A Techno-Wartime Short Story
The light speeds did a number on his mind, flipping it to one setting, then the next, repeating the cycle until the migraines gave way to sickness.
“Damnit, Mitchell!” Jane Orgell yelled.
The look in her eyes was something of irritation and confusion. He could tell she was of the same mindset as him—muddled switches into blistering pain.
“Sorry,” said Mitchell. It just so happened that the orbit-landing descent fell under his five-hour flight pattern. “Bad landing.”
“Next time boost the propulsion tanks a little sooner, will ya? Jesus.”
He wanted to throw up, but he swallowed it down, just like his pride.
“Did we hit the mark?” she asked.
“15G speeds aren’t easy to come by, but the readings say we did,” replied Mitchell.
“Congratulations, Staff Sergeant. Welcome to Omulus II.”
Twenty-five years may seem like a hell of a lot of time, but to the crew of the Star Fleet, it was a mere two-weeks vacation time in a luxury spaceline. They had certainly enjoyed themselves, knowing that once they hit the Omulus Star Set II, the Colonel would institute wartime mindset, flipping yet another switch in their already fragile brains. They were there for a reason, after all, and that reason was war.
“All passengers report to deck,” spat the Comm system as loud as ever.
“Time for briefing,” said Mitchell.
Jane wasn’t listening. She was too busy chipping away at an ice cone she had bought in the cafeteria. She turned to him and raised her eyebrows.
“Were you saying something?” she asked.
He had grown accustomed to this sort of behavior from her after the detonation of Xaton Rae. It had been her home planet, after all, and Mitchell had been one of the commanding officers in the operation. And now, as two of the better Staff Sergeants in the HumanForce Army, they had been forced to work together on a similar mission per the Colonel’s clear, unabated orders.
“Is this going to be a problem?” the Colonel had asked. “I need both of you on board. This is a big one.”
“Not a problem, Colonel,” Jane had snapped back. She had tried to be brave, but there was a quivering in her voice that told the real story.
Mitchell only nodded. He had never been one to allow personal vendettas to affect a mission anyway.
She had cried for weeks after that.
“Listen,” he began, watching Jane suck at the ice cone in her hand. “Xaton was a long time—”
She cut him off with a fiery glare and an upright middle finger. “Let’s go.”
The briefing room was relatively standard—a rectangular grouping of walls holding forty or so desks made for twelve year olds. Commanding officers huddled in close against each other, sitting rigidly against the back of the desk chairs.
“Don’t get comfortable,” said Colonel Lyndon, walking urgently to the podium in the front of the room. “We won’t be here long.”
Mitchell turned to Jane, who still had a slight snarl to her lip, but if he was being honest with himself, it appeared as though the anger was lessening.
“This planet, just outside the ship, is part of a chain in Deep Space called Nebula Zed 14. Ten thousand years ago, a failed techno-experiment performed by a fledgling corporation gave birth to a new, sentient artificial intelligence in one fully functional, quantum-proton modem the size of New York City. All seemed well until the machines went rogue, killed the five hundred employees of the company, and built an army of sentient machines and ships to expand their newfound civilization.
“We stationed four propulsion ships at the planet’s two axis points to gun down any ships leaving the planet’s atmosphere, but since the beginning, they’ve been learning, gaining intelligence, making it difficult for our ships to keep track of traffic. They’ve started fighting back. Our men have had their fair share of trouble these last few decades, which is why we’re here.
“Our mission is to detonate the planet. Plain and simple. Staff Sergeant Mitchell will be leading the ground run with Staff Sergeant Orgell,” he said, handing a flat piece of plastic-metal to each of them. At that, Jane’s snarl deepened. “You must find their mainframe, insert the virus encryption, and get out of there. This should shut the machines down, but we’ll blow them into Deep Space to make sure they’re dead anyway. We have clear orders from the General himself and, because of that, we can’t take any chances with this shit hole.
“Ferarra and Jameson, you’ll watch and alert from the Observation Decks. We get in. We get out. Any questions? Didn’t think so. Dismissed.”
The Colonel made a beeline for the door and slammed it behind him. The others waited, then rose once he left.
“Pretty standard protocol,” said Mitchell, turning to Jane.
She scoffed at the attempt of casual talk.
