Cease Fire

by Christopher Pfister

 

It was the taste of battle. Blood and steel, mixed with ash and dirt and sweat and fear. The taste stuck in his mouth, all those various components slowly dissolving into a homogenous sludge that would stay with him for days.

He was standing in a hole, miles from where the guns had long since fallen silent. He could still feel the heat radiating off the ground from the raw power that had slammed into the earth. He had made it this far using a combination of training, experience, and animal fear. But now that the fighting was over, he could finally stop running.

He was a big man, well-muscled, and would have been tall had he not been crammed into a hole just over half a meter wide. Low-profile ceramic armor was clamped onto his body. The armor had the cracks and patches that came with frequent use, but the Army insignias it sported were still quite clear. His name and rank—Ethan Dremmer, Sergeant—were burned into one shoulder plate, next to a pack of body-shaped marks, indicating kills. His head was hidden behind a sturdy combat helmet and a vaguely insectoid breathing mask. The mask hissed regularly as he labored to breathe, his body wanting to quit, to just collapse in the hole and be done with it. But for the moment, he had to keep moving.

He was digging. A standard-issue collapsible shovel was in his hands, moving a few kilos of dirt with each sweep, making the hole just a little deeper. He was in up to his waist. Sweat trickled down his back under the armor, making an itch between his shoulders, taunting him and his inability to scratch it.

Even with the armor changing his outline, anyone watching would have been able to tell that parts of him were not flesh and blood. One arm ended in a metal hand that was only vaguely anthropomorphic, and through the dusty visor of his mask, it was clear that parts of his face were a little too pale, a little too clean, a sign of synthetic flesh.

Behind him lay the battlefield where what remained of his world had come apart before his eyes. His squad had been in good form, but in the end, it had been “modern” weapons that had decided the outcome. The land was blasted flat, sand baked into glass. Hunks of metal that had once been vehicles now lay twisted on the ground, pinging as they cooled. The Beta unit, the supercomputer charged with caring for the world, had watched the battle through its satellite network, and its silicon brain had understood that its enemies were in range. It had run the usual algorithms, calculating the optimum strategy and ultimately powering up an automated missile base, which had ended the fight in the thorough manner that had become its signature. He could only smile bitterly, thinking about it. The designers of the Beta unit had tagged it the “Earth Defense System”, a name that would forever be remembered as the biggest misnomer in the history of mankind.

Ethan had to wonder what the original designers of the Beta unit had thought, when things had first started to go wrong. He wondered what their expressions had been when it had malfunctioned, when it had calculated that it not only had to kill its intended targets, but everything else as well. Maybe they’d tried to engage a fail-safe, tried to cut power to it, somehow. But in all likelihood they hadn’t had much chance to do anything at all. It wasn’t like anyone else in the world had.

The sun was falling low on the horizon, watching Ethan dig, his ears filled with the slow, rhythmic scraping of the shovel and the hoarseness of his breathing. Finally, the digging stopped, and he climbed out of the hole. He stood over it, looking down into that small dent he’d made in the earth, chest heaving as he caught his breath.

He hadn’t really thought about what he was doing. At a certain point his body had just said it couldn’t run any further. He couldn’t even remember when he’d started digging; only recently had his mind finally gotten past what it had seen in the battle. He’d found himself digging the hole, and had seen no reason to stop. It had given him time to think. And besides, it was something that needed to be done. What little whisper of soldier’s honor that still lingered in his metal-and-flesh body demanded it.

Something caught his eye. He looked up.

A small noise of surprise escaped him, as his hand went for his sidearm. It slid out in a fluid motion, so ingrained into him that the gun was out, the safety off, and the barrel aimed at its target before he even knew what he was doing.

As a soldier, he had been trained to think of the world in simple terms, so as to make his job that much easier. Anyone with a higher rank was Sir, anyone with a lower rank was Kid. Anyone not holding a gun was In The Way. Another very familiar term applied to what he was looking at now, just a dozen meters away: Enemy.

She was beautiful, in the same way that a lioness was. A lithe, humanoid body, with flesh that was a mesh of black fibers, tough as any body armor. The only exception was her head, built to look disturbingly human, right down to the soft, pale skin. Raven-black hair, tied into a thick braid, fell down to her waist. Sharp eyes stared at him, meeting his as he noticed her.

The official designation for things like her was “Galatean”, though there were more than enough slang terms to describe that race. They were AIs, artificially intelligent, sentient computers mounted in nanotechnological bodies that defied human science with their strength and speed. Supposedly, the first ones had been designed by humans, but once they’d become sentient they’d made their escape from captivity in human labs, hiding out in dark corners until the war between them and the humans had started.

This was the sort of thing the Beta unit had originally been constructed to kill. Only a computer could keep up with the Galateans, the generals had reasoned back at the beginning of the war. We’ll use an AI to fight AIs. No one had thought that humanity was just repeating the same mistake, making yet another thinking computer. Everyone was too scared of the first generation of AIs. No one had known what the Galateans wanted or thought; in fact, no one knew what drove them even now. Rather than try and deal with their wayward creations, the governments of the world had elected to simply eradicate them. It had sounded like a good idea, before the world had burned.

Now, the Beta unit was a malfunctioning killing machine, and humanity was fighting a war with both its Earth Defense System and the Galateans, who had responded to humanity’s hostility with hostility of their own. Neither side seemed terribly inclined to talk things out instead of fighting, so the responsibility of fighting the Enemy had fallen on simple soldiers. Like Ethan.

He recalled dropping his rifle to the ground before starting to dig the hole. In his mind, he calculated how far the weapon was from him. Probably not more than five or six meters. Under the circumstances, it might as well have been five or six kilometers. Writing off that gun, he leveled his pistol at her, aimed square at her center of mass. A long black shape she’d been holding leveled at him at the exact same time.

Ethan felt his heart drop into his stomach. If she hadn’t been armed, he might have had a chance. He might have been able to fire before she could close the distance, buying himself a life expectancy that went beyond a few seconds. But now she had a gun too. That silenced all doubt. He was screwed.

Galateans preferred hand-to-hand combat, but they were also crack shots. Their weapons, like the one she was holding right now, were effectively small railguns that could rip through a tank’s armor and bull’s-eye the man inside. His gun, on the other hand, was a lowly 11 mm pistol, useful against a human in armor, but not so much against the Enemy. The best he could hope for was a lucky shot through something vital, something that would paralyze her for a few hours before her regenerative abilities kicked in and resuscitated her. Meanwhile, her reflexes were such that in the time between when he fired and when he hit, she would squeeze off a shot that would blow him in half.

The world seemed to stop. They both had each other in their sights. Each was looking at the thing they had been trained to call Enemy, trained to hate and kill. And yet, as one second went by, and another and another, neither fired.

In a flash, he saw his life ending. Any moment now, he was going to be dead. He’d be just another shattered corpse, another shattered form slowly decaying in the radioactive wasteland of the battlefield. All the years of fighting, all the years of struggling to survive, just for this. Put down like a dog, not able to defend himself from a single Enemy.

All told, it was the best he could have hoped for, the way the world was now. Living from day to day, scraping out a living with men who were borderline cannibals already. Watching a few more of his friends get picked off every time they engaged the Enemy. Hearing regular reports about the Earth Defense System, about which cities it had destroyed this week. Thinking about his family, which had died in a nuclear fire years ago. Cowering in caves, constantly watching the sky, knowing that any day a missile or a laser would get dropped on him, squashing him like a bug. Everyone in his unit had known this wasn’t a war they could win. The genocidal Beta unit took away all hope. In this war, it was really just a question of what would get you first: the Beta unit, or the Enemy.

His gun came down. It hung loosely in his fingers for a moment before falling, clattering to the ground at his feet.

“You know what,” he began, amazed he hadn’t already been shot, “go ahead.”

A long moment passed, and still no shot came. She didn’t move. She was so still that he wondered if something had gone wrong, if she’d blown a circuit or something. But then she twitched, her head tilting to one side, giving him a piercing gaze. Then she did something he hadn’t been expecting. She spoke.

“Why?”

He blinked. He’d known the Enemy could speak. It was just that none of them had asked him a question before.

He searched for words, wondering why she didn’t just get it over with. “I’m tired,” he answered, finally. He wanted to say more, but couldn’t think of anything else. Those two words about summed it up.

“What were you doing?”

Another surprise, and another blink. Why hadn’t she fired yet? “Digging,” Ethan answered, his voice flat. At the blank stare he received from her in response, he elaborated. “Making a grave,” he said. “For my teammates.”

She kept staring at him for another long moment. Any second now, he thought. Those guns shoot so fast, I won’t even have time to see the muzzle flash.

But even as he watched, the gun was lowered. It shrank and snapped shut, retracting into the compact form used for traveling. The Galatean slid it behind the small of her back, snapping it into place on her body.

“Continue,” she said, quietly.

Ethan stared at her. He quickly forced down the glimmer of hope he’d felt when she lowered her weapon. Galateans didn’t think like humans. She probably just wanted something to watch while she organized her thoughts, wanted one more story to throw in her memory bank before she took him out. Besides, it wasn’t like she needed the gun. Even at this distance, she could reach him all too quickly.

He took his eyes off her for a moment, glancing down at the hole he’d dug. It looked deep enough. Indeed, he’d been about to call it quits, just before he’d seen her.

He reached into a pocket of his field kit. Metal jangled, and his hand re-emerged, clutching a half-dozen sets of dog tags. Some of them were charred black, others outright melted, rendered into nothing more than metallic lumps. They had still fared better than their owners, who had been blasted into ash by the spectacular heat of the missile strike that had ended the battle.

Ethan had been lucky so far. When the first strike of missiles had fallen, he’d happened to be behind a rock, which had protected him from most of the blast. Then he’d managed to find a hole to crawl in and seal off before the coup de grace strike had come. Over his radio, he’d heard the rest of his team dying. Counting his squad and the others that had been here, there had been over thirty other men out on the battlefield, and not one of them had been able to make it to cover in time. These six dog tags were all he’d been able to find, pulling them from what was left of the soldiers’ bodies as he’d limped away from the baked and radioactive battlefield. Looking at the tags now, Ethan’s eye caught the lieutenant’s tag. The el-tee had been a jerk; Ethan was pretty sure they were bred that way. But he’d been a nice enough guy. He hadn’t deserved this. None of them had. Ethan clenched his fist around the tags; if the boys were getting an officer to take them down to hell, their lieutenant would be good company. But they should have had their sergeant. The one who watched over them, the one who made sure the lieutenant’s “tactics” didn’t get them all killed. The one who’d been screaming at them as the missiles fell, telling them to find a rock, a hole, anything that could keep them safe. Instead, their sarge was burying the bits of them that hadn’t melted.

