“Ell-tee,” Rhonda called out. “What’s the local time?”
“1130 hours,” Lt. Eddie said, even though he knew the sergeant had the time.
“And the seventeen time?”
“Minus five hours and change,” he said.
“Taking my shirt off,” she said.
Eddie looked up at the sky, opening up in the midday sun and made the decision for Team 84632. “Yeah. Shirts off, guys.”
Rhonda shed her jacket and vest, then pulled off her T-shirt. As the sun began to glow down on them, her dark tan began to turn olive shades. By the time the sunshine gained strength, she was quite green.
“Water up, guys,” Eddie said, as he greened up as well. “300 ml each.”
“Bonus,” Private Jayes said. “What’s the occasion?”
“We haven’t had full sun in three days; it’s going to be hot.”
The five of them sat in the sun, their photo-activated chlorophyll enhanced skins providing their lunch. They were beat and the sun was warm; they didn’t talk. Humans didn’t like being green‑-this was a necessary technology which could be turned on and off as needed in the face of the collapse of society and supply chains. Meanwhile, Private Robbie had set out clear canisters whose brownish soup began to green up as well. He was halfway through his inspections when a device lying on the ground chirped once.
“Laser fluorescence!” Corporal Gary called out.
“Ours or theirs?”
“Can’t say for sure, Ell-tee.”
“Cover up, guys,” Eddie said, reaching for his jacket first. “Clean up and be ready to move in five.”
Eddie shaded his eyes and looked up, barely able to make out the three notches in each wing on the remote flyer quietly soaring overhead. “It’s a 4500 – ours.” He continued to look, then spotted a bright emerald flash. “That was us. Stand down.”
“What if it’s a crib?”
“The day the aliens use our aerial probes,” Eddie said, “I’m quitting and going home.”
A nervous laughter simmered in the team, as there were no ships to take them home. But Eddie couldn’t even remember what home looked or even smelled like.
He came to this world nearly a year-and-a-half ago. Interstellar Expeditionary Force 1 started out as a real army, trying to take back a planet from partial enemy occupation. The alien ships were smaller, but there were ten thousand plus of them scattered across three of six continents. IEF-1 arrived in a fleet of seven capital ships ‑- they had begun the long ten-year journey home soon after the army was deployed on the ground.
Early on the army moved in massive formations. Eddie could remember coming over a hill, a first sergeant leading a squad of twenty men amongst 125,000 troops. The Scalies, Lizards, Gumbies, whatever you wanted to call them, the aliens fielded an army of comparable strength. The Battle of Long Valley would be the largest single engagement of the war.
It began as utter chaos, thousands of rockets and artillery shells flying through the bright blue sky, forty kilometers before the generals wanted to engage, but it didn’t matter. Defensive fire kept nearly every incoming round from landing on both sides. Fifteen minutes later the skies were clear again ‑- neither side felt like wasting resources for no reason. The long march alongside roaring vehicles on a beautiful day seemed unreal to Eddie. With the war switched off for the moment, who could imagine the carnage to come?
Eventually opposing units began bumping into each other and the real battle began. The 7th of the 633rd, Eddie’s unit, finally engaged only 125 meters from an enemy column. He soon got his first look at an alien, albeit a dead one. About man-size and man-shaped‑-shorter but stockier‑-its flattened head and snout invited the Lizard moniker and it was brownish in color under its removable armored carapace. But in the bright sunshine, they watched it slowly turn green for a while, before it finally faded to a dead brownish gray.
The human army learned a lot from the aliens.
They were down to five now. Lt. Eddie wasn’t really a lieutenant, he’d last officially been a first sergeant, but Team 84632 needed an officer, and with Lt. Allen and 2nd Lt. Brace dead, along with Master Sgt. Hayden, well… someone had to lead. They hadn’t heard from Battalion in a long time.
“What’s the chatter saying?” Eddie asked Private Jayes. The young man had been with the team twenty-two weeks and his name was Jesus Martinez, not Jayes. But with so few, Eddie had dropped last names. Over time Jesus became J-S and then Jayes. They were losing their identities the longer they stayed in the field.
Meanwhile Jayes had been toying with the radio scanner‑-by now everyone was cross-trained on all the gear, but Jayes tended to keep the radio‑-he shook his head.
“Nothing?” Eddie asked.
“No… not really nothing, sir,” Jayes said slowly. “There’s the usual murmur in the background…can’t really get a lock.”
“Can’t say. Scalies are jamming some of the bands.”
“Any worse than it was, say two hours ago?”
“All right. Robbie, do we have any of your goop to eat yet? Before we saddle up.”
“It’s gonna taste a little raw, sir.”
“As long as it doesn’t use our supplies, it’s better than nothing. I haven’t seen anything to scavenge in…” Eddie brought himself up short. He promised himself he wouldn’t gripe in front of the troops.
“Uh, give me twenty minutes, Ell-tee,” Robbie said. “We’ll fix it up; it’ll almost taste good.”
For reasons no one understood, the aliens fired their artillery exactly every seventeen hours. At first it seemed absurd to be so predictable, but the aliens were crafty adversaries. They avoided counter-battery fire by using remote automated artillery pieces. And the seventeen hour schedule kept the humans constantly on the move.
Eddie never knew when they might’ve been tagged last by the enemy, so he ordered the team to move out with half-an-hour to go. Today they weren’t attacked and never heard any distant artillery exchange. The seventeens were getting more and more infrequent in their area. He could only hope it meant the war was winding down.
“Are you getting anything on tactical?” Eddie asked. He didn’t have a good feeling about moving into this sector. He’d felt crosshairs burning the back of his neck all morning.
Cpl. Gary integrated the scans from across the unit. “No, sir. Not distinct. But something’s close…”
Eddie finally gave the hand signal to move out and just like that they were in a fight which lasted all of thirty seconds, but seemed longer. One moment they were gearing up – then Eddie heard a sizzling snick go by.
“Sniper round?” Sgt. Rhonda asked. They all searched; no one was hit. Except…
“Son of a bitch,” Pvt. Jayes hissed under his breath as he spotted the burning hole in the side of the radio case. He whipped out an ugly assault knife and began to dig the hot round out of the soft armor before it burned through and did real damage.
“Shield him!” Eddie ordered, as he ran his scanner across the hill. Gary and Robbie moved to kneel over Jayes. “Free fire.” He hoped someone would find something: he couldn’t see the sniper.
