Darla’s actions in the following miniscule section tie with great harmony to the music shared here. (Sisters of the Bloodwind, pp. 374 – 384) Please read and compare to see if your heart tells you the same thing.
. . . During this silence, Euroaquilo took opportunity to advance a brewing question. “My Dusme, many are the dreams we have shared since the Great War, yet never have I found revealed your adventures of this great and terrible battle. Now you speak to me concerning your experiences regarding the Day or Tears in such an off-handed way so as to dismiss it. Please share with me the moments of your glory during that conflict. Why hide it from me any longer?”
Darla’s jaw stiffened and face soured. At length, she relented. “To you I will speak of this matter, but you must not tell another soul for its pain is too deep for my ears to hear it repeated. Until the healing day, it must remain secret.”
Euroaquilo promised he would keep it so.
Darla slumped as if in remorse, tears welling up in her eyes. Resigned to her fate, she began her account.
“My platoon had been together for just over a year, I being its senior officer. We had already participated in six major engagements up to that time, having lost eighty percent of our original complement and, even with replacements, were currently down to only seventeen troopers reporting for duty. Our acting company commander, First Leftenant Ricteer, had ordered us dug in above Mordem Heights, which we held from spring to mid-summer. The constant soaking rains and lack of sanitary conditions were making us all sick. By early summer we were calling ourselves the ‘mudpuppies’ because of how badly we stunk and our deplorable living conditions we called ‘home’.”
“When High Command asked for volunteers to man transports for a gathering invasion fleet, I offered up the ‘mudpuppies’ seeing we should all die soon if we remained in those filthy trenches much longer. We shipped aboard some wreck of an ore freighter converted into a transport… I don’t even recall its name… our job being to support the crew and maintain the safety of the ship. It was little better than what we left behind… Not really. We had hot food, warm showers, and dry bunks to sleep in, and our duties weren’t overbearing, and we had a good ship’s captain. In short order, we’d settled into keeping things safe for the six hundred men and women of the Eleventh Infantry Battalion, they suffering far worse from their overcrowded living conditions.”
“Twelve days out, we were joined up by six other transports and their support ships and were only hours away from the Commodore CythereaNoah’ha’s Third Teleohodos Battle group. The captain had just heaved off the lines from a supply ship and had called down my fire crew when all hell broke loose. Several squadrons of enemy fighters and heavies slammed into us without warning. We were sitting ducks, eight lightly armed transports, a half dozen merchantmen, and all defended by two cutters, an ancient barq, and a handful of antique fighters, facing over thirty frontline enemy attackers.”
“Our fire station was aft the main hold, near the stern. After refusing stays on the refilled canisters of thallium oxysulfide, my crew of nine departed, leaving the remainder of the stowage work for the incoming fire crew. Following the captain’s shipboard combat zone protocol, we remained suited up and on internal life support systems until we were safely retired from the fuel storage compartments. It’s a good thing we did.”
“We had only just entered the second deck safety locker, in process of closing the lower hatch, when exploding torpedoes ignited the thallium oxysulfide, creating a massive firestorm that engulfed the hold, incinerating everyone below and aft of us. The ship’s energy systems couldn’t take the strain, rupturing our shields and buckling the first deck, which tore everything on that level asunder. Corporal JasmiKusbi and Private SoshieZulita were instantly sucked out through the hatch, while the rest of us were slammed about like rag dolls in a whirlwind until the hatch fully sealed. Had the hatch remained open one more second, none of us would have survived.”
“Things happened so fast. The floor of our locker buckled, twisting its walls up something dreadful, but somehow it held long enough for us to escape through an emergency hatch into the boson’s pantry and out through the officers’ mess. We were very fortunate because our fire suits were not only self-contained, but made of much tougher material than ordinary suits, being designed for harsh duty. Those suits saved us that day. I later heard that our platoon sergeant, LeviaBritt, was cast to the skies when the ship blew apart, being rescued several hours later by search scullers.”
Darla’s mind drifted into private thoughts, she staring off into space as if reliving some particular moment in her life. When she realized what had happened, she tried to make excuse. Euroaquilo nodded politely, acting as though he had not noticed. He then commented about how warm the room was getting while handing her a kerchief to wipe her sweating forehead.
Thanking him, she then went on. “As we stumbled along the debris-filled companionway, searching for a way to reach the upper levels, we heard the cries and screams of the trapped, injured and dying, and also the shouts of others trying to escape or assist those in need. There was nothing we could do to assist, what with the numerous fires breaking out and filling the passageway with noxious smoke, and the terrified soldiers packing the narrow walkway. My current duty was to save my fire crew, I realizing that the entire second deck could collapse at any moment, sending us all into the bitter cold of deep space.”
