Niazi ignored her tone. “I used to have this friend. He served at Hades, he died at Hades, but none of his squad mates would tell me a damn thing about what it had been like there.”
The question put out the fire in Penny’s eyes and her whole face darkened. She broke eye contact with her.
“It’s um… it’s difficult for veterans to talk about Hades. It’s hard to put into words what it was like to serve there, even explaining it to other soldiers is a challenge.”
Penny swallowed and continued. “I did some research and the only battles I could find that were anything like it were the first day of Operation Michael from World War One.
“My history classes didn’t cover a lot of the old wars.” Captain Niazi turned aside and scratched her head nervously. “Or maybe they did and I was too busy stealth texting my friends.”
“Then I’ll do my best.” Penny said. The colour had drained from her skin just from thinking about it, leaving the normally sun kissed Ranger ashen-faced.
“Hades is a primordial, mostly volcanic rock. Like a giant chemistry set some bored kid won’t stop playing with. When volcanic activity decides it wants to act up in your sector, something will detonate around you three or four times a second and this will go on for four, maybe five or even six hours at a time. It’s like you’re getting shelled by artillery but there’s no-one to return fire on.
Even through the insulation in your armour, standing around getting hammered constantly by shockwaves takes its toll on you and you’re left punch-drunk and stupid. Feels like you’re trying to walk through thick soup. It takes everything you’ve got just to pray you don’t get ambushed by remote drones.”
Penny propped her chin up with her arm. She wasn’t looking at anything anymore, just aiming her gaze down at a point on the table. “A lot of veterans claim time on Hades, because you could only be deployed to it for 2 days at a stretch. Any longer than that and people just break down, can’t even bring themselves to stand when the enemy shows up. As bad as it was for us it was worse for the periphery troops. They couldn’t rotate out like we could. They had to stay couped up in their underground bases and control their drones. By the end of it Hades was the first world to offer complete and unconditional surrender. I’d cycled in fifteen times. Each time: two days on planet, ten days in orbit. Ten days of the most terrible waiting, because you knew at the end they were going to ask you to go back.”
Captain Niazi quietly asked. “How did you do it? How did you keep going back?”
Penny looked her right in the eye. “When Rodgers took over our unit, he taught us his code. It’s got ten rules:”
Penny counted them off on her fingers. “Live each day with courage. Take pride in your work. Finish what you start. Do what has to be done. Be tough, but fair. When you make a promise, keep it. Always ride for the brand. Talk less, say more. Remember that some things aren’t for sale. And… Know where to draw the line.”
Penny put her hand back down on the table. “I did it because it had to be done. Every time I went I was saving some other poor Jarhead from having to go down there. Total losses for the entire campaign were well over eighty thousand. Our side and theirs.”
Wu quietly put his glass down on the table. He hadn’t quite finished it. Without looking up from his glass he asked. “What was so valuable that we threw so many of our youth into a meat-grinder?”
Penny smirked. “What has no value in peace, but means everything in war?”
Wu smirked back.
Hae Lee looked inquisitively at Penny and when she offered nothing further she turned to Wu.
“What is it?” She finally asked.
Captain Niazi threw her a bone. “Strategic position. Hades sits on the border between the Hellenic and Egyptian Pantheons. Whoever controls it controls traffic going in or out.”
Penny reached across the table and closed her fingers around Wu’s glass. She pulled it back towards her and stopped just short of putting it to her lips.
“To the needs of the Generals.”