What were my orders? I looked at the men and women looking at me for guidance, I was the senior military officer present; they were waiting for me to take charge. For the first time in my existence I was actively commanding troops, and I was in the middle of a firefight. "You three," I said indicating the three surviving security guards "get out of here. I'm not going to risk the chance that one of you is still working for whoever set this ambush up."
As soon as the drivers/security detail had left I turned back to Mitchell. "Now we get the ambassador and her staff back to the Maru, and then we get the Hell out of here. We're going to have to walk back. Seldorian vehicles use a GPS system as part of their anti collision system and the rebels have deactivated the entire system. With it down only military and emergency vehicles will be operating. "
"Yes, Ma'am." Mitchell saluted then turned to the rest of the Lancers. "You heard her boys and girls. We're going to get our visitors back to the Maru then let these ass wipes have their war without us."
Ambassador Stein was still standing with a shocked look on her face. I needed her to take charge of her retinue. " Madam Ambassador, we need to get moving. Gather your staff, we're going to go back to the Maru."
"I don't understand, we're on a diplomatic mission. We shouldn't be in any danger. We can negotiate with whichever government is in power"
I pointed to the wreckage of the car she had been riding in. " I don't think these people are very interested in talking to you, Madam Ambassador. Now, are you going to come on your own power, or will I have to carry you? Have any of your staff had any form of military training?" She looked at me as if I was insane. I was disappointed, but not surprised at her response.
I started us out at a quick jog back to the spaceport, but it quickly became apparent that the civilians were in no shape to maintain the pace, and we sere soon reduced to walking. I had downloaded the plans to the city so I knew how to get back, but it was going to be a long twisty route. I didn't want to be too predictable by sticking strictly to the main roads. I put Mitchell and his squad at point while Staff Sergeant Caylor and his squad took the rear with the civilians in the middle. In the current situation I expected that an attack could come from behind us as easily as from in front of us. William had rummaged around in the wrecked cars and had managed to salvage an operable native rifle and some ammunition for it. He wasn't wearing battle armor like the Lancers were, so I had him stay in the middle along with the civilians and myself.
"You'll do just fine, Ma'am," he whispered to me. "We'll all get back to the Andromeda."
I appreciated his vote of confidence, but I didn't have as much confidence in my abilities as he did. I had been observing the windows of the buildings around us as we were walking. We were being watched.
We hadn't gone more than a mile back the way we came when we encountered a mob of people, mostly men and women with some older children. Some of them waved to us, and the mob started walking our way.
"We need to talk to them' said Ambassador Stein; "maybe they can help us get to safety."
She had just started walking forwards towards the mob when I saw something metallic in the hands of one of the men in the mob. I had barely time to shout a warning, and throw myself at the Ambassador, before the mob opened up on us with weapons they had been concealing.
I heard the crack of gunfire and several loud explosions. From my position on top of the Ambassador I was able to fire several shots at the weapon wielders concealed in the mob. Then there was an even louder explosion, and I felt a searing pain along my right side.
Contrary to popular belief, most androids are designed to feel pain. It serves the same function in us as it does in organics. It tells us we've damaged, and to do something about it. I didn't know how badly I had been hurt, but I did know that if I hadn't been covering the Ambassador she would have been killed by the explosion.
No mob, even with the element of surprise, is a match for a couple of squads of Lancers. After the initial surprise, my Lancers began returning fire. At first they hesitated to fire, not wanting to hurt possible hostages, but when one of the 'children' threw a grenade they stopped holding back. The crowd evaporated under a hail of plasma grenades and effector rounds.
When the shooting stopped, I stood up and began to survey the situation. It wasn't good. A Lancer in battle armor is hard to kill or injure, but they are not invulnerable. A grenade had landed at Sergeant Ye's feet, the explosion had torn off both her legs and she had bled to death within seconds. Caylor was dead too, and Whithall was down, there were several holes in his chest armor and he was coughing up blood. He would never make it to the Maru. I squatted down beside him and held his head in my lap, he smiled at me and gave one more gasping breath, and died in my arms. Five of Stein's entourage were down as well, which was not too surprising since they weren't wearing body armor, and were still slow about seeking cover when the shooting started.
Ambassador Stein was looking at me in something that almost resembled horror. At first I thought it was shock over the casualties, but then I realized that she was staring at the wound on my hip. I looked down, and saw that my metallic under body was showing through the tear in my skin.
"You're an android," stammered the ambassador. "How could Captain Hunt be so derelict in his duties as to assign command to an android?"
