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, called New Columbia, is a planet with a nice, warm climate—just the kind of place Lt. Jack England would love to spend his retirement. The only problem is that soldiers only had two choices: teach at the Academy or, for the vast majority, live out the rest of their lives on the heavy gravity planet named Retreat.
Lt. Jack England runs an idea past his Captain, Brink D’Mar … with the nearest staging area 40 years away from them, wouldn’t it be nice to stop fighting and put down roots there?
Base camp consisted of a dozen chameleon-skinned Quonset domes arranged around the carrier, their exteriors currently matching the cinnamon brown of their surroundings. They served as bathrooms, kitchens, mess halls, and rec rooms. Each of my four platoons generally rotated fifteen hours on duty with five hours off. The Soldiers either slept inside the carrier, in their machines, or in one of the dormitory huts if base camp was considered sufficiently secure.
For first contact I would engage all four platoons. Depending on our welcome, I planned to begin alternating them out after ten hours. Our brains were engineered to function with only one hour of sleep per standard day, but I liked to give my men a few hours away from the fighting when I could; a little time to be human.
Every platoon claimed twenty-four Personal Aerial Assault Vehicles and twenty-five One Man Tanks. OMTs had been added to our arsenal five centuries ago. The modern versions were virtually indestructible, able to withstand a direct nuclear hit. OMTs employed electromagnetic fields to levitate just above the surface. They were able to travel across or under water and could be pushed to a height of ten feet. In open terrain they could reach 200 miles per hour, though they were not built for speed but for impregnability and devastating firepower. They were equipped with high-output N-guns, lasers, and various projectile weapons. The latter included the lethal flechette cannon, firing canisters packed with thousands of pea-sized explosives, each capable of blowing twenty foot craters through solid bedrock.
PAAVs and OMTs combined to give my division 196 war machines. Service bots towed them from the hangar, and they stood arranged around the carrier in accordance with their platoons. Extensive diagnostics confirmed the machines were faultless and ready to pulverize another unsuspecting alien race. As I watched Jack inspect the long line of Sergeant Chikowski’s OMTs, his words haunted me. Thirty-nine years until retirement. Christ, we were only getting started.
Having unloaded the last field supplies, Sergeant Fuller had a small entourage clustered around his tank. “A clear conscience, Private, is usually the sign of a bad memory,” Fuller boomed for the benefit of his audience. “I have made it a point to accurately remember every mission I’ve been involved with, good and bad alike, and I assure you my conscience is far from clear.”
Private Katrine L’Sool, the busty blonde private, responded, “But 94% of the indigenous races become absorbed into the Empire after we pacify a world. A hundred years after we leave, 92% of these worlds are better off than we found them and safe from the Pfrlanx.” She swatted a heavy black insect from the air. It landed in the sand by her feet, and she crushed it with the heel of her boot.
“Quite true, L’Sool,” Fuller told her. “But then 76.2% of all statistics are made up on the spot.” Watching the amiable giant stride back and forth before his captive audience, I realized Jack was right. When Fuller turned seventy-five, he wouldn’t last two years on a heavy gravity world without Slowage. Civilians with ample funds can live to see a relatively youthful two hundred standard years, provided they keep pumping enough Slowage into their system. But Slowage therapy is pricey; not even a Major’s pension is enough to cover regular treatment. And once you stop taking it your body ages fast, allowing your natural age to catch up in a very few years.
I ran a gloved finger over the fresh matte black finish of a PAAV and turned my attention to the rookies in Sergeant M’Ihn’s platoon. They had gathered around Hamlin Rack’s PAAV.
Private Aimess assured Private Ling C’Lahm, “I don’t care how many sims you’ve done, it’s not the same thing. Just wait until you get to open up on real aliens. It’s a fucking blast!”
“Yeah, most of the time they don’t even know what hit ‘em!” Private Blachard added. “We’re like fucking gods to them.”
“Wrathful gods,” Corporal Rack snorted. “We come out of nowhere and demand tribute and worship.”
