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 suffering heavy casualties the first day, the Borrel don’t even attempt to communicate with the invading soldiers. They seem to be more than willing to sacrifice their lives despite overwhelming odds.
With its short nineteen-hour days, New Columbia’s sun always seemed to be in a hurry. As it raced for the horizon, announcing the end to day four of combat operations, I left Kat and Jack in command of the bridge so I could join Walker outside for some fresh air.
The big lieutenant was sitting on Sergeant M’Ihn’s dirt-encrusted PAAV, chewing an unlit cigar and staring at the distant city. He had an excellent view of the smoldering capital and the sky shrouded in black smoke. The rumble of heavy ordnance—theirs, not ours—crackled across the heavens like thunder. Borrel civilians had proved to be as stubborn as their soldiers. There wasn’t much difference between the citizens holed up in the city and the Borrel army still doggedly reforming to fight and die outside the perimeter, except that the civilians were not as well armed, and some were very young or very old. But their ferocity, organization, and willingness to sacrifice their lives for a single shot at us kept my men busy, forcing a block by block showdown and preventing us from laying claim to the city as planned. I was beginning to worry the only way I could accomplish that was to level the whole place.
The other division captains reported identical scenarios across New Columbia. We were all uneasy playing the role of chief butcher, but our orders were clear: nothing short of an unconditional surrender was acceptable. Yet despite staggering casualties and an overwhelming display of superior force and technology on our side, not a single alien had surrendered. The handful we had managed to capture alive had not even deigned to speak with us.
Two days ago Sergeant Chikowski and young Corporal Prill brought me five live prisoners. Kat had set up a containment field two hundred yards from the carrier, powered by its own portable antimatter generator. It would take something like an OMT to break through the translucent field from inside. Though they would have been more secure inside the carrier’s brig, bringing alien combatants aboard ship was against protocol.
Of course, technically, we were the aliens. We were the uninvited. Labeling Borrels as aliens was a force of habit, one of many tiny habits I’d evolved to ease the ponderous burden of the orders I had to issue every day of my life. In the field the grunts developed their own habits, which allowed them to gun down our future allies with abandon. Rookies tended to write intelligent aliens off as simple faceless numbers, death tolls, body counts to be chalked up and boasted over. Most veterans developed other routines to ease their conscience, convincing themselves what they did was for the best of mankind, and even for the best of the aliens themselves. After all, if we didn’t get there first the Pfrlanx would, right? And when it was all over, rookies and veterans alike drowned their memories with copious amounts of booze on two-day benders that would likely kill a non-enhanced human.
The alien prisoners that Chikowski and Prill had brought in had been gassed with a knockout agent specifically developed to act upon their biology. They were still unconscious when we placed them in the coarse sand at the center of the spherical containment field. The Borrels recovered slowly, four arms twitching, oversized ears flapping, droopy eyestalks slowly standing erect. When I thought they were still only half conscious, all five suddenly sprang to their feet, whistling madly.
I turned on my translation box, which changed my words to shrill alien beeps and whistles. “I am Captain D’Mar. We are not going to hurt you.” Eyestalks swiveled towards me, crimson eyeballs reflecting the arc lights arrayed around their prison. “We’re here to help your people against a common mortal enemy,” I said, as their city burned in the background.
Their leader uttered a low whistle and all five aliens sprinted towards me, coming to a jarring halt against the inside of the containment field. This technology was new to them, so they backed up and tried again, and again, and again. Their claws tore free from their fingers under the ferocious assault, and dark blood began to trickle down the inside of the field.
I would have thought them all maniacal killers if I had not witnessed the serene footage our spy-sats had taken of their city before we’d landed, showing adult Borrels carrying their young and peacefully going about their daily business. I stepped back, hoping to calm them, but it had no effect. Their leader began ramming the field with his head and blood flowed from his big ears.
“Stop! Stop it!” Kat yelled, green eyes wide with shock, translator box transforming her pleas into whistles. The only result was that two Borrels changed direction and now concentrated on trying to reach her. “We need knockout gas!” I ordered.