They heard two more rounds fire in the distance, but couldn’t immediately locate their origin. Sgt. Rhonda swung the heavy auto-stabilized gun from side to side until its threat finders finally located optical-grade glass in the distance.
“Glass,” she reported as the targeting locked and a high power explosive round streaked off into the rocks. A burst of brownish mist showed it’d found its victim. “One kill!”
“Radio’s clear,” Jayes said, tossing away the enemy bullet and slapping a soft armor patch onto the hole.
“Into the rocks,” Eddie ordered. “And Robbie ‑- you’re bleeding.”
“Movement,” Rhonda and Gary said simultaneously and two more shots were fired outbound. The team took cover and waited. Pvt. Robbie pulled a quick patch out of the medkit and covered the bullet hole in his arm. He didn’t even remember getting hit. It had to be one of the alien’s sneaky rounds, silenced but still deadly.
“Anything?” Eddie asked.
“I recorded two splatters,” Rhonda said. “I say we have two kills.”
“Any more bad guys?”
“No,” Gary said, carefully swinging a scanner above his head.
Eddie moved the team up the slope. High ground – it’s always high ground for a killing field, he thought grimly. In two minutes they’d found the sniper and its spotter ‑- or what was left of them. Sgt. Rhonda and Pvt. Jayes ran a deep scan on the bodies, but found nothing of interest. Cpl. Gary had Pvt. Robbie sit down and get a quick field dressing for his wound.
“How’s the arm?”
“Fine, sir,” Robbie said.
“Pretty clean wound, Ell-tee,” Gary said, finishing up. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“All right. Destroy this gear. Put a delayed grenade on each of the bodies,” Eddie said. “Micronukes – three hours.”
“That’ll leave just one,” Sgt. Rhonda said.
“I know,” Eddie replied. “But I’m not risking moving either body.”
“If we nuke just the sniper…,” Rhonda tried again.
“All right. Use one, save two for the future.” Eddie didn’t want to argue with the best soldier in the unit.
“Three hours it is,” Rhonda said. She pulled a nuclear grenade from her pack and placed it next to the sniper, then very carefully began to set the detonator. “Live nuke,” she said quietly and backed away.
During the night the sky lit up brighter than day. The team looked up reflexively, then each turned away as if they were really more interested in the stark shadows cast upon the rubble. With his eyes closed, Eddie could hear Sgt. Rhonda sigh loudly and Pvt. Robbie begin to unpack the pills. A scanner beeped as the initial burst of radiation from the nuke saturated their camp.
“Alien nuke signature.”
“What’s the range?”
“Not close then. We’re not the target,” Eddie said, even as he considered that the team who’d sent aloft the 4500 probably was gone. “Get some sleep everyone.”
The maps said it was still five hundred kilometers to the coast. Team 84632 had fled the eastern part of the continent after a hellish nuclear exchange had left the major army bases radioactive blackened cinders. They’d been on the move for six months, crossing the mountains in winter, staying in loose contact with elements of the alien army the whole time.
With IEF-1 broken down into small mobile teams, the aliens couldn’t destroy the remains of the human army in one blow, even with their high tech weapons. Unfortunately, the aliens soon adopted similar tactics. It was as much a battle of attrition on the run, as once men had been slaughtered locked in trench warfare.
But they were on the move. With nothing behind them to the east, the fact they still were heading west had to mean progress. Eddie didn’t know what they’d find on the west coast. Once there’d been an alien base to the north, which he’d like to avoid, so they angled slightly southward. But then what? Try to get a boat and cross the ocean? Hope the sea life wasn’t poisoned and they could head south down the coast and hold this territory? He assumed for months it was a moot point, that they’d never get there. Now he tried not to worry about it at all.
The days came in two flavors. Either they hunkered down in any of the myriad cracks and craters in the tortured ground, avoiding contact with the enemy and trying to stay out of the rain of fire and death from the sky. Or they humped forward over kilometer after kilometer of dreary, torn up destruction, seeing nothing and no one, trying to keep after the enemy.
We hit them, they hit us. Eddie might’ve sighed from weariness, but no one made any random noises when they were on the march. At least we’ve got them on the run. That was the most amazing part of the war. The battlefield was too fragmented and communication nearly non-existent, but somehow it seemed to him like they were winning. As long as we can keep up the battle.
It began to rain.
“Pvt. Robbie – talk to me.”
“Rain is real mild, lieutenant. We’re already taking pills – should be fine.”
“Is it potable?” Eddie waited patiently for an answer as Robbie ran the test.
“Sure, Ell-tee. Needs a blue and a gray filter, but yeah, you can drink it.”
“Water collection,” Eddie announced and silently the team began to set up several plastic sheets.
He gave it half-an-hour before getting them on the move again. They crossed through an opening in a rubble wall into clearer terrain. Ahead Eddie could spot several corpses‑-both human and alien‑-lying in the open. They’d been partly exposed to the air for a long time, leaving eroding skeletons. But the human remains weren’t from Team 84632, which had never passed this way before, so Eddie felt no need to stop and bury them. Odds were both the human and alien remains had been booby-trapped, leaving them no incentive to investigate either. Otherwise it was just another old battle site and Eddie felt no danger. He motioned to go around and give the bodies a wide berth.
They passed through the clearing without incident and were back working slowly through rubble piles. Robbie, on point, suddenly raised a fist and the team knelt as one. Eddie looked around. They were in the remains of a town. He had seen the name on the map, but ignored it, treating it only as map co-ordinates. Now he worried about the columns and pillars. It was thirty-five meters to the top of the next rise. Would it be safety? Or the trap?
That sniper and its spotter had to be attached to an alien unit, didn’t it? Eddie’s neck hairs began to irritate him again. Cpl. Gary and Pvt. Jayes ran the scanners. Gary motioned with a finger towards the left; that meant the contact was to the right. Eddie clenched his teeth and a tiny pip sounded in everyone’s earpiece. The team began to slowly expand forward, left and right.
Ten meters away one lonely pillar stood as the remnant of a wall. Behind it were more columns and piles of rubble. Eddie swung to the left, only to find his leveled weapon facing another human wielding the same weapon his way. To their credit, neither man pulled the trigger. After a few seconds the newcomer finally spoke.
“I don’t know your move, trooper, but I’m about to shoulder arms – you game?”
