The Conqueror


Except for the God-given right to bear arms, Santiago had no particular interest in the divine. Even so, she recited the Lord's Prayer in thanks when the escape pod finally came to a shuddering halt. At first, her followers were silent, but then they too broke into cheers and prayer. They had not burnt up while entering the atmosphere, nor had their large weapon stockpile detonated upon impact. It was time for the Spartan Federation to embrace their destiny.

But first, they had to discover whether the pod's casing had been breached and repair it if necessary. If the predictions about Chiron's atmosphere were accurate, the high nitrogen levels would result in rapid asphyxiation. Supposedly a painless way to die, one where you didn't realise something was wrong until you were dead, but Santiago didn't want to find out. She glanced at the barometer. The needle remained steady at twelve-hundred pascal, which was a good sign. She decided not to scramble to find an oxygen mask. So far her followers had been calm and disciplined, but there weren't enough flasks for everyone and she didn't want to risk starting a panic. With luck she wouldn't need one.

A young soldier, whose left sleeve was soaked with blood, unsteadily walked up to Santiago and saluted, but didn't meet her eyes. "Officer, part of the hull has been badly damaged."

They hurried to the scene. The lower part of the pod looked as if it had been squashed like a coke can but seemed mostly intact. "That's it?" Santiago asked. It looked like they could count themselves lucky this time.

"Not exactly." The soldier pointed at the lowest airlock.

Santiago cursed inwardly. It was a mess of twisted metal and shattered ultra-hard ceramics with electronic shrapnel mixed in. Two of her followers were partly buried in the rubble and clearly dead. A third was left in an even more lamentable condition. She put him out of his misery. Santiago crouched down next to the carnage and listened for the distinctive hiss of air flowing in or out, but she couldn't hear anything. Another glance at the barometer revealed that the pressure still hadn't changed. Amazingly, it seemed that this disaster had not caused a leak, but she asked her engineers to reinforce it anyway. It was far better to be safe than sorry.

The remaining checks were less urgent. After Santiago called the roll, it turned out that there were four more casualties: An engineer, a scientist and two soldiers. This was unfortunate, but nothing could be done. Seven deaths out of five hundred and seventeen was an acceptable casualty rate. All other injuries were minor - broken bones, cuts and bruises. Lieutenant Maria Kel's arm looked like it could do with some attention, but there was nothing that wouldn't heal. Although almost everyone knew first aid, Santiago had ensured that a specially trained medic was on board. He wanted to join Morgan, but a gun in the back had helped him adjust his priorities.

They needed about an hour and a half to assess the damage. Annoyingly, most of the delicate equipment hadn't survived the crash. The engineers who brought her the report tried to present the fact that their single Unity Rover was only superficially damaged as consolation. Although they talked at length, Santiago wasn't sure how much had been completely destroyed and what was still salvageable. It wasn't her area of expertise, so she left the engineers to fret. At least their weaponry was in perfect working order.

Another problem was that the pod hadn't landed quite as intended, meaning the lowest exit the impact hadn't crushed and buried three meters deep was five meters above the surface. The engineers would have to cut an opening at ground level and construct an airlock. Or they could build a ramp from the upper exit. The latter seemed more practical, but she would have a better idea what to do once she had inspected the terrain.

Although the crash scattered everything, her followers had located a couple of oxygen flasks. Taking one herself, she assigned the others to a handful of uninjured elite soldiers. Kel started to complain, insisting that her arm wasn't that bad, but Santiago silenced her with a glance. Having dealt with that, she slung a ST-306 Assault Rifle over her shoulder and headed for the airlock. The time had come to step out onto a truly new world.

Santiago put on her breathing mask and gestured that the others should do the same. She keyed in the activation sequence – Zakharov gave it to her in exchange for not reporting his plan to Captain Garland. If it wasn't the right code, their hostage would pay the price. Fortunately for him, the fifteen centimetre thick outer door slid open, letting her get the first real glimpse of their new home.