“See you at blast,” she said.
The night dragged. He paced his ration of whiskey and tetrahydro-cocaine, but still, he couldn’t make the time pass quicker. All he could think about was Jane.
He knew he shouldn’t have pulled the trigger on Xaton, but what was he supposed to do? Defy a Commanding Officer? He’d be spaced for that! Plus, the planet had been overrun by the Behran Terrorist Group and threatened universal annihilation. If HumanForce hadn’t taken care of it, they may have been talking about a human extinction event of epic proportions. The planet needed to go. It was fate.
Deep down, Mitchell knew Jane understood the logic. It was a mission they had executed together time and time again. Losing everyone she ever loved, however, was no easy task to overcome, and like a good soldier, she had bit her tongue and continued working with HumanForce because, quite frankly, she had nowhere else to go.
Still, all those innocent people…
They’d be on his conscience until the day he died.
He finished the last bit of whiskey at the bottom of the ration glass, felt the dry buzz in his ears and allowed the drugs to intensify the rush. Normally they would pull him away from the worries of his life, however big or small they seemed, but tonight, as he lay there against the forma-mattress, he felt even worse than before.
“Fucking Xaton,” he said.
“Bad news,” said the Colonel. He had called an Emergency Eval Meeting with the Ground Runners before Mitchell could get to sleep. “Axis Points are in the heart of techno-cities. Try and drop there and they’ll sense you four miles up. We hadn’t noticed how dense the populations were until we were on top of them.”
“Well shit, Sir,” said Jane. It was the first time she seemed any bit of pleasant. “How do you suggest we handle this?”
“Pray to your gods. You’re gonna need all the strength you can muster.”
A definitive silence.
“So we go ahead as planned?” she asked, breaking it.
“Shit yeah,” he said. “We came here to do a job and, by God, we’ll finish it.”
Jane turned to Mitchell whose eyes were as wide as the stars.
“Don’t worry, soldiers,” the Colonel continued. “We’ll be with you every step of the way.”
“Extra rations of whiskey and tetra would be nice, Colonel,” said Mitchell, half-asking, half-convincing. “You know, for our added inconvenience.”
“Denied. I need you at one hundred percent.”
Mitchell sighed. “Yes, Sir.”
They left the Command Center with the same queasiness as landing in 15G space, knowing that the chances for death had just been increased hundredfold.
“Well, there’s one thing they can’t take away from us,” Jane said. “If you know what I mean.”
Mitchell turned, pleasantly shocked. He thought he’d be bunking alone tonight as he had every night since the Xaton detonation.
“Why the change of heart? Fifteen minutes ago you wanted to rip my head off.”
She lifted her eyes. There was still a significant bit of pain there, but no longer directed at him.
“That was before we were given a death sentence,” she said. She patted him on the shoulder, unsmiling. “Don’t worry, Mitch. It’s just a feel good time. You know, just sex. We only have each other now and, after it’s done, we go back to business. What do you say?”
Mitchell nodded as Jane’s hand passed the curve of his shoulder and down to his waist. Mixed emotions flooded his mind, but he pushed them away and focused on the testosterone pulsing through his veins.
“It’s just sex,” he said, but he would be lying if he said he hadn’t wanted it, waiting for it like some crazy person. He truly missed the days before Xaton. “And then we go to work.”
“Axis points are cramped to the max,” said the pilot. He was a good soldier—Juan Gutierrez. “How the hell do you expect me to land this rig in the middle of a techno hotspot?”
“You’re not landing. We’ll be running from the plains to the South. Jumping from there, too.”
“Jesus! You really believe this is going to work, don’t you?” said the pilot.
Mitchell snapped the backpack parachute to his shoulders, feeling the fabric of the snaps rub against his underarms.
“It has to work. Just make sure you tune the direction to autopilot so we don’t lose the Carrier. Got it?”
“Check,” said Gutierrez. “Drop off in five minutes.”
He turned and caught Jane's stare. He hadn’t noticed her until she was practically on top of him, engaging for informal orders. A surge of pheromones hit his brain.
“You’re in charge,” she barked. “What next?”
The Colonel’s stern voice erupted from the Comm System. “Prepare for mindset switch in three…two…one…engage.”