“With only the flashing of emergency lights to see by and the deafening bleating of alarms in our ears, we found it very hard to locate our escape from the second deck, which was rapidly tearing apart. We were moving forward along the main passageway, expecting at any moment to be crushed by collapsing bulkheads, or swept from the ship through a buckling deck. To our left we could hear the constant tearing and screeching of metal as deck plates and compartments gave way to the ever-hungry vacuum of space.”
“At length, we took a narrow passage that went to the right, I recalling it led to an emergency hatch that went to the third deck. Finding and opening the hatch, we assisted two dozen or so others who’d followed us up to the third level. Being the last one up, I secured the hatch, fearing we would lose the seals on the second deck at any moment. My heart ached to think of my brothers and sisters trapped below, but could only hope they might find another way of escape.”
“Exiting a tiny containment chamber, we found ourselves on the shuttle bridge. Already it was so packed with people, it was nearly impossible to move. Everything was so rushed at the moment, my mind racing with my duties to my fire crew and the need to locate the others in my platoon, so much so that I ignored the people around me as best I could, only reflecting on those events in the lonely hours while awaiting my rescue. To this day the guilt haunts me, for what I witnessed there makes me feel that much more the miscreant and coward.”
Euroaquilo attempted to make excuse for Darla by calling attention to the fickle winds of war.
Darla would have none of it. “I watched the real heroes that day…the crew of that tramp freighter fighting so hard to save lives. The duty officers and other marines assisting the injured and confused, calming others in a panic, and… and sacrificing everything so someone else could hope for a chance to live.”
“A midshipman feverishly worked to help load one of the shuttles, she clothed only her officer’s kepi. Another sailor surrendered up his oxygen suit to an injured soldier before assisting her into a shuttle. There was no panic, the officers in charge refusing to permit that. No. While I scrambled about to find escape, those brave warriors stood their stations, saving lives. I doubt few of them ever made it away alive… and yet how many of my comrades owe their lives to them?”
“Give me a minute, please…” Darla excused herself and walked toward the back of the bridge and past the elevator.
Euroaquilo believed he heard quiet sobs, but remained where he sat, waiting upon Darla’s privacy. Eventually the woman returned, sitting again, but remained silent for some time. Finally, through reddened eyes, she looked into Euroaquilo’s.
“I could not locate any of my other platoon members, so I attempted to get my fire crew queued up to board the shuttles. The lines were very long. It was decided that my 2nd Duty Officer, Corporal AsteiosAllotrios, and I would go up to the fourth deck to search for our remaining platoon members and, if unsuccessful, make our attempted escape via one of the several tethered craft riding piggyback on the ship’s hull.”
“With the elevators and all the main portals secured, we made our way aft to where the shuttle bay bulkhead separated the bay from the ready chambers, which were still intact. There we found an escape ladder that went up through an emergency hatch that remained operable. We scurried up the ladder as best we could, what with the bulky fire suits and extra life support tanks we were still carrying. Asteios spun the mechanical locking system release, pushed hard open the hatch, and proceed to struggle through the tight opening, I helping by giving her a gentle shove up.”
“Asteios was just halfway through the opening when another explosion racked the doomed ship. The hatch triggered automatically to close, slamming down a smashing blow on Asteios’ back. I heard her scream of agony in my headset before she passed out. Then everything went crazy.”
“The shuttle bay was still holding, as well as the chamber above us, but the power died, leaving us in almost total darkness. Then the gravity machines failed, at first intermittently, which was deadly dangerous. I heard the cries of those injured and dying when some crashed back to the floor or were crushed by falling objects. How I remained on the ladder, I cannot recall.”
“Finally, the gravity machines failed completely. Fortunately, the red flashing firelights activated, helping us see a little bit. In that eerie, pulsing world of mayhem, I somehow managed to push open the hatch, freeing my unconscious companion – an easier thing to do without the gravity systems working. My biggest fear during this time was that those machines might start up again, sending me plummeting into the living morass below. It was a struggle, but I managed to seal the hatch while holding firm to Asteios’ suit, something that, I believe, saved many lives, seeing what soon happened to that fourth deck compartment.”
“The area we entered was called the ‘Aft Ready Transfer Station’, one of the ship’s several docking bays with access hatches to tethered shuttles riding piggyback on the transport. It was a ghastly sight to behold. An earlier firestorm had ravaged the place, killing anyone in this area at the time. The only living souls on that deck were recent arrivals like us. Seeing the situation, I decided to attempt our escape by way of one of the tethered crafts, hoping there might still be one able to give us safe passage from the ship’s coming doom.”
