Copyright © 2012 by Bernd Struben and Strider Nolan Media, Inc.
40 Years was author Bernd Struben’s first novel. His latest work is The 13th Zookeeper, published by Strider Nolan Media, Inc.
WHAT HAS COME BEFORE
The Great Race is an interstellar competition between humans and the bug-eyed Pfrlanx, the only two species that have the technology and military might to claim and hold a world. After wars that claimed the lives of billions on both sides, they have come to an arrangement: the first to claim a new planet is to have unequivocal dominion over it.
The Augmented Combat Personnel are soldiers whose physical modifications and advanced weaponry make them more than a match for any planet’s inhabitants. These soldiers spend their lives in cryogenic sleep as they are transported from one planet to the next, only to be awakened when it is time to fight.
The latest target, New Columbia, is inhabited by the Borrel. Despite six days of heavy losses, the Borrel continue to choose suicide over surrender. The A.C.P. infantry has only five more days to force the Borrel to yield before a virus fatal to the Borrel will be released, completely extinguishing the population.
I strode from the bridge and punted a bulbous cleaning-bot down the hall, sending it skittering from wall to wall. Lieutenant Finley Walker nimbly jumped over the thing as he stepped from the elevator. “Good news?” he asked, flashing his crooked smile.
“We’re going to have to kill them all,” I said. “If we can’t get a complete surrender in five days, W’a will make us release a tailored virus.”
He stopped to search my eyes, thinking it over, praying that I was joking. When he saw that I wasn’t his face paled. “Can he do that?” “Yes.”
“Well ... a lot can happen in five days.”
“Always the optimist, Walker. Keep it up; I need all the optimism I can get. Beep’s our best chance. Bring out one of our A.I. docs to talk to him. If we let the General see that we actually have thinking machines, maybe we can convince him he was duped by that damn Pfrlanx probe.”
“I guess it’s worth a try,” Walker agreed.
“And get Third Platoon mobilized. I’ll have Kat back here in ten minutes to lead them on a new mission. It’s time we try some fresh tactics.”
“You got it,” Walker said and jogged back to the waiting elevator, boots clomping on the metal deck.
The cleaning-bot returned down the corridor, sucking up fine grains of sand that had gotten in by stowing away in the creases of our boots and clothes. The little droid gave me a cautious berth as I stepped back onto my bridge.
I dropped heavily into the command chair, knowing our best efforts would inevitably prove futile. In five days I would be ordered to take part in the extinction of a sentient species with just as much right to exist in this galaxy as we did. I’d be no better than the bug-eyed Pfrlanx troop commanders I was supposed to be protecting this world from. Perhaps I never had been.
When I patched into Jack’s visual I was greeted by a close-up view of Kat’s sweat-streaked face, dark hair spread across the white sand, thick lips parted in a smile of drunken ecstasy, large brown breasts bouncing rhythmically up and down.
“Christ the Second,” Jack said when he realized I’d intruded into his net. “Couldn’t you knock or something?”
“Sorry. I expected to find you using your fishing pole not, well ... your other pole.”
Jack’s/my view shifted as he got to his feet, revealing Kat’s sculpted muscular body in full. She blew me a kiss (through Jack) and dug her toes into the fine sand without a hint of inhibition. “We haven’t had a chance to do any fishing yet.” She stretched languidly. “Though they’re jumping all around out there.” Her slightly slurred words indicated she’d made good use of the appropriated cactus liquor.
“The fishing’s going to have to wait,” I said and filled them in on my conversation with Saskia T’lak.
“That Navy twit is sinking to a new level with this,” Jack snarled. Kat stood up and brushed sand from her skin. “Does he have the authority to issue that order?”
“He’s the most powerful man in 1,100 light years,” I said. “Is he?” Jack prodded.
I didn’t rise to his bait. Like it or not, W’a was in command of this mission, not me. “I need you both back here now. Jack, you’ve spent a lot more time with the General than anyone else. No one humanizes alien enemies like you, but now I need you to get this alien enemy to humanize us.” I shook my head. “Or Borrelize us; whatever it takes. I want you to stick closer to this four-arm than his own nose hairs.”
