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. Although their weapons are no match for the A.C.P., the Borrel are invariably choosing suicide over surrender. The veteran A.C.P. soldiers are uncomfortable with their roles as butchers, but the younger soldiers seem to be enjoying the slaughter.
A Borrel weapons factory is discovered, and contains what appears to be a piece of equipment made with material not found on that world. It may even be Pfrlanx.
“What is Pfrlanx technology doing here?” Saskia T’lak’s hologram demanded, leaning forward in her big padded chair as if she could actually step onto my bridge. Jack, Kat, and Walker had joined me in the narrow command center, and with Saskia’s giant head floating between us there wasn’t much room to breathe.
Walker stood at a comm, coordinating with Sergeant Fuller, setting up a defensive perimeter around the shattered marble monument. Fuller had sent another probe into the chasm but it was destroyed before getting halfway to the bottom.
Jack and Kat were analyzing what little data we had gotten from the destroyed probe. We would have been better off with a mining probe than the machines Fuller had at his disposal—constructed for military surveillance, not determining precise material compositions. The data stream we’d received was sketchy, inconclusive stuff.
“I’m not entirely sure yet what we’re looking at, Major. We’re relying on data from a single sensor sweep before the probe was disabled by hostile fire,” I said. “From what we’ve been able to piece together the Borrels have a sophisticated weapons lab dug in 1,300 feet below street level. There are no radiation or antimatter telltales, but that leaves a lot of possibilities. Whatever they’re developing is beyond anything we’ve seen here to date. The materials were mined from this world and forged locally, but they’re being used in sophisticated patterns—patterns which closely resemble Pfrlanx weapons templates.”
“Coincidence?” Saskia T’lak asked hopefully.
“Unlikely,” Kat D’Hing replied. “There’s an inexplicable blip on the data stream. It could be an anomaly, but it indicates the presence of some 200 kilograms of a bubble-alloy material that’s identical to the plastite composites used in Pfrlanx spacecraft.”
“This is unprecedented.” Saskia ran a hand through her blonde, fire retardant hair. “If the Pfrlanx got here first, where are they? Why didn’t they leave a deed beacon?”
“Maybe they did. Maybe the Borrels defeated them,” Jack offered. Saskia’s giant hologram head examined Jack, her blue eyes thoughtful. “I had considered that, Lieutenant England,” she admitted. “But there’s nothing the Borrels have shown us that could come close to defeating a Pfrlanx invasion force. And Pfrlanx prefer to annihilate their enemies from space where the Borrels couldn’t touch them.” Her gaze returned to me. “What’s the status on that site?”
“It’s hot,” I said. “I have a platoon guarding surface access, but gods only know what type of warrens the Borrels dug down there. They might be moving the entire works as we speak.”
Saskia realized she was still tugging her hair, and her hand disappeared from the holo image. “I want you to personally lead a team down there ASAP, Captain D’Mar. I want some solid answers, and I want them yesterday. I’ll have to report this to Admiral W’a, see if he can shed any light on this.”
My grimace was involuntary. The Navy did not make a habit of sharing intelligence with ACP Soldiers, whether they were majors or privates. Admiral W’a lived his life in real time; he never had and never would see the inside of a cryo coffin. He was the collector and keeper of the Great Race’s secrets, disseminating disinformation one minute only to pass on the naked truth the next, whatever he felt served the Human Empire’s purpose best. Though even Admiral W’a was only a Navy tool, he was still our puppet master, and puppet masters rarely bother telling their marionettes why they’re pulling on certain strings, rarely bother telling them when they’re about to be asked to dance through the fire.
“If Admiral W’a can shed any light on this he won’t. If he can’t ...,” I trailed off.
“I’ll strike that from the record,” Saskia said. “I’ll also strike my tacit agreement with your assessment. Get your mission rolling pronto, Captain, and if for any reason the Admiral wants you to break off before you’ve got some answers for me, well, I imagine communications can get a bit dicey below ground.”
