2951-11-08 – Tales from the Inbox: The Forgotten Casualty
Nojus here. Duncan is still spending time with his family, and I’ll be honest I would have preferred to leave this one for him, but that didn’t feel right.
We focus on this war as a conflict between adults. We have to, to stay sane, I guess. Because combatants are not the only people who are suffering and dying out there, especially on the Coreward Frontier.
This account came in a few days after Duncan went over to The Sprawl to meet his family, and I’d be lying if I said I slept well the next few nights after I read it. I have no idea what these two were doing on MacNeil's, nor how they got off, and I am not going to dig into it too much. Sometimes, we all need a reminder that many people are suffering every day. In the words of an ancient general, we should keep in mind that war is terrible, so we do not get over-fond of it.
Sophia Carrie held her breath as a trio of Incarnation cargo crawlers rumbled past on the road above. The metal-lined drainage culvert in which she had hidden carried the roar of their air-breathing turbine engines just as if they’d been passing six inches in front of her face.
She counted to thirty after the last crawler had passed before letting out her breath. In theory, breathing shouldn’t have given her away, but with as many sensors as Nate technicians had studded the hulls of those vehicles with, it didn’t hurt to be safe.
Only when she could hear the hiss of the day’s gentle rain again over the ringing in her ears and the fading sounds of engines humming and tracks squeaking against their bogeys did Sophia move, slumping back into a more comfortable position against the ridged wall of the culvert and letting her hand fall from the Ignatov cartridge-gun hanging from her web-belt.
“That’s the third convoy today.” Abe Lithgow put a hand on Sophia’s shoulder. “Our luck is going to run out eventually. We should get away from this road and go overland.”
“No.” Sophia shook her head. “We’d be wandering around out there until we starve.”
“Only if we got really lost.” Abe shook his head. “Even without sat-nav, I could-”
“You could get us there, just like you did at Point Kruger?”
“That-” Abe fell silent for a long moment, and his hand fell off Sophie’s shoulder. “That was different.”
“I don’t care.” Sophie sloshed toward the circle of gray light at the end of the culvert. “We stay near the road.”
After a few steps, Sophie heard Abe’s footfalls behind her in the ankle-deep water. She hated to shut him down like that, but this time, there was no room to take the sorts of risks he would normally accept. Their ride off MacNeil’s End wouldn’t wait too long if they were late to the rendezvous, and neither of them was particularly prepared to make an Incarnation-occupied planet their long-term home.
At the end of the culvert where it spilled out into a deep, waterlogged ditch. Sophia listened to the rain for several seconds before stooping and cupping her hands to boost Abe up. He grabbed the upper lip of the tunnel and she helped him clamber up to the roadside, then stooped to pull her up as soon as the coast was clear. The packed-dirt road, empty but for puddles, wound out of sight in both directions into the rain.
Pulling her hood over her head, Sophia checked the compass on her wristcuff and led the way along the roadside.
Sophia turned to find Abe on the other side of the road, stooping over a lump in the mud. “What is it?”
“Not sure.” Abe flicked open an extensible multitool and prodded the object. “Wasn’t here before those crawlers went by, and Nate troops never litter.”
“Given how much they seem to hate MacNeil’s, they might make an exception here.” Sophia shook her head. Rumor had it that the garrison duty on MacNeil’s End was a punishment assignment for Incarnation troops. “Come on.”
“Oh, God.” Abe dropped his tool and reached for the bundle. “It’s a kid, Soph.”
Sophia hurried to where he was stooping and saw the small, pale arm below a layer of sopping rags. A few more layers, and Abe revealed the boy’s lifeless face, his unblinking eyes staring up into the rain-clouds. He couldn’t have been more than ten T-years old.
“Oh God.” Abe repeated, letting the cloth fall back over those glazed eyes. “They just threw him out of the crawler. Like trash.”
Sophia shivered, knowing what this meant about what the crawlers were carrying. Not all of the settlers on MacNeil’s End had evacuated in the face of invasion; tens of thousands had gone to the hills in the hopes that the war would pass them by. Nate had spent a lot of effort rounding up these potentially hostile, often well-armed civilians and shipping them to their own forced-labor colonies, where it was said the conditions were hellish.
“Who would just…” Abe shook his head. “Never mind. I guess I know who. Bastards, the lot of them.”
Sophia put her hand on his shoulder. “Abe. We have to go. If we don’t make that rendezvous-”
“No.” Abe turned to Sophia. “We can’t just leave him like this. We can’t. Just a kid, Soph.”
“We can’t.” Sophia shook her head. “Those crawlers will come back, and if they see someone moved him, they’ll know we’re out here.”
“I don’t care.” Abe shook off Sophia’s hand and straightened his shoulders. “I just don’t care anymore. I’m going to bury him.”