Joined: 10 Nov 2008
Location: New Zealand
|Posted: Sun Mar 27, 2011 8:30 pm Post subject: To'oks - The story so far...
By Pete McKenna
Refugees from a fierce and brutal interstellar war, the To'ok were marooned on an unreceptive planet when their ship was badly damaged in transit. Though the land itself was lush and inviting, the indigenous population was not. It was only through strength of arms and vastly superior technology that the to'ok were able to finally prevail over the autochthons. While beaten into submission, the original inhabitants were not wholly destroyed, and after almost a millenium their numbers have recovered. To make matters worse, the to'ok were followed to this new home by the very creatures that drove them off their old world. And now the technology upon which the to'ok rely to defend themselves is slowly failing from age and a lack of replacement parts.
As a people the to'ok are exceedingly free-willed and high-spirited, being prone to fits of burning rage or cold tenacity, sometimes even simultaneously. Theirs is a free society, though - any to'ok may advance within their heirarchy, so long as he has enough land or money. And both can be earned by fighting, which the majority of to'oks take to quite quickly and from an early age. Physically they resemble nothing so much as a shell-less turtle, though they actually have few reptilian characteristics. They give birth to live young, usually singly. They are warm-blooded omnivores, preominantly grey or green in hue. As they age their colors grow faded and dull, and long, wiry hairs grow from their cheeks. They are a hardy race, resistant to many diseases, and generally quite fertile. Their life spans have diminished considerably from those which they enjoyed before being marooned. It is their pride that keeps their numbers in check as much as their enemies, for they will fight amongst themselves when no other opponent is readily available.
The commandant met them at the gate. He stood away from them, a urine-soaked rag pressed against his swollen face. His joints ached and his eyeballs itched. Sure signs that he had the fever. The native healer said the rag would stop him from passing it to others. He desperately hoped so. These eight troopers in combat armor were the only healthy soldiers left at Forward Post 359. Besides, it stunk. It had better be good for something.
He addressed them then. "Men, I've given you the best of what we've got. Armor, weapons, food. It's all we have. But if you don't get through, it doesn't matter if we held back or not. You have to make it over the mountains and back to the flatlands and the towns. And you have to do it fast, or we're all dead. I have nothing left to give you. Go."
It was a terrible speech. He knew it. But everything about FP359 was terrible. That was the point. Assignment here was a punishment, every To'ok knew that. And that was when everyone was healthy. And the indigenous population was happy. And the Other Ones were not loose in the endless forest. None of which was the case of late.
Beyond the palisade a lone aut-cee stood in the shade. No autochthon was permitted inside the palisade without special order under normal circumstances. With an outbreak underway, none would even come near the gate. The fever was even worse on the native population than it was on the To’ok. The commandant pointed him out to Sergeant M’mao.
“This aut-cee will guide you to the mountains. Stay off the roads. We assume there are war parties out there. Something happened to the last patrol, after all.”
M’mao only nodded. He was holding his breath.
Behind him, the JSO nodded. Everyone ignored him. He was getting used to it, slowly. The prosthetic limb built into his combat armor was new. He was having a harder time getting used to it than being persona non grata around the post. It made his stump hurt. The demotion to Junior Subordinate Officer could be temporary, if he worked hard. Others had escaped that ignominy.
This foray could be that opportunity. Twenty soldiers of the garrison were already in the infirmary. Ten more were missing in the field. These eight were the last unaffected, and the officers had decided they couldn’t have been exposed. The JSO had just returned from the flatlands with S’oau, a new recruit. The others had their own stories. One was straight from the brig. One spent all his time in the woods. One was a fanatic no one could stand. Even he shirked the JSO.
M’mao elbowed past the JSO. He stopped at the gate, turning to face the other To’ok in the parade yard. His scarred face betrayed nothing.
He waited until the others were all past. They followed the aut-cee up the service road to the edge of the woods. Not one of them looked back.
