The door blew wide open, the blast hole serrated and peeled.
“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted. The infantry followed orders and slipped through the smoking orifice.
They were pitched into the blinding darkness with the exception of a thin shaft of light from outside. The night blindness was no longer relevant when they switched to infrared in order to pick up any heat signatures, friend or foe, abounding in the zone of action. There had to have been at least a few survivors, but Keller was ordered by the general to find one particular weapons expert while his men searched abroad for the rest of the occupants, if any were left standing. Somewhere deep within lurked this person of interest, whoever it was and whatever kind of weapon they were privy to.
The first door slapped open. Relief. Nothing but milling dust and debris that slowly settled. Keller told his men to proceed accordingly with each room while he and a small contingent moved further down the corridor. He cursed at the tedious process, but they were better safe than dead. To complicate the matter, a call came in from the corporal informing him they discovered a couple of occupants, both of whom were DOA, the pallor on their skin indicating asphyxiation from failing ventilation systems.
He cursed again, however useless it would have been, and scrambled toward the next chamber. Still no readings. Hunkering next to the threshold, he and his men cocked their guns, ready to fire at a moment's notice. The door slid open. Carefully peering around the corner—a mode of defense that was protocol on every mission— they saw that infrared picked up nothing of interest until, without warning, a bright red light flared and overexposed their vision enhancements. The ominous sound of shoulder minis wound up. The soldiers bucked as a barrage of fire erupted from within, buzzing away and blasting from the entryway in a flurry of deadly sparks and shells. Keller leaned against the wall, clenching his teeth and holding his breath for the critical moment. A multi-armed robot seized the corners of the door trap and lunged into the hallway, full view. Aside from the appendages, the drone was a composite abdomen; its shell was hard to pierce and its brain was embedded deep within.
Keller waited for the split-second between rounds, recited a quick prayer while increasing his rifle's power, and with fight-or-flight instinct, opened fire. The shell blazed in rounds of projectiles and blaster fire; the onslaught gave distraction to the robot, but not long enough to prevent itself from rearming. Realizing it could have been his final moment, Keller went in, focusing all his grit and energy, and within a few harrowing seconds, concentrated his fire until the bullets pierced the hull. The robot jolted, rocked back and forth before its appendages went limp and dropped to the floor like an empty husk.
Solace, but the mission wasn't over. He received an emergency call on the com-link. “Sergeant, I'm hit!” One of his men was slumping to the ground and clasping the side of his lumbar. The burn was severe, carbonizing his obliques from what he saw through the tattered uniform. Thankfully, the wound didn't appear to be mortal, nor was it a direct hit, but the soldier still needed immediate attention.
“Pvt. Sanders!” he barked. “Tend to Pvt. Uvik. It won't be much, but throw on that hemostatic patch and give him a shot of morphine before bringing him in. Pvt. Ugo, you and Sanders got fireman's carry. Get him to medivac, now! I'm going in.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” came the summary replies.
Keller retreated further into the darker depths.
Keeping all the collective cool he could muster, he contacted the general. “Commander, sir. I'm passing an extended section without entry points. Should I proceed?”
“Affirmative, Sergeant. Keep going. There's another chamber all the way down on your left. If no one's there, get out!” Keller acknowledged, cut contact and maintained his course.
Explosions rattled from above, followed by tremors akin to an earthquake. The salvos arrived, and each second was a dance with death. Moments later, he stumbled into a clearing where the corridor flared into a centralized hub surrounded by multiple points of entry. He spotted the door on the far left and fired to test the durability of the bulwark. The rifle barely made a dent. Switching to the blaster holstered at his side, he groused when it only left a dark starry blot. No time. Without shedding another precious second, he pulled out another detonator, stuck it against the door and took immediate shelter in the corridor. The wall erupted in a plume of smoke and debris. After the coast was clear, he lunged into the thick of smog, hoping to God no one trapped inside was affected by the blast or the noxious fumes.
Even with infrared, it was hard to make anything out with all the billowing smoke, but he persisted and scanned the room for any signs of life. Whipping his head around in all directions, he saw nothing but computers and furnishings, most of which were knocked out of place after the blast. Drawers hung from their hinges, the contents of which were left strewn all over the floor next to the fallen pieces and shards from the ceiling. The place was ransacked and he saw no sign anyone was here since the invasion began. However, wedged in the far corner out of harm's way was a box glowing with the patent heat signature. To his surprise, the box jostled with the open flaps quivering in return. Odd. No man could fit inside unless he was bent out of shape and shoved inside against his will. Yet something was stirring inside. Running up, he slid his gun around his back and parted the flaps before peering in.
His jaw nearly slackened. Someone must have left their pet behind. No wonder; they were all in a hurry―or they perished. He was unfamiliar with the planet's fauna and wondered what kind of animal it was. The creature laid there nestled within a tiny blanket staring up at Keller with the sad eyes of a whimpering dog, and eyes large enough to indicate it had to have been nocturnal. Both ears folded back as if the creature was looking to be petted, or so it seemed. From first glance, it appeared to be a large galago, but more streamlined and fewer tufts of shaggy fur, so the wrinkling in its pelted skin was visible with each twist and flexion.
