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Welcome to Gettysburg (Day One)
Day Three Here
Gettysburg is by far my favorite battle of all time.
First, it is an all-American battle in an all-American war, and myself being an old school nationalist it carries significance that other battles simply don’t; I may find Austerlitz or Stalingrad nifty, but nobody there was my people.
More, it was an extraordinarily clean fight. At any point, a soldier on either side could hurl down their rifle and grab some sky and be reasonably assured of having their surrender accepted without reservation, and for that matter their captor could rely on their new POWs to trudge back to the rear under light guard in good faith. Even though much of the fighting took place in an urban environment with embedded civilians, only one civilian died in the fighting. Let me tell you, the more military history you read up on, the clearer it is that massacring civilians before, during, and after a rough fight is par for the course. One might even say that butchering unarmed men, women and children of the enemy tribe is the de facto military objective more than half the time; it might be some weird, half instinctual, proto-game theory going on: “We told them to surrender or else. They didn’t surrender, we won anyway, and now there’s gotta be an ‘or else’ to persuade the next batch of holdouts that we mean business.” In the long run, butchering the first village usually made it morelikely the next three villages would get the message and surrender without a fight, saving the invaders men, materiel, and time. Or perhaps it’s that killing civilians has always been pure bloody-mindedness. But not at Gettysburg. Gettysburg is where the American platonic ideal of soldiers fighting soldiers and leaving the civilians be actually happened.
Another aspect to the battle that fascinates me is how utterly unplanned it was. Neither army had intended to fight there, and between the scale of the brawl, the rapidity of developments, the intransigence of their subordinates, and the communications lag, neither the Confederate general Lee nor the Union general Meade had a grip on the situation at all until the second day of the battle, and neither could enact their ideal plans until the third day. It was something of a clusterfuck for both sides, and the course of the battle depended on the initiative and guts of small unit commanders with little idea of what the big picture was.
Gettysburg tends to be remembered as the turning point in the war, when it stopped being a gallant passage at arms between roughly equal powers and started being a slow, painful inevitable grind towards Union victory. This is not exactly accurate; only with years of hindsight could anybody construct a narrative that framed this fight as the turning point, for at the time Gettysburg was seen as just another grisly slaughter yard in a long series of them. Still, between this fight and the conquest of Vicksburg out west, this does appear in hindsight to be the high watermark in terms of Confederate progress towards successful seccession. Certainly it was the last time any Confederate army went on the strategic offensive. For diehard secessionists (both during the war and in the years after), this was the last hurrah before the war started being truly hopeless.
It is also, I should mention, a place of spiritual significance for me. Myself being secular humanist with a vaccination against Protestantism from my younger days, I don’t have much in the way of codified religion. But when I was a youngin’ visiting relatives out east, I got to visit the battlefield. I found myself standing in front of a monument on the field on the north end of Herbst Wood (where the right flank of Iron Brigade stood and charged on the first day of the battle). It described how a Michigan regiment of about a thousand men stood on that spot and suffered two thirds casualties over the course of the day. I read the details on the monument, and stared up at the mustachioed rifleman staring defiantly to the west.
Looking left and right, I saw more monuments every fifty yards or so in a straightish line, spreading out to mark where a human line had once stood and bled. And I turned my back on the monuments to face away, and behold, I saw an opposing line of Confederate monuments stretched out horizon to horizon about a hundred yards away. Two lines, violently opposed but unmoving; courage and horror frozen into place forever. And the world there seemed very big, and very grand, and I felt very small and unworthy. The air was at once colder and hotter than any air I’d ever felt. The wind cut through my clothing and reminded me that flesh was mortal but spirit was eternal. This was holy ground, soil consecrated by blood. Shi’ite Muslims have Karbala. Catholics have the Road to Calvary. Australian aboriginals have Uluru. I have Gettysburg.
A brief note- I will be including maps periodically to show the progression of the fighting. These maps must be taken with a grain or three of salt. They are intended to show relations between the armies and the terrain, not to mark the exact positions or dispositions of the units, nor to show an exact proportion of numbers involved. This is because I am not an expert mapmaker, and I thank you in advance for your understanding. First, a map of the northern part of the battlefield. Note how many roads lead there, and note the high ground of Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill to the south of the town.
The Battle of Gettysburg happened because Lee needed to go on the offensive, and Lee needed to go on the offensive because of the big picture. I shall cover the broad outline just so the significance doesn’t pass anybody by.
The Confederacy in the Spring of 1863 was in a terrible dilemma. The leadership had two urgent problems, either one of which could (if unaddressed) destroy their enterprise, and to make things worse they didn’t have the resources to solve either of them alone without a miracle.
One, the Union was fixing to shove yet another army down Richmond’s throat. Two years of failed invasions into Virginia had been brutal to both sides, but the North had immense reserves of cash, food, industrial output, and manpower with which to replenish themselves, and the South simply didn’t. The Army of Northern Virginia on which every invasion thus far had broken was underarmed, underfed, and undermanned, and if these issues were not fixed then they’d be seeing Union soldiers in the Confederate capitol before Autumn. There had already been a push that year, which Lee had staved off at Chancellorsville. There was plenty of time left before winter for a second attack.
And two, Vicksburg, the railway hub that sat on the Mississippi River, was under dire threat. The Union had already grabbed New Orleans at the south end and pushed north up the river, and had been pushing south down the river since day one of the war, but Vicksburg prevented the whole river from falling in to Union hands. Vicksburg alone let the South shift resources and information from its Western half to its Eastern half. Losing it could be a death blow. The garrison of Vicksburg was also underarmed, underfed, and undermanned.
The fresh crops taken off the farm and the fresh host of new recruits also taken off the farm were middling at best. Even throwing all the resources they had at either problem and letting the other develop as it would might mean losing on both fronts. Splitting the resources in half to prop up both didn’t seem promising either. Lee, being something of a strategist, developed a third option. There was no point (he reasoned) in trying to prop up Vicksburg at this point- it would take weeks to shift reinforcements that far west, and by then it would be midsummer. If the siege lasted that long, either the garrison would fold or disease would rip through the Yankee army and drive it back home, as it had the last two years running. In either scenario, further support would affect nothing. Therefore, he proposed a bold plan- don’t sit around waiting to get hit in the face. Invade north. Take the fight onto their turf.
The more the Confederate leadership considered it, the better it sounded. Northern land hadn’t been ravaged like Virginia had- it would be easy to live off of the enemy’s food for once, thus lessening the headache of their constant supply problems. It was also an election year, and the anti-war Democrats were raging at the ocean of blood and gold being wasted on bringing States back into the fold who very clearly wanted to go their own way. One good, solid victory on Northern soil could tip the balance, drive home the point that that war was unwinnable. Get the Black Republican warmonger Lincoln kicked out of the White House, get a reasonable Democrat in, and next year they just might get a negotiated peace that would lead in time to true and recognized independence.
To which end-
Lee snaked his newly reinforced army of about 75,000 men up through the Shenandoah Valley, using the mountain range to mask his movements instead of using to well-worn direct route that the Union was camped on. He would end up north of the bulk of the Army of the Potomac, simultaneously threatening Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, which for a guy trying to score a symbolic victory to discourage the enemy voters put him in a pretty nice spot.