He seemed pleasantly surprised at my plan. “Yes, Sir. I’ll do my best.”
“Kat, you’ll be leading Fuller’s platoon to the smaller cities along the south coast. We’ll try a new tactic there, demonstrate our overwhelming force and invincibility without killing anyone. And I want you to make damn sure the Borrels are aware of the extraordinary efforts you’re taking to spare their lives. If the all-powerful invader willing to accept surrender won’t work, maybe the godlike aliens seeking a friendly dialogue will.”
“You got it,” Kat said, already slipping into her armor.
“We’ll be back in six minutes,” Jack told me. “Goddamn peeping tom.”
* * *
Jack was as good as his word. Six minutes later the little armored transport blasted overhead, banked hard, and landed beside the carrier’s gray bulk, spraying dust high into the air.
When Jack relieved Walker out by the prisoners’ containment field, the big lieutenant returned to the bridge looking dejected.
“Any luck with the A.I. doc?” I asked.
Walker sank into his seat with a sigh. “Beep accused me of trying to fool him. Smoke and mirrors, like I had someone hiding with a microphone pretending to be the voice of the doc.”
“The General’s a tough nut,” I said. “But he’s the only nut here who’ll talk with us. You’ve got the bridge. I’m going outside.”
The too-close sun was at its zenith, sending heat waves shimmering across the rolling sand dunes. My second corneas dropped into place to cut the glare as I walked to the landing field where Kat was finishing her briefing. Fuller and his Soldiers stood at attention beside their rows of freshly revamped machines. They were clad in full combat armor but their face shields were raised, their sweat-streaked faces the only indication of any discomfort caused by the blazing heat, the only sign they were not simply machines themselves. I cued my nano implants to reduce my body heat, but with the air temperature hovering at 130 degrees in the shade, it wasn’t long before I was sweating freely myself.
“Our time to win this war with honor is running short,” Kat bellowed, striding back and forth in front of the rigid Soldiers. “This is your chance to prove your marksmanship. Shoot the guns from their hands, the turrets from their artillery and tanks, but draw no casualties. We’ve proven we can kill with abandon, now let’s show them we’re done killing; it’s time to talk. Let’s put an end to this before they’re all dead and gone. We are not Pfrlanx! Make me proud, gentlemen.”
“Hurrah!” the troops cheered.
“Third Platoon, move out!” Fuller ordered, and his Soldiers raced for their machines.
I followed Kat as she marched towards her own PAAV, parked beside the armored transport. The telltale sparkle in her emerald green eyes betrayed her excitement at the chance to see some action.
“Good luck, Lieutenant,” I said.
With a hint of hopefulness in her voice she told me, “We’ll make them see the light somehow.”
“Do that and I’ll give you and Jack an extra day of R&R on his island,” I promised.
“That’s the kind of carrot I’ll chase to the end of this world.”
The cockpit to her PAAV recessed into the honeycombed fuselage with a hydraulic hiss. I placed my hand on her armored shoulder. “I’ll see you back here tomorrow.”
“I hope you can get through to the General,” Kat said, swinging up into her machine. Seconds later the PAAV screamed into the air to join the rest of the squadron. I watched them cross the vast desert, shrinking to specks and disappearing in seconds.
* * *
I crossed 200 yards of scorched sand to the prisoner’s containment field. Jack was pacing back and forth before the translucent barrier, dark eyes fuming, sharp jaw set stubbornly. General Beep stood immobile on the inside, four hands placed against the buffer field. Several of his eyes tracked the pacing lieutenant, and the rest moved independently in other directions. One crimson eye followed my progress.
The three other prisoners sat in a dejected heap at the center of the enclosure beside untouched bottles of water and paxmelon juice, morosely staring at their six-toed feet. Our A.I. doc, a mechanical cat-sized octopod, stood beside the bottles, completely ignored by the Borrels.
I stepped up to the field directly in front of the alien general. “Good afternoon, General Beep.”
“Good afternoon, Captaind’mar,” my translation box squawked in response to his whistle.
“Can I get anything for you or your men?”
“Perhaps a few of your flying tanks,” Beep responded.
