The paired moons of Rigel 7 hung low in the dusk sky, both showing a rich orange as they coasted the horizon. Emotionless, black eyes scanned that horizon, but did not notice the beauty of the moons. They were searching for transports full of troops, and hoped for sign of retaliation. The conquest of the planet Rigel 7 had been uninterestingly easy. Casualties had been minimal for McCleod’s forces, and the assault had been so brutal and quick, that even civilian casualties had been minimized.
Except for the head household. Brigadier General Apara had made sure that they would suffer the worst losses. He had an unpleasant history with the Stryker son, and wanted to make sure he would not have to deal with him personally. Apara’s helmet sat on the table next to him as he stood on the enormous mahogany deck that lined the eastern edge of the Stryker mansion, sipping some scotch he had found when he commandeered the building as his headquarters. He had helped design the uniforms and helmets worn by McCleod’s armed forces, working side by side the bastard Prosek in the process.
He was a tall man, reaching nearly six foot four, and built lean but muscular. He kept his black hair cut to exactly an eighth of an inch in length. He was meticulous, exacting, and completely unforgiving. He was a firm believer in “too much is never enough.” Why settle for a pistol when a rocket launcher will kill more enemies? This was the exact philosophy that lead to him authorizing the use of the ITCH (Intelligent Terminating Corrosive patHogen) virus. The virus traveled on the air and headed toward animal matter, ignoring plants, fungus, etc. Once it homed in on a target, it would not stop until it reached it, being capable of destroying objects on a molecular level, and using the correct elements found in those objects to reproduce.
The “Terminating” happened at a pre-ordained time. The ones used on the Stryker house had a life of one hour after their launch. After that hour, they all died and degraded, even ones that had been produced within minutes of the terminal time. The X-Weapons lab on Proteus may have suffered from a terribly unoriginal name, but it produced some of the best toys in the galaxy.
Apara took another sip of his scotch, opened the breast plate of his armor and reached into his breast pocket. Among the other treasures he had purloined were fine cigars. On this day of his victory, he intended to enjoy at least three of them. He heard the approaching of boots as he stuck the cigar between his teeth and pulled out some matches. “General Apara…” He recognized the voice of one of his lieutenants, a rat of a man who was more of a messenger than an officer. “What is it?” Apara boomed. He had a strong, deep voice, the voice of a commander.
“General Prosek would like to speak with you, sir.”
Apara tensed, biting through the end of the cigar before he had a chance to light it. He turned to face the lieutenant. Before he could vent any of his ire on the man, he held up a paper thin monitor the size of a large coffee table book. Apara snatched it from his hand, then pulled the stogie from his mouth. “Dismissed, soldier.” He snapped.
Apara placed the monitor, a translucent piece of plastic-like material, against one of the nearby wooden pillars and let go. It stuck to the wall as if it had been hung there on a nail. He pushed the upper right corner, activating it, and found himself looking into the unsettling two-toned gaze of General Vladimir Prosek. “I hear good things about your assault, Brigadier General. Very good things.”
Good news, he thought. Prosek was a pessimist, at least when dealing with subordinates. He always assumed that they had performed in a less than stellar fashion, so he seemed genuinely surprised and pleased at the report of the flawless conquest of Rigel 7. Apara raised the cigar to his lips, struck the matches and drew in deeply. “I had no doubts. This assault was planned over a month ago. I ran through the simulations before-hand a hundred times.”
“Very thorough, Apara.”
“I leave nothing to chance, sir.” General Prosek nodded, a tight smile on his thin lips. “Good. I like to hear that. Well, I will get to the point, and let you get back to your celebration. I wanted to congratulate you on your victory in securing an important resource planet. This was a major victory, and one that did not go unnoticed by the Emperor, Major General.”
The normally unflappable Apara did a double take, then smiled. Prosek’s grew wider. “It’s that attention to detail that will ensure you continue your climb through the ranks Apara. Enjoy the spoils of your victory, and try not to get fat in the process. I hope to visit Rigel 7 in the coming weeks. I trust you will leave some scotch and cigars for our meeting?”
“Absolutely, General. I will have them imported if necessary.”
“Good man, Major General.” Prosek snapped a salute, which Apara returned immediately, then the monitor went blank. Apara’s face hurt, and he suddenly realized why. He was so unaccustomed to smiling, he had almost forgotten how.
Apara pulled out one of the chairs from the table and sat in it, kicking his booted feet up onto the table. He smiled with his cigar planted firmly between his teeth and reached for his scotch. His first act as a Major General would be tomorrow. He would begin interrogating prisoners as to the whereabouts of Garrison Stryker. He was confident the man would have been killed in the ITCH attack, but he wanted to be certain. The virus typically rendered its victims an unrecognizable mess.