Lincoln freaked out, told Hooker and his Army of the Potomac to go out and beat Lee, to utterly destroy his army, and also not leave any weak point undefended, which are just the kind of orders one enjoys receiving. Hooker, having a bit of an ego and a poor history of getting his ass kicked by Lee, got into a feud with Lincoln’s advisors and impulsively offered his resignation as Commander of the Army of the Potomac following some stupid spat with the bean counters back in Washington. Lincoln called his bluff and fired him three days before the battle, putting General Meade in charge of the whole damn army with almost no prep time.
I should cut the narrative here to cast moral aspersions right quick. The Union were the good guys, and the Confederates were the villains. That said, the North made for really terrible heroes, and the South had more than its fair share of virtues. This was not a grand crusade of freedom-loving Yankees tearing down the moral abomination of human bondage. This was a brutal, no holds barred death struggle between the efficient new urban Industrial Revolution and the rural Cavalier latifundias. Only a smallish segment of New England Puritans and bleeding heart Quakers hated slavery on moral grounds- the rest of the North either hated it on financial grounds, didn’t give a fuck one way or another, or were actively supporting racial slavery. And on the flip side, most Southerners who fought in the war perceived quite accurately that outsiders were coming into their world to demand submission, and had decided to give these invaders the William Wallace treatment. This is a normal and admirable response that every healthy society should have in its toolbox, and in my not-even-slightly humble opinion it is a damn shame that so many people endured so much agony in support of so un-American a cause.
For you see, when Lee’s army reached Pennsylvania, they kidnapped every black person they could find, free or not, and sent them all south in chains. There was no attempt to ascertain their status by some legal due process, no splitting of hairs. The bare skeleton of Confederate ideology, the great Truth that would have snuffed out by continued political loyalty to the Union, had been that all men were not created equal. To be more precise, men had white skin, and anyone with black skin was not a man and did not have the rights of man. As such, anyone with black skin was to be sold into slavery and threatened with torture and death if they refused to labor in the cotton fields. The army that invaded the North was, in practice, the biggest slave-hunting gang that had ever set foot on American soil.
The side wearing grey were staunch defenders of a country based on the Ideal of Ethnic Supremacy, and the side wearing blue were fighting for a country based on the Ideal of Equality. There were a million nagging features of material reality in the South and the North that challenged both of these Ideals, but there were no Ideals to challenge these Ideals, save only for each other. We know that this is true, because as the war shifted away from a Federal attempt to rein in wayward states to an all out assault on the institution of slavery, more and more Northerners balked at the idea of dying to set niggers free; men who had fought for years to bring the rebels into the fold again threw down their rifles and went home in disgust after they heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. And as it became clearer that poor whites who never owned slaves were expected to die for plantation owners’ right to stay rich, fewer and fewer Southerners were willing to jump into the meat grinder feet first; many of them deserted to go home and form Unionist bushwhacker gangs instead. Speaking of the draft, a higher percentage of southerners dodged the Confederate draft than in Vietnam, yet Vietnam is remembered as a deeply unpopular war while the Lost Cause has painted the South as a unified bloc striving as one against the Yankee oppressor.
Also, the Confederacy had a draft imposed upon the states by its federal government. So, yeah, State's Rights. Tell me how that worked out.
To reiterate. Both sides are not the same. We are rooting for the Union. Slavery. Etc.
The two armies surged northward, on parallel tracks with Lee on the west side of the Appalachians and Meade on the east side. Being critically low on recon drones and spy satellites, the only ways to find the enemy army was to send guys out on horseback to physically look at them before riding back, and to talk to locals whether they’d seen anyone wearing the other team’s uniform recently. Clouds of skirmishers, cavalrymen, and small detachments of infantrymen from either side scattered themselves in all directions, straining to catch a glimpse of the other army. The first side to locate the enemy, amass sufficient force, and maneuver against them would probably win, without regard for right or wrong.
JULY 1st, 1863
General John Buford had a 2,500 strong brigade of cavalrymen patrolling southern Pennsylvania, being one of dozens of detachments sent out to find the enemy army. Using human intelligence from locals in Gettysburg, he learned that there was a column of rebel infantry marching down the Chambersburg Pike.
And indeed there was. Advance scouts from Buford’s brigade made visual contact with a column marching south towards Gettysburg. The ball was now rolling.
The story goes that the Confederates were looking for new shoes and heard that there was a stockpile in Gettysburg. As far as I can tell, this is a baseless legend- inspired by the true fact that the rebel army didn’t have enough shoes, but baseless nonetheless. The three Confederate commanders marching towards Gettysburg (Archer and Davis with a brigade apiece and Heth as division commander coordinating them), were simply doing what their counterpart was doing- reconnaissance in force, hoping to develop a lead for the rest of the army to follow. 7,000 infantry under Archer and Davis were about to pick a fight with 2,500 cavalrymen under Buford. The currents of this morning fight would provide the grooves for the next three days to follow.
Buford’s men fought as dragoons; the horse let you scoot around to where you need to go, but you got off it and fought on foot. They Union cavalry broke into tiny little four man teams to bloody the approaching Confederates’ noses. The terrain was a bushwhacker’s paradise- plenty of rocks and trees to hide behind, and plenty of low, rolling hills to speed off behind to break line of sight. One man would hold the horses while the other three crouch-ran forward under cover to pop off rounds into the enemy column from the sides of the road. When the enemy infantry redeployed from a fast moving but harmless column formation into a slow moving but dangerous line, the three shooters would run back to their buddy to mount up and retreat to a new position.
The cavalrymen were outnumbered nearly three to one, and their carbines had less range and power than the rebel rifles; then again, the terrain was working for them and their breechloading carbines could shoot much faster than the enemy’s muzzleloading long rifles. It was very close to being an fair fight, as long as the cavalry could stay mobile and keep their distance. Buford and Heth both had unclear, contradictory orders- “Push forward aggressively to locate the enemy, but do not enter into a general engagement until we know what we’re up against.” It was an order that must have made sense in the tent when Lee and Meade sent their own versions off. You wouldn’t want to force a battle until you knew the enemy’s location and disposition and the terrain you were going to be standing on, any more than you’d want bet it all on a poker hand before looking at your cards. But to the guys on the front line, it meant “charge forward, but do not charge forward. Attack, but do not engage. Show some initiative, but don’t pick a real fight.” Heth decided they were up against a skeleton crew of skirmishers, and he had orders to check out Gettysburg. He send riders back with a quick report and a request for reinforcements. Buford decided that if the whole damn rebel army was heading his way, he needed to delay their advance for as many hours as he could to give the rest of the Union army time to get to Gettysburg- the high ground south of the town looked like ideal terrain to fight from and he wanted his buddies to get there before the rebels. He too sent riders back with calls for help.
And meanwhile, the murderous, hazardous stalking of the rebel column continued as it trudged towards Gettysburg.
Meanwhile, in the Rear with the Gear
Imagine running a marathon- 26 miles and a bit from start to finish. That’s how spread out a Civil War army is, from vanguard to rear guard. You can’t really concentrate 75,000-100,000 people together that closely. Disease starts killing people off really fast, feeding everyone is a headache, and if you have to march out, the lead element will march all day before stopping for the night, while the rear element hasn’t even left camp yet. It’s unwieldy. So they all spread out to grab some real estate and forage easier and not choke on each others’ dust and crap.