He opened his fist over the hole, dropping the dog tags down into it. They flopped unceremoniously onto the bottom, with one last clink of metal.

“Is that all?”

Ethan looked up, back to the Galatean. She hadn’t moved yet, still standing on a rock a dozen meters from him. He swallowed and answered.

“Yes… mostly.”

“I see,” she answered, almost before he’d finished talking. She went quiet for a moment. “May I may make an addition?”

Ethan felt his shoulders sag. “Go ahead.” At least she let me put them in the ground, he thought.

She moved with blinding speed, seeming to flicker from one spot to another, without bothering with the intervening space. In an eyeblink, she was next to him. Ethan stiffened, waiting for the blow.

She did not seem to even be looking at him. She looked into her hand, at something he couldn’t see. With a jerk of her wrist, she tossed the contents into the hole, atop the dog tags.

Ethan could not help looking. Down in the hole, next to the dog tags, was a pair of squarish objects, neither much larger than a thumbnail. Even though they were also burned from the battle, he recognized them instantly. Neural matrices. The so-called “soul circuit”; a microprocessor chip that lay at the core of each Galatean. It was what gave them the ability to think, what gave them independence… it was their life.

He remembered there had been three of the Enemy, when the battle had first been joined. So, those two…

“Your friends?” he asked, before he could stop himself.

“We were not friends,” she answered, again almost cutting him off. “But they were here with me.”

She looked at him unblinkingly. Her eyes were a light violet, he noticed. They also had the surreal appearance of all nanomachine-forged eyes: they appeared misty, clouds swirling aimlessly across their surfaces.

He blinked, looking away from her. His eyes trailed to her arm, and he noticed she was wearing a metallic bracer, looking like it was made out of solid mercury, corkscrewing around her right forearm. In its surface, his distorted reflection looked back at him. He wondered why he hadn’t seen it earlier. Probably because my eyes were on the gun, he thought.

“Just a minute…” he said. “I think I should say something.”

“What?” she asked, again instantly.

“Just… just wait a minute. I promise not to… do anything. I just need to give my guys the right send-off.” He blinked, feeling his eyes going wet. Part of him wished she’d just get it over with, the other part knew that if she was giving him the chance, he might as well do this right.

He crossed his hands in front of him, lowering his head. “I’m sorry it had to end this way,” he said, quietly. “We’ve all had to bury friends before. It’s how wars go. We all knew we’d be here, eventually. I’m just sorry I was too cowardly to face it like you did. But I know… I know you’re in a better place now, guys. You don’t have to be afraid, anymore. You don’t have to hurt. It’s over.” He thought hard for anything more to say, keeping his breathing slow and even, despite the prickling on the back of his neck that he knew was her eyes.

“Did you want to say anything?” he asked her, without looking.

“Why?”

Ethan blinked, half-turning to look at her out the corner of his eye. “Because it’s what you do.”

“Why?”

“Because… because it’s your last chance to say goodbye to them.”

“They cannot hear you.”

Ethan took a breath and let it out slowly. A part of him was nodding quietly in response to what she’d said. A part of him knew she was right. He tried not to listen. His chest felt tight; an old injury must have opened, he thought absently.

“It’s just how we do things, all right?” he said, getting annoyed, both with her attitude and her habit of answering him almost before he was done talking.

“I do not understand.”

“You don’t have to.” He waited a moment, then finally picked up his shovel and started picking up the dirt, dumping it back into the hole. The Galatean just stood there the whole time, staring at him with unblinking eyes. When Ethan had finally filled the hole in and stamped the dirt firm again, he looked back at her.

“All right,” he said. “Thank you,” he added on, after a moment.

“For what?”

“For letting me do that.” He let out a slow breath. “So are you gonna do it or what?”

“Do what?”

He looked at her incredulously. “Finish me off.”

She tilted her head, birdlike. “We are on differing sides,” she said, quietly. “What do you think?” she asked, taking a step towards him. “Shall I kill you?”

A quiet, metallic moan made Ethan look down. He felt his chest tighten again. Her hand was changing, even as he watched. Fingers stretched, growing long and thin, taking on razor edges, becoming vicious claws. He was reminded that a common nickname for the Galateans was ‘shifters’, after their ability to change their physical shape at will.

“I don’t have much choice, do I?” he asked, bitterly.

“I can make it quick.” Her claws came up slowly, sunlight glinting off the metallic surface of her bracer. The razor edges touched against Ethan’s neck, not cutting but very, very close. Ethan forgot to breathe.

“As I understand it,” she said, her attention on her own claws, “if one wants to die, one does not need the help of others.” At that, she took her claws away from him. As he watched, they flowed, changing back into fingers. She clenched her newly-reformed fist, turning away from him.

She stood at the edge of the grave, looking down at the dirt, staring so intently he was fairly sure she could see right through the intervening earth and down to the buried dog tags and microchips.

“Goodbye,” she said, not to Ethan.

Ethan was staring at her, incredulous. After a few moments, he found his voice again. “Why?” he asked without thinking.

“What you said earlier,” she said, not looking at him. “I’m tired.” The words came out of her mouth, but in his voice. “I understand,” she said, switching back to her own voice. “I wanted to see your burial practice. Besides, you are interesting.”

He did not believe what he was hearing. “What?”

“Many times, I have wondered if this is a war I can win,” she said, still in her calm almost-monotone. “Fighting on two fronts, against enemies that hate me for existing. One of whom is willing to burn the world if it means victory. This is not a conflict I will survive,” she said, finally turning her head to look at him. “It is interesting to see a human that also understands that.”

“So you’re not going to kill me?”

“That should be apparent.”

“So… now what?” he asked, spreading his arms helplessly. “We go our separate ways, maybe meet on some other battlefield some other day, and blow the hell out of each other then?”

“That sounds reasonable.”

He didn’t know if she was joking or not. She was so stone-faced, he couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

He swallowed, and knelt down, picking up his sidearm, and re-holstering it. He took the chance to pick his discarded rifle up off the ground as well. He wiped off some of the dust and strapped the gun over his back, only then thinking that now he had a weapon that could potentially bring her down. The thought didn’t last long; aside from not wanting to push his luck, he honestly couldn’t think of how bringing down one more Enemy would make any difference. He kept his eye on her, wondering if she was thinking the same thing. She was giving no indication of what was going through her mind; she had been following his movements with her eyes, but otherwise had not moved.

He wondered if she was waiting for something. He knew what she’d meant, saying he shouldn’t need help if he wanted to die. His pistol might not work well on her, but if he put it to his own temple…

Hell, half the guys in his unit went that way. One day they realized they weren’t going to see the end of the war, and decided that if they were going out it wouldn’t be at the hands of the Enemy. Ethan’s hand rested on his gun, feeling its cold, reassuring grip under his fingers. It would be so easy…

No. He took his hand off of his gun. Not here. Not where he’d just rot on top of the boys’ grave. But he had to wonder, if he did it… maybe this Galatean would go and bury him. After all, he would have been “interesting”.

He stared at her, still feeling a little dazed. There was no telling what she’d do. Besides, even if she would give him a decent send-off, he still couldn’t go through with it. Not now. Maybe in a few days, when all this finally hit him. But not here, not with all the boys watching their sarge stare down the Enemy.

He turned, about to walk away, when he stopped. He looked back to her, tentatively taking a step towards her. Carefully, he reached up, popping the seals on his helmet, lifting it up off his head and pulling his breathing mask down around his neck. He squinted in the sunlight, and the air burned his lungs. The artificial patches of skin on his face felt a little tight, like they didn’t quite fit.

“My name’s Ethan,” he said, extending his hand towards her.

She stared at his hand. From what he knew, she understood the gesture; likely she was just scanning him to see if there was some trick. He didn’t blame her; he was expecting those claws to reappear any second now. Finally, though, she took his hand in a deceptively strong grip. Her hand was cold as ice. His dirty face was reflected in her bracer, as he tried to smile.

“What’s yours?” he asked her.

She looked at him, not answering. Ethan guessed that if she wasn’t instantly saying something, then she really had to think hard about it.

“Gamma-Phi 7826,” she answered, matter-of-factly. “But,” she continued, before he could say anything, “we also take human names. Mine is Dayna.”

Ethan let go of her hand, and she moved again, so quickly there was a rush of air filling the space she had just occupied. In less than a heartbeat, she was gone.

Ethan stared at the blank ground she had stood upon, the wind already erasing her footprints from the soil. Coughing in the dust-laden air, he strapped his mask and helmet back on. It grated on his skin, the sand and grit having already settled down onto his face.

He started walking away, in what he hoped was the opposite direction she’d taken. He had to admit that a part of himself wondered where she was going, but the soldier in him was still too strong to let him even consider going after her.

An addendum, he thought. Guys, I envy you for not having to be afraid any more. But today I met someone who, just for a moment, made me think that maybe we don’t all have to end up like you did today. It’s probably nothing, but… bear with me, and let a crazy fool have his little glimmer of hope.

I’m sure I’ll learn better, soon enough.

 

Echoes of War

by Jon C. Picciuolo

 

Captain Golonev, EuroRus Armed Forces, nosed his hover-transport toward the rising sun and shoved the throttles forward. “Khorosho! Proceeding at max velocity. Arrival in twenty minutes. Transmit details of violation!”

Golonev’s holodisplay filled with drone reconnaissance data. He scanned the screen and whistled softly—an entire robotic battery of EuroRus Flashlights and their automated command post, obliterated. The work of a rogue machine, he decided. Another artificial intelligence module gone haywire in the desert war game. It had happened before, but never with such disastrous results.

“Mitado? Awake back there?”

There was no answer. Golonev jiggled the controls, triggering a clatter of mess gear.

“What the hell’s going on?” demanded the other half of the umpire team, her voice thick with sleep as she stumbled into the pilot cabin.

“Violation, Lieutenant. Big one. We are closest team.”