This surprised me. I hadn’t known Borrels were capable of humor, but then I didn’t know much about them beyond their ingenuity and military capabilities. I thought Jack was yawning until I realized he was imitating Borrel laughter. He caught my amused stare and shrugged sheepishly.
“I meant along the lines of food,” I chuckled.
“We will not eat your food.”
“Fair enough. Have you made any progress, Jack?” I asked.
“We’ve been discussing artificial intelligences,” Jack said. “And the difference between a well-programmed machine and a truly smart one.”
“This machine, here, it is truly capable of independent thought?” Beep motioned to the A.I. doc crouched beside the untouched water.
The spider-like machine replied, almost conceitedly, its words translated into beeps and whistles for the Borrel’s benefit. “I can think, learn from my mistakes, make judgment calls, anything a sentient brain can do.” In truth, the little doc could outthink most humans except in certain areas like weapons design, subjects that had been hardwired with conceptual blocks to prevent the machine from even conceiving of them. “My cognitive capabilities are at least as advanced as the Pfrlanx scout craft which you worshiped.”
“And you are allied with the hummamals?” Beep prodded.
“I am their ally, friend, protector, and healer,” the A.I. said proudly.
“Can you feel pain?”
Sounding suddenly wary, the machine said, “No, but I am able to process sensory input, and in extreme cases this is similar to mammalian feelings of pain.” It took a scuttling step towards the shimmering field. “Captain D’Mar, perhaps I should join you outside?”
Beep uttered a shrill whistle, which my translation program didn’t catch. His three previously docile cellmates reacted instantly, leaping for the A.I. doc and ripping it to pieces with their bare hands, ignoring its piercing screams of protest. Using the machine’s own dismembered legs, the Borrels battered the crippled carapace into the dirt, splitting it open, sinking sharp teeth into exposed wires and chips, and pulling them free amid showers of sparks. Finally satisfied, the attackers sank back down to the sand, looking listless once more. Only their heavy breathing and some telltale robotic parts stuck to their coarse fur betrayed they’d ever moved at all.
“Feel better?” Jack asked.
“No,” Beep twittered.
“We have a dozen more like it—not identical, of course since each A.I. is unique—but similar,” I said.
“Bring them here; they will suffer the same fate.”
“We’ll spare them that,” I said. “But I wonder, if you thought it was just a machine, would you have attacked it so violently?” When the General didn’t answer I continued. “I think that you attacked our doc because you realized it was our intelligent ally, not just some machine with a microphone being manipulated by one of my men. And if we possess truly intelligent machines then surely our enemies, the Pfrlanx, might possess intelligent machines as well.”
After a long silence, the General uttered a low reluctant beep. “It is possible.”
My heart skipped a beat at this admission, the first chink in the General’s impregnable wall of denial. “And isn’t it also possible—in fact highly likely—that a truly intelligent machine would do everything in its power to manipulate a situation against the enemies of its creators? Isn’t it logical that once your Holy One found itself stranded here, knowing that we were coming, it would rally your people against us? Not for Borrel benefit, mind you, but solely for Man’s detriment. It knew you stood no chance against us, but a Borrel population united against us was far preferable to one allied with us.”
Most of Beep’s eyes swiveled to regard me. “Everything you say is possible, though that does not make it true. Yet even if it were a certainty, it changes nothing. You came as the Holy One prophesied, slaughtered as the Holy One prophesied, and now barter as the Holy One prophesied. Perhaps the Holy One—may He forgive me for even suggesting it—was nothing more than an intelligent machine built by your enemies, and perhaps those enemies also covet our world and would also kill us for it. But it does not matter. They are not here, you are here, and we will never give up what is ours to an invader.”
I looked over to Jack. “Did you tell him about the virus?” I asked.
“No,” Jack said tiredly. When I nodded towards Beep, Jack swallowed hard. “General, are your people familiar with disease, with devastating pandemics that wipe out thousands of innocents in a matter of days?”
“We have suffered such outbreaks before.”
“As have we. Many times throughout our history. Even today humans fall prey to deadly disease in isolated areas. But our technology has kept an edge on the evolution and mutation of germs and viruses, keeping overall losses small. Unfortunately our tech hasn’t been directed exclusively at preventing diseases, but also at creating them. Our scientists have gotten frighteningly good at it.”
