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.
After days on the planet, the A.C.P. discover the presence of a Pfrlanx probe. The soldiers wonder why the Pfrlanx had never claimed the planet for their own, so they decide to investigate. But before they can reach the probe, a Borrel native communicates with them for the very first time.
They were the first words any Borrel had spoken to us, and even as it said them, Ling’s machine-pistol swung around.
“Hold your fire!” I barked, simultaneously launching myself at her.
But Private Ling C’Lahm was already shooting. The Borrel standing just behind the one who had spoken took a burst of concussion rounds to his chest, flinging him against the pedestal in a pool of dark blood. Ling was still firing when I hit her, my servo-enhanced legs kicking out to send her soaring across the room, crashing into the far wall and shattering light fixtures in a spray of sparks and glass.
“I said hold your goddamned fire!” I yelled, both my weapons leveled at her torso as she picked herself off the floor.
“I—I thought he had a weapon,” she said, shaking her head groggily to clear it from the bruising impact with the wall.
“Report to Corporal Weish and assist his squad in holding the corridor,” I snapped.
Ling gave one last predatory look at the four remaining Borrels and stalked from the room. I returned my attention to the large alien who had spoken. “I’m Captain D’Mar, in charge of the forces your people have been fighting. I apologize for the death of your colleague.” Not to mention the millions who’ve died on the streets.
The Borrel’s ears swayed back and forth as he listened to the box clipped against my neck translating my words into whistles and beeps. My neural net changed the Borrel-speak translation back into New Danish and gave me a projected readout, showing me exactly how my words were being translated.
“I am General Beep,” the big Borrel said. We would soon learn that our boxes translated all Borrel proper names to ‘Beep.’ “You must not discharge your weapons inside the temple. Leave now.”
“We intend to do that, General. But we’d like to take you with us.” “Impossible.”
“You’re the only Borrel who has spoken to us. You can help negotiate an end to this war.”
“I must stay here with the Holy One.” He gestured toward the Pfrlanx A.I.
“We’d like to take the Holy One, too.”
A low hum rose from the A.I., and its energy readings crept erratically upwards.
“That thing’s still kicking,” Onike warned.
Sergeant J’Ahl slid another shaped charge out of his ammo pouch and motioned hopefully towards the A.I. I shook my head and he reluctantly returned the explosive to his pouch.
Beep’s eyestalk stood erect and he bared a mouthful of sharp teeth at me. “Heathens! You are only here to kill us all, just as the Holy One prophesied.”
“That’s not true, General. Your people have refused to communicate with us and continue to attack us wherever they can. We’re here to protect you from a common enemy known as Pfrlanx, a vile plague on the galaxy who created your Holy One and thousands like it to spread death across the worlds. They are the ones who seek to kill you, to kill all non-Pfrlanx everywhere. But we can stop them. Together we can stop them,” I said, taking a step forward.
“I will not allow you to touch the Holy One,” Beep threatened.
I was about to point out that he was in no position to stop me when Sergeant M’Ihn’s voice crackled in my ear implant.
“We found the weapons lab. They’ve been working on high output lasers, handheld jobs. There are piles of them here, but they’re incomplete, missing focusing arrays. We’re coming under heavy fire, shoulder-fired rockets and grenades. We’re falling back to the shaft now.”
“Copy that. Grab some samples and we’ll rendezvous there in two minutes for a rapid extraction. Corporal Rack, what’s your situation?”
Rapid bursts of heavy machinegun fire rolled down the corridor from his position. “Four-arms are still probing for weaknesses. Throwing a lot of bodies our way. But I can keep killing them all day.”
For once his lust for slaughter suited me just fine. “We need two more minutes. Hold tight.”
I moved towards the Borrels when the A.I. stopped me in my tracks by whistling something in their tongue. “The humammals will not rest until your world and all your people are theirs to rape and plunder. Your path is predestined, General. Salvation awaits the martyrs.” Then it stunned me by continuing in flawless New Danish, spoken in a deep bass. “Captain D’Mar, your species is the plague upon this galaxy, not ours. But as with all plagues, yours too will die out with the extinction of the hosts upon which you feed.”
“Time will tell,” I snarled.
“Indeed,” it said. The energy readings coming from the A.I. spiked, gray smoke curled up from the carapace, and the power readings flatlined. For a grand exit, it was rather anticlimactic.
