We’d ripped the Mess hall and all the barracks out of Orbital to make our Cathedral. We painted everything sky-blue, and mounted a Megawatt halogen lamp at the apex. Here we tremble, rock, cry, and imagine ourselves back on Earth, blessed under the true light.

Original art by Bree Main

The dark of Space does all kinds of weird to people, but spendin’ your life killin’ under every hue of sky–that just breaks a man.” My vision flickers at the edges–a flashback stamped with the hateful burn of red, blue, and green stars. A snigger escapes me; I taste the fading shadow of kill-hormones like smoke on my tongue. I straighten my back, sit more upright on my rock, and stare at my mute audience. No comment; I look back at the horizon. “I knew you wouldn’t get it–that’s why I brought ya here.” I glance back at them–still no response.

“I remember, as a kid, before the Big Push even started, when the north-west arch would settle over Christchurch. The clouds would pile high for days, and the hot dry wind from Oz stoked mad fires in people. Well, take that sense of oppression and isolation from dear old blue skies and magnify it. A hundredfold. Then sit under it for years surrounded by people you’ve killed. You can feel it huh?” I tip my head as a far off sky-lark trills its joy in the vast blue expanse. “Now ya can unnerstand why we all went mad.”

I sit back, spit, and rest a booted foot on the pile of skulls. Tough scars pull across my throat as I roll my head back. Spindly wisps of cloud streak the wide blue sky drawing a smile to my face. The audience creaks under my heel. Someone at the back of the pile rolls off to gawp with empty eyes at my weapon.

I sigh. “Good to be home. So peaceful.”

Indicators sparkled, piercing the operation-dark of the Orbital’s bridge. Voice-hum and checklist calling rattled around Commodore Davesh as he orchestrated the planetary clean-up. “Update on target response,” he called.

An adjunct looked up from their obsessive checking of a green screen. “Three billion. Scattered population. We have been observed, and radio communications have been detected–they are sub type I on the Kardashev scale. Projections indicate few losses for us and extinction for them.” Message delivered they nodded a perfunctory salute, and returned to their devices.

Davesh grunted. The heroism of opening the frontiers had faded, and the door to glory had been closing with each planet cleared. The Big Push was pushing too far and too fast.

A polite cough from near his shoulder brought him round. Flight Lieutenant Jones handed over a cloth-draped rectangle. Davesh narrowed his eyes; Jones meant well, but handing over a mysterious shape wrapped in dark material was more-eye catching than if she had just handed him the black-market tablet. Davesh snatched the device, and whipped the cover off. Jones leaned in to whisper. “The back channel news is different to what we are being sent.” Davesh scanned the scrolling writing. Terraformers were no longer leaving Earth. The last nineteen planets the Orbital had scoured of life would remain blank; bone-encrusted monuments to SolGov policies for the rest of time.

“What the fuck is going on?” His voice, though quiet, carried across the bridge, his unstated authority deadened the mechanical chit-chat. He glanced up, each face he looked at bobbed back to work immediately.

“Skip to the finance channels, Sir. Apparently the expansion stock is in free fall – the talking heads keep saying the timelines are just too long. Nobody wants to wait ’til they’re dead for a payday. The hoo-hah around ‘The Big Push’ is being swept under carpets until the cryogenic research markets yield good results.” Jones paused, her tongue scampered across dry lips. “Stories of Solgov-funded xenocide have also started emerging.” Jones leaned in a bit closer, her breath tickling the hairs in Davesh’s ears. “No-one knows about the Sunstruck troops. Yet.”

The armoured suit clunks around me, running through checks. All good, ready for deployment. Chemo pumps spin up; I salivate anticipating the head-rush of PCP, adrenaline and kill-hormones. Our dropship is next to hit dirtside from the stream spinning out of the Orbital like poisonous seeds.

The briefing had crapped on about carbon dioxide atmosphere (poison–do not breath!), dusty iron-rich rocks (do not eat!) blah blah blah. All we wanted to know was the colour of the sun, the sky. They are never Blue and Yellow–they are every other combination; all mean death.

This one is red this, red that, red everything. I tap the Sun-sign splashed on the blue paintwork of my armour for luck. I’m not the only one calling for a blessing. The faith gets stronger the longer you live.

The orders are the same as always. Fight everything under the alien sky. Leave the planet clean, lifeless, and ready for the terra-formers that will follow.