Mitchell had always hated this part—the way the chemicals in his body rewired for an external purpose. Adrenaline flooded his bloodstream. Cortisol and dopamine locked into brain receptors, changing his brain’s molecular composition, restructuring. His external brainwave chip pulsed somewhere deep into his brain, recording every weird, stretching line of data. Medics monitored his vitals from Command back at the ship.
Minutes before, he had been wishing for home. Now there was only the mission.
Mitchell’s group jumped first, leaving Jane’s group in the ship for cover. They directed themselves toward a thin block of land below, clearly a platform of some sort or a plain of grass. He prayed the digital maps had been correct.
“Gather,” he ushered, floating heavily against the atmospheric gravity change. The weather of this world was something strange—a black cosmos of clouds and dust. He could hear the rhythmic breathing of his crew through their headsets. They clasped arms and forced themselves into a cluttered star-shape, listening.
“No signs of life, but they’re out there,” said Private Bray—a newbie.
Mitchell listened. He could hear the high-pitched screams of the techno-beings as far out as the distant city to the North, and then, out of nowhere, a barrage of laser ammo suddenly whizzed passed them, blowing a shredded hole through Private Frankie Lupetti.
The boy fell away from the group—dead.
“Shit!” several soldiers barked through the Comm. “Cover fire!”
Mitchell and new recruits Sulver and Stacy broke away from the circle, arching down into hunched balls, aiming at a congregation of techno-buildings to their left. Several laser ammos nearly ripped through Mitchell’s skull. He felt the short stalks of his hair singe with the heat through his perforated oxygen suit. The red DANGER sign flashed against his dashboard, then ceased after the regeneration process fixed the open flap.
“Chutes!” Mitchell yelled.
The group pulled and all but Sulver landed gracefully on the artificial turf plain. As for the recruit, they found him thirty yards out, splattered against a pile of eroded rocks.
Two dead before they even met landfall.
He’d have to remember to thank the Colonel for that one later.
“Axis One to Axis Two, do you read?” called Mitchell.
He was anxious to hear Jane’s voice.
When she answered, she had a panicked spark about her, but seemed to calm in a matter of seconds. “Yeah, I hear you.”
“We ran into heavy fire about a mile up. We landed, but lost a few.”
“How many?” he asked.
She hated the technicalities in his questions, but understood their necessity. “Four.”
“Shit,” said Mitchell. “We lost two.”
He snapped on the visual map attached to his wrist and switched over to electro-radiation. A blip of pulsing red covered the area close to a smaller blob of green.
“You’ve got company, Jane. Red hot,” he said. “Two clicks east.”
A silence buzzed through the radio Comm.
“Axis Two, display yourself.”
Then all Hell broke loose. Heavy gunfire laced Mitchell's headset.
“Damnit! We’ve been—. Don’t know—making—run for it!”
Mitchell’s heart sank. The feeling of losing Jane to an ambush superseded any mindset programmed in his brain. Suddenly, he felt broken and cold.
No, he thought. Not yet.
“What do we do, Sir?” asked Gutierrez, standing directly beside him. “Help?”
“No. We set the trigger and finish the fucking job.”
The techno-city burned green in the distance—an emerald skyline pulsing like an artificial heart. A few buildings scattered across the plain, but looked uninhabited.
Mitchell kept his eyes glued to the electro-radiation scanner, watching the green blips flutter as they moved. At least some of Axis Two were still alive, but he couldn’t tear his mind away from the feeling that Jane had kicked it. He hadn’t spoke to her since the Comms fell through.
“Approaching structures look empty. The real deal seems to still be inside the techno.”
“Got a bad feeling, Boss.”
“We all do,” said Mitchell. The irritation in his voice was now clear. “Now shut up.”
The remaining green blips faded to yellow, then a deep red. A very bad sign.
“You seein’ this, Boss?”
“Shut up,” said Mitchell.
“Without Axis Two—”
“I said shut the hell up.”
The streets, if you could even call them streets, were inundated with a series of matrices—lines of light that stretched for miles ahead. Pulsing green resonated from the base of the buildings, blinking every few seconds into a bright glow, then returning back to dimness.
“Cue the Magnetic Repulsion Fields in three…two…one,” said Mitchell.
