Edition 2: A Propensity For Violence by Michael Saad
Lieutenant Kellington is on tour in a far away galaxy, trapped in between the two indigenous races and their bitter blood feud. But Kellington has a secret. Will his past compromise his mission or will he lose it all? SY
2284 AD—Occupied Territories, Planet Adrella, Andromeda Galaxy
The red sky glimmered against the rolling hills of the Adrellan landscape. Planet Adrella was under the protection of the United Nations of Earth, or UNE. The planet’s population consisted of a humanoid race with a small skeletal structure, wrinkled foreheads, and narrow, sunken-in faces. Their physical bodies possessed less musculature than “Earthens,” making them physically weaker. Yet one area where Adrellans equaled human beings was the propensity to commit violence, and the headless torso that lay smoldering in the dirt was a definite example of that.
“Middle aged, Adrellan male,” Lieutenant Ryan Kellington confirmed, kneeling over the body. “The deceased appears to belong to the Tredder race. We can’t confirm that right now because there’s no way to piece together what’s left of the head.”
“That’s the sixth attack this year where the head has been disintegrated,” Arung, the Tredder official, cursed in broken but understandable English. He was an Adrellan belonging to the Tredder caste, a people who lived in the urban areas of the planet. He thrust his finger at the Sekena diplomat, who looked over Kellington’s shoulder. “The Sekena continue to act like barbarians, setting back any hope of peace between our people and yours!”
“Once again you blame Sekena for disrupting the peace,” Kestin B’urac, the Sekena diplomat, shot back. The Sekena people were concentrated in the rural areas of Adrella, and practiced a pastoral lifestyle. “How quickly you forget that it is the Tredder oppression of Sekena civilians that escalates our conflict. It is you who drive our people to these measures!”
“That’s enough! Neither of you are helping this situation.” Colonel Grey Norgale stepped in as he glanced over the body. The UNE commanding officer wiped his brow and let out a slow, defeated sigh. “What the hell is this planet coming to?”
The thin but physically fit Colonel made a quick scan of the sandstone huts of the Sekena village they were standing in. The attack had occurred in broad daylight. It was reported by the members of the Tredder convoy that had driven into the village to deliver food supplies, a convoy sponsored by the UNE. Two of the three convoy officers survived; the third lay at their feet. It was obvious that the attack was organized by Sekena militants.
“There are fragments of skull and brain in the dirt,” Kellington grimaced, staring at the splotches of blood-red sand at his feet, “but nothing we can salvage.”
Kellington kept his revulsion in check—he had witnessed several instances of Tredder and Sekena hostility since arriving on Adrella one year ago, but still didn’t understand it. The two groups had been embroiled in a decades-long conflict over religious and ideological issues. Physically, the only verifiable difference between a Tredder Adrellan and a Sekena Adrellan was their nartaches—the spotted, tube-like cartilage that extended underneath every Adrellans’ nostrils, forming a ring on their upper lips. Evolutionary adaptations to Adrella’s gritty air, nartaches were supposedly more rounded among Tredder civilians, while the Sekena had oval-shaped ones. Kellington thought he could recognize the difference, but there were always exceptions to the rule.
“Do we know what direction the shots came from?” Colonel Norgale frowned. Hovering nearby were residents of the village, all Sekena, peering at the UNE officers sent in to investigate the killing.
“I’m guessin’ from the way the body is laying,” Agen Holtross surmised, “the insurgents came from the alleyway behind us.”
Holtross, the weapons specialist of Norgale’s unit, re-walked the pathway of the laser bullets, starting from the alleyway to the location of the body. “I figure they ambushed the convoy when the Tredder workers began unloading the vehicle.”
Norgale glared at the Sekena onlookers who watched from the distance.
“You people need to be cooperating with us,” Norgale’s voice echoed down the street. “These men were Tredder relief workers—volunteers trying to promote peace between the Tredder and Sekena, and end the sectarian violence on Adrella. This murder occurred two hours ago! Some of you saw what happened. We need you to come forward. The UNE wants to work with you, to bring these killers to justice.”
“They will not do what you say,” B’urac said. “You cannot protect them from the Deg Kalot.”
“So we’re calling a spade a spade, are we?” Norgale eyed the Sekena diplomat. “This is definitely another Kalot killing, then?”
“You say that as if there was any doubt in your mind, Colonel.” The Tredder, Arung, said, glaring at Bu’rac. “I knew it the second I was informed of the murder.”
Kellington grimaced at the banter, as well as the timidity of the Sekena villagers. The iron grip of the Deg Kalot compelled them to silence. The Deg Kalot were a rogue, clandestine terrorist group operating in the countryside—their cause was Sekena sovereignty. This would make the fourth Kalot killing of a Tredder civilian in the past month, and the sixth in the past year that reached this level of atrocity.
“Damn it, these villagers know the Sekena who are behind these killings,” Norgale shook his head. “But there’s not a friggin’ thing I can do to get ’em to talk.”
“Why would they?” Arung sneered. “Half of them probably facilitated the assassination.”
“The gall of you, Tredder filth,” Bu’rac shot back. “The level of Tredder hypocrisy on this planet facilitated this assassination far more than any of the poor, downtrodden people you see here!”
“Downtrodden people who,” Arung replied, “if the UNE had the backbone to investigate properly, would uncover what you and I both know to be a network of terrorist—”
“Enough!” Norgale raised his voice. “Get the hell out of here. Both of you! This is a UNE investigation—we’ll handle it. The last thing I need is for you two to start clawing each other’s eyes out in public. Get out, now!”
Holtross escorted the Tredder statesmen back to his convoy, while Kellington guided the Sekena representative back into the village. The two UNE officers promptly returned to the murder scene.
“We better do something quick, sir.” Holtross said. “These hits are getting more gutsy, and Peacekeeper colors aren’t gonna make anyone safe anymore.”
Kellington frowned. After the forensic investigation was complete, they would be back to square one, trying to pinpoint the whereabouts of the suspected insurgents. As usual, Kellington knew exactly where Norgale would want to start—the Sekena village of Wresen. And, as a result, he knew his own dark secret would, once again, risk being exposed.
“Keep your heads up,” Norgale ordered Kellington and Holtross as they arrived at Wresen village. “You never know what’s waiting for us here.”
Wresen was 20 kilometers from the site of the most recent murder. Having been pushed out of the cities by the more powerful Tredder militia, Sekena settlements like Wresen had been confined to the hilly, undeveloped countryside. The three UNE officers parked their hovercraft on the village outskirts, then walked to the home of Kestona Priand, the spiritual leader in charge of the community.
“My head is always, up, sir,” Kellington said, fighting the urge to rebut Norgale’s warning. They had been here six times in the past two months, and hadn’t been attacked once.
“I hate this dung hole,” Holtross mumbled, adjusting his glasses. He, too, was a regular on Norgale’s interrogations, and had developed a bad taste for the Sekena. “I feel like if I don’t keep my head up, someone’s going to put a bullet through it.”
Kellington could repress his agitation no longer. “This place isn’t a hole, Agen. I was stationed here for six months, and there are no bullets in my head.”
“That’s because they’re in love with you,” Holtross chided him. “Them Sekena don’t wanna hurt their precious Rye-rye.”
“Knock it off, you idiots,” Norgale grumbled. “There’s Kalot in this village, I can smell them.” He spat on the ground. “What I can’t do is prove it, and that’s where I need you two to come in. Holtross, you’re bad cop today—if the Priand’s boys get in my face, you get in theirs. Ryan, you play good cop.” He turned and looked Kellington in the eye. “I want to you watch the Priand closely—his mannerisms, his body language—anything—that might suggest he’s lying. Count the beads of sweat on his forehead if you have to. Whatever it takes.”
“Yes sir,” Kellington nodded.
He could feel the importance Norgale had placed upon him. Norgale’s mission was to police the rural areas that surrounded Treada, the second-largest Tredder city on the planet, and all of the Kalot attacks this past month were within his district. He had specifically recruited Kellington for his investigative team. Kellington’s previous post on Adrella was as a UNE intermediary for the village of Wresen, and he had gotten to know the regulars quite well.
