The foreign, mechanical sound came from nearby. We all tensed. The whirring was soon overtaken by something new—the whine of engines coming to life.
Mitties, I thought, raising my rifle and flicking the safety switch. But wait. Those sound big, huge!
With amazing speed, a terrible roar announced a white, pointed object rising impossibly close. From the hill right next to us. I took cover—we all did, out of instinct.
“What in hell!”
The Cecilia System!
Two more lifted off nearby. Big. Thirty legs. Forty, maybe fifty. “T.U.” was painted on the sides. The roar was all-consuming, the sound pushing down on us. The rockets moved faster than I would’ve thought. Right away, we could see the lavender-hued thrust tailing the bottom, with very little smoke. Sections of snow rattled and slid.
The warmth from the nearest rocket passed us. It seemed to accelerate, streaking up toward wisps of cloud.
“By the gods, they are huge!”
“Yup. With a warhead the size of a bus. Filled with depleted Torquinyte,” Esch added.
Bohl whistled in amazement.
“Torquinyte! In the Names of the Fathers. I sure hope that planetary defense would be the only reason such a weapon exists.”
“Yeah Prubius, me too. One would think that.”
Torquinyte, a super-hard and radioactive ore, was too dense for industrial use. However, being harder than standard hull plating and naturally occurring in head-sized lumps, the stuff would be merciless as a space weapon.
We all stood with our necks craned, watching three white streaks converge in the sky. If any Mitties were alive here on the ground, they would’ve seen them, too. The rockets were impossible to miss. From what I’d heard, the Global Attack Ships couldn’t maneuver too well in a hurry. My heart fluttered. It would be too late for them.
“That is a beautiful sight. Cecilia. Isn’t the name of an old folk song?”
“Very popular in my youth on Tchushkolarya,” Bohl said. “Catchy. People play it at concerts all the time.”
“I dated a gal on Trieste for a while. She had an older sister named Cecilia. Kind of a witch, really.”
Prubius asked, “Witch? Do you mean, she performed magic?”
“No,” Esch scoffed. “Only if the magic was to drive people away. She was mean, perpetually unhappy.”
“I wonder if she’s in this war. I’d like to sick her on the Mitties,” he laughed. “Some people are just born unhappy, you know?”
“That seems true,” I added, no longer able to see the bright dots of the rockets, beyond where short streaks were swallowed by the violet color and smoke. I bet it was 150 miles up to reach lower orbit.
“I didn’t know they painted them white,” Dhani observed.
“For stealth, a wise choice. Seeing fast-approaching objects from orbit is very difficult—even when the planet you are looking at is not white.”
“It will buy them more time—before they’re shot down.”
Bohl flashed me a smile. “It is possible, Captain, the Mitties’ war machine forgot their own arrogance in their preparations.”
“Boy, wouldn’t that be nice?” Esch added.
I started walking again and the rest followed suit. I liked that. Aside from commanding my little sister when we were kids, I’d never ordered anyone around. I’d prefer if the men simply followed my lead or intuited my wishes and acted.
Cecilia didn’t fail after-all.
Our Enemy was able to delay the system, not disarm it. Delay by seven or eight hours. If these things had launched first-thing this morning, our situation would look a little different. We might not have lost—it’s impossible to know. We might not have lost yet. Did Joffe and Karran know something I didn’t? Had they sensed it—inevitable defeat?
Software confused me. The Cecelia system must’ve detected a problem and rebooted to its default status. I guess that’s the way those things work. There were brighter people than me in this war, and that thought carried much hope.
“What about the launch silos?” I asked. I knew nothing about them.
“Uh, sorry Captain,” Dhani said. “They’re just empty concrete tubes. Remote fired. I don’t think there would be any kind of control room down there.”
“But there is certainly a ladder for maintenance,” Prubius objected, pausing. “Temporary shelter from the elements, at the least.”
“Except we would be trapped rats,” Esch said. “Only one way in and out.”
“Agreed. The Enemy is bound to look for us, there.” Bohl lifted his rifle to the sky and added, “I would.”
“Flickers,” Dhani swore. “Can you see anything, Bohl?”
The Tchushkin was peering through his rifle’s scope. It had the best viewing range of all our weapons, combined with his superior vision. It made me feel lesser. The rifle was one thing. Someday, I’d have to ask Bohl how his rods and cones were better than my rods and cones.
I scanned the sky, looking for a party.
“There they are,” he said. “One, two, three, spread out a—flash! We have an impact.”
My heart jumped. Raising my own rifle and scope, I imagined a great, flowery burst in space.
“Another one,” he said. “Larger. That second one must be a reactor going up. Captain, I would say Cecilia is a success.”
“Got the bastards,” Esch remarked.