Daanou's servos in his legs were starting to squeal and grind again. He'd had nothing but problems with his damned armor ever since he was sent to this miserable trading post. They called it a fortification but the only thing the wooden palisade would stop was the aut-cees, and fighting them wasn't a fight at all. The mechanics here weren't worth spit, either. On top of that they made him carry the heaviest weapon in the whole squad, not that they would need it. The aut-cees scurried away like flushed pheasants whenever they saw anything bigger than a pistol. This whole business was ridiculous. The garrison would live or die, and whichever it was, the officers back in the towns would just repopulate the post with more rejects and problem cases. Daanou knew which one they considered him. He didn't care. The only thing he did care about was getting new parts for his armor. He wondered how hard it would be to get the new recruit alone...
Poloa was just getting started ar his morning devotionals when Sgt M'moa's boot struck his rump.
"There's no place for that, corporal. Get the rest up and moving."
Poloa glared at the NCO but did as he was told.
The JSO watched from above his own bedroll. It was already neatly stowed, and his breakfast heating over the cycling powerpack of his combat armor. He spoke to the sergeant when he walked past.
"Sgt., the field manual does say that properly affiliated troopers may conduct their observances in a manner that is not detrimental or distracting."
"I don't have my copy," M'moa sneered. "And out here, gimpy, I wouldn't care even if I had it. If I don't like it, he doesn't get to do it."
"I won't be this way forever, Sgt." He pointed at the red triangle painted on his breastplate.
M'moa stared him up and down. His gaze lingered on the subordinate officer's missing left leg. He didn't say anything further. He just walked away.
The JSO watched him go. He remembered the day his assault across the Ayskki failed. He'd gotten as far as any other To'ok in recent memory into enemy territory. They'd blown his leg off for it. And GHQ had punished him for living through it. Gave him this burden. Sent him here.
He sighed and stirred his breakfast.
Poloa knew what the others all called him when they thought he couldn't hear. “Shouldn't.” He heard them, though. Heard them just fine. It didn't bother him. He knew he was right. They shouldn't gamble their meager wages away. They shouldn't drink and carouse through the night when they weren't on patrol. There were a dozen more things they shouldn't do, and he was never shy about reminding them so. They hated him for it. Poloa didn't care what they thought, or what they called him. Just as long as they respected the extra chevron he wore, and followed his orders. And they did, because behind all the nitpicking, they knew Poloa was a good soldier, and deserved his corporal's stripe. That, and he carried a damn big gun.
This task the commandant had set them to was proof enough that he was right. While dozens of others fell ill, he was fine. He hadn't even gotten the ubiquitous cough every To'ok eventually developed out here. He was going back to the homesteads, finally. His House would see his worth and recall him, end his trials at the post. Everything was going to change now. Just thinking about it made the heavy blaster he carried and the sluggish responders in his shoulders matter not at all.
A’alo leaned against the tree, looking up from his task to watch M'mao berate the corporal. He smirked as the JSO tried to interfere, but said nothing. A'alo was too busy cleaning the creases of his armor with the point of his knife. He was, quite honestly, surprised they'd even given him a suit. It was the worst in the common stores, of course, but it was still combat armor. His wide features creased in what passed for a grin as he thought of the damage he could do.
The new kid wandered past, totally at sea, and the thief's grin only widened. Fresh from the homesteads, his purse no doubt still fat, and his armor as clean and well-greased as if it had just been made yesterday. Rumor said the kid was a proxy. A'alo was inclined to believe it, what with a suit like that. There wasn't a suit of combat armor on this entire planet that was less than a thousand years old, and his looked shiny-new. Daanou had noticed too, A'alo saw. That was inevitable. That to'ok was a vulture, feeding off carrion. Not A'alo, though. No, he fancied himself a proper predator. Maybe he'd let Daanou have what was left when this whole fiasco reached its inevitable conclusion.