“Maybe Kelly and I can impress some of Kestona’s hot, little Sekena harem,” Holtross joked. “They can tell us all of his secrets.”
Norgale rolled his eyes at Holtross’ comment. Kellington, however, couldn’t resist the compulsion to respond.
“The Priand doesn’t have a harem,” he said. “They’re his daughters, and they don’t know anything about the Deg Kalot or politics. Sekena women are not allowed to partake in political affairs. It goes against their culture.”
“See them Sekena, they got it all figured out.” Holtross smirked. “Shut their women up, and make them do all the cooking, cleaning and whoring. There’s a lot we can learn from these freaks after all.”
Norgale spun around and struck Holtross just under the Adam’s apple. The weapons specialist collapsed to his knees, wheezing painful gasps that tried to reclaim the oxygen that had been sucked from his lungs. Kellington jolted back as though he’d walked into an electric fence.
Norgale grabbed Holtross by the back of the hair and lifted his red, gasping face directly in line with his. “Let’s get something straight here,” he growled. “Women are required to be subservient in Sekena culture. Humans were there too, for the first 2000 years of recorded history. Women on Earth were beaten, their sacrifices ignored, and they were treated like second-class citizens. The human race has evolved since then! We don’t need to learn a damn thing from the people of this primitive, wanton, backwards culture! Do I make myself clear?!”
“Y-yes sir.” Holtross gagged.
Norgale threw him to the ground. Kellington stood in front of his colleague so any Sekena that were watching had a compromised view of the event.
“Don’t make stupid comments like that again,” Norgale turned and headed towards the Priand’s house. “Thanks to Kellington, I’ve got a segway into this village. Kestona Priand is the best lead I have to capturing the Kalot killers. The last thing I want is for stupidity to ruin the progress I’ve made in getting his attention.”
Kellington helped Holtross to his feet.
“Well, that puts me in the doghouse.” Holtross wheezed, “You’re the poster boy now Kelly.”
“Yeah,” Kellington frowned, knowing full well that he himself was playing with a fire that would not only jeopardize his career, but the entire UNE mission on the planet. As they made their way to the Priand’s house, Kellington thought back to his starting mission in Wresen, the day he first encountered the Deg Kalot.
Nine Months Earlier—Wresen Village, Occupied Territories, Planet Adrella
“So you actually volunteered to come to Adrella?” Kellington’s superior, an older Norweigan gentlemen named Vely asked. “What crime did you commit in the Milky Way?”
“No crime,” Kellington shook his head, finishing the last bite of his sandwich. “I wanted—no…I needed to come here. I’m trying to find myself.”
“Well you’re not gonna find anything here.” Vely wiped his nose with his hand, before standing up. “The only thing a person’s going to find on Adrella is whole lotta hatred and even more bloodshed.”
“I want to help,” Kellington responded, trying not to get defensive. “I heard about this conflict. I want to make a difference.”
Vely snorted. The man was a major—he had red, bloodshot eyes, flushed cheeks, and a salt-and-pepper beard that made him look ten years older than he was. Now, two weeks into his mission, it had become became painfully obvious to Kellington that his “mentor” was a washed-up, bitter drunk who had been dumped in Wresen as punishment.
“The only difference you’re gonna make out here, kid, is to make sure you don’t get ripped to pieces while the Adrellans’ are tearing themselves apart.”
Kellington resumed his patrol with the cynical man—they were only fifteen minutes in their afternoon shift when the explosion deafened the village.
“What the hell was that?” Kellington shouted, ducking to the ground.
“Out by the Abbey!” Vely yelled, and immediately bolted down the secondary village road.
Kellington sprinted behind him. They ran two blocks, around the crumbly, sandstone buildings. Abbeys were the worship centers of every Sekena village, and a plume of smoke emerged from the open entranceway of the three-storey, stone brick temple. A small group of frightened Sekena swarmed the scene, unsure of what was going on. Shouting and screaming could be heard from inside the building. Two Sekena men backed slowly out of the open doors. Kellington recognized the ceremonial white dress—they were clerics. The men appeared to be pleading—negotiating as they held their hands up, holding their composure midst the hot, grey smoke that slithered out of the building.
“Please, put down your weapon,” one of the men wheezed. “This is a house of prayer that you’ve attacked.”
The tall Adrellan man they were speaking to emerged from the doors. It took Kellington a few moments to register that the man was a Tredder male. In front of him, the Tredder held a young Sekena female. Her arms were bound behind her back, and he had a shearing knife pressed to her throat.
“If anyone comes near me,” the Tredder blustered, “I’ll spill her gullet all over this monastery!”
“Freeze, don’t move!” Vely held his gun up, and spoke in harsh Adrellan. UNE officers, including Kellington, had been taught the basics of the language during their pre-op training. Having been immersed in it for two weeks, Kellington was learning to pick it up fast.
Kellington backed away and moved to the side of the church. With the Tredder male backing the two clerics down the stairs, there was a good chance the Tredder hadn’t spotted him. The Tredder appeared agitated. There didn’t appear to be any other perpetrators around.
“The bomb didn’t go off properly,” the Tredder man wailed, gripping the girl’s neck tight. “I was supposed to detonate the entire church. I failed them.”
“What are you talking about?” Vely approached the man cautiously. “Who did you fail?”
“You know who!” The Tredder screamed. White spittle shot out of his face. Kellington could see a small, black tattoo on the back of his neck. He recognized the mark as the symbol for a violent Tredder gang known as the Faces of Arnon.
“He’s an Arnon!” A young Sekena male with long, knotted hair fought his way through the crowd and pointed a threatening finger at the Tredder assailant. He had a wild, frenzied look in his eye. “Let go of her, traitor. Let go of my sister!”
The young man charged the Tredder, who slid his blade higher up the girl’s throat. Vely grabbed the Sekena male by the back of his robe, pulling him backwards. The assailant’s knife hand was exposed to Kellington, who had managed to creep closer behind the attacker. He would only have one shot at this—the problem was that the knife was embedded right under the girl’s jaw. One false move and–
“I’m no Arnon!” The Tredder assailant screamed. “Don’t you know? They’re forcing us to do these things. The Tredder gangs have my wife and child!”
“Liar!” The Sekena male responded. “You’re just saying that, you terrorist!”
“N’Stra!” The girl spoke to her brother. Her comment panicked the Tredder. She immediately started wheezing, Kellington couldn’t see what was going on.
“Back away!” The Tredder shrieked.
“Zora!” The brother charged the attacker.
BLAM! In a split second, the blood sprayed against the brother’s face, catching him off guard. There was a spill of shock as everyone registered what had happened. The Tredder assailant collapsed to his knees, blooding gushing from his hand that spilled onto the Abbey paving stones. The young woman fell forward in the opposite direction, dropping to her knees gasping for air.
Kellington was the only one certain about what had happened. He fired his weapon, striking the assailant’s hand, tearing it from his arm and splattering it in whatever direction the laser bullet took it. The knife went along with it, though he didn’t see where it went.
“Get on the ground now!” Vely immediately shot into action, hitting the Tredder in the head with the butt of his rifle. The man fell to the paving stones, writhing in agony.
“Zora.” the Sekena male went to his sister. “Zora, are you all right?”
Kellington skirted over to check if she was okay. Her hand was on her throat, but the only injury was a thin scratch where the assailant had held the blade.
She looked up at him, her eyes stressed but thankful. “You saved my life.” She started weeping. “Thank you, thank you, son omour.”
Kellington accepted the compliment. The girl was small in stature, but had red, flowing hair, rounded eyes, and a thin, delicate nartache.
“My name is Zora.” She shook his hand. He already knew her name.
“Thank-you, UNE,” her brother, N’Stra, acknowledged. “We are indebted to you.”