“With our warships,” Aimess said.
“Yeah, worship our warships or suffer the consequences,” Blachard laughed.
“Fuck it, we’ll make them suffer the consequences anyway!” Rack boasted.
In truth I did not believe there were enough aliens for Hamlin Rack to slaughter in the entire Milky Way. He killed with a religious fervor, but I don’t believe there was a spiritual bone in his body.
After the Kooldat rebels launched their attacks on our unsuspecting camps on New Oslo, killing three Soldiers in my division alone, the desire for swift retribution was universal. Even I wanted to see the blue-skinned Kooldat aliens pay for their actions with blood. But only a handful of the rebels actually involved in the uprising survived their initial attacks. Intel indicated that about a dozen rebel extremists had escaped the fighting and sought to flee aboard a fleet of ocean-going ships, nine large vessels each holding two thousand Kooldat refugees. This meant any revenge we took would be at the expense of innocent civilians who just happened to also be Kooldat. So while M’Kohl’s division went on a rampage on the other side of the world, I called my men off. We had already squelched the local rebellion; there was nothing more to do. Saskia T’Lak had the refugee ships carefully monitored from orbit, assuring that the rebels would be sniffed out and apprehended before the ships made port.
But none of that mattered to Rack. Ignoring my orders, he took off in his PAAV and chased down the giant refugee boats. He tore into their fleet like a man possessed, burning with a rage that would not be subdued until he sent every one of those ships spiraling into the ocean depths. His N-gun sliced through steel hulls as if they were made of cheese, and within a minute of his onslaught all nine ships were en route to the bottom of the sea, all souls still aboard. Perhaps a dozen rebels were mixed among eighteen thousand wholly innocent civilians, all of them dead before Hamlin Rack triumphantly turned his PAAV back to base.
If Finley Walker and I hadn’t been there, Jack England might have killed the beefy private when he swaggered from his machine, grinning like an ape. While Walker kept Jack’s arms pinned I managed to calm him down with promises that Rack would spend the rest of his days guarding ore ships from a cubbyhole inside some godforsaken asteroid. Instead, the Governor handed the prick a shiny medal and Admiral W’a pushed through his promotion.
Rack threw his arm around Ling C’Lahm’s comparatively slender shoulder. “You did well getting in with the 106th. Best fucking battalion there is and you got into the toughest division. We always get assigned the dirty jobs, and God knows I love the dirty jobs!”
“That is what I volunteered for,” Ling said, gripping Rack’s thumb and twisting his hand from her shoulder. “The last thing I wanted was to get stuck sitting on some fringe outpost praying for a separatist ship to offer some brief respite from the nauseating boredom of my existence.”
Rack took a half step back, massaging his thumb and appraising the diminutive recruit with new respect. He swept his arm to indicate the distant Borrel city. “Well, honey, this is your wet dream come true. I’ve got a good feeling about this mission. Real good.” He glanced around base camp. “You got lucky with this platoon. Sergeant M’Ihn lets us have a free hand out there. Did you get a gander at these crazy four-arms yet? Woof! I can’t wait to get started!”
“How about the Captain?” Ling asked. “It does not sound like he has much stomach left for killing.” I carefully looked the other way as the group glanced towards me.
“D’Mar? Ah, he talks the talk, but that’s his job. It’s all P.R. He didn’t get to be Captain for nothing. There’s enough alien blood on the Captain’s hands to fill an ocean.”
“You came close to filling an ocean on Kooldat yourself,” Aimess praised.
“What happened on Kooldat?” Ling asked.
“Corporal Rack sank a fleet of refugee boats after he’d been called off.” Blachard said this as if Rack had saved a litter of puppies from a fire.
Rack spat into the sand. “It was bullshit. We should never have been called off. There were a dozen insurgents hiding on those refugee boats. Goddamn rebels killed some of us, including our own wingman, Bortock. Fucking squishies thought they could get away holing up with civilian ETs.”