Lieutenant Mitado, AmerAsian Military, slumped into her couch and struggled with its inertia straps. “Not another fouled up warp! Why don’t those bastards extend the max temporal offset to three minutes? Save us all a lot of…”

Golonev knuckled the screen. “No, not logistics. Shut up and look.” He shot a sideways glance at her.

Her oriental features contorted with pleasure. “Great Reagan! Eleven of yours bagged by one of ours! So what’s the problem?”

“You damn well know problem! Max kill ratio is two-for-one, da? Ten beam throwers and CP cost thirty million at least. You have nothing out there worth over six. Five-to-one economic victory is too high! It is clear war game violation by your side!” The transport lurched as Golonev angrily adjusted its flight path.

“Okay, you goddamn Cossack, I was just kidding. Simmer down! How soon before we get there?”

“Ten, maybe twelve minutes.”

“Let me see, where is it?” She studied the screen. “Oh, shit. Bir Hacheim zone. That means goddamn protection suits. I don’t suppose we could stay in the ship and run a low level look-see?”

Golonev glared at her.

“Okay, okay,” she added unhappily. “I know the procedures. Cat-One violation means mandatory ground inspection. Area been sanitized?” She peered at the holodisplay’s maze of symbols, seeking an answer to her own question. “Well, the zone’s bio-safeties all test positive, anyway. So the hardware won’t shoot at us. My god, what a desolate place!”

The Russian nodded glumly and stared out through the windscreen. The rock-strewn North African desert stretched from horizon to horizon. A perfect landscape for war, he told himself. No industrial centers, no population, few political boundaries. Just wasteland dotted with rusted wrecks from the Second World War and hotspots of radiation and anthrax-2 spores from the Pan-Afro conflicts. And seven kilometers straight down, nature’s unique gift—a trillion-ton lead ore mass, perfect as a gravitational lens for the time warping system. Plus, somewhere out ahead, the melted scrap of his side’s expensive war machines.

As though Lieutenant Mitado could read his mind, she blurted: “What a damn waste! Another thirty million Euros thrown down this rat hole!”

“And one thousand workers in Minsk beam weapon plant still have jobs, “ he added tonelessly. “No one gets killed. Is best kind of war, da?” And, he added silently, also the very worst. Weapons randomly time-jumped into and out of combat. Armed struggle devoid of tactical skill. No death. No shame for the vanquished. No glory for the victor. Only profit and loss in multinational ledgers. But it was—according to their political masters—the most humane of wars, fought bloodlessly by robots.

Mitado shrugged. “Hell, Captain! Those factories could be making something useful and… Hold on! Sensors picking up multiple heat sources. There! Smoke on the horizon—one o’clock!”

The Russian studied the greasy brown wisps and toggled down the landing gear. He didn’t share the other umpires’ blind trust in bio-safeties. Much safer to come in low and slow. “Can you spot violator?” he asked, squinting against the glare.

She pulled down the binoc-scanner and peered for a few seconds at a fixed point on the horizon. “Something’s out there in the shadow of an escarpment. Hell, it doesn’t look like one of my side’s units. Can you get higher?”

“Negative. We approach on ground. Prepare for landing.”

Minutes later, as the turbine whine subsided to a low hum, both officers struggled into bulky white protection suits. Seams and seals passed the overpressure test. The war game umpires trudged through the airlock and stood in the desert beside their sealed cargo hold. The big hatch unlatched and pivoted downward, forming a steep ramp along which the tracked reconnaissance vehicle automatically descended.

As they buckled into the recce crawler’s crew compartment, Golonev mechanically recited the checklist. “Survival rations?”

Mitado glanced downward. “Four packs, under seats. Check.”

“Life support?”

“Air filters… Check. Cooling systems… Check.”

“Vehicle systems?”

“Fuel, power, sensors, navigation, holocameras. All check.”

“Disabling field?”

“Wait… Testing. “Mitado slewed the roof-mounted projector toward the grounded transport and fiddled with a small control panel. The hover vessel’s cargo ramp began to hinge upward. When it was halfway raised, the AmerAsian officer jabbed at a button. Immediately, the ramp froze in mid-air.

Golonev nodded: all electronic systems in the hover-transport had been neutralized, a sure sign that the cripple field was functioning. If the field worked against their own transport, it would work against any rogue war machine that might be lurking out there—every piece of equipment on the battlefield incorporated identical failsafe circuitry.

He breathed a small sigh of relief. “Khorosho. Cancel field, restore all functions.” The transport’s ramp continued its upward arc until it smoothly faired into the hull. “Okay, Lieutenant. Southeast. Best speed until we are at closest destroyed vehicle. Then stop for assessment.”

The crawler bucked and lurched across trackless desert toward the first of several low hillocks that lay across the route. Here and there patches of fused sand gleamed in the morning sun—glistening monuments to fusion weapons detonated in anger almost eighty years ago. The external dosimeter needle trembled far into the red, as did the readout from the bio-poison sensors.

Mitado reminded him of the violation. “Eleven kills. What do you suppose happened, Captain?”

“A.I. failure, probably. Another shoddy product of your side’s industry.”

“But if that failed, our disabling field might not…”

“Do not worry,” Golonev said quickly. “Cripple circuits are independent of A.I. unit. We will be safe.”

Lieutenant Mitado fell silent as she steered the recce crawler up a steep slope, then she said, “There was a hell of a freak thunderstorm out here last night, about the time of the jump. The met boys say a storm like that comes once every ten years or so. Could it have scrambled programming in an A.I. unit? Removed some inhibition logic?”

Nyet! Shielding is too efficient. But lightning plays hell with warp generators and…” The crawler crested the hillock and started down into the shallow valley. “Look! There is first beam thrower. Drive close for inspection.”

The Flashlight lay on its side, drive pods tilted obscenely upward, collimation snout buried in the sand. Charred scraps of plasti-hull littered the rocky landscape. The recce crawler circled the smoking wreckage.

Golonev snapped one final holoframe. “Drive to next one. Three hundred meters southeast.

She hesitated. “Captain…”

“I know!” he spat out. “Damage not from plasma beam. Drive on!”

The second Flashlight had been reduced to a charred pile of splintered plastic and metal junk. And again there was none of the distinctive softening and puddling caused by directed energy weapons. He could see fine beds of sweat forming on Mitado’s forehead.

“Lightning!” she exclaimed. “It must have been the lightning!”

Golonev slammed his fist against the instrument console. “Nonsense! Maybe one, da. Maybe two. But not eleven! Look over there… another machine! Same damage. Only one weapon possible.”

“One weapon…?”

“Explosive projectiles did this!” None of the other cadets had troubled to learn the old ways of armored combat. But for him—the grandson of a Red Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan—it was a fitting subject.

She laughed nervously. “Explosive projectiles? That’s ancient technology!”

“Also very clever.”

“Clever? I don’t understand…”

Golonev savagely triggered the holocamera, recording the evidence. “Is filthy AmerAsian trick! Explosive shells are not on list of valid weapons—there is no treaty-approved defense for them.”

Mitado stammered. “No! Wait! There must be some other explanation. Old landmines, maybe?”

“Use eyes! Look at damage! Would landmines do that? Besides, minefields cleared decades ago. You know truth, don’t you!” He glared at her sweating profile, thinking: the woman has guilt written all over her face. His duty now was simple and clear—gather evidence and report. His masters at Desert War Headquarters would seek revenge. It would be swift and just—an entire AmerAsian port, maybe even the enemy’s lunar base, reduced to rubble. Such was the price for war game cheating. Nevertheless, not so long ago, when combat really meant something, treachery would have been paid for in lives. That was when war was a noble thing, when the glorious USSR existed…

Mitado’s whining protestation cut into his thoughts. “Captain, I assure you…”

“Be silent and drive!”

They crested the next hillock. Seven more shattered Flashlights and the mobile command post lay scattered like smashed toys. The recce crawler slowly circled each; Golonev took meticulous holographic records. He had no doubt now—explosive projectiles had been used. Perhaps AmerAsian technicians had raided one of their own museums for the antique weapon, made it mobile and converted it to automatic operation. It would not have been difficult. Perhaps, too, their sloppy improvisation had led to the A.I. failure.

“Where to now, Captain?”

“What?”

“We’ve recorded all your side’s casualties. Where to now?”

“Surely you joke. Lieutenant Mitado!”

“No, sir. I just want to know…”

“East! To escarpment. To what you saw from transport. Or have you forgotten we are here to collect evidence of AmerAsian treachery?” His words were meant to cut; the hurt in her eyes told him he had been right on target.

It was early afternoon when the recce crawler wallowed up the final slope. A few meters from the top, Golonev ordered, “Dead slow! Use periscope. Do not expose us.”

Immediately, Mitado reduced speed to barely perceptible forward motion. She pressed her face into the sighting device of the disabling field. A few seconds later both umpires were thrown forward against the inertia straps as she slammed on the brakes. “Visual!” she reported. “Two hundred meters ahead. Slightly below our present position. But it doesn’t look like…”

“Energize field.”

She made a few control adjustments and hit the button. “Field radiating full power.”

“Again!”

Once again she stabbed at the button and studied the panel readout. “Field… On. All parameters normal.”

“Final approach will be on foot,” the Russian ordered. “Machine is one of yours, so you will conduct recce. When you are satisfied that all is in order, report back and I will bring up crawler. Is that clear?”

“Yes, perfectly. But…”

“Is no danger, Lieutenant,” Golonev said, forcing courtesy into his voice. After all, he told himself, they were still a team on a mission. “Disabling field is fail safe. But we must follow standard procedure. And procedure says…”

“Shit, I know—procedure says that final approach must be on foot. Well, wish me luck.”

He muttered a mild pleasantry in Russian as she unsealed her hatch and swung out of the cabin. The crawler’s biomonitor, data-linked with the woman’s suit, signaled her nervousness by a twinkling handful of yellow stress lights. He slid across to her now-empty seat and peered through the periscope. It took a second for the optics to automatically compensate to his eyes, another second or two to snap to wide-angle lens.

Her bobbing white helmet and upper body filled the right side of the panorama. The rogue war machine was visible over her left shoulder, its dark silhouette curiously foreshortened and vaguely familiar in the optics. Golonev increased magnification and adjusted the contrast.

He opened the intersuit channel with a crackle of static. “Lieutenant Mitado, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear.”

“What is your distance to machine?”