Kellington nodded, allowing himself to finally breathe. He made the split second call to take out the assailant’s hand, hurting no one but the attacker himself.
“Kellington!” Vely fumed. “Get your ass over here and help me. This guy’s bleeding like a stuck monteray.”
“Yes sir.” Kellington shot over.
The Tredder man lay weeping on the ground. He had crawled onto the grass, and was huddled over his wound, pressing his severed wrist against his body. Dry, purplish blood saturated the abbey’s lawn. A small group of Sekena gathered around him.
Kellington tried to get at the man’s wrist. “Sir, you need to let me cover your arm.” He pulled out a foil wrap from his utility pack. “We have to close your wound.”
“They have my wife, my sons,” the assailant stammered. He seemed oblivious to his injury. “They forced me to do this. To blow up this church.”
Vely broke in, agitated. “Get the damn bandage on him, and let’s get him out of here!” He started yelling at the Sekena who crowded around. “Everybody back off! I’m calling in a UNE med-vac transport. You need to clear the area, now!”
Kellington looked around. Vely’s comments confused him. “Sir, a med-vac won’t get here for at least 30 minutes. One of these people could get us a Sekena medic.”
“Back away!” Vely continued yelling, ignoring the young lieutenant’s comments. Several Sekena were in the background, desperately trying to skirt up water buckets to extinguish the fire in the abbey.
“Sir!” Kellington shouted. “We can get help here in the village!”
“Shut your trap, kid!” Vely came down to the grass, next to Kellington and the wounded man. “If we don’t get him out of here, this crowd is gonna beat him to a pulp.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“This bozo couldn’t have picked a worse girl to terrorize.” Vely explained, looking over his shoulder to ensure the Sekena kept at the perimeter.
Only now did Kellington realize many of them had collected shovels, clubs and wire, and had been circling around them like vultures around wounded prey.
“Those two?” Kellington motioned to Zora and N’Stra. “Who are they?”
“They’re children of Kestona Priand.”
“The head of the village?”
“The head of the damn village, yes!” Vely spat. “And the holy highness in charge of this abbey. The only thing saving this idiot right now is that half of the Sekena onlookers are trying to locate the Priand. It doesn’t look like he was in the building. Either way, we gotta get this turkey onto a UNE convoy or he’s gonna get ground into bird food.”
Kellington pressed the foil bandage tightly against the stub of the Tredder’s arm, keeping the bleeding somewhat contained for the moment. They brought the assailant to his feet but he was weak and disorientated. Kellington noticed Vely was only using one hand to support the man, the other hand was holding his gun.
It took all of about 15 seconds for Kellington to see why.
“Death to the Tredder,” a Sekena male in a black outfit emerged through the crowd. He moved fast, with almost stealth-like actions.
“Long live the Deg Kalot.” He finished.
Before Kellington could even register what the man said, a bright orange fireball shot out of the Kalot’s hand and burst into the face of the Tredder prisoner. Kellington’s only instinct was to leap away, covering himself from the blinding light and intense flame. He shielded his face in the blood-soaked grass, while the Tredder’s screams pierced the air behind him. Thankfully, they were short. Kellington and Vely quickly recovered, only to see that the crowd had dispersed, the assassin had vanished, and the Tredder man’s entire body consumed by fire. Kellington had managed to wrestle a water bucket away from one of the Sekena fire fighters, but it was too late. The man writhed on the grass in horrible agony as the fire melted his skin, face, and lungs, leaving only the smoldering outline of a blackened corpse at their feet. Every sight, sound, and smell from that horrible moment pierced through him like a spear.
“See what I mean, kid,” Vely glared at him, wheezing heavily, “welcome to Adrella.”
Present Day (2284 AD), Wresen Village, Adrella
“All right, are we ready to do this?” Norgale spoke with a gravelly whisper. “Kellington, mind your role. Holtross, keep your yap shut!”
The three officers approached the sandstone hut of Kestona Priand, the village leader. It was the largest home in Wresen.
Kellington looked at the building. Even though he had only left this posting six months earlier, it continued to feel awkward coming back. The problem was that he kept returning with Norgale, a man most Sekena thought of as spiteful, callous, and paranoid, and Kestona Priand was no exception.
Kellington tried to erase the image of the burning Tredder’s face as Norgale knocked on the door. The man’s story turned out to be legit—the Akron had killed his wife and child shortly after they discovered he had failed in his “mission” to blow up the church. Kellington couldn’t worry about that now. He had to keep focused on the present moment, because every second he stepped into this hut with Grey Norgale, he was navigating through a minefield.
N’Stra answered the door and eyed the three officers suspiciously.
“My father had nothing to do with the murder in that village,” N’Stra spoke directly to Norgale.
“It was another Kalot killing,” Norgale feigned a smile. “I’m just looking for information, that’s all.”
“Information. Right.” N’Stra rolled his eyes. “Because every time there’s a Kalot killing you come here for the exact same thing, and yet every time you leave here with nothing, so I can see why you’d want to come back again.”
“We just want to ensure all the Priands in the region were accounted for,” Kellington spoke. “It’s a formality, N’Stra.”
N’Stra turned to Kellington, glaring at him with hurt, betrayed eyes. “You’ve got that right, Mr. Kellington.” His tone was acerbic. “It is a formality.”
The sound of an angry voice echoed from inside the house. N’Stra looked like he wanted to slam the door in the officer’s faces; instead, he allowed them to enter. He kept his back to them, and led them to the back of the hovel.
The Priand’s quarters were modest—the room was long, narrow and cramped. The only light came from a dying glowstone in the corner of the room. There was a small desk, shelf and chair in the corner, and it was there that they found the village leader, hunched over in his grey robe, walking to his desk. He was nattering to a young woman with reddish-brown hair who was helping him to his seat. Kellington knew her—it was Zora, Kestona’s oldest daughter. She had become the Priand’s nurse-maid, and was not allowed to speak out loud in their presence. Sensing his daughter’s sudden rigidity, the Priand turned to face the three officers.
“I know why you’re here, Colonel,” the Priand greeted them callously. He was an elderly man, with messy white hair, bushy eyebrows, and a heavyset beard that hid his nartache. “The insurgents struck again yesterday. I have been informed of the details, you don’t need to repeat them to me. I can only tell you that the Tredder who was killed was a raider. He even attacked our village once.”
“He was a UNE employee.” Norgale growled. “Part of our Adrella reclamation project. We’ve been taking distressed Tredder youth, educating them about tolerance and cooperation, then sending them out to Sekena villages to bridge the gap between the two cultures. And this is how the Sekena choose to repay him.”
Kestona slammed his fist on his desk. “That boy was a plant, general. He was scouting our villages, pinpointing the location of Sekena citizens, and reporting them back to the Tredder gangs in the city!” The Priand’s anger forced him to take a deep breath—Zora immediately went to his aid, whispering to him in their native tongue, trying to calm him down.
“Begots, Zora!” Kestona cursed, shoving the girl back to the corner. Kellington resisted the urge to shake his head.
The old man pointed a threatening finger at Norgale. “I’ve told you before, Colonel, the Tredder are pulling the wool over your eyes. It’s not enough that they have banished us to the Badlands, they want to wipe us out as a species.”
Norgale frowned. He had been through this argument a dozen times before with the Priand. “The Tredder and Sekena leadership have committed to the peace process. The UNE have also committed, and we will not allow a group of rag-tag terrorists to destroy that. The Deg Kalot must be stopped. They are the only organization resorting to this level of debauchery and violence—”
“That you know of, Colonel.” Kestona cut him off. “But the Tredder act discreetly. They evicted us to the Badlands to make us vulnerable. Their evening ambushes and political arrests continue to eliminate my people one by one, and they’re doing it right under your noses. They join these so called ‘reclamation projects’ to provide a cover to make the Sekena look like the barbarians who don’t want peace.”
Norgale rolled his eyes. “The Kalot assassins disintegrated the victims’ heads. And you’re telling me those aren’t the actions of ‘barbarians’?”