“I imagine so.”
“Good luck,” she said and signed off.
* * *
If anything happened to me a quarter mile below the surface of New Columbia, Jack England would receive a temporary field promotion to captain and take command of my division. Despite the accompanying bump in pay grade, he did not seem overly thrilled with this prospect.
“You’re overdue for promotion anyway,” I told him. I relinquished my command chair and made an elaborate show of sweeping it off, before heading from the bridge to the elevator waiting at the end of the narrow corridor.
“This isn’t how I want to make captain,” Jack called after me.
“Be careful down there, Brink!” Kat yelled.
“I’ll be back for dinner,” I promised as the elevator doors closed.
The elevator deposited me outside the carrier’s armory and I jogged inside, wasting no time shedding my jumpsuit and stepping into an empty Mechanized Combat Suit. The dull brown carapace sealed around me, the inside filling with impact resistant foam that molded itself to my body. Thousands of tiny sensors automatically patched into my nerve endings, each connecting with its own servos, enabling the suit to move as an extension of myself. The boots were five-toed, providing superior stability and climbing capabilities. The helmet went on last, sealing in place with a hiss. It provided unfettered peripheral vision as well as a rearview camera, and contained a number of redundant systems in case my net or other implants failed, including a heads-up display and night vision capabilities.
I wiggled my fingers and toes and ran a quick systems check; everything was working perfectly. I could now run 80 miles per hour, leap 30 feet straight up, and lift 2,000 pounds over my head—though admittedly not all at the same time. My left arm sprouted a retractable high-output laser. My right arm contained a compact machine-pistol, able to fire 100 miniature concussion rounds per second. The ammo pouch buried inside the suit contained 50,000 rounds, enough for eight minutes of sustained fire.
A service-bot exited the black maw of the hangar into searing morning sunlight, towing my PAAV behind it. I followed and was met by a brisk easterly wind carrying the odor of burning city, an acrid oily amalgam, the smell of humanity’s intergalactic expansion. It was a smell I had grown all too familiar with these past sixteen years.
Sergeant M’Ihn’s platoon, fully sober after their doses of debuzz, had donned their Mechanized Combat Suits and stood at attention beside their neatly ordered war machines. Goggle-eyed inside their heavy armor, they looked more alien than human. Walker had just finished briefing them and I wasted no more time. “Okay, girls. You wanted to try out the new suits; here’s your chance. Let’s roll.”
It was a snug fit wearing the bulky MCS in the PAAV’s cockpit, but I managed to squeeze in. When the canopy sealed above my head I hit the lift boosters and rocketed straight up at 6 gees to an altitude of 3,000 feet. Then I cut the power and dropped like a stone back to 100 feet, where I brought the machine to a steady hover. “This baby’s got some balls,” I said approvingly.
Sergeant M’Ihn informed me, “Zero to mach speed and back to zero again in under four seconds.” He sounded like some used aircar dealer.
The rest of the PAAVs took off more sedately and I dropped my bird into formation behind M’Ihn, shadowing the OMTs that left rooster tails of dust billowing in their wake as they made their way to the city.
“How come when I pull stunts like that I get reprimanded?” Hamlin Rack complained over the comm.
“No one likes a whiner,” Corporal Weish shot back.
“Bend over, Weish, I’ll give you something to whine about,” Rack snapped.
Ignoring their antics, I linked to Sergeant Fuller for a status report on the ground.
“Things just calmed down,” the big man growled. “Some Borrel squads assaulted our position five minutes ago. We eliminated the bulk of them and drove the rest back into the next block. Most of my boys are starting to feel damn sick about what we’re doing here, Captain.”
“They’ve got a job to do. As do you, Sergeant,” I reminded him.
I couldn’t afford to share my old friend’s pain just then. “Can you hold your position there?”
“It’s no real problem to hold our position, but there’s some activity happening 400 meters below I can’t do anything about.”
“I’m picking up numerous mobile signatures in the tunnels.”