The soft buzz revved into power, then pulled them through the metal pathways at a causal pace.
“You sure the suits can handle this sort of power?” asked another soldier. This one was named Rudy. The name crossed Mitchell’s dashboard just in front of his eyes.
“They better. They’re built for twenty-thousand megatons of energy.”
He would never admit it, but he had his doubts.
Out of the corner of his eye, Gutierrez caught motion against the black backdrop of the cityscape.
“Runner! To your left, Boss!”
But as soon as he had seen it, the body vanished into the black.
“The Axis Point is up a ways. We have to hurry now. If that thing tells the rest we’re here, we can kiss a rescue goodbye.”
Two dots appeared ahead, hovering through the air with remarkable precision. Then another pair. Then another, until the wall of black in the distance became a barricade of yellow eyes, staring back at the pocket of HumanForce soldiers with nothing to protect them but laser ammo and Repulsion Fields. Even the most optimistic of the crew knew this was a tragic turn of events. Mitchell counted quickly—a hundred to one.
The cocking of laser ammo weapons filled the air and, presently, Mitchell knew what he had to do.
“I got your cover, Boss!” the woman to his right yelled. She was sweating more than he had ever seen a lady sweat.
The techno-beings charged the force field, bending the energy to its breaking point.
“It won’t last much longer! What do you want us to do, Sarg?”
“Hold the field until my mark, when I give the word, max out the energy radius,” yelled Mitchell.
The Comm broke with constant static. He was still hoping for Jane’s voice to resurrect from the dead line.
“But sir! We’ll be sitting ducks! You can’t possibly—”
“It’s an order, Soldier. You see? They don’t want you. They want this.” He held up a thin, square piece of metal in his left hand—the encryption panel. Lines of copper and titanium filament ran through it in intricate electronic patterns. “Without the encryption panel, we can’t blow the Axis. This is what they want.” He secured the panel back into a flap of his oxygen suit, then tapped the Velcro to make sure it stuck. “Here’s what’s gonna happen. I’ll make a run for it once the radius expands. You all will cover me until you can make a run for it. There should be a rescue squad hidden where we made landfall. If I’m more than five minutes, leave.”
“Jesus,” Stacy whispered.
It didn’t sound like a whisper through the headset. A concentrated loneliness crept in through each syllable.
“Orders are orders,” Mitchell blurted. The techno-beings bounced harder now from the energy field. It wouldn’t be much longer now. “Just fucking do it! On my mark!”
He waited a few more seconds, then:
A strong, high frequency pulsed the air like a thousand honeybees swarming a hive. The Repulsion Field instantly shot away from the crew in all directions, expanding to over triple its size in a fraction of a second.
“Surge protector reads overload in twenty seconds,” yelled Gutierrez.
Mitchell counted softly in his head. His heartbeat threatened to throw off the tempo. He clutched at the panel in his pocket, knowing it was their last hope.
“Three…two…one…Good luck, Sarge.”
He heard nothing but laser fire and muffled screaming after that. Still, he couldn’t find it within himself to look back. He had a mission. And, as the mindset told him, there was only the mission, so he kept running, losing himself in the pit-pat of his foot-soles as they collided with the ground. He ran until he thought he would throw up. He could almost taste the rations of whiskey and cocaine from his previous nights barreling up his esophagus.
And then he reached the techno-sanctuary—a long, perfectly square building blasting countless megatons of light energy into the sky. No place on Earth compared to this one—a literal reservoir of clear energy just waiting to be tapped.
He glanced left, then right. Not a life form in sight—techno or human.
Weird, he thought, wondering if the others had made it out of the shit storm back at the edge of the metro.
He jacked into the Earth Intelligence Database and downloaded an instructional packet for uploading an encryption panel to homegrown tech. Within minutes, the information streamlined to the microchip scanner in his brain. He saved the download progress to his hard drive. He thought he had enough space for it in there anyway.
The building seemed to come alive as he approached, changing from emerald to more of a lime color, illuminating the sky with atomic levels of radiation. Codes ran through his mind from the EID knowledge base packet:
3. Query Undefined/engage-initiate-terminate/11100111000010100
He plugged the chain into the sideboard of holographic letters and numbers, watching the external display of the building’s wall confirm the response.