“You told me Bortock was a pussy,” Aimess prodded, earning a grin from Blachard.
“Bortock was a pussy, but he was one of us, goddamn it! And I wasn’t about to let them get away with it. I did what had to be done.”
There was only so much I could do with men like Hamlin Rack. I could try to demote him back in rank, give him extra work details, or transfer him to another division, but none of that would change who he was. A buck private can kill just as wantonly as a sergeant, while scrubbing toilets for five hours was unlikely to improve his disposition in the field. And handing Rack over to another division simply meant he’d be doing his damage somewhere else. Like it or not, I was stuck with him.
“All right, Lieutenant,” I sub-vocalized to Jack’s ear implant. “Let’s get this show rolling.”
* * *
“Form up!” Jack hollered and broadcast across the communal net band.
“Form up!” the four master sergeants echoed.
Conversations ceased as Soldiers moved to stand at attention beside their machines, mirrored faceplates dropping into place from black helmets. I’d known many of them for years. Some––like Jack, Kat, and Olafson––had been classmates, enduring twenty years of rigorous training and physical augmentations at my side. We’d fought our first battles together as buck privates. They were the only family I knew.
I felt a surge of pride at the rows of neatly ordered Soldiers in their unblemished gear, standing tall beside their deadly machines. There was enough firepower arrayed on this alien stretch of desert to take on most worlds single-handed. They would attack anyone and anything at my command, placing themselves in mortal danger on my word. That’s the kind of power that can go to your head.
“Platoon leaders, confirm combat readiness,” I ordered.
“First Platoon locked and loaded,” Chikowski said.
“Second Platoon is ready to fly and fry,” M’Ihn barked.
“Third Platoon assembled and awaiting orders,” Fuller said.
“Fourth Platoon is combat ready,” Olafson drawled from his vantage point in the air.
I strolled along the lines of killing machines.
“Be careful out there today, Corporal,” I told Sean Hutch, a lumbering four hundred pound bear of a man standing beside his OMT.
“Expect the unexpected, Private,” I told the diminutive Ling C’Lahm. “You never know when a poisoned dart’s got your name on it.”
“Yes, Sir!” she barked.
“And keep your goddamned face-shield down outside your cockpit,” Jack muttered. Leopold T’Nool had been his friend too.
I turned to the rows of expectant Soldiers. “Remember why we’re here,” I boomed. “If we wanted to destroy this civilization we could slag them from space, or we could tailor microbes to do the job for us. But that is not out goal! We are not Pfrlanx! We are here to claim this planet in the name of humanity and further the cause of intergalactic justice, to ensure the survival of these Borrels as our allies against the stinking Pfrlanx. We are here to pacify this planet so our brothers and sisters may spread our seed, ensuring that mankind can never be wiped from existence. Our goal is to live in harmony beside these indigenes, and to take one more world away from the goddamned Pfrlanx forever!”
“Hurrah!” the troops shouted as one.
“You are authorized to stamp out military resistance without prejudice, taking all reasonable precautions to spare non-combatants. Major T’lak has forbidden a replay of New Oslo here.”
Rack whispered something to Aimess, and the young private snickered. Kat’s voice spoke into my ear implant the same instant a host of input flashed across my neural net. “We’ve got activity outside the city perimeter. Lots of activity,” she said.
“Looks like the indigenes have decided to show up for the party,” Sergeant Chikowski growled.
I patched into the spy-sats. It was a clear day and the resolution was fantastic. In the barren flats beyond the city, enormous sand-covered blast doors were opening to reveal hidden landing pads stacked with fleets of fighter planes. Hundreds of Borrels hustled back and forth inside the hangars, making final checks before waving the planes forward.
The planes were swept-wing jobs with two pilots beneath the canopies. As I watched, the first jets catapulted into the sky, climbing hard before circling back over the city to await their wingmen.
