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. Their first attack is turned back, with hundreds of supersonic fighter jets easily destroyed by the A.C.P. weaponry. Lt. Jack England and Captain Brink D’Mar wonder what kind of race doesn’t equip its pilots with parachutes, even though at least some of them had time to eject before their planes crashed.
Kat handed me a steaming mug of coffee when I stepped onto the bridge. “You think the Guardian demonstration might be enough to sap their spirit?” she asked hopefully.
“Don’t bet on it,” I said, new field data streaming through my net. “We’ve got major ground activity south and east of the city.”
Kat patched into the data flow. Her eyes lost focus as she reviewed it, then she shook her head. “It’s going to be a bloodbath.”
“The first day usually is.”
Long lines of Borrel infantry and armored vehicles baring heavy projectile weapons streamed from myriad camouflaged tunnels. The coarsely furred foot soldiers wore no clothes, carrying nothing except four pistols, one in each hand. There appeared no end to their numbers as they marched determinedly to their deaths, kicking up clouds of dust behind them.
I fed the information to Chikowski and M’Ihn, directing First and Second Platoons to engage the gathering ground forces. I had Olafson sit tight with Fourth Platoon on perimeter security, instructing Fuller and Third Platoon to continue north for a deep infiltration into the civilian sectors. Perhaps Borrel soldiers were willing to die with abandon, but I hoped their citizenry would feel differently.
By the time Chikowski and M’Ihn were in position, fifty thousand Borrel foot soldiers were arrayed along the rugged plains outside the city limits, backed by eight hundred armored vehicles and two thousand artillery pieces. The alien soldiers moved with phenomenal speed and efficiency, spreading out and dropping into preexisting trenches and foxholes in a matter of minutes.
We knew they weren’t telepathic, but it was almost as if they’d been expecting us.
“M’Ihn, Chikowski, hold your fire. Broadcast an appeal for dialogue,” I directed. “We have to open a line of communication here.”
The OMTs fanned out to approach the Borrels in two staggered lines, three hundred yards separating them. Overhead the platoons’ combined forty-eight PAAVs blasted by at mach eight, circling over the southern edge of the city before spinning in the air like tops and returning for a second hypersonic flyby. It was a show of force meant to intimidate, one that had worked before on dozens of worlds.
“Sweet Christ the Second, now’s the time to surrender,” Kat pleaded with a race of people who could not hear her and knew nothing of the first or second coming of the Christian savior. Her green eyes were moist with emotion as she studied the eight vid-screens surrounding us, displaying different views of the action faced by my four platoons. “You’re outclassed and outgunned; you’ve got nothing to prove.” But even as she spoke I thought of the absence of parachutes, and I knew it was not going to be that easy.
The two armies faced each other, sizing one another up as armies across the worlds have done throughout time. The aliens outnumbered us six hundred to one. Perhaps that gave them a false sense of confidence, or perhaps they relished their kamikaze role, believing a better afterlife awaited martyrs. Either way, they opened fire while Chikowski and M’Ihn broadcast our wish to speak.
An armored Borrel halftrack rattled off a dozen armor piercing rounds that plinked harmlessly against the hull of Private Blachard’s OMT. A second of eerie calm passed before the entire Borrel ground force opened up, showering the idling OMTs with small arms slugs, rocket-propelled grenades, and artillery shells. It was a commanding but hollow display. When the smoke cleared, the surrounding terrain was cratered and burning in hundreds of places; the OMTs were unscathed. “Sergeant M’Ihn, Sergeant Chikowski, return fire,” I ordered reluctantly. “Fire at will.”
The OMTs opened up with flechette canons, each tank popping dozens of canisters over the arrayed Borrel troops. The canisters burst high above the battlefield, peppering the area with a fine rain of miniature explosives, blasting foot soldiers from their trenches and decimating half of the armored vehicles within seconds.
Unable to tear her eyes from the vid-screens, Kat pounded her console in frustration. “It doesn’t get any easier, does it?”
“No. It gets harder,” I said, putting my hand on her muscled shoulder. “In the field you operate with blinders on. You only get to see what’s happening right in front of you. Up here we see it all.”
She smiled wistfully. “I miss the blinders.”