“Approximately one hundred meters.”

“Does anything look unusual?”

“Well, sir. I tried to tell you earlier, I don’t recognize the model and…”

“No. Look closer. There are three—no, four—objects on ground in front of machine. Close together. Can you see them?”

“Yes, just barely. I’m almost there and… My god!”

“Report, Lieutenant!”

The sun glinted cruelly from the white-suited figure’s visor. She had pivoted around and was running back toward him with an awkward gait. Her breath was harsh and gasping on the circuit. Spurts of sand erupted around her ankles, accompanied by an odd barking sound. She went down.

“Lieutenant Mitado, report!” he yelled.

There was an unintelligible gurgle and background noise as though someone had violently dragged a stick along a picket fence. Then there was silence. The biomonitor panel flashed pure red—the monochromatic announcement of death.

Heat waves shimmered in the periscope’s field of vision. The crumpled white figure lay absolutely still. There was no movement from the rogue machine. Golonev turned audio gain full up. Static hissed crazily, but no human sound intruded into the noise. His hand was poised above the long-range comms panel. It took iron will to still the impulse drilled into him by fifteen years of service: when in doubt, report. But the fatal decision had been his. He had lost a junior officer. If the situation was salvageable, it was now his duty to salvage it. The rogue machine’s cripple circuits had failed, a technical fault of stunning proportions. Somehow he had to find out why and put the machine out of commission. Afterward, he would report.

Golonev nudged the helmet’s ventilation blower to max to dry sweat that stung his eyes. He scanned the surrounding landscape, searching for a way to get closer unobserved. If he could make it without being killed, there were the manual override switches, fitted to every machine that took part in the war games.

His first periscope pass missed the ravine. But, as he panned back from right to left, its irregular shadow caught his eye. Narrow, three meters deep, it cut through the hillock and snaked toward the escarpment, to within perhaps a dozen meters of the killer machine. If he kept low it might just be possible.

Two ration packs and the suit’s life support module made an awkward load, but he strapped them all to his body and wriggled out of the cabin. A minute later he was stepping into the ravine’s steep “V”. The stony rubble turned the Russian’s footsteps into an awkward series of stumbles.

Golonev was breathing hard when at last he arrived at the escarpment. He sat down to catch his breath before tackling the slope. Tepid gulps of water injected into the helmet mouthpiece did little to refresh. He forced himself to remain still. He would need speed and strength at the top; there would be little time to rest.

Only when his breathing had slowed did he begin the climb. Meter by hard meter, Golonev pulled himself upward. After every handhold, he inspected the scuffed and dirty fabric of the suit. Tough material, but not indestructible. One tear meant a fatal dose of anthrax-2; the spores lay scattered on the desert.

Finally he hugged the loose, pebbly slope and heaved himself up until his eyes were just above the lip of the ravine. From the moment the Russian suspected explosive projectiles, he had expected to see something like this. But it wasn’t the sight of the old armored machine that chilled his blood. Twenty meters to the left was the shiny white of Mitado’s crumpled form—that he was prepared for. But directly in front of the Nazi tank were four human corpses, their exposed flesh peeling blackly under the sun. None was clad in protective gear.

He swallowed hard to quell a wave of revulsion, then turned his attention to the tank. It was the baked-earth color of the desert, dust-covered and filthy; ugly lumps of caked mud clotted the huge iron wheels that carried its track. Protruding from the squat turret a short, evil-looking barrel pointed into the desert.

Half-forgotten academy lore spilled from his memory: Panzerkampfwagen IV. Panzer IV. Twenty-plus tons, 75-millimeter gun. Seven-kilogram rounds that could pierce a hundred millimeters of steel at 1500 meters. The deadliest tank to fight in the North African desert. Rommel’s best weapon, crewed by men who had fought a real war…

Men.

He stared at the corpses. Could it actually have happened? Given surprise, such a machine could have knocked out some of the Flashlights, but surely not all of them. Unless… the zone bio-safeties! Of course! His side’s Flashlights would not return fire at a crewed target. But how could unprotected men in an antique war machine have gotten so far into this contaminant-sown wasteland? As though they had accidently stumbled into the middle of it. Stumbled through a door in time.

The storm!

What was it Mitado had said before she died? Once every ten years. A lightning storm once every ten years. If the warp generators were running. If the timing were perfect. If… my god—could it be possible?

There had been no A.I. failure. The killer was a German tank snatched forward in time, but not mere minutes. More than eighty years! Five men, the crew of a Panzer IV, had been caught in a terrible snare.

Five men. Four corpses.

He forced himself to study the tableaux of death. They had collapsed in a rough circle around a long-dead campfire. That Panzer commander—what would he have done after battling strange war machines and winning? Given his men rest. But not all of them, surely. One, at least, would remain in the tank—monitoring the tactical radio, awaiting orders from a company commander long since turned to dust. One man, protected by a shell of steel, who could have survived a little longer than the others. One man, sickening to the point of death, watching his comrades die horribly, his mind filled with the horror of poison gas. One man who could machinegun an enemy approaching on foot. The spurts of sand around Mitado’s feet. The picket fence staccato. It all made sense now. There was a man alive in the tank!

Machinegun. Panzer IV had two: hull and turret. Hull’s couldn’t hit him unless the tank turned. The engine was silent. And the turret pointed out into the desert.

Golonev elbowed himself onto the level ground and stood. He lowered the ration packs to the ground, picked up a jagged chunk of rock and walked toward the Panzer. A dozen strides brought him to where he could stroke the dimpled smoothness of a welded seam. The Russian balanced the rock on the platform above the track. Using the iron wheels as toeholds, he clambered onto the deck. He retrieved his rock and examined the turret top. The hatch was tilted open a bit, a window of death. Survival inside would have been a bit longer than for anyone totally exposed; but still the inevitable would come—anthrax-induced insanity followed by slow, wasting death.

Golonev raised the rock and brought it down sharply on the turret. The clang echoed hollowly through the hull. There was nothing in reply, not even a groan. He grasped the edge of the hatch cover and hinged it open with a protesting squeak. The Panzer’s interior was shrouded in shadow.

The Russian could pick out the turret positions of the commander, loader, and gun layer. It was difficult to squeeze through the narrow opening. When his helmet top had finally passed below the level of the turret top he paused, heart thudding, waiting for his eyes to adapt to dimness. The interior was incredibly cramped—much more so than the recce crawler which had roughly similar external dimensions. Rounds of ammunition and boxed supplies were piled everywhere. The driver’s seat, low in the hull to the left, was empty—just as he had expected. To the right, a motionless khaki-clad body was slumped forward over the hull machine gun; a solidifying pool of vomit soiled the deck beneath its head. Golonev muttered quick thanks that the protection suit was impervious to odors.

Fascinated, a student once again, he studied the archaic details. Magnetic compass and charts for land navigation. Ration tins labeled in German. Antique pistol with spare clips of ammunition. He stood on the tips of his toes to examine the beautifully-machined breech of the main gun and the high explosive rounds that were clipped to the inner skin of the turret.

The slash to his thigh was only a dull blow at first, before nerve endings could react to the pain. And just as the pain began, the stink of the Panzer assailed his nostrils. Rancid oil, vomit, excretory odors. He stared downward with horror at the gash in his suit, knowing that he was looking at a death sentence. He could almost feel the anthrax-2 spores filling his lungs and radioactive filth entering his bloodstream.

The final exertion had carried the Panzer crewman beyond the point of death. The German lay face up, eyes staring blankly, bloody-edged bayonet clutched in a white-knuckled grip.

“Why?” demanded Golonev, not expecting a reply. The only living man in the Panzer whispered again, “Why?”

A base hospital might be able to save him if he could get there in under a quarter-hour. Even then, the Russian realized, there would be immediate amputation and sequential organ failure. So what was the point? He unsealed his helmet and twisted it from his suit. Off came the gloves, too, and the upper body protection. It was a relief to be free of it all—to prepare to meet death like a man.

How much longer? He looked down at the dead Nazi and asked, “How long did you have, Fritz?”

The answering silence was comforting. It wasn’t so bad, he decided, to share a Panzer with a man who had fought well and died. There was a ring of honor to it. A comforting finality.

But it wouldn’t do to waste time. Much could be learned. No one had ever said that waiting for death couldn’t be interesting.

The Russian started with the big gun. After a few sweaty tries, he managed to load a shell and trigger the firing circuit with an ear-numbing detonation. The acrid stench of powder mercifully overwhelmed the other odors. Then another blast, more felt than heard. Not so hard once he knew how. The machinegun was next. Easier, this time. The belt-fed ammo rattled though the breech mechanism at a light touch on the trigger.

He turned his attention to the driver’s position. The thick-padded seat fit him comfortably. Levers and pedals moved with oiled ease. He studied the controls and instruments. Compass. Engine gauges. Periscope that gave a bright, surprisingly complete view of the way ahead. Banks of switches and buttons, one labeled ANLASSEN. Starter? He touched it experimentally. Far behind him, metallic chattering vibrated. He touched the switch again. The chattering was followed by harsh coughing. And again. The cough became a dull roar. All the gauge needles sprang to wavering life.

The Panzer came alive. It took a few minutes to learn the feel of the pedals and control levers. Not as sophisticated as the recce crawler, he decided, but the general principle was the same. In short order he could nudge the tank forward and backward. And with one track going forward, the other back, the machine slewed from side to side with a stiff wallowing motion.

“Where to, Fritz?”

The corpse’s hand flopped in the direction of the open desert, a signal to a man whose mind was disintegrating under the onslaught of anthrax-2. Golonev chuckled and eased the tank past the rotting Germans. As he rumbled past dead Lieutenant Mitado, he threw her a casual salute.

Once over the crest of the hillock, he stopped the Panzer and clambered back to the turret. He sat in the gun layer’s position and traversed the 75-millimeter weapon from side to side. It was easy to center the recce crawler in the sights.

Hell, why not? he thought through the hissing in his skull. As he struggled into the loader’s seat, the first choke of nausea wracked his throat. But it was quickly forgotten as he rammed home a round and slammed shut the breech.

Fire!

When his ears stopped ringing, he moved back to the commander’s position and stood to peer through the hatch. The recce crawler was torn in two, its front end reduced to twisted scrap.

“Not bad!” Golonev congratulated himself in his native tongue.