The riders from the Chambersburg Pike were spreading the word through the marathon length of the armies. Units were halting, turning around. Captains and colonels and generals were consulting maps to figure out what roads to take to get south or north to Gettysburg from where they were now. Regiments were putting their heads to together to figure out whose company oughtta go in what order.
The movements were slow and and ungainly and awkward, but they were starting up.
Mid Morning to Noon
The rolling hills on either side of the Chambersburg Pike stopped at McPherson’s Ridge, a grand place to make a stand- plenty of cover, steep incline. In any case, there wasn’t much further to retreat to. Archer and David pushed the cavalrymen, Archer on the south side of the road and Davis on the north. Thoroughly annoyed infantrymen backed up on the Pike behind them, eager to get at the enemy but without frontage to occupy.
Buford dug in on McPherson’s Ridge, and the full force of Heth’s division slammed into him. Denied their mobility by the necessity of holding territory, the fair fight turned into a meat grinder for the dismounted cavalrymen. When Confederate artillery set up on Herr’s Ridge, it turned into a bloodbath.
Buford, at last, got in contact with somebody who outranked him. General John Reynolds, second in command of the whole Union army, rode ahead of his division to get eyes on the situation.
The two struck a deal in the middle of a firefight. Buford promised to hold to the last man, and Reynolds promised to reinforce him. It was an exercise in trust; if Buford’s men held firm and Reynolds let them down, they’d be swamped and slaughtered to a man, and if Buford’s detachment broke and scattered, Reynolds’ reinforcements would march directly into a line of hills held by an entrenched enemy force of equal size. Failure on either side would be fatal. Reynolds rode south again, leaving Buford and his dwindling cavalrymen to fend off 10% of the Confederate army all alone.
Meanwhile, Buford’s thin line was cracking. Outnumbered, outgunned, and unable to advance or retreat... That which was inevitable to start with was happening now. Davis’ brigade was pressing against Oak Ridge on the Union right, and Archer's was taking Herbst Woods tree by tree. Buford’s men were giving ground they couldn’t afford to lose. Confederate artillery was blasting giant holes in the ranks of the defenders.
That’s when the relief came- two fresh brigades of infantry coming up the Emmitsburg road, under generals Cutler and Meredith. Cutler got there first, taking up positions on Oak Ridge and straddling either side of the Pike with cannons. Their massive volleys disrupted Confederate momentum and silenced some of the rebels’ big guns as everyone scrambled for cover. Grateful and exhausted cavalrymen sidled off to the flanks to safety. Meredith’s brigade is still lagging behind- that’s the problem with columns, only the guys in front can do anything.
If Buford and Reynolds expected everything to be right in the world once reinforcements arrived, they were very much mistaken. Those men out there attacking up Oak Ridge were some of the finest infantrymen in the world- dedicated, disciplined, contemptuous of death. They did not stop being efficient killers just because they now fought peers instead of the hornet-like cavalry skirmishers. Cutler’s brigade was facing a small tidal wave of battle-maddened Southern veterans, and had no time to dig in and situate themselves before the moment of impact. Davis’ men ripped into them like a pack of starving wolves. Cutler’s men fell back to safety on the top of Oak Ridge. In pieces.
Meanwhile, Meredith’s brigade was finally in position to retake Herbst Woods on the south side of the road.
Now, Meredith’s brigade were the absolute elite of the Union army. They were the grizzled veterans, the old crew, the best drilled, the most experienced, the hardest of the hard. They were nicknamed the Iron Brigade, and the Black Hat Brigade, because they were authorized to wear dashing black foraging caps to signify their status as the best of the best. With their comrades north of the road falling back, it was imperative that the Black Hat Brigade protect their left flank. To which end, Reynolds frantically snapped orders for them to line up and charge Archer’s men who were occupying Herbst Wood.
Their charge was met by a storm of musket fire that churned the Iron ranks into blood and guts. But this was the Black Hat Brigade. For them, taking ten percent casualties in a single minute was just another Tuesday. They got in close to the rebel line to return the volleys with a vengeance, and then charged with the bayonet. Archer’s men saw the distinctive black hats come for them through the musket-smoke. For the first time, they realized that these were no mere cavalry skirmishers, no half-assed militia company facing them. The best of the best of the Army of the Potomac was coming at them at terrifyingly close range. Archer’s men cracked and scattered. The ones who stood firm, died. The ones who threw down their rifles and grabbed sky were allowed to live as prisoners. The ones who ran, lived, but found the Iron Brigade hot on their heels. Meredith’s elites carved through Archer’s brigade like it wasn’t even there.
Reynolds was a good leader. A great one, in fact. He was decisive, experienced, competent. Many thought he should have gotten command instead of Meade. As his men retook Herbst Wood, he turned behind him to check on how close reinforcements were, some rebel rifleman did his cause a world of good, and shot Reynolds in the back of the head.
Now the situation got pretty weird- Davis’ brigade had kicked the shit out of Cutler’s brigade and was pursuing them on the north side of the road, and the Iron Brigade had kicked the shit out of Archer’s brigade and was pursuing them on the south side of the road. Neither victor was aware of what had happened across from them, and soon enough they would pass each other by almost touching the edges of their lines. The first one to figure out what was happening would get to win.
As it so happened, General Doubleday (in command now that Reynolds was dead) saw the danger and the opportunity first. He broke off an Iron regiment from his reserve to swoop in and protect the flank just in time, setting them up in a defensive stance facing the road. That regiment was joined by another broken off from the Iron assault, and yet another from Cutler’s brigade, who had seen the maneuvering and joined in on its own initiative. It was like a ballet, all three regiments coalescing into a single front facing north across the road, as though they’d spent the last week rehearsing. Under their protection, the rest of the Black Hats gave chase to their prey.
When Davis finally turned and attacked, they were chopped down by a mass of highly accurate fire from the newly entrenched men. Confederates died by the dozens and were maimed by the score. As they reloaded, the Black Hats were astonished to find that the whole Confederate brigade vanish into thin air, like magic. The firing stopped; no more targets. It was bizarre.
The three regiments advanced cautiously. And were gutted by a close range surprise volley by the hidden Confederates as they tried to scale the fences on either side of the Pike.
It turns out that there was a cut in the side of road, deep enough for a man to jump down into with only his head able to peek out. Davis’ men had leapt into it as a source cover when the firefight started and found it was a grand place to shoot out of. But it was also a death trap. Once the Union regiments figured it out, they got in close enough to fire blindly down at point blank range into the milling mass of men.
Davis’ men surrendered, thousands of them all at once. Unable to move, unable shoot back, it was really the only choice. And with that, the first round of Gettysburg was over. Oak Ridge and Herbst Wood had held, and about 150,000 odd soldiers were converging on Gettysburg to shift the tide of war this way and that.
The rest of the first day was not free of drama, and heroics, and mass suffering. But it was free of surprises. The iron laws of physics had decreed that more Confederate units would be on hand for the fighting in the afternoon, and so it was. Fresh rebel troops swept down from the north and from the west, relieving their exhausted comrades and preparing themselves to assault Oak Ridge and Herbst Woods. Fresh Union troops arrived from the south to reinforce what they had and to extend their line out east, protecting their right flank and screening off the town itself.