“Imagine how Major T’lak feels. Identical scenes are unfolding at nine other locations across the planet, all at her command.”
Cinnamon dust was still ballooning into the air when the PAAVs roared into action, raking the ground with N-guns. The streams of condensed neutrons left furrows ten feet deep and five feet wide, obliterating all sign of the foot soldiers they encountered and transforming armored vehicles into unrecognizable lumps. As the PAAVs lifted upwards, they dropped vacuum bomblets in their wake. The bomblets sucked up all air within a hundred foot sphere, causing a lethal explosive decompression followed by an equally lethal explosive recompression to anything caught inside that sphere.
I called up my Soldiers’ vitals, the display shimmering before my right eye. Their adrenaline levels, blood pressure, heart rate and respiration were up, but the readings remained within normal combat levels. Jack was right; the rookies were more excited than nervous.
The Borrel military was determined to meet its fate. It fell on my shoulders to issue the distasteful order to finish them. Once their army was out of the way, I was confident their civilian leaders would reconsider our offer to talk. Anything else would be suicide.
The OMTs switched to N-guns and wide-dispersal lasers, sliding forward to engage the remains of the enemy force. Astoundingly, the shattered survivors stood their ground, some hurling grenades, others challenging the hovering tanks with nothing more than pistols, rocks, and fists.
The Borrel infantry was not equipped with parachutes either.
* * *
I picked Fuller to conduct the initial probe inside the city because he was the most even-tempered and his troops were the least likely to engage in a full-scale slaughter. As the 1st and 2nd platoons systematically decimated the military units circling the city, Fuller’s OMTs slipped around the flank and entered the capital virtually unchallenged. His PAAVs circled high above, ready to offer support in seconds.
Borrel architects don’t appreciate corners. Like their tubular buildings, the city was laid out in a circular pattern, constructed without sprawl. The desert ended abruptly, giving way to tidy paved streets and oval-windowed structures. Both sides of the road were crowded with neatly parked, sand-colored cars, none of which was large enough to comfortably hold a human. There were very few trees, very little greenery of any kind, and no trash at all.
“Look alive boys,” Fuller advised the twenty-five tanks moving in slow single file along the deserted streets, multiple guns swiveling in search of nonexistent targets.
“Where are they all?” Private Katrine L’Sool breathed from her OMT. “Cowering in terror,” Corporal Jay Veeter, veteran of over 90 campaigns, said from the safety of his own tank. “Don’t sweat it, Private.” Veeter had eyes for L’Sool, but then who didn’t?
Fuller’s translated voice called out to the Borrel citizenry over loudspeakers mounted on his OMT. It sounded like a random series of beeps and whistles, until I ran it back through my own translation program, which returned the alien whistles to New Danish. “We wish you no harm. We wish to speak with your leaders and end hostilities. We are here to protect you from a mutual alien enemy set to exterminate us all.”
His amplified beeps echoed through the narrow streets and alleys, but there was no response.
“You see anything up there, Davie?” Fuller asked Davie Sherman, the baby-faced sergeant who commanded his PAAV air support.
“Negative. Looks totally dead. I think we’re going to miss out on all the fun in here.”
“Only if we’re lucky,” Fuller said.
“Wait. There’s something. I’ve got motion two hundred meters ahead of your column.”
“I see it, Sergeant,” Fuller said. “Hang tight.”
A single Borrel child, half as large as one of their adults, dashed from a building, chasing what appeared to be a running ball of cotton the size of a basketball. The child caught up with the object in the middle of the street and snatched it up, hugging it tightly in all four arms. When the child noticed the column of OMTs sliding towards it, it froze in place, eyestalk trembling, big ears flared in apparent alarm.
Fuller brought his tank to a halt directly in front of the quivering alien child. The rest of the OMTs stopped in a staggered line behind him, gun turrets pivoting restlessly. Two-hundred-foot tall buildings loomed over both sides of the armored column, but nothing moved behind their oval windows. The single half-grown Borrel remained rooted in the middle of the empty road, in the middle of the deserted city, facing the idling line of floating tanks from another world.
Fuller’s loudspeaker squawked out a message. “Return inside. Tell your elders we wish to speak.”
