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. After four days of combat operations, it is clear that the Borrel are invariably choosing suicide over surrender. Those few Borrel who are captured would rather kill themselves rather than try to communicate. The A.C.P. soldiers are growing uncomfortable in their roles as butchers.
An immense explosion from the Borrel city echoed across the desert. Everyone looked up, but the fireball was already dissipating by the time the sound reached us. I patched into Sergeant Olafson for a report.
“Found one of their ammo dumps. Hope it didn’t wake you,” he drawled, swinging his PAAV around to inspect the massive crater left behind.
“Woke this whole part of the world,” I said. “Any change out there?”
“Negative. They’re still transporting in new cannon fodder by the thousands.”
“Alright, Sergeant. Carry on.”
Walker was studying the luminous alien bottle, turning it over and over in his big hands. One side was engraved with some sort of hieroglyphic characters and the other side was etched with a picture of a stubby cactus, presumably of the type the liquor was distilled from. “Can you read this?” he asked me.
I glanced at the characters and shook my head. “Not a word. I’ll get with Major T’lak, see if she has the local alphabet deciphered yet.”
“For all we know this is what they feed their pets,” Walker suggested.
“Lucky pets,” Sergeant M’Ihn said, smiling and filling another cup.
Private Ling C’Lahm had apparently seen enough. “Really, Captain,” she interjected, stepping out of the shadows. “I don’t see why we need so much downtime when all we do is lay about drinking and making small talk.”
“I haven’t heard any talk from you, small or otherwise,” Rack slurred, staring up at her little breasts poking from her black uniform.
“Nor will you,” she dismissed icily, brown eyes narrowing with distaste. “Captain, it takes fifteen minutes to get from the city to base camp and fifteen minutes to return just so we can sit in the dirt for five hours and pretend we’re civvies at summer camp.” She stared longingly at the burning city. “We should be in there right now settling the score for Private L’Sool, making the four-arms pay.”
“You in some kind of hurry, Private?” I asked.
“Don’t we have a mission to accomplish, Sir?”
“Christ the Second, girl!” Finley Walker barked loud enough to make her flinch. “Don’t you get it? Your whole life is a mission. As soon as we’re done here we’ll ship off somewhere else and it’ll be the same goddamned mission all over again. Maybe it’ll be warmer or colder, or the gravity will be a little heavier or lighter. Maybe they’ll nuke your LZ and you’ll spend the entire mission in a radiation suit, eating, sleeping and crapping in it. Or maybe you get to fight for three months on some airless moon because the Brass decides it wants some of the aliens who’ve dug into the ore mines taken alive. Maybe these aliens will be bigger or smaller, or more advanced than Borrels or less, or maybe we get really lucky and they’ll not only be happy to see us but they’ll be hot to boot, and all they want to do is fuck the visitors from outer space all day long!”
“Like Trangali,” I offered.
Walker actually blushed, his lopsided grin speaking volumes. “We gave a whole new meaning to embracing alien culture on that world,” he chuckled. “A warm, fuzzy, limber, hermaphroditic, horny little alien culture. Something there for everyone!”
The Soldiers sitting around the circle who’d been on Trangali chuckled in drunken recollection. Walker rubbed his big jaw, remembered he had been delivering a tirade, and stared at the scowling Ling. “My point is you’ve got fifty-five years of back-to-back missions left, young private. On worlds like this where the alien technology is archaic and base camp is relatively safe, there’s nothing wrong with taking a little time to be yourself.”
Through clenched teeth Ling said, “If I were to take time to be myself, I would be out there right now eradicating the alien resistance with every tool at my disposal. I was disturbed to note Aimess and Blachard, firelight glimmering off their identical bald heads, nodding their agreement.
“Jesus the First, the new chick’s a downer,” Onike hissed as she licked cactus juice from Weish’s armored shoulder.
“Now you’re bringing down your comrades,” I chastised. “Part of my job involves maintaining morale, Private C’Lahm. With time you might understand that. If you wish to report non-regulation activities in your mission summary files you are of course free to do so.” Though I sincerely hoped she wouldn’t. The last thing any captain needs is the spooks at the Staging Areas studying his field methods under a microscope. “You can spend your downtime any way you see fit. If you wish to run combat sims for five hours, that would be quite commendable.”