I passed the information on to Major T’lak. Now we knew why the city appeared deserted; they’d spent the last hour preparing underground, defeating our satellites’ thermal imaging and visible spectrum cameras. It demonstrated a worrisome organizational network, and there still wasn’t a single individual moving about on the streets.
I dreaded what was about to come: the imminent pointless carnage. If they were only willing to communicate, open some channel for dialogue, I might be able to convince them to lay down their weapons and accept their fate as our subservient allies. But these Borrels were not ready to accept anything less than victory yet, and it was my distasteful duty to demonstrate the futility of their resistance as forcefully and clearly as possible.
“All divisions confirm similar activity, Captain D’Mar,” Saskia T’lak sent back. “The indigenes appear well coordinated on a planetwide level. Keep me posted.”
“Permission to scramble and intercept,” Sergeant Olafson requested from his hovering PAAV.
“Negative. We’ll let the Guardians earn their keep. Mobilize Fourth Platoon and set up a defensive perimeter three miles outside the L.Z. Nothing gets in or out of here without my okay.”
“Yes, Sir,” Olafson acknowledged.
At his signal, the forty-five men and women from Fourth Platoon still on the ground raced for their cockpits. The five-ton OMTs lifted on electromagnetic beds without disturbing a single grain of sand. The lighter PAAVs were not so subtle. Their ion thrusters kicked off debris-filled typhoons as they launched vertically skywards, circled the L.Z. once, and fanned out above the OMTs. As the tanks formed a protective ring around base camp, they discharged thousands of tiny landmines in their wake, promising a quick death to anything attempting to reach our carrier by land.
With fourteen Guardians in geosynchronous orbit, it would have been easy to fry the Borrel air force while it still sat impotently on the ground. But taking the armada out of the sky made for a more impressive show. During initial hostile contact it is imperative to display massively superior technology and indomitable firepower. Though I loathed the massacre, it was a calculated tactic: classic shock and awe, generally leading to quicker surrenders and fewer casualties—on both sides—in the long run.
The Borrel pilots moved efficiently, which did not surprise me after witnessing the city’s rapid evacuation. Within minutes the concealed hangars were empty, the planes gathered in tight formations high above.
“Bogies are en route,” Kat warned. “Two hundred forty birds. They just went supersonic. Mach 1.2. Their ETA at current velocity is 4.3 minutes.”
“Copy that. Shield the carrier. We’re good out here,” I said.
An electrical crackling and faint shimmering distortion immediately surrounding the carrier were the only indication that Kat had engaged the powerful averter field. Nothing short of antimatter or a singularity bomb could touch it now.
“Bogie ETA 3.5 minutes,” Kat spoke into my ear implant, corroborating the translucent data stream scrolling before my right eye.
“Copy that.” I keyed the Guardians onto their targets.
The Borrels were flying in V formations: twenty squadrons of twelve planes each. They were using ancient ramjet technology, and vapor contrails mushroomed in their wake.
“I’m reading multiple missiles aboard each craft,” Walker told me. “Air to ground and air to air.”
“Waste of perfectly good ammo,” Sergeant M’Ihn said.
“Bogie ETA 2.5 minutes. Mean distance to LZ twenty-eight miles,” Kat said.
Jack stepped up beside me, body armor already coated in cinnamon alien dust. My helmeted visage, equally filthy, looked back at me from his mirrored faceplate.
“Poor bastards don’t know what they’re getting into,” he commiserated, staring at the incoming armada, now visible along the horizon. They were spread out like a flock of migrating birds.
Or ducks, rather. Sitting ducks.
* * *
At my signal fourteen incandescent beams no wider than my thumb stabbed down from the heavens. Even from twenty miles distant they were so bright my second corneas dropped unbidden into place. The high intensity lasers sliced cleanly through the shells of fourteen fighter planes, taking one second to recharge and acquire their next targets before spearing down again.
Some planes exploded when their ordnance was hit, raining down on the desert in tiny, fiery pieces. Others were simply cut in half, tail fins spiraling to the ground, chasing the plummeting cockpits where the pilots continued to struggle futilely for control right up to the instant of impact.