"Because she's the best woman for the job." It was William. Once again he was my white knight, riding to my defense. He had some minor scrapes, and was bleeding from a gash in his forehead, but seemed relatively unhurt. "She's not just any android. She's the Andromeda Ascendant's avatar. She's saved all our lives at least once, and has more combat experience that the rest of us combined. If anyone is going to get us home it's going to be her."
"I see," said the ambassador. She was obviously not satisfied, but had enough sense not to start an argument in the middle of a combat zone.
"We need to keep moving," I said. "If we stay here the bad guys are going to overrun us. Mitchell, distribute the armor to the civilians, they need it more than our men do now." Mitchell did as directed. We gave the ambassador and two of her aids cuirasses. They couldn't wear the helmets since, unless you were trained in how to interpret the heads up displays, you could quickly become disoriented. I was tempted to order William to don some of the armor, but changed my mind. High guard uniforms are made from ballistic cloth, it is woven from a synthetic fiber that is nearly as strong as steel and especially designed to spread the force of an impact over the wearer's entire body. It wasn't battle armor, but it was far superior to anything the civilians were wearing. I noticed that William had discarded the rifle he was carrying and had picked up Whithall's microgrenade launcher.
We started moving again. We were in a lose - lose situation. If we stayed put and tried to establish a defensive perimeter we would be surrounded and overrun by sheer numbers. If we kept moving we probably wouldn't be overrun, but we wouldn't be able to establish any sort of defense, and would be under constant sniper fire.
The Lancers picked up their dead. If there was any chance that a Lancer could be brought home he was. The situation was desperate, but not quite so desperate that they were willing to abandon fallen comrades. The ambassador gave me a quizzical look.
"Aren't they going to be slowed down carrying those bodies?" she asked.
"No more than they're being slowed down by you and your associates." I was in no mood to be courteous.
I was right about the snipers. They were never concentrated, but they were everywhere, armed with everything from rifles to antitank rockets. Lancer Buenavista was hit by an antitank rocket, and just disappeared in a red mist. Sergeant Traxx took a round through the head. I had lost a quarter of my command and we were not yet halfway to the Maru. Three more of the ambassador's staff had been killed, but by this time I was almost past caring. If they hadn't been slowing us down we would have been at the Maru by now. She tried to order me to have my Lancer carry the bodies, but I refused. If her people cared enough they could carry their dead. None of them volunteered.
We constantly had to stop and let the civilians catch their breaths. At one of the rest stops I commented to the ambassador. "Why are the anti Commonwealth people so determined to kill you? Don't they realize that if they succeed, the Commonwealth will come here in force and set up a new government, one favorable to the Commonwealth?"
"What makes you think these assassins are anti Commonwealth?" asked the Ambassador. "For that matter, what makes you think that the instigators of this little civil war are native to this planet? What do you think will be the Commonwealth's reaction if I should be killed by local anti Commonwealth forces?"
I spent a moment in thought then responded. "The Commonwealth will occupy the planet, declare it a protectorate, and set up a puppet government run by the remainder of the pro Commonwealth government." I had to search for the right words. "That sort of thinking is positively Byzantine."
For the first time since I had met her, the ambassador gave me a genuine smile "Welcome to my world."
That gave me an idea. Since the ambassador was the primary target, and I wasn't, why not switch places. "Quick take your clothes off," I told her.
I was already taking off my uniform. The ambassador gave me a completely astonished look. "We're going to trade places," I explained.
Fortunately the ambassador was dark haired like me and was relatively thin. My uniform was tight on her, and her clothes were too big for me. We would never fool any observer standing up close to us, but it would probably do to confuse the issue when the observer was in an upper story floor of a building. Almost as soon as we changed, a round whizzed past my head. It was time to move out again. We headed into another alley trying to avoid the main roads.
We ran into another mob of people. This time my Lancers didn't hesitate. They fired a volley into the air above the crowd, then leveled their weapons at the mob. This crowd must have been real refugees, since they scattered like a frightened flock of birds.
We had left the inner city and were in the less built up area. The good news was that places for an ambush were fewer and farther between; the bad news was that there were no more alleys to skulk around in and we would be more exposed. The worse news was that I had been monitoring the radio chatter. The rebels had tanks, and they were coming our way. Burdened as we were with the civilians and our own dead, there was no way we could get to the Maru before the tanks overtook us. We could abandon our dead, but not the civilians. There was only one way I was going to get the ambassador to safety.
I called Mitchell over to me. Unsurprisingly, William was with him. "They're bringing in tanks," I said.
"How long before they get here?" asked Mitchell.
"Ten, maybe fifteen minutes."
William looked over at the huddled mass of civilians. Most of them were wheezing and gasping for breath. The ambassador was with them, giving them a pep talk. "They'll be lucky if they get two blocks farther down the road by then."