“Sure,” Eddie said. “On three?”
“One-two-three… There, that’s better.”
“More friendly at any rate,” Eddie said, straightening up. “What Team are you?”
“Trusting, aren’t we? But I asked you first.”
“So you did. Team 55329.”
“84632. Lt. Eddie at your service.”
“Battlefield commission, I suppose. Someone had to take the job.”
“Lt. Coker. And I’m the same. What’re your dates?”
“583 days in-service, 477 in-combat.”
“That trumps me, Lt. Eddie. You’re in charge.”
“In charge? What – are we merging?”
“I’ve only got three players, lieutenant. We found you…” Coker stopped when Eddie shook his head. Looking down, Coker saw three red laser dots converged on his chest where he’d left his soft armor vest open. “Uh, we found each other. What’s the point in splitting up?”
“None, I guess. We’re eight then.” Eddie extended a hand. “Welcome aboard.”
The red dots disappeared as Coker shook the hand, but held on to it. “Glad to be aboard, Captain Eddie.”
Eddie almost protested, but realized it was the smart move. They had no reason to have two lieutenants. Coker had declared for a clear chain of command and he couldn’t argue with him.
“I’m using first names in my team,” Eddie said, “Lieutenant…?”
“Um, I’d rather remain Coker. Sir.”
“All right,” Eddie said. “Who else do you have, lieutenant?”
“Sgt. Emil, whom we call Aim, and Pvt. Spinner is three meters to my left -I think he still has a bead on you.”
“Have to admire initiative,” Eddie said. “Sgt. Aim, Pvt. Spinner? This is Capt. Eddie. Lt. Coker and I have agreed to merge teams, so stand down and get quick introductions out of the way.”
“You heard the captain,” Lt. Coker said. “Let’s gather up.”
Eddie appreciated no one moved until the lieutenant spoke. The chain of command, such as it was, had been properly established. On both sides.
“By the way, captain, we saw a Raptor‑-probably a 4500‑-the other day,” Lt. Coker said quietly. “Was it yours?”
“No,” Lt. Eddie said. “I was hoping it was yours.”
“Sorry, no. Probably the nuke strike a couple of nights ago to the south then.”
Three new members. It’d been months since anyone joined Team 84632. And it bothered Eddie that he knew nothing of these “new guys.” Other than they were human, of course.
He had data records from Team 55329, of course, which gave him sketchy information. Lt. Coker had been a supply sergeant at the start of the action; Eddie already didn’t trust him as a combat officer. Sgt. Aim had come in from the Home Guard, a local, rather than IEF-1. And Pvt. Spinner was a recruit from Refugee Camp 62-188, joining up just a few months ago. That made it two locals and a supply sergeant trying to be an officer amongst the newcomers. Not an Earth-trained solider in the lot.
None of this had come out during the brief handshakes when the two teams merged, of course, because neither side was likely to spill any personal details from a past that seemed dead and gone. And Eddie could already see that Sgt. Rhonda‑-Master Sergeant now‑-wasn’t happy. She’d long ago proved herself an uncomfortably good judge of combat worthiness. Not that they wanted to see anyone get killed, but Team 84632 had survived for a while as a stable fivesome. He tried not to think of this merger as the start of a baby-sitting operation, but it remained a possibility.
“Your radio’s shot.” Eddie glanced over to see Pvt. Jayes looking over the communications gear from Team 55329 and rendering his professional opinion. “No wonder you couldn’t pick up anybody.”
“And you’ve been receiving . . . exactly what, Pvt. Jayes?” Sgt. Aim asked. “This radio is not in the greatest shape, but it still passes diagnostics.”
Eddie saw Robbie looking over the other team’s self-growing food jars. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy there either. “These cultures are infected with bacteria ‑- you shouldn’t be eating this.”
“It doesn’t taste great, but it’s nutrition,” Pvt. Spinner said.
Robbie ignored him, pouring the contents of the jars onto the ground. “Now I have to waste some of our cultures…”
“It’s not a waste,” Eddie said patiently. “We’re all one team now.”
“Yessir,” Robbie said reluctantly. But it didn’t sound as if the man believed Eddie.
This wasn’t going to be an easy transition.
“All right, everyone,” Eddie said when they stopped next. “Circle up. Sgt. Rhonda ‑ high sentry.”
“Yessir,” she said and selecting her rapid rifle, moved towards higher ground.
Eddie restricted the net to exclude her momentarily. “I’m only going to say this once. Sgt. Rhonda is the only woman in this unit. None of you are going to take advantage of that fact. If any one of you tries to push yourself on Sgt. Rhonda, it’s one round in your head, am I understood?”
“Crystal,” Private Jayes said instantly.
Eddie didn’t go on until everyone else acknowledged as well. Switching back to unit-wide net, he said, “We have two sergeants in the unit. Just as we didn’t need to have two lieutenants, we don’t need two sergeants. Effective immediately, I’m field promoting Sgt. Rhonda to Master Sergeant. Sorry, Sgt. Aim ‑- you lose on this round simply because I don’t know you.”
“No problem from me, captain,” Aim said.
“We’ve got three privates now: Jayes, Robbie and Spinner. I don’t have a problem with fielding three privates. Maybe if we link up with another team, we can actually split people into squads.”
“I ain’t in this for the promotions, captain,” Robbie said. “I’m here to kill Scalies.”
“I’m sure we can accommodate you, Pvt. Robbie,” Eddie said. “Now go around the circle one by one and display your gear and your supplies. Sgt. Aim, I’ll need a report from you on inventory and any supplies redistribution you see fit. I don’t want anyone going into battle running light because one of you is hoarding.”
“When you are finished, relieve Master Sgt. Rhonda at high sentry. Sgt. Rhonda, report to the circle when relieved and show off your gear and supplies as well.” Eddie heard a click in his earpiece from her. “Lt. Coker ‑ you’re with me.”
“Capt. Eddie,” Lt. Coker began, “you did a fine job back there…”
“Stow it, lieutenant. I don’t know if you’re trying to be polite or sucking up. Unfortunately we have little time for the one and no room for the other.”
“Don’t be insulted,” Eddie said. “Neither one of us went to O-School, so we didn’t get taught the niceties. All I need for you to do is acknowledge my command.”
“You’ve got it, captain.”