The sergeant was the first out of his bedroll. Ke’at’o was standing in the middle of the clearing, a pained look on his face. He’d pulled last shift at guard duty and looked haggard already with the sun barely up. M’moa decided to check his canteen later. Ke’a’to was a good soldier, but was given to drinking and laziness at times. And he kept complaining about his feet. A’alo slithered out of his blankets and headed for the trees, that long knife of his already out and in his hands. That one bore watching, for more reason than one. He’d been in the brig when the fever struck. If the sergeant had had his way, he’d be there still. But the Commandant had insisted. Tai’ta was gone too. He likely never even slept in the clearing once his turn at sentry duty was done. M’moa would have to talk to him about that. For security purposes, if nothing else. It wouldn’t do to have the squad spread out too much, not with unfriendly elements in these woods. Not that it was much of a squad. The kid really put it over the top, though. The sergeant had more pressing matters than babysitting a whelp fresh from the towns. He would have put the JSO to it, but S’oau had taken his lead too quickly from the others and was ignoring the cripple already. Downright cold, M’moa thought, considering they’d ridden in on the same wagon. Someone had to watch him, though. Someone with his best interests in mind, not their own. Daanou and A’alo were already sniffing around, and nothing good could come of that. Maybe Poloa could do it. The squad corporal was around here someplace…
Tai’ta sat outside the clearing, in among the trees. Their guide was a few feet away, unseen. The scout envied their ability to disappear into the forest so easily. He cursed – silently, the only way he could - the ridiculous suit of armor M’moa and the Commandant had forced on him. Subtlety and stealth were absolutely out of the question in combat armor. He had tried to take it off, but M’moa wouldn’t let him leave it, and it was too heavy to carry. The suit was another from the stores, and not particularly well maintained. The joints had squeaked and squealed with each movement, making Tai’ta wince, until the aut-cee had shown him a You’ee’ta tree. The berries could be crushed and rubbed into the joints, making the noise at least bearable. He’d thanked the guide with a tin of fruit and a discarded bit of metal someone had thrown on the middenheap. Since then the guide had suffered his presence a bit more readily; had even brought him a few co’oa leaves to rub onto the scars across his throat. The damned collar on the armor made them bleed, decades-old or not. Back in the camp, he finally heard signs of the others moving around. He sighed without sound and struggled back into his suit.
S’oau couldn’t believe his luck. He was only two weeks out of training and already wearing combat armor. Lord Me’a’molo’s advisors had told him it would likely take months of regular duty before an opportunity to wear his suit came, and yet here he was. They’d also told him to take care of it, not that he needed to be told. Riding in the wagon through the mountains, the armor crated and hidden under a load of supplies, he’d imagined what his first posting would be like. FP359 didn’t exactly fit the picture he’d created. Neither did the outbreak. But they had allowed him this opportunity to prove to the others that he was a good soldier, and to Lord Me’a’molo that he had made the right choice. He didn’t intend to let anyone down.
Ke’a’to’s feet hurt. They always hurt, but the suit made them even worse. The post medics told him he needed to eat less, drink less. He told them they sounded like Poloa. It didn’t make his feet feel any better. At least Daanou had drawn the heavy blaster for this mission. Combat armor wasn’t intended for long-distance marches, even with good feet. M’mao was pushing them hard too. It was almost two hundred klicks from post to pass, and the sergeant wanted them covered in a week. The suits had jumpers, granted, but they were only good for short distances and they drained the powerpacks too quickly. They also tended to attract attention, so M’mao wanted to keep them in reserve for emergencies. That meant a lot of walking. Overland, too; no roads. Ke’a’to was just glad he hadn’t caught the fever along with the rest of them. Even the medics were sick. It showed how much they knew – if he hadn’t been sleeping his last binge off, he’d be in the infirmary too.
Owe’wi was completely winded. He collapsed in a heap next to his combat armor, gasping for breath. Blood was flowing freely from his ears. Captain Ba’an cursed and called for S’eloli. He wanted to keep tabs on M’mao and his squad of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells, but he couldn’t keep sending Owe’wi. The to’ok was too sick. They were all sick. The commandant had told them when he gave his orders, under no circumstances were they to make contact with M’mao or any of his troopers. Keep a reasonable distance between the two groups, make sure they’re not in trouble – or causing it – and stay out of trouble. The healthy troopers were pulling further and further ahead now, as the fever tightened its hold on Ba’an’s own group. The medic, S’eloli, was trying to calm Owe’wi down. He’d seen his own blood, though, and like most to’ok, it had completely unnerved him. He could look at the blood of others all day long – hell, he could wade through it – but seeing his own, it did strange things to a to’ok. Ba’an considered sending the runner back to the post, where at least he could die in a bed, but Owe’wi was the best soldier he had. S’eloli was useless in a fight; Pa’le’le nearly so. Ha’wa could hold his own, but was unimaginative and had no initiative. No, even sick, he needed Owe’wi with the group.
