Eric and a few Stasis Troopers took an APC all the way back to Fortress Alpha. By the time they were there, the day was already getting dark, but Eric didn't let that stop him. He went straight to Caity’s office.
It took all his patience to wait until Cara reported to Caity first. When Cara came out and told him Caity was ready to see him, he rushed inside.
To his slight surprise, Caity wasn’t alone in her office. Ryan was standing in front of her table. Seeing Eric’s entrance, the Regiment Commissar nodded to Eric and sat down in a seat on the side. Caity glanced at Eric.
“What is it?”
“Major Adams just took the 4th Battalion to the Capital. She rounded up and executed hundreds of survivors after giving a whole speech about how the locals are vermins and don’t deserve to be treated as our equal.” Eric went straight to the point. “Do you know about it?”
Caity didn't seem to be insulted by Eric’s lack of respect to her rank.
“Yes. She reported to me about it. I gave her the go-ahead.”
“Why?” For a moment, Eric looked beaten down, almost disgusted. “Why?”
“If you’re asking why the locals needed to die, it’s because they know too much. If you’re asking why I appointed Chelsea and allowed her to change the 4th Battalion like this, then I have nothing to tell you.”
“You are turning an entire race into rats and you refuse to tell me why?” Eric could barely speak. “What happened to you, Caity? What happened to the girl who felt bad when she had to tell Ava’s mother her daughter died? Or the girl who saw people suffering and stepped in to help them? Twice! Kaneton and on that Destroyer starship! You saved so many people! The same people you just labeled as rats!”
“What happened to you, Caity Hunter? What happened to the compassion you felt toward Katherine? Do you even remember how sad you were when she died? And now...you’re sentencing thousands of people just like Katherine to death in the worst way possible! Like animals!”
Caity watched as Eric was practically screaming at her. There was a lifelessness in her eyes, as if nothing could truly reach her anymore.
“A choice happened.” Caity’s voice was as cold as arctic ice. “I had to make a choice. The UHC or the Phasewalker Corps. I chose the Corps, and in doing so, I sold my soul to the Devil.”
Eric took a step back. He saw the pain in the Colonel’s eyes. The guilt. Caity Hunter might be the leader of the Phasewalker Corps. She might have the lives of thousands of locals in her grip, but on the inside, she was just a young woman who had to make decisions more terrified than what most adults have seen.
“Yes. We betrayed the UHC and struck them in the back while they were under attack by the Mutated Animals.” Eric said slowly. “But that was necessary! We simply took advantage of an opportunity. Making a difficult choice doesn’t make you a bad person, Caity!”
“Oh...and a difficult choice, is that it?” Caity scoffed. “You think all I did was stab them in the back while they were in distress? Where do you think the Ants came from?”
“Caity…” Ryan has been sitting on the side in silence the entire time, but even he had to warn Caity, but the Colonel ignored him.
“I did it! I had the Mutated Ants directed into UHC territory!” Caity raised her voice and watched as shock climbed onto Eric’s face. In a sense, she enjoyed it. “I am why the Ants were there in the first place, and I am why the Ants won the battle! The 400,000 people in the UHC that the Ants slaughtered, every drop of their blood is on me!”
Ryan slowly stood up and eyed the exit. He didn't know exactly how Eric would react, but judging from his past beliefs, it wouldn’t be well. There were two Security Troopers outside, one of them was a Shieldbearer. If Eric did anything wrong, he could contain the damage quickly.
Caity stared into Eric’s eyes. It felt good to finally let this secret out.
“For Earth, for the Phasewalker Corps, I have given up everything.” She said quietly. “I left my family. I left my friends. I loved living in the UHC, but guess what? I gave that up too. I have so much blood on my hands that it will take lifetimes to wash away. So what if I add more sins to my back to strengthen the Corps?”
Eric didn't know how to react. Should he be angry? Should he be sad? Maybe both. But could he really blame Caity? Everything she did wasn’t for herself. It was for the Phasewalker Corps. In order for everyone in the Corps to live and the secret of Earth to be protected, she quietly acted as the ultimate sinner and carried the weight of all the guilt.
It was so cruel for Caity.
On the contrary, Eric himself did nothing. All he did was carry out orders. Why should he feel justified to question someone who likely saved his life? Without Caity’s decision, the UHC might have discovered the Portal already!
“I am sorry for what happened to you.” The Stasis Trooper Captain said slowly. “But either way, I refuse to work in a unit that treats locals as animals.”
“Then you will be put into another unit.” Caity waved her hand. “Anything else?” The annoyance in her voice was obvious.
“No. No, sir.” Eric replied quietly before leaving the office room.
As he and Caity were left alone in the room, Ryan bit his lips in consideration. Caity wasn’t well. She wasn’t well at all. But before he could say anything, Caity turned to him with a small mocking grin on her lips.
“You know...ever since what happened back in the Capital, every time I went to bed, I would be plagued by nightmares.” She said. “Everyone that I met in my time in the UHC. Lieutenant Kenneth. His father. Governor Hanson. All the recruits and soldiers and officials and generals and ordinary survivors...I would close my eyes and see them coming at me, screaming and asking me why I did what I did, all the while being ripped limb by limb by Mutated Ants.”
