Dawn was still hours away, Lithia could hear the birds stirring outside her quarters as she stretched in her bunk. She rose at the sound of approaching footsteps, her black hair hung down to her elbows. She bunched it tightly as she crossed to the window and tied it in a neat ponytail. Loose strands hung at the edges of her face, framing her sharp features. She flicked a switch and the armoured shutters slid open. The artificial light of the compound stabbed at the surrounding forest, illuminating the clearing around the perimeter. Her dark eyes scanned the treeline for movement, before settling on the soldiers in the watchtowers.
The Rangers training facility was located deep in the wilds of the second line, a large chain of islands to the west of the Inner Circle. The Second Line wasn’t considered safe like the Inner Circle, but it was a paradise compared to The Colonies. Towns and cities dotted the islands, there was enough farmland to support the population and people were generally content.
Vast areas of thick forest still covered some of the larger islands. Creatures lurked in the depths of these wild lands, but the military kept them under observation. They were large and varied but lacked the hyper-aggressive tendencies of the mainland beasts. The semi-intelligent tribes of the islands had been wiped out nearly four hundred years ago. Settlers from the inner circle moved in for the natural resources and the tribes were forced out soon after.
The forest surrounding the training compound was a suitable mirror of those on the continent. It made an excellent training environment but came with its own set of risks. Packs of Borax had taken to prowling the perimeter fence and it had put the guards on edge.
The Footsteps stopped outside Lithia’s quarters.
“What is it?” she called.
“Captain Wilder wants to speak to you urgently sir.”
“I’ll take the call in the command centre, tell him to expect me shortly.”
Lithia dressed in her grey skirmish gear and collected a packet of rations as she departed her quarters. Large banks of floodlights battered the darkness with unnatural light. A frigid wind whipped at her extremities bringing the scent of the coast with it. The command bunker stood in the centre of the compound. Extending only a meter above the ground, sloped walls gave the building a sleek profile. A radio tower pierced high into the sky, sprouting numerous dishes and aerials, connecting the training facility with the wider world. The heavy metal doors slid open and the hum of radio chatter and fluorescent light spilt into the gloom.
Lithia settled into an empty chair, the collection of screens in front of her shifted to a comfortable viewing angle, a light flashed onto her face and the screens flickered to life. A man with broad shoulders and a strong jaw waited on screen, short brown hair swept across his brow. Deep shadows hung around his bloodshot eyes.
“Colonel Lithia sir.”
“Captain Wilder, what’s the problem?”
“Omega platoon has gone missing, sir,”
“How many are missing captain?”
“Everyone, all five units,”
“Half your company? What happened!”
“I, I don’t know sir, I’ve been reviewing the information but there’s little to go on. They last checked-in five days ago, nothing unusual. They were due to resupply last night but the airship failed to make contact…” The captain trailed off. Lithia was busy scrutinising a map of the mainland. Her fingers danced over glowing icons, tracing patterns in the soft aqua light. Forty blue markers appeared on the map and melded to form five larger icons scattered around the western plains.
“Alpha Platoon is suiting up as we speak, we should be in the area in 8 hours to reestablish contact or begin a search as appropriate,” said Captain Wilder. Lithia sat silently, her fingers forming a peak in front of her face. “With your permission, sir,” added the Captain.
“Proceed with your preparations Captain, but await my call before you deploy.”
“Yes, sir.” said Captain Wilder and the call cut off.
Lithia rocked back in her chair with a heavy breath, swiping at the glowing icons at her fingertips. The map swept around the plains, markers traced a path across the map showing the movements of the platoon, from their last known location to their initial deployment. Her eyes flicked between the screens as she layered on creature movements, weather anomalies, herds of beasts and tribal movements. Coloured overlays shifted as she gestured back and forth over the timeline, areas of reds, orange, violets and greens flowed across the map. Sometimes one colour would concentrate in a vast, all-consuming pool and scatter to nothing weeks or days later. More markers appeared as Lithia’s fingers flourished, her brow furrowed with frustration. Nothing yielded a satisfactory answer.
She sat staring at the continent, the plains to the west give way to the jungles in the east and the mountains that circled the north far beyond. The defensive line of walls and forts encircled the colonies to the south and kept the beasts and tribes of the continent at bay. A gesture made a multitude of blue markers appear across the mainland, a prominent gap now present to the west.
Lithia jerked around in her seat and pointed to a nearby communications officer.
“Send a message to every Company, I want everyone checking in twice as often.” the soldier nodded and busied himself at the console. She turned to another, “Contact my First Company. I want them gathered here within 24 hours. Let Captain Wilder know he can begin the search as soon as he sees fit.”
She returned her attention to the monitors and began to review the night’s reports. The Tribes were gathering near the defensive line again, and herds of creatures had been battering the defences in greater numbers than expected. It would only get worse until winter hit. She packaged the information and distributed the likely attack routes to the armoured and infantry divisions. They would organise the appropriate defences and the airborne division would plug the gaps as usual.
She penned a message to general Isken, as she did every week, asking for permission to travel further into the mainland. They needed more information and this perpetual reactionary defence couldn’t last, there had to be a reason for this storm.
Daylight began to creep over the horizon outside the command building, bringing an orange haze to the morning. Carrion cries rattled in the distance and huge birds scattered over the trees as something disturbed their morning meal.