The early morning air was oppressively damp and heavy but Naiche Decker didn’t mind much since it matched her mood. She looked down the double set of tracks wondering how late the train would be. The stationmaster had warned her that there had been some flooding down the line and she might be in for a long wait. Naiche wasn’t sure if she cared or not. On the one hand, it would be a relief to get away from the glares of her cousin, Motsos, who had accompanied her to the station. On the other, the train would be taking her out of Luna County, away from what family she had left, away from the Chiricahua Apache people who had been her world for the entirety of her nearly eighteen years.
Naiche sighed and toyed with the strand of Dionian moonstone beads that hung around her neck, reaching nearly to her belt. The necklace was fashioned of small milky-blue crystals with a large briolette pendant of the same luminous stone. That particular gemstone had been discovered on Saturn’s moon Dione, hundreds of years before and had been quite popular for a long time, but in the 31st century jewelry made from it was considered old-fashioned and somewhat passé.
She gave up the watch and sat back down on the worn wooden bench next to Motsos. He was her Great Aunt Loza’s youngest son and at nineteen years her senior, he readily assumed the mien of a tribal elder with her. In spite of this, she was striving to maintain a respectful attitude towards him while they waited together. After all, he had not only brought her to the station, but he had graciously stopped at the cemetery on the way, so she could say good-bye to her late grandfather, Augustus Decker. Motsos had watched patiently as she knelt at the grave that lay between the one for the grandmother she’d never known and the fresh mound for her dog, Chato. Naiche had been grieved but not surprised that the elderly Chato hadn’t survived her grandfather by more than a few months.
The cousins were alone on the platform, which evidently gave Motsos license to renew the harangue he’d been directing at Naiche for the past hour. “It’s still not too late to change your mind,” he said in Chiricahua, the Apache tongue they shared. She made no response, so he continued unabated. “Do you really think this is what your grandfather would have wanted? He was training you to be a doctor. He expected you to take his place eventually. We all expected—”
“Cousin!” She broke in at last. “Do you have anything to say that I haven’t already heard from everyone else for the past two months?”
“Have you heard, Naiche? Or did you shut your ears? If you had listened, you wouldn’t be running off to fight in the N’daa war that has nothing to do with us.”
“How can you say that? Those alien bastards murdered my mother!”
“And? You think your presence is going to turn the tide of a war Uniterrae has been losing for ten years? No, the N’daa went out into the stars where we don’t belong. They’d rather find new worlds instead of trying to heal the one Bik’ehgo’iindáń gave us. They brought this upon themselves; let them solve it. Your mother would still be alive if she had stayed here – where she belonged. Especially after she had you.”
Naiche jumped up and faced Motsos directly. “So brave of you to criticize the dead! She’s not around to answer—”
“I would say the same to her if she appeared before me now! I have every right. Your mother and I were young together. I mourn her just as deeply as you do.”
“If that was true, you’d want justice for her, too.”
“Is it justice you seek – or vengeance?”
“Two sides of the same coin, aren’t they? If you want to call it vengeance, well, I’ll own that and gladly!”
“That anger you carry is a poison that can hurt only you.”
“We’ll see who ends up hurt,” Naiche muttered.
Motsos sighed heavily. “Oh, young one, you close your eyes to painful truths.”
She threw up her hands in exasperation, asking “Like what?”
“Like your delusion that your grandfather would support you, were he here.”
“How’re you so sure that’s not true?” Naiche snapped.
“Because if he were still alive, you wouldn’t even be doing this.” Motsos’ voice softened. “You’re trying to run away from the pain of losing him. I understand. I lost my father, too, but you can’t run away from that pain. You carry it here….” He reached out his hand gently towards her heart. “You’ll carry it there forever.”
“I know that,” she said. “I have the same pain for my mother.”
“And you think vengeance will heal it?”
“It can’t make it worse.” When he just shook his head at her, Naiche felt the usual frustrated futility of ever trying to explain herself to people. In her experience, it never helped – why did she even try? She rubbed her right temple, feeling a migraine coming on. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to the ranch? We don’t know how late the train will be…no sense in both of us waiting.”
“Yes, I should get back.” He pulled himself up wearily from the bench and stretched his body to its full six-foot height. They shared the same tall, muscular build, deep brown eyes, and long brown hair – they even wore their hair in similar twin braids. But at that moment, Naiche felt their kinship was wholly limited to their appearance. Motsos embraced her briefly and said, “Farewell, Naiche. I wish you luck among the N’daaɫigánde, but you’ll always be a stranger to them – and they to you.”