One day I’ll tour these worlds, knowing the soil is rich because it holds a fertile mix of everything native with a hint of fallen comrade. I’ll eat the food the settlers grow, and chew on the flavours of flesh. It will remind me how much good we’re doing out here.

Gravity bites, the hatch bursts outward and we jump down; red dust rises from under our armoured feet. The dropship races away to the rendezvous–our one-way, one-chance elevator to the Orbital and the solace of the Solarium.

A half empty vodka bottle stood guard over the shot glasses on the table in Commodore Davesh’s cramped cabin. The shot glasses in turn clustered in concern around Davesh’s drooling head on the tabletop.

A sharp knock at the door roused him to a bleary level of attention.

Jones’ voice called from outside. “Commodore?” Another knock. Davesh grunted. The handle turned, and Jones edged into the cramped quarters. “Vodka, Sir? I thought you were a whiskey man?”

Davesh slumped back in his chair, dredged a bottle of whiskey into sight from by his knees and banged it onto the table, rattling the sentinel glasses. “I am. The vodka’s for you–I started early.”

Jones perched on a seat opposite the Commodore, and poured herself a good measure. She raised her glass. “To humanity! Iechyd da!” She downed the spirit and banged the glass down, the report of glass on steel slammed Davesh’s ears.

“With all due respect, Jones–Up yours.” He sighed, shifted in his uncomfortable chair, and pointed to the whiskey. “I’ve looked for the answer in there, Jones. Nothing doing. Nada. Anything in your bottle?”

Jones smiled. “No, Sir. But in my defence I’ve only just started my research.” Davesh humphed.

Davesh straightened, seeming to shake off the fumes that dulled his wits. “We can’t continue, Jones. No order to desist has come through. I’m guessing that no-one in SolGov knows how to stop the Big Push without losing face–or the goodwill of corporate sponsors.”

Jones downed a second vodka, banging the glass down harder than the first. “If I could stray into the paranoid, Sir, just for a moment?” Davesh waved an invitational hand. “In planning this mission, contingencies may have been taken to cover up our activities.”

“Speak clearly, Jones.”

“If we never make it back to Earth, no-one will ever find out about the orders for xenocide, and the lack of terra-forming. I’m suggesting we check that Orbital hasn’t got any hidden surprises.”

Davesh drummed his fingers. “Agreed. Get the crews out, I want all techs scrubbing our cables and networks. Get all the as-built data for Orbital, look for physical differences–but also get techs checking we have adequate controls on all explosive items, the dark matter drive included.”

Jones rose, resting a hand on the table to brace against a sudden lean she had developed. “Immediately, Sir. What about the Sunstruck?”

“They fight for the blue of sky, the yellow of sun and their belief that this means freedom. They are not a worry–in this scenario. If you find something, we’ll need to bring the Corporal in. We all want to get home.”

Jones reached for the door handle. “Home. After what we’ve done, Sir, we will not be welcomed.” She paused, grinding the handle down. “I’m not sure it is my home anymore. I’m not sure where is.” She wrenched the flimsy door open, and left Davesh sobering up.

Sheet-white flashes of chemical exhaustion crash my head. Forty eight hours of stimulant-powered warfare and the goal finally shows on the HUD.

When we started the Big Push we were clearing worlds of dangerous fauna–it was a fucking safari! As we pushed deeper we came across the intelligent lifeforms, civilisations. That’s when our reality started. We were commanded to clear them too. People. We killed them, but they fought back. We started dying. All we saw was death under many-hued skies; only blue and yellow mean peace now.

Today I stood and watched one trooper find her own peace. She popped herself from her armoured shell and jumped down to the rosy shore of an alien beach. Man, I could feel the grit between my toes, and the cool wash of water on my feet while she dug her toes into the sand. Only it wasn’t sand and it wasn’t water; it was organic gunk and acid waves swilling over her skin. She melted into the landscape–smiled all the way.

I smiled too. A calm interlude; I tapped the Sun-sign on my armour and felt blessed.

This planet is semi-prepared for our onslaught; guns, and even armour. Humanoid life; could have been Earth three hundred years ago. No tech quite like ours though. We kill them all. We are the front line. We break them. The rear guard, where we all start our careers in carnage, mop up, clean up. Sanitory words for extermination.

The drugs fade, but the heat of anticipation rises, clearing my head. I yearn for my re-baptism under the blue-sky of the Solarium. I push on to the goal.