“Disintegrating the head is a symbol among the Deg Kalot, to call attention to a person’s dishonorable life.” Kestona shrugged. “I cannot control the anger and resentment of my people. I can only acknowledge it for what it is.”
“Then be damn sure to acknowledge this among your people,” Norgale growled. “The UNE will not tolerate this butchery, from the Tredder or the Sekena. And mark my words, we will put an end to it.”
“You have no right to speak to our Priand in that tone!” N’Stra shouted. He charged in front of Norgale and thrust his finger in his face.
“And you have no right barking orders at our Colonel, Punk!” Holtross shoved the young Sekena backwards.
“Get your hands off me.” N’Stra regained his bearings and shoved Holtross back.
“N’Stra!” The Priand shouted in his own language to the boy.
“Cool it, you guys.” Kellington stepped between the two. “This is not what we’re here for.”
“Yeah, and what are you here for, Ryan?” N’stra’s lashed out. “You station yourself in our village, become our friend, then leave us, and now you’re here investigating my father every other week. Thanks for your support.”
“I’m doing my duty, N’stra,” Kellington replied with an even tone, though N’Stra’s words cut deep. “It’s what I always do, you know that about me.”
“Whatever,” N’Stra grumbled. Kellington tried to look him in the eye, but N’Stra turned away. Zora guided her brother to the back corner.
“Be sure to take my message to the other Priands.” Norgale spoke directly to Kestona, un-phased by the altercation. “One of them will bring it to the Deg Kalot.”
That evening Kellington arrived back in the village, this time on a monteray—a slug-like creature with rubbery, rose-colored skin and 20 wiry legs that gave it the appearance of a giant centipede. Domesticated by Adrellans for centuries, the creature was ideal for desert travel because it required little water, and had a cooperative temperament. It also drew less attention than a UNE hovercraft, as monterays were commonplace and didn’t stir up anxiety among Sekena settlements, the way UNE vehicles seemed to be doing of late.
Kellington tied his monteray to a feeding pen just outside of the village. From there he walked into Wresen on foot. He was dressed in civilian clothes—brown slacks, a sand colored shirt and a thick jacket for evening travel. He walked casually through the village, praying that he wouldn’t draw attention to himself. With the sunlight waning, there was a solid chance no one would notice him, but he despised himself for even taking the gamble. He had accepted the transfer out of Wresen the second Norgale offered it to him—it was what he had wanted his whole life, to serve in a peacekeeping corps in outer space. Yet as fast as he attained his childhood dream, he found himself yearning to go back to Wresen, to his old life as a liaison officer. It was maddening and mindboggling, this roller coaster of indecision that he was on.
As he approached the Priand’s home, Kellington spotted Zora behind the house, carrying two oversize, metal oxygen cylinders. She headed towards her family’s storage shed, about twenty yards from her dwelling.
“Hello Ma’am,” Kellington approached cautiously, so he didn’t startle her. “Let me help you with that.”
She appeared hesitant, but passed both canisters to him.
“Refilling your dad’s oxygen?”
Kellington already knew the answer. Adrellans had devised a crafty mechanism for harvesting oxygen from the atmosphere, and Kestona Priand had the only harvester in Wresen capable of doing so. But the small talk helped Kellington break the awkwardness as he accompanied Zora across the yard.
“He already has a full tank.” Zora replied. “This is extra in case he requires it tomorrow.”
“Right,” Kellington said. “I could tell from this morning’s visit that his breathing is getting worse. I’m very sorry to see that.”
She unlocked the shed and opened the door, then ignited the glowstone that lit up the room. Kellington carried in the two canisters and set them down on the gritty, wooden floor.
“There you are,” he said. “Can I assist you with anything else?”
She eased the door closed behind him. She immediately went to him, pressing her face and lips against his. He stooped low and kissed her in return, pulling her waist towards his own. She was a full head shorter than he and more lightweight. He kissed the nape of her neck and her hands reached into his jacket, under his shirt, and rubbed along his hands, across his shoulders, and chest. His hands reached down underneath her robes, lifting up the red silk and grabbing her bottom, picking her up in his arms. He pressed her against the shed wall and moved his right hand up her leg and thigh. His mouth returned to hers, kissing her lips, and the soft fleshy skin of her nartache. It was so incredibly wrong, so unnatural and surreal, to be kissing, groping, fondling an alien, but he liked it, wanted it. Wanted it so badly he traveled across the desert at sundown, risking exposure from UNE patrols or suspicious Sekena residents wondering why he was traveling to Wresen so late in the evening.
They stood against the wall, his crotch pressed against hers. They looked at each other in silence, breathing heavily, wanting so badly to go further, but holding back only by the fear of getting caught. Zora finally spoke.
“My brothers or sisters may come looking for me,” she told him. “I wasn’t expecting you to come here tonight. If I was, I could have-”
“No, don’t—” he hushed her gently, “I shouldn’t have come, especially so soon after all that commotion this morning with Norgale and N’Stra. It’s just that seeing you today in that room, not being able to say anything to you.”
“I know,” she held her finger to his lips—it was her turn to shush him. “I hated every minute of it. But I don’t understand why you’re here. I thought we agreed we shouldn’t be doing this anymore.”
She’s right, Kellington closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against hers. What the hell am I doing here?
They had this conversation a hundred times before. He was a UNE officer, forbidden to be in a personal or sexual relationship with an alien inhabitant of a UNE protectorate. She was the eldest daughter of a Sekena Priand, whose duty was to serve as executor to her father’s wishes, and a servant inside her family’s church. She was forbidden to marry until her father’s death, and a new Priand for her village was chosen—even then it was presumed that her spouse would be anyone but a Tredder or a human.
“I needed to talk to you anyway,” Kellington explained, changing the subject. “Norgale, for whatever reason, wants to connect your father to the Deg Kalot killings. If your dad has even the remotest idea who’s orchestrating the attacks—”
“My father is innocent—he has nothing to do with the Kalot,” Zora stopped him. “The only cause of suspicion your Colonel has is my father’s frustration with the UNE, and the concessions they are giving to the Tredder. The Colonel has no other leads to pursue.”
“I know,” Kellington nodded. “But the attacks are escalating, and there’s more pressure on us to stop them-”
“Pressure that comes from your Tredder allies,” Zora challenged.
“Pressure that comes from Earth’s General Assembly,” Kellington corrected. “The whole point of UNE intervention on Adrella is stop the violence. The Deg Kalot is making us look like failures.”
“Maybe Earth will send more troops to our planet,” Zora caressed his cheek. “Then they can send you back to Wresen, to work here again.”
“I don’t know, Zora,” Kellington shook his head. “I mean, right now I’m in tight with Norgale. I can help him track down the Kalot, and keep protecting your father.”
He writhed in agitation. Every time he professed his feelings for her he felt like a traitor. None of his fellow soldiers, no one on the UNE, would understand. He wasn’t certain he understood either. As stressful as his Wresen posting was, the one bright spot was his relationship with Zora. Against every inclination he had, he had fallen in love with this woman—this alien woman—and he couldn’t bear to break her heart.
“Caleida,” she spoke softly, soothing his neck with her fingertips. Caledia was the Sekena word for “my love.” She could sense the tension, the uncertainty, in his demeanor.
They kissed and embraced for a few more minutes, interrupted only when one of her younger brothers knocked on the door.
“Zora, sister, are you there?” The young boy spoke through the door, “N’Stra wants you to bring in the Priand’s air tank.”
N’Stra opened the door a crack. “Begots, N’Seen. The tanks need cleaning before I fill them—tell N’Stra they’re coming.”
Kellington hid in the corner while Zora sent the boy away.
“I’d better get out of here,” Kellington sighed. “The last thing any of us need is for your brother to catch me here.”
“Do not worry about N’Stra,” Zora caressed his cheek. “He is our father’s oldest son, and his protector. Like you, he is loyal to his duty, but he is young and hotheaded and not ready for the diplomatic responsibilities of his position. What he said to you this morning he said only out of frustration with Colonel Norgale. He knows the predicament you’re in.”
