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Down the formidable length of the corridor fronting the locks, the dead outnumbered the living. Contorted bodies sprawled singly, or lay across others: mortal foes intertwined in a final, grim embrace. Black-clad, still forms littered the deck in far greater plenitude than did those shrouded in dull slate blue. Pools of crimson glistened wetly. Smears of the same gaudy hue accented the uniform drabness of the walls. A brooding silence hung in sweat-tainted air lately vibrating with shouts, shrieks, sharp cracks of electronic weaponry, the dull thudding of boots on metal plates, the ringing chime of sword on red-streaked sword.
Feet planted wide apart, lithe body quivering with passion, blue eyes blazing, sword-arm and bright blade splashed with life-blood not her own, Signe glared in regal wrath at the pressure-proof door of the now-airless lock, well aware that the Commander of the Third Columbian Military Corps at this very moment ascended unscathed into the black void of interworld space. Sharply conflicting emotions warred in the Gaean leader's mind. Norman still lives! she raged inwardly. The instigator of this costly war escaped unhurt--damn his slime-rotted black soul! But he's in transit back to Columbia--soundly defeated!
We've achieved our foremost goal--driven the invaders off our world, over the broken bodies of these poor bastards Norman abandoned. Knowing that their leader just callously sacrificed their lives, these Columbian spacer-fighters absolutely refused to surrender--died to give the brute the precious time he needed to battle his way to this lock, board his ship and escape. Well, ourten-Earthyear-long struggle on the surface just ended, but a new challenge lies ahead. Norman started this war, but I'll fight it to a finish he and his imperialistic countrymen can't conceive possible!
Two tall figures strode up to stand on either side of the Commander. As the elder man laid an arm in a purely comradely gesture across Signe's shoulders, bleached blue eyes deeply set in a seamed visage disfigured by an old, slanting, sword-cut scar mirrored the emotions racking the victorious world leader. As if some momentary flash of mental telepathy united the minds of the two veteran fighters, Signe sensed that Conor's train of thought paralleled her own. When she turned to meet his glance, he drawled softly, "Too high a price, these gallant fools paid. Norman should be lying dead on this deck."
"I agree," Signe rasped.
"He would be, had these men surrendered," Morgan acknowledged, won to grudging admiration of intransigent foes bent on extracting a final measure of revenge even as they drew their last rattling breaths. His fluidly expressive face swiftly changed as he surveyed the carnage. Contempt flashed across an open, comely countenance spattered with caked gore slowly dissolving in sweat. Having sheathed a long, rapier-like blade, the younger man ran a hand through a thatch of thick auburn hair in an habitual, unconscious gesture. "Norman didn't step out of character when he made his exit, that's for damned sure," he observed acidly.
Circumventing the huddled corpse of a fallen foe, Eric silently studied Signe's expression. Sensing her acute frustration, sharing it, the Senior Captain sought to master the anger inseparable from the fierce delight engendered by the victory.
His joy outweighing his wrath, Sean wordlessly squeezed Morgan's shoulder, prompting that exhausted warrior to smile with manifest satisfaction at his first cousin.
Behind the five swordsmen whose prowess at wielding those gleaming blades in hand-to-hand combat exceeded that of any of their subordinates, two other members of Signe's core staff now appeared. Theo and Jassy took no time out in which to gloat over the magnitude of the victory. The two veteran combatants detached massive electronic handweapons from slings at their waists, pulled off goggles equipped with imagers for aiming the bulky devices, and issued orders to the men and women threading their way through piles of dead, searching for any survivors: friends or foes. The victory culminating a bitter revolt spanning a decade of Earthyears produced no tumultuous rejoicing. The victors stoically set about the nerve-wrenching task of clearing the final battleground.
An hour later, two husky Gaean corpsmen strode by their captain bearing the last of the fallen. Indifferently tailored slate blue uniforms clinging damply to perspiring bodies exuded a pungent aroma, offering Theo tangible evidence that the adjustment of the fabric had long since failed. Bleak gray eyes followed the pair hustling the black-garbed corpse towards its destination: the refrigerated antechamber where it would lie waiting its turn in a crematorium direly overworked of late.
We ought to hold a brief mass memorial for the Columbian dead, the scholar-turned-warrior reflected, struck of a sudden with overwhelming conviction. Those Third Corpsmen fought with fanatical valor until the last man fell. If they granted no mercy, neither did they beg for any. I'll see that they aren't simply incinerated like non-recyclable offal.
A mind contemplative by nature stilled the impulse prompting an active, compact body to hasten down the deck defiled by rusty smears, and join in the work of clearing barricades from passageways in the habitat below. The historian in Theo objected, demanding that this moment not pass without comment by an intellect schooled to analyze the significance of epochal changes in human affairs.
Staring unseeing into the distant reaches of the cavernous corridor, the veteran officer recalled the twenty-hour span constituting all the warning of imminent attack afforded the horrified civil leaders of the citizenry scattered over thirty-nine inhabited planetoids within the Gaean Group. A student of logic applauded the prodigies of organization achieved on Main World after Sigurd and his Council of Ministers deduced that a peace-loving society--one possessing no means of retreat and little of offense--faced invasion by a heavily armed force led by a Columbian military careerist. That enemy, bent on conquest, the Gaean leaders accurately judged to be motivated by a compelling lust for power allied to elemental greed.
The selfless patriot reliving the past thrilled anew to the call to arms issued by Sigurd's daughter. Pride surged as Theo recalled how swiftly Signe's impassioned appeal rallied the nucleus of a force of fighters around a charismatic athlete who even then possessed amazing skill with a sword: proficiency rare among the Gaean rebels. Admiration rose uppermost as he visualized the heroic struggle she mounted so as to overcome an all but insuperable disadvantage: the lack of skill at swordsmanship almost universally exhibited by a populace imbued with pacifistic ideals.
We faced enemies who grew up employing the one weapon that Columbian custom traditionally allowed any citizen to wield for the purpose of settling personal quarrels in legally sanctioned duels, the veteran recollected somberly. That initial deficiency cost us heavily in lives.