The alien adjusted the white ball in its arms, but did not move.
“Careful, Sergeant,” Kat warned. “This smells wrong.”
“It’s just a child,” Fuller said.
“Maybe,” Kat said. “Or maybe it’s an adult midget. We don’t know enough about them yet.”
I wanted to believe this child was an emissary, albeit an accidental emissary, wanted to believe that it might serve as a conduit towards peace negotiations. But sixteen years of war had taught me differently. Sixteen years of war had taught me that even if it was an innocent child, it didn’t matter––it couldn’t.
“Get your column moving,” I ordered.
“Would you like me to crush the little tyke for you, then?” Fuller demanded.
“Whatever it takes to get those tanks moving, mister.” I despised having to give that order, but the safety of my men came before that of any foe, regardless of age.
Fuller tried once more to order the child inside, but it remained frozen in place. The crimson eyes clustered along its narrow eyestalk moved independently, taking in a dozen views at once.
“Fuck it then,” Fuller snapped and boosted the magnetic cushion beneath his OMT, rising up three feet from the road base. Behind him the rest of his column followed suit, and Fuller edged forward, gliding toward the still motionless child.
I patched into Corporal Veeter’s optical feed to get a closer view of the child’s reaction, expecting it to make a dash for the nearest building or roll into the fetal position in terror. Instead it released the cottony animal from its grip, letting it scurry off down the street. And as Fuller’s tank slid over its head, the child produced the grenade it had been hiding beneath the animal.
Child and grenade disappeared in a powerful explosion. Fuller’s tank rocked to one side and careened off a parked ground car before regaining its equilibrium. “Oh shit,” he muttered, looking back to his screens. The city had come alive, swarming with Borrels.
Hundreds of four-armed aliens poured up from a score of manholes along both sides of the street and thousands more burst from the buildings. They raced for the OMTs on all sixes, filling the air with mad beeps and whistles. Cables dropped from top floor windows and more Borrels rappelled down the sides of the high-rises. Lower windows were suddenly lined with Borrels holding machine guns and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.
The Borrels in the street lobbed grenades and smoke bombs while the ones lining the windows opened up with machine guns and surface-to-surface missiles.
“Christ the Second,” Kat breathed as smoke obscured our patched-in view through Corporal Veeter’s optics.
“Fire on my mark.” Fuller sounded resigned to his fate as mass executioner, a fate the aging giant had grown all too accustomed to. The hull of his tank was engulfed in flame but inside he remained perfectly safe and comfortable. “Wide dispersal lasers. Ready ... fire.”
Set on wide dispersal, the beams exited the turret at the thickness of a pencil but coned out quickly with distance. To unarmored flesh the beams were lethal up to 100 feet, by which point they’d expanded to the circumference of a wagon wheel. With twenty-five beams sweeping the streets, clouds of cooked alien flesh billowed skywards, further hindering visual tracking.
“All OMTs move forward. Continue firing at will. Davie, get your boys down here and take out those snipers in the windows.”
“You got it,” Davie Sherman said. “You’ve got company en route, two blocks up. About three hundred ground cars, moving fast. They’ll be on you in a second.”
“Thanks for the warning. Take care of the snipers. We’ll handle the ground cars.”
Sherman led twenty-four PAAVs below roofline, flashing between the rows of buildings and incinerating snipers clustered at the windows along the top floors. Armor piercing ordnance plinked harmlessly from the PAAVs’ hulls like hailstones in a storm. At the end of their pass the PAAVs spun like tops, reversed direction, and strafed the surviving snipers who were still firing determinedly from lower level windows.
Fuller’s tanks met the hurtling ground cars head on. Each car held a single driver and high explosives. Fireballs coursed into the sky as cars exploded into oncoming tanks, gouging craters from the road and setting nearby buildings ablaze. But the impacts barely marred the new matte black finish on the OMTs.
Fuller’s armored column plowed forward, knocking destroyed hulks of cars aside like toys. He was determined to pierce to the heart of their city, to demonstrate that further resistance could only result in their annihilation. There was no stopping him; or so he thought.
As the last OMT pressed through the wreckage of kamikaze cars, tremendous explosions ripped through the buildings at the front and back end of the armored column. The explosives were expertly placed, and the high-rises toppled forward into the street, blocking the road with piles of smoldering rubble sixty feet high.