Jack wiped sweat from his furrowed brow with the back of a sand-caked hand, then continued. “General, we’ve created a disease that is rapidly lethal and highly contagious among your kind, yet innocuous to ourselves and the rest of the life forms of your world.”
Beep’s hands clenched into fists through the buffer field, all of his eyes locked onto Jack. “And you would use this disease as a weapon.”
Jack dropped his dark gaze to his boots. “Yes.”
I leaned against the outside of the field, looking down at the alien leader. “General, please, this is not what I want. But I have five days to reach an agreement, five days before I’m ordered to release this virus. If your people fail to—” the program again stumbled on the word surrender and continued with its quick substitution “—embrace-us-as-allies within five days, every last one of you will die a terrible death.”
“Our fate was sealed the moment your kind discovered our world. Whether we burn beneath the rays of your weapons or drown in our own mucus from your tailored disease, we will never give up what is ours.”
“Goddamn it, then that’s exactly what’s going to happen!” Jack snapped, pounding the outside of the containment field with his bare hand.
“You can’t defeat us, General,” I said. “Your struggle is hopeless, futile.”
“It is you who cannot defeat us,” Beep said, half his eyes turning to me while the other half remained on Jack.
“What if we came in peace?” Jack asked. “What if we gave up our weapons and … embraced-you-as-allies?”
The General’s lower hands clasped together, his eyestalk went rigid, and all eyes fixed on Jack. “The Prophet’s words are clear. We would walk his path, welcome you as guests and share all that we have. There is much we could learn from one another. Like the workings of this infernal invisible wall.” His upper arms struggled through the buffer field in frustration.
“And the colonists?” Jack prodded.
Two of Beep’s eyes turned to the heavens, as if he could actually see the distant settler pods. “Our land is not unlimited. You may stay as our guests, but we would have to give more thought to your colonists. Certainly they could not be allowed to multiply freely. Our world must remain a Borrel world, with humammal guests perhaps, but still a Borrel world.”
“And who has the authority to make this decision?” The way Jack asked the question made me suspect he already knew the answer.
“I was first servant to the Holy One. My word is law.”
“Well?” Jack said to me.
“Well what, Lieutenant? Are you honestly suggesting we surrender to them?”
Jack turned off his translation box and subjected me to the full intensity of his dark gaze, a look that had made countless young rookies blanch before him. “That’s exactly what I’m suggesting, Brink.”
I clicked off my own translator. “Presuming for one second that you haven’t lost your mind, what makes you think we could trust them? If we ‘embrace-them-as-allies,’ what’s to stop them from turning on us once they have access to our tech?”
“I believe turning on us would go against their most deeply ingrained nature. It’s partly their culture and partly their genetics. They’re almost robot-like in the way they process things. They’re very simple: fight enemies, don’t fight allies. No ifs, ands, or buts. If we surrendered they couldn’t kill us even if they wanted to, and I don’t think they’d want to.”
“You believe? You think? You’ve been around them for less than five days and I’m supposed to gamble everything on your crazy-assed hunch?” I pulled at my dark mop of sweat-soaked hair. “You’ve spent too much time out in the sun.”
Jack sent a batch of footage to my net. “Have you looked at this?”
I scrolled through the images. “This is when Private L’Sool panicked and fled her OMT,” I said. “Of course I’ve seen it.”
“But have you really looked at it?” he asked. “Here. Check this out.” He tapped into my net and replayed the recording at half speed, pausing and zooming in to make his points. “She evacuated her tank eight seconds before the surrounding buildings exploded. Eight seconds in the midst of a thousand armed enemies ... and not one of them took a shot at her.” I watched it again, this time in slow motion: L’Sool leapt from her tank, tore her helmet off and threw her arms over her head in a gesture of surrender, then bolted straight through swarms of armed Borrels. “Her hands are empty, clearly visible, but she’s heading right to them. She’s still got her sidearm, but it’s tucked out of sight. As far as these Borrels knew, L’Sool was unarmed, a non-combatant.”
“You can’t know that for sure.”
“Why else wouldn’t they have gunned her down?”
“Because they had more pressing targets.”