“And twisted,” Onike snorted.
Ling realized she’d overreached herself and smiled thinly. If looks could kill, her narrow eyes would have vaporized Onike where she sat. “I only want to do my duty,” she said.
“Then allow yourself to be human. We’re not machines. You wind yourself too tightly, there’s no way you’ll keep ticking for fifty-five years,” Walker said, displaying his admirable resignation to a life he had not chosen, a life he did not desire, but a life he would nonetheless live to the fullest of his abilities.
“Listen to the man,” Sergeant M’Ihn instructed. “A little relaxed time never hurt anyone, nor did a little alien hooch.”
Ling stared at him, thin smile frozen on her lips, and retreated into the air conditioning of a nearby Quonset hut without another word.
“Except those purple spores Private D’Mar passed around after the Wyke campaign,” Walker mentioned.
“You were a corporal then. It’s not like I could have ordered you to take them,” I said, relighting the stub of my cigar with the boot laser.
“How is it he made corporal first but now you’re his captain?” Weish asked me.
“Excellence always has a way of shining through and being recognized,” I said.
Walker belched loudly. “Yeah, and some people are just better at getting their tongues way up inside their CO’s ass cracks than others.”
I puffed a cloud of sweet smoke into the night. “The first lick’s the worst. It’s not so bad once you get used to the taste.”
“I wasn’t around for the Wyke campaign,” Corporal Onike slurred. “I heard Wykes are ugly fuckers. That true?”
Walker spat a mouthful of liquor into the flames, sending off a small fireball. “They’re nine foot tall bipeds, overgrown dried out corpses, hairless, with flaking reptilian skin, sunken black eyes, and five-fingered hands. They spend most of the time moving like sloths, but are capable of bursts of speed even we can’t match. Instead of liquid blood, what passes through their version of veins is a dark, gelatinous goop capable of regenerating severed limbs in time. The only way to kill a Wyke, short of total obliteration, is to cut off its head, and even that won’t always do the trick.”
“They sound cute. What’s their world like?” Corporal Weish asked, one hand kneading Onike’s muscular thigh.
“Wyke Prime has twice the gravity of Earth,” I said. “The atmosphere’s equivalent to what you’d find eighteen thousand feet above sea level. A less than ideal combination for the settlers, who needed months to acclimate, build up muscle tissue and red blood cells. We were able to adapt much faster, but I couldn’t help despising a world where I weighed 550 pounds.”
“Like Retreat,” Fenmore grunted.
“The light at the end of our tunnel,” Onike slurred.
Sergeant M’Ihn took another swallow of cactus liquor. “Wyke Prime made this desert seem cool in comparison. It’s too damn close to its sun,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s a superlative craphole and should never have been settled by humans in the first place,” I agreed. “There are some mineral-rich asteroid belts in the solar system, and the planet’s location was considered strategic—a Staging Area has since been built on its largest moon—but the only reason the Brass really wanted Wyke Prime was so the Pfrlanx couldn’t have it. Those bug-eyed fuckers can thrive on worlds with thinner air and heavier G than Wyke Prime. The Pfrlanx would have liked that craphole just fine, but we got there first.”
“It explains why Wyke’s colonists are all hooked on those spores these days,” M’Ihn said. “You could blissfully live in a latrine with a steady supply of purple spores.”
“Prancing purple petals providing powerful passionate princely parades,” Walker chanted, dancing in place and raising a little dust storm.
“One of the only substances against which debuzz proved completely impotent,” I said, grinning at my big lieutenant’s antics. “Once you ingest some—and it doesn’t take more than a single grain to set you flying—there’s nothing to do but let it run its course, usually entailing the better part of five days.”
“There are a lot of rumors about these purple spores,” Onike said, picking barbecued meat from between her front teeth with a dried twig.
“And rumors are all they’ll ever be. Unfortunately there was a major net log failure among our entire division.” I eased down into the sand beside the fire, grabbing one of the cups making its way around the circle and taking a sip.