“Searching the destruction, I found that most of the exit hatches were lighted up red, or flashing red, which indicated empty tethers or ruined shuttles. The ones where I saw no lights at all I never attempted, not knowing what might be there. My heart sank, I feeling that we were come to our destruction. Then, just about the time I was beginning to surrender our fate, I spotted a green glint out of the corner of my eye. Holding my duty officer snuggly by her harness, I pushed off for the light, only to come crashing down to the tortured deck some feet away because the gravity machines began working again.”
“Having twisted my ankle in that fall made it very difficult for me, but thankfully the gravity machine was not operating at full power. I managed to hobble my way through the tangle and up the twelve-foot climb to that shining green ray of hope above us. After what seemed an eternity, I was up the ladder, with a semiconscious Asteios tied off to my fire line lying on the deck down below. Hesitantly, I pushed the release button, fearing there was no rescue on the other side of the hatch, only to be sucked into the black cold of empty space.”
“But no! There was rescue…what, at the moment, I could not tell. About four feet away was another closed hatch that opened into an escape craft, its safety light, too, was still green. Crawling into the connecting tube, I hit the switch and the most pleasant sound of servos met my ears, revealing the cockpit of an old T-4 fighter. It only took a minute or so, but it seemed like hours, after I had crawled into the tiny ship and managed to pull Asteios up to safety.”
“Asteios’ feet had just cleared the hatch when I felt a terrible rumble and heard a roar and then someone crying for help. I looked down the connecting tube in time to see a hand reaching up for help through boiling smoke. An instant later all was quiet, the entrance hatch having slid shut, its sensors automatically closing us off from the destruction below.”
“There was no time to think about the fate of that poor soul who was so close to escape. I frantically worked removing Asteios’ life-support tanks and firefighting gear so I could secure her in the fore navigator’s seat. I also had to remove my helmet and extra gear because of the tight spaces there. She groaned so, in pain, as I secured the harness over her shoulders. I knew I was torturing her, but… there was nothing else for it.”
“I was almost finished, leaning back, when I was startled by a sudden thud! On the fighter’s canopy, next to my head. I glanced up, almost falling over with shock. For just an instant of time, I stared into frozen eyes that were blankly staring back at me. My mind can still see it as clearly now as I saw it then…the most beautiful of white marble statues looked in serenely upon me, it smiling so carefree. It was carved so flawlessly perfect in every detail, the work of a master carver. Then it was gone, my mind having not been able to comprehend that it was not a statue, but a once living, breathing woman creature with the same hopes, loves, and desires I possessed.”
Darla looked Euroaquilo in the eyes. “She must have been already dead when cast into those icy seas, for the death that awaits those thrown into a vacuum alive is often much more gruesome.”
Euroaquilo only nodded in agreement.
Darla continued, she fidgeting with her fingers. “Though the corpse quickly passed by, it was instantly replaced with the most horrific and macabre of scenes I ever witnessed. Many are the fields of slaughter I have stood upon, but nothing ever to compare to that hour, that place, that horror. My demon cannot conjure up a more horrific nightmare than what appeared before me in that hour.”
“Debris of every description continued to erupt from the dying troopship. Fiery smoke filled with litter, machines, flotsam and jetsam, and…yes, bodies, dozens upon dozens being thrown from the monster’s belly, whole and in pieces. The men and women on that ship were being consumed by the ever hungry emptiness of space. At times I would see people, alive, being flung from some newly erupted hole in the beast, they thrashing about only seconds before silently drifting away, frozen forever in their last gasp for life.”
“There were a few shuttles detaching from the ship, getting away safe for the moment. But there were other shuttles, still secured to the hull, or held loosely by some tether lines that never moved, their passengers eternally waiting rescue. One, less than ten yards from my fighter, drifted free of its mooring though it was still attached by guy wires to the hull. It lazily rotated round and round, the gaping holes in its sides revealing the fruitage of the slaughter, dozens of more names to be written in the Silent Tombs. And this nightmarish vision was but one of so many that overwhelmed my senses. As if in very slow motion, I was watching the end of the world… one person at a time.”
She hung her head in remorse. “And there was nothing I could but watch it dissolve around me…”
Euroaquilo started to offer some comforting words.
Darla’s head snapped up with tear-filled, angry eyes staring into his. “You shall not interrupt me or, for a certainty, I will refuse you this tale! My heart is already overwhelmed to the point of breaking. My words, my way, or the struggle will be too great for me to relive with my speech. Better it is that I should have died that day. Then, for absolution I would not have begged these many years.”