Young Corporal Prill sprinted off, returning in thirty seconds with an electro-flux stun grenade, but he was too late.
“Jesus the First,” the ordinarily stoic Chikowski whispered with tears in his eyes. He watched his men haul off the lifeless prisoners. “They’re never going to surrender, are they, Captain?”
I stared at him, mouth half open, but no words came.
* * *
They always surrender. They have to. The most basic tenets of life dictate the continuation of one’s species, and if the Borrels did not surrender they would not continue. We had made that abundantly clear. But my doubts were growing.
The outlying Borrel communities, scattered across the vast southern planes and along the lushly forested coastlines, had mustered a force four hundred thousand strong, and set out for the capital two nights ago. I’d used the Guardian satellites to dissuade them, focused orbital lasers incinerating their path until the ground before them bubbled into lava, driving the would-be reinforcements back home unharmed. But if they were anything like their brethren in the capital city, they would be waiting for us when the time came.
Finley Walker handed me a cigar and slid from Sergeant M’Ihn’s PAAV to the ground, boots raising puffs of dust from the cinnamon soil. I bit the end off the cigar and lit it with the small hand laser I kept in a boot sheath.
Walker flashed his lopsided grin and rumbled, “Gonna burn your nose off with that trick some day.”
“You suppose that would count as friendly fire?”
“I suppose every Soldier in the battalion would know about it before breakfast.”
I laughed and puffed out a cloud of tobacco. “M’Ihn have anything interesting to report?”
Sergeant M’Ihn’s second platoon was taking a five-hour R&R rotation at camp. M’Ihn had three OMTs and PAAVs on perimeter guard duty while the rest of his Soldiers were eating, sleeping, gambling, or comparing battlefield scores. The other platoons were in the field. Sergeant Olafson was leading mop-up strikes against the alien military units that tenaciously kept reforming only to be mowed down in the desert. Sergeant Fuller and Sergeant Chikowski continued our show of overwhelming force against the civilians inside the city, but if the Borrels weren’t shocked and awed by what they’d seen by now, I didn’t think they’d ever be.
Walker examined the chewed end of his cigar. “They bring in reinforcements about as fast as we shoot ‘em. Of course most of M’Ihn’s boys are okay with that. Already got a tally going. I think Rack’s in the lead; claims to have bagged over three thousand. Though that new private, Ling, she’s close on his tail.”
“She’s a hell of a pilot for a rookie.”
“She’s a viper.”
“Is she not performing her job?” I asked.
“No, she’s performing her job all right. She’s just getting too much of a kick out of it for my taste.”
“Yeah,” I mused. “The Academy is really cranking out sadists lately.”
“That damned rebellion on Troy really stoked things up, got everyone thinking like fucking Pfrlanx. Better to kill ten million aliens than risk one of us.”
“I wouldn’t be half surprised to learn the Troy rebellion was staged by the Brass,” I said, throwing static across my net communication log to keep this theory between the two of us.
“What do you mean?” Walker asked, brown eyes trying to probe my thoughts. My comment was more along the lines of something he would expect Jack England to say, not me.
I explained, “The Troy rebellion. It seems like a pretty convenient method for the military hawks to ramp up the pace and brutality of the Great Race. Spread the news that four million human colonists have been viciously killed by aliens and watch the moderate opposition whither away.”
Walker picked a thumb-sized black bug from his earlobe, where it had been attempting to chew its way to a meal. The thing hissed in panic and Walker flicked it into the air. It took wing and fled. “Doesn’t really matter either way, does it?” he said with his typical resignation to our fate, a defense mechanism I desperately wished I could emulate but had little success with. “Whether the massacre was staged or not, it sure primed the rookies to exterminate anything remotely different from them.”
