Read Ember Online

Authors: James K. Decker



James K. Decker


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Copyright © James Knapp, 2012

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E-book ISBN: 978-1-101-62186-8


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Title Page

Copyright Page










Excerpt from THE BURN ZONE


I stood before the conference room door, only half aware of the feeds being piped in through my brain-band implant. Rows of projected, palm-sized screens arced across my upper peripheral vision to create a haze of security intelligence I'd become numb to over the years. I looked past the ghostly windows and their real-time displays of troop movements both foreign and friendly until the markers blurred, wandering like tiny insects on glass.

“She won't live. Please . . .

The memory surfaced again, and again I pushed it down.

As I waited, I scratched at the shirt cuff of my uniform where the blood stain had been. It had been cleaned days ago, but I kept seeing it out of the corner of my eye and I didn't know why. I'd spilled plenty of blood over the years, too much maybe, but sometimes the border zone demanded it. I hadn't done anything that would be classified as wrong. The men who waited for me on the other side of the door understood that, and I wouldn't be penalized for my actions. They only wanted to analyze, and record. At the end of it, I might even get a commendation. I hadn't done anything wrong.

Still, I stood in front of the door trying to rub away a stain that wasn't there and imagining a young girl's profile as a slow breath plumed up from her parted lips.

Go inside. Get it over with.

I made myself open the door and step into the conference room to find six unit leaders seated at the table. Some I recognized, some I knew by name only. One, Lieutenant Bao Ông, I'd served under. He sat across from the one empty chair, his thin lips drawn into the closest thing to a smile the room had to offer. I gave the group a crisp bow, and Ông nodded to me.

“Have a seat, Sergeant Shao.”

“Yes, sir.”

I sat and waited as the others consulted their tablets. A few of them wore that look I sometimes saw when an officer realized that he not only had a former Pan-Slav in his ranks, but that I had served at our northern border holding back the rest of my kind. I could tell at a glance who approved and who didn't. When I'd first signed up I'd thought I might encounter the most resistance from the old timers, the gray dogs who were set in their ways, but it was the younger ones, always, and I found no exception today. The slick-haired Lieutenant Li. The bald, square-jawed Captain Hao. Older men and women had seen the shift happen gradually. They, or their parents, remembered a time when things had been friendlier between our two nations. The younger officers had grown up with starving, desperate foreigners pushing at their border and raiding their feed lots. They'd grown up hungry, and fearful. To them I'd always be Pan-Slav, a dirty
máo zi
, no matter how many commendations I got.

They also knew that, now that my latest tour had been completed, I'd filed for discharge which was the worst of all. Their narrow eyes watched me, glinting under the fluorescents like ice.

“We're going to keep this brief,” Ông said.

“I appreciate that, sir.”

Of them, I think Ông might be the only one who understood my decision to leave the United Defense Force. The others made little effort to conceal their contempt. I didn't completely blame them.

“Would you state your name for the record?” Ông asked.

“Dragan Shao.”

“You've been a citizen how long?” the bald man, Hao, asked. Ông waved one hand at him, which he ignored.

“I came over as a refugee at age eleven, sir. I was naturalized at age fifteen. I've served in the UDF since age eighteen.”

“Like I said, we'll keep this brief,” Ông said, shooting a look at Hao. “We just want to go over the specifics of your last mission before your official discharge. Sound good?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ông leaned back in his chair. He had his tablet in front of him, no doubt displaying every detail of the mission in question, but he didn't look at it. He looked at me, instead.

“Tell me what you recollect from your time at the barricade,” he said. “Specifically, tell me about the young man you encountered two weeks ago, on the seventeenth.”

I looked to the other men who watched me, stony and not speaking. Of course, encountering the young man had been the only real thing of note to happen during what had otherwise been a long, cold stay watching mostly empty streets. We'd only been engaged five times during our two month deployment. I'd had to kill three, but only two had been clear threats—the first two. Not the man of whom we now spoke.

“He approached the barricade on the second to last night of our deployment.”

“I understand you shot and killed two other hostiles who attempted to bomb the barricade. Was this man carrying an explosive device?”

“No, sir.”

“Was he armed?”

“Yes, sir, although I didn't realize that at first.”

“Your report said he called you out, specifically.”

“He did, sir,” I said. “I believe this is because he recognized me as a Pan-Slav native and he thought I might be more apt to help him.”

“And did you?” Li asked.

The young man, who had been barely a man at all, hadn't had his weapon drawn when I first spotted him. In fact, his initial approach toward the barricade had been very cautious. I remembered how his hands had shaken as he held them up at either side of his face. How scared he'd looked when the other soldiers noticed him, and raised their weapons.

“I ordered my men to stand down,” I said, “to hold their fire.”

“What did he want?” Ông asked.

The young man had ignored the others, and focused on me.

“My name is Olek Salko.”

“Step away from the barricade and go back the way you came, Mister Salko.”

“Please . . . we are starving.”

“He wanted food,” I said.

When he'd stepped into the floodlights, I'd seen the hollowness in his cheeks. Despite the cold he'd worn only a light jacket over threadbare clothes, all of which hung from his bony frame.

“So you left your position, and entered Pan-Slav territory,” Hao said.

“Briefly. I thought if I could reason with him face-to-face I might avoid any bloodshed.”

“You wanted to avoid bloodshed?” Several of the officers looked bitterly amused by that statement.

“Yes, sir.”

“Your unit quelled an uprising at a refugee camp last year,” he said, peering down at the details on his tablet. I couldn't see them but I didn't have to. Under the table, out of sight, I scratched at the spot on my sleeve again.