Hours passed without a shot being fired. Everybody was reorganizing themselves, resupplying, carting the wounded to the rear to let the surgeons saw their shattered limbs off. Two small things happened that delivered a Confederate victory on day one, and a Union victory on day three. Union General Barlow pushed his brigade out to occupy Blocher's hill, and Union General Steinwehr plopped two of his brigades on top of Cemetery Hill. The first created a huge gap in the Union right, and the second secured the invaluable high ground for the rest of the battle.
Meanwhile, three Confederate divisions set themselves up for a concerted attack- Heth would press into Herbst Wood on the Union left, Rodes would assault Oak Ridge at the center, and Early would swoop down the Harrisburg road to threaten the Union right. When the big push came at around 2 p.m., it was badly organized and mismanaged. Southern commanders couldn't get it together and attack at the same time. Individual units charged at Oak Ridge alone, like a mob of Hollywood henchmen attacking the hero only to be smacked around one by one. Cutler's men didn't just fight them off; it was closer to mass murder. General O'Neal's brigade swooped down off of Oak Hill only to be cut down by musketry and cannon fire, and they did it without O'Neal, because O'Neal stayed in the rear while his men died. When O'Neal's brigade fell back having suffered heavy losses, Cutler shifted his men to greet the new threat from Iverson's brigade, who also charged without their commander. Iverson's men marched in parade perfect order across open ground, without so much as a molehill for cover. The story goes that during the assault, Iverson looked out from safety and saw half his men lying down on the ground. Iverson was pissed off because he thought his men were surrendering. In fact, he was watching his brigade die in droves.
The issue wasn't morale. The Confederate troops were eager to get at the enemy. The problem was purely organizational in nature. The men in charge of telling people what to do were simply too confused and disoriented to work out the solution in real time. While O’Neal and Iverson were getting bloodied, Barlow’s men on Blocher Hill were getting slaughtered. Barlow’s desire to hold the high ground on the defense was understandable- high ground being a grand place to fight from- but he was about one mile ahead of any friendly units. This meant that it was trivially easy to flank and destroy his brigades.
Georgia men under generals Early and Rodes linked up to flank and destroy Barlow’s isolated brigades. A thick stream of filthy, bloody, and terrified Union men flowed back to the town of Gettysburg, leaving a gaping hole in the Union line and spreading their panic like the plague. Victorious Confederates whooped and hollered. As the men to the north of town trade massacres- the failed assault on Oak Ridge being roughly balanced by the disastrous dissolution of Barlow’s brigades- Heth finally attacked the Iron Brigade still occupying Herbst Wood in the west. He’d been delaying it all afternoon, stymied by the contradictory orders from Lee. Lee, who was several miles away and not at all in touch with the situation, still wanted to avoid a general engagement. But now, Heth has been let off the chain to avenge Archer’s brigade.
Heth’s full division attacked Herbst Wood. It was a slow, hot, gory fight. The attacking rebels are aggressive, but also methodical and well-organized. The Black Hats made them pay for every tree they seized. But there’s only one outcome for a fight like this.
The Iron Brigade has the ghastly honor of having the highest casualty ratio of any Civil War brigade, North or South. Out of the 1,885 men in their ranks that morning, 1,153 (61%) were be dead or maimed by nightfall on the first day. The fates of individual units from within the brigade are even more gruesome- in the 2nd Wisconsin regiment, 397 out of 496 (80%) were killed or wounded. But despite the horrific losses, they didn’t break. They gave ground slowly and in good order, but they gave ground nonetheless. Iron does not break, but it does bend.
By late afternoon, the dominoes fell as they were always going to. With the debacle at Blocher’s Knoll, any hope the Union had to hold the right was lost. The Black Hats were being ground into sawdust on the left. And Rodes has finally gotten his brigades to charge at the same time, overwhelming Cutler’s defense.
Every Union man was running now, some in a blind panic, some withdrawing in good order like professionals.
The open field battle turned into urban warfare as the Confederates chased the Union army through the streets of Gettysburg. Companies blocked the streets to hold off the enemy advance long enough for the comrades to scamper. Marksmen played sniper games in the windows, either shooting men in the back as they ran away or ambushing overly aggressive platoons, depending on the color of their uniform.
The Union men were desperate to reach Cemetery Hill, south of the town. High ground and the reinforcements already stationed there promised safety. The Confederates were just as desperate to catch them first and seize that invaluable terrain for themselves.
A great deal of “woulda coulda shoulda” ink has been spilled over the orders that Lee gave to General Ewell, the man in charge of Rodes and Early: “Take Cemetery Hill if practical”. But Ewell saw two brigades with a lot of artillery standing on top of what appeared to be a natural fortress designed by God to repel infantry, and his men were exhausted to boot. Ewell decided it was not practical, and so did not try. Just one of those things, I expect.
In any case, the day was a Confederate victory. Every spot on the map the Confederate troops wanted to go, they had went. They had crushed all resistance, had even gone toe to toe with the cream of the Army of the Potomac and won. Their enemies were in flight before them.
There was, possibly, a certain amount of disquiet because the enemy had merely been driven from one ridge into another ridge, one even steeper and with more cover than the last. And rumor had it the rest of the Army of the Potomac was coming at them.
But that was a problem for the next day.
The HEL Jumper [Chapter 3.17]
Book 2 of The HEL Jumper
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A/N: In case you missed it last time, please enjoy the following wonderful piece of art by Akella as well as his latest sketches!
My Monthly Commission: Sentaura Working the Fields
Akella's Daily Sketchbook 6/1-6/10
Natori Kaczynski looked up from his morning coffee as the chime sounded at the hatch to his private quarters. The door slid open to reveal the rather unassuming figure of Doctor Lamont, clad in woolen slacks, a dress shirt, and sweater vest in lieu of the standard jumpsuit. He too was carrying a thermos of coffee, as well as a personal datapad.
“Ah Michael, right on time as always! Please be seated,” Natori gestured to the other chair in the room before holding out a small tin. “Can I offer you cinnamon with your morning brew?”
“I’m not sure artificial cinnamon will make artificial coffee go down any better,” Lamont replied amicably, seating himself and preparing his report. “I know you are a busy man, so why don’t we just get down to brass tacks?”
“I do so enjoy our conversations, Michael,” Natori mused wistfully. “But as you wish.”
“That’s because it is my job to help you, Admiral. Are you managing your stress appropriately?” The doctor inquired, not bothering to hide his exasperation. Natori smiled at him.
“My excitement and wonder far outweighs my stress these days. Yesterday was a difficult but immensely rewarding example. You met her as well. What are your thoughts on Veera, and by extension her people? Oh, and what did you think of Io?” He added with unvarnished interest.
“Well I’m glad one of us is so excited about the most dangerous achievement in all of human history. Perhaps you would be better situated to render your judgment on Io than I, Natori. As for Veera, I can only speak of my personal observations. She is not my patient, but I found her to be a bright, curious, and resilient individual. She is exactly what Lieutenant Winters needs. While I am not typically a fan of flamboyant language, woe befall whoever seeks to come between him and her.”
“So you’re saying Private Lipper is lucky to only have a broken jaw,” Natori added flatly. Lamont tilted his head in consideration.
“I am not sure, Admiral. We saw the same video and nothing more. But let us start from the beginning, shall we? Or would you like to hear my conclusion?”
