The following short piece is based on my novel Endgame.
In the book (essentially a sci-fi war tale) the aggressor Mitasterites have kicked off a war with numerous races (including Humans) united under the Trieste Union flag. Here, they’ve come to Preciless-75 (known as P-75) to obtain a rare crystalline fuel–a key step in their overall war plans. T.U. forces also need the fuel. More importantly, unquestionably outnumbered, their contingency plan is to detonate the fuel (szellenyte) rather than let the Mitasterites have it. Chapter Four includes the horrific, heart-stopping explosion that sets the story in motion–seen from the viewpoint of protagonist, sniper captain June Vereeth.
The battle and explosion were preceded by a propagandist move by the Mitasterites–sending 1,500 young, innocent infantry (some unarmed, some wearing explosive packs) out into sniper fire. I thought it would be fun to write a piece about the aftermath of this mission’s failure (the fuel’s detonation) from the perspective of the aggressors–one an infantry “soldier” and the other a medic who’s sent as token aid into what is undoubtedly a grisly scene of carnage. (Though this conflict doesn’t involve Earth, and the Mitasterites are gray-skinned humanoids with their own planet and military-industrial culture, many aspects of the story will be familiar to readers.)
A SHOT IN THE LIGHT
GROOLAHK (the soldier)
You are worthless if you fail!
This came as a bark echoing in his head, piercing through a deep roar. The greater noise was subsiding. The lesser—these urgent words—seemed to swell before him. They were the only clear things.
Bubbling up to the surface of consciousness, the young man smacked into a wall of pain and confusion. Things had stopped moving around him—he thought—but the new sensation made his world wheel. A ragged breath brought agony. He’d been cut in half by lightning, incinerated. His mind craved release, craved anything but this shrieking pain.
Put faith in our leaders, son. They won’t steer us wrong.
This voice was nicer, gentle. Yes, the voice of his father. It sought to be a salve, a harbor of tenderness and peace. But it couldn’t be one. Too far away. Too removed in memory to protect him in this popping minefield of anguish.
Who was he? If he had a father, he must have a name.
After another ragged breath, he opened his eyes. The darkness around him wasn’t correct. Everything seemed wrong. It took a full minute to realize the dark was artificial, that he was under something.
He blinked away the confusion—or tried to. When he shifted, agony came in fresh waves. A dribble of pee escaped. He bit into the sleeve of his uniform. He didn’t know why it was pinned to the side of his face, why he was lying on his arm. There was light ahead, a patch of it on the snow. He counted breaths until he tried again.
In the meantime, amorphous things in his vision began to take on shape. With these came ideas, evolved from suspicions, growing to fears and truths.
The item he was under was a tank. All the metal and hard angles. It was on its top, with the turret facing away from him. How could it be on its top? There was one way, he suspected. This was coupled with a fear he didn’t want to fully grasp, yet. It was tied to that awful noise he heard some time ago.
Eventually, he was able to rationalize a hard truth. He hadn’t been split by lightning—not quite—and there would be no relief from it if he didn’t move. He went to happy places, to sliding down slag heaps with his brothers or turning the big rusty cog to determine who had to jump in the deep muck puddle. Then the transport’s light falling on pretty Weveelah’s silvery hair. His heart picked up.
After what may have been hours, he was able to pull himself forward and out. Out of the small bowl, into daylight. Snow was falling. In the enhanced light, he finally looked down at his own form. Suspicion to fear to truth. The laser shot had entered to the right of his stomach. He was pretty sure it had exited above his hip. (He wasn’t yet brave enough to investigate.)
Had he seen the shot that got him? Blue beams. Sniper fire. Yes, the face of the boy next to him had been lanced. He’d wanted to cover, but there was the order to charge. The only cover was random lumps of ice. He must’ve cried out when he was hit, or before.
The beam came from somewhere high above. Searching the closer of two valley walls, his eyes were pulled to the piled destruction at the far end. A great column of smoke was rising from the mountain saddle, from chunks of white and rock and equipment. It had all collapsed—the enemy base.
But we didn’t bomb it, he thought. We couldn’t. Because the szellenyte would go off and…
His eyes roved to the flipped tank he’d just escaped. Another tank was standing on end, its charred front split in two. From a rocket, he reasoned. It seemed unlikely that a rocket could lift a tank like that. He took a step forward, wondering how the wreckage was left in that position—It must be leaning on something—when his foot nudged something.
A rifle, in the snow. One of ours? It was bent in the middle.
How could a rifle be bent? If it was hit by an object moving very fast…
He looked again at the smoking ruins. A high-pitched clarity percolated through, dissolving all doubt in his mind. The enemy base was gone. Gone because the szellenyte inside had detonated.
The mission. If he was here, there was an objective. If there was an objective, the place must have a name. He had a name.
His eyes searched the onion billows of gray until he put himself in them. Silent. Transient. A body spilled to the sky, the galaxy. Did he have a name?
Yes, he was Groolahk. Groolahk Bulge, Fatherland Armed Services number 231556P75, Recruit Second Class, Tobosh Infantry, Beltahn Tank Division, Krigoolah Fleet.