And if not, well then, he would hunt him down, and grind his face into the floor of his family estate before putting a bullet in his head.
The next morning, Major General Apara stepped into the Stryker hangar wearing his uniform, with his new rank proudly displayed as a new arm-band on the bicep of his armor. He wore his combat dress, as was his preference. His soldiers had lined up a row of survivors from yesterday’s rout for him to question. There were two women and three men, and he had been informed that all five worked within the house; if anyone on the planet knew if Garrison had been home at the time of the invasion, it would be one of these people.
“My name is Major General Apara. I lead the invasion of this planet, and you are my prisoners. I decide how long you continue to breathe on this planet now, so whether you do or not is completely up to how pleased I am with your responses.” He drew his pistol out of his holster; immediately the five prisoners stiffened and one of the women began crying.
Two of the men and the women kept their gaze to the floor, either too terrified or defeated to even look at Apara’s helmeted face, but the man in the center was neither. He glared at the Major General in angry defiance. He was older, probably in his fifties, but his muscled shoulders bulged under his dirty t-shirt, suggesting a life of hard work. He had short grey hair and stern green eyes that judged everyone openly.
“What do you want with us? None of us know any secrets if that is what you’re after, the other four are maintenance people. They clean toilets and make sure the house runs.”
Apara stopped mid-stride and turned to face the man. He bent low so that he was at face level with him and place the barrel of his pistol on his cheek “You will speak when I require it of you, and not a second before.” Then defiant man merely smirked at him. “You’re going to kill me anyway.”
At that, Apara stood up and looked over the others. “Not necessarily. No one needs to get hurt, I just want information. You have been brought to me because you work in the house. Tell me, was Garrison Stryker home at the time of the attack?”
“Say nothing. Don’t give the bastard the pleasure.” Snapped the man.
Two of the other people clenched their eyes shut, expecting the worst. The crying woman was near hysterics and one of the other men continued to stare at the floor, his expression dead. Apara looked the man in the face. “What is your name?”
“Colonel Edward Pierce. Your people shot me down in the opening minutes of the invasion.”
“Colonel? Then you are a military man. Good. I don’t expect you to fear for your life, a good soldier never does. However, I would think you would care about the lives of innocent civilians.” Apara cocked his head in a condescending manner, then clicked back the hammer of his gun and pointed it at the head of the crying woman. Her crying became a muffled whimper, and she was suddenly too terrified to make much noise.
“I don’t expect that even shooting you in the leg would extract much information from you, Colonel, but unless I am judging you incorrectly, you won’t let me pull this trigger and sentence this poor woman to death because you are stubborn.” Edward locked eyes with the Major General. He had dealt with men like this before, cowards with an army behind them to give them courage. He waited.
He could feel the others begin to look at him, waiting for him to say something. He was running through his options in his head; should he tell? Garrison could look out for himself, and could certainly handle himself better than a group of housekeepers. But he had been loyal to the Stryker family his entire life, he couldn’t betray them, even if Nadia and Mitchell were dead.
“Time’s up.” Apara said and squeezed the trigger.
“Wait!” Edward shouted, and the Major General lifted his hand, pointing the gun toward the ceiling instead of the woman’s head. “Yes? Do you have some news for me?”
Edward looked down for the first time he had been brought in to the hangar. “Garrison was home at the time of the attack. Last time I saw him, he was in the kitchen.”
Apara smiled, a wave of relief washing over him. Nearly twenty bodies had been found in the kitchen, a jumbled mess of ruined flesh that had been made within minutes of the ITCH entering the room. He looked over the five prisoners in front of him and said “Now, was that so difficult? You get to live another day, and no one was hurt.”
He turned and began to walk away, ready to move on with the occupation of Rigel, free from worry. As he walked past Colonel Edward Pierce, he pointed the gun at the man’s head, and there was a loud pop as he fired without even looking at him. Edward’s head snapped back and he fell to the floor, dead. The crying woman began screaming, and the Major General waved his gun dismissively before holstering it and walking toward the hangar exit. His soldiers hoisted the four remaining prisoners to take back to their cells.
Things were really going his way, Apara thought. He folded his hands behind his back as he strode out of the hangar, a smug little bounce in his step. Repairs had already begun on the palatial mansion that was soon to be his base of operations. The Strykers had been a remarkably well prepared clan, with replacement parts for most of the structures in the building being readily available. That was likely not difficult considering the house was mostly made of wood, the planet’s only export.
Maybe he would make this his home, once the war was over and McCleod had triumphed. If every planet went down this easily, it would be over in a week or two.
Little did he know his reverie in the Stryker household would be short lived.