“Okay. Hang tight. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” The PAAVs could have been there in no time, but we were limited by the lumbering OMTs beneath us, topped out at 200 mph.
Viewed from 500 feet up, the utter devastation unleashed on the city brought a knot to my gut. I’d spent the past four days observing the area with spy-sats or through real-time links to my Soldiers’ optics, but it was different seeing it with my own eyes. Just four days ago this had been a prosperous, orderly metropolis; now it lay in ruins. Buildings had crumbled into heaps; streets were torn and cratered; thousands of groundcars were nothing more than molten lumps. And for what? Why did they refuse to surrender or even talk to us? What could they possibly gain from fighting on?
We found Fuller’s OMTs spread in a loose circle around the shattered spherical monument, gun turrets sweeping in search of targets. His PAAVs buzzed overhead like angry hornets, occasionally releasing blasts of condensed neutrons to incinerate new waves of encroaching Borrels.
I broke formation and circled the area, taking in the dark, jagged gash in the earth that dropped straight down for 1,300 feet. Up top it was big enough to drive a tank into, but according to my sensors it narrowed to a tight eight feet in diameter further down. I could just make out the wreckage of a freight elevator amid the rubble piled at the bottom. This chasm, and the access it provided to a network of tunnels beneath, had been cleverly concealed by the base of the spherical, golf ball-like monument. The polished marble globe had been the better part of 400 feet around before its destruction, pocked with indentations but otherwise featureless. There wasn’t much left of it now that couldn’t be carted away in a wheelbarrow.
I dropped my PAAV by Fuller’s OMT, directly beside the chasm. My canopy recessed into the hull and I leapt from the cockpit, performing a showy somersault in midair before landing lithely on the blistered pavement, servo-enhanced toes curling to grip the rubble. Behind me the canopy resealed; if anyone tried to access it without the proper code, the ensuing explosion would take out half a city block.
“No one likes a show off,” Private Blachard whispered to Aimess as they exited their OMTs. Realizing I’d overheard he quickly added, “Except, of course, me, Sir. Nice moves!”
I squatted behind the shelter offered by Fuller’s OMT. The MCS would protect me from most Borrel hand weapons, but I wouldn’t want to put it to the test with a direct hit from their heavier ordnance.
Hundreds of dead Borrels littered the area, some recognizable, most reduced to pieces. Burned bodies smell the same wherever you go, and whether they’re carbon-based or silicon-based life forms, the stink of charred death clings inside your nose.
The husks of two dozen Borrel armored trucks were scattered around the periphery, rubber-like tires burning black soot. There were even the remains of two attack helicopters crumpled atop the broken monument. They’d fought hard to protect the heart of their city, but their efforts were all in vain.
The staccato sound of gunfire, punctuated by mortars and heavy artillery, crackled through the streets. A few miles south of our position Sergeant Chikowski had his hands full with hordes of suicidal aliens, all intent on fighting to the bitter end. At sunrise the Borrels had evacuated a large convoy of their wounded from the neighborhoods currently under assault, and Chikowski had allowed the convoy to pass. After the ambulance buses disappeared underground the uninjured Borrels escorting the convoy had returned with reinforcements, only to be slaughtered by Chikowski’s platoon.
An emergency dispatch icon winked before my right eye, imprinted with Major T’lak’s personal insignia. I used my left eye to click onto the icon and scrolled through the text. Urgent. Admiral W’a has ordered the immediate orbital bombardment of the tunnel network beneath the city center. Pull your Soldiers out and notify me the instant the area is clear.
I sub-vocalized a quick reply and sent it as a text message. New directive received. Our current location is deep within the enemy tunnel network. Falling back now. Will alert command pod once area is clear. Estimate forty-five minutes. So, Admiral W’a did know something about what was buried under our feet, and whatever it was he preferred it stay buried.
Sergeant M’Ihn hopped out of his tank and jogged across the broken ground to where I sheltered against Fuller’s OMT. He glanced over the lip of the dark tear in the ground and whistled. “Looks like a giant pussy.”