“I heard those zombies were pretty tough,” Hamlin Rack said. “I sure would have liked to slag some of them myself.”
“They were tough,” I said. “They had high-end weapons, including focused lasers that surpassed our own at that time. Their ground vehicles were heavily armored, fast, and could operate above or beneath water. They possessed nuclear fission and advanced computers, but they never mastered—or even imagined—the concept of flight. The crushing combination of thin atmosphere and heavy gravity left their world bereft of birds or flying insects. Even the local plants only have thin needles, nothing which can catch the air and float.
“But even without an air force they were formidable. Their infantry were fearless, so long as they had a leader to follow. Every Wyke squad had its own leader, with these leaders in turn dependent on their own commander, and so on up the chain to their King. Every single Wyke was connected to every other one through a unique network of extrasensory connections, part chemical, part electromagnetic. This allowed them to act both individually or as one immense organism with billions of individual components.
“As effective as this was for them in the early days of our campaign, the need for a leader was a weakness we learned to exploit in time. Take out the top dog in any of their packs, and the rest would mill around in confusion. Once we discovered all we had to do was eliminate their King to get the entire populace to bow to us, the chase was on to see who could root him out first.”
My cigar had gone out again. It was so short now that if I tried lighting it with the little laser I probably would burn my nose off, so I tossed it into the flames.
“Casualties ran high through weeks of relentless battles until someone got a fix on their King’s location, beneath the methane swamps ringing the planet’s equator,” I said.
“And none too soon for us,” Walker rumbled. “Our platoon had been dispatched to search through Wyke villages for any trace of their King. Somehow we stumbled into a hornet’s nest in this tiny town and found ourselves under fire from hundreds of their elite warriors. Our AX-2s were blown from the sky and our tanks immobilized. About twenty of us holed up in a trench behind this mud wall and did our best to hold them off with hand weapons until reinforcements could bail us out.”
“We dug in and it got ugly,” I said.
“Man, did it get ugly,” Walker agreed. “We lost both our sergeants and six other Soldiers in the first hour. Suddenly I found myself in command. I knew I was going to have to give the order to make a run for it, abandon our dead to the enemy, but that’s not an easy order to give, so I kept waiting.”
“And we kept taking casualties,” I said.
“Right when I knew we couldn’t hold out much longer, knew that if we stayed we’d all be slaughtered, the Wyke forces stopped firing. They left their cover and started milling around, stupefied.”
“A division from the 307th had gotten the King. They cut his head off with a laser, and figured that was it,” I said. I leaned forward for dramatic effect. All eyes were on me. “But then one of the royal guards cut his own head off and another guard took the King’s head and stuck it on top of the dead guard’s shoulders. The King’s head started to mesh with the guard’s neck. The King was still unconscious but very much alive.”
Blachard, obviously impressed, murmured, “Damn. Those are some tough sons of bitches.”
“Toughest aliens I’ve ever fought,” Walker asserted. “But the boys from the 307th weren’t about to back off. They opened up with everything they had, incinerating the King’s body and head, and for good measure we jettisoned them into space far from his home world.”
“Yay,” Onike cheered, pretending to wave an invisible flag.
“So what about the magic purple spores?” Fenmore asked, his teeth a slash of white inside his dark face.
“I happened on those by accident when an explosion threw me into a whole patch of them,” I said. “When the Wykes stopped firing and began milling around in a daze, I was just starting to feel the first effects.”
“But not the last,” Walker added.
“Oh no. And it was so ... unique, so ... out of body, I had to share it.”
“I swear I spoke with God,” Walker said. “And half his angels, and I think the devil put in an appearance too. And holy crap, that fungus made us all horny!”
“At one point I think I fucked a tree,” Sergeant M’Ihn said, and the group burst out laughing. He looked around the circle, nonplussed. “What? I’m serious.” Of course this only brought on more laughter.
“The problem was it just kept going, and debuzz had no damn effect. When our two days of victory celebrations were up and our major ordered us to ship out, we were still completely out of our heads,” I said.
“It got pretty bad,” Walker said. “I was still tripping when I got into my cryo coffin, still horny as hell, and only when the lid came down did I realize the spores make you claustrophobic too.”