I took a deep drag off the cigar. Our lungs were enhanced to resist noxious gases and weaponized microbes, and the hot tobacco smoke felt just fine. “Then we’ve got dinosaurs like Fuller on the other end of the spectrum,” I said, “risking his whole column for the sake of one alien child.”
“Fuller’s goddamn lucky we only lost one Soldier in there,” Walker growled. “Sometimes his heart gets in the way of his head. You can’t personify aliens, can’t assume they feel the same way about their kids we do about ours.”
“Maybe they do. Maybe they just have more resolve,” I said.
Bringing tanks into an urban zone is always fraught with dangers, but I’d never heard of any species accomplishing what the Borrels did to Third Platoon’s armored column. It had taken Sergeant Chikowski’s boys half a day to excavate Fuller’s buried tanks. At full power their N-guns could have blasted away the rubble pile within minutes, but even an OMT’s armor can’t withstand a full powered blast of neutrons fired at half the speed of light. To minimize the risk of killing one of our own in an overly hasty rescue, the N-guns had been dialed down to a fraction of their power. Sergeant Chikowski had referred to the mission as an archaeological dig, combing through the ruins for delicate fossils. When they’d unearthed the ageing Sergeant Fuller’s OMT, the barrel-chested Chikowski—with a rare show of humor—had broadcast, “Hey, there really are fossils in here.”
Private Katrine L’Sool was the only fatality among the operators. Caught outside her machine when the blast brought down the entire block of buildings, her remains were never located. The other operators had been cut off from the outside world, covered under tons of debris, but they remained unscathed inside their tanks. Their OMTs had power but could not move or communicate with the rest of their platoon or the landing carrier. They had enough air to last indefinitely and training stipulated that they stay put and wait for rescue. Your tank is your friend; stay with your friend. Some ten hours after being buried this advice proved worthy, as one by one Chikowski’s OMTs freed the trapped Soldiers.
The Borrels had not been idle during the ten hours that Fuller’s tanks were immobilized. The four-armed aliens had somehow tunneled up to Corporal M’Kow’s machine from the sewer system, attempting to destroy it with explosives that succeeded in doing little more than flaking the paint.
But they were a cunning species, and I was disturbed to learn they’d succeeded in removing the focusing array from the big corporal’s laser cannon.
Sergeant Fuller and the rest of his operators survived the ordeal physically uninjured, though their pride was sorely wounded. I gave them a few hours at base camp to inspect their machines, lick their psychological wounds, and mourn their fallen sister before sending them back into combat.
Fuller was progressing through the urban streets more cautiously the second time around; he would not be caught in the same trap twice. Currently they were still fifteen blocks from the towering spherical monument marking the city center, moving in a slow but inexorable advance, laying waste to the city as they went.
“I don’t think Fuller’s ever going to live that down. Buried fossil! That had to sting,” Walker laughed.
“He’s out to prove himself since he failed to penetrate the city,” I said.
“I think the last time I failed to penetrate I was fourteen,” Walker chuckled.
The boisterous voices of Soldiers gathered outside the Quonset domes drew my attention. “Sounds like a regular party.”
“Yeah. They scored some fermented juice in town.”
“How’d they manage that?”
Walker shrugged. “Must have gone EVA.”
“We give them perfectly good armored vehicles and they feel the need to go strolling around enemy turf in their flight suits?”
“You know these guys, anything for kicks or a buzz.”
“Crazy, drinking that alien stuff,” I said. I flashed a sly grin. “You suppose there’s enough to go around?”
Walker grinned crookedly, showing too many teeth. “Let’s find out.”
A campfire crackled in a shallow pit, fed by a nearby pile of thorny scrub trees. Sergeant Olafson had gone hunting that morning, bagging dozens of the hefty six-legged rodents thriving on the plain around base camp. A few had made the mistake of wandering into the minefield beyond the Quonset huts, but the others had learned fast and now kept well away. Two of the carcasses revolved slowly on a spit above the flames, releasing an occasional drop of fat to hiss into the embers. The meat was fairly tender, better than the dehydrated/re-hydrated meals the kitchen drones served during combat, and I’d eaten my fill for lunch.
