It was abundantly clear upon returning to the barracks that no one was happy with Tristaine. In fact, they were downright angry—calling him unsavory names, warning him to keep his distance. As he peeled his wet uniform off, a few of them whipped his bare skin with their own clothes. He bit his lip and endured it in silence. Tristaine Glass was not usually one to stand down from battle, even if the odds were against him, but this time he knew they were right. It was not fair that they be punished for his actions.
He quietly retired to his bunk near the front of the room while the rest of them disassembled the card table they had set up earlier. Since they expected to be able to sleep in, they had planned a night of gambling and drinking. Alcohol was permitted on the eve of rest days. This was their first rest day in three weeks.
And now it had been stolen from them.
Tristaine sat up in his bed, silently reading Three Days Till Dawn, the story of Seatis, the first planet the Solovots had drilled. It was an account of the horrible mistakes that were made—a veritable horror story. It had taken many tries to learn to calculate the amount of time it would take for a drill to reach a planet’s core. And even more to figure out how to do so without upsetting the planet’s residents. As his eyes poured over the words, he didn’t retain any of it. His mind was distracted, thinking about the day. He considered apologizing but was confident it wouldn’t get him anywhere. Tensions between Tristaine and his squadmates were already high, and Breaker Hopeless had pushed them even higher.
Tristaine felt a small disc hit him in the side of his face. He looked up to find the source. VanDour. He was not an ugly man—even considering the long scar that bordered his prickly-to-the-touch, military-buzzed hairline. The man-mountain’s personality, on the other hand, was wretched. His father, the great Colonel Regis VanDour, would be appalled at his son’s behavior. Fitzin VanDour, third-generation soldier, curled his mouth menacingly as he nonchalantly put the gambling chips back in their case.
Tristaine chose to ignore the attack and continued reading. Again—another chip to the side of his head. This time, Tristaine refused to let it go. Throwing his book at VanDour, he slid out of bed.
“Look, I’m sorry, mate,” he said as he walked toward VanDour. “Who knew that your being too stupid to cover your face in the rain would get you in trouble.”
As soon as he was in reach, VanDour grabbed him and lifted him high, then twisted and slammed him through the card table. Tristaine kicked as VanDour pounced on him from above. Immediately, the rest of the squad reacted—some grabbed at VanDour, attempting to pull the giant away from Tristaine. Others cheered. Another soldier, one too far out of view for Tristaine to identify, gave him a quick kick to the shoulder.
“Alright,” said a voice from the corner. “That’s enough! Glass’ll get what’s coming to him in the A.R.C. in a couple of days.”
From the shadows stepped Jacsen, the dark-skinned, cadet that Tristaine had been commanded to shoot the day before. Jacsen didn’t seem to hold a grudge for that moment. He was a man’s man and a true soldier, aware that Tristaine had to do what his commanding officer had told him to do. He was also confident that Speakman would not have openly called for one soldier to murder another—no harm, no foul.
Months earlier, before arriving at Camp Qolea IV, Jacsen had self-appointed himself squad leader and no one refuted. He always showed to have the squad’s best interest in mind.
“Let’s get to bed,” he said. “Early to rise tomorrow and get cleaning. The camp needed it anyway.”
They all complied—some reluctantly. It took some time for Tristaine to settle down, his adrenaline had kicked in in a serious way. After a bit more reading, his eyes grew heavy and he fell asleep.
“Hold him down!”
“I got Glass, you keep Jacsen away!”
Tristaine awoke to pitch darkness and a lack of oxygen. He couldn’t move—not even an inch. He realized after the first blow to his ribcage that the others were holding him down with his blanket while someone, likely VanDour, beat on him mercilessly. Each blow hit like a gunshot. VanDour was out to kill, showing no restraint at all. Tristaine flailed wildly, looking for any possible route of escape, but he found none.
“That’s enough!” shouted a female voice.
Tristaine was in and out of consciousness, so he couldn’t quite place it. The voice was distant, like it was being shouted from miles away. Suddenly, light found his eye as the blanket was removed. He saw a fuzzy shape surrounded by other fuzzy shapes. He saw a large man, VanDour for sure, being restrained by four others. Although confident he would soon black out, he felt an odd sensation—relief. Knowing that the others were holding Fitzin VanDour at bay calmed him.
Immediately that feeling of peace left him as VanDour broke free of the others. The only feeling Tristaine experienced next was pain—then nothing.
The next thing he remembered were voices. Like before, they seemed distant.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “You are talking about murder.”
“What else do you want to do?” She was whispering now. “We all sat around watching while Fitzin beat the life out of him. Now you’re trying to act noble?”
“Actually, if you recall I was being held back in the corner of the room.”
“Then maybe you need’a die too, eh?” VanDour was still heated.
It took all ten of the remaining squad to hold him back from Jacsen.
“We aren’t killing him too,” Tispson said.
“We aren’t killing anyone!” shouted Jacsen.
The argument pressed on for a length of time while Tristaine laid in a bloody mess on his bed. At this point Fitzin VanDour, Shelly Tispson, Trent Moss, Gentry Murphries, Drake As’t, Bellamy Walsch, Rellick Araki and Hiroshi Ma’suno wanted him dead. That left Illiad Jacsen, Alessandra Gi’send and Bunk rooting to keep him alive. Truth be told, Bunk hadn’t gotten involved. No one had ever heard him speak. No one knew his name—Bunk was a nickname because he never left his bunk unless under direct order.
“You sit down and shut up,” VanDour said, motioning toward Jacsen. “You and Gi’send can just stay here and act like nothin’s happenin’. This ends now an’ no one else is gettin’ caught up in’nis.”
VanDour pointed at Moss, Murphries, Araki and As’t.
“You four grab him and take him to the cliff. I’ll meet you there.”
The group of men hesitated.
“Now!” VanDour roared.
They responded when he began to move toward them. Everyone was in a state of confusion. It all happened so fast.
“Rest’a you,” VanDour continued, “follow ‘em. Jacsen, Gi’send—stay here. This is taken care’a.”
When the rest of the squad had cleared out, VanDour opened his mouth to speak but hadn’t said a word before Gi’send spoke up.
“Who in the name of god and the High Father do you think you are? I don’t take orders from skags like you. You think because you’re big that we’re all just going to sit back and take whatever you have to dish out? You are about to kill a man because you screwed up.”
She scoffed. “Taken care of. You’re an idiot, VanDour.”
With that she turned, crossed her arms then retired to her bunk.
“Listen,” VanDour responded, calmer than he had been. “I’m knowin’ I messed up. Ain’t no denyin’ it. That don’t change the fact it happened, ya know? We were all there. All’a us. If Speakman finds out what we did—yeah, I said we—then we all gonna be dead. Now, this’s happenin’. I’m gonna douse him in alcohol, throw some smoke butts on’a ground and toss ‘im over the edge. Everyone’ll think he got too drunk celebratin’ and fell. No one needs’ta know. Got ‘yer word?”
Alessandra Gi’send didn’t respond at all, she just sat in her bunk with her arms crossed defiantly. Jacsen was pacing.
“I said,” VanDour said, more forcefully this time, “got ‘yer word?”
“Yeah, you’ve got it.” Jacsen said.
He sensed that VanDour wasn’t satistfied, so he motioned to Gi’send.
“And her’s too.”
They both heard a sigh of resignation come from her corner of the room. Bunk was still just laying there staring at the wall.
“He won’t say anything,” Jacsen said. “He never does.”
VanDour grabbed a few bottles of alcohol, a pack of cigs and his coat and left the room. Gi’send was crying now and Jacsen continued to pace around the room.
It seemed that the squad just become one man lighter.