Two Steps Forward

By Shelley Goodge
Copyright 1999

Takes place sometime after "That Old Black Magic."

Windswept sand, cold and piercing, flew into Crais' unprotected eyes the moment the hatch slid open. A strong hand forced him to march down the ramp and away from the ship several paces, then gave his shoulder a hard shove, knocking him to his knees. Crais hit the sand full front; the crew of the Marauder had refastened his binders before landing on Dam-Ba-Da. He rolled over, spitting both sand and strands of his hair from his mouth.

Three Marauders hunched over Crais in a semicircle, their armored bulk cast the disembarking Peacekeeper commandos in shadow. They assembled themselves in the darkened hollow between the Marauders and stood at attention, waiting. The two commandos serving as guards stood on either side of him, face shields down and pulse rifles at the ready.

Crais' eyes narrowed as the very recently promoted Captain Orin stepped out of the lead Marauder. His new black coat rustled in the wind as he walked up to where Crais sat. Orin unrolled a scroll of rarely used vellum, crumpled from his clenched fist.

"Captain Bialar Crais, by order of the High Peacekeeper Council, you are hereby stripped of your command, your rank, and your rights to an honorable retirement." Orin visibly swallowed. "For your refusal to follow orders, for the loss of not one, but two leviathan transports, for your dereliction of your duty to the fleet, and for your resistance in enacting your removal, you are declared Banished."

The sands around Crais whispered louder as the Marauder crews, moving in unison, presented their backs to him. Peacekeeper Command had done the same to him earlier, in spirit, when Orin had ceremonially ripped the Captain's marks from his uniform.

Captain Orin lowered the scroll, then knelt before his former commander. "As Captain, Peacekeeper law permits me to grant clemency." His voice dropped as low as the winds would permit, and Crais thought he could see sympathy in the man's eyes. Sympathy? From a Peacekeeper Captain? Crais fought back a smirk. Orin wouldn't be captain for long.

"One act of rebellion is all it will take, Captain Crais," Orin whispered. "One shot. You know the commandos will not miss, and I can authorize the restoration of your commission."

Crais glanced up at the commandos flanking him, then looked back at Orin. The man was certainly eager to eradicate the legacy of Captain Crais . . . to have him die forgotten and in disgrace. He turned away as if in shame, but struggled to keep from grinning. When he again faced Orin, his expression was appropriately contrite.

"I will accept the punishment of Peacekeeper Command," he said, just loud enough for his guards to hear. Soldiers always talked in the barracks, and commandos were no exception. The possibility of death was a daily consequence of duty, but Banishment . . . myths and legends had been made of Banished Peacekeepers, ones brave enough to confront the anguish of separation. The High Council had given him the worst punishment they could think of - his "freedom."

Orin stared at him hard, gave him a stiff, silent nod and turned away. Crais watched as the waiting commandos, their backs still turned to him, split into two units and boarded two of Marauders. Almost immediately their propulsion units fired, sending whirlwinds of sand into the air. Crais covered his face with his manacled fists, squinting to watch as the Marauders disappeared into the hazy, grey sky.

'So this is what alone feels like,' Crais wondered, staring at the empty dunes surrounding him as he struggled to his feet. No one to command or be commanded by. No one to fall into step behind him, to hold him accountable, or to berate him for his inability to recapture two rebellious Leviathans. His memories rose up like smoke out of the sands, and more than one of them wore the face of Tauvo. His tear-blurred vision fell on the remaining Marauder.

It was standard Peacekeeper issue, well past its prime. Crumpled metal plates from its final days in service had never been repaired, and all official Peacekeeper insignia had been blasted away. The heavy weaponry had been stripped as well, but Crais knew there would be at least one pulse rifle on board. There would be water, and a generous supply of food cubes. Peacekeeper Command intended him to live with his disgrace and not die of dehydration or starvation.

The Marauder hatchway was open, waiting for him. The lights were dim, and there were no commandos aboard waiting for his next order. That also meant no one would question his continued pursuit of that first escaped Leviathan...and John Crichton. He found strength in his renewed anger and marched up the ramp, already working to free himself of the bindings. "Not alone," Crais growled to himself. "Free."

- Fin.