Corporal Hamlin Rack swaggered before a seated audience of ten drunken Soldiers, gesturing wildly, beefy freckled face flushed with passion. “Obviously it would be harder to keep your numbers up with just an MCS,”—he was referring to Mechanized Combat Suits— “but then I’m already up more than five hundred kills over you, Weish,” he asserted.
Corporal Benjamin Weish was a hollow faced, curly-haired veteran of over fifty missions. He got on well with his fellow Soldiers, but there was no love lost between Weish and Rack, particularly not since Rack’s unexpected promotion matched the two men in rank. “Not all of those have been verified yet,” Corporal Weish said, taking a swallow from an oversized yellow cup making its way around the unruly circle. “Oh, they’ll be verified. Don’t worry about that.”
Ling, the diminutive private, was standing a few yards away, obscured in the shadows of a camouflaged Quonset hut. She chimed in, “Corporal Rack is just saying it would be nice to log some time in the suits. It is a waste to have them just sitting in the lockers.” When the cup was offered to her she waved it off with disdain.
“I know what I’m saying,” Rack slurred. He grinned and looked over to Private Aimess. “What was I saying?”
“You were saying how you could take on that whole stinking four-arm city with nothing more than an MCS,” Aimess said, wiping sweat from his bald head.
“I, for one, would pay big money to see you try,” Private Fenmore muttered, firelight shining from his coal black face. Having seen twenty-five missions, Fenmore had spilled enough alien blood to dull his hunger. And he’d graduated from the Academy centuries before the fiasco on Troy stoked the flames of vengeance among the rookies.
“Right,” Rack said, thoughts back on track. “On the one hand there’s a trade off between firepower and mobility. On the other hand ....”
“On the other hand, you’ve got five fingers, Mister Rack,” I interrupted, stepping up to the circle, Walker at my side. “I suggest you do what you can to safeguard those fingers; they’re quite useful for gripping and scratching ....”
“Not to mention picking and probing,” Walker added.
“Or cupping and stroking,” Corporal Weish threw out.
“All of those and more.” I waggled my own fingers. “So why place those fingers in undue risk with nothing more than the flimsy armor of a mechanized suit to protect them when you’ve got these perfectly good machines at your disposal?”
“I didn’t hear you sneak up, Captain,” Rack accused.
“Sneaking up is an important skill for officers,” I said.
Rack rubbed his ruddy jaw and appraised his audience. “Sure, sure. There’s nothing wrong with killing from a distance,” he acknowledged. “Nothing wrong with killing from the sky, safely out of reach of your enemy. Killing’s killing. It’s our duty; it’s what we were made for. It’s just damn impersonal. I’ve got 3,142 kills out here, and not once did I get to look the little heathens in the eyestalk before snuffing ‘em. In an MCS there’s more risk, but .... Well, you just can’t pick up your enemy and tear him in half with a PAAV, can you?”
“Stick to the ‘killing is killing’ mentality, Corporal. It is what we were born and bred for. And it’s supposed to be impersonal. It’s a goddamned job, not a hobby. The Brass invested a lot of time and money in you—all of you—and it’s your duty to safeguard that investment, not risk it for cheap thrills and glory. Now what’s in that cup, Mister Blachard?”
The young private froze with the big yellow cup raised to his lips, looking like prey caught in a searchlight. “Huh? Nothing, Sir,” he croaked, greenish liquid spilling from his lips and running through the cleft of his chin.
“You’re drinking nothing?”
“Well, not––not nothing.”
“Then it is something?”
“So I ask you again, Private, what’s in that cup?”
Blachard stared wildly around the circle for help, but his companions were having too much fun at his expense to offer assistance. Even Private Aimess, his reliable friend and near twin, carefully avoided his gaze. Rack dropped to the sand beside Aimess and softly whistled a dirge.
“It’s, uh, well you see, we, umm …,” Blachard stuttered.