“Conclusions first,” Natori insisted. Lamont took a sip of his coffee, adjusted his cuffs, and began.
“Yes sir. Lieutenant Winters was… difficult to pin down. PTSD is far too simplistic a diagnosis, as is this ‘berserker syndrome’. I would request you formally petition General Osmundson to fire whatever lunatic came up with that term.”
“That doctor is dead, Michael, as is the rest of the Lancer’s crew,” Natori reminded him quietly. Dr. Lamont cleared his throat and glanced down at his tablet.
“Yes, I suppose so. My apologies, Natori.”
“It’s nothing, Michael. I had a bit of a chuckle as well when I read that portion of his file. Carry on, please. And conclusions first,” the Admiral reminded him with a knowing grin.
“Indeed. In short, sir, I recommend Lieutenant Winters be allowed to remain a Jumper with your full confidence. I recommend integrating him into your mission here on Mara, even if it is only to speak with him and assure him that his actions among the local population center are in our joint best interest. And finally, I would recommend you reveal as much to your own team as is necessary to keep them from provoking him. Natori, the things Io showed me-”
“Let me stop you right there, Michael,” he offered firmly. “Io and I are in the process of building a relationship of mutual trust, if you will; one that I hope will save each and every one of us on board this ship should we find ourselves at odds again. While she left me an after action report, if you will, it was text and images only. She said she cleared this disclosure with the Lieutenant beforehand. Whatever you saw, please keep it between you and your patient for now. Thanks to repeated assurances and reports to emissary Qul’Roth on my behalf about our research at the ancient site, as well as our crew’s conduct within the village, I believe the urgency of a tribunal review decreases by the day. I am comfortable allowing you your confidentiality with them, at least on this issue. Should that change I will inform you.”
“And Delta brass wonder why I came to work for you,” Lamont chuckled. “Thank you, Admiral. To finish my conclusions, the Lieutenant is a dangerous man but not in an unpredictable or unacceptable way. He’d be a failure of a Jumper if he were not.”
“I am in agreement,” Natori added, making a note on his own device to reach out to Winters that day based on Dr. Lamont’s recommendation. “Now I intend to partially go back on my word and request that you explain what sort of man arrived on Mara approximately one year ago, and how his time there has changed him.”
Lamont shifted his glasses slightly on the bridge of his nose as he gathered his thoughts. After looking toward the ceiling briefly, he nodded and began his report. “Forgive me Mr. Winters, but the Admiral did ask. And for what it’s worth, Natori, the mood in the room throughout was one that indicated everyone present understood the events discussed would not remain complete secrets on account of military matters.”
“Please Michael,” Kaczynski encouraged. Lamont was known for both his professionalism and loquaciousness. He figured the two went hand in hand.
“Were you aware that Lieutenant Winters was romantically involved with his ship’s captain? And I don’t just mean physically.”
“I was not,” Natori spoke slowly, contemplating the contours of his desk as his eyes eventually found the picture of his wife and daughter. “That would be an awful risk just for a bit of sex, even for a Jumper.”
“He claimed that the two of them began seeing one another when there was no inappropriate rank differential. I saw no reason to doubt the accusation. If it is true, they were involved for at least three years at the time of her death, perhaps longer,” Lamont reported sadly.
“And he married an alien woman less than a year later?”
“Natori, you are jumping ahead,” the psychologist warned him with a friendly tone, nevertheless allowing his shoulders to sag. The two men contemplated such a loss from afar with only the soft humming of the Event Horizon to keep them company. “When he lost his ship I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say Lieutenant Winters lost everything. His friends, his comrades, his love, and his only way home to his family. Instead of breaking under traumatic stress, he thrived.”
“That is what Jumpers are trained to do,” Natori opined, feeling a slight need to step in on account of his own soldiers. Lamont shook his head.
“You know better than I do that nobody trains for what he experienced. Long periods without contact or behind enemy lines? Of course. Survival with no realistic hope of rescue? Less so. And regardless of his conditioning, Natori, Russell Winters admitted to suicidal ideation in basic training on more than one occasion, a circumstance that certainly predates his enlistment. Whoever applied the necessary pressure to keep him in the program took an immense gamble.”
“I think we both know exactly who that person is, Michael. Marshall Winters’ boy, earned the rank of First Lieutenant and won himself the affections of his commanding officer on the side. I’m not sure even I would take such a risk,” Natori declared.
“We all are blind when it comes to our children. And I have no choice but to look at the man as he is today and declare Colonel Winters’ gambit a success. But we have digressed. Between Io’s burgeoning humanity, which Lieutenant Winters clearly encouraged at every turn, and his contact with Veera, he found what he needed to survive.”
“You said he was over his… condition,” Kaczynski interrupted briefly, concern knitting his brow. Dr. Lamont shook his head.
“I said no such thing, Natori. Suicide appeals to people for all sorts of reasons, but I would broadly group those into external and internal factors. Lieutenant Winters grew up in a stable, loving home with siblings, two parents, and enough material wealth to shelter him from starvation, homelessness and the like. While we did not discuss his teenage years directly, I think it’s safe to say that his reasons for considering suicide were internal. He did not think his life to be worth living, and to this day I do not think he considers himself to be a good man.”
Natori took a sip of coffee before touching a button on the side of his desk. “Turnwell? I’ll be late to the bridge this morning. If there are any emergencies use the direct line. Thank you. Very well Michael,” he said, steepling his fingers and leaning forward on his elbows. “You have my undivided attention.”
“You are surprised, Natori?” Michael wondered.
“You’re surprised that I am surprised?” Natori countered calmly, shifting backward in his chair slightly in an effort to get comfortable. “You may have been made aware of something I am not, his relationship with the deceased Jessica Yang being one such item, but his actions are not those of a self-loathing man.”
“Duty is an extraordinarily powerful motivator, in men especially. As is the most basic desire to live. Your cerebral tissue may tell you life is not worth it. Your medulla will always disagree,” Michael ‘explained’. Natori curled the corner of his lips.
“I’ll take the long version, my friend.”
“I suppose we should start with what it means to be a man, then,” Michael agreed as Natori raised his brows and let slip a chuckle.
“If you say the words toxic and masculinity together I’ll have to space you, fair warning!”
“How long do you intend to torture my profession over that?”
“Until the unconverted realize that God put men on Earth and in space to fight and die for the rest of us,” Natori explained. “But I suppose I have always been old fashioned in a certain way.”
“It’s as good a starting point as any,” Lamont took up the conversation. “While I would not dare write such a thing in any official report, Russell Winters absolutely falls under the pseudo-scientific label of the ‘warrior class’. Men who are, let’s put it generously… more in touch with the primal role we were meant to play as the majority recipients of testosterone in our species. Some deal with it more constructively than others. His older brother is apparently a lawyer, just to name an example from the same family. It’s certainly one kind of battlefield.”
“So you’re saying he wanted to fight?”
“Not exactly. I’m saying that he looked around and saw a world that he didn’t understand, or perhaps one that didn’t feel quite right. It can manifest differently for everyone. Perhaps he saw injustice go unresolved. Perhaps he was attacked and then punished for defending himself. Perhaps he sought out violence and society didn’t reward him as he thought it might. Perhaps it was none of those things. All that is relevant, for our purposes, is that he felt he had no reason to exist until he joined the HEL. The Jumpers trained him to be brutal for a purpose, and while my objections to phrases like ‘berzerker’ stand, it is clear he delighted in it. Now contrast that delight with the sort of moral upbringing he likely received under Marshall Winters and his mother.”