“Goddamn. Computer hara-kiri,” Onike breathed.
Beep and the others fell to their knees, keening in an ear-splitting octave.
“We’ve got to move,” I said. On my signal Sergeant J’Ahl rolled a stun grenade across the polished white floor. The grenade detonated with a dull thud, shooting electric pulses across the temple. Our suits insulated us but the unarmored Borrels dropped, twitching, to the floor. Beep managed a single step towards the now-defunct A.I., beseeching it for help before collapsing beside it.
“We’re taking these four with us. Don’t let anything happen to them. Guard this one at all costs,” I said, indicating the General.
Onike took the general while three other Soldiers gathered the remaining unconscious aliens. I lifted the five hundred pound A.I. orb in both hands. With the power-assisted MCS it was as easy as lifting a beach ball, a little awkward to carry but not heavy. It had probably wiped any relevant data from its memory, but Kat might be able to piece together some surviving data strings. If nothing else, the hardware itself would prove useful to the geeks at our Staging Area.
We moved rapidly down the corridor, taking fire from Borrel guards who wasted no time regaining their foothold on the stairs the moment Weish and his men joined our retreat. Weish and Ling brought up our flank, Weish lobbing stun grenades and Ling firing both of her arm-mounted weapons over her shoulders as she ran, using the helmet’s rearview camera to take impressively lethal aim.
“Protect your prisoner!” I yelled to Onike as we sprinted for the shaft at forty miles per hour.
“Like my own baby!” she assured, though ACP women were no more capable of conceiving children than the men.
M’Ihn’s squad came at us from the other direction, pursued by hundreds of Borrels armed with machine guns and rocket launchers.
Privates Fenmore and Blachard brought up their flank, returning a deadly rain of fire from the weapons mounted on their suits. One of the pursuing Borrels launched a rocket at Fenmore an instant before the alien was cut in half by the Soldier’s laser. Fenmore was half turned while he ran and actually caught the rocket in his chest, wrapping his right arm around it as if he were a professional ball player. “Oomph!” he uttered as the air was driven from his lungs. He stared down at the unexploded ordnance in his grasp.
“Nice catch,” Blachard yelled, his laser dicing through the horde of aliens close on their tracks.
“Thanks,” Fenmore said, just as the rocket exploded.
The blast tore through his armor and knocked him to the floor. Without breaking stride, Blachard scooped him up beneath one arm and kept running, simultaneously maintaining steady return fire with the machine-pistol mounted on his free arm. Only a hundred feet from the shaft, a white beam stabbed out and hit Blachard above his knee, nearly sheering his lower leg off. He tumbled, dropped Fenmore, then efficiently released hundreds of concussion rounds into the mad gang of Borrels crowding over their own dead behind him. “You want more of this, alien fuckers? You like it? Here, have some more!” he screamed.
“Lasers! They’ve got working lasers!” M’Ihn warned over the wideband comm. He picked up the unconscious Fenmore and ran for the welcoming cone of sunlight filtering down from our exit. Blachard continued on his own power, hopping the last hundred feet, injured lower leg flapping lamely along.
The sheer volume of alien corpses left in our wake impeded their surviving comrades. I had four Soldiers maintain fire down each corridor and ordered our evacuation.
An iridescent purple tractor beam crackled into life straight down the middle of the shaft.
“That’s a beautiful sight, Davie,” Sergeant M’Ihn declared.
Over the wideband I said, “Okay, the beam will hold two men. We go in pairs in the following order.” I sent the sequence to their neural nets. “We’ll regroup topside in forty seconds. Go!”
M’Ihn went up first with the badly injured Fenmore, the beam yanking them upwards twice as fast as we’d fallen down. Morag Onike went next holding General Beep; the only Borrel on the planet willing to talk to us was an invaluable prize. Wounded and still cursing, Private Blachard went third, cradling the spent A.I. globe.
I kept the rookies with me until the end, their bloodthirsty natures coming in handy for a change. Hamlin Rack and Aimess fired wildly at two of the tunnels while Ling C’Lahm and I covered the other two. Sergeant J’Ahl wanted to blast the corridor openings shut, but the chance of bringing 1,300 feet of rock and dirt down on top of us was too high.
“Whoo-weee! Eat that, you four-armed freaks!” Rack yelled. “You keeping track, honey?” he asked Ling as Weish and another Soldier stepped into the tractor beam behind us and were yanked to safety.