Fuller was forced to bring his column to a halt. Groups of Borrels sprinted out to hook steel cables to the idled tanks. The operators responded by electrifying their hulls, and the aliens were shocked off to die, twitching, on the road. One group managed to get a cable latched around the big turret of Private L’Sool’s N-gun, and they began winching it in, pulling her tank towards the side of the road. Corporal B’Tawl spotted the problem from his PAAV above and cut the cable free with a blast of condensed neutrons as he flew past.
“Thanks,” L’Sool said shakily. “Christ, that was a new one for me.”
“No worries. That’s a new one for me too,” B’Tawl said, rocketing skyward.
Fuller studied his options, all the time maintaining lethal wide dispersal laser fire on his suicidal attackers. His OMT could be pushed up to ten feet above the ground, but there was no way it was going to glide over the remains of the high-rise in his path. The roiling smoke had effectively cut off the spy-sats so Fuller called on Sherman. “How thick is that pile in front of us?”
Sergeant Sherman flew his PAAV over the remains heaped across the road. “A hundred and ten yards. It tapers off in height further away from you, down to maybe twenty-five feet at the end.”
“All right. We ought to be able to blast through that in a few minutes. M’Kow, L’Sool, pull up beside me; N-guns to full. We’ve got a little excavating to do.”
“Sir, we’ve got liquid pumping up from the ground here,” M’Kow advised.
“Same back here,” Private Holders said from the tail end of the column. “It’s coming up fast, pouring in from the sewers.”
“Looks like you guys hit a water main,” Sherman said. “Now how are these four-arms supposed to clean up this mess without water?” he joked.
“That’s not water,” Fuller warned. “I’m reading high octane jet fuel. They’re planning to roast us.”
Fuel was pouring from every manhole cover and sewer grate in sight. Already it was knee deep in the road. Knowing what was coming, the remaining Borrels began to break off their attack, carrying scores of wounded with them and leaving hundreds of corpses behind.
“What do we do, Sarge?” L’Sool’s metabolic readings were well on their way towards panic.
“Unless you brought enough marshmallows to roast for everyone, stay in your machine and stay calm, Private. We’ll break through this rubble in no time.”
“But they’re running, they’re running! We have to get out of here!” L’Sool urged.
“Calm down, Private,” Fuller yelled. “That’s just what we’re going to do.”
But with jet fuel pouring in around her trapped machine, L’Sool was way beyond calming down. As Kat and I watched helplessly through Veeter’s smoke-obscured optical feed, Private Katrine L’Sool popped open the hatch of her OMT. She tore off her helmet, fine blonde hair glistening in the sunshine, and leapt to the fuel soaked road. Her hands were empty, held high in a gesture of surrender as she sprinted for the perceived safety of the buildings, ignoring Fuller’s frantic orders to return to her position. She ran right through the host of aliens still maintaining a steady fire at the OMTS, joining the flood of fleeing Borrels racing into the buildings.
Though all of the aliens were armed, not a single shot was fired at her.
“Corporal Veeter, get up here with M’Kow. We’ve got to clear this debris pile ASAP,” Fuller ordered just as the entire block of buildings detonated in a perfectly timed explosion that simultaneously ignited the lake of jet fuel.
Kat gripped my hand in a tight embrace. There was no chance L’Sool could have made it out the other side in time.
The exploding fuel sent up a mushroom cloud that could be seen from the carrier’s bridge fifty miles away. The force of the blast scattered our five-ton tanks like bowling pins. Some were hurled into adjacent buildings; others got knocked thirty feet into the air, flipping over and landing on their roofs, lying like awkward turtles in the pool of blistering fire.
The buildings shattered, and glass and debris showered onto the chaotic inferno below. For the next few seconds the high-rises lining both sides of the conflagration swayed uncertainly, like tall trees in the wind. Then they collapsed forward, burying the jumbled tanks beneath thousands of tons of concrete and molten steel.
“Jesus the First,” Kat breathed as our net connection to all twenty-five operators winked out.
“Sergeant Fuller, report. Fuller, report,” I said over the direct line.
But there was only static.