I looked at Mitchell "At the rate they're going. it's going to take them about an hour to get to the Maru. That means the tanks are going to have to be delayed for at least that long."
If I had needed to breathe I would have taken a deep breath before I continued. In all my existence I had never contemplated giving the orders I was about to give. "Mitchell, you and your Lancers are going to have to buy us that time. We need to get the ambassador to safety. I can't stay with you since I'm the only one who can activate the Maru's systems. You and the others are going to have to hold those tanks off for an hour."
Mitchell looked around at the buildings. His eyes settled on one that looked more substantial than the rest. He turned to look at me, there was a bleakness in his eyes. He understood the implications of my request.
"We'll fort up there," he said. "Our plasma grenades can take out any of these yahoos' tanks, and our gauss rifles will shred their light armored vehicles. Hell, with all the extra ammo the Sergeant Major loaded us down with, we'll be able to hold them off till you guys come back with the cavalry."
He was lying and we both knew it. He turned to the remaining Lancers.
"Ok ladies, it's time to show these mudfeet what High Guard Lancers can do. We're going to give the Warrant the time she needs to get the ambassador and her staff to safety. We're going to hole up in that building over there that looks like a bank. We've got maybe ten minutes before the bad guys show up, so lets get busy."
They headed out at a trot still carrying their dead with them. They would either go home together or die together. William stayed where he was, waiting for my orders.
"William," this was the first time since the Ascension Ball that I had called him by his first name. "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to stay behind with them. This ploy is only going to work if the Seldorians think we're all together. If they realize that the ambassador isn't in that building, they'll simply bypass the Lancers and continue the pursuit. You're our coms tech. I need you to stay behind and make attempts to communicate with any possible friendly forces out here. Broadcast in the clear and let them know that the Ambassador is severely injured and can't be moved. "
He gave me the same sad smile he had given me when he took me to my quarters after the Ascension Ball.
"I can do better than that. I was sent along with you to record the signing of the charter. I have several recordings of the ambassador speaking. By the time I'm through playing with the recordings, anyone with a radio will be able to hear her calling for help over my com gear. The entire planet will think that it's her calling for help." He paused for a second then continued. "You guys had better get going, you're going to need every minute you can get." He turned and ran towards where my Lancers were starting to dig in. He was still carrying his micro grenade launcher.
The ambassador came up to me as William and my Lancers headed off towards the building.
"What are they doing? Why are they leaving us?"
"They aren't leaving us." I replied. "We are leaving them. And as for what they're doing, they're going to die."
I started herding the ambassador and her staff out. I was going to push them harder than they had been ever pushed in their lives. We were going to get to the Maru, and I was going to get the ambassador to safety. I was monitoring the communications channels as I ran. William had succeeded with his part of the plan. I heard the ambassador's voice calling for help.
The rest of the trip was anticlimactic. The enemy forces, whichever side they belonged to, concentrated on where they thought the ambassador was, and we made it to the Maru unscathed. There were troops guarding the Maru of course, actually I was hoping there would be. Once I got close enough that I could visually see the effects of my actions, I activated the Maru's point defense lasers.
The Maru's point defense lasers were powerful enough to damage a target on Seldoria's outer moon. I was aiming at targets only a few hundred meters away at the maximum. It was extreme overkill, by the time I was finished the entire spaceport was in ruins, but I didn't care. I had been in communication with William, and monitoring the enemy communications. In the end it had come down to hand to hand combat in the wreckage of the building. His last words were "I promised them you'd bring us back to the Andromeda."
After taking out the troops guarding the Maru, it was simply a matter of getting the surviving members of the ambassadors party on board, taking off, avoiding the incoming system defense craft, and heading out to the outer reaches of the system where we could lie low until Dylan and my ship selves returned.
When we rendezvoused with my ship self and I made my report, Dylan immediately ordered me to return to Seldoria. I was hoping that he would order the planet reduced to slag, but instead he only demanded the return of the bodies of our Lancers. With a High Guard Cruiser overhead, and a Lancer battalion dropped into their capital, the Seldorian's were very cooperative. I insisted on being part of the recovery team. William had promised my Lancers that I would bring them home. I was going to insure the promise was kept. We were led to an unmarked grave, one grave for all my Lancers. The bodies had been burned and mutilated; we had to use DNA analysis to determine which body was which. Before we left orbit I begged Dylan to let me retaliate, but he refused, telling me that it would be up to the triumvirate to decide what course of action to take, that the High Guard was not a law unto itself. He did let me destroy the weapons installations on Seldoria's moons that had painted us with their fire control radars on our way in. I was hoping that I would feel something, satisfaction, revenge, a life for a life, loss for loss; instead I felt nothing at all.