“It is easy to keep track of yours. It is such a small number,” Ling assured, firing in two different directions with equally lethal aim.
Two Borrels with lasers darted into the cavern, their beams narrowly missing Rack before Aimess cut them both in half. When it was their turn, Rack and Aimess reluctantly stepped into the beam, after shouting parting threats to the Borrels.
Ling and I were last, and as we moved back for our own extraction, a rocket flashed from one of the corridors directly at Ling. She leapt into the air inches ahead of it and deftly somersaulted over the missile, all while continuing to shoot into the corridor where it had come from. As the missile exploded into the rock wall behind us, she landed on her feet like a cat, single-mindedly still shooting. My net display told me she was down to her last three hundred concussion rounds and the charge on her laser was dangerously low. My own supply was not much better.
“Please don’t think I’m not enjoying myself, but our ride’s waiting,” I said and pulled her into the beam with me.
Four seconds later we were back in bright daylight, surrounded on all sides by Fuller’s comforting war machines. Davie switched off the tractor beam and circled low to provide additional cover with the other PAAVs.
“M’Ihn, how’s Fenmore?” I called, stepping away from the crevasse. M’Ihn was kneeling beside the wounded Fenmore a few yards distant. He had removed the private’s MCS and put a field auto-doc to work—not a truly intelligent machine like the A.I. docs in the carrier’s infirmary, but able to provide skilled emergency field medicine. The small spidery machine strolled up and down Fenmore’s torso, suturing his gaping chest wound and injecting various meds and nano-boosters. When M’Ihn didn’t reply, I knew it was too late.
I walked over and knelt beside them. Fenmore’s brown eyes stared blindly at me, and I closed them with my gloved fingers. “Your days of killing are over, brother, your days of peace begun,” I whispered. M’Ihn got to his feet and I awkwardly placed a hand on his armored shoulder. It’s hard to offer physical comfort while clad in an MCS. “He was a good kid. A skilled pilot. I’m damn sorry.”
“He was a good Soldier,” M’Ihn agreed. The auto-doc mindlessly continued its field treatment, and M’Ihn kicked it violently, sending it airborne to crash against Corporal Veeter’s OMT. M’Ihn leveled his laser and reduced the auto-doc to a molten pile. It was a wasteful act but under the circumstances I was not about to object.
“Fucking aliens! Let’s bomb the fuck out them!” Rack screamed.
“Major T’lak will slag this whole complex from orbit the moment we’re clear,” I said.
“Why wait for her?” Aimess demanded.
“Fucking four-arms almost took off my leg,” Blachard reminded. “Fuck that! Fucking four-arms killed Fenmore!” Rack yelled.
“Return to your machines,” I ordered, striding up to them. “This mission is over.”
The unmistakable implosion of half a dozen vacuum grenades echoed up from the crevasse behind us. I turned in time to see Private Ling C’Lahm drop two more into the chasm.
“Goddamn it, I said return––” But my words were lost in the barrage of weapons fire that ensued.
Rack opened up first, shooting with both hands at a cluster of undamaged apartments two blocks away, his booming war cry amplified through his suit’s speakers. Aimess, the injured Blachard, and half of Second Platoon joined him, yelling at the tops of their lungs and raining destruction onto the buildings. In the confusion even some of Sergeant Fuller’s men opened up from their machines, not quite sure what they were supposed to be shooting at. There’s nothing like having a division C.O. on scene to really throw a monkey wrench into platoon dynamics.
M’Ihn, Fuller, and I ordered an immediate ceasefire, flashing our commands to the Soldiers’ nets. Within seconds the unauthorized blitz ended as abruptly as it began, the distant Borrel apartments already reduced to smoking heaps.
I walked up to the diminutive Ling, her MCS-clad form still standing beside the smoldering tear in the earth. I had half a mind to push her in. “Private C’Lahm, stand down. You are hereby relieved from active duty until further notice. And if you so much as touch the weapons aboard your PAAV en route to the carrier I will personally tear you a new asshole! The rest of you take a goddamned deep breath. We lost a good man down there today, but this isn’t going to bring him back. Now we’ve got to clear this area, ASAP.”
I turned away from Ling and helped Onike load the unconscious General Beep aboard my own PAAV. I wasn’t taking any chances with the most valuable Borrel on the planet.