Santiago's first impression was that it looked a lot like Earth. The sky was blue, as was the sea she could just make out in the distance, although she remembered that it wasn't necessarily water. She had expected an alien sky, with the binary suns beating down on the land, but only Alpha Centauri A was visible. It was odd to think that her successors would regard this star as the sun or, to be more precise, as a sun. The land itself was covered in reddish sand and rocks. She scanned the horizon, trying to see if there was anything of particular interest or tactical importance and regretted not taking a pair of binoculars, but there wasn't anything that caught her eye. The most obvious difference was that this planet was devoid of life. Maybe Earth was like that too by now. Santiago pushed the notion aside quickly. This was a world of opportunity; Earth could burn and probably would. It was in man's nature to turn on each other.

This, far more than the haywire reactor, was why the Unity failed. Its builders might have decried it, but it was actually a strength. Having long since recognised this basic fact about humanity, Santiago knew that she could harness it and lead the Spartan Federation into an age of glory.

Checking that the comm-system was on, so that those still in the pod could hear her, she turned around to address her followers. "After forty years of sailing through the void of space, we have finally landed on this new world. The Unity is no more, it has shattered like the lie it was named after. It is every man, woman and child for themselves.

"Life will be harsh, but life always is. We are Spartans and we are strong enough to survive. That is our first and foremost goal. Let the others, if they are still alive, worry about politics and philosophy. We will survive and flourish on this new frontier. We are soldiers and can overcome every challenge this place throws at us! God has gifted us this world and we will see Manifest Destiny through!

"I, Colonel Corazon Santiago, shall be the first to set foot on this virgin planet."

The problem with the comm-system was that it was one-way, so she had no idea how her speech had been received by those inside. There was no way it could live up to the moment. Whoever wrote their history would have to make up a better one. However, judging by those in the airlock, it had gone over extremely well. They were not prone to outburst of emotion, but had nodded along vigorously. None of them seemed about to question her right to be the first to tread on this new world or point out that she'd just promoted herself to Colonel.

Santiago turned to face the uncharted expanses of Chiron once more. She grinned. There was little point in worrying now. She bent her knees and straightened them again. How long had she prepared for this? Focusing on the point she wanted to land on, she took a deep breath and leaped from the airlock.

It wasn't actually particularly high for her. She had jumped five meters plenty of times, often more, both in training exercises and in real combat. Perhaps the stronger gravity or the higher density of the atmosphere was to blame. Maybe it was simply the oxygen tank that threw her off balance. Regardless of the reason, when she tried to roll to cushion her fall, she stumbled. Santiago ended up lying face down in the sand, her plastic breathing mask pressing hard against the bridge of her nose. Damn.

She wasn't hurt, at least not badly enough for her to consider it worthy of attention, but that hardly mattered. If this happened to any of the other leaders, except perhaps Yang, it would be irrelevant unless they broke their necks. Otherwise, their followers might ask why they hadn't waited for a ladder. It would become a bit of a joke.

Her soldiers were laughing. This was serious. The Spartans rightly valued physical fitness, so it was a real danger that they would refuse to follow someone who made a fool of themselves. There was no excuse for what had happened. She had struggled to establish the Spartan Federation and secure an escape pod. Santiago wouldn't mind handing over the leadership to the right person, but she was the only one up to it. It couldn't all end because of a stupid fluke! Something had to be done, and fast.

Grabbing a handful of soil, Santiago scrambled to her feet and turned to the soldiers. "See?" She held up her hand, letting the red sand run through her fingers. "I've already seized the first fistful of this land!"

They were still laughing, but not at her. Just to make sure everyone knew she was in command, she gave an order. "Fetch some paint, I need to get our insignia on this pod!" The soldiers obediently scuttled off to find some. She wondered whether they actually had any. It didn't really matter. The situation was saved.

Santiago stepped back to admire her work, feeling the loose sand crunch beneath her boots. It felt good to be out in the wilds, away from the overcrowded Unity and its panicking crew. She never claimed to be a great artist, but a hexagon with a downward arrow wasn't difficult to spray on. The black paint was clearly visible on the pod's dirty white casing. A simple design that showed the Spartan Federation meant business. The time had come for them to really conquer this new world.