He pressed confirm and slipped the encryption panel deep into the sideboard mainframe. It blinked red, then, as the motherboard accepted the offering, a solid, unwavering green emerged. An illiterate roar filled the planet, then fell into an obliterating silence—one that felt like an end of things, an apocalypse. For anything else, that sound would have haunted for centuries. For Mitchell though, it was the most beautiful sound in the universe. It was the sound of survival, of victory.
He watched as the pulsing of the techno-city died into black atmosphere. He was suddenly completely alone in a world of lonely darkness and unnatural quiet, a world of dead metal.
“Anyone else from Axis One still on Comm?” asked Mitchell into his headpiece. “Anyone? Axis Two? Anyone?”
The Comm’s been down for some time now. It doesn’t mean shit, he convinced himself.
“Please, please, please, please, please,” he mumbled as he ran, using the electro-radiation scanner to locate the rescue mission.
He reached it in less than an hour. The ship's propulsion generators caught against the land, falling up and down in hover mode in the distance. At first, the carrier appeared empty, as though the ship rocked naturally against a very unnatural breeze.
“Sarge?” said a deep, impenetrable voice.
“Yes! It’s me! Where’s my crew? Axis One? Where are they?”
The puzzled look on the soldier’s face meant nothing but doom. He was certain of it. He waited for a response, but the soldier only averted his eyes.
“What is it, Soldier?” said Mitchell through a daze. It wasn’t a question, more like a statement.
“Your crew is dead,” he said.
The soldier stood at the edge of the carrier. A sergeant without a crew meant instant execution Earthside. Desertion, they would say.
“There was one other survivor,” said the soldier. “And a good one, too.”
The whir of the propulsion generators gained traction—almost time for a clean departure.
From the rear of the carrier cabin, Mitchell could see a slim, athletic figure walking towards him with shoulders tensed and crossed arms against a broad chest. He knew that look, uniquely at that—Jane! She emerged from the shadows into the clarity of the carrier overlight.
“Just you?” he asked.
“Just me,” she said.
But there was something different about her now—a warmth she had never shown before. Perhaps it was sadness or a moment of hesitancy. Either way, even through the oxygen suit, she looked more beautiful than ever.
“Two commanding officers, a successful detonation plan, and no crews to show for it. Holy shit, Mitch. We are absolutely, positively screwed.”
“Let’s get this over with,” he said.
He tried his best to ignore the terror present in her voice, tried to push away his own experiential guilt growing like a monster in his chest, but he stepped rigidly onto the ship with shaking legs.
They launched from that lonely planet knowing their fates even before God.
“Not gonna lie to you,” said the Colonel. “This is bad.”
He paced the command floor of the central ship, refusing to take his eyes from the two sergeants huddled by the table across the room.
“You already know what the Military Council’s gonna say about this, don’t you?”
“We know,” she said.
“Good, so let’s spare the bullshit. It won’t be a surprise when they reach a verdict,” continued the Colonel, “but I must say, you did one hell of a job. That should count for something. I’ll recommend my opinion to the Board.”
He held something flat and rectangular-shaped between the index finger and thumb of his right hand. He kept the pad of his thumb pressed against the bulge on the longest of its sides.
Mitchell knew what would come next—the biggest display of fireworks this side of Deep Space.
“Before we blow this place out of the sky,” said the Colonel. “Let’s give you your minds back, shall we? I think it’s safe to say wartime is over.”
The Colonel flicked the mindset switches with a single word and suddenly, the wartime mindset dissolved and the peacetime mindset rushed in—a cool splash of endorphins somewhere deep in both of their brains. There was the guilt, too, but somehow, that didn’t matter anymore.
“Sergeants,” the Colonel announced, holding out his palm to the space-proofed windows. The black mass of the techno-planet hung like a perfect sphere against a blanket of sparkling stars. It looked so helpless, so vulnerable there, prey awaiting the final reality of its predator, sharp teeth and all. “Enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
He pressed the rectangular button with full force, erupting the planet into a fury of sparks, sprays of helium flares rising like Elysium towers into the stretches of space. It burned for more than six hours as the three of them watched—children against the dying of the light.
“Two weeks to desertion,” said Jane, gazing at Mitchell with hollow eyes.
And she held him at the waist like she never had before.