The Artillery-Man

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Because of the distances involved in interstellar warfare, adequate lines of defense must span hundreds of light-years. An artillery soldier's post is a lonely one.

Christopher Menart
Age Rating:

Outpost Gammi-Phi-30

He spent one hundred years on a planet with no name. By the end of that time, he quite forgot his own.

The first fifty years weren’t so bad, however; the world was beautiful, as far as lifeless deserts went, and he had the flame of the human spirit to sustain him. Music, literature and art—all the best on a silver chip he could have fit in his pocket. It wasn’t a replacement for such things as a smile from the woman he loved, but it did have the song they’d listened to at their first dance, spinning in the glow of varnish and paper tablecloths. It couldn’t replicate his grandfather’s porch-creak voice, but it did hold the stories his grandfather had grown up listening to. And so it served to remind him why he was here. Through the twenty-hour nights he drifted to sleep with a dark-water voice whispering tales in his ears, and when he woke up to the blue sunrise, so help him God, he would have volunteered all over again on the spot.

Without the deep-space artillery, that flame, and everything which kindled it, could be puffed out with a single breath from space. At any given time, most of the human fleet was caught light-years from Earth, to say nothing of the other core worlds. Turning around to repel a flank invasion was unthinkable; space was still too big. On a galactic scale, human fleets might as well have been standing still.

But one enemy ship was all it would take. Should the cold, silent enemy slip past the front lines, Earth would be entirely at its mercy. One ship could irradiate a planet to lifeless slag. It wasn’t even that hard. He had no doubt that, by this point in the war, human ships had progressed to the point where they did it too.

In a way, he didn’t envy starship captains. People thought they led very romantic lives. But he imagined they lived every hour in dread that the next transmission would read: ‘The homeworld has fallen’, a transmission that would have been racing through the dark for years by the time it was read.

He couldn’t imagine being on the ship which read that message. What would it be like—to spend five years sailing home, knowing that you were sailing home to nothing? To view the glowing pyre of the Earth just because you had to see it with your own eyes to believe—and after that, where would you go?

He had no messages to fear. The artillery emplacement had been constructed in total radio silence, and it was operated the same way. Not that he was never tempted to break that silence; there was a radio, in case of emergency, stashed underneath the foundations. He had daydreams about conversing with a familiar voice, or any human voice, for that matter.

The enemy couldn’t be allowed to find out the emplacements. A starship’s range far outstripped that of a ground-to-space cannon, which must hurl its destruction against gravity, aloft on burning wings. If the emplacements were discovered they would be as defenseless as Earth, with nothing to keep the enemy from irradiating them to slag.

So the radio stayed buried in its undiscovered crypt.

The artillery grid surrounded the core worlds in all directions. Seven thousand might have been overkill, and maybe, over the decades, humanity would discover how to make do with less. But when he’d volunteered, nothing but rumors had been known about the enemy ships—the shapeless ships which drove men mad to behold. People hinted all sorts of dark mutters. They claimed that the ships could drop underneath the galactic disc, sailing unseen through starless space to emerge like a submarine anywhere in the galaxy. Every human ship to try that had perished. Too far from the milk-glow of the galaxy, men lost their minds, like trans-Atlantic sailors too far from land.

And of course, the inevitable mutter—that the enemy ships, in their silence, could scoff at the galactic speed limit. That they were invisible because they outraced light itself. He had always laughed at such fantastic propositions, but he still volunteered for the artillery grid. It was better to be on the safe side.

There was a chance his lonely outpost would never see an enemy ship. But at least it was a comfortable place to wait. Plastic-wrapped gardens grew all the food he could ever eat, and luckily for him, he’d always had a taste for leeks. He had a bedroom the size of a gymnasium to himself. And he could spend his evenings in the control booth, using the targeting sensors like an astronomical observatory to chart distant galaxies, seek the Earth’s blue speck far away, and wonder.

He even had a neighbor. The emplacements were spaced so tightly that there was a second one in this star system, and his naked eye could see that other dusty planet rise in the morning sky.

He spent the heat of day walking on desiccated sandstone spines that bridged the desert—waving his fists, raging at the cold and silent enemy which had stolen Father, Mother, and a hundred years he could have lived on Earth. Whenever he was tempted to turn on the radio, he had only to watch the news reel from the day of their coming.

He hadn’t been much more than a boy at the time. When the sky turned dark greens and blues he’d thought fireworks were being shot off in the daytime. Even when fighter jets ripped the sky—climbing fingers that couldn’t quite reach high enough—he’d thought they were putting on a show. When the shapeless ships were obscured by miles of atmosphere he’d looked on them that first time with his hair standing on end, as if they were painted in a glorious new kind of beauty he’d never thought of before.

Only when a few million tons of fire fell did he understand. Men in red uniforms pulled him out of his smoking home. He remembered asking every adult who clutched him why this was happening. To this day, no one had been able to give him an answer.

The cold and silent enemy were still a total mystery. One general had tried to name them after insects, but everyone saw right away that wasn’t right—they were asymmetrical, indescribable. A language built entirely on comparisons had no words for life from elsewhere.

