The flicker of light from the screen seemed harsh to the young fighter sat in front of it. The rest of the room was cool and dark and a small persistent voice in his head kept trying to persuade him to turn off the screen and go find a corner in which he could sleep off his exhaustion.
The figure on the screen scared him. Indistinct though the image was, the armour clad torso looked too square and inhuman. The bare head was pale, but the eyes were intense and piercing - even accounting for the poor signal, and the mouth was drawn in a grim un-smiling line. The figure passed a hand over the stubble on his head, the movement blurred.
"The casualties were far greater than anticipated or needed, brother leader..." the voice said softly, a slight electronic distortion reminding the youth that this transmission was being bounced across hundreds of random relay points to avoid intercept and location detection.
"Yes sir", he replied, a knot of shame and grief twisted his insides.
"Most of the dead and wounded were left where they fell." The figure noted.
"That is correct, sir... The rapidity of the action left me no choice. I had anticipated being able to hold them up well outside Jrinn and under our fire for far longer."
"Indeed. We had also been of the same opinion."
The youth licked his lips, that were dry and swollen from the forced march and lack of water. Most of their kit had been abandoned at Jrinn. "I made several errors in the placement of the Shield, Sir. Also, I should have been there at the outset to oversee events. My arrival with Number 5 Guard was too late"
"Your candid assessment is noted, brother leader. Tell me, do you believe your command's arrival with that of an additional Guard would have altered the outcome if you had been able to enter the battle space?" The figures face betrayed no clue or hint for the youth, the voice as soft and calm as if he were enquiring about crop rotation. Yet, the words tore into the youth.
"Honestly Sir? No. We were less than half a Klick from the fight when I began to realise how bad it was. The sound of gunfire was almost continuous at this point - but little of what I heard was coming from Hunters. We would have arrived just to join the casualty list."
"I see. So you gave permission for the last Guard who it seems had not fired a shot, to withdraw?"
"I did, Sir"
"And why did you do that?"
"Because to attempt to hold them off any longer would have probably lost our whole force, Sir, fully half my Shield. Aside from the first opening shots, our weapons seemed to have made little impact. As far as I can tell the fire from the Shield was steady and as accurate as it could be under such circumstances, but the volume of fire in reply was terrible..."
"Hmm..." A hand went up to the chin, held it momentarily and then moved away again.
"I have failed the Claive, Sir..." the youth blurted out, and he felt the pain of those words and the warm welling of tears in his eyes. The figure on screen said nothing for a long time, regarding him while he sensed the warm tracks of moisture tickle down his dusty face.
"On the country," the figure said eventually, tiredly. "In fact, it is we who have failed you. We have significantly underestimated the disparity of weapons, armour, training and experience of your Shield against a professional mercenary force. Your command fought bravely, brother leader, and you made the correct decision in the field." Another long pause whilst the youth absorbed what he was being told.
"You did well, brother. You and your Shield."
The youth almost gasped. He had expected... well, he wasn't actually sure what he expected. Banishment probably, for failure. For a while, the two regarded each other; one a newly blooded survivor of modern combat, the other a grizzled refugee from Inter-Stellar wars more terrible than the youth could possibly conceive.
"What would you have me do now Sir?" the youth asked. The was a smile from the screen. Brief but with some warmth.
"I fear I must ask you to take up the fight again brother leader."
"Of course Sir! For Harl?"
"For Harl, yes. But not at Harl yet. You are now at Halfway, yes?"
"Yes Sir, I arrived about half an hour ago and the rest of the Shield are two clicks away."
"Good. I think we should be able to engineer a little reception for the ROF at Halfway. And I fear we will have to commit our Hammer much sooner in this fight than we had hoped for."
"The Hammer will smash them sir!" the youth exclaimed, and the exhaustion and grief for his lost friends was momentarily washed away by the thought. The figure on screen nodded sadly.
"Perhaps it will at that. For a little while. But I fear that even the Hammer may yet crack ere we have accounted for all of them..."