There it was—the sliver of irony which had been trying to worm its way back to the surface. His number ended in ‘P75.’ This planet he was on. To the Mitasteros Armed Services, this was site Gamma 343. Those in the Trieste Union—the Enemy—were calling it P-75. The ‘P’ stood for something, he suspected. A place, a name. A reason the mission was here.
He looked at the broken weapon again.
Why wasn’t I carrying a rifle? Didn’t they even give me one?
They’d disembarked. They’d waited in crowds in the dark green of the pre-dawn world. When the artillery fire commenced, they’d marched. The cut in the rock. Beyond, the valley of ice, then the objective. Brilliant colors shown on crystalline ice as he reached the cut, as the boys ahead of him began to pour through. The twin suns had come up. They were charging.
Groolahk’s face itched. Tears or sweat drying. Wiping it away, his thoughts turned.
Some way to talk to someone.
THAYO (the medic)
By the Fatherland, somebody better pay for this screw-up.
Thayo Greej, FAS Medic Second, takes deep breaths to keep level as the view outside the shuttle windows becomes more clear. Seven mins after departing the Global Assault Ship’s hangar, they’re descending towards a vast pillar of smoke. It resembles a volcanic blast. Volcanoes kill people, everyone knows.
Snowflakes drift by the windows as the pilot communicates with his commander back on the GAS. They have clearance to land.
By the course, we do, Thayo thinks. Where would enemy fire come from?
Theirs is the first medical shuttle. It has been seventy minutes since a szellenyte detonation brought the offensive to an abrupt halt. None of them waiting in the Medical Staging hangar had to voice thoughts on what the satellite image had shown: Mission failure.
“Request aid,” comes over the headset.
Thayo sits upright, fingers reaching for the headset’s controls. The pilot glances at him.
“Report location, Soldier.” Thayo bristles at having to use proper protocol at a time like this—the owner of the voice is obviously wounded. His superiors, by the course, are listening.
After a moment, the young man’s voice returns, fatigued. “South valley. Ceres Two.”
The pilot nods without looking and banks the shuttle to the right.
“Please hurry,” Thayo urges. He recalls that Ceres One was the designation for the cut where the valley ended and the charge began. Ceres Eight would’ve been just below the enemy base.
By the course, that’s as far as they got.
Through the windows, the dark forms among the white become wasted tanks. Smaller, numerous seedpods become bodies.
Focusing to keep his breathing slow, Thayo tries not to start counting them.
By some miracle, the young man on the radio survived a laser shot and then the horrific explosion. Thayo reached him in time. A blanket, an injection of painkillers, then anti-bacterials. Words of comfort, no matter how vapid they now seemed. The volcanic blast zone—The objective—is silent behind them. The only noise here is their breathing, staggered steps in the snow, the quiet of idle shuttle engines.
The boy has a name, Groolahk. Fourteen or fifteen. He should be back in school.
Thayo is easing his charge toward the mobile when he’s surprised to feel a rush of movement. Instead of collapsing, as he feared, his patient is stumbling away. With purpose. Toward something, toward a body. One of many. Thayo watches, stunned. His heart sinks. Among all this death, the boy has found a familiar soul—a friend or family member.
The body has a hole through its chest. Male, by the course. Only males, here. One leg ends prematurely in blackened tatters. Even without examination, he knows what the stump will look like. The scorched flesh was likely severed by force, like a hot sledge hammer was responsible. That’s what a sniper’s beam does to a limb. He suspects the chest shot came second, almost out of mercy. The victim’s leg trauma was likely fatal.
He is weeping—the boy is weeping. “Bello. Bello, why are you here?”
They do not look alike, aside from their youth and build.
“Yes. I…I thought he was on Zycarsus. His unit…the five-seventeenth. They were…he said they wouldn’t be here.”
“I am sorry. There is nothing…”
Thayo can’t finish the thought, looking around. How empty it all is. He is a medic standing amidst a sea of ruins and bodies. There’s nobody left to help.
His ruminating is cut short by the boy, Groolahk, who’s making a weird noise. Thayo instinctively takes his arm, fearing it is shock. The noise comes in wheezes, an odd animal’s suffering.
“What…what is this?” the boy asks.
Thayo looks closer. The body has a bulge on its back. A small blue light blinks, peeking out patiently from under a gray flap. Waiting.
“Don’t touch it!”
Thayo’s face is hot, pinching against his will.
Groolahk’s hand withdraws. A mix of worry and sadness crosses his face. Thayo backs away, gently insisting the wounded boy follow.
“What…what is that?”
Thayo clears his throat before he replies, “A bomb.” After a moment, he adds, “They needed to breach the wall somehow.”
A minute of silence before wandering eyes focus harshly.
“No. You lie!”
Thayo blinks, his training for this scenario called up. Still, he’s relieved he isn’t wearing the headset. What would they think of his pause? Doesn’t he know how to respond?
Instead, a thought interjects. An unwanted comment, a mental bark. Pitiless. Pointless. To a Medic Second Class helping the lone survivor of an ineffective battle, an opinion ringing with sarcasm.
You are worthless if you fail.