“Fix him as best you can and get him back in his armor. We have to keep moving.”
S’eloli wasn’t trained for this. He was a combat medic. Mostly he was a mechanic, to keep the suits in working order. The wearer was a secondary concern. Truth be told, the suits took most of the damage, and if they were knocked out, the to’ok inside was likely dead anyway. He could stitch cuts, dress wounds, amputate a limb if absolutely necessary – at least he was trained to do that, in theory – but sickness in general? Especially something like so'we'a-tcho ei-a'a', the Spring Fever. There were few enough doctors in the Homesteads that could handle a case of that, even with adequate medicine and fancy equipment. Out here, all he had was a satchel of this and that from the post’s stores. And he was sick too. He should be back in the infirmary, resting. He knew rest was important – the books all said so. They certainly shouldn’t be force-marching through the woods, sleeping in the elements. If the soreness in his joints moved into his spine, S’eloli knew he would be doomed. He’d kept that to himself. Captain Ba’an refused to tolerate any talk of their condition, no matter how sick they got. Kneeling beside poor Owe’wi, S’eloli tried to slow the trooper’s panicked gulps of air. He put a bedroll under his head and wiped the blood out of his ears. Beyond that, though, he was helpless. And looking in Owe’wi’s eyes, the trooper knew it too.
Four days following M’moa’s squad had taken their toll. Owe’wi could barely move, even out of his armor. Only the Captain and Ha’wa, his erstwhile standard bearer, were still marginally healthy. Ha’wa was tired and seemed to need to stop more often, but other than that, he was much better off than the others. Owe’wi was leaking blood from everywhere, and S’eloli was dragging himself along behind the others. He had a haunted look in his eyes but wouldn’t say why, not even to the Captain. Ha’wa marched when the Captain told him to, stopped when he told him to, and carried the long wooden pole all the while. Normally the pole would be crowned with a pennant or gonfalon festooned with Ba’an’s heraldry, but for this trip, it was just a pole. They were supposed to stop three times a day and check for a signal on the comms unit Pa’le’le carried. That’s where the pole came in. He would fix the dish when they stopped, hoist it up as high as he could, and hold it until Pa’le’le or Ba’an gave up. Then take the whole thing apart and start marching again. Pa’le’le wanted him to carry the dish on the end all the time, but Ha’wa wouldn’t. Each To’ok had to carry his own equipment. Pa’le’le might frown and sulk about it, but unless the captain ordered him otherwise, Ha’wa held his ground.
Ha’wa was still staring at Pa’le’le’s back and thinking sour thoughts about the Comms Officer when they came into the clearing. At first blush it looked like a regular aut-cee village. Ha’wa scowled. The autochthons made his skin crawl. Maybe it was the big eyes, or the way they just stared and said nothing. Something was wrong, though. None of the young aut-cees ran away from them, screaming. Or towards them, screaming. That seemed to be the most common reactions. There was no noise at all in the village. Ba’an stopped, and the others with him. Owe’wi went to one knee, blubbering and clutching at his head. Ba’an snapped something at him and the trooper lurched back to his feet. Maybe the officer was worried about appearing weak before the aut-cees, but there were none around. There were cookfires that had sputtered out. Gourds of water and fermented fruit juice laying about, still full. But no aut-cees.
Pe'le'le was on his knees at the edge of the pit, wiping the bile from his mouth. Owe'wi and S'eloli were gone, hiding out of sight. The communications officer could hear gagging from their direction. Ba'an stood at his side, looking at the tumbled forms within the trench. The aut-cees used these long, narrow slits in the ground to grow mushrooms and such where the livestock and young couldn't get at them. Now the autochthons filled it. Captain Ba'an stared down at the gruesome sight, his jaw pulsing but saying nothing. Pe'le'le was no ardent supporter of the indigenous population, but even so, this was beyond the pale. He said so, standing up slowly in deference to the shooting pains in his spine. Still Ba'an said nothing. That it was the work of M'mao and his troopers was obvious. Aut-cees fought each other constantly, and could be quite savage. But this wasn't how they operated. Not at all.