“Yeah,” Kellington frowned. “It’s moments like this that I wish I had never left Wresen.”
“But if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to help my father the way you are now,” Zora looked him in the eye. “You are trying to protect him, Ryan. N’Stra and I both see that, and we love you for it.”
“Thank-you,” Kellington kissed her forehead.
He helped her refill the oxygen cylinders, then snuck out of the yard as she carried the tanks back to her house. He blew her a kiss as he walked onto the village road, and she returned it with a subtle wave. He made his way back to the monteray, and rode into the chilly, black desert, which mirrored the loneliness he felt in his heart.
Two days later, Operation Dil was announced.
Kellington sat at the briefing, not at all surprised by the Colonel’s announcement. The orders came directly from Earth, from the Security Council itself, though there was no doubt in Kellington’s mind that Norgale had influenced the decision. The fact that the UNE had no leads, no suspects, and no evidence in the Deg Kalot killings was seen as a diplomatic embarrassment. It would only be a matter of time before the intergalactic media caught wind of the attacks.
“The UNE can’t afford to look weak and ineffective.” Norgale explained to the soldiers, who had been called into the meeting room that morning. “We cannot allow a group of rag-tag outlaws to undermine our authority on this planet. Effective immediately, our troops will be stationed at key positions in Tredder cities around the clock. Our intention will be to intercept and deter any Deg Kalot attack on innocent Tredder civilians or UNE personnel.”
Kellington tried to focus on the Norgale’s speech, but instead he found himself returning to thoughts of Zora. The Operation would only hinder any chances he would have of forming a serious relationship with her, yet seeing her two days earlier brought back an avalanche of feelings. He knew that he would be ostracized by his colleagues and commanders for his relationship. That being said, he had come to terms with how he felt, and what he would do about it. It would just have to take time. He needed to be patient.
Norgale paused for a second on the podium, appearing to think carefully about his next words. The pause allowed Kellington to refocus on the Colonel.
“We have received intelligence,” Norgale continued, “of a suspected Kalot assault in Treada City. We don’t know the particulars of the attack, but we believe it will occur sometime in the next week.”
“Our source is credible,” Norgale shifted his eyes to where Kellington, Holtross, and the rest of his regular unit were sitting, “and I will be placing my best officers as undercover operatives inside the city.”
Kellington glanced at Holtross, who gave him a thumbs-up.
Their duties for the week had been set.
Tredder clothing was loose and breathable to accommodate the heat of the daytime Adrellan sun—the silk-like material hung to the knees and made Kellington feel like he was wearing a dress. Two days wearing the disguise and he still wasn’t used to it.
The Tredder clothing, however, was the lesser of two evils. The real problem had been the make-up. Since their mission began two days ago, the men in his unit had to be up at 4 AM to begin the tedious process of allowing the specialists to mold Adrellan ridges on their foreheads, and customize the nartache tubules under their noses. Altogether, the entire procedure took three hours, and the men were forced to spend the entire day in the get-up, posing as everyday citizens of Treada—walking the streets, visiting markets, and loitering around.
“I wish this didn’t take three frickin’ hours to put on,” Holtross grumbled as the three undercover officers sat down in a quiet park.
As much as Kellington hated the get-up, Holtross was a bigger whiner. Thankfully, the sun was overcast and there hadn’t been a need to retouch runny make-up.
“I hope someone catches these rudders soon,” Coleridge yawned. He was the third man in their unit, a young British Private. “The thought of sitting in that make-up chair any longer makes me want to mutiny. Stick me in a cookhouse boiling potatoes, please!”
“They wouldn’t stick you in a cookhouse for mutiny,” Holtross cut in. “They’d stick you in a Tredder labor camp, which makes any human prison look like preschool.”
“Anything’s better than this bloody make-up,” Coleridge fumbled with his upper lip. “These stupid nartaches annoy the hell out of me.”
“Leave it alone, it’s fine,” Kellington spoke up.
“It feels like I got a sausage hanging under my nose.” Coleridge complained.
“Come on Colly,” Holtross chided, “Just imagine what it would be like kissing someone with one of those.”
He puckered his lips and made a smooching noise.
“You’d get two wet ones,” Coleridge chuckled, “one on the lips and one over your nose. Very sexy.”
“Those lips would suck your eyeballs out through your nostrils.” Holtross snorted. “And French kissing? I don’t even wanna go there…”
“I’d sooner kiss a Tredder than a Sekena,” Coleridge replied. “Tredder nartaches are thicker, like a hot dog. Sekenas’ are thin, like an earthworm.”
“I’d sooner kiss a dog or a worm,” Holtross chortled.
“Okay, enough already,” Kellington interrupted. “Change the subject, please. We have a mission to carry out.”
“Yeah, Colly, you’re offending a senior officer!” Holtross swatted the young private on the head, then pointed to Kellington. “Kelly’s by the book. The poor guy was stationed in Wresen and had to live with those Sekena freaks for six months. I’m surprised he didn’t grow his own nartache working there for that long.”
“Cripes man,” Coleridge looked at Kellington. “How’d you do it?”
“By doing my duty,” Kellington said, tapping his watch. He was designated unit leader, and tried to make it sound like he wasn’t deliberately changing the subject. “Break time’s over boys, back to be being Tredder citizenry.”
“Always by the book, Kelly,” Holtross shook his head as he gathered up his gear. “You pay close attention to this guy, Coleridge. He’s the model soldier of the UNE—not a blemish on his record, not one extra minute spent on any break.”
“That’s me, all right,” Kellington grimaced. “Model soldier.”
The attack came sudden and furious, late in the day, and none of them were ready for it.
The three men walked down a crowded thoroughfare in their disguises. Small engine vehicles and large monterays congested the street, while dozens of Tredder citizens lined the pathways. None of the three soldiers spotted the Tredder peace officer patrolling the streets—they should have noticed his grey tunic, which distinguished him from the tan robes the regular citizens wore.
Kellington had no idea about Coleridge and Holtross, but he knew why he himself didn’t notice the patrolman. His mind was on Zora. His colleagues’ jokes in the park didn’t sit right with him, and he agonized over whether he was losing his better judgment. He didn’t want to feel this way about her. She was an alien female—everything about her – physical appearance, smaller stature, her foreign culture—was all wrong for him, for any human male. Their affair began on a whim shortly after the incident at the temple ten months earlier. She was one of the few residents of that tried to get to know him, because, Kellington supposed, his actions saved her life. Over time, however, he became attracted to her. He found himself working into situations when he could be alone with her, and they began a nightly ritual of having long, deep conversations in private. He tried to keep the tone professional, talking about Adrellan culture and history. But as their talks progressed, they became more intimate, personal, and wholly inappropriate. They started flirting like teenagers, then one day as they stayed behind to clean up after a festival, she kissed him—playfully at first, but when he returned the kiss, she kissed him harder and before he knew it, he was on top of her, his hands under her tunic and touching her skin. The whole experience was surreal and wonderful.
I’d sooner kiss a dog, Holtross’ voice popped into his head.
Stop it, you idiot, Kellington chastised himself. You’re in love with her.
Omigod, I just admitted it . He slowed up on the street, letting his two cohorts walk ahead of him. He felt like he stepped through a locked door. He closed his eyes and felt the spark ignite in his chest. I’m in love with Zora, and that’s all there is to it.
A feeling of intense pleasure settled in his heart, and for the first time in a long time on Planet Adrella, he felt at peace.
The Tredder patrol officer stood at the edge of the street, and was scolding two Sekena children who appeared to be unsupervised. A group of laughing Tredder women on the other side of the pathway caught Kellington’s attention, and it was then that the platform vehicle pulled over on the opposite side of the road. The three UNE operatives walked past the officer when the first shots rang out.