The surly enthusiasm in his voice was something I could get used to. Following Bohl’s sight line, I located a white poof deep in the purple emptiness. It must’ve looked spectacular from the perspective of our satellite up there. Half the T.U. Central Command must’ve been watching—if the satellite hadn’t been blown to bits. At the same time, I hoped it was horrifying to the Mitasterites. Those up there and those back on the home world. Maybe it would mean something.
“What about the third rocket?”
“No, I do not see it. It might have missed.”
“Still,” Prubius said, “two Global Attack Ships down. That is wonderful. Vwillavwellyara,” he added.
I smiled at his Pashunderran expression—even though I couldn’t recall its literal translation. The proper response, by tradition, was a light fist to the spot where his neck curved into his upper back. Pashunderrans have a special gland, there. Tapping one there is like saying, “Good job.”
He smirked when I completed the short ritual. I didn’t know if he was expecting me to, in front of the others, or if I’d remember it.
Dhani searched the sky, without the benefit of a rifle. Bohl made a move as if to give his over, but it’s a two-handed device. He checked himself and started forward.
Dhani stayed with him. “You think it got the first one, too?”
“Yes. That much mass and firepower would bring anything out of orbit.”
“Good,” Dhani said, nodding. “Hope they’re screaming all the way down.”
Dhani’s words repeated in my head. An image came up—schematics. The G.A.S. is a big vessel, some 3,000 legs in length and 1,200 legs wide. There must’ve been the full complement of tanks out there this morning—over a hundred. The G.A.S. also holds various landing craft and an assortment of fighter ships for defense.
Three thousand legs, almost two miles. That’s a satok-load of metal and material…heaps and heaps of it…entering P-75’s atmosphere in big chunks…
I whirled around and pointed my rifle to the sky.
“Satok,” Prubius said, following my action. “I do not like the way those rocket-trails head straight away from us.”
“Cover,” Bohl blurted out. “Let us hurry!”
Esch hurried ahead towards some rock formations with overhangs. The snow was deeper—we had to fight to get through. I caught up to Prubius and grabbed a strap of his sled. Awkwardly, we dragged it faster. We didn’t dare leave it out there, unprotected.
“We should separate,” Bohl said.
“Bohl, Dhani, with me,” Esch commanded, leading over to a rock on the left. They hustled toward their protective boulder.
On the other side of our intended path was a smaller hiding spot. Caked with snow, the rock resembled an angular block set leaning over. Icicles hung from the lip of the overhang. Prubius and I struggled to get the sled under cover. I wondered if we had enough protection.
I felt it now—the oxygen content of the air was lower than I was used to. Probably lower than any of us were used to, like we were at altitude. Prubius’ breath came out like smoke from the effort. A few of his telltale Pashunderran scarlet hairs peaked out of his warming cowl. They stood out brilliantly against his blue skin, which stood in stark contrast to the white of our surrounding world. Even Bohl, with his lavender hue and larger eyes and two crips for “hair” (currently concealed) didn’t look as otherworldly as my buddy Prubius.
“Why split up?” he asked me. The others were thirty legs away, safe as us.
“In case,” I started, searching the purple above. “In case debris starts raining down on us. One piece could get all of us, or part of us.”
“That is very sunny of you, Captain,” he laughed. “At least you and I have the rations.”
“What’s that you’re saying, Mister Blue?” Esch taunted from across the way.
“I said, ‘We have the food.’ You all are out of luck,” Prubius added, starting a little dance.
I had to laugh. I’d never seen him this jovial before. Maybe it was the destruction high above us. One of the others said something back—Dhani?—and Bohl tried to hit us with a snowball. It fell way short. Esch tried, but didn’t get much closer. Contrary to standard Pashunderran behavior, Prubius stucks his thumbs in his ears and made a comical gesture with his tongue. I could feel my eyes getting wet.
“You know, Prubius, I do believe this place—”
A shrieking whistle cut me off. We hunkered down, covering our heads, compelled to watch. Something small hit nearby. I glanced through splayed fingers but didn’t move.
Another whistle increased rapidly. Toward us. This one felt heavier. Was I hearing something rip through the sky, or was it my imagination?
Coming down—toward us? Right on top of—
A fiery beast of a thing suddenly appeared atop the others’ protective rock, shaking the ground. Icicles fell as smaller bits flew off into the snow between us, leaving brief arches of steam or smoke. It was impossibly close.
Amazingly, the mass of mangled metal rolled slowly. Like a great wounded animal, it tumbled off the top of their rock and crashed to the ground. I felt its impact. The men seemed to be scurrying away. They were partly obscured from my position, so I couldn’t be sure.
The thing stopped moving. A sharp whistle sounded nearby, but I couldn’t look away from our visitor. The heat on my face made me wince. For a moment, the only movement came from tendrils of greenish steam floating off the wreckage.