Ba'an turned away from the pit. He pointed at Pe'le'le, pointed at Ha'wa. They knew what he wanted.
Pe'le'le and the mindless brute Ha'wa got the dish mounted on the pole and ready for Ba'an in record time, but still the captain wore a deepset scowl. He took the handset from Pe'le'le without a word and held it against his forehead. He was sweating profusely. He gave the lieutenant a querelous glance.
Pe'le'le stammered out a response. The pain in his back made it hard to think. Hard to communicate properly. A terrible position for a comms officer to be in. "I haven't checked it today, Captain. I don't know where the moons are, what their position or declination is. I don't know if the signal can get all the way back to 359. I have it bounce it off one or the other. Haven't seen either for a few days." He hung his head. It was his job. To keep the equipment ready. To know where the moons were. It was just the pains in his back, the unrelenting pressure in his head. They made it hard to do anything.
Ba'an still said nothing, just held the handset.
Ba'an was sitting in the dark, his back turned on the huge bonfire S'eloli and Ha'wa had made. The others were all slumped into their bedrolls, trying to sleep. Only Ha'wa was still up. It was his turn on watch. Ba'an's spine was on fire and the pressure in his head felt like his eyes might pop out at any second. The captain was dying. So were the others. Only Ha'wa was too stupid to realize it.
He'd made the to'ok stand there, holding that pole aloft, for three hours while Pe'le'le searched for a signal. Ba'an was trying to punish the lieutenant, not Ha'wa, but then sometimes this was how things happened. After the search was through he marched them all ten klicks closer to M'mao's estimated position without stopping. Listening to Owe'wi's ragged breathing now, he was fairly certain he'd killed him. It would be a miracle if he lived til dawn.
As if on cue, Owe'wi's breathing stopped. Ba'an turned, but his eyes were dazzled by the firelight. He saw movement from the direction of Owe'wi's prone form. The trooper must have just been rolling over. Ba'an rubbed his tortured eyes and resumed trying to sort through this mess. M'mao's squad had run mad. They needed to be stopped, to be put down. But how?
His thoughts came to a crashing halt when the diminutive form broke from the trees. An aut-cee, no more than a meter and change tall. It had a shock of white in its crown of otherwise umber fur. To Ba'an's growing horror he saw the native was carrying a hood in one hand, a club in the other.
"Ha'wa! You let this aut-cee through the perimeter?" He shouted. He was trying to gain his feet. Somewhere in the distance the high, undulating rip of a heavy blaster seared the night. Behind him, Ha'wa fell next to the fire. Through the flames Ba'an could see another aut-cee wielding a club. Before him, the autochthon kept coming. Ba'an's strength deserted him; he could get no higher than his knees. The indigenous creature leaned in close, his snout mere inches from Ba'an's high, smooth forehead.
"Not aut-cee, " it growled. Six inches of steel pressed against Ba'an's throat. "Drahouin."
There were almost a dozen aliens outside the palisade. Iy’lo could hear them moving around and chattering in their strange clicking language. That wasn’t the worst of it, though.
He was being hunted. Inside the very structure he helped build, helped command for almost a decade. It kept to the shadows and hadn’t actually shown itself yet, but he could hear its stealthy movements. At night he thought he could hear it breathing.
He’d donned his combat armor two days ago, when the nighttime scuffling had first started, and hadn’t removed it since. The Commandant was wrapped tightly in a blanket beside him, badly sick. Everyone else was dead or gone. It hurt Iy’lo to breathe with the suit on, but he would rather suffocate or die from the Spring Fever than let whatever lurked in the dark get him.
His original plan had followed the Commandant’s initial orders – sit tight and wait for relief. With FP359 abandoned now, though, he didn’t feel he had a choice anymore. There was no glory in sitting idly by, waiting for death, or in having his throat slit in the night like ailing livestock. The aliens outside only compounded the problem.
The clicking and grunting outside the walls was getting louder and more urgent. It finally allowed him to make up his mind to defy orders. He slung the comatose body of the Commandant over his shoulder – it took three tries to get him up there, thanks to the Fever – and made for the secret door in the back of the palisade wall. The woods were only a hundred yards away; with any luck, he would be safely among the trees without the Ute’wehi ever realizing.
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