“I believe I’m beginning to see your point,” Natori said slowly, piecing together small pieces of information and interactions. “He was rather quick to point weapons on my bridge.”
“And why did he do that, Admiral?” Dr. Lamont asked, already knowing the answer.
“He believed those dear to him were at risk.”
“A vicious cycle, is it not?” the psychologist mused, taking his glasses between his fingers and polishing them with his woolen vest. “When he left that village to kill this… ursae, was it? He did so because it was what had to be done and, I believe, because he desperately wanted to fight something he knew could kill him.”
“Who does he think he is, Beowulf?” Kaczynski demanded, aghast. Lamont placed his chin in the cleft between his thumb and forefinger, lost in thought for a moment.
“I suppose there are worse analogies. Beowulf was only concerned with his name living on after his death. Russell Winters was determined to die a murderer or return a hero. He did not act on his worst thoughts when he was a teenager, and he gained much stability in the military, but then everything was torn away from him. He survived, miraculously, formed new bonds, found a new home. And then he had to commit mass slaughter to save it. This was around the same time, he tells me, he decided to propose to Veera. And so he left her, determined to return worthy of her or not at all. His AI, by her own admission, claims to have built herself from his own personality and actions, as well as those of the Cauthan around him. Natori listen to me, and listen carefully,” Lamont pleaded. Kaczynski leaned forward again, furrowing his brow seriously so that his companion knew he had his undivided attention.
“I am listening, Michael.”
“Do not allow anything to happen to those aliens, certainly anything that could even remotely be considered our fault. If he loses everything again I don’t frankly know if his sister’s presence in the system would be enough, much less his AI. That virtual woman might even join him. I assume she’s everywhere in the ship by now?”
“She is, was within minutes,” Natori affirmed darkly. “Michael, you said he came back the hero.”
“And what is a hero without his people?” Dr. Lamont proposed. “Are you familiar with the fundamentals of Aristotelian virtue?”
“Everything in moderation, including moderation?”
“More or less,” Lamont agreed. “I don’t believe the Lieutenant’s concept of his own worth is very high, as I stated previously. In response he overcompensates in his duty to others. He appears a model citizen, but it will crash down around him the moment the supports are pulled away. I would like to conclude my report by reiterating my insistence that he be allowed to remain a Jumper within the normal chain of command, but with the understanding that his mission for now continues to be on Mara. He is not a danger to himself or others… as things stand now.”
“Unless others present as a danger to those he cares for,” Natori finished. “Understood Michael, thank you for your report. Given that it should be just after sunrise planetside, I believe I will give the Lieutenant a ring immediately. Unless you had anything more?”
“The young woman he married took an immediate liking to the orchids in my office,” Dr. Lamont reported fondly. Natori smiled as well.
“Anita Prakash already set her up with her own seeds in bay number seven. Hopefully we will be seeing more of them both aboard the ship, engaging in more… pleasant interactions than yesterday.”
“I hope so as well. Call on me if you need me, Admiral,” Lamont insisted, turning off his tablet, collecting his coffee and standing to depart. He paused at the doorway and turned back. “Natori, you do not need to bear your burdens alone.”
The Admiral fixed him with an approachable but unreadable look. “Thank you, Michael. I will remember that.”
“As you say. Good day, Natori.” The hatch slid shut behind the ship’s psychologist, leaving Natori alone with his thoughts.
“And once again I find myself envious of your breakfast. A moment of your time, Lieutenant?” Natori requested, having made it past Io the ‘gatekeeper’ who promptly activated Winters’ B-MASS so that the Admiral could speak to them all. Russell and Veera had just sat down to day old bread, cured chesko, and dato.
“Sir, if this is about the latrines-”
“I can assure you, and your wife,” Natori’s projection added with a polite nod Veera’s way. “I would not deign to interrupt your morning meal on account of some toilets. I wanted to touch base regarding a request I received late last night from Dr. Dupuis. It seems her initial exam with… Asha, is it? Yes, it seems she managed to acquire an old tooth and quite a few blood samples, quite the haul for our biologists. She mentioned the desire to bring this young mother aboard the Event Horizon for an ultrasound. While I am more than confident in my pilots’ abilities in transporting vulnerable persons to and from orbit, it seems that the father is less than convinced about the situation.”
“And you want me to do something about it,” Winters replied sternly, throwing the Admiral a sharp look as Natori held up a hand for peace.
“If you believe it is in Asha’s best interest, yes. I would like that very much, if only for the pursuit of knowledge about the universe and our newest allies. You have their trust, Lieutenant. I am asking you to use that bond for the good of us both, not abuse it.”
“Understood, sir. Is that all?” Russell wondered in a more congenial tone. Veera waved her feathers in subtle approval, not wanting conflict in her home so early in the morning.
“It is not. I just finished speaking with Dr. Lamont.” The eating took a momentary pause.
“I was wondering if Io hadn’t told you already,” Kaczynski joked.
‘Admiral, I am impressive, not omniscient. Though I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from reviewing every packet of data flying around your ship at all times, other than the banality of it all,’ Io defended herself haughtily. ‘Though I do think I’ll take a look at that comparative blood panel you mentioned.’
“If you could at least introduce yourself to the researchers first?” Natori requested.
‘Oh? You have decided it’s time to lift the veil?’ Io replied curiously, choosing to share projection space as she sipped a cup of coffee. ‘What brought this on?’
“A combination of prodding questions about manufactory number one, as well as the subject I was about to discuss before we were derailed,” Natori said with a wink. Io remained unfazed.
‘Despite their Frenchness I suppose I can be sporting about it. The floor is yours then, Admiral.’
“Thank you, Io. Lieutenant Winters, I will start by conveying to you Dr. Lamont’s recommendations. He believes you should remain on active duty with my full support and as a member of this command structure, given you are the only Omega presence for quite a few star systems at this time. I see no reason to go against the good doctor.”
“That’s wonderful, right Russell?” Veera asked happily. He nodded, allowing a small smile to shine through for her.
“Yeah, I suppose it is. But if I’m going to serve under your command structure we need to talk about that Sergeant and his-”
“It’s Private now, Lieutenant. And please don’t tell me you’re afraid of a five foot nine Lance Corporal?” Natori tried for levity. Winters nodded slowly.
“So that was the decision then. He knows what’ll happen if he pulls something like that, right? And I don’t mean my fist,” the Jumper clarified. Natori nodded as his brow furrowed seriously.
“I can assure you I do, Lieutenant. That’s in no small thanks to Io, as well as your furry friends on the surface. To that end I intend to have you work separately from my Jumpers for the most part. I think that would be beneficial for all parties at least for the time being. Returning to my point about the ultrasound, you are in a unique position to facilitate an expedited cultural exchange, to explain to them that we mean them no harm and inform us if something seemingly innocuous could be a problem. I will land on Mara today and speak with Antoth directly, if he is available for an audience. I believe I owe him that much after yesterday’s altercation.”
Natori’s declaration gained him approving and surprised looks from around the dying cooking fire, which sparked feebly now that it was no longer being fed. Winters scratched his chin. “I’ll let him know to expect you then. I’d like to make a request, sir.”