“Jesus the First, who’ve you been fucking?” Fuller asked from inside his tank.
“My mother was a glass tube. You could get a nasty cut trying to fuck her.”
I cut their banter short. “Time’s wasting. Fuller, this entrance is our only sure exit from the bowels of this planet, and we’d all like to see daylight again.”
“You can count on Third Platoon, Captain.”
“I guess I don’t have to tell you what it’s like to be buried beneath this city,” I added for Fuller’s benefit.
“The jokes just keep coming,” Fuller growled good-naturedly.
“Hey, let’s not piss off the man guarding our backs,” M’Ihn joked.
“Good point,” I said. “Sorry, old man. Okay, listen up. When we drop down I want Sergeant Sherman hovering over the fissure. He can fry anything that moves. Keep him up there until we’re ready to pull out. He can handle our extraction. When I give the signal, he’ll tractor us out.”
“You got that, Davie?” Fuller asked over his communicator.
“Roger all of that, Sir. I’m on it,” Davie said from up in his PAAV.
“M’Ihn, that second probe was destroyed before it got halfway to the bottom of this hole. The Borrels have heavy machine gun emplacements scattered along the entire length of the shaft. These suits will go a long way to protecting us, but I don’t want to put them to the test with a sustained barrage of armor piercing rounds.”
“Glad to hear it,” M’Ihn said.
“With that in mind, we’ll freefall in, not give them any easy targets to shoot at. The shaft narrows at the bottom so we’ll drop one at a time, two seconds between drops. Fifty men, one hundred seconds.”
M’Ihn glanced into the crevasse and whistled again. “Long way down.”
“I thought all your boys were adrenaline junkies.”
“They are. I’m not.”
“It’s the safest way to do it. Any questions?”
“If I was more flexible I’d tuck my head between my legs so I could kiss my ass goodbye.”
“That’s not a question.”
“Then how about, could you help me tuck my head between my legs so I can kiss my ass goodbye?”
* * *
The Soldiers lined up in front of the dark tear in the alien world, partly tuned into my briefing, partly contemplating the long drop down. The jovial, drunken group from an hour ago was gone. They were strictly business now, eager for action, ready for anything the Borrels might throw our way. Fuller’s OMTs surrounded us on all sides while his PAAVs patrolled overhead. Inside the suit my palms were moist and my mouth was dry. It felt like a long time since I’d seen any action firsthand.
“We’re looking at nine seconds of freefall,” I instructed after telling them what little I knew about the layout of the tunnel network beneath our feet. “After you jump, magnetize your shell to maximum. It’ll keep you from bouncing off the walls and provide a ten foot magnetic cushion to soften the impact at the bottom.”
“Ten feet of rapid deceleration,” M’Ihn elaborated.
“So we’ll be landing like feathers then?” Corporal Morag Onike joked.
“Yeah, like fucking lead feathers,” Hamlin Rack said.
“Listen up!” M’Ihn snapped.
“We’ll be hitting hard,” I continued. “Land on your feet, legs together, drop and roll. You’ll have just two seconds to get out of the way before the next man hits. You might take fire on the way down; don’t be shy about shooting back.” I examined the goggle-eyed, armored group surrounding me, practically chomping at the bit to get into some action and unlikely to be shy about shooting anything. Private Ling C’Lahm was just about dancing in place, machine-pistol snapping in and out of its recess in the arm of her MCS. “We’re all going in together and we’re all coming out together. All right! Are you ready?”
“Yes, Sir!” they shouted.
Against Sergeant M’Ihn’s objections I dropped in first; he would bring up the rear. I stepped up to the abyss, took a deep breath and tried to think of something snappy to say. “The first step’s a doozey,” I finally said and dove headlong into the dark.