The spy-sats provided comprehensive detail. One of them even picked out a dismembered Borrel eyestalk, free-falling end over end, a dozen crimson eyes twinkling in the morning sunlight.
“See you later,” Rack joked, and Aimess slapped his gloved palm.
The Soldiers had patched into my link for front row seats to the show, but not Jack. He saw more than he needed to with his augmented eyes. Four hundred and eighty of the best pilots this world had to offer were the first victims to our preliminary display of overwhelming might, and all around the planet identical scenes were being played out by the other nine divisions.
Twenty seconds after the Guardians commenced firing, the last Borrel fighter plane tumbled to the desert floor.
“No parachutes,” Jack remarked wonderingly. “Some of them had plenty of time to eject.”
“Maybe they never invented parachutes,” I said, grasping for an explanation.
“You’d think a culture with supersonic jets would’ve come up with some fucking chutes!”
“Yeah,” I agreed. I shrugged. “Maybe they don’t believe in bailing out. Maybe their pilots are meant to go down with their planes.”
“If that’s their mentality, we’ll have our work cut out for us here.” Although I couldn’t see his face, Jack’s rigid posture betrayed his apprehension.
“You got someplace else to be?” I asked.
“Just about anyplace would be preferable.”
“Sorry, Lieutenant, we need your ass here with us.” I turned to my troops. “It’s time to show what you’ve got, ladies. Sergeant Chikowski, Sergeant M’Ihn, Sergeant Fuller … First, Second, and Third Platoons will take this city in a standard pincer move. I expect a total surrender in two days so we can move onto lesser targets. I’ve sent the latest intel we’ve got to your nets. The Borrels have an extensive tunnel network in place and there will be some facilities we haven’t scoped yet. I want close air support for the OMTs at all times.”
“Yes, Sir!” they shouted.
“All right, move out!”
One hundred forty-seven men and women leapt to action. PAAVs burst into the air in clouds of dust and OMTs slid away as if riding a magic carpet. In less than a minute the last OMTs were streaking towards the city, shadowed by their PAAV air support.
I raised my faceplate into my helmet and Jack did the same. He wiped his dark eyes with gloved knuckles.
“I don’t like these rookies,” he said, staring after the dwindling PAAVs.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. They’re looking forward to this massacre, they’re happy about it.”
“It’s what they’ve spent their entire life training for,” I said.
“Then the training is whacked. They’re being taught to hate alien races, to want to eradicate them.” He looked down at the ground, digging a shallow trench with the toe of one boot.
“Don’t you think the old guard used to say that about us?”
“No. We were taught to subjugate and enslave alien races, not exterminate them. And we lusted for glory and promotion, sure, but not like these rookies. When we lost a friend we wanted revenge, but we never killed for kicks, never popped a stiffy cutting down civvies, never started a campaign hoping for armed resistance.” He ruefully shook his head. “I don’t know what they’re doing at the Academy these days. If these young guys are any indication, I don’t want to know.”
“Feeling your age, old man?”
“Hell, Brink, we’re almost a thousand years older than Ling C’Lahm. I guess that does make me feel old.”
“Think about poor Fuller.”
“The man’s ancient, like we’ll be in thirty years.”
“We might be three thousand years old by then if they keep sending us this far out,” I remarked. “The Great Race could be over.”
“And the Great War underway.”
“Unless someone figures a way for the Gap-Drive to work between galaxies. Then the Great Race can go on virtually forever,” I said.
“Allowing humanity to spread to millions of new worlds, producing billions of new babies every day.”
“Now you’re depressing me, Jack. I’m going to monitor operations from the bridge.”
“Mind if I stay out here? I’m beginning to like this world. Great climate, plenty of water. And forty years from the nearest Staging Area,” Jack prodded.
I ignored the bait. “Yeah. Hell of a planet. I’ll send Walker down to join you.”