He clutched the hatch combing until the wave of dizziness passed. The stench of seared plastihull hung heavily in the desert air. He caressed warm steel and stared out into the desert toward the setting sun.

A soft voice, whispering cunning logic, murmured into his ear: they all deserve to die. The ones who stole glory from war. Three shells lobbed into Desert War Headquarters would do the job nicely. The Tripoli bio-safeties would be useless against the Panzer. If he could just live long enough, it might be possible.

“Fritz! I think we could get your machine into the cargo bay of my transport. What do you say?”

Through the armor plating of the tank, oddly transparent now, his fellow crewman winked in sly agreement.

 

Drot Detail

by Mark Anthony Brennan

 

Bledsoe nudged the thing with the toe of his boot. Orange body fluid oozed out of the shredded flesh.

Huh. Xeener meat.

The drots had done a good job on this one. It was a walker. Or it had been. The fat main body was now just a charred chunk, about the size of a two-man cruiser. The long, spindly legs were shattered and strewn around the main body.

Bledsoe kept poking through the carcass with the barrel of his pulse rifle to make sure there were no detachables. Finally he was satisfied and he looked up to scan the surrounding terrain.

There were some low hills in the distance, covered in green growth. However, down in the flats, where only the smallest, gnarly shoots could make their way through the purple-tinged rock, the ground was bare. Up above the small first sun was making its way up into the milky white sky. They had to head back before the second sun rose, or else they’d risk over-heating their suits.

Years of special campaign training and they send him out here. Out here in the fringes to do clean up detail. Man, what he’d give to get back to some real action.

“Parij,” said Bledsoe, chinning his communicator bar. “All clear over here.”

“Yeah, here too,” replied Parij. “I’m heading back over. I’ll be right—” There was silence for a few seconds. “Hey, wait.”

“What is it?” demanded Bledsoe.

“Shit! Flyers!”

“Flyers? What, here? Hang on, I’ll be right there.”

Bledsoe engaged his boosters so that with each step he was propelled twenty meters through the air. He leapt over their cruiser and headed for a ridge. Parij had to be just on the other side.

What the hell were flyers doing in this sector? They’d never come across anything other than burrowers and walkers around here.

Bledsoe saw Parij as soon as he cleared the top of the ridge. She was standing about fifty meters away with her pulse rifle aimed in the sky. One flyer was almost directly above her. Two others were approaching from a distance. There were two bright flashes from the end of Parij’s pulser and the flyer above her fell from the sky, its huge, leathery wings crumpling around it. It hit the ground in a heap just as Bledsoe landed next to Parij.

“I’ll watch for the others,” ordered Parij. “You check that one out.”

“Yes, sir, Lieutenant,” hissed Bledsoe. Whatever you fuckin’ say.

The white flesh of the wings fluttered in the breeze like a mass of sheets. The wings made the flyers look massive, but Bledsoe knew that the main body, buried beneath its broken wings, was only a fraction of the size of the walker he’d just seen over the ridge.

In several spots there was a rippling, which at first could be mistaken for just a wafting caused by the wind. But Bledsoe knew better—there was movement underneath the blanket of wings. The movements became discernable mounds, each one heading for the nearest edge. Detachables. About a dozen of them.

The first detachable emerged from under the wings just a few meters in front of Bledsoe. It was a small walker, no bigger than a man’s hand. Vaguely reminiscent of a large spider, the walker’s body was delicately supported by a multitude of wire-like legs. Bledsoe blasted it with a silent pulse. There was nothing but a shallow hole in the rocky ground where the walker had just stood.

Bledsoe then walked around the flyer carcass, blasting the emerging walkers as he saw them. It didn’t take long to get them all.

“All clear, Lieutenant,” he reported, walking over to where Parij stood. “Where’re those other two?”

“I dunno. They were headed this way, but now I’ve lost visual contact. I’ve ordered in a unit of drots. They should be here any minute.”

The two of them scanned the sky. There was nothing but an empty white expanse.

“We shouldn’t be here,” muttered Parij. “I put us in harm’s way.”

“Don’t blame yourself, sir. You couldn’t have known there were flyers in this sector.”

“I should have known. It’s my job to know.”

“Hey, come on, stop beatin’ yourself up. We’re just here to do a job. It’s not up to us to figure out what the meat is up to. That’s up to Lamarr and his…” Bledsoe shifted his shoulders and waved his hands mockingly, “…empaths. Lieutenant, we’re soldiers. We just kill the enemy.”

“For god’s sake,” sighed Parij, “can’t you get it through that skull of yours? They aren’t the enemy. They’re friendlies. This is what they want. We’re doing them a favor.”

“Do you know how fucked up that sounds? Listen to yourself—”

“Christ!”

Parij was staring at something behind Bledsoe. He spun his head to see. There was a flurry of darkness above and behind him. A huge mouth, sharp teeth, claws—all bearing down on him. In the same instant in the corner of his eye his saw three flashes in rapid succession. The darkness collapsed, dropped. The flyer landed no more than two meters from Bledsoe’s feet.

Holy shit.

Bledsoe gulped. His heart was pounding in his chest.

“Thanks, Lieutenant,” he gasped. “I owe you one.”

“Forget it. The drots can clean up. Let’s move. Fast!”

With booster-enhanced strides the two of them made the top of the ridge in a few seconds. Then their hearts sank. To their right, less than a hundred meters away, there was a flyer swooping down in their direction. To the left there were two more flyers not much further away. And in the distance there were others. Six, seven, maybe more. Their cruiser was still several jumps away.

We’re dead. We won’t make it.

“Where the hell are those goddamned drots?” moaned Parij.

Bledsoe took a deep breath. “You take the one on the right. I’ll take the left.”

“Got it,” said Parij.

The two of them held their pulsers up at shoulder height and prepared to leap. Just as they were about to move the flyer to their right suddenly changed direction. It had been diving down directly at them but now it veered off to its right, cutting across in front of them. The creature flapped its wings and headed in the direction of the other two flyers.

“Now’s our chance,” barked Parij. “Move!”

As they bounded across the flats towards their cruiser Bledsoe kept his eye on the flyer. The creature let out a shriek that sounded like gravel landing on metal. Then it tucked in its wings and lunged at one of the other flyers.

Oh my god. It’s attacking one of its own.

The two flyers clashed in midair in a tangle of wings and claws. The two creatures fell to the ground but continued to scuffle. The remaining flyer hovered above them for a few seconds then dropped down to join in the fray.

“What the hell? What are they doing?”

“Not sure,” said Parij who had reached the cruiser ahead of Bledsoe, “but let’s get out of here, soldier.”

* * * * *

“What’d they say?” Bledsoe was busying himself in the cramped cargo area behind the seats as the cruiser carried them rapidly back towards base.

“It’s a new phase,” replied Parij, removing the communications headset. “The members of this colony have reached the point that they are aware of the competition they are in. Now they are battling each other.”

“Yeah, you don’t say,” muttered Bledsoe, clamping his helmet to the wall. Before taking off he’d seen several of the other flyers in the distance attacking each other.

“The empaths have noticed that several other colonies have reached this phase. The drots may not be required much longer.”

“Empaths,” growled Bledsoe.

The empaths were the ones that created this whole mixed-up situation. They were the ones that figured out that the members of the Khyan colonies needed to be killed off in order for the colony to develop. Even though the exploratory expeditions had detected no intelligent life, the empaths sensed—no, they felt—the colonies grow in strength as their members were killed. So the Khyan Campaign was initiated with the use of drots. And the Khyan appreciated it. Or so the empaths said.

“Get with the program, Bledsoe,” said Parij from her seat. “We’re not here to question orders.”

“This isn’t a military operation, Lieutenant. Why are we even here? Anyone could operate these drots. Why do they need us?”

“They need our expertise.”

Bledsoe looked up from the equipment and stared at the back of Parij’s head. “Oh come on. When does Lamarr ever listen to us?”

Several metal orbs whizzed past the window, heading in the opposite direction. Bledsoe crawled over and peered out the rear window at the fighting robots disappearing behind them.

Oh, right on time. Thanks a lot.

Bledsoe scrambled forward and squirmed into his seat next to Parij.

“This campaign is ridiculous. The empaths even admit they can’t communicate with these xeeners. It’s all based on vague feelings. It’s bullshit.”

“Don’t call them xeeners, they aren’t enemy aliens.” Parij turned and looked Bledsoe in the eye. “It makes sense to me. Each colony is really a single entity. It has a collective awareness but it needs to develop in order to exhibit intelligence.”

“Yeah, yeah. And as more of its members are killed off, the more it develops. I’ve heard the lecture, sir. But what sense does that make? The more we kill them off the better they feel?”

Parij sighed. “Yes. The fewer members it has the stronger and more developed the collective awareness becomes. I guess its awareness becomes more concentrated.”

“Well, why are we wasting time sending in drots to fight them individually? I say we go in there and carpet bomb the colonies. That’ll help them reach… nirvana.” Bledsoe smiled to himself on his choice of words.

“That won’t work and you know it. Something like that the collective would sense as an aberration, an accident. Then it would just replace the members it’s lost. It must be a true battle. A sort of survival of the fittest.”

“This whole thing stinks, Lieutenant. On the basis of some whacked-out empaths we’re supposed to believe that by slaughtering these xeeners we’re doing them a favor? And they’ll thank us for it?”

“You’ve got to think beyond the human paradigm…”

“Jesus! Now you sound like one of them.”

Parij grinned suddenly. “Okay. Okay.”

Parij turned back to stare out at the landscape moving swiftly below them. The rocky flats had given way to gentle rolling hills covered in greenery. Just barely visible in the distance ahead were the rectangular gray buildings of the base.

Bledsoe gazed admiringly at Parij’s profile. Her high cheekbones, her delicate nose and chin, her rich, dark complexion.

“You saved me today, Larla,” he said softly. “Thanks.”

The corner of Parij’s mouth turned up. “Don’t mention it,” she said, still staring forward.

“Maybe I’ll show you my appreciation tonight.”

Parij blushed but she didn’t turn her head. “We’re on duty, mister,” she frowned.

Bledsoe took a deep breath and sat bolt upright. “Yes, sir.

* * * * *

“Mr. Lamarr, I wish you would reconsider.”

“Lieutenant Parij, we cannot leave now,” said Lamarr. “That’s preposterous.”