“I don’t believe that. Look here, and here, and here,” he said, zooming in on three different aliens crouched near L’Sool’s tank. Each of them accurately tracked her movements with big machine guns from the instant she leapt free of the hatch until she disappeared into the high-rise. “They had her dead in their crosshairs the whole time, yet none of them fired.”
“Okay,” I breathed. “That is remarkable; but what does it mean? Did you bring this up with Beep?”
“I did, and he gave me an interesting history lesson. Apparently Borrels spent thousands of years fighting each other in all-out wars that make our own civil wars pale in comparison. They were utterly ruthless and came close to destroying themselves many times. Whenever one society gained an edge it would annihilate its weaker neighbors. Surrender was never an option because it was never accepted. Knowing this, the weaker societies inevitably banded together to take down the stronger ones before they were taken down in turn. This vicious cycle only ended when a prophet rose from the masses nine centuries ago.” He paused, enjoying the moment. “A great Borrel leader known as Beep.”
“Figures,” I said. “Jesus H. Beep himself.”
Jack grinned. “The Prophet Beep altered the millennia-old structure of his civilization by insisting every society be obligated to open their arms in welcome to anyone who embraces-them-as-allies. Of course, like all good prophets he was killed for his ideas, but his death did not stop his ideas from spreading. Over time societies that accepted his words as scripture prospered, absorbing their enemies rather than killing them off. Simply knowing that they could join their stronger neighbors gutted the age-old incentive for weaker societies to band together and go to war. Not everyone bought into the Prophet’s word, but those cultures that didn’t eventually crumbled and ceased to exist.”
“And the Pfrlanx A.I. capitalized on this history.”
“Yes. Telling them humammals were like the Borrels of old. We would never accept their surrender, never allow them to embrace-us-as-allies. The best they could hope for was a role as slaves.” Jack rubbed his hawkish nose. “And that’s not so far from the truth.”
“Okay, it’s a good story,” I agreed. “Maybe you haven’t spent too much time in the sun. But this isn’t something I can gamble the lives of two thousand Soldiers on.”
“Damn it, this is the best chance we’ll ever have to live normal lives, lives not centered on decimating one sentient species after another, sleeping away years between battles that last weeks! There’s nothing wrong with duty and honor, but our debts are paid in full. A hundred and fifty worlds we’ve taken from the Pfrlanx. A hundred and fifty worlds we’ve handed to the Empire of Man, soaked in the blood of their indigenes! Isn’t it time we secured one for ourselves? Haven’t we earned that much? And what about the Borrels? This is their world, not ours. They evolved here from scratch and we’re about to exterminate them like a pack of homicidal Pfrlanx simply because we have the edge on technology.”
“And how do you think the Admiral will react? I’ll tell you how. W’a will come racing back with ten battalions and a major score to settle. It will be forty years our time but only five months to him, not nearly enough to dull his rage.”
“We’ll have lived our lives by then. For better or worse, we’ll have lived them. And we’ll have bought the Borrels forty more years to live theirs. That’s a lot of time to prepare for their next great battle. Hell, combining their ingenuity and ferocity with our technology and combat training, we might give W’a a run for his money.”
It did not take a military genius to realize the futility of such a plan. “You’re dreaming.”
“Yeah. I’m dreaming. But you have the power to make it reality. You know the other captains would follow your lead. Even Saskia T’lak might join us.” His expression became deathly serious. “We don’t have a lot of ways out, Brink: a poisoned dart in the eye, an armor piercing round through the skull, or maybe, just maybe, by turning our backs on our honor bound duty. You hold two thousand destinies in the palm of your hand, two thousand men and women who were never given a choice to be anything but killers. A lifetime as killers.”
I didn’t know how to respond. “Jack, I––”
“Look at this,” he interrupted, sending a new stream of images to my net. His island materialized before my eyes, covered in lush trees, circled by colorful birds. “This is where I want to live my life, Brink. This is where I want to go to sleep every night and wake up every morning for the next forty years. And I won’t ever kill anything smarter than fish again. Maybe I’ll even go veggie.”
“Jack, this is….”
Jack pulled on his gloves and his faceplate dropped into place, leaving me staring at my own strained reflection. “Just think about it,” he said and walked off.