Gravity wrenched me down the black shaft. As the first Borrel machine-gunners opened fire from their hidden niches, I only wished it would pull me faster. Large caliber slugs peppered my MCS and ricocheted wildly off the stone walls. The inertia of the big slugs spun me around and drove me in the opposite direction, towards the jagged sides, but magnetic forces repelled me back to the center of the shaft. The impact of the bullets bruised my flesh through the protective foam, but the armor held true.
Spinning wildly and plummeting downwards, I returned fire with both hands. My laser cut two Borrel snipers in half and the miniature concussion rounds streaming from my machine-pistol blew another one to shreds. From high above, Davie disintegrated a forth sniper with a precision neutron blast from his hovering PAAV.
“Nice shot, Sergeant,” I complimented.
“All in a day’s work,” Davie said modestly.
It was an interminable nine seconds but at last the ground raced to meet me from below. During the final ten feet, magnetic repulsion checked my momentum like a reverse bungee chord. I managed to swing my feet beneath me for the jarring landing, then rolled clear and clicked off my magnetic field just before Corporal Weish thumped to the ground beside me.
Directly overhead, the shaft leading to the surface was only eight feet wide; but it had dropped us into a lofty cavern fifty yards long with an arched ceiling twenty feet high. My eyes were augmented to see with minimal lighting, and with the MCS goggles providing redundant technology, the darkest corners of the cavern were clearly visible. The walls here were smooth and well crafted, dotted with inset lighting fixtures that were all currently turned off. The crumpled freight elevator lay on its side behind us amid a jumble of cables and broken stone.
Narrow access tunnels led off in four separate directions from the big cavern, and from all four directions we came under heavy fire. The echoing gunshots scared a cloud of dark, winged animals into flight. They looked like oversized bats, but with an extra pair of legs dangling beneath their scaly bodies and slender eyestalks protruding from the tops of their pointy heads.
Weish and I took multiple bruising hits. We kept low, crawling forward on our stomachs and returning fire with everything we had. Two heavy caliber rounds caught me directly in the head, driving my face against the ground and causing nonexistent dots to flicker before my eyes. I fried five Borrel guards crouched beside one tunnel, only to have five others run in to take their place.
Every two seconds another Soldier plunged through the shaft, crashing onto the smooth rock floor to join us. They drew away some of the machinegun volleys and helped lay suppressive fire into the access tunnels, and slowly the barrage against us subsided. By the time M’Ihn landed beside the shattered elevator the Borrel defenses had been temporarily silenced.
“You missed out on all the fun, Sarge,” Private Fenmore told him, brushing shrapnel from his chest.
“Can we do that again?” Blachard asked me, flamboyantly swiping dust from his armored shell.
“How about if instead, on the way back, I push you out of my PAAV,” I offered.
“That was far out,” Aimess said. “What’d you think, Ling? Sure beats the sims, eh?”
“The sims were an adequate training tool,” Ling said. “But I am glad to experience the real thing.”
“Christ the Second, stop gushing, girl, you’re embarrassing us all,” Onike chided.
“Listen up,” I said and sent the rough map we’d gotten from the first probe to their neural nets. “Tunnel one drops deeper below ground and branches into smaller passages. We don’t know what’s there and don’t have time to find out. Tunnel two, same deal except it climbs over the next few hundred yards. If we can’t get out the way we came in, that’s our best bet for an exit. Tunnel three is where the probe indicated the presence of an advanced weapons lab.”
With my left eye I pulled up a list of the Soldiers’ names on my neural net and sent it to the entire platoon. With a subtle, practiced wink I clicked on the first nineteen names and said, “Sergeant M’Ihn will take these men and investigate. If you find anything of interest, return with samples. The next nineteen Soldiers are with me. We’ll penetrate tunnel four to discover the source of these Pfrlanx plastite readings. Corporal Rack, these nine men stay here with you.” I highlighted another block of names. “Secure this area and bar the Borrels’ access from tunnels one and two. We might be coming back fast.”
“No stinking four-arms will get past me, Captain,” Rack assured, swaggering past me in his MCS, leading his squad to their post.