“Sir, I have…” Parij glanced over at Bledsoe standing beside her, “we have… been on countless campaigns. I ask that you trust our judgement.”

“But this is not war. I think you forget that. This is a benevolent peer race contact. My department has well-defined protocols for this situation.”

Parij was silent for a few seconds. She and Bledsoe stood in their military uniforms, their hands clasped behind their backs in respect. They stood before Lamarr’s desk, which was an elaborately carved block of dark wood. Around them there were layers upon layers of multi-colored drapes that wafted lazily in an artificial breeze. Behind Lamarr there was a waterfall emptying into a pool nestled between moss-covered rocks. The pool was surrounded by tropical terrestrial plants.

Lamarr’s office was a far cry from the metal barracks that Parij and Bledsoe were housed in.

“If you will not come with us now,” said Parij finally, “then I would ask that we be permitted to stay.”

Lamarr stood up from his desk. He wore loose-fitting, flowing garments that glittered under the lights. He walked over to the pool and looked down into the waters before answering.

“My department is eternally grateful to the Armed Forces,” Lamarr said, turning around to face Parij and Bledsoe. “You will both be commended highly—your drone robot campaign was a complete success. But that phase is over now. A military presence is no longer required.”

“Sir,” said Parij slowly, “the Khyan have advanced beyond our understanding. Even the empaths cannot comprehend their actions, their motivations.”

To the right of Lamarr’s desk Ekmas held up his hand in protest. Ekmas had the body of a man, but below the skin there was a network of tubes. This was a fypol, a worm-like creature about the diameter of a human finger. The fypol was everywhere under the skin, making Ekmas’s body appear lumpy and misshapen. The head was a web of intertwining tubes. The nose and ears were lost in the snarl. The eyes were set in deep hollows and the mouth was merely a gaping hole.

Ekmas was a human/fypol symbiont. And an empath.

“Lieutenant,” breathed Ekmas, “that is not quite correct.” His voice was soft and airy like a gentle breeze. As he spoke, the fypol shifted and squirmed beneath the human skin. “It is true that the Khyan are extremely foreign and therefore difficult to understand. But we know they are progressing in their natural cycle. They are close to attaining their ‘true’ beings, thanks to our help. Intellectually the collectives are indeed well beyond humankind. But some things remain clear—they see us as friends, they are grateful for our assistance, and they wish to contact us to express their gratitude.”

Bledsoe shifted and opened his mouth to speak. His glanced over at Parij. She gave him a nod.

“Mr. Lamarr, sir, if I may speak?” said Bledsoe. “If these… creatures are advanced beyond our comprehension then that makes them unpredictable.”

“Spoken like a true warrior,” smiled Lamarr. “But I repeat, this is not war. We appreciate your concern but we have the expertise in these matters.”

“But,” argued Bledsoe, “we can’t guarantee your safety.”

“You weren’t sent here to protect us,” lisped Ekmas. “Our safety was never the issue.”

Really? You ever been out on the flats, pal?

Bledsoe found it disconcerting to look at the writhing mass of Ekmas’s head, so he kept his eyes on Lamarr. “Sir, you are from the Conservation Department. Isn’t it your mandate not to interfere?”

At the corner of his eye Bledsoe saw Parij shoot him a glare of disapproval. He pretended not to notice.

“Well…” Lamarr coughed. “We… we disrupted their normal life-cycle. We eliminated their natural predators when we first arrived. We thought we were protecting them. It was our duty to make amends, so we brought in the drots.”

Typical. You fuck up and then you call us in to clean up the mess.

“But,” said Parij, “now that they’re evolving without you…” She shrugged and raised her eyebrow questioningly.

“The protocols on first contact with a benevolent peer race override all other directives,” said Lamarr.

“We will await the appearance of the ‘true’ beings,” breezed Ekmas.

“Please forgive my companion’s abundance of caution,” said Parij, glancing sourly over at Bledsoe. “However, may we remain, sir? As observers.”

Lamarr took a deep breath. “Very well. But strictly as observers.”

* * * * *

The observation module was a huge squat cylinder. Circling its lower edge was a wide viewing platform. Today the platform was crowded with over a hundred of the base personnel, there to witness the contact with the Khyan being.

To the eye it appeared the platform was out in the open air as the module hovered above the flats. However, with no wind, sound or smells coming from the outside it was obvious that the platform was protected within a shielding bubble, invisible though the shield was.

Bledsoe was glad that they were also protected from the heat. With both suns in the sky the flats fifty meters below were being baked. An exposed human wouldn’t last more than a few minutes down there. But, of course, the toxic air would kill them first.

“So what happens now?” asked Bledsoe. The module had been positioned over the Khyan colony for well over an hour.

Parij shrugged. “I don’t think they know.”

Most of the crowd was over by the railing looking down at the colony. Bledsoe and Parij stood away from the edge by themselves. They’d seen the colony many times before. It was just a large mound, a hill really, riddled with holes. The holes were for the members of the colony to come and go.

“But they know it’s today?”

“Yes,” replied Parij. “The empaths say that there is now only one member remaining in there. That member becomes the entity’s ‘true’ self. It shouldn’t be long now.”

Like they know what the fuck they’re talking about.

There were empaths placed on raised daises every ten meters or so around the edge of the viewing platform. Bledsoe looked over at the one closest to them. It was sitting in a square tank, bathed in a yellow liquid. The fypol was thicker than the one hosted by Ekmas. It was difficult to make out the figure of the human host, whose skin was stretched obscenely by the quivering mass of tubes.

Bledsoe grimaced in disgust. Looks way more fypol than human. You mean there’s a man in there somewhere?

Bledsoe twisted his head and peered up at a balcony that overlooked the viewing platform. There were about a dozen people up there—the base’s elite. In the center stood Lamarr, resplendent in a golden robe. Ekmas was close to him. Lamarr bent his head in Ekmas’s direction, then suddenly shot out his arm, pointing at something below. The crowd on the viewing platform were muttering excitedly over by the railing.

Parij raised her eyebrow. “Show time?”

The two of them pushed their way through the crowd until they could see the colony below. The mound was now crisscrossed with a series of cracks. Even through the bubble shield they could hear a rumbling coming from the colony. It was a rumbling like distant thunder. The noise was growing louder. And the cracks were getting wider.

Bledsoe instinctively reached for his waist. But there was no weapon there. Lamarr’s strict orders. Parij looked down at Bledsoe’s hand then frowned at him, shaking her head in disapproval.

Rocks on the surface of the mound were now bouncing as the entire colony shook. The cracks grew ever wider and chunks of rock were breaking off the edges of the fissures, collapsing inward. The noise was intense—it was as if the planet was about to split in two.

Then there was silence. Everything below was still.

A few people in the crowd gasped. Bledsoe exchanged a quick look with Parij. She looked as puzzled as he was. Then…

Boom!

With an ear-splitting crack the colony below exploded in a flash of bright light. Several people screamed. Everyone jumped back in shock. But they were safe. The debris from the explosion rained harmlessly on the face of the bubble shield.

Everyone shielded their eyes as the light became brighter. Bledsoe became disoriented. Was the module surrounded by flame from the explosion? It seemed that the light was engulfing them and rising. It was difficult to tell—he couldn’t take his hand down from his eyes, the light was too intense.

Some people were still screaming. Many more were yelling at each other. A few were running for the exits.

“Wait!” came a booming voice.

It was Lamarr. Bledsoe looked over, realizing that the light had subsided. He blinked as the after-glare lingered in his eyes. He still had to shield his eyes from the bright sun above.

Lamarr had his arms raised, waving at the crowd to calm down. “Don’t worry you are safe. There’s no danger.” He paused and leaned over to listen to something Ekmas was telling. Lamarr nodded. “Look,” he said, pointing upwards.

Everyone raised their heads. It wasn’t the sun that was bothering Bledsoe, it was another globe that hovered just above the observation module. It was difficult to judge the size, but it was at least the size of the module. It shone brilliantly, but not so brightly that it was unbearable to look at. There was an unevenness to the light within the globe. It twinkled, as if the globe was crammed with millions of tiny stars.

“That’s… that’s…” stammered Bledsoe.

“Yes,” said Parij, grinning at him, “it’s the Khyan. Still think it’s meat?”

Bledsoe shook his head, feeling sheepish. Okay, you got me. Never seen a xeener pull that.

Bledsoe leaned over the railing and peered down. Through the swirling dust and falling debris he could glimpse the remains of the colony. It looked as if it had been nuked. But it was clean, no scorch marks. Just a large gaping hole in the middle of the flats.

The crowd chattered excitedly in the odd glow. Parij had a look of awe on her face as she craned her neck to get a view of the Khyan globe. Bledsoe followed her gaze. As he stared into the shifting glints of white light Bledsoe was bathed in a wave of euphoria. The points of lights gleamed with a benign purity. He was tempted to reach up his hand to try and touch the ‘stars’.

How could he have been so foolish? There was nothing to fear here. This was warmth, this was safety.

Then the globe started to rise. Slowly at first, but it gained more speed as it climbed into the sky.

“Where’s it going?” asked Bledsoe. The grumblings of protest from the crowd echoed his disappointment.

The empath near them thrashed in its yellow liquid. Its body slapped against the sides of the tank. Under the tightly stretched human skin the fypol tubes were blushing a bright purple.

“It looks agitated,” said Bledsoe.

“Hmm, just in an empathic state,” said Parij. “That’s how they get.”

The Khyan globe was rapidly diminishing into the white sky.

“Well, what’s with the contact?” asked Bledsoe. “Is that it?”

“Not sure.”

Parij looked up at the elite balcony. Lamarr was in consultation with Ekmas. Apparently he liked what he was hearing. He was smiling broadly and nodded every so often. After a while Lamarr turned away from Ekmas and starting talking to members of his senior staff.

“What the hell is going on?” asked Bledsoe impatiently.

Parij shrugged. “Let’s ask someone.” She strode over to a tech in a white tunic. He had his finger to his ear, listening to something on his headset. “Hey, what’s happening up there?” demanded Parij.

The tech frowned and held up his hand to silence Parij. After a few seconds he lowered his hand from his ear. “It seems they cannot make contact with us,” he said.

“What? Why not?” asked Parij.

“The Khyan realize we are not ‘true’ beings. They can’t contact anything less.”

Parij smirked. “They think we’re just members? Just members of a colony?”