They were dull pops—Kellington’s first thought was that the platform vehicle backfired, but the screaming on the street jarred his attention. Laser bullets zinged over their heads as the peace officer tried to take cover, but there was nothing to hide behind. It was obvious he was the intended target. Two assassins, dressed in black masks and combat suits charged after the patrolman, firing indiscriminately at him, and sending a barrage of stray bullets into crowded areas.
“Holy hell!” Holtross cursed, as all three officers dove to the ground.
Kellington tried reaching for his sidearm, hidden underneath his tunic, but it was caught in his holster. He looked up in panic to he see the Tredder patrolman fall to his knees a few feet in front of him.
“Long live the Kalot!” One of the assassins held up his firearm. “Long live the Sekena!”
He grabbed the back of the officer’s head and stuck his gun into the man’s temple.
“Traitor to Adrella!” The assassin shouted and pulled the trigger.
With the sound of a balloon pop, the laser bullet detonated the officer’s head, sending a spray of blood across the thoroughfare. A harsh mist hit Kellington’s face like an explosion of tiny rocks. The officer’s torso fell to the ground. His head was completely disintegrated. The other Kalot assassin fired blindly into the crowd.
“That is what you get for betraying your Adrellan brethren,” the assassin shouted, shooting at two women who bolted for cover inside a Tredder clothing store. “Sekena liberation forever!”
Kellington leapt to his feet. Both attackers had their backs to him. In a fit of rage, Kellington leapt over the headless torso and tackled the shooter to the ground, driving his skull into the dirt road.
The second assassin didn’t notice until he heard his partner wail. He turned his gun on Kellington and started firing. Kellington dove behind a vending stand. The assailant’s bullets tore through the stand, shattering the wood over Kellington’s head. The firing stopped and was replaced by a hurricane of bullets—this time from the guns of Coleridge and Holtross, which struck the assailant in the face and chest, pummeling him to the ground like a detonated building.
Kellington recovered, setting his sights on the first attacker he had tackled. The man had gotten up and leapt into traffic, skirting between an agitated monteray and a stalled hovercycle.
“Oh no, you don’t!” Kellington hollered, jumping back to his feet. He yanked his sidearm free. Around the monteray’s backside, he saw the Kalot operative sprint into an alleyway across the street.
“Call in our locale!” Kellington barked at his two partners, as he pointed to the alleyway. “I’m going after the runner.”
“Wait,” Holtross yelled but Kellington had already entered the alley.
Sandwiched between two tall, sandstone brick buildings, the alley was narrow with limited light. A cloak of shadow enveloped him, prompting Kellington to throw himself against the wall—a good move considering the laser bullets that sizzled past him.
Instead of shooting, Kellington watched his assailant stumble up the alley, then turn around the corner. The operative was sloppy—he was wounded from the blow to the head Kellington had given him a minute earlier.
I am not letting you get away, you SOB, Kellington thought. This could be his chance, to apprehend a Deg Kalot, and acquire the evidence that would get the UNE off of Kestona Priand’s back.
He skirted along the edge of the alleyway, then broke into a sprint. He rounded the corner full throttle. His gumption paid off as he gained on the assailant, who was clearly rattled by his surroundings. Directly ahead of him a second T emerged in the alleyway, and Kellington saw the attacker head left, knowing a right hand turn would return him to the street, and the angry Tredder civilians he had just attacked.
Kellington knew the alleyway, and the layout of the city sector. He burst through the back door of what appeared to be a brothel. A Tredder woman in a waist-high tunic screeched when she saw him charge through her hallway. Kellington barreled out the front door, leapt over a front rail, and clothes-lined the Kalot assailant as he staggered around the corner.
The assailant tried to put up a fight. Kellington immediately reached for the attacker’s gun hand. Operating on pure adrenaline, Kellington gained a solid footing, and rammed the Kalot operative into the far wall. He kneed the Sekena in the belly, wrestled the gun from his grasp then drove the heel of it into the assailant’s temple, knocking him to the ground.
The Kalot operative rolled over on his back. Breathing heavily, Kellington held his own weapon on the man.
“You’re under arrest, on the authority of the United Nations of Earth,” he said, as he bent down and grabbed the assailant’s mask. The man sat up, trying to resist, but Kellington was stronger, and he had the guns. He pulled off the assailant’s mask.
“Not so tough now that we see your face, are you-” Kellington quipped but tailed off once he recognized the alien male sitting at his feet.
“N’Stra?” Kellington’s heart sizzled in his chest. Sitting at his feet, in Sekena combat gear, was Zora’s own brother, the son of Kestona Priand. A man who just minutes before disintegrated the head of the Tredder peacekeeper.
“N’Stra, what the hell are you doing?” Kellington voice rose. He looked around, there was no one in the alley. Shock tore into him like a bullet.
“I’m fighting for the Sekena people,” N’Stra spoke through gritted teeth. There was blood in his mouth. “The age of our oppression is behind us.”
“Does Zora know?” Kellington asked, and regretted asking it the instant he said it, because he knew the answer.
“We work for the good of the Sekena people,” N’Stra repeated, giving Kellington all the information he needed.
Norgale’s suspicions were correct. Kestona Priand was a leader of the Deg Kalot, if not the prime leader. N’Stra was one of his agents—Zora too, it appeared. Kellington felt like he had been stabbed in the stomach.
“You’re under arrest,” Kellington muttered. “Get up.” Kellington grabbed him by the arm and yanked him to his feet.
“My sister is proud of my actions,” N’Stra said, “I’m ready for whatever punishment you dole out to me. I’m willing to die for what I did—”
“Shut up!” Kellington yelled. The betrayal ate at him like acid. It took every fiber of his being to throw N’Stra against the wall, knowing he had to arrest the brother of the woman he loved, wanted, adored.
Holtross bolted around the corner, gun drawn. He stopped in his tracks when he spotted Kellington handcuffing the Sekena male.
“You got him, Kelly?” Holtross said in disbelief. He lowered his firearm and approached the Kalot assailant. “Is that our man?”
“Yes,” Kellington answered.
“Excellent,” Holtross glared at the Sekena male. Then suddenly, like a bull, he charged forward and struck the boy in the mouth.
“Hey!” Kellington yelled, shoving Holtross backward.
“Not so tough now, are you buddy?” Holtross yelled at the boy, ignoring Kellington. “Can’t go blowing people’s heads off when you have to see them face to face, huh?”
“Okay, Agen,” Kellington said. “Back off, he’s got due process.”
“Due process,” Holtross scoffed. “Did the Tredder cop he shot get any due process? How about whoever else you killed, hey pu—”
Holtross stopped mid sentence, as he paused to look closer at the boy.
“Wait a minute,” Holtross said. “Kelly, do you know who you got here?”
Kellington’s heart sank. His only response was to writhe in agitation. He couldn’t think straight.
“This is Kestona’s son.” Holtross cheered like he just won the lottery. “Kelly, you did it, we got him, man. We got ’em all!”
Holtross grabbed Kellington around the shoulders and hugged him. He didn’t notice Kellington’s rigidity.
“We got you, you little dickweed,” Holtross goaded N’Stra. “We got you, and now we got your whole frickin’ family. Norgale was right. You are Deg Kalot. Well, guess what? We’re gonna lock you, your old man, and your whore sister up, and then hand you over to the Tredder, who’ll turn you into the toilet paper we wipe our asses with.”
“Holtross, shut it,” Kellington spat, “that’s not professional. We don’t know if the Priand is aware of what his son’s been doing—”
“Screw it, Kelly,” Holtross laughed. “This punk, nor his creepy old man, are worth defending. It would take an idiot to not figure out that Kestona’s been lying to us all along, protecting little Johnny boy here.”
He shoved N’Stra against the wall. Kellington stepped between them, holding Holtross at bay.
Holtross backed off, rubbing his hand over Kellington’s head in delight. He retained the intimidating stare and kept it fixed onto N’Stra.
