This week’s prompt words were:
report :: scorched :: landslide :: dead end :: rosemary
I knew he was coming by the sound of his boots, imperious and whipcrack-sharp. I glanced at the clock – his shuttle had made good time. He’d taken our distress call seriously, which could be a good thing, or its opposite. All around me, the others raced to gather paperwork, make the final preparations for the HoloDisplay, check if the water was chilled, and, I was pretty sure, familiarise themselves with the exits.
If his boots didn’t give him away, there was always the smell – as he got closer, it got stronger. Nobody even knew where he managed to get the leaves of rosemary that he was constantly chewing. Legend had it he even had a specially designed censer in his quarters to burn them in. It was just one of the many inexplicable things about the man. I’d heard the scent of it was supposed to improve memory, or sharpen acuity, but that had to be Old-Age nonsense. Earth-bound superstition.
He strode into the room without a word. As he swept his way to the chair at the head of the conference table, the only sound was a nervous tinktinktititink; the young cadet given the task of pouring his water had an unsteady hand. It did not go unnoticed.
‘Report?’ He snapped, before he was even properly seated. The suddenness of his voice in the stillness made the young cadet jump, and she slopped water across the surface of his Viewer. He cleared his throat with unnecessary force, and she scampered away.
‘Sir,’ I said, snapping my heels together. ‘Ensign Japper Centrada reporting.’
‘Ensign?’ he said, flicking his eyes to me. ‘Is there nobody more senior who can give me an accurate picture of events on the ground?’
I paused a moment, allowing the first rush, and the second, to pass over me. When I responded, my voice was level. Cool.
‘Sir,’ I said. ‘No, sir. My senior officers were planetside when the event took place, sir.’
‘Event?’ he bit the word off at the end, like a bone breaking. His fingers fumbled to his breast pocket, and he brought forth a few dried rosemary sprigs. He crumbled them on the table in front of him, releasing their sharp, Earthy scent. I realised how long it had been since my last trip Home, and I took a deep breath, and then another. ‘Ensign,’ he said. ‘The event?’
I collected myself.
‘Sir,’ I began. ‘At approximately 1000 Earth-time yesterday, a major catastrophe took place on the surface. It temporarily knocked out our Comms, and it seems to have largely destroyed our planetside base. Sir, we have sustained severe casualties.’
‘I was under the impression that a council had been requested,’ he said. The scent of rosemary in the air grew more pungent as he crushed the sprigs beneath his thumb, almost idly. ‘Our personnel were under Sanctuary, in that case. Were they not?’
‘Sir – yes. They should be under Sanctuary. That is, if they are still living. The landslide… well. The landslide has pretty much wiped out our presence on the surface. Sir.’
‘Landslide?’ he said. ‘What are you talking about, man?’ His eyes were wide, and he’d stopped his mindless toying with the rosemary leaves.
‘We… ah. We believe it to be…’ I signalled frantically to one of the others to get the presentation primed for the HoloDisplay. Someone raced to comply. ‘Sir, if you’d care to look, just here?’ I said, indicating the heads-up unit. An image of the surface appeared, the planet’s yellowy, dusty landscape as familiar to our eyes as Earth itself. The Display took in a huge swathe of the largest landmass, which we’d named Aldrin.
‘This was the surface, sir, at approximately 0958 yesterday. Our people were stationed here,’ – I zoomed in, briefly, to show him the base. It was nestled in the hollow between two of the uncountable number of mountains in the Aldrin region. He nodded, and I restored the screen – ‘and they were awaiting the arrival of the Takasian delegation when this happened.’ The first explosion, more massive than anything we were capable of, happened on the far left of the screen from our point of view. It would have been maybe five Earth miles from our base. Rapidly, every few hundred meters, explosion followed explosion followed explosion, until the entire mountain, it seemed, began to topple. The landslide completely engulfed our base. There was silence in the room as we watched.
‘Survivors?’ he asked.
‘None confirmed so far, sir,’ I replied.
‘You have sent word to Earth?’
‘Of course. Sir.’ I cleared my throat. Several minutes passed as he examined the screen, barking commands. He wanted the screen magnified, then decreased; then he wanted to see the heat signature for the past 48 hours; then he wanted a planet-wide HoloDisplay. I watched him through all this. His colour deepened, and his breathing quickened. He took a pinch of rosemary like it was snuff, but it had no perceptible effect. He shrank before my eyes, his fingers quivering – barely noticeable, but there – as he touched the screen.
‘We must make a retaliatory strike,’ he eventually announced. ‘Here.’ He zoomed in on their main city. ‘We must implement a scorched-earth policy; cut them off from everything. Smoke them out.’
‘Sir,’ I said, hoping the edge in my voice was only audible to me. ‘Sir, that tactic is a dead end here. It doesn’t work with the Takasians. They live mainly underground, and…’
‘Do not presume to tell me how to run a war, Ensign Centrada!’ he shouted, turning to face me. ‘You have your orders. Prepare the incendiaries, and get ready to contact the Takasian command. Give them as little warning as possible before engaging.’
‘Sir,’ I said. ‘Of course, sir.’ He glared at me for two or three heartbeats, before sweeping his way out and up the corridor again. No doubt to get back into his shuttle, and leave all this behind.
The scent of rosemary hung in the air after him. I took a lungful of it, and a calm certainty settled on my brain.
I began to key a command into my CommUnit, and I waited for the Takasian response. I wondered, as I did all this, how it would feel to be back on Earth.
In prison, of course, there wouldn’t be a lot of opportunity to smell anything that didn’t emanate from a human body, so I took another breath of rosemary-scented air, just before it faded.