Through the heat distortion, I counted three figures upright and walking. The others were okay. Prubius and I stepped over the remains of large icicles.
“In the Names of the Fathers,” my friend uttered. There was an intense smell of hot metal and snow melting.
We approached the chunk of ship—a slightly-curled mass of glowing orange material. It was seven legs long and maybe five wide. Bigger than the Mittie battle tanks we’d faced that morning. Shorn arms of this G.A.S. piece had curled inward from the heat and tumbling through the sky. First the destructive blast—Thank you, Cecilia!—then atmospheric entry at some incredible velocity. The heat made us keep our distance.
The others came around to us. “Wonder what part of the ship this was.”
“I do not see outer hull. It does not appear to be part of the reactor, though. This, here, would look more complex,” Bohl said, gesturing.
“Ah, well,” Esch started, rubbing his hands. “At least we get to warm up a little,” he laughed.
Dhani scooped up a wad of snow and threw it on a section of metal. We watched it boil and disappear in steam. I wondered what chemical in the ship chunk or in the atmosphere accounted for the steam’s greenish color. At our feet, a ring of water and ice was growing. Rock underneath.
“Look at this,” Esch exclaimed.
We came over and he pointed.
“Wow,” Dhani gushed.
A blackened, crooked object was stuck to an inner wall of the debris. It ended in a boot. The material had melted and lost shape. Still, it seemed reasonable that we’d discovered the dismembered leg of a Mitasterite crewman.
“It must have been fused to this piece by the blast,” Prubius said. “Held in place by centrifugal force during the descent.”
“Fire-retardant clothing,” Bohl remarked. “A lot of good that did.”
Images came to mind. The yellow interior lighting of a Mittie ship, the guts of it, no windows or screens delivering the outside world. Just metal and controls and data pads, maybe the conical tips of warheads. Roar and shaking, bulkheads collapsing, the blast from another compartment. Or the horror of seeing the missile split the wall in front of you. Knowing, suddenly, this is the end. Knowing that what you’ll see next is a flash and then all existence ends.
“Poor bastard.” Esch cleared his throat ceremoniously. “Here lies Arkosh Tobosh, six-seventy-three to seven-oh-one. Steadfast crewman of the Mitasterite Global Attack Ship To Hell With It All, Third Fleet, Preciless Seventy-Five Misadventure. May he rest in pieces.”
“Eschelbach!” I couldn’t help it, though I immediately thought I sounded like an older sister. It wasn’t my place to chide him.
“I know, I know,” he said. “My mother always told me to be nicer. It didn’t work.”
Another piece of ship landed with a thud in the distance. After a sec, explosions popped in rapid succession. Ordnance. Smaller stuff, like tank shells.
Both sides had beam weapons, by the course. And both sides were also firmly holding onto the old-school ways of killing each-other: Projectiles that explode.
“How many crew were onboard?”
“On a Global? Probably seventy thousand, minus eight or nine thousand for the ground assault.
“My friends,” Bohl started, pointing.
There was a fissure in the rock he, Esch and Dhani had taken shelter under. We came over to look. Sky showed through at the top, the crack running all the way to down to our knees. A little more mass, and the ship chunk would’ve split the rock clean and crushed my comrades. Bohl, Esch and Dhani…dead.
“Lucky, lucky,” Prubius said.
“Perhaps someone is watching over us,” Bohl mused.
Dhani kicked aside a cooled metal fragment. “I could get used to the idea,” he muttered.
The huge rocks we hid under had provided cover from above but couldn’t act as shelter. The nights on this world were not something to flick around with. Despite the fact that we had a heat source—which we couldn’t take with us—this spot was no good.
And the ordnance that just fell and went off. Was it the last such visitor from orbit? In snowy areas there are landslides called avalanches, I’d heard. Half-mile sweeps of devastation, something so fast you can’t outrun it. Loud noises sometimes set them off. Quickly, I added that to our list of concerns. We were, at the moment, in a valley. Avalanches run downhill.
“How much time until sundown?” I was wearing a timepiece and could’ve figured it out for myself. In Command School (the little exposure I got) they taught us that a conversation-starter like asking for time also demands a realization response. You get someone to reply with a fact which leads to obvious action. In focus tests, tactics like this work particularly well with Pashunderrans and Tchushkins. Both races seem to be more logically-geared (and reasonable) than us hot-headed Humans.
“Two hours and nine mins,” Prubius stated.
“We need to find better shelter than this,” Bohl said.
“Exactly. Let’s keep going. If we don’t see possibilities within an hour, we start looking for an ice shelf where we can melt out a tunnel. Agreed?”
The men nodded. Dhani was trying not to act worried.
“Same lineup, except Dhani in the back with me. Prubius can’t turn quickly with the sled.”
“To watch. The Mittie patrols will be coming, soon.”
Coming this summer!