“Because I love my man, Kelly here,” Holtross spoke to the young Sekena—his voice was lively but threatening, “I’ll leave you alone for now. But your life, and the life of your family, is over. You belong to us now, and I’ll be sure to tell the Tredder everything you did so that—”
BAAAAM! The shot was quick but loud, and reverberated through the air. Holtross’ head snapped back like a spring. The laser bullet cut off the top of his skullcap. He fell backwards onto the gritty, alley floor, his eyes rolled back into his head.
Kellington held N’Stra’s gun. He could feel the heat from the discharge crawl up his arm. It was the only sensation he could feel in his otherwise numb body. He promptly drew his own firearm and fired three shots blindly into the blackness of the alley behind him. The sounds of the laser bullets striking the sandstone wall were like hollow thuds.
N’Stra looked at him in shock.
“Ryan, what in the gods are you doing?!”
“Take your gun,” Kellington’s voice was robotic, distant. He undid N’Stra’s handcuffs and gave him back his handgun. “Get out of here now. Go.”
“Ryan,” N’Stra bumbled, “my gods, I…”
“GET OUT OF HERE, NOW!” Kellington shouted, putting his own gun up to N’Stra’s forehead. “Hide! Do it!” The spite, the anguish, was evident in his words.
N’Stra turned and ran, disappearing around the corner, leaving Kellington alone in the suddenly cold, empty alleyway. He knew he needed to act fast.
He grabbed his handheld, and turned on his voice transmitter.
“Coleridge, Coleridge, state your location! Code red!”
“I’m at the scene, still awaiting Tredder authorities. Are you in trouble? Holtross just went in to cover you.”
“Yes, yes!” Kellington’s voice went into a panic. Having to vocalize his situation brought his emotion to the fore. “Man down. Repeat, man down! Holtross and I were ambushed. Holt’s hurt bad and—” He couldn’t finish his sentence.
“Oh God,” Coleridge’s voice wavered. “C-copy that. I’ll call in the medics.”
“Roger…” Kellington tailed off, dropping his communicator.
Agony, regret, and unequivocal comprehension struck him like lightning bolts. He collapsed to his knees over the body of his dead colleague, and burst into painful tears at the understanding of what he had just done.
Two Hours Later
Kellington sat on the ground, his face buried in his hands. At some point the daylight disappeared and the UNE convoys moved in, but he had been oblivious to it all.
“I’m sorry Lieutenant Kellington,” the chief investigator asked. “Could you clarify your position again when you and Lieutenant Holtross were ambushed by the assailant? I’m unclear on where the assailant shot the Lieutenant—”
“Staff Sergeant!” A loud, gruff voice echoed over Kellington’s shoulder. It was Norgale, bolting out of the alley. “This line of questioning is inappropriate. I told you it can wait!”
The Staff Sergeant immediately went rigid, though the disappointment was evident in his voice.
“Yes, you did, sir. Sorry, sir!” The Sergeant saluted, then turned and walked toward the scene of the shooting.
Norgale slapped Kellington’s back and sat down beside him.“This isn’t an easy time, soldier. Losing a colleague never is.”
Kellington stared straight ahead. He couldn’t look Norgale in the eye.
“Now see here, son,” Norgale squeezed his shoulder, “I know this is devastating, seeing your friend killed before your eyes, but we can’t let Agen’s death be for nothing. I need you Ryan, I need you with me to see Kestona…I have to go sooner than later.”
Kellington turned to face his commanding officer for the first time that evening.
“You’re going again?” he asked.
“We’ve connected the dead assassin to Wresen,” Norgale nodded. “Apparently he’s a servant in one of Kestona’s relative’s houses. So that SOB has to know something about the other assassin, the one who killed Holtross. Having you there helps take the edge off. Helps me forge a relationship with the Priand—maybe one day the old bugger will actually slip up, and give me a lead.”
I could give you a big lead, Colonel, Kellington thought but didn’t say out loud.
“Yes Colonel,” Kellington told his commander instead, with all the resolve he could muster in his fumbling voice. “I’ll go with you, sir.”
“Gentlemen,” the Priand greeted them, “I am not surprised to enjoy your presence this morning.”
Norgale and Kellington stood across from Kestona Priand in his living quarters the next day. The room felt cold, despite the mild weather outside.
The Priand reclined in his chair. He appeared calm, complacent. Zora stood next to him. She seemed fidgety, not looking any of the UNE officers in the eye. Kellington stared straight at her. Anger, betrayal, regret—all of it festered inside of him. He needed every muscle in his face to keep from scowling.
N’Stra stood in the corner, in the shadows. His lip was fat and swollen, and he had a noticeable scratch on his forehead. As was the custom, he answered the door and brought the officers into his father’s den, though this time he said nothing.
“What happened to your boy’s face?” Norgale acknowledged N’Stra’s wounds.
“A wild monteray reared itself in the stables,” Kestona answered for his son. “My boy was careless. He put himself in a vulnerable position and didn’t have the proper safeguards in place. The beast’s backside rammed him into a support beam.”
“Well, one of my men was killed yesterday.” Norgale cut to the chase. “Agen Holtross. Shot in the head by one of the Kalot assassins that attacked Treada City.”
The Priand closed his eyes and nodded. “I am truly sorry for your loss.”
“By now you know that one of the assassins killed at the scene was from this village.” Norgale continued. “Together with his as-of-yet unidentified partner, the culprit murdered a Tredder peace officer and wounded three civilians. My Lieutenant was killed pursuing the assailant that got away.”
Kestona shifted in his seat at Norgale’s words. For the first time, the Priand looked uncomfortable. It was painfully obvious to Kellington why.
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Colonel,” Kestona crossed his legs. “Obviously, I am dismayed—horrified, in fact—that a citizen in my village would go so far as to attack a UNE officer.”
“Did you know the boy?” Norgale asked.
“I didn’t know him personally,” Kestona replied, “but he did live with my great nephew and his family. I promise you, Colonel, we will be conducting a full investigation into this boy and his connections. I can tell you that he was an orphan from the Badlands, brought into my village by my nephew. The boy’s father was shot and killed, apparently by the very Tredder officer he targeted yesterday.”
That’s a lie, Kellington lashed out in his mind, seeing for the first time the man Kestona Priand really was. It was N’Stra who killed the Tredder officer, while the other assailant fired blindly into the crowd. Kestona answered so matter-of-factly that he appeared genuine, but what he was really doing was justifying the Kalot cause which, Kellington realized, was what the Priand had been doing all along.
Of course, the Priand knew Kellington’s dark secret as well. All Kellington could do was hide his dismay.
“I would like to work together with you on that investigation,” Norgale responded. “The UNE is prepared to secure the safety of your village in light of these Kalot infiltrations.”
Kestona frowned at the gesture, “I suppose you’re not giving me much choice in the matter,” the old man said. “We’re getting your help whether we want it or not, is that what you’re telling me?”
Norgale kept an even tone. “You know Lieutenant Kellington quite well,” he gestured to his left, where Kellington stood.
“Of course I know Ryan,” Kestona nodded.
“Agen Holtross, the soldier that was killed yesterday, was best friends with Lieutenant Kellington,” Norgale explained. “Ryan was forced to witness his best friend’s skull be blown off because of that Kalot assassin.”
“Now, I would ask the Lieutenant,” Norgale turned to face Kellington directly, “if he could explain to us his feelings on the Deg Kalot, and the need to protect this village from the threat they pose.”
Kellington took a moment to collect himself. He had known this was coming. This was Norgale’s attempt to force UNE investigators into Wresen, and use Kellington to appease the Priand.
“I believe the Deg Kalot to be a barbaric force, your holiness,” Kellington’s voice wavered. “I believe they are the biggest obstacle to peace on Adrella, and I pledge to serve the United Nations of Earth in its commitment to rid them from this planet. I am here to protect the Adrellan people—Sekena and Tredder—from these monsters.”
The room fell quiet. Kestona stared at Kellington. Zora looked down at the floor.
“A very noble cause,” the Priand finally said, nodding in respect, “You must do what you need to, my son.”
“That’s settled then, I’ll bring my investigators here this afternoon,” Norgale appeared smug. “We look forward to working with you, Kestona. We’ll keep your village safe.”