“You know, Ryan, I finally figured out why you refused to be the commander, and it’s not that bullshit about needing a leader with a conscience.” She smirked at the Regiment Commissar. “You don’t want responsibilities, Ryan. You don’t want to stand in the spotlight because doing so requires you to make choices, difficult choices, that you have to live with for the rest of your life.”
“A soldier can always tell himself he’s just following orders. A commissar can always tell himself he’s just doing his duty. But a leader...what can I tell myself, Ryan? I am not following anyone’s orders, and there are so many duties for me to choose from. Duty to my friend? Duty to those who placed their trust in me? Or duty to my own people?”
“You don’t want to suffer that burden, so you placed it on my back. Meanwhile, you can just hide in the shadows, carrying out orders from me and remain forever ensured that what you did is correct! After all, even if things went wrong, you are just following orders! You were just doing your job!”
Ryan opened his mouth. He has never found himself to be difficult with words. If it was anyone else, he could easily deflect or ignore the question. But he respected Caity’s strength, and the way Caity said this to him...it truly made him rethink everything he did.
Was Caity right? Was he lying to himself and everyone around him? Ryan questioned himself if he could do what Caity did, massacre hundreds of thousands and still act as nothing happened.
The answer was clear. He couldn’t.
“Don’t. Just don’t.” Caity threw her hands up. “Either way, whether I like it or not, regardless of why you did what you did, this is how things are now. I have no choice but to accept it. But Ryan?”
“Don’t ever come to me and demand that I do anything again in the name of the Corps. Ever. I have given up more for the Corps than you ever will. You don’t deserve the moral high ground.”
The Regiment Commissar nodded in silence.
Two more days went by. For these two days, Chelsea and her 4th Motorized Battalion roamed across the land that used to belong to the UHC, executing every survivor they came across. It was no longer about hiding what the Phasewalkers did in the Capital.
Now, it has become a matter of training. All the slaughter, all the blood, it was spent on forging the troopers in the 4th Motorized Battalion into killing machines that were not only capable of, but were also happy to, end innocent lives with a single order.
At first, many Assault Troopers asked for reassignment. They were allowed to leave the unit with dignity and respect. Chelsea herself put in a good word for every single of them so they could be transferred to any other Phasewalker unit they wished. There was no bad blood involved.
After all, these were decisions made by actual respectable human beings that deserved to have a free will of their own.
But slowly, these reassignment requests declined in numbers. And for the Assault Troopers that remained, the time it took to look into the eyes of a man, a woman, or a child and pull the trigger fell drastically. By staying in the unit, for one reason or another, they have accepted Chelsea’s ideology. They have accepted the fact that the locals of World Alpha were no more than animals. Killing them wasn’t murdering. It was merely butchering.
Was the transformation good? Was it bad? No one knew.
All that mattered was the Phasewalker Corps now had an army of executioners.
That was when the news arrived.
The Portal was back.
Caity was the first to receive the message, but instead of contacting the entire Phasewalker High Command, the Colonel only sent a message to Ryan. The two met in the room where the Portal sat.
When Ryan arrived, he realized Caity had sent all the Phasewalker sentries out of the room. Alone, she stood in front of the Portal.
“What are you doing?” Ryan frowned. “We don’t know what is on the other end! If it’s not Earth, then we may be under attack…”
“If after everything we did, and Earth was never behind this Portal,” Caity scoffed. “then...that would be the joke of the year!”
Caity didn't say anything. Instead, she, alone, started walking toward the black Portal. Ryan frowned. They had no idea if this Portal was the same one they first came across. It might be connected to the vacuum of space, for all that they knew! Some scouts should be sent through first, not the damn commander of the Corps!
But at the same time, Ryan knew why Caity was doing this. The assault on the United Human Confederation was done solely because of the chance that Earth was on the other side of the Portal and thus under threat. Because of that chance, the Phasewalkers massacred 400,000 people. They turned against what might be the only faction in this world that actually respected and cared for the Phasewalkers.
For that possibility, they extinguished a beacon of hope that might have, one day, retaken this world for mankind.
This was especially tough for Caity. Ryan heard reports from Shieldbearers about how much Caity loved the UHC. The UHC did what Caity has been trying to do: protect people. Yet, it was he that forced her to make the most gruesome betrayal.
The desire to protect Earth, to keep Earth from becoming just like World Alpha, was the only thing that kept Caity standing.
If this all turned out to be for nothing, and Earth was no longer relying on Caity and the Phasewalker Corps, then Caity’s purpose of living would be gone. She might as well run into a foreign world alone and end her life that way.
That was why she only asked for Ryan to be here. If she never returned, then Ryan would be forced to pick up the mantle of the Phasewalker Corps no matter how much he hated it.
Caity’s choice wasn’t something Ryan agreed with, but it was something he understood and respected. That was why he sat back and watched as Caity’s figure was engulfed by the dark screen.
Ryan has never been a religious person, but here, in front of the Portal, he started praying for the very first time.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Portal, Caity opened her eyes to a single familiar figure.
“Colonel Hunter.” General Kennedy said quietly. “Welcome home.”