If Earth could have talked to them, reasoned with them, even surrendered to them, Earth would have done it long ago. But their thoughts were not human thoughts. Where they landed, they did nothing but cut great furrows in the ground and move glowing rocks around in spirals. The greatest analysts of the generation speculated that they experienced time in five directions at once—not that this could mean anything to the layman. They had no eyes, no nose, no tongue, but five completely different senses. Ideas like peace and mercy fell not on deaf ears, but on no ears at all.

He didn’t regret having no children before taking up his post. He couldn’t bear thinking of children who would grow up without knowing a time before a war without end.

After about half a century, the desert started to change him. It was surprising how much one could read in five decades; after exhausting his little brazier lit from the flame of humanity, he started spending more nights outside. There were occasional sandstorms, but most of the time this planet was clear as a drop of rubbing alcohol. They’d given him a little hover-scooter he could scotch around on, and he puttered over the sand at about eighty miles an hour exploring the dunes.

He wrote a refutation to Immanuel Kant—who really wasn’t all that complex, once you got past the obfuscation of his sentences. Upon discovering that he enjoying it, he followed this with letters to most of the other writers memorialized on his silver chip. He recorded some of his writing aloud in a wet-sandpaper voice, which sounded more and more each year like the wind of the nameless planet.

Legibility wasn’t a worry. No one would ever read it. His medicines would keep him going for another hundred years or so, on a clean world like this. And after that time elapsed his replacement would land, just in time to give him a burial.

It was hard not knowing. That might have been the hardest thing. After so long, and the night sky always dark but for stars, Earth too far away to see properly, and no radio—for all he knew, the endless war might have already been lost. Everything he knew might have been conquered and destroyed, piece by piece. Even the other emplacements could have fallen, and he wouldn’t know it. Technically he could be the last human in the universe.

It was also difficult to keep up his spirit for such a long time. Oh, to be sure, he could hate with aplomb. But around the time he started to forget his name, he started losing track of ways to keep it up. There was no malice in the enemy; no cruelty, no anger. They probably didn’t know what those things were. Whatever forces moved them were beyond comprehension as like the lightning and the wind. It was as if, after fighting earthquakes and forest fires for millions of years and finally conquering them, people had moved into space to find that there were new kinds of hurricane, and new kinds of hail, and new kinds of snow reducing them to cavemen huddling out the storm. He began to think of himself less as a soldier, and more as the one who shored up walls against the tide. He was the fire-tender who kept watch against the lion in the long night. Wouldn't there would always be someone like him, tending the fire against something?

He spent whole months outside, memorizing the shape of red rocks, the paths taken by granules of sand. The patch on his uniform faded away, and he didn’t care. With no one to talk to—he had never been in the habit of talking to himself—his tongue forgot the taste of words. He never forgot the sound of his grandfather’s voice, or the face of the woman he loved, but he did forget exactly what they had once said to him.

Some morning in the hundredth year found him sitting in a parcel of feldspar outcroppings shaped like a lizard. Recently he’d taken up the habit of sitting in one place for a full day and night, to find out what it was like to be a rock living for years in one spot. He was near the end of this particular vigil, and had become intimately acquainted with the character of the boulder propping up his back; he was meditating on the curves of shadow around its base when he noticed suddenly that the light on this particular morning wasn’t quite right. The atmosphere was very consistent here, and so the slightest change in the color felt wrong. He frowned and looked up. He found nothing, raised his head farther still, and there, among the fast-fading stars, was a thick fiery streak in the shape of a great W.

It took him a moment to re-connect the rattled memories. He knew that shape. It was the unmistakable trail of the cold and silent enemy.

His limbs trembled—struck like a match. He was on his feet! The scooter was shaken, dug from under a foot of sand, pried open, kicked once, twice, coughed to life. He raced across the desert at two hundred miles an hour, kicking up his own V-shaped trail in sand while the fire-streak rattled its way through the blind depths.

He was farther away from the artillery than he was supposed to be. Over a hundred years, discipline had grown a little lax. But he could still power up before it got away! Already, he saw a dark fuzz on the horizon grow and swell. It became a spot, and then a hill, and then a mountain-spindle of black metal and silver cables. Guylines spanned out over miles in order to keep the impossible tower steady. The main barrel, a middle finger pointing directly at the sky—by the time he reached the entrance its tip was lost in a middle-grey atmospheric haze.

He practically rode his scooter through the door. And he sprinted past the locked door to the radio—past gardens spraying a misty rain on beds of leeks—past the room where he could listen to Mozart, Chopin, and see the seven wonders of the immolated world—past his bedroom—up, onward, to stairs that hadn’t been touched in decades. They were covered in fine hard dust. He flicked the lights on as he ran, but outpaced their wires, always up ahead of the light, up and up and into the tiny eggshell of the control booth.

He gasped into his seat. Hadn’t been here in years, but the tight red ergonomic foam squeezed his contours—it remembered him like a mother. Deep hypnosis brought the training back at his beck and call. He remembered it all. Switches were flipped, pads caressed, joysticks yanked. He petted the controls, a rider urging his horse to flight. The emplacement creaked, three huge barrels swinging, tossing their steel-cable bindings snap by snap, a ponderous groan of hoisting.