“Good. Now you’ll get a copy of Sgt. Aim’s inventory report. You know your own situation. Add or subtract whatever you need in your pile from the troops as needed. You’re already carrying plenty of spy gear, so don’t weigh yourself down.”
“I’m good, captain.”
“Okay. Now the big question – have you been in contact with anyone at Battalion or higher?”
“No, sir,” Lt. Coker said a little sadly. “My previous real-life Ell-tee kept telling me he wasn’t getting any updates, but he never gave me the access codes either.”
“So we’re not operating on any orders?”
“Not for a long time,” Eddie admitted. “We’re still operating under General Order One ‑- drive the aliens off this colony world. That’s good enough for me until I hear the bastards have either surrendered, died or left.”
“Yes, sir!” Lt. Coker said. “Uh, and thanks for not bringing this up in front of the boys.”
It undermines authority, Eddie thought. “I understand.”
“New guy curse,” Rhonda said under her breath as she stood by Eddie.
He wanted to tell her to stow it, but he knew his original Team 84632 all felt the same way. You couldn’t add a decimated team of three without thinking bad things could happen. Yet it never occurred to any of them that they themselves constituted a decimated team of five ‑- a difference of perhaps one bad alien ambush.
“Saddle ’em up, sergeant,” Eddie said on the open channel. “We’re a new unit ‑ eyes and ears everybody.”
“Captain,” Sgt. Aim came alongside Eddie. Since they only existed in the field these days, there were of course no salutes. Eddie hadn’t seen anyone salute in over half a year ‑- a thought which came to him only because a new guy was reporting.
“We’re four hundred meters from a heavy weapons cache, according to old map data. Do we check it out?”
“What’s the seventeen time?” Eddie asked, reflexively asking for confirmation.
“Let’s press on and circle back tonight. Pass the word.”
As Sgt. Aim moved off, Master Sgt. Rhonda started to leave as well. “Still think it’s new guy curse, sergeant?” he asked her. “Sgt. Aim seems to be on his game.”
“Day is still young, sir. And sergeants are a different breed,” she said. “There’s still a too-green private and a deadbeat lieutenant to deal with.”
Military Command hadn’t stood by as the big heavily defended bases and supply convoys were bombed out of existence. Instead they’d broken the army into the small Mobile Infantry Teams and established thousands of weapons and supply caches everywhere. As the war progressed, the caches were either used or obliterated. If any new caches were being established, there’d been no map updates to tell them.
Their own supply situation wasn’t bad, but a heavy weapons cache was hard for Eddie to turn down ‑- they had few rockets or mortars on hand. The scanners accurately plotted the original entry point for the cache ‑- they were able to dig out of sight, sheltered by a fallen concrete slab wall. After moving a meter of broken rubble, the two sergeants stepped in the pit and worked carefully until they reached a metal plate.
“Gateway mine,” Sgt. Aim said. “Right on schedule.”
Eddie established a link to the mine on his handheld and entered the one set of officer codes he reliably knew. His screen blinked green.
“We’re not the first team to hit this cache,” Eddie said, “but the previous time was six months ago.”
“What’d they leave us, Skipper?” Rhonda asked.
“Looks like two rockets and half-a-dozen micro nukes,” Eddie said. “We should take the rockets and four of the nukes.”
Rhonda looked relieved. As they dug into the cache, extracted the two 70cm long rockets and pulled up the lead shield plate, they wouldn’t have to worry about a nuclear booby-trap, though the master sergeant still searched for one.
Lifting free the four gray plutonium filled eggs and slipping them into a lead lined bag in her pack, Rhonda asked, “Should we set one of these against unwanted snooping?”
“No,” Eddie decided. “I don’t want to take the time. Clean this spot up and let’s move out.”
“Ell-tee, what does that pillar look like to you?” Sgt. Aim asked Lt. Coker some five minutes later.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“It’s a food store, isn’t it?”
Coker looked around the rubble pile. “I haven’t seen an intact building in months,” he admitted. “But you could be right.”
Eddie was called over. He’d hoped to clear out from this area and put a couple of klicks between the team and the heavy weapons cache ‑ just in case someone was watching. But a chance for prepared food seemed too good to pass up.
“You’ve got fifteen minutes ‑ do it fast, but do it safe.”
One section of the demolished food store still had part of a supported ceiling intact. Sgt. Aim and two privates slipped through a hole and played their flashlights around. Eddie could hear some excited comments ‑- something about canned peaches ‑- before the enthusiasm popped like a soap bubble.
“Scalies have been here, sir. Some of the scattered cans are piled up around an alien directional mine.”
They came back with a handful of cans anyway, but once topside a quick scan revealed microscopic sealed puncture marks. The cans were compromised.
“Leave it all,” Eddie said. “We clear out in two.”
Sgt. Aim look saddened as the cans were tossed back in the hole.
“Are you all right, sergeant?” Eddie asked.
“Oh… sure, Captain. Just disappointed.” Aim straightened up and smiled. “Have to remind myself not to count cans of peaches until they’re declared safe. I’ll be fine, sir. But peaches would’ve been nice.”
As the sergeant moved away, Eddie admitted to himself he’d been imagining the taste of lovely canned peaches. If they’d been desperate, he might’ve taken a chance they could construct an antidote for whatever had been injected into the tainted cans. But, by some small measure, they weren’t desperate enough.
The delay hadn’t been too long: a calculated risk, Eddie figured. As long as no one was watching.
Two more days of steady marching. The terrain looked the same as it had. This city had been pulverized during the alien invasion, twenty years before IEF-1 landed.
It was due to a quirk in the lighting that Cpl. Gary spotted the gossamer tripwire visually when even the scanner failed to register any alien polymer at all. “Freeze,” he hissed subvocally. But the man in front of him–one of the new guys who’d insisted on taking point–kept moving. “Halt! Now!”
The new guy ‑- Private Spinner, he finally remembered ‑- seemed surprised by the call and turned partway to look back at Gary. But Spinner didn’t quite stop his forward progress and his boot tip brushed against the wire.
“DROP!” Gary shouted.
Rhonda and Lt. Coker were silently prepping one of the lieutenant’s tiny Fabian aerial spies for launch when they heard the shouted calls‑-“Halt! Now! . . . DROP!”‑-followed by a burst of gunfire.
“That’s Gary,” Rhonda said, tapping a query into her wristband. “I’m not raising him.”
In the lower right-hand corner of their eyeshields, CPL.GARY and PVT.SPINNER showed up in red.