A thought flashed into him. Was this the object of interest the general was talking about? It couldn't be. Puzzled, he immediately contacted the general's office.
“What is it, Sergeant?” came the deep gruff voice.
“Commander, sir. I found no one inside except this animal. I have no idea what it is or who it belongs to. Does your objective still stand, sir?”
After a brief pause, the general replied, “I've received no further instruction. Carry on, soldier!”
“Sir, yes, sir!” he prompted and reached both hands into the box. The creature stirred, appearing more curious than frightened, and leaped on top of Keller's shoulder, nuzzling the side of his face with the affection of a house cat. The creature, with a soft and gentle demeanor, buried its head under Keller's chin and cooed. Strange! Why did they have this creature there in the first place? It was clearly non-terrestrial and didn't act like it was snatched from the wild; its mannerisms suggested some level of domestication. But regardless of disposition, the creature was no substitute for whoever Keller was supposed to find.
As he fled as several explosions rocked the compound. In the midst of the chaos, he received another call from the general. “Sergeant, were under heavy enemy bombardment and the compound's about to be toast. I'm ordering the whole infantry out, on the double!”
Another explosion kicked out more detritus as Keller scrambled back up the corridor, dodging bigger fragments collapsing from the ceiling and hurtling over the robot he shot down minutes earlier. The onslaught was relentless, and the floor heaved several times, jostling his stride and almost knocking him off his feet. But once outside, he realized, he would only be exposed to direct enemy fire and immediately neutralized on site.
Just a few meters behind, a section of the corridor caved in under the barrage, scattering clouds of smoke and hazardous particulates into the air. Keller was soon enveloped. In an instant, he gagged and coughed, his throat and nasal passages singed with irritants of shattered bits of carbon fibers, plastic, alloys and earth. He was meant to risk his life, to stick out his neck where he could lose it at the drop of a hat, and it was no different here with the Vertellion Imperials on the verge of claiming another habitable world, spreading their ungodly wings and bulling the entire Terran Federation out. The planet, aptly named Adam, was pivotal in the trans-stellar power struggle, and losing this world would toll the death knell of freedom in the galaxy.
The thought only propelled Keller closer to escape with an alien creature latched on to his suit. Though adorable, the animal was in all probability a burden and not worth losing a single soldier over, however, orders were orders, and he felt a wash of relief when a report came in over the comlink that the infantry escaped with only the one WIA. But it seemed like they were jumping out the frying pan and into the line of fire...
The compound jolted. A bunker buster must have hit, or its enemy equivalent. The light ahead seeping through the blast hole was only ten meters away, partially occulted by passing dust, but it might as well have been a million miles when the walls caved in. The creature was startled, furrowing its brow in a manner that Keller might have taken for sentience under different circumstances, but he quickly dismissed it as hogwash. No lowly animal had that kind of intelligence.
In an instant, Keller was hit over the shoulder by a falling slab, missing the creature by inches when it darted and latched onto his chest plate. Keller tumbled less than a meter from the opening, feeling himself going numb from the waste down. He instinctively knew the bones around his shoulder were fractured. Pain struck with every move he made, hampering even the smallest shift in posture. The creature jumped to the floor and settled next to his sprawling form, whimpering with notable concern as he probed his surroundings. Keller tracked where the animal was looking and realized his legs were pinned down by another slab. Defeated, he dropped his head in resignation.
A call came in, demanding his status.
“Commander, sir. I'm trapped...can't leave,” he began to wheeze and huff as he strained to speak. “I request to be left behind. Evacuate the troops...shuttle waiting outside...don't let them blow it up...cover them...allow my troops safe egress...quick...”
The general repeated his name. Keller was fading, his professional formalities broken, and he was bound for immolation.
The place rumbled and the walls buckled, soon to give way, flattening everything in their wake as they came crumbling down. The creature glanced at Keller and cooed before leaping up and disappearing through the hole.
Great. Keller thought. Risked my bum just to lose the family pet. But it was only war, he cajoled himself with stark rhetoric.
Yet the hole gave Keller a full purview of the area despite his incapacitation. From behind the door, Keller witnessed the creature scampering out onto the front lines and up the knoll where a single blast of energy would have reduced anyone to paste. To his puzzlement, the creature looked back in his direction with the same set of puppy eyes Keller first saw, then turned toward the sky and perched like a meerkat.
Before his ears could interpret what happened, all firing ceased. The relentless impacts against what remained of the compound abruptly followed, as if the enemy was given orders for an impromptu retreat. But the gusts from passing ships still sheared across the sky as the enemy maintained its position. To Keller's horror, several craft aimed right where he was laying. This was it. He shut his eyes and lowered his head in full submission. With seconds to spare before he met that fateful salvo, he uttered a silent prayer, asking for repentance and making atonement.
