0036 – Leftenant Faulkner: A Good Man, Part 3

The thick, dark mud oozed up around the soles of Faulkner’s black boots as he walked. It was raining in Dark Hollow, and while this had the pleasant effect of thinning out the perpetual cloud of indigo spores, it also meant one had to tread very carefully. The locals, speciated long ago for life in the bizarre Shroud region, seemed to have no trouble at all, walking surefooted through the slippery mire.

They also had no need for the breathing apparatus that was currently stifling Faulkner’s field of vision heavily. He could hear the sound of his own breath ringing in his ears. To take it off, for most humans, would be to risk a lungfull of tiny, bioluminescent mushrooms, and subsequently, a lingering and painful death.

All around him, white-skinned villagers hurried about their business, taking care to walk briskly and innocuously by when they saw an officer of his rank coming. They were quite literally white-skinned, unlike Faulkner, who would merely be considered “white” by the standards of the surface. Down here, in the darkest region of the middle of the earth, the natives had a decidedly albino look to them.

He found them distinctly creepy, if he was honest about it. The subtle webbing at the base of their fingers. Their complete absence of shoes, and the robust look of their feet. The strange noises they made as they inhaled and exhaled, presumably filtering the spores from the air through some alienesque internal organ system. Were they human, down here in the murk? It didn’t really matter. Human rights, as Faulkner saw it, need not actually stop at the borders of humanity.

Leftenant Faulkner approached the small military camp at the edge of the village. Only the lowest ranking soldiers – mostly Auxiliaries, foreign recruits from subjugated cultures, serving in exchange for eventual Regulan citizenship – were camped here. There had been enough vacant cottages for virtually everyone else. As well-built as Regulan canvas was, it couldn’t quite keep the spores out, and this had made conditions decidedly unpleasant for the dregs of the army. He would normally have expected to see cook-fires, but any food cooked outside here would become immediately contaminated. Mealtimes were spent in the tents, eating cold rations, and this had further damaged morale.

Faulkner spied an Auxiliary shambling toward one of the tents, ration pack in hand. The man’s standard-issue breather was the smartest thing about him, clad as he was in the usual Auxiliary hodge-podge of Regulan gear and remnants of his old culture’s uniform.

This kind of thing was permitted on two grounds. Firstly, allowing a defecting soldier access to his old gear and weaponry made him a more effective combatant, allowing him to fight in the style in which he had been trained. Secondly, as much as Regulan culture aimed for the submission of every other nation and people in existence to its rigid and uniform way of living, it still issued the occasional token statement about valuing the diverse origins of those whom it ground down into a cowed, conforming, subservient underclass.

Allowing some minor cultural expression on the part of Auxiliaries served, in this way, as the tribute paid by vice to virtue. Even if it did draw derisive sneers from native Regulans.

Faulkner recognised the man as a former inhabitant of one of the other outlying Agarthan cultures. There was a good chance that the man spoke Agarthan, he reasoned.

“You there.” Faulkner called to him. “What’s your name?”

“Pak’ton, sir.” The Auxiliary answered. Faulkner smiled beneath his breather. An Agarthan name indeed.

Some of the King’s Rules and Regs were used so commonly that even Faulkner had memorised them. “Auxiliary Pak’ton, I am seconding you to my service for the afternoon under regulation 19/F/xxi. You will accompany me personally for the next few hours.”

The poor man sagged visibly. He looked absolutely miserable, drenched to the bone. He had clearly been about to enjoy his meal. “Yes, sir,” the Auxiliary answered, trying not to make his dismay too apparent.

“And bring those rations with you.” Faulkner instructed.

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When the pair of soldiers arrived at the tiny jailhouse, they saw a frumpy, miserable-looking Shrouder woman standing conspicuously nearby. She held a woven basket covered with a small blanket, and seemed only too anxious to remain unnoticed by the approaching Regulans.

“You there.” Faulkner pointed at the woman. She jumped, her motherly figure tensing up in girlish surprise.

“E’olu, M’sr,” she began. “Mn kikane, o affoli hal’aha makalter o lon’ihi…”

“What’s she saying?” Faulkner asked Pak’ton.

The Auxiliary translated. “She’s pleading with you, sir. To let her feed her son. She says he’s been hungry in the prison for a long time.”

He wouldn’t need Pak’ton’s rations.

Faulkner tensed himself. He hated playing the part, but rules were rules. “I want you to translate what I’m saying and doing to her as best you can. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

Without warning, Faulkner’s hand struck out, knocking the basket from the woman’s grip. She flinched back, squeaking, as it squelched pathetically into the waterlogged mud.

She looked like she was about to cry.

“As these local provisions have become sullied,” Faulkner began, “I am designating them as refuse under article 724/B/N/ix.”

Pak’ton’s jaw was hanging open.

“Translate, man.” Faulkner prompted him.

Pak’ton started reeling off an approximate translation in Agarthan, a language not well suited to legalese.

“I am also designating this jailhouse as a refuse dump, under article 81/F/xii.”

Another translation. The Shrouder woman’s expression began to change. Her terror was starting to abate.

“Consequently,” Faulkner said, lifting the little food basket in his arms, mud dripping harmlessly from its wicker exterior, “I can now do this.”

Producing the confiscated jailhouse key from one of his many pockets, Faulkner opened the prison door, and carried the basket of homemade food inside, his body language suddenly decidedly more tender.

If anyone around him had been able to see his mouth through the breathing mask, they would have noticed his smile.

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