“Automated firing stand,” Lt. Coker said in disgust, tossing the spent firing tube onto the ground next to his dead man. “One shot kill to the head.”
“Cowards,” Rhonda said, with more venom than Eddie thought she’d muster for one of the new guys. “And Gary took one to the open neck.”
Sgt. Aim stepped up, took off his helmet and mopped the sweat from his brow before reciting the abbreviated Field Prayer for the Dead. “Ashes… dust… peace… Amen and move on.”
The team, minus Jayes as high sentry, stood silently for thirty seconds.
“Right,” Eddie finally said. “Robbie ‑ you’re senior, so you’re field promoted to corporal. The day’s already hot and it looks like the sun might break through soon. I don’t want to green up in this kill zone. Strip both bodies of anything usable. Let’s move out.”
There really wasn’t anything else to say. Eddie didn’t know Pvt. Spinner. And really, what did he know of Cpl. Gary? His team never talked about home and family any more – rarely did a discussion of “normal” food even come up. Conversation had devolved into strictly technical matters.
And what, Eddie wondered without looking at his handheld, was Gary’s last name?
Both Eddie and Rhonda froze at the same time. Ever since the latest booby-trap which claimed two, he’d worried about how fresh the emplacement had been. Now he was sure they were close to something.
Go high, he signaled to the master sergeant and she begin to climb the near rubble pile, moving as silently as a cat. Strange . . . he hadn’t thought about cats or any creature which wasn’t human or alien for a while. Shaking cats from his mind, he deployed the rest of the team.
A bip in his earpiece alerted him to check his handheld. Rhonda beamed an image from a fiber optic threaded between two shattered chunks of concrete ‑- three of the aliens sitting on rubble in the shallow bowl of bomb crater. It looked like three people around a campfire, except there was no fire and they were busy rigging directional mines and automatic firing tubes.
Eddie hesitated about three seconds. The three Lizards were either tired, desperate or guarded from elsewhere. Bip-bip-bip, he clicked his teeth: take them. Rhonda immediately fired. Three shots, three kills. The aliens barely moved before slumping. To the left a firing stand popped up and fired a train of explosive rounds in her direction. But she’d already dropped, moving quickly down from her perch.
Meanwhile Jayes targeted the weapon stand and Sgt. Aim fired a high-speed grenade which silenced it. Afterwards there were no sounds at all.
“Back out and around to the west,” Eddie whispered over the net. He’d already decided not to even investigate the Lizards. “We’re gone from here.”
They were times you took your luck and didn’t push it any further.
At 0430 hours, the skies lit up again, but not from nukes.
“Ships, Captain,” Jayes reported. “I’m seeing half a dozen ships blasting off. Looks to be theirs.”
“Range?” Eddie was wide awake. He thought they’d been finally caught by the rest of the Lizard team they’d killed earlier. There’d been almost no ships heading up to space since the opening days of the war: anything airborne invited instant attack. “If they’re breaking cover, then prepare for incoming missiles.”
“Ten klicks. Already tracking sixty inbounds.”
“Under cover!” Eddie shouted.
“Enemy is firing counterbatteries.”
Ducking under the edge of a concrete slab, tilted upward at a crazy angle‑-impossible to tell if it’d been meant to be floor or wall‑-Eddie pulled out a hand screen and looked at the remote’s view of the battle. Over a hundred streaks of light showed the enemy’s outgoing missiles. Two more brilliant lights of escaping spaceships. And then one bright streak inbound and the camera image burned in whiteout: those last two ships were probable kills.
“Nuke!” Eddie hollered as the scanner beeped. Then the ground shook. And shook. Again and again and again.
They had no good intel. They’d been walking right into a Lizard landing zone, and they hadn’t known. He hadn’t known. Eddie pulled his shock jacket tighter as he tucked his head into his chest as far down as he could.
“Where’s Sgt. Aim?” Eddie asked, making a quick scan around at morning.
“He was in the rubble hole next to mine all night,” Jayes said.
“Lieutenant ‑- do your men go solo?”
“No, captain,” Lt. Coker said reluctantly. “Nothing like that.”
“Quarter this territory,” Eddie said, sketching a box on his knee pad which overlaid on their eyeshield map displays. “Scan for any sign; report back in five minutes.”
“He’s gone,” Rhonda said. “I might’ve seen two disturbed chunks of concrete about fifty meters out, but he walked out.”
No one said deserter, but Eddie knew his people were all thinking it. And he saw Rhonda’s face when she looked at the lieutenant now. They were back down to five again, but it was the wrong five – and she blamed the lieutenant.
It was two hours later when Lt. Coker sidled up to Eddie as they marched. “Captain, I’m sorry ‑ I didn’t catch this before. I’ve been using map co-ords too much lately and I haven’t been paying attention to town names.”
“Not much of any towns or cities left,” Eddie acknowledged. “Names don’t matter anymore, not without people.”
“Yessir. The thing of it is Emil, Sgt. Aim, was from Crestwood.”
“The town we left back there two-three days,” Eddie nodded. For some reason the name on the map had stuck in his memory. “No wonder he knew about the potential food cache. Probably shopped at that store… before.”
“I think he bugged out for home.”
“No question, I’m sure you’re right.”
“Again, I’m sorry, sir.”
“The man made up his own mind,” Eddie said. “I don’t agree with his decision‑-the fight isn’t over‑-but home is always a strong lure in an endgame situation.”
“You think this is the end of the war?”
“Aliens were trying to bug out and go home themselves last night.”
“Then victory is ours?”
Eddie looked around at the rubble. “I don’t know about victory, but the battles may be almost over.”
They had a long slow climb up Hill 40 – Hill 1266-141-3-40 if one wanted to be precise. Eddie didn’t like not knowing what was on the other side, but he didn’t feel it safe in such quiet air to launch one of the probes and give away their position. He let the team get close to the crown of the hill before he stopped them and they all lay prone. “Snake a look, master sergeant.”
Rhonda unhooked a fiber optic spool from her equipment belt and began to feed the line up over the trampled dirt and stones. Eddie bent his head down, closing his eyes momentarily, then opened them to stare at the grains of sand and grit in front of his face. He barely heard the soft click as Rhonda attached the camera to her end of the fiber optic.
“I’ve got a ship,” she reported. “A single.”
“Ours or theirs?” he asked.