“Go on,” Natori allowed, clearly intrigued.
“One of your Jumpers is a pilot, yeah? The Russian woman? Come down with her, Corporal Mendes, and a heavy lift shuttle with plenty of chains or cables please, sir. As I said yesterday there’s something I need to collect out in the forest.”
“This is related to your grand hunt?”
“I suppose you could describe it that way as a third party,” Winters acknowledged darkly. “Part of it is putting your greenhorns in their place. Sorry, has to be done if you ask me. The other part is the fact that our obstinate husband in question is the Cauthan who forged the weapon I used to kill that thing. I think he should come along, have a little chat. Asha actually came by last night and asked us the same thing, if we could talk to him.”
“Your healer made a very good impression,” Veera complimented Natori, hoping to keep things on a level keel between the two men. The Admiral acknowledged her with thanks.
“I will be sure to let her know, Veera. Lieutenant, I think it would be good for those two to get some air. I see no reason to deny you. The approach window will be open in about an hour from the looks of things. I must attend to business up here if I am to depart with them. Was there anything you wished to discuss regarding your visit with Dr. Lamont?”
“No sir, he was professional,” Russell recalled, seeing no need to dig into anything given the favorable outcome.
“Very good. Finally, I wanted you and Io to know that I am lowering the priority of your tribunal hearing. It is to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.”
‘Admiral, an explanation please?’ Io requested, sitting upright in what was becoming her favorite plush leather chair, at least when she wasn’t playing barbarian queen on her throne of furs. Russell nodded, sharing his AI’s sentiment.
“Of course. As you might imagine I have been in constant contact with emissary Qul’Roth since our unfortunate altercation on the bridge. He has so far approved of our interactions with the Cauthan, given the nature of the signed treaty. Additionally, there is no human presence on Mara beyond the deployment at the Forge. They are currently engaged in a study of the surrounding biosphere as well as exterior examination of the structure. This all seems to be approved under his Order as well. I believe that if I were to show him proof that you have been acting under Captain Yang’s orders since your arrival here, he will not press the issue further. In that event it may even be prudent to forestall such a review until we are back on Earth. There are still many things we do not know.” As Natori finished his explanation, Winters waved his arm Io’s way. The Jumper had his elbows on his knees, shaking his head at the idea of the Ghaelen getting to hear Jess’ last words to him.
“Send the file Io, before I change my mind. Last thing I need is that horned space commie demanding testimony from the Cauthan,” he stated. The Admiral allowed his comments to pass with silent sympathy, though he refused to speak in direct support of the sentiment. Io regarded her partner for a few moments before summoning her seemingly endless display of files. They flew by one after another, eventually slowing to a halt. A shimmering ball of light and opalescent audio waveforms emerged as the folder itself dissolved away, a small tribute on Io’s part in Jess’ memory. With a flick of her wrist she sent the file skyward and out of the projection, pinging it off of Alice’s comm array and up towards the Event Horizon.
“Just get it done Admiral, please,” Winters implored.
“I will do everything within my power, Lieutenant. I will speak with you in person shortly. Veera, a pleasure as always and my apologies for disrupting your morning meal.”
“Oh, it’s fine!” She replied quickly as the connection was disabled. “He’s rather polite, and that was nice of him to do. So everything is ok now?” Veera wondered, plopping herself in Russell’s lap. “You know I only like your brooding face in small measures.”
“Can’t say everything will be fine forever but yes, this does resolve a lot of loose ends,” her husband acknowledged, wrapping his free arm around her and nuzzling her with the tip of his nose. “You ready for Ratha’s face when I tell her to knock down a wall?”
“Oh stop it, you! She’s pregnant now. And she stood up for us yesterday,” Veera murmured, nipping at his ear. Winters breathed deeply and relaxed, effectively conceding the point through body language.
“I guess times really are changing. Wonder what new shenanigans Alice will get up to today.”
Veera allowed a low purr to rumble from her chest, running her fingers through Russell’s short hair. “I can’t wait to see!”
“Winters!” the voice of Zolta’s master boomed out as the human entered the temple of Tyrdus. Even at the early hour the place was bustling with activity, the ongoing restoration of the village occupying time and labor alongside the everyday facets of a smith’s job, like repairing farming tools or carving furniture.
“Selah, Nerazek. You’re well?” the human asked, bumping his bare forearm with the Cauthan. While he’d not done much at his pod of late, he had stopped by to forge a pair of short sleeved shirts given the weather. He didn’t like the Event Horizon’s style.
“Splendid, Winters! But my mate and children have been bothering me for fish of late. Any chance you’re still in the business?” the burly smith wondered. Russell chuckled.
“Fishing sounds great right about now, actually. If I do I’ll be sure to give you an offer on any excess catch. Today though I need to borrow Zolta, if that’s alright.”
The Cauthan in question looked up from where he was sharpening an axe. With demand for building material at a multi-year high, their tools needed regular maintenance. Nerazek frowned. “If it’s important I’m sure we can spare him for a while but...”
“I understand,” Winters said in almost fluent Cauthan. “It’s no frivolous task though, I assure you. I know where to find a bit of refined metal.”
“Well why didn’t you say so?” Nerazek replied, his voice reverberating through the main room of the temple. “How many of us will you need?”
“Just Zolta. Sorry, it’s not a large find or anything but it’s definitely got sentimental value. Zolta, they’re sending a shuttle to retrieve the ursae’s skull today. What’s say you and I go check it out and see if we can find that spear you made me last year? I lodged it pretty deep in there; should still be somewhere inside those mandibles.”
Russell grinned impishly along with Io as the majority of the smiths, Nerazek included, looked not at them, but at Zolta. “My boy, what’s all this about?”
“Or did you not tell them that you forged the weapon that delivered the killing blow?” Winters finished with childlike enthusiasm, precipitating a series of whispers and questions that slowly grew louder as Zolta mumbled that the human had ‘done most of the work on his own’. Nerazek was not having it.
“Is it true, Zolta? He struck the beast down with that spear?!” the smith roared approvingly, his minimal plumage fluttering with excitement. Given the phrasing of the question, Zolta could do naught but reply in the affirmative. Before long fists were pounding on wooden tables, the young Cauthan’s feathers were being ruffled by appreciative comrades, and Nerazek was describing in great detail how he planned to rub that particular fact in Ratha’s face when next they met. In the commotion, Zolta was almost forced out of the building in a unanimous decision that he should go and retrieve what was certainly up to that point the greatest work of his life. Winters saw the job done, wrapping an arm around the young male’s shoulders as he called over his own.
“Nerazek, just make sure there’s a lot of open space in the town square this afternoon!”
“It shall be done, human! Selah to you!”
“Do you ever act normal?” Zolta demanded in a defeated tone as Winters led him on a casual walk down the main road towards the western gates.
“Define normal,” Winters shot back teasingly. “Look, if it’s such a big deal I’ll let you go back to grinding your axe, literally. But don’t you, you know, want to take a ride on a human flying machine and check out an ursae skull that just happens to have your own work stuck inside it?”
“So no, you never act normal,” the Cauthan answered his own question with an appreciative huff as they took shelter from the sun on the inside of the wall, waiting for Natori’s arrival along with Private Orlova and Lance Corporal Mendes.