Davesh stabbed a finger at his comm unit. “Jones, call in–we found five items. Our search must have tripped a SolGov tell-tale–Comms have shut down two inbound kill signals. A third got through and blew out the barracks and mess hall levels. You know what this means. We need to talk urgently.” He slumped back into his chair on the bridge.

An adjunct called up from monitoring the ground offensive. “Sir, the surface clean-up is almost complete, the troops are returning.” All the flight staff understood the current state of alarm. The adjunct dived back into their green screen.

The troops are returning. Oh shit. Davesh drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. The Sun-struck would not be happy. Not be happy at all.

There is never a lack of dropships. Continual dropships mean no queues and no delay in getting back to Orbital, and into our glorious Solarium; the shrine to Mr. Blue-Sky and Ra.

We’d ripped the Mess hall and all the barracks out of Orbital to make our Cathedral. We painted everything sky-blue, and mounted a Megawatt halogen lamp at the apex. Here we tremble, rock, cry, hump and imagine ourselves back on Earth, blessed under the true light.

You can almost forget. Almost. Colleagues get forgotten, but the people, the children, the mayhem and slaughter. That stays in your head; each face a cold star only washed from view by the baptismal bright of the Solarium.

Our ranks are swollen from the rear-guard after each engagement. No matter how nasty the orders from the Commodore we just grow and grow. You can spot the newbies–they cry the most. Once they get on the chemo pumps things look better, and sometimes different, and the colours will matter more.

Yes, the colours are real important. Blue and Yellow. Nothing will stop us running under our own sky again.

“There will be no insubordination, only absolute discipline from your troops, Corporal.” Davesh paused. The ward-room air choked; dense with fading kill-hormones from Corporal Sancha, and normal sweat from Jones and Davesh. They stood around the table, tension straightening their bodies beyond the ability to bend, or sit.

Sancha spoke. “My troops have been told about an explosion on Orbital slowing docking procedures, but they’ll not be able to hold it together for long without our Cathedral.” She flicked her gaze from Jones to Davesh. The twitch in her cheek shouting that it was not just her troops that needed the respite. “You’ve told me about the treachery from Earth. What’s the plan?”

“We have to stop the Big Push, that much is clear. The only communications from SolGov have been explosive ones, so I am taking on Field Marshall status and we are setting our own strategies.” Davesh placed his hands on the table and leaned forward as though stretching a pain from his back. “We need to get some relief for your troops and to stop the damage. We won’t be welcome on Earth.”

“If I may chime in, Sir–Earth may have the skies and sun that’s needed, but it is rotten. From a big picture perspective there are enough colonies for the Big Push to be a success now….” Jones’ voice petered out.

Sancha picked up the thought. “They’re stopping us running under Ra and Mr Blue-sky. We have to try, we have to go back.” A pleading tone crept into her voice, eating the edge of her strength. “Does anyone need Earth now, except us?”

Davesh nodded and looked up at them both. “We will return, but for the health of your troops Corporal we will not clean the planet, it’s time to bring the killing to a halt. There are areas that need sanitizing; major cities, governments, business districts–but not everywhere. To get home we need these immobilized, and unlikely to harm us afterwards. Let us pray that the colonies will be the future of the human race.”

Sancha tapped the yellow sun emblazoned on her uniform. “We do this for all humans, Commod– Field Marshal. Once we’re docked how long until we can get to Earth?”

Jones projected a schematic onto the table from her comm unit. “Three jumps. We can emerge within the defense grid. All units deployed to equatorial and major hit-points within forty-eight hours. Can your troops weather this?”

Sancha grinned, her scars stretched her face into a morbid mask. “Oh yes. The promised land in forty eight hours. Oh yes, we can weather this indeed, Lieutenant Jones.”

The armoured suit clunks around me, running through checks. All good, ready for deployment. Chemo pumps spin up; I salivate anticipating the head-rush of PCP, adrenaline and kill-hormones. Our dropship is next to hit dirtside from the stream spinning out of the Orbital like rejuvenating seeds.

Gravity bites, the hatch bursts outward and we jump down; brown dust rises from under our armoured feet. The dropship stays put–this is a one-way, one-chance elevator from the Orbital to the solace of life under Sol.

This is ours, and no-one is going to stop us running under the sky and feeling the yellow-burn of Ra on our skin. We howl with wild release as we cleanse our last planet.

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