Saves them logistically. That’s why our Navy is there. We will blockade every system if we must to choke them of their civilian omnium supply.”

     “Then what do you need me for?”

     “Because, when the Alliance does begin to choke, they will send their refinery ships to harvest their own mass. Then, ‘accidents’ start happening.” Gresken’s laughter was followed closely by Svalti’s.

     “It would be my pleasure to serve as your catalyst for these… ‘accidents.’”

     “Splendid,” said Gresken. “I would have expected nothing less than your total cooperation.” Svalti hated when the minister said things like that; as if he and his team were mere tools. Tools always gave their total cooperation. They lacked the minds to think for themselves. Regardless, Svalti had to play the politics for his sake and the sake of his fellow Revenants, for it was the People of the Republic who brought them back, and they all possessed the mark that identified them as such. The Republic, and Minister Gresken in particular, would never let them forget it. When your prized tools break, they are repaired and returned to the toolbox.

     “Put this on,” said Gresken, tossing Svalti a small capsule. “It will mask your scent.” The marine sprayed the capsule of liquid across his exposed head and neck and tossed the capsule back to the minister. Supposedly it was an olfactory camouflage technique, but it was Gresken’s first choice among all the existing methods. Several minutes later, Gresken found a fallen tree amid thick underbrush, and the two of them hid within, propping their coilguns on the thick trunk. The forest beyond was sparser but teemed with underbrush growing beneath an open canopy. The planet’s sun was starting to appear through breaks in the clouds, causing the surrounding flora to glow with verdant vibrance.

     Gresken and Svalti crouched in this undergrowth for thirty minutes. Then an hour. Then two hours. The wind would come and go regularly and whistle through the limbs and leaves of the thicker forest just behind them. Svalti opened a pouch he kept on his belt and grabbed his mass scanner. When he held it to his face, Gresken quietly said, “Put that thing away. That’s cheating.”

     “I’m just checking for other humans,” Svalti whispered back. He was being honest. He anticipated danger.

     “Not necessary,” Gresken whispered. “There’s no one but us on this planet.” Svalti turned the device off and slid it away. That’s when the minister tapped him on the shoulder and said “Look!” The distant undergrowth was swaying. Both of them sat up and grabbed their guns. The swaying moved toward them slowly. Gresken drew his coilgun to his shoulder, just before the swaying stopped. Gresken kept his gun trained on the tall grasses and moved gently into crouching.

     The undergrowth started moving again, but violently. The creature’s quick footfalls sounded like thunder. Gresken fired into the brush. As if in rebuke, the creature roared toward them like a predator. It was several meters away now. Svalti readied himself, grabbed his tactical knife, and leapt over the fallen tree. The creature—a three-hundred-kilogram feline—launched itself from the vegetation. He could see the animal’s center of mass from the way it carried itself, its weak points, and its dangers. At this moment, time for the marine seemed to stand still. He was in complete control. Svalti ducked, and as the creature passed over him, he lifted himself up and sliced the beast’s underside with his thermoplate blade wrapped in white-hot plasma that he held with both hands. The beast’s flesh popped and sizzled as the blade cut across its abdomen in mid-jump. The monstrous feline roared in pain, and it slammed into the ground behind Svalti—dead on impact. The smoke and smell of burning flesh pervaded the air.

     “Excellent work, Svalti!” Gresken cheered with a grin. “You saved my life.” He began to laugh like he had on the transport.

     “Just serving the People of the Republic,” Svalti said.

     “For the People!” Gresken exclaimed patriotically.

     “That was fun,” said Svalti, grinning and sliding his knife back into its sheath. “Let’s keep hunting.”

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