“Captain T’Nor had his hands full,” I laughed. “What a scene! Of course this is all unsubstantiated rumor, you understand?” “Of course,” everyone slurred.
* * *
I left M’Ihn’s increasingly drunken Soldiers and stepped back into the cool, antiseptic atmosphere inside the carrier. I rode an elevator to the top deck where Kat and Jack were monitoring the other platoons’ progress up on the bridge. Neither of them looked happy when I arrived.
“Status report?” I asked.
“The slaughter continues unabated,” Kat said. “Fuller’s platoon was just attacked by five thousand Borrel civilians wielding gasoline bombs. He neutralized the threat.”
Kat’s emerald eyes glistened with emotion. “Chikowski’s men were engaged by a group of stone throwing Borrel youths. They did not respond to warning shots or Chikowski’s broadcast demands that they stand down. When they attempted to board the OMTs, they were eliminated.”
“War is a beautiful thing,” Jack grumbled.
“It’ll end soon,” I said with more conviction than I felt.
“Let’s hope so,” Jack said, sniffing my breath suspiciously. “Hey, I shared my cognac with you.”
“M’Ihn’s clowns scored some cactus juice. Plenty left if you want a taste.”
“Just what the doctor ordered. Although after the day I’ve had I may need more than a taste.” Jack slid back from his control boards.
“Kat, why don’t you join him. I’ve got the bridge.”
When they left I called Captain Zandy T’Ithe. Her hologram head flickered to life on my bridge. Her black hair looked as if she’d slept on it and her strained expression showed the toll her responsibility in this massacre was taking. She smiled warmly when she saw me, melting away some of the strain. It had been two years since we’d slept together, celebrating our victory over the Tunuhctah by drinking to excess and coupling madly in the lush green fields that covered their world, but the memories remained fresh.
“Zandy, you’re looking fit,” I said.
“Oh, please,” she dismissed. “What can I do for you, Brink?”
“I’ve been trying to brainstorm ideas to put a clean end to this thing. Wondering if you were having any more luck than us.”
Zandy frowned. “None, I’m afraid. The few prisoners we’ve managed to keep alive refuse to speak to us and when afforded half a chance try to commit suicide. We’ve decimated their two largest cities on this continent and yet the aliens show no signs of backing down.”
“How are your men handling it?”
“Most of them hate it, but a few of the youngsters are enjoying every minute. Were we that cruel at their age?”
I threw static across the line before continuing. “No. We were young and aggressive, eager to prove ourselves and stand against the Pfrlanx, but we were never sadistic about it. I was thinking the Brass could be manipulating the rebellion on Troy for their own ends, using it to weed out the more diplomatic elements of the Council and change the training profiles at the Academy. I think they’ve decided that Soldiers with a conscience are not such a good thing when the Great Race is taking us further and further from their immediate reach.”
Zandy’s eyes narrowed and her holographic smile took on a forced look. “Yes. Forty years out of their reach. Half a lifetime, Brink.”
I stared at her hologram head, trying to read her mind. The genocide was getting to us all.
Captain Zandy T’Ithe sighed. “I’m beginning to fear the only way to pacify this world is to slaughter every last Borrel.”
“Can we do that?”
“We have the technology.”
Zandy’s expression was haunted. “I mean us; you and me. Can we do that?”
“I don’t know. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that. Christ the Second, it never has before.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” she said.
“We’ll find a better way,” I promised.
She smiled hopefully. “Thanks, Brink. I have to run. Will we see each other when this one’s over?”
* * *
Just before dawn, Jack found me pacing the maze of corridors along the carrier’s lower decks. He joined me without comment, walking beside me, boots clanging on the alloy floor. He smelled strongly of the vile Borrel liquor, but he must have taken a dose of debuzz because his stride was steady.
“I don’t get it. Something’s wrong here,” I said at length. “I know they can understand us. Why do they refuse to communicate?”
Jack shook his head and offered, “They’re stubborn bastards.”
“No. It’s more than that. They never even tried to speak to us. From the beginning it’s …. It’s almost as if they were expecting us.”