"And so we consign Petty Officer Snowden's soul to the Divine. Rest in peace." With those words Dylan pushed the button that would eject the casket containing William's remains into space, where they would be consumed by the nearby sun. I dimly heard music as my alter ego began playing 'The High Guard Tattoo.' My vision began to grow blurry, and I realized that I was crying.
Trance laid an arm on my shoulder. 'It wasn't your fault, Rommie," she said. 'You did everything you could to get them all back safely. And in the end he died the way he would have wanted to, defending you."
My mind tried to tell me that she was correct, but what passed for my heart wasn't listening. It kept insisting that it was my fault.
After the funeral Harper, Beka, Evie and even Tyr came by to express their condolences. The crew was dismissed and went back to their duties, each of them mourning the loss of their friends and crew members in their own way. I stayed behind, for the moment I needed to be alone, to grieve in private. After a period of time I heard footsteps behind me, then I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders. I recognized the hands; they were Dylan's.
"You did what you had to do, Rommie," his voice was strangely gentle. "Sooner or later every commanding officer leading troops in combat has to make the decision you did, to sacrifice some to save the many. Just as every soldier knows he may be called on to make that sacrifice. It's never easy, and it's even harder when the one you are sacrificing is your friend. It's one of the reasons commanding officers have to maintain some distance from their crews; otherwise they would never be able to make that decision. You're going to spend the rest of the your life wondering if you could have done it a better way. There will be times when you will lie awake at night, seeing each of their faces in your mind. It's the burden of command "
He paused for just a moment as though he was debating if he should continue.
"Rommie, do you remember when we were fighting the Replicators, how Admiral Tanaka had a private conversation with me?"
"Of course I remember the incident. You ordered me off the command deck." I had recorded the conversation of course, but I didn't see where he was going with this.
"He was talking about us, you and me, and our relationship. I remember him saying 'It's hard enough to loose a friend and shipmate. It's a thousand times worse when she is your lover as well.' Rommie, I love you more than you can possibly know, but I can't let myself love you. You're a soldier, a warship, and someday as your commanding officer I may have to give you the order that you gave Petty Officer Snowden, the order that will send you to your death. And you, like Snowden, will willingly follow that order, knowing full well what it means. I've lost one love of my life, I wouldn't be able to take losing you as well. If I let myself love you, and then lose you, I would lose my will to go on with the battle, or perhaps worse yet I wouldn't be able to bring my self to give you that order, and thousands, or even millions of beings could die. When this is over Rommie, when the Magog and the Worldship are defeated, if you still want me, I'll take you for my wife, laws and prejudice against AI's be damned. But until then we can never be more than shipmates and friends."
He kissed me then very lightly on the lips. It was the first time he had ever kissed me. Then he turned and walked away leaving me to my thoughts.
They say I'm a hero. I received the Vedran Empress' Cross for my actions, getting the ambassador and her staff back to my ship self. There's even talk of making a vid of my exploits. I wonder if it will mention that neither William nor any of my Lancers came out alive? My fellow AIs tell me that my actions have helped make organics understand that AI's are not simply unfeeling machines, and will go a great ways towards lessening the prejudice many organics feel towards us. I've even had organic children ask me for my autograph. I wish I could care. I'm not the hero they make me out to be, the real heroes were my Lancers and William who stayed behind and died. They stayed, even though they knew they were going to die, so the rest of us could make it back alive. They're the ones who deserve the medals and the honors, not me.
Seldoria is now a part of the Commonwealth. As Ambassador Stein had predicted, the Commonwealth sent in a task force to 'invite' the Seldorian government to join, and installed a new provisional government, comprised entirely of members of the pro Commonwealth faction. The first thing the provisional government did was to arrest all members of the opposition. Elections were to be held 'when the time was appropriate'. Dylan and I were there for the signing ceremony. After the ceremony I excused my self from the celebrations and took a walk. I stopped at a rather unpretentious plaque set into the wall of a building. Engraved on the plaque were twenty one names and the phrase, "They died with their faces to the fire." I didn't have to look at the names; I was the one who had engraved them on the plaque. I reached within my tunic and removed a single rose and laid it against the wall. Then I turned and walked back to the celebrations. As I walked I remembered what Dylan had told me on the day of the funeral. He was right of course, right about my actions, and right about our relationship. We both did the right thing. So why do I hurt so?
A/N This story is dedicated to all the men and women throughout history who bought time for their countries and paid the ultimate price for that time. Never forget their sacrifices.