“Theirs. Looks like a scout ship.”
Good, Eddie thought. He didn’t want to stumble onto one of the big troop ships, not with this small a team and this short on heavy weapons.
“Do I send a fire mission?” Lt. Coker asked. Eddie was annoyed with the other officer’s constant questioning – if there was to be a fire mission, the man would know Eddie’s will soon enough.
“Hatch is open,” said Rhonda. “Nobody’s around.”
That changed everything. “Can you fly it?” Eddie asked her.
“Not native, sir.”
“Then open source it.”
“Roger that,” Rhonda said, putting the feed onto everyone’s eyeshields. “I make it as an AE or an AK?”
Coker spoke first. “Looks like an AJ to me.”
Feeling that for once the lieutenant was being useful, Rhonda set up the download. “AJ it is… loading up.”
“You’re going to fly it out of here, captain?” Coker asked.
Eddie didn’t get a chance to answer. “Movement,” Rhonda said.
Lt. Coker ran his own sight scope over the top of the hill. “I’ve got a Gumby,” he said. “1550 meters.”
Ahead Eddie could see a small patch of blue sky. He flipped his eyeshields out of the way to get a better look. The sun would soon break out over the target zone. “Is he green?”
“Uh, roger that, captain,” Coker said. “It’s green.”
“The movement’s a white flag,” said Rhonda.
“Geez, Cap’n. You gotta see this to believe it,” Robbie said, a small chuckle escaping through the net signal. He relayed the new images to the eyeshields – the alien had its bare, scaly green back to them, wearing only a waist thong and boots in its patch of sunshine, while its hard carapace suit lay open on the ground nearby. A three meter or so flexible piece of metal had been wedged into some rocks with a cord running to the Lizard’s boot. As the alien periodically flexed a foot, the white fabric tied to the top of the metal bar jerked back and forth.
Eddie closed his eyes. “R.O.E., gentlemen.”
“Captain…,” Coker complained.
“I don’t make the Rules of Engagement, lieutenant. The alien is not threatening us at the moment, he’s greening itself and showing a white flag.”
“May I remind the captain that we don’t have enough personnel to manage any prisoners.”
“Thank you, Lt. Coker, I know my options. Leap-and-frog formation, team. By twos.” Eddie sketched on his knee pad with his thumbnail. The map flashed on everyone’s eyeshields. “Execute.”
“I offer you no harm,” the Lizard croaked without turning its head.
Eddie stood four meters away, weapon leveled at the alien. “Are you monitoring our position?”
“I heard you. Better hearing,” the Lizard said, motioning towards the small ear hole amidst the head ridges.
“Yeah,” Robbie said, “and no sense of smell.”
“Yes,” the Lizard said sadly. “You smell better.”
He made it sound like a joke, thought Eddie. Weird. He hadn’t ever heard that humor translated between species.
“Do you have a name?” Eddie asked.
“No one you care about,” said the Lizard. “Call me Tooth.”
“All right, Tooth. I’m Captain Eddie.”
“What’s your game here?”
“I not understand you.”
“You were sitting here, waiting for us. Why?”
“I am waiting for you.”
“Yeah, we know. We beat you. Why didn’t you leave with the others?”
“I ordered to wait for you. You did not beat us.”
“What do you mean? We drove your people back and they bugged out…” Eddie paused to wince at his choice of words. “They retreated back to space.”
“We left,” Tooth said. “You attacked our planet…”
“Your planet?” Eddie found himself getting annoyed. “You invaded our colony.”
“Of course,” Tooth said. “We successful. But you came and attacked later.”
“Can’t apologize for that. Took Earth a while to get the word and mount a response.”
“War was over.”
“It hadn’t even begun.”
Tooth waggled its head again. “We beat you, but still you fight. We try to capture you, end this thing, but still you fight. Again and again, you set off nuclear weapons. Land is ruined. Biology is ruined. Planet is dead. No reason for us to stay.”
“I don’t believe you,” Eddie said. “The aliens we keep meeting are still shooting at us.”
“There are no more aliens shoot at you.”
“They’re gone?” Coker asked.
“Quiet, lieutenant,” Eddie said. “We can’t confirm anything Tooth says. I need to contact Battalion.”
“You are last of human army,” Tooth rasped. “You will get no answer.”
“On the whole planet? There’s half a billion people in this colony.”
“Army gone. Non-army long gone.”
“You mean the civilians?”
“Ci-vil-lians.” Tooth repeated the unfamiliar word, then its own handheld computer beeped and displayed an unruly scrawl of symbols. “Yes. Civilians ‑- they are all gone. Dead.”
“Jayes ‑- try to get the Civilian Administration on channel seventy.”
“Your Civilian Administration,” Tooth went on, “ceased broadcasting data forty-two days ago.”
“Channel seventy’s been active,” Eddie said.
“But you not contact them.”
“No,” Eddie conceded. There’d been no need to contact the Civilian Administration ‑- they’d seen no living civilians or refugees. “Yes?”
Pvt. Jayes shook his head. “There’s not even a carrier wave on channel seventy, sir.”
“Do a freq survey.”
“Right, captain. Give me about four minutes.”
Tooth’s mouth gaped slightly. Was this an attempt at a smile, Eddie wondered.
“Captain Eddie,” the alien said, “if you are similar to other units engaged in near weeks, then you have had no new orders in very long time.”
“Sir, I can pick up eleven-hundred-and-eighty-three distinct radio profiles.”
“Any of them voice?”
“Outside of our own comms… negative, sir,” Jayes said.
Cpl. Robbie was beginning to think about what Tooth had said. “You know, sir, we haven’t seen an active refugee camp in, like eight weeks.”
“All other humans dead,” Tooth said.
The sun shone brightly now. Eddie looked up. “Shirts off, everyone.”
“General…” Lt. Coker began to protest. Eddie cut him off. He was not yet acknowledging what the alien said.
“We’re operating under a white flag here and he’s already greening up, so we should, too,” Eddie said, pointing at Tooth. “Jayes ‑- can you get a carrier for Unit Reporting?”
“Yessir. I think so.”
“Send our current sit-rep.”
“Um ‑- what is our situation, sir?”
“Never mind,” Eddie said, dropping his armor jacket and pulling off his shirt. He came over with his handheld folded open to the keyboard. “I’ll write it.”