“How could they have been expecting us?”
“I don’t know, Jack, but if we can’t get them to surrender we won’t be able to hand over the reins to W’a’s peacekeepers. They could never handle this mess. And the Borrels are determined to die rather than give an inch. If I can’t come up with something better, we’re going to end up killing them all.”
Jack’s communication icon flickered offline. “So fuck the peacekeepers. Maybe we just carve out a little niche for ourselves. I’ve got my eye on this island a few hundred miles north of here. It’d be easy to defend.”
“Plenty of fish?”
“You know it,” Jack said.
“Forty years, huh?” I said wistfully, knowing it was just a pipe dream.
“You can make it happen, Brink.”
“Jack, what you’re suggesting is ....”
“Something entirely different! Christ the Second, we’ve been using the same tactics for 1200 years. Shock and awe. Overwhelm and conquer. Have you ever wondered if there might not be a better way?”
Jack’s dark gaze crackled with intensity. “Like instead of showing up with enough firepower to blast their world into the next galaxy and demanding an unconditional surrender in exchange for the honor of joining our Empire as a subordinate species, maybe we show up with open arms in a defenseless diplomatic vessel. Instead of making demands we make requests, ask them for their friendship.”
“And what if they turn on the unarmed vessel, kill all the crew?”
“Then we lose some people. What’s the proper trade off when it comes to them versus us? Ten to one? A thousand to one? Ten million?”
“Shit, Jack, I’ve fought some species where I wouldn’t trade one of my men for their entire race.”
“Yeah, but then there’s others where a single alien might be worth the life of every Soldier in our battalion. We don’t know until we sit down with them, but by the time we sit down and talk we’ve usually killed millions already.” He shifted gears and asked, “Do you know how much a military venture like this costs the Empire?”
“More than we’ll ever see.”
“Right. So what if, instead of spending that money on PAAVs, OMTs, Soldiers, and munitions, we pumped all of it into goodwill? What if we showed up with a fleet of cargo ships and showered every new species with gifts, with cutting edge technology and all our vast stores of knowledge. We could cure their diseases, build roads, schools, and spaceports, feed their starving, and embrace them as different but equal species. Only then will we have true allies to stand with us against the Pfrlanx. Only then will we be certain to avoid rebellions like the slaughter on Troy.”
“You’re asking for more than I can deliver,” I sighed. “I’m a Soldier, not a politician. Same as you. We can’t change any of this.”
“Change begins with one step. With one world.”
“Jesus the First, I know that, Jack. But it won’t start here. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry for me. I’m just one man.” He flashed a live image of the flaming capital city to my net. “Be sorry for them.”
Jack placed his hand on my shoulder. “The sun’s about to rise. Come watch it with me.”
Outside it was cool and dry. The light breeze felt good on my exposed face. The sun slid into view, chasing off the stars and dimming the planet’s sole small moon, all while the sounds of Armageddon rolled across the plains uninterrupted.
Fuller had managed to punch his column straight to the spherical monument at the city center last night, keeping his tanks spread out and moving fast, though this in no way implied the city had fallen under our control.
As we stepped into one of the Quonset huts for coffee, Fuller patched through to my comm. The huge sergeant was generally not an excitable man, so his animated tone surprised me. “Captain, I’m getting some strange readings below ground here.”
“Strange how, Sergeant?”
“Well, Sir, the Borrels had set up their defenses around the base of the monument. When we took them out the whole damn sphere came crashing down. Opened a fissure that runs four hundred yards deep. There’re some large rooms hewn out of the rock down there, rooms we couldn’t get a reading on before. Looks like we stumbled onto some kind of advanced weapons factory.”
He paused so I prompted him, “Yeah? That’s good, but what’s so strange about it? We knew they had to be building their weapons somewhere.” I stirred sugar into my coffee.
“Maybe it’s an anomalous reading, but before my probe was destroyed it indicated the presence of high-end equipment down there. Equipment made from materials not found on this world.”
“Off-world equipment?” I demanded, putting down the coffee cup.
“Yes, Sir, and .... Well, I’m no expert, but I think it’s Pfrlanx.”