The wind shear of approaching vessels suddenly went silent. Puzzled, he peered up into the hole, and his eyes flared in disbelief. The oncoming ships remained, but they were still, dragged to a dead-stop in mid-air. In a single snap, the ships were suddenly pulled away from the compound and flung along their individual trajectories like a shot put toss before crashing along the outer periphery in smoldering plumes. A squadron of reinforcements soared into the battlezone with guns blazing. The creature, who appeared calm and unreactive to the surrounding caterwaul, gently lifted its snout. In an instant, the searing shafts of high-energy pulses began firing off axis and taking out fellow ships that blossomed and dove like a falling comet. The thunderous crashes and violent shaking that followed would have knocked any ground troops off their feet. The remaining craft circled the perimeter, but to Keller's astonishment, they were all tugged by some unseen tether, whipping around like a cat-o-nine tails with crippling inertia. As if the tether had been cut, they hurled in single file into the next hill that lit up in evenly successive blasts. A series of sonic concussions followed, reaching Keller's incredulous ears.
The creature continued to face the sky as the few surviving crafts banked and hightailed it away from the front. Keller could hear the air strain under the steep angles of retreat before they accelerated with an ear-splitting boom and faded from view. The compound rocked for several seconds, stirring some of the dust already settled. The creature tweaked its head back toward the compound, tilting it innocently to the side. Keller could even see the tiny glint in those oversized beads. What was he thinking?
Scampering confidently down the knoll, the animal's juxtaposition with the fiery pillars of war along the perimeter looked strangely misplaced, evoking a scene out of a satire. Seconds hence, a brief shadow blotted out the hole as the creature came prancing back up to Keller's face only to bury its head under his cheek, cooing in a warm tenderness before shutting its eyes affectionately. It amazed Keller how an animal of non-terrestrial origin became attached to a human it never met until now, but there was something missing, that there was more to this scenario on what was happening.
“No...” he cried in sotto, trying to keep up his breathing as he came to the terrifying conclusion, “...it can't be...the weapon...” His words slipped away before he passed out.
“Sgt. Keller!” He heard his name, but he was still coming to.
Again, he heard someone shouting out his name, and he flicked his eyes open and blinked, recognizing the medic standing over him
Continuing, he said, “Sir, we found you laying on the ground. Your legs were crushed by something lost in that mess. Looks like someone moved them before we got there.” He turned around and mumbled a word or two before patting the side of the bed and leaving.
Keller was still recovering, so he shrugged off what he heard. He wiggled around, but his motility was still limited. His shoulder was encased in a mold and fastened by a metal brace. Looking down, he saw that both his legs were wrapped up as well. He wondered if he was about to be entombed and garnished with gold. The fog in his head made him certainly felt that way. Regardless, despite the temporary setback, he was glad to be alive.
Something leaped onto the bed. Turning slightly, Keller recognized the gray-brown pelt of the creature he rescued. He didn't remember much aside from running for his life with something akin to a tabby cat faithfully latching on. And here it was, having clearly tracked him when he was hauled from the rubble.
The rubble...the slabs of rock pinning him down...the compound caving in...
It all came back to him. They were under attack. He remembered that, and the creature as well, who ran out of the compound, running up the little hill pocked with gunfire. Afterwards, he lost consciousness. There was more that happened just prior. It was hard to believe. Paralyzed in thought, he puzzled over how the creature avoided getting hit by enemy fire or scraps of the ships blasted out of the air. And what incredible force was able to repel a whole fleet of Vertellion fighters without a visible means of contact? He knew no Federation ally with those kinds of powers.
Then his eyes flared and he stared back into a pair of shimmering orbs.
Footsteps approached, then a looming shadow cast over the light coming from the cramped office in the corner. The imposing presence of the general stepped up to the foot of the bed. He had a smirk on his face. Keller expected the worst. He didn't even know if he failed his mission or not, despite the heavy losses of the adversary. It was either commendation or reprimand, followed by demotion. He shuttered at the prevalence of the second outcome.
“Sgt. Aram Keller of the First Infantry?”
“Yes, sir.” It was all he could say.
The general tilted his head down toward the beast curling itself under Keller's chin. “Looks like you got yerself a devoted pet!”
Though Keller was too spooked to return the affection, he reluctantly lifted his good hand and stroked the animal against his own protest. Connecting the dots, he knew who lifted those slabs.
The general continued, “Apparently, that little guy's called a waltufit; native to this planet and smart as a whip from what I was told.”
“That's good to know, sir.”
“Besides that, we're empty-handed, Sergeant. No weapon; no expert. We still haven't heard back from the FM.”
“Sir, I take it you saw what happened when―”
“We saw a bunch of explosions and three crafts escaping. Glad we got a leg up on this fight, but that's all we know. We were lucky that time, but we're waiting for the next strike. The Verts almost got the galaxy in their pocket.”
“Sir, if I may say add, I think we may already have the weapon that can tip the balance of the war.” And he looked down and gestured toward his new found friend shifting its weight and cuddling up with a contented smile.