This is an extract of a story set in the days before the start of my e-book Sons of Baal.
Walking with the ghosts
Dave Cooper, ex-guardsman, walked through the empty hulk of the hunter/destroyer "Empires' Wraith," and thought. Is it true, can a ship impose its personality on the crew? A few months ago, if you'd asked me, I would have said no. But, after only a few days on here, things happened which made me think. Did she want us dead?
Dave grew up in the days after the fall of the Baalite Empire. For the people on Baal life had become intolerable; they had become refugees on their planet. It wasn't only the victorious Commonwealth of Frieland troops who imprisoned the people; the planet appeared to have risen against them. There were numerous reports of volcanic activity – unheard of in recent times – making the Ferrnix at the core of the planet to become destabilised and fill the air with poisonous gases. Much of the planet got covered in ash, and debris and the land became so polluted that scientists said it couldn't be used again for at least twenty years.
It was under these conditions that young David Cooper began his life on the run. Always one step ahead of the law. Two steps from service in the Army; fighting a futile last stand on the outer edges of a deserted planet, in a far off quadrant of the galaxy. The food was unattainable for the survivors on Baal. The prices were pushed so high by the governing bodies of the Commonwealth; very few Baalites could afford more than a meal or two a week.
Forced to fend for themselves, Dave and some friends fled to the lands beyond the Sulphur plains. Their goal was to reach a town called Gertoria. They hoped to join a resistance group heading off the world. Gertoria was a three-day march but the men thought it was better to go there than stay home and be forced to work like mules. The volatile Fermix caused the super-heated Sulphur to rise through the pocked ground; this made walking both hard and tiring. The men had to travel by the lights of the burning cities during the night, travel by day was too dangerous with the heat and gases. Moving at night was the only way to get passed the bands of Frieland renegades, these troops hunted down and killed anyone found outside the control of central command. Their remit was simple – shoot to kill, no questions asked.
The endless plains stretched out before them as the men set off on a journey they hoped would lead to a new life. They never expected to find what lay ahead. It wasn't the fighting they were to do which worried them, but not knowing what they were to fight. The first night's travel was the hardest, the men were required to get used to walking in a mix of half light, and shadows cast by the raging fires behind them.
Timmy Crossman took a look over his shoulder as they reached a peak and said: "I don't suppose we'll be going back, Dave."
Dave glanced at where Timmy was staring and replied "Not unless you want to die of hunger, picking up leftovers. I'd rather die out here, trying to reach Gertoria, than back there waiting to starve to death."
The third member of the group was Reggie Connors. He was usually a shy man but respected for his thinking. Reggie stood still, taking in all the sights and sounds of the night; as he turned to face Dave, he called out, "Dive for cover!"
Without thinking, the three friends plunged into a ditch, not before time. A jet of Sulphur had ignited in the air sending hot sparks everywhere.One touch from the Sulphur, and you'd burn for days.
The jets of molten Sulphur had continued for a long time before Timmy chanced a glance over the top of the ditch. As he peered over the upper part of the ditch, he was forced to squint through the hazy light. "I know it's a hell of a risk, and we could burn to death. I think we should make a run for cover when the next interval comes. We need to make a dash for cover this may be our last chance to escape."
Dave rolled over and felt something squash under the remnant of his boots. He looked down to see the half-shredded body of a member of the 7th Baalite Guard. The once proud band of soldiers were now fighting a desperate rearguard action on their home world against an enemy far superior in manpower, and weapons. "Come on, grab some gear, guys!" he called above the din of the jets of Sulphur, "It ain't much, but a lot better than what we had back home."
Hurriedly the men donned the torn and bloodied uniforms of the dead soldiers. When you have nothing, anything is an improvement. Dave slowly raised his head above the edge; gazing over the top, in the distance he saw another ditch, "I can see a ditch to our left, it's about 200 metres away. The way I see it, we've no choice. As Timmy said, the next interval we take our chances, or we'll rot here."
In his own, inimitable way, Reggie said, "When you put it that way, Dave, how can we refuse," then he gave a laugh and coughed out some blood. He looked at the blood on his hands and said, "Well now I've got my blood on here, it feels more comfortable wearing the uniform."
Timmy looked at Dave; Dave glanced at Reggie. Nobody wanted to say what they were thinking. The constant inhalation of the fumes had destroyed Reggie's lungs; he didn't have long to go. Reggie broke the palpable silence when he said, "Promise me one thing."
Dave replied, "You know we'd do anything we can for you, Reggie."
Reggie coughed a big glob of blood and fluids, then commented, "I'm sorry I never made it our destination with you but I f you two can get to Gretoria, I'll be happy. After that, the two of you join the fight, don't look back, I'll be with you in spirit every step of the way."