“I’m here, aren’t I? And unlike my sister and MacGregor I didn’t exactly get to your planet following standard procedure,” Russell reasoned.
“Must run in the family,” Zolta assessed. “Your sister’s no better than you are.”
‘Is that jealousy I do detect?’ Io opined sweetly given she had no way to project herself. ‘We can get you some glasses too if you want them!’
“Asha wants to go up to your ship,” Zolta replied sharply. Winters nodded his head several times.
“Yeah yeah, we’re going to talk about it. Part of the reason I dragged you out here in addition to bragging rights. I know you worry about pretty much everything, but try not to on this one, ok?”
“Easier said than done.”
“You can go with her, be at her side the whole time,” Russell assured him, looking up at another beautiful blue summer sky. “Hell, Veera and I need to head back up there soon anyway. Might as well make an event out of it. Io will watch over her too.”
‘With the utmost care and greatest pleasure,’ the AI assured them. ‘She’s gotten decidedly plump. Never ceases to fascinate me, new life.’
Discussion of Asha only seemed to cause Zolta to withdraw in on himself, prompting Winters to rest a hand on his shoulder as high above a small, black speck could be seen in the sky, slowly moving closer to the village. “It’s been a while since you and I got to talk alone, you know, without the girls always giggling or conspiring about something or the other.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” the Cauthan agreed.
“So what’s really on your mind?”
Zolta’s ears twitched in annoyance as the sound of the heavy shuttle’s engines reached them. “I’m nervous and stressed out all the time. Too much is changing and I can’t keep up with it all. You? You were probably a good change. But ever since Asha got pregnant it’s been one thing after another. Sometimes I have nightmares about that night…”
“It was bad,” Russell agreed as Io frowned and observed patiently.
“And I’m one of the lucky ones,” Zolta acknowledged. “I didn’t lose my home. I didn’t lose my limbs or an eye like Xan did. I didn’t die.”
“Doesn’t matter. The dead are at peace,” Winters stated, though he knew his tone was not one of surety.
“I hope so, at least the ones that we lost. But when I wake up alone it takes a while to remember that she’s with her parents and she’s fine. I haven’t even had a chance to start on a foundation yet. That land has just been sitting empty. I don’t think I ever thanked you properly for that, either. Thank you,” Zolta said as the shuttle’s approach almost drowned them out. The on duty guards were quite annoyed by the commotion as well, to say nothing of nearby shen and farmers, but as soon as Natalya touched down the engines fell silent and peace was restored. Antoth and Ratha looked their way as the gates opened, having been notified before Winters’ pit stop at the temple of Tyrdus.
“First, you don’t need to thank me. You and Asha have been good to me and Veera. Had to return the favor. Two, I’ll start when we get back. Io and I will work through some plans and run them by you. I need a new project to keep me in shape and keep myself focused. And Zolta?”
“That wasn’t it?” the smith demanded, taken aback at how flippantly Winters had declared he would build them a home just like that.
“No, that’s not it,” the human said quietly, watching as Natori and Antoth stopped a couple paces from one another and bowed stiffly. Ratha did not move. “I have nightmares about that night too. I know you need to stay strong for Asha, but if it ever gets to be too much you should talk to me, or her, or someone you trust. There’s no shame in it, and keeping it inside will destroy you. Io, maybe you should stay for this one? Just give us the ursae’s coordinates.”
‘I suppose my talents would be better put to use in matters of diplomacy as opposed to carcass retrieval,’ the AI agreed after a moment of thought. ‘Best estimates of the location have been loaded to the shuttle, sir. I will go introduce myself to the Admiral now. Zolta, you are not forgotten. I already have some ideas I think you and Asha would appreciate.’ With that promise, Io straightened her uniform and walked calmly out of sight on Winters’ visor. They could tell the moment she greeted Natori, as the tall, thin man suddenly brought a finger to his ear. If he had any qualms about Io hopping between pieces of networked HEL tech like a frog on lily pads, he seemed content to keep them to himself for now. With translation and a cultural liaison secured, Antoth led Natori into the village, leaving a rather nervous Lance Corporal looking on from the shuttle. Having walked to the gates and acknowledged their presence, Russell was about to introduce Zolta to the other Jumpers when distinctly human footfalls behind him resolved into Alice jumping onto his back.
“Hey little bro! Did your friends bring any goodies for me? I placed a few orders yesterday.”
“They aren’t my friends, Alice. So I approve of you treating them like delivery boys,” Russell smirked, easily lifting the young woman off his back and depositing her on the ground. The arrival of the shuttle had also summoned Lachlan to the gates.
“Alice, if they’ve brought this sorta bird I don’t think we’re lookin’ at a typical supply run. Best be grabbin’ whatever it is you need and let ‘em head out,” the Marine advised as Winters nodded his way. “Lieutenant, good day to ye.”
“And you, Private. Could I trouble you to assist my overeager sister yet again today?” Russell laughed, noticing a rather large crate that seemed to be made of wood resting in the shuttle’s hold.
“Rusty!” Alice complained, only to have her brother place her in a delicate headlock as he mussed up her hair.
“You’re doing well. Keep it up,” he whispered, having heard plenty about Alice’s initiatives with glasses and lanterns from various Cauthan around the village, his wife included.
“I… ok?” Alice finally replied, though by that time Lachlan had already greeted Mendes and Orlova, and retrieved the crate. Though designed to look at home within the walls of the rustic Cauthan village, to the touch it became clear it was synthetic material and not genuine wood.
“Come on, Lassie! I’m sure these Jumpers have all sorts of mayhem to be getting up to. What’s say we actually do some good for these folk, eh?” the Scottish Marine suggested. Alice delighted in his light jab at the Jumpers, her brother included of course, and so she added fuel to the fire by looping her arm around Lachlan’s. Taking care not to dislodge the crate or inconvenience him in any way, she looked over her shoulder and stuck her tongue out at Russell. He just cocked a brow and waved back.
“Ah, what would I ever do without my big, strong, Marine bodyguard?” Alice wondered loudly as the two of them headed back to the village. Mendes walked forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Russell.
“Not exactly the way you planned it?” the newly minted Lance Corporal wondered.
“What? Alice hanging off of some guy to spite me? Happens all the time,” Winters replied with little concern. “It helps that I like him more than you. I suppose congratulations are in order, by the way.”
“Not sure I agree, but thank you sir,” Mendes replied, casting a pointed look at Zolta who had politely stood to the side as the various humans had their time together. Being the odd species out was a new feeling for him. Russell found himself in the role of translator.
“Zolta, this is Lance Corporal Mendes and Private Orlova. They’re the same kind of soldier I am, at least in theory,” he explained, the Cauthan language allowing him to throw some shade at the Beta team before he switched to English. “Corporal, Private, this here is Zolta. He’s a smith in the village, a good friend, and soon to be father. He’s the one who forged the spear I used to kill what we’ll be collecting today.”
“If I wanted a fairy tale I would have remained aboard the Event Horizon with my books, sir,” Natalya replied before looking Zolta’s way. “Selah is the right word, yes?” Without waiting for confirmation she retreated to the shuttle’s cockpit, leaving Mendes alone. The Brazilian looked between Russell and the brown furred Cauthan, shrugging his shoulders.
“Well, it’s another beautiful day down here. I suppose I could go for a story.”
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