Nodding with understanding, Euroaquilo remained silent. He knew Darla was guilty of no sin requiring absolution, but he understood quite well the remorse and guilt that often floods a warrior’s heart when the winds of war allow that person life while it rips it away from so many others. Only now did he begin to understand why this woman never shared these dreams with him. If only recalling events by speech were ruining her so, how could she have survived the trauma that a dream share would produce?
The rage over her own guilt did not diminish in her eyes, or the self-loathing in her angry tone, as she went into a rant. “You think me innocent? Well I damn well am not innocent! I did nothing! Nothing! Here I sat, in a most fearsome fighting craft, one like I had flown countless sorties in, and I could not gather my wits to leave off the panic of securing my rescue and escape. Oh, I the coward, standing the breach with power unimagined, and I could not think to use it for other than a pardon from death. I am so ashamed…”
She broke down crying, releasing pent-up energies that had built up over these many years. Euroaquilo did nothing, keeping his promise, he fully understanding that ‘upon every soldier must the night watch fall’. Alone, the picket must stand the post, on to death or the morning light… It is the battle each sentinel must undertake.
Gradually the tears subsided until, after one final whimper, Darla continued. “I tell you… many were the soldiers that day who kept their wits about them. If it hadn’t been for the insane actions of those brave warriors, I doubt anyone would have lived to tell the tale of that day.”
“The gun crews on that transport never left their stations to make an escape. As the madness unfolded around me, I saw the fiery spray of red, blue, and green tracers lighting up the blackness, those gun turrets ever swinging back and forth to pour iron and death upon the enemy. They stood their posts to the end, dying with their fingers frozen on the triggers.”
“And our fighters…! Those heroic pilots fought with a madness few have ever witnessed. Many of the scrap heaps they flew were relics when we charged Memphis’ gates during the Third Megiddo War, but in the hands of those warriors they were first-rate killing machines. Why, sometimes one fighter would take on five or six of the enemy’s best, breaking up one attack after another.”
“One fighter blasted past, its guns all ablaze, it just clearing the transport’s hull. I watched amazed, seeing the pilot paying no heed to the fire and smoke belching out of the gaping holes rented in it. Others I saw took on the heavies, hurtling themselves against the overwhelming onslaught with careless abandon. They dove like hornets upon evil intruders, holding back the unleashing of their ordnance until right on top of the enemy. And when their guns went empty, some made their own fighters ‘missiles of destruction’, turning those heavies into cauldrons of flaming death.”
“The troop ship was lazily spinning larboard, round and round, providing me a panoramic view of this world of chaos. Slowly, like a full moon rising over the hills, I witnessed a sight my eyes could not believe. In the distance, I could see two cutters circling three of the troop transports, their defensive fire keeping many of the attackers at bay. One of them, I believe it was named the ‘Cranberry’… I recall that because it was moored alongside our transport before our departure…”
“The cutter was an old squat thing, a converted collier possibly from before the Three Hundred Years War. Anyway, when it came around and turned hard to starboard, I saw that everything in front of the fore bulkhead was a twisted jumble of wreckage, with similar destruction on the upper decks all the way back past the captain’s bridge, the outer hull being completely blown away over the communications and battle bridges.”
“The Cranberry was slowly dissolving into nothing, just like our troop ship, but it was still heavy into the fight. Somehow, the remaining crew managed to maneuver that ship, keeping it between the enemy and the transports. All the while, the gun crews heated up the sky with their cannons and torpedoes. I never knew what became of that gallant ship and its brave crew. The annals from the Day of Tears doesn’t even list the Cranberry on its roster… nor does it mention this horrific little battle.”
Darla’s words came sharp and bitter. “I watched a sky full of heroes that day. They fought with abandon, not to save their own asses, but to save the helpless and weak! No battle flags waved them forward. No glorious words to assuage troubled hearts. They were the leaders, the wonderful throng who stood the line without orders, defending this Empire… if it deserves defending. Their names are forgotten, not worthy of the Council’s attention, worthless little people who did only what they were supposed to do, nothing more, nothing less. Why… isn’t that what they signed on to do, anyway?”
(Author’s Note: The Cranberry survived the battle Darla witnessed, but was abandoned because of extensive damage. Of the seventy officers and crew, thirty-two were lost, another twenty-one wounded. Salvage crews eventually took the ship in tow, delivering it to the DowHardy Navy Depot, on Stargaton. There it languished in the salvage yards until broken up for scrap in the days just before the King’s War… See The Slaughterhouse Chronicles, pp. 892-4, Vol. II.)
Darla sighed long and sad. She became quiet and morose to the point that Euroaquilo believed she had finished with her account.
She had not.