The streak was cutting great time across his effective sphere of range. He had no time to wait, aim carefully, or exhale before he hit the trigger.

The shot was a louder noise than he had heard in one hundred years. After his head finished ringing, he fogged up the sreen with his nose to watch the red-hot bolt jumping jagged, clawing its way past the exosphere until it twinkled out of sight.

The fiery trail twitched.

The shot had connected! He was panting now, all orifices wide open, nearly ready to explode. But there was no matching explosion in the heavens. The trail zigzagged, now strafing, now scribbling. It made a child’s mockery of physics by pretending to be a crayon on a page six inches away.

His nose was ice cold. This artillery emplacement had been designed with enough punch to knock the largest enemy dreadnought out of the sky. The only possible explanation was that the cold and silent enemy developed new technology, just like humans did. They had even tougher armor than one hundred years ago. They had even faster ships. The prospect was terrifying.

He flipped the target-assist off; it would do him no good now. There was no telling if he had the firepower to stop this ship, but he had to try. No time remained to revive the mummified radio, warn Earth, for all the good that would even do—if this ship wasn’t in too much of a hurry, he expected to be fired on, and to burn, in very short order.

The controls blew through his fingers like grass in the breeze. He had to be Chopin now, and play with the touch of a butterfly. The emplacement recharged quickly, but that ship was nearing the limits of his range. He wouldn’t get a third shot.

Left, right, all directions at once went the fire-yellow trail. Could he predict where it would be eleven seconds later? He brought one hundred years of waiting to bear, lined up the best shot he could, and let it go.

His red star twinkled. For a minute he didn’t breathe. Then the fire-trail shuddered. His fingernails drew blood from his palms. It vibrated, then wriggled, then, like a dying moth, slowly shortened and curved in towards the nameless desert world.

It had lost power! He laughed for a full five minutes before thinking to pull himself out of the control booth and slide back down the banisters to his scooter. There was plenty of time to track the ship; its engines must have been fighting to the bitter end, because gravity only slowly teased it down from outer space. He followed as it became a shooting star, then a flaming meteor, then a screaming wreck plummeting across the blue.

He was five miles off when it came down. It didn’t bounce, just plunged in at an angle and kicked up a sandstorm that nearly asphyxiated him. When the dust settled an hour later he puttered in, across a trail of fresh glass and littered parts.

The main body of the wreck was still burning when he reached it. The flames, he noted with interest, were an ordinary yellow; he had always wondered if a shapeless ship would burn purple with potassium, or crimson with lithium. The ship itself looked like a raisin after impact. But while the invasion ships had been leviathan, this blackened lump was no larger than a trailer home. Maybe other sections had burned off in the atmosphere?

He found a single hatch. It was impossible that he should see something so recognizable as a hatch on an enemy ship, but there it was, and it had popped open during impact. After waiting for more smoke to clear, he dared to peer inside. He expected to go mad promptly, but after a hundred years, his curiosity wouldn’t be denied.

The first things he saw were lights—harmless enough. The walls were all the wrong shapes, and that was rather disturbing, but he managed to work out the idea of a hallway before raising his gaze a cautious three inches. That object on the floor might have been similar to a chair—alright. He looked further. This may have been the bridge of the ship, because that looked like a viewing screen of sorts, and here, beneath it, this could be a main control panel.

One of the enemy was sitting dead at the controls. It was certainly silent now if it hadn’t been before.

His skin crawled in instinctual revulsion, and then he peered closer, morbidly. He’d never seen one this close. It confirmed his suspicion that the earlier object had been a chair, because the enemy was sitting on an identical object, if its perch could quite be called sitting. Much of its body was obscured by a strange, shimmering dress, but a limb that was either a head or a toe or something else lolled back over the chair backing—snapped clean. Probably from whiplash when the second bolt hit. Probably a quick death.

But the alien didn’t hold his gaze for very long. He found a number of other things on the bridge even more entrancing—like the human girl who sat in a chair askew behind the pilot. She was wearing the same shimmering dress, but there was no mistaking her species. Two of her fingers stretched towards the pilot, heat-fused with two digits that the pilot had reached back to hold her hand.

Just as he expected, the innards of the ship defied his imagination. There were slimy sights that beggared his ability to gaze upon, let alone put into words. There was also a pair of fuzzy dice hanging over the viewscreen, and an apple in an upturned bowl. There was a sticker on the wall with words he knew he’d once been able to read. Among the litter on the floor he recognized snack bars, empty wrappers, a formula bottle, and a star atlas.

And that thing that looked almost like a cradle, that thing smashed against the wall like a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich—he looked no closer at that.

It reminded him of nothing so much as a road trip to a Minnesota lake. The family had driven up every year before Father died. His best memories were of passing twelve hours crammed in a car seat with an Etch-a-Sketch, swapping stories about the smell of fish, and helping to find that last lonely fast-food stop, whose half-lit sign illuminated mostly birch forest, at the end of a voyage through the starlit summer night.

His tongue searched a moment for words he had forgotten. He fell, knees forward, into flames as yellow as the homeworld sun.

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