“Cut to the chase, mister,” Walker snapped.
“We found it in the city,” he blurted out.
“We?” I asked.
“I meant that I did. I found it in the city.”
“Nice of you to take the rap for your mates,” I said. “So what exactly did you find?”
“Some kind of drink the aliens fermented from local cactuses. We—I mean, I—tested it for toxins and bacteria. It’s clean.”
“How does it taste?” Walker asked.
“Like piss, Sir. But it packs a hell of a punch.”
This was too much for the rest of the group and they broke out laughing.
“How’s he know what piss tastes like?” Corporal Morag Onike asked in a drunken stage whisper, causing another round of laughter. She was tall and heavily muscled, with spiky blonde hair, a round face, and friendly blue eyes that belied the fact they had witnessed the deaths of countless thousands of aliens through the gun sights of her OMT. Judging by the casual way Onike had her hand on Weish’s leg, she’d had more than a few sips herself. Morag Onike was a twenty-six-year-old OMT operator, but this was only her fifth mission with my division. She was the sole survivor of her former division, the only one pulled alive from the wreckage of her landing carrier after it was hit by antimatter fire in orbit.
“Will this go down on my record?” Blachard asked, still holding the cupful of evidence in one hand.
“That depends on how much hooch is left.”
“A couple of gallons.”
“Then do the right thing and share with your C.O.!” Walker barked.
“Allow me.” Rack leaned over and rooted around in a knapsack. He came out with another plastic cup and an incandescent purple ceramic bottle, roughly a liter in size. Rack stripped off the sealing wax and pried out the cactus plug with his field knife, then poured a full cup.
I took the cup from him and swirled the green liquid around inside; it smelled like pine needles and vinegar. “Every sentient species craves to boost, dull, alter, or escape their reality at times. Every species has its drugs, and as masters of this galaxy it’s our right—nay, our duty—to sample them all. Cheers, ladies.” I threw back a big swallow and the Soldiers roared their approval. I handed the cup to Walker as the alien liquor burned its way towards my gut.
“So this is what piss tastes like,” Walker said, wiping the vile liquid from his thick lips.
Other bottles materialized in the group, and several cups made their way around the circle. Even Sergeant M’Ihn strolled up to join in, surveying the scene with his false easy smile and pretending this was the first he’d seen of the illicit hooch. I found that hard to believe, particularly as his stride was not quite steady, but I didn’t push him on it in front of his men.
When the dark haired, flat-nosed sergeant passed me a cup, I asked, “I trust your boys are as well supplied with debuzz as they are with contraband?” Debuzz is a fast acting substance, part chemical antidote and part digestible nano-tech, able to nullify the effects of alcohol and most known drugs within minutes of ingestion. Without it I could never have permitted the cactus booze. With it I was able to indulge a little myself, knowing I could regain sobriety at any time.
“You know I’d never take anyone into combat impaired, Captain.” In fact I knew quite the opposite, but I let that one slide, too.
“That should get Blachard off the hook all the time,” Aimess said. “I’m up sixty-eight kills over you, ass-wipe,” Blachard retorted. “Only because you fried that bus.”
“That was a nice one, eh?” He looked up at Walker and elaborated. “My N-gun would’ve obliterated it, so I cooked the fuel tanks with a low powered laser sweep and fwoosh, instant barbecue.”
“Yeah, it cracked me up, bro. They ran from that bus like little four-armed torches. Definitely filing that footage away as a keeper.” Aimess laughed, stomping his boots in the sand.
“Not to interrupt,” I said, trying to conceal my revulsion, “but you have four hours before you’re back on duty. Make sure to take a double dose of debuzz at least thirty minutes prior to lift off.”
“Yes, Sir,” the group slurred.
“And not to sound ungrateful, but the next time one of you goes EVA for souvenirs or booze in hostile territory you’ll be spending your downtime cleaning latrines with a toothbrush.”
“Yes, Sir,” they all slurred again.