“Yes, sir.”

“Before that you were sent in to secure a border town near Shenzhen and I see no evidence in these reports of any hesitation to—-”

“Sergeant Shao's record is well documented,” Ông interrupted. “Each situation is different. You said you hoped to avoid bloodshed in this case?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how did you proceed?”

“I broke from the barricade and approached the young man, ordering my men to lower their weapons. He was frightened, and again, he appeared unarmed at that time. When I approached him, he spoke to me.”

“And what did he say?”

“He had a sister in Lobnya who he said was too weak to travel. He begged me for just one ration. For her.”

Handing out food to locals held a stiff penalty. I could understand why, because it would encourage more to come, and a desperate crowd could turn ugly fast. I knew I could have made an exception in that case, though. He'd been alone, in an area where we hadn't seen much activity. In another week we would be repositioned, giving him no reason to return.

“Come on, you're one of us. Please.”

“I can't, I'm sorry.”

“She won't live. Please.”

“Look, two weeks ago a man about your age rushed the barricade carrying an explosive device. My men are tense. Go back—”

“Please, wake up. Shake off their control.”

“When did the situation turn?” Ông asked.

“He began to insist I was under the control of the haan, that they were the reason I was refusing his request.”

Ông nodded. Everything always came back to the haan, in the end.

When the haan crashed in the middle of Hangfei fifty years ago, the impact had vaporized a quarter million people. The echoes of that tragedy still lingered to this day, but in spite of the horror of the event their arrival ultimately proved to have advantages. The creatures that eventually emerged from the ship—and their technology—were the only reason we wouldn't one day share the same fate as the Pan-Slavs. The earth had been straining under the pressures of overpopulation and disease for too long. The haan and their tech had upped food and water stores, cured disease, and undone environmental damage that had reached a critical point. Not to say that it hadn't all come at a steep price.

“So he was an anti-haan fanatic?” Hao asked.

“He thought that the only way we would turn our backs on them so completely was if the haan somehow controlled us,” I said. “That they made us do it.”

“Is that how you feel?” Danger lurked underneath the question.

“The haan don't control us,” I said. “This man, Salko, didn't understand. I tried to explain to him that there was a bigger picture, that the haan might be our world's only chance and if we don't keep them alive then it's possible that none of us will make it.”

I shook my head. These men couldn't be blind to the fact that our shunting so much food to the haan when we were in a position to provide aid made the rest of the world crazy. Foreigners didn't understand that the haan tech was the only reason we had as much food as we did. Not that our rations were much more than we needed to survive, but we did have enough to survive. They only knew that they suffered from starvation, and disease, and all the while we gave over seventy percent of our food to the haan. From their perspective, we'd chosen the haan over them, over our own kind. That anger had begun to boil over. When a man began to starve, first he foraged, and then he begged, but when he got desperate enough, he took. How could he be expected to do any less?

Yet the penalty for raiding UDF food stores at the border was death, and I'd carried that sentence out. Many times.

“Is that when he turned violent?” Ông asked.

He hadn't at first, but did shortly after.
“We're trying to help you, don't you get it?”
he'd said.
“You were from here, once, part of you must—”

“Help us? By pointing weapons at us? By bombing our feedlots? By joining with the westerners and amassing fleets off our shores? This is how you are trying to help us?”

He'd stared at me, looking angry and helpless. In the cold, his breath blew from his nostrils in clouds and I saw how tired he was. It took an effort for him not to sway on his feet.

“Wait here,”
I'd told him.

I'd turned, and started back toward the barricade to get a ration for him, just one ration. Halfway back, several of my men had raised their weapons again.

“Stand down,”
I'd said, but the rifles didn't go down.

“What are you doing, sir?”

“I said stand down.”

“May I ask what it is you think you're doing, Sergeant?”

They'd known what it was I'd intended to do, and I saw they meant to shoot the man. They'd shoot him before they let me give him what he wanted. I didn't know if their motivation had been to protect me from myself, or if they'd acted out of spite, but it didn't matter. The young man saw it, too, and he acted.

I turned to see the gun that had come out of nowhere, and I raised my own in response. Behind me, I'd heard more of my men take aim, and again, I'd told them to stand down. I'd stared at the man down my rifle sights as the barrel of his pistol quivered.

“I won't go back with nothing. I won't watch her die,”
he'd said

“I warned him to lower his weapon,” I told the assembled officers, “to lower his weapon and go back the way he'd come.”

“And did he?”

“No sir, he did not. I was forced to take action.”

I remembered his finger tightening on the trigger. The hammer raised a notch, and I fired. The side of his head had erupted, and splashed onto the cold ground. After he'd fallen, steam rose from the pool that formed around his head. He'd been eighteen, if that.

I'd killed two people with that shot.

“I feel that if I'd maintained my position,” I said, “that if I hadn't approached him, then he might have turned back.”

“He might have,” Ông said. “Or he might not have. You didn't do anything wrong, Sergeant, he threatened you and you reacted. That's all.”

“Yes, sir.”

He switched off his tablet.

“As I said, this is just a formality.” He paused for a minute. “Your request for discharge was unexpected.”

“I know, sir.”

“I can't help but feel the request is linked, somehow, to this event.”

I looked around the room at the men's faces. Most wore their contempt openly, by then.

“No, sir.”

Ông sighed. “Thank you for your time, Sergeant.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He got up, and I rose as the rest of them stood as one. As I followed Ông out of the conference room, I heard Li behind me.

“Good riddance,” he said under his breath to one of the others. “
Máo zi

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