Not more than five blocks away, Lieutenant Jean Razak drummed the artificial fingers of his left hand on his desk, mulling over the orders which had landed there not more than five minutes ago. He and his squad had been back on Earth for three whole days and yet he was still up nights trying to catch up on paperwork. If Razak had to fill out one more munitions inventory back-log report just so some pencil-headed Intel bean-counter could sleep more soundly at night, his eyes would bleed.
But this was no inventory back-log, this was an official summons for Pvt. TPhai from the desk of Sky Marshal Sanchez himself. Razak had noticed that TPhai had been getting inordinate amounts of mail lately, but this letter wasnt even sealed in an envelope and the ink was so fresh off the printer Razak had accidentally smudged some of the text with his good thumb.
Razak considered sending someone to fetch TPhai, then realized that it was two in the morning and his whole squad was bunked down for the night. TPhai would have to be roused early in any case, the summons demanded that he to report to the new Skinnie embassy building at 0400 hours. Razak decided to call it a night a strolled down to the bunker where his troopers slept. He thought about rousing the whole squad just to keep them on their toes, but they had more than earned their rest. They were all war heros for crying out loud.
But TPhai was not lying in his assigned bunk, nor was he sleeping on a mat near the door like he usually did (since the bunks were too small anyway). Razak found the Skinnie sitting outside in a small pool of light cast by the lamp hanging over the back door of the barracks. TPhai was hugging his his knees to his chest and seemed to be staring intently at the sky, easily the most human posture Razak had ever seen him in. TPhai started to rise to attention as soon as he noticed Razak approaching.
At ease, said Razak, but the Skinnie continued to stand, assuming the at ease posture he had been trained to take in basic. Even sitting down, the Skinnies line of sight had been almost level with Razaks chest. Now the Skinnies seven foot frame loomed over Razak so that the humans line of sight was almost level with the Skinnies chest. Was it Razaks imagination, or did the TPhais body stoop slightly? In any case the Skinnie looked tired.
Couldnt sleep? asked Razak.
The Skinnies frame definitely stooped further. No, said Tphai, and failed to volunteer any further information.
Razak still had difficulty reading the Skinnies facial expressions. It didnt help that TPhais face was additionally obscured by the face plate of his exo-suit. A faint yellow mist swirled inside the Skinnies helmet whenever he exhaled. Razak could discern tiny puffs of methane gas glinting in the moonlight against the dark greenish color of TPhais face. It suddenly occurred to him that it must smell like the inside of a hog-shed in there.
A beautiful night, prompted Razak, gesturing vaguely at the brightly twinkling stars above.
Mmmm, said Tphai, turning his head toward the sky, and then he clammed up again. Razak began to wonder if the Skinnie had ever grasped the concept of awkward silences.
On nights as clear as this, I used to look up at the stars when I was a child, Razak prodded. I always dreamed that some day I might visit the stars.
Razak was still trying to figure out how to steer the conversation in a more productive direction when TPhai finally cut in, The Earths moon is larger and brighter than I remember, he said.
Yep, the moon is almost full tonight, said Razak, no longer certain if this conversation had fuel in the tank, let alone any chance of getting off the ground.
It must have been an enticing goal...to reach the moon, TPhai continued, Tophets moons are barely visible from the planets surface...and the Suns blot out most of the stars. The first time I ever saw the stars...my first clear, un-obstructed view...was out of a portal aboard the Valley Forge. You are fortunate to live on a world which has...such a clear view of the stars, RayZak.
Yes, well... Razak floundered. It was no wonder that the Skinnies had never developed space flight on their own. But Razak had never stopped to consider what a shock the Skinnies must have had when they realized just how many worlds there were besides the blighted few they must have glimpsed when they stowed away aboard space-faring Transport Bugs. They must have assumed that the Bugs inhabited every single quadrant of every single star system since the Bug ships would only have traveled to worlds already subdued by other Bugs. Probably the first Skinnie explorers had choked on the atmospheres of alien worlds, leaving them little choice but to invent the exquisitely designed exo-suits they now donned to fight Bugs on other planets. The Skinnies had guts, you had to give em that.
Anyway, the reason I stopped by is to deliver this summons. You are to report to the Tophet Embassy Suite at 0400 hours, said Razak, handing TPhai the papers.
Tophet Embassy Suite? said TPhai, obviously confused.
Its that new building four rows down on the left, Razak pointed. Dont worry about it, they probably just want to give you a medal of honor or something.
Thank you, RayZak. It has been an honor serving with you.
Dont assume this is goodbye. I expect you back here at 0600 hours, pronto. Youve got approximately two hours to prepare, I suggest you get some rest...Colonel, Razak replied.
The tusks jutting from the TPhais jowls twitched visibly when Razak mentioned the Skinnies former rank among the Tophet forces. This was the highest compliment Razak could have paid TPhai at that particular moment, and the Skinnie was genuinely touched on an emotional level. Or at least thats what Razak preferred to believe.
Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Good night. said TPhai.
Goodnight, said Razak as they parted company, which, for all he knew, might be the last time he would ever speak to TPhai as a fellow member of Alpha Squad. Razak secretly hoped that TPhais summons had nothing to do with promotions or re-assignment. Lord new the Skinnie deserved whatever accolades the embassy might have in store, but Razaks Roughnecks just wouldnt be the same without TPhai. The whole squad had come to depend on him as a trusted ally. On top of that, the squads recently restored psychic in training, Carl Jenkins, honestly thought the Bug Queen might have survived the explosion of her transport somehow. They might still need troopers like TPhai on the team. Of course, Jenkins had been wrong before.....