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When the Dusk threatens a planet and they won’t leave without a fight, the Core Army calls on its Dawn Soldiers. Well trained and well armed, they are the front line in the war to protect worlds. Every last one of them knows if they lose, the Dusk Warriors will blight every resource on the planet only to feed themselves.
I recently had access to a contingent of Dawn Soldiers, Squad Sixes, while they prepared for their latest deployment to a hotly contested planet known as Kopol.
“Yes, well the Kopolites are relatively primitive people,” the reptilian First Lieutenant Wuller explains. “Their weapons are mostly hunting tools and would by no means impose proper resistance to the Dusk Warriors.” He glances down at his computer tablet, making sure the quantities of supplies and ammunition in the loading dock are sufficient.
Suddenly, an arm wraps around my shoulder. A friendly voice drawls, “What the Lieutenant is trying to say, is that these folks would have as much luck against those deltas as you would throwing grain peas at a fully-armored battle dozer.”
This is Sergeant Ryder Hiltop. He stands at least a head taller than me, with reddish-bronze skin and nearly black hair. Smiling comes easy to him, though always with a wry cant. “Now you wouldn’t ever try something like that,” he continues, “and we don’t want those Kopolites to break their fishing spears on the hard armor of those mean Dusk Warriors.”
Happy to have Sergeant Ryder take over the interview, First Lieutenant Wuller quickly absorbs himself in the task of the squad’s load out. With his arm still around my shoulder, Sergeant Ryder turns me toward racks of weapons. “That’s why we have those 8-80s. And the heavy guns. Proton lances will take care of anything else.”
“What’s your weapon of choice?” I ask.
“8-80 works fine for me.” Sergeant Ryder releases his grip on my shoulder so he can walk over to the rack and pull one of the short rifles. “Cycles fast, tight group, finds the deltas I aim at.”
“Soldier lingo. Shorter way of saying Dusk Warrior. Less time I’m talking is more time I’m fighting.”
“You’ve seen a lot of combat?”
“Hopped from world to world. Seen my share.” He has, it’s obvious as his smile fades. Even the gleam in his eyes darkens. “I qualify for my cup of spice water to toast this cycle’s Veterans’ Honor.”
Then I see something else in his eyes. I tell you, if any flammable materials leaked on the loading dock, we’d all be blown to space dust. I follow Sergeant Ryder’s heated gaze to see what set him off.
Captain Jessa Tok is the top officer of Squad Sixes. She is lean and strong, maybe even as tall as Sergeant Ryder. Blue skin and blue hair and a bearing that tells everyone she’s in charge, even if you can’t see the insignia stenciled onto her armor.
Sergeant Ryder seems like he’s somewhere else when staring at her, so I try to bring him back with a question. “Have you been in Captain Tok’s squad for long?”
“Jessa and I…,” he speaks, still distant. Then he refocuses on the loading dock, turning his attention to the assault weapon in his hands. “Captain Tok and I go way back.”
The cryptic answer hangs in the processed atmosphere of the Guardian ship. Captain Tok inspects some cargo containers, then consults with First Lieutenant Wuller and his computer tablet. As Sergeant Ryder strides to the weapon rack and replaces the 8-80, Captain Tok looks up from her work to watch him. She follows every movement with a heated gaze that matches the one I saw earlier from Sergeant Ryder.
There’s something going on here, something beyond a Captain and a Sergeant fighting a war together in the same squad. When Sergeant Ryder turns away from the weapon rack, Captain Tok quickly returns to her work with Lieutenant Wuller, as if nothing happened.
Sergeant Ryder gives me a friendly slap on the shoulder. I nearly tumble into a stack of ration boxes because of the strength of this easy-going soldier. “You deploying with us? Send reports from the field of battle?” he asks.
“I’m just here for this interview. They need me on another Guardian to cover the Veterans’ Honor coming up.”
“Too bad. Coulda showed you how to handle an 8-80.” He grows distracted again, looking over at Captain Tok.
“Is she a good leader for Squad Sixes?”
His voice grows serious, no more jokes. “I’d follow her to the red hell behind the Sacred Stars.”
Any chance for more questions is erased by First Lieutenant Wuller shouting orders and the soldiers hurrying to collect around him and Captain Tok. Sergeant Ryder gives me another friendly pat on the shoulder.
“Good luck down there.” I tell him.
He winks and smiles, despite the unknown battle he’s headed into tomorrow. “Dawn Soldiers light the way.” And with that he saunters off to join the others gathered at the officers.
Even from my distance, I see his eyes are fixed on Captain Tok. Her stoic face betrays no emotions as she steals her own glances at him. There’s a story here, something I’d love to find out. Hopefully they’ll make it back from Kopol safe and I’ll get to meet them again for a follow-up interview. A little more time with these soldiers, a bottle of spice water, I might really find out what’s going on between Sergeant Ryder Hiltop and Captain Jessa Tok.
I hope all these soldiers come back, but we all know some of them might not. But that doesn’t stop these men and women from different planets to join together under the insignia of the Core Army and step into harms way. And by meeting just these few, face to face, we can understand the bravery it takes to protect innocent worlds.
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Captain Jessa Tok is a veteran soldier, but when an artillery strike separates her from the squad she commands, it may be the end of her career and her life. Then a single Dawn Soldier fights his way behind enemy lines to find her. The last man she’d expect. The one soldier she’d had a fling with and was trying to forget.
Sergeant Ryder Hiltop never thought of himself as a hero. He’s a career soldier, just trying not to get killed. But when his captain is lost during an attack, he has to go find her. And not just for the sake of the other Dawn Soldiers. A shore leave with Jessa left an indelible mark on him, and he’ll do anything to make sure she’s safe. But is it a suicide mission to find her? And if they manage to fight their way to safety, can their brief affair grow into something more?