Afterward, he waited an hour. But other than the usual receipt blip! there was no reply to his situation report. Same as always. Rhonda came over.
“What’s the deal, sir?”
“You sure you can fly this?” Eddie nodded at Tooth’s ship.
“Absolutely. Give me five minutes to integrate the download ‑- there’s a lot of modules to fly a spaceship.”
“Gear up,” Eddie finally said. “We’re going upstairs to look for more survivors.”
“Look for more humans?” Tooth asked. For some reason, the alien didn’t seem surprised. “There are no more. Only you.”
“You said that. I don’t believe you. But even if it were true, we’ll just restart the human race on this planet,” Eddie said. He didn’t quite believe he’d just said it, but he had to answer the alien.
“Not possible,” Tooth said. “Your female is too radiation damaged.”
Eddie stole a glance at Rhonda, but she didn’t look back at him. She knows, he realized. She’s had a medical scanner all this time.
“We’ll take this ship and get help.”
“No,” Tooth said. “I am here to show you your dead planet. Then return to ground.”
“You’ll take us where we want to go,” Eddie said. “And if you won’t, we know how to fly it.”
“Yes,” Tooth said. “You might know. But no more fuel. They took it all. You destroyed the rest. No more fuel forever on this planet.”
“Then you’re stranded, too.”
“Yes.” The Lizard said it with such simple effort that Eddie realized it had to be true.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because my kind are not like your kind.”
“We know that.”
“No,” Tooth said. “You not understand.”
“Then tell me…” Eddie paused. “Tell me what I don’t understand.”
“You are impossible to control.”
“Humans understand control. Just not by you.”
“No,” Tooth said, shaking its head. “All other civilized species understand. One species invades, the other fights. When it is settled, it is settled. You will not stop.”
“Surely it’s always been a possibility,” Eddie said.
“Eighty-five species have my kind found. All but one understand. We leave.”
“Why invade at all?”
“Why are you on this planet?”
Eddie hadn’t expected his question to be answered by a question. He considered not answering, but frankly the Lizard had been polite all along. “We’re expanding.”
“Same as all others.”
“Then where’s the problem?”
“Not enough planets. None can expand forever. It is a conservation law.”
Eddie closed his eyes and shook his head as only now he realized what Coker had said earlier. Of course the lieutenant would’ve figured out Eddie was Supreme Army Commander, if what the alien said was true. General, indeed. What a waste.
“… you can’t trust it.”
“It’s not your call,” Eddie said. “I don’t trust him either, but we’ve been traversing wasteland for a long time. We need to go upstairs and see who else we can raise ‑- and Tooth here has the vehicle. Master Sgt. Rhonda, you’ll be flying.”
He doubted she’d find it easy to call him General. Even if it were true.
Their tactical database held quite a lot of information on the alien technology, both in their own gear and from the still functioning military network. Not only could Sgt. Rhonda download instructions and control overlay screens onto her eyeshields, Cpl. Robbie got a tech report which enabled him to isolate the panels nearest to where Tooth was secured; he also disabled all the alien voice controls. Whatever the alien had planned, the humans would be in command of its ship.
Within the hour they were ready for space.
“Lieutenant, keep your shock gun trained on the prisoner,” Eddie said just before they launched. “This is a spaceship ‑- no projectile weapons allowed. Jayes, activate your IFF module and keep a watch on all the comm frequencies. I don’t want our own people, or our own machines, firing on us.”
“There is no one else,” Tooth said. Its English continued to get better the more it talked with the team and Tooth wasn’t afraid to speak up to Eddie.
“That’s what you say.”
“You report in then.”
“Why do you say that?” Eddie asked. “If no one’s left.”
“Tooth says no one left. You don’t. You should follow military procedure.”
Eddie wasn’t sure what game Tooth wanted him to play, but he paused to dial up a link to space control, even if he had no idea if anyone was listening. “Control, this is Team 84632. We’re taking a captured AJ to orbit for recon mission. Lt. Eddie, out.” He couldn’t bring himself to call himself “general” or “captain” ‑- not to the army.
They rode up in silence ‑- five humans and one alien. It’d been a long time since Eddie had looked down on a planet. No matter how damaged, it still appeared starkly beautiful.
“Sir,” Sgt. Rhonda said, “I’m seeing some new arcs crisscrossing the upper atmosphere on the radar.”
“I see them, too,” Jayes said. “There have to be thousands of them.”
“Are any targeting us?”
“Negative, captain,” Cpl. Robbie said, comparing his scanner to the alien control board. “These are sub-orbital. Are they ours or theirs, sir?”
“I don’t know,” Eddie said. “Is this some sort of trick, Tooth?”
“They are yours,” Tooth said. The alien made a rattle in its throat which sounded disturbingly like an attempt to mimic laughter. “Is something you did to you, General.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Radioisotope laced warheads.”
“You mean like dirty bombs?” Robbie asked.
“Very dirty, very bad,” Tooth agreed.
“You’d do that?” Robbie seemed horrified.
“No. You did,” Tooth said. “Activated when last humans lifted off in ship. If humans can’t have world, no one can. We heard this from captured prisoner, but did not believe. Then found active warheads. Many warheads. It’s why we left. You killed you.”
“Earth will send reinforcements.”
“They will find dead planet. No one left. Not you. Not Tooth.”
“You killed planet. Humans. Expansion ends here.”
“You invaded this planet. You started it. Your expansion ends here,” Eddie said, getting a little heated.
“We left,” Tooth said. “You killed you. You can have dead, broken planet.”
“You sonofabitch!” Lt. Coker yelled and pulled the trigger on his shock gun. A sharp crump accompanied the brilliant blue-white lightning flash and the alien’s chest turned into a smoking burnt pit in an instant. “You filthy goddamned Gumby, you tricked us!”
Tooth gaped once and hissed, “Never lied.” And it died.
Rhonda pulled her own weapon from its holster and fired at the lieutenant. “Sorry, Eddie,” she said in a tone which indicated she didn’t care if he knew she wasn’t sorry at all. He also noted she’d dropped any hint of military honorific ‑- perhaps it was just as well. “He shouldn’t have shot it. He disobeyed you.”
It was the four of them now. Just the team ‑- his team.
“We’re done up here anyway, Ronnie,” Eddie said to her gently. “Take us down.”