“Now, wait just a minute, Colonel—” The Priand cut him off.
Kellington ignored the rest of the political banter. Instead, he stood rigid, his eyes shifted to Zora, who returned his stare. He could see the uncertainty, the heartbreak, in her face. There was so much to say, but nothing that could be said. He could feel the burgeoning need between the two of them to talk, to tell each other everything, and explain their actions. Kellington saw N’Stra standing in the corner, watching them. It was blatantly clear that he had told his sister everything.
The investigation concluded late into the evening. As expected, no major leads were uncovered by Norgale’s team. Kellington was forced to keep watch outside of the hut that the deceased Kalot assassin had been living in. He said nothing to anyone during that time. He stood for a full two hours before a hooded figure emerged from the shadows and approached him.
“I don’t have much time,” Zora said to him, glancing around to make sure no noticed their conversation.
“What the hell is going on, Zora?” Kellington growled, fighting to keep his voice down. “You’ve been lying to me this entire time, haven’t you?”
“N’Stra and I are Deg Kalot,” Zora nodded. “N’Stra is an operative. He carries out missions for the circuit. I help organize the resistance in our area.”
“You’re cold-blooded murderers.” Kellington spoke through gritted teeth.
“Are we now?” Zora challenged. “I guess that makes three of us, doesn’t it?”
Kellington turned his head away. He should shoot her in the leg, and arrest her on the spot. Then turn himself in, and provide some absolution for Holtross’ death. Yet in the same breath he wanted to grab her, kiss her, run off into the Adrellan landscape and live as fugitives.
“What do you want, Ryan?” Zora asked him. “Judging from your actions yesterday, I thought you were making it perfectly clear you were on our side; now I’m not so sure.”
“Goddamnit, I’m a UNE soldier!” Kellington burst out, trying to keep his emotion in check. “I come to this planet to protect Adrellans. To protect them from butchers like you!”
“So what are you going to do Ryan?” Zora goaded. “Turn me in? Condemn me, my whole family? Turn us over to the Tredder, the real butchers on this planet? Are you going to condemn yourself?”
Kellington glared at her. “I could bash your head in with his gun,” he said.
“And I could slit your throat before you even lifted it,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“Kellington!” A harsh voice called out from behind them. It was Norgale, marching toward them. He eyed Zora suspiciously.
“What’s going on here, soldier?”
Kellington glanced at Zora, then stood in response to the colonel’s command. This was it. He should turn her in, turn himself in, make things right—for his conscience, for the UNE, for Agen.
“Sir,” Kellington said, “it appears that the Priand…has sent Zora to request that I not display my weapon while I stand on guard, sir. It dishonors the dead, and apparently it’s creating a sense of unease amongst the Sekena villagers.”
Norgale glowered at Zora, who looked back at the colonel in her usual sheepish demeanor. She was an exceptional actress.
“A reasonable request,” Norgale grimaced. “But an unnecessary one.”
He ignored the girl and turned to Kellington. “We’ll be heading out shortly. Coleridge will be arriving with my hovercraft. We need to be back at base ASAP.”
“Yes sir,” Kellington replied, holstering his weapon.
He turned to Zora. “Thank-you for your comments, Ma’am, and I hope you have a good evening.”
Kellington wasn’t sure what expression was on his face as he said farewell to the woman he loved. All he could remember was the despondency in her eyes.
That night, as Kellington rode back to base in Norgale’s hovercraft, he watched the glow of the stars settle on the Adrellan sandscape. Norgale’s words were the only sound in the cab.
“Something’s rotten in that village,” the Colonel muttered. “Effective immediately, I am stationing a full contingent there to monitor day-to-day activities. If the Priand so much as farts, I want to know about it.”
“I just want to catch the rudder who killed Holtross,” Coleridge said. “This planet is going to go bloody chaotic if we keep letting the Kalot get away with killing our own.”
“There’s no right way to control a people so inclined to violence,” Norgale replied. “This is an enemy that kills wantonly for the most primitive of reasons—to prevent a peace with a race that is just as archaic as they are.”
Kellington shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“It’s not that simple, sir.” He said, trying to keep his tone in check. “You know that the conflict on this planet is no different than any revolution, war, or genocide that took place on Earth. The Sekena want a voice, the Tredder want to silence it.”
“Well, Ryan, the Kalot don’t see it that way. They think that by blowing off people’s skulls they’re asserting their sovereignty. All they’re really doing is priming their planet for a full-fledged Earth occupation.”
“God, listen to you Colonel,” Kellington gave a hollow laugh. “What exactly are we doing here? Preserving intergalactic peace or brandishing centuries-old, imperial ethnocentrism? One of those causes I signed up for, the other I didn’t.”
Norgale’s eyes sizzled in the rearview mirror. “The first and foremost cause you signed up for is the recognition of the hierarchy of this organization.” His voice was angry and hot. “I’m inclined to forgive you after what you been through these past 48 hours, soldier, but that’s your only warning.”
My God, we are just imperialists, aren’t we? Kellington wanted to say out loud, but stopped himself. It’s no wonder the Kalot want us out, or dead.
Coleridge squirmed in the passenger seat. Kellington’s eyes met Norgale’s, but his brain deferredthe anger that swarmed up inside him.
“My apologies, sir.” Kellington recovered. “I just need to know Agen’s death wasn’t for nothing. That at some point, his death—his sacrifice—will have had meaning.”
“It will, soldier,” Norgale nodded, “once we string up by the balls whoever it was that killed him.”
Kellington turned his head to the dark sands of Adrella, whisking by at 100 kilometers an hour. He felt dismay at how easily he carried out his ruse, especially at the thought of Holtross lying on a coroner’s slab. Kellington had acted on a whim, committing a combination of the most despicable crimes—murder, mutiny, conspiracy—and he did it all for love. The forbidden love of an alien woman, with whom his future with looked as bleak as ever.
I hope you know that Caleida, he thought. Whether Zora did, Kellington could never know for sure. The thought of her uncertainty made him want to dive out of the hovercraft and sprint back to Wresen, facing all of the dangers of the Adrellan desert to do it.
“Provide political stability on Planet Adrella with the objective of securing free and open trade with the majority faction,” Norgale finally broke the silence, speaking as if he were reading from a manual. “The intent of which is to acquire access to the extensive uranium and fossil-fuel deposits in the planet’s crust.”
Kellington’s attention was caught. “Sir?”
“I’m answering your original question,” Norgale answered. “You asked what our mission was, preserving peace or acting like imperialists. I just quoted you verbatim our orders, straight from the UNE Security Council itself.”
Majority faction. Uranium. Fossil Fuel Deposits. Kellington raced through Norgale’s words, deciphering the message. He leaned back and took a deep breath. The Tredder. Access to elements that create weaponry – elements and resources long since depleted on Earth. My God, we do want to take the planet over, and would crush the Sekena to do it.
“Now we’re close, boys,” Norgale continued on, changing the subject. “The only problem is connecting Agen’s assassin to Kestona. If we can do that, we can nail that old bastard and his family to the wall, and the Tredder can do with them what they please.”
Well, there it is. Kellington acknowledged. He so badly wanted to tell Zora everything he had learned, but conceded the painful realization that what he had done for her was the greatest act of love he could do for anyone, and that was enough. I’m so sorry, Agen, that it had to come to this.
“Yes, I agree Colonel,” he forced himself to say, his tone masking the tension and adrenaline that was balling up inside him, “And thank-you for helping me through this, Sir. Your words were just what I needed to hear.”
Michael Saad is a full time teacher who, when not lesson planning or marking, tries to squeeze in fictional writing as a past-time to keep him from hounding government officials on education, health care, the economy, and the environment. He is happily married to his wife Jodi, and together they have two wonderful children. They reside in Alberta, Canada where Mike can escape to the mountainous Provincial Parks and landscapes for seclusion from his semi-frequent disillusionment of provincial, federal, and international politics.