There were three alien guards crouched just inside tunnel four. Ling and Weish took them down before they could loose a shot. The ceiling was only five feet tall, high enough for a Borrel to pass upright but far too short for even Ling to walk straight. We jogged hunched over through the gloom, suit servos humming quietly.
According to the probe there was supposed to be a large room on our left within a hundred yards of the cavern, but we could not see a door. After two hundred yards we reached a set of narrow steps leading further into the ground. I called Weish to a halt. The sound of gunfire echoed through the corridor behind us. It seemed Rack already had his hands full keeping his rash promise.
“We must have missed it,” I said. “Double back. It should be on our right, now.” I began to doubt the probe’s data, began to doubt the need for this whole risky mission.
A score of Borrels appeared at the base of the steps and opened fire with heavy caliber machine guns. Corporal Weish took a dozen rounds to the torso, the force of the impacts pushing him back against the wall in a jerky dance. He dropped down just as a shoulder-launched missile blew a gaping chunk from the rock face behind him, the explosion thunderous in the confined space. Weish popped up and returned a devastating barrage of laser and concussion rounds, silencing the incoming fire.
“Fall back,” I ordered. “Keep an eye out for some kind of access along the right side. Weish, take five men and guard our flank. Don’t let any aliens gain the top of the stairs.”
“No problem,” Weish assured.
Onike finally spotted it, a door so cleverly concealed it would have perfectly matched the wall even in bright daylight. The door itself was made of the same smooth marbled stone as the tunnel, grooves overlapping the adjoining wall to render them virtually invisible. We wasted a valuable minute looking for some type of control panel, but there was no apparent way to open it.
“Suggestions?” I asked.
“Blow it,” Sergeant J’Ahl said. He was a forty-six-year-old PAAV pilot, veteran of over 200 conflicts, whose penchant for explosives was legendary.
“All right. Keep it light, Sergeant.”
“If you insist.” J’Ahl produced a slender shaped charge from the belly pouch of his MCS and stuck it to the center of the door. “Stand back,” he warned as we pressed ourselves tight against the marbled wall. “Showtime in three ... two ... one ....”
The deafening explosion traveled back and forth through the maze of tunnels in an ever-diminishing series of echoes. The MCS helmet muffled the noise and my ear implants kicked in micro-dampers to prevent my eardrums from shattering. The Borrels’ magnificently crafted door crumbled to shards, and dust and smoke billowed through the tunnel, reducing visibility to inches.
I sent commands across the net and leapt through the gaping hole with no clue what might be on the other side. In accordance with my orders, Ling rolled in on my left side and Sergeant J’Ahl rolled in on my right. Morag Onike and five other Soldiers were close behind. I ordered the rest of my squad back to hold the corridor open for our retreat.
We found ourselves crouched on the floor of a brilliantly white circular room. Aside from the dust roiling in from the shattered door, the room was antiseptically clean. It was the size of a small sports arena, with hundreds of lights lining the vaulted ceiling. Our goggles went opaque to curtail the sudden glare.
Five unarmed Borrels ringed a white marble pedestal in the center of the room. Sitting atop the pedestal, glittering beneath the bright lights, was the scarred, plastite remnants of a Pfrlanx A.I. probe. The spherical craft was four feet in diameter and pocked with golf ball-like indentations, a tiny version of the ruined monument above. The infrared spectrum of my goggles showed weak energy readings emanating from its depleted core.
For an interminable moment we stared at the five Borrels through darkened goggles, and they stared back with those eerie crimson eyes clustered atop their slender eyestalks. Then the middle one took a step forward. He was large for a Borrel, four feet tall and covered in coarse insect-like hair that would easily cut non-enhanced human skin. Large, veiny ears flapped to either side of his square head, probably still ringing from the force of the explosion. He raised four short arms to the brilliantly lit ceiling high above, sharp retractable claws extending from the ends of his fingers, and whistled shrilly through the two slits that were his nose. My translation program converted it to New Danish.
“You profane the Holy One with your presence.”