The tech shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. They think we’re just agents or something. But not a real part of a colony.”

I don’t believe it. I don’t fuckin’ believe it. “They think we’re drots,” Bledsoe laughed. “They think we’re goddamned drots.”

Parij smiled but waved at Bledsoe to be quiet. “So why is he so happy about it?” Parij jerked her head in the direction of Lamarr who was still beaming as he walked among his staff.

“Well,” said the tech, “the Khyan have figured out where our colony is and they’re all heading there to express their gratitude. This is a feather in Lamarr’s cap.”

What?

Bledsoe looked towards the horizon. The Khyan globe was now many kilometers away. Over above the distant mountains another point of light emerged like a daytime star. Then Bledsoe noticed other lights to the right and left. They were all moving rapidly and converging in on one another.

“They’re… they’re going to Earth?” demanded Parij.

“Of course,” said the tech. “The empaths figure they’re—”

“They’re all going,” asked Bledsoe, cutting the tech short. “All of them?”

“Well… yes,” said the tech. He looked nervously at Bledsoe and then backed away into the crowd.

Bledsoe stared squarely at Parij. She looked shaken. There was panic in her eyes. Finally she took a deep breath.

“Come on, soldier,” she barked, turning away. “We have to contact Fleet Command.”

“This is bad, isn’t it?” Bledsoe gasped as he trotted alongside Parij. Their boots clanged against the metal deck as they headed for an exit. “I mean, if this was a diplomatic mission they’d just send one or two emissaries, right?”

Parij clamped her jaw but didn’t answer.

“But them all going in force,” continued Bledsoe, “that’s something else, isn’t it?”

Parij nodded grimly.

“I knew it,” spat Bledsoe. “I knew it. This is them returning the favor, right?”

Parij paused at the exit and turned to look at Bledsoe. “Yes, Lonnie. They are going to Earth to do there what we did here. To make us happy.”

“Oh my god, Larla,” whispered Bledsoe. “Why aren’t you telling him?” Bledsoe pointed back over his shoulder in the direction of Lamarr on the balcony.

“Since when does he listen to us?” said Parij wryly.

Bledsoe swallowed hard. “Can we warn Earth in time?”

“Even if the message gets through from Fleet Command in time,” said Parij, shaking her head, “what can anyone do against those?”

Bledsoe’s shoulders sagged as the full implication of the situation hit him. “Shit. What chance do we have?”

Parij put her hand on Bledsoe’s shoulder and peered into his eyes. “Let’s just hope these… xeeners continue to think of us as drots.”

 

Down and Out on Minerva

Anibabe-Combat Gear bw

Illustration by Robert Quill

by Lloyd Montgomery

 

I ran low and fast through head-high brush, trying to keep quiet. Flechettes buzzed at me through the foliage, leaving behind the scent of freshly mown grass. There were at least forty hostiles after me. The wind was from behind and I could smell their fear and excitement, even through the alien forest. I couldn’t possibly kill them all before they caught up. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.

“Reen, cover me. I’m falling back through you,” I said over the platoon circuit.

“SAW’s dry, Khan. Rockets outgoing.” My support man’s Squad Automatic Weapon had run out of ammo, he was covering my retreat with the rockets in his Skorpion. My fur stood on end in the overly dry Minervan summer air as the six mini-rockets screamed past and prox blew about fifty meters behind me, in the midst of the enemy line. The rest of my team opened up, an impromptu ambush.

Crouching down, I turned to assess the damage. The mini-rocks from Reen’s sidearm had downed at least fourteen indigs. The rest of their company hit the ground as the sound of explosions filled the forest, forcing us to take them out the hard way. Blaster bolts, guided a-pers missiles, and hypervelocity shot tore through the trees and into the enemy line. More of those nasty little flechettes came back at us; they were deadly at close range but lost power over distance. I still had several stuck in my armor. Bringing my sniper rifle into line, I shot at the dappled-brown uniforms that my head-up-display indicated no one else had targeted.

Thirty seconds and it was over, my team had cut down better than twice their number.

“Great Shiva, someone tell me they stopped chasing us.” The enemy had been following for a day or more, since we hit their Command Post and took out most of their officers and communications gear.

“Can I eat any of them, Khan?” Reen rumbled. I ignored him, as I always did. I’m told he asked the same question to his last platoon leaders every time he hit dirt. To my knowledge he had never actually eaten a fallen enemy, Hs’Thai just have a perverse sense of humor.

I moved my team into some heavy brush, away from the last skirmish. The whole area for kilometers around was light to medium forest with scattered spots of thick brush. Perfect terrain for sneaky Explorer fighting—one of the remaining things we had going for us.

“Marty, give me an update,” I told my Commo/SigInt man, a thoroughly professional career human. He had been in the Explorers past ten and never cared that I was Ithri, female, and younger than him. Since the day I grew stripes on my uniform to match my fur he was one of the ones I could count on to back me up. The Long Range Explorer Corps was his religion and the CS Apache his church.

“Sat says there’s another bunch moving this way. Close to a hundred, max. Looks like light infantry.” He was reading data coming down from the Command satellite. “ETA fifteen minutes, spread out along this front, two to three hundred meters wide.”

“What’s word on our pickup?”

“Same as before: Quit dicking around and fall back to Alt 2. Lander is on the way.”

I switched to Command freq, “Command, Recon 3. Can we get Lightning yet?” They had turned us down once already, enemy atmospheric craft were giving them problems.

“Recon 3, Command here. Air Support is unavailable for one hour, we are re-tasking now. Recommend you fall back to Landing Zone Alt 2.”

That drew a muttered, “Thanks for the tip, Einstein,” from Lee, my surviving Corporal and fellow sniper. She had access to the Command line too.

“Status of Primary LZs and Alt 1?”

“Alt 2 is closest still open, Recon 3.” That meant the natives had already overrun the other four.

Intelligence had really blown it. Minerva was supposed to be a minor planet in the Rim Worlds, full of pre-spaceflight barbarians of all races, still recovering from the Fall of the Empire almost two hundred years earlier. Confederation government had found the place, sent in Contact teams to open relations, and—when the natives had slaughtered the diplomats—fell back on the Explorer Corps to straighten things out. We had been the first wave of the pacification force. Our job was to establish a perimeter for the rest of the Ground troops, gather intel, and harass enemy Command.

The whole op had gone wrong from the beginning. Solar flare activity made communications sporadic and forced the Task Force to move to a safer orbit. Then our lander hit heavy atmospheric ionization during its run, ruining its stealth capabilities. By the time my team was on the ground the natives had triple-A and interceptors airborne. We got out but the dropship took heavy fire while leaving. When the rest of the battalion was finally down and out a small war had started. The Minervans had been at war with each other for over a century, but they were more than happy to take a break and shoot at us for a change. What should have been a 36-hour battle had lasted over 72 hours. Half my platoon was injured or dead and the rest of us were running low.

I checked my group, everyone who could had reloaded and taken some water, “Time to move.” My platoon shouldered weapons and helped injured comrades to their feet.

“Where to?” Lee asked. She’d taken several hits, the only things keeping her going were the drugs in her armor. She smelled of weapons fire, blood, and fatigue.

“Alt 2.” I surveyed the terrain, mostly light woods and heavy undergrowth ahead of us. Brush fires burned randomly behind us, highlighting the path we had cut through enemy territory. Any dangerous animals had already pulled out in the face of superior firepower.

I was unhappy, all the fun had gone out of this fight hours ago. We were no longer the hunters, the prey had turned on us.

“Sarge, there’s a couple hundred indigs and what looks like a light armored company spread out between us and there,” Marty stated, looking up from his gear. “Just thought I’d bring it up.”

“Only available, we go low and slow. Ch’Chura, take point.” Usually I get an Ithri to go first, we felines are natural hunters, but the other two in my group had gotten themselves killed. They had both been males, smelling that I was close to mating season, and had likely been trying to impress me.

Ch’Chura nodded, checked his 4mm railgun and said, “One hundred meters.” The Ch’ are small primates, more prey than predator, but they can move fast and quiet. I lost him in the brush two meters away.

The rest of us spread out behind him, Reen brought up the rear. He was another veteran that had been in a lot longer than I, twenty-four years at last count. Hs’Thai live for centuries, it’s that reptilian blood. They usually become mercenaries, but every so often one of the more honorable ones joins the Explorers or the Marines. Confed has learned to love them—they are a heavy ton better than most soldiers, even us Ithri. Reen had earned more decorations than the rest of the platoon combined. More important than that, no matter what we ran into we knew he had been there before. To him it was always just another op, another chance to make bad jokes.

While we were moving, I switched my visor over to Inventory; I needed to see if anyone still had heavy ordinance, anything capable of taking out armored vehicles. We had used most of our stuff pasting the enemy CP. The best I found were two high-explosive/anti-armor grenades on one of my regs.

“DeeVee, confirm two HEDP rounds,” I asked the one Sari in our platoon.

DeVarrosinsharra came back, “Confirm, Khan. I still have two live.” I could hear his breath rasping over the radio, he’d taken a hit in one of his four lungs. His blue skin would be mottled but he could keep going on one lung if he had to. “Sadly, those and the blaster on my Skorp are it.”

“Load them. We hit armor, use them first.” Everyone in my platoon carried a multi-purpose Skorpion for backup, except me and Ch’Chura. Confed issued them as pistols; they’re basically a multi-function blaster with four other weapons tacked on. We were both too small to use it as a sidearm and too proud to call it a longarm. I carried an LREC-issue sniper rifle and he carried that nasty Ch’ bullet-hose.

“Roger that, Khan,” DeeVee replied.

“Anyone carrying that doesn’t show up on Inventory?” Our offensive resources were badly depleted.

The response wasn’t encouraging. Marty and a couple of others carried hold-out pistols and two had picked up Minervan flechette guns as souvenirs; none of which would make a difference against tanks. I tried to make plans as we pushed through the forest.

Marty and Ch’Chura both informed me about the same time: We were getting close to the enemy armor. My tiny point-man was closer, I would defer to him on data.

“CeeCee, how’s it look?” I asked as the rest of my platoon took cover in the trees.

“Light tracks, Khan. They look more like Infantry Support than APCs or Main-Battle. Not much room for troops. Not unless all the infantry are my size.” Armored Personnel Carriers would have been a problem.