Looking across the bridge, through the window at the lashing rain, she continued. “I finally came to my wits and released the securing pins locking the fighter to the transport’s mooring station. We were just floating free, me about to charge the engines, when two enemy fighters swept over the ship. One opened fire on us, six tiny red tracers blurring across my vision. The fighters blasted past, leaving us and not returning. Whether we were considered a valueless target, or they were out of ordnance, I don’t know, but the damage done was sufficient to be devastating.”
“Computer systems, communications, hydraulics, electrics, the main thrusters, even life support systems, were damaged or destroyed. There we were, tethered by a single line, unable to escape certain death should the giant holding us fast decide to shudder in fear or erupt in anger. And then smoke began seeping up from the bomb bay compartment into the cockpit. I needed to do something, and it needed to be done fast.”
“I rummaged through my firefighter’s gear, finding a Plesso Wrench. I took its claw end to rip loose the pilot’s power control panel, and then used its side cutters to snip the lead wires going to the computer. After stripping the insulation, I managed to short out the security system, releasing us from the tether line. Then I took to jumping wires to ignite the engines, which didn’t happen. When I was about at my wits end, I finally located the main switch wires for the vertical lift retro-rockets.”
“Touching those leads together set all four of the rockets ablaze, sending us cart-wheeling away from the troopship. Fortunately, it was away and not toward, because I couldn’t shut the rockets down. It took me forever to jimmy the retro-switches before I gained enough control to stabilize the fighter, much of the wiring harness having melted when I touched those leads together, I having been forced to bypass the fuses in my hurry. By the time I got the retro-power under control, we were hundreds of miles from the fleet, drifting alone in the stark emptiness.”
“While I was still struggling with the controls, about four miles or so from the transport, there was this blinding orange fireball that lit up the cockpit. Looking up, I saw the fore and aft ends of my troop transport tumble off into space, leaving a glowing white cloud of burning debris where the ship had once been. It’s funny, as I think about it. I was working so frantically to get that old T-4 under control, I gave that event little notice until now.”
“Sometime after the Armistice, I was visited in the convalescent hospital by Corporal SaleenHavson, the platoon’s clerk and my bunkmate. The corporal was part of my fire crew, escaping on the last shuttle to make it out before the troopship exploded.”
Darla hung her head in remorse, speaking in little more than a whisper. “Saleen was killed by Stasis Pirates less than two months ago.”
She then wiped a tear from her eye and cleared her throat. “Anyway… Saleen filled me in on the fate of that ship.”
“The gallant crew saved nearly three-fourths of the troops aboard the ship, losing over half of their own doing so. They surrendered up their lives to save over four hundred others. Of my platoon… everyone other than the fire crew did not survive the initial attack… their barracks being one deck above the main boiler, which blew up when the fuel storage hold was destroyed. Of my fire crew… only four, including me, survived to tell of that event, Saleen being the only member to survive totally unscathed that day.”
“Two of my crew, Privates TeleoZugos and DeuroHorkos gave their fire suits to some injured comrades and remained behind to assist the ship’s company. With the death of Saleen, Sergeant LeviaBritt and I are the sole remaining survivors from the Mudpuppy Platoon, and Levia was so badly damaged later at the Battle at Memphis that she cannot recall her own name. I visit her at the High Banks Sanatorium, up north of here, whenever I can get the chance. I can tell by the look in her eyes that she recognizes me. I think it lifts her spirits when I come.”
Darla groaned as she stood, her legs aching from sitting too long. She made her way back to the elevator, leaning over the rail to view the sights below. The DusmeAstron was equipped with multi-leaf safety hatches on each deck so that, spreading out like flower petals, the hatches would close off the elevator opening and seal the separate floors of the ship up tight. When opened, like it was now, the exposed parts of the hatch wings pulsed green with hundreds of tiny lights. When the lights began flashing red, it was a warning to stand clear the elevator shaft.
Euroaquilo watched Darla from his officer’s chair. She was always so beautiful in form and comeliness, so concerned about how well kept she appeared. Yet today, the woman looked old, aged like the mountains, haggard. The long wars had not been nice to her, she having fought in nearly all of them. How many of her lovers and companions’ names were written now on the Silent Tombs? He pondered. She had lost so much, given so much, taken so much. Could her frail body continue to weather the persistent storms hurled against her? He shuddered to think of his visions and the coming Prisoner Exchange. Would that day be her ‘Armageddon’? Would she survive to tell of its passing?
In time, Darla returned to her chair. Staring out the distant portal, she noticed that although the driving winds were diminished, the rains still ruled the sky. Looking into folded hands, she continued her account.
“By the time I got control of the retrorockets, we were alone in the galaxy. . .
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