“Farewell, Motsos, and good luck to you,” Naiche answered, overlooking his dire warning so their parting could be an amiable one.
Her cousin moved towards the platform steps, turning back briefly to say, “You can come back to us at any time. Just don’t stay away too long – or you’ll be a stranger to us as well. And then where will your home be?” He didn’t wait for an answer but strode away without a backward glance.
Hours later Naiche was finally on the train, headed towards the border of Chiricahua land where she would switch to the Uniterrae-run train system. She’d only left Chiricahua territory once before – at age ten to attend her mother’s memorial service. From the memory of that trip she knew that the Uniterrae trains were ten times faster and somehow floated on a cushion of air but wasn’t quite sure how that worked. Maybe she could kill some time looking it up. She pulled out the handheld computer the Uniterrae Defense Corps had sent her when she’d been accepted into their academy. That was her ultimate destination – the UDC Academy.
When she was a little girl, her mother had described the academy to her as an imposing fortress, set high in the Rocky Mountains, safe from the excessive heat and floods that frequently ravaged the low-lying areas. Due to both its location and appearance, the academy had become known to civilians and corps members alike as “The Rock”. Naiche knew that her mother had made this exact same journey twenty-two years earlier, five years before Naiche was born. Her mother had always reminisced about her time at The Rock with great fondness; she’d been a star pupil, breezing through four-years of coursework in three years’ time.
When the handheld came to life, rather than immediately looking up Uniterrae train technology, Naiche once again swiped through the UDC greeting page to the section titled, “The Hall of Honor”. Her mother had several pages dedicated to her memory since Naomi Decker had been a revered diplomat of the Corps, famous for settling countless bitter disputes between the member states of Uniterrae.
Though she knew it word-for-word, Naiche read thorough it again, her heart twisting in bitterness when she reached the last section, describing her mother’s tragic end. At age thirty-two, Lieutenant Commander Naomi Decker lost her life in service to her calling and her world on a diplomatic visit to the Lead Ship of the Eternals, where she had been attempting to broker a truce. Immediately upon undocking, her ship was destroyed and all lives aboard were lost. A communiqué from the Eternals indicated that the blast was a signal that they didn’t negotiate with lesser beings and that the Terrans should either surrender – or face extermination.
As if to solidify her resolve about her new direction in life, Naiche followed the link to the description of the Eternals. The first thing that greeted her was a likeness of one of the aliens; she suppressed a shudder at the image. To her eyes, even though theirs was an undeniably humanoid race, they were hideous. Eternals had dull gray scaly skin, white eyes with no visible pupils, and durable bodies that were much stronger and taller than the average human.
You’d think with those advantages they’d do their own damn fighting, Naiche mused. But no, she went on contemptuously – they leave that to the Gak. Cowards! She followed the next link to the section about the Gak. She perused the description of the reptilian foot soldiers who’d been dubbed the Gak because of the strange repetitive sounds they made. There was some dispute among the Terrans as to whether the Gak were fully sentient, but it didn’t matter since either way they were ferocious and tireless fighters.
Naiche debated internally whether to reread the final module on the Eternals; it was truly the stuff of nightmares. Like a flame to a moth, it drew her in and she found herself on the page entitled, “Transformation.”
The original combat strategy had been to concentrate all efforts towards taking out the Eternal battalion commanders. However, UDC forces quickly discovered that these kills came at a terrible price. When slain, an Eternal crumbles to dust, releasing an energy signature, visible as a swirl of gray light, which will attack any human in the vicinity. The infected human will transform within an hour's time into an Eternal. Once the transformation is complete, the newly born Eternal inevitably defects to the enemy.
Initially, infected patients were immediately transferred to medical facilities so that doctors and scientists could attempt to isolate and study the vector, dubbed an electronic-prion or eprion for short. But no recourse to prevent the progression has ever been found. Occasionally, individual humans have proven resistant to the eprion but no scan of body, mind, or genome, has been able to discover what is unique about resistant individuals.
On the Uniterrae news stations she could sometimes pick up at home, Naiche had learned that there was a recent breakthrough regarding the eprion. It had been discovered that if a human under attack by the eprion was killed during the final throes of transformation, both human and eprion perished together. Though it should have been an effective tactic, so far it hadn’t provided much advantage since it was proving difficult for most soldiers to kill someone who had so recently been a close comrade.
Naiche leaned her head against the train window and contemplated the horrors of transformation. She planned to avoid the dilemma of “kill or transform” by joining UDC Medical. Though she was indeed seeking revenge for her mother’s death, she was also enlisting in the UDC to aid people, and to bolster the war effort, in short, to help her fellow soldiers – not to kill them.