“O/D?” Meaning Offensive/Defensive capabilities.

“Armor looks like light steel or layered aluminum alloy, maybe forty mill on the glacis. Guns are two twenty-to-thirty mill cannon with a co-ax MG. Turret mounted with three-sixty FOF. Tracks are exposed and she’s buttoned up.”

“Any support troops?”

“None close. Scan says three, four hundred meters past.” Idiots, only a fool brings up armor without infantry to guard their flanks, I thought.

“How many tracks can you see?”

“Three in LOS, the trees cut down vision. About fifty meters between them.” The enemy’s technology was based on line-of-sight.

“I’m looking through you, slow sweep left to right.” I closed my helmet and switched to his POV, looking through his eyes. He was right. The armor was just sitting there—shimmering in the heat—without infantry cover close, their guns pointed away from us.

“They look like they’re trying to hide from whatever’s on the other side of them,” he added.

I got it then, “They’re hull-down, waiting to hit our Marines as they come this way. No one told them we were here.” Most of the fighting was taking place past them, where the Drop Zones were. We were behind their line of battle.

“We need to make a hole, kids. DeeVee, hit those two as we go.” I painted the two nearest vehicles and assigned two more of my best armed regs to harass the remaining track we could see. “After that we advance fast-fast, up through their infantry. Use scare stuff—rockets and flamers. Spook them and pass by. Reen, cover our rear.” We didn’t need to break this line, just get through. Once Command had our data they could task the Marines or Ground Attack to wipe out what was left. I sent a Priority Message upstairs just in case, dumping all of my intel. On my thigh datapad I quickly sketched out our line of advance and sent that also, Marty did the same.

“Command, Recon Three. Do you see this?” I had to make sure they knew what was happening.

“Recon Three, Command. We confirm. Ground Two and Five will cover your flanks from the other side of your advance. Can you break through?”

“Ree-See, Command.” That Remained to be Seen. “Is Lightning available yet?” Ground Attack ships would make things a whole lot easier.

“GA is fifteen away, Recon Three. We paint enemy activity behind you. They are closing fast, regiment or better.” Air Support would take too long and we couldn’t stick around, the enemy at our backs would reach us first. “Delta Four is incoming to make your pick-up. ETA is five.”

“We go now, Command. Tell Ground Two and Five to cover us in two.” I switched circuits. “Recon Three, advance. DeeVee hit them now.” His first grenade went out and nailed one track in the side. Typical Sari caution, aim for center-of-mass rather than risk a miss. It didn’t matter, though. His target cooked off, burning debris landing all around. His second shot had equal results. Two down. All we had to worry about was the third monster on our right.

Despite the a-pers rockets and blaster beams hitting her, the third track’s guns opened up. Her gunner was aiming low, looking for infantry. High-explosive shells and flechettes shrieked past or exploded around us. Another of my team went down, Relldren moved to pick him up. This was taking too long, seconds too long. If we stayed to fight, the track’s friends would close in and kill us.

“She’s staggering fire on her cannons, Khan.” Every couple of seconds one cannon would go silent as the loader switched to a fresh magazine. Staggering fire meant she could keep a constant stream outgoing. It also meant we would have a hell of a time taking the track out. Nearly two hundred years fighting each other had trained these people well.

“Recon Three right, throw smoke and leave her. Advance with the rest of us.” We had to take the chance. Smoke would blind the gunner for a few seconds. After that we’d be into her infantry, they couldn’t shoot without hitting their own troops.

We pushed forward, through the billowing smoke, into the enemy line. Even though we were shot up and down to sidearms, their groundpounders were still no match for us one-on-one. They had no armor and their weapons were strictly line-of-sight, with no HUD/IFF capability at all. Lee and I painted targets for the rest of the platoon and maintained field-of-fire, all on the run. Anyone they missed, we took down with our sniper gear. Despite our superior equipment, it was a mess; the line they held had a better than three-to-one superiority in numbers. Blowing up their tanks had eliminated any surprise that we were coming. Fortunately, the Marines in Ground Two and Five, more heavily armed than my team, kept their flanks too busy to send much support. Another hundred meters—we were through the worst and closing in on our Drop Zone.

“Recon Three, fall back to Alt Two by Evac drill.” I didn’t want to give the order but we were losing cohesion, enemy flechettes and HE from the armor were cutting us down. We needed to get out and take our wounded with us.

“Lander, Recon Three. My beacon is red-red-white.” Trying to remain calm, I tossed the flare onto the only empty field within four kilometers and dropped flat in the rough grass, covering what was left of my platoon.

“Recon Three, this is Delta Four, I have your beacon.” I recognized that voice—Flight Commander Richard Fandrill, Task Force 4/2’s resident nonconformist, comedian, and the love of my life, depending on who you ask.

“Soonest Delta Four, we are hot-hot-hot.” Enemy armor was within a kilometer of us and advancing. “Infantry and armor firing close.”

The voice brightened, “Khan, my love! Is that you down there?” Rick’s perverse sense of humor surfaced at the worst of times.

“Roger Delta Four, it’s me.”

“I’ll be in your arms in five, lady.” Then, just to further irritate Command and me, he asked, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in this shithole?”

I didn’t answer, bantering with him would knock me out of my combat mindset.

“Well, Sarge, looks like he couldn’t bear to leave his girlfriend on the ground.” My relationship with that crazy human was a source of endless amusement for my platoon.

Near me, Marty shook his head, “That dumbass flyboy’s gonna get another rocket from Command for talking trash on a tactical line.” Ship communications were closely monitored from orbit.

“Like that has stopped him the last twenty times.” Reen responded, still out in the woods. Our platoon freq wasn’t powerful enough to be heard upstairs.

“I hear the Navy rates in Commo have a pool going every op to see if he does it again,” Relldren, one of my support shooters, chimed in.

“He gets us out of here, I will take the hit for him and kiss his feet.” That was from Sesellra-Farra, a Sharai. They come from swamps and the thought of touching someone else’s feet disgusts them.

Rick’s lander came in low and fast, drawing fire from every heavy weapon within a kilometer. Its shields flared white as shots exploded off them. With all his skills he brought it down, killing the shields as he hit ground. The doors slid open.

“Get ’em onboard, Khan. We’ve got Angels incoming!” Our air support was finally on the way.

“Recon Three, even-odd fall back!” My platoon started moving, losing the cover of the forest by the numbers. I ran to a position by Delta Four’s bulk and kept an eye out for problems, shooting them as I saw them. Lee had gone down, I was the only sniper left.

I counted the members of my platoon as they went through the lock. Not good, we’d been decimated. Almost a quarter of my team was dead, half the rest were wounded.

Marty ran onboard, carrying Ch’Chura and helping Lee.

“Marty, where’s Reen?” That oversized lizard was the tail-end of my team.

“Didn’t see him,” he gasped. “Should be ten back, unless he stopped for a snack.” I checked my visor. Reen had popped his beacon; he was down in the treeline, fifty meters away.

“Pilot, hold two. I’ve got a man down.” I dropped my rifle, drew my pistol, and ran back the way I came.

“Make it fast, Kitten. The natives are getting restless.” Light artillery from the tracks was pounding the area. “I can’t raise screens until we’re airborne,” he mentioned, in case I had forgotten. “And the armor on this boat sucks.”

As I ran back, I pulled the tab on my chestplate, releasing stimulants into my bloodstream. I’d regret it later—the Ithri metabolism doesn’t deal well with drugs—but Reen was almost twice my size, I needed the boost. Looking through a forest full of blooming explosions I found him in the fog; he’d caught the edge of an artillery burst and couldn’t get back up. The smell of explosives and propellant was overpowering. I skidded to a halt, threw his three-meter tall body across my shoulders, and started back to the ship as fast as I could move. Gods Above and Below, I could see enemy soldiers shooting at us as I ran for it. Those horrible flechettes buzzed around us, punching into our armor like evil demons, seeking our blood.

I heard the Drop Coordinator admonish Rick over the Command line, “Delta Four, Command. You are past your launch window. Dust off.”

“DC, we are working on it. Tell Ground Attack to hold fire for one.” Rick wasn’t leaving until his pickup was onboard.

“Delta Four, GA is into their run. You have to go now.” I tried to speed up. The enemy had found the range, explosive shells were hitting the ship and our Angels were about to plaster the area as well.

“Roger DC, we are away.” I was almost worried, despite his long-ago oath.

Rick lifted his boat a meter off the ground and sideslipped it towards me with the doors still open, slamming into trees. The madman. Muscles screaming, I jumped and flew through the drop hatch as the lander and I met in midair. Reen and I crashed into the hold and were caught by the rest of my team.

“Pilot, we are in. Go-go-go!”

Snort, “Like I’d leave without you.” He closed the doors, raised screens, and maxed the engines and afterburners all at once just as Ground Attack strafed Alt 2. Shockwaves slapped our craft around like a leaf in a hurricane. Our Angels used GC plasma bombs and heavy auto-blasters to carpet the DZ. Anything left on the ground was burning wreckage.

While he was pulling us out of harm’s way, with the lander still halfway upside-down, Rick cut in on our platoon line, “Drinks are on Pathfinder Team Three.

This drew a swarm of comebacks from beings scattered throughout the hold:

“Try and find us.”

“As much as you can drink, airedale.”

“Get me onto the Apache and I will kiss your ass.”

“My feet are yours, truck-driver.”

“Every drink to your ancestors.”

I was curled up on the cold uncaring deck, shaking from the after-effects of the stims and trying to pretend the whole recovery had never happened. I hate getting picked up under fire. I can’t shoot back, I can’t even see my enemy. Situations like that fray my nerves raw.

Quietly, I keyed my comm to the pilot’s frequency, “Richard, when we get back. After I check my team. When you get through being yelled at for using the tacc line to try and get laid. When the Drop Commander gets through with you, gives you a commendation, and tells you never to do something like that again. When the Angels get through calling you a magnificent bastard for pulling out in the middle of their run. When Pathfinder Team Three is finished buying you drinks in the Enlisted and NCO Clubs on the Apache. When all that is done, I’m going to find a way to go into season, find your drunk ass, and make you realize why you gave up on human women.” I was at the point where I could decide when it was going to happen, within a month or so.

Just to try and get in the last word he said, “Deal.”

Just to make sure I got the last word, I agreed, “Deal.”

We flew back to the Apache.