It didn’t matter ‑- they were dead, too. But what made them human wasn’t only how they played the game, but how they finished. That, Eddie realized, was the difference between the aliens and the humans. They gave up ‑ humans did not. Not as long as they still breathed.
“Let’s try Crystal City. I always wanted to get there ‑- see the museums,” he said casually. And, they didn’t know what the conditions were like far to the south.
“Crystal City is it,” Rhonda said, and her hands glided over the alien controls, rolling the ship around for its re-entry burn. “Maybe there’s still some gear at the Government Laboratory Complex.”
“Maybe,” Eddie said.
“I’ll see what’s in the database,” Jayes said.
“Right,” Robbie said. “We’re going to need bigger pills to deal with this new fallout. And there’s got to be some people who weren’t wearing locator chips.”
A moment ago Eddie hadn’t been sure, now he realized they still had a chance. One they had to take.
Below them the first bright flashes began to flare across the nearest continent. There was a terrible beauty to the bombs going off, but only Eddie was watching. The others were still talking about what they knew of Crystal City. Robbie already had a map displayed.
Perhaps there was a simple way to look at it, Eddie mused. As long as the Lizards were gone, the war was over. It’d be years before the reinforcements came‑-Earth could even have sent out a second Interstellar Expeditionary Force early‑-but if somehow they could stay alive, they might see this through. Team 84632 did have a long record of surviving.
Dammit, he though, I have to do something.
“Jayes,” Eddie said more calmly than he felt, “raise the Command channel – seventeen.”
“Uh, yessir. Have a carrier‑-you’re linked.” Jayes looked at the others‑-Lt. Eddie had never contacted Command before, always going through Battalion or Unit Reporting.
“Command, this is Lt. Eddie…” He stopped and began again. “This is General Edward Arthur Latrelle, Supreme Army Commander Interstellar Expeditionary Force 1. Cancel the nuclear attack in progress. ID code Alpha-Delta-Seven-Fiver-Three-Four-Seven-Alpha. Acknowledge.”
Eddie closed his eyes and waited. It was a long shot, taking Tooth at its word and taking charge. But there were still thousands of missiles in the skies and they needed to ground this spaceship and live in the remains of this planet.
A mechanical voice came from the radio. “Authority acknowledged. Confirmation required.”
“Understood,” Eddie said. “This is my executive officer, Lt. Rhonda. Ronnie – confirm my orders.”
If she was surprised at her elevation to officer, she didn’t show it. “This is Lt. Rhonda Anne Alice Merriweather. ID Code Baker-Echo-Niner-Niner-Niner-Zero-One-Zebra. Confirm. Acknowledge.”
The radio stayed silent probably for only about ten seconds, but to the team in orbit it seemed interminable.
“Nuclear attack canceled. Command System awaiting further orders.”
The voice may have been monotone, mechanical, but it triggered a flood of emotions inside the small alien ship. For the first time in forever, he heard Rhonda laugh. Jayes brought up the notion of trying to find an intact hotel room to bunk in. Even Eddie had to smile at the thought of a real bed and sheets. Perhaps, he thought, they’d actually won this war, for some odd definition of winning.
He’d like that.
And there had to be others. It would’ve been so easy for Team 84632 to have been left without someone like Eddie who had any codes at all. And civilians, hiding from the chaos. Perhaps this southern continent would be in better shape. Perhaps Tooth was wrong about all the humans being dead.
“Starting re-entry sequence,” Rhonda said. “Maneuvering to new heading.”
“Make sure your straps are secure,” Eddie found himself saying. “These Scalie seats aren’t the most comfortable for humans.”
“Captain Eddie – I’ve got a landing beacon for Crystal City.”
“Is there an audio link?”
“Negative, sir. It’s an automated beacon – military tech. But we’re locked in.”
The southern continent began coming around the bend of the planet. There was still a lot of blue water showing inland and the land didn’t seem as blasted as in the north. Crystal City would be at the far tip, as far from where they’d been as they could get.
“Can you magnify Crystal Bay?”
“I can do better than that, captain,” Jayes said. “I’ve linked into a recon satellite.”
The far edges of the bay looked damaged ‑- bombs had broken the cliff fortress into fused rubble. But the water itself looked blue and inviting.
“There,” Eddie said. “Those white shapes. Magnify.”
“Sailboats?” Jayes gasped when the image changed.
“Boats under sail, at any rate,” Eddie said. “And someone has to be sailing those boats. Do you see any other ships?”
“Negative. Satellite isn’t picking up any E-M emissions. I am getting some carbon emissions – soot, smoke. I’m not seeing any buildings on fire.”
“Civilian tech isn’t hardened against EMP,” Eddie said. “Sailboats and cookfires might be as advanced as it gets.”
“Would explain the lack of communications, sir,” Rhonda suggested, not looking up from her control boards. “But there are people.”
“Yes there are, lieutenant,” Eddie said, smiling even as he said it. “What are those things next to the sailboats.”
“Could be nets, sir,” Robbie said. “Fishing the bay perhaps.”
“Do you have a radiation background count?”
“No, sir,” Robbie said. “But look over there – there’s erosion on those cliffs. Those strike craters are not recent.”
It didn’t make sense to Eddie. All along they’d thought the war was planetwide. Now they find out that the aliens had left the southern continent alone? As they began to feel the first effects of their re-entry, the words trade winds came to mind. It had to be the planet’s strong equatorial trade winds, preventing the northern fallout from crossing over to the southern continent. And the aliens had to know about that.
“The Lizards were lying,” Eddie said. “They wanted to destroy the army in the north so they could take over the southern continent without any opposition.”
“What changed their mind, sir?”
“The doomsday bombs,” Eddie said. “They’d ruin everything.”
“Crystal City Spaceport to inbound traffic. What the hell is going on? We haven’t heard anything in months.”
Eddie stared at the radio unit. It sure didn’t sound like a military space traffic controller, but a valid military code number was displayed in green letters and numbers on the radio.
“Uh, did any of you hear that?” Jayes asked. “In the clear?”
“That’s an affirm,” Rhonda said.
For a small team, their cheers sounded pretty loud.
Maybe, just maybe, Eddie thought, they’d make it.
Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon teaches Physics at Western Michigan University by day and writes of the great wars of the 29th century and elsewhen at night. His stories have been published on three continents on this planet, appearing in Analog, Writers of the Future XXIV, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and 100 Stories for Haiti, among others. His website can be found at www.dr-phil-physics.com