Here’s a chunk from my upcoming war novel, “Endgame.”
**No soccer players were harmed during the making of this story…although soccer in the snow IS a flippin’ riot…and these heroes seem like they have a sense of humor about them…hmm…
The five of us were marching in the snow when a foreign sound made us stop. A mechanical noise came from nearby. Bohl heard it first, raising a hand to call for stop as he listened. From just over a rise, the whirring was soon drowned out 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!
A great roar filled the world. With amazing speed, a white pointed object rose from the hill. It was impossibly close. I took cover—we all did, out of instinct.
“What in the hell,” someone exclaimed.
Heat fell over us. A rocket.
The Cecilia System!
Two more lifted off nearby. Big. A hundred ten feet, maybe a hundred twenty-five. “T.U.” was been painted on the sides. Our country. The roar was all-consuming, the great sound pushing down on us. Nothing else existed for a second. 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.
The warmth from the nearest rocket passed us. It seemed to accelerate, streaking up toward wisps of cloud in the purple sky.
“By the gods, they are huge!”
“Yup. With a warhead the size of a city bus. Filled with depleted karryunite,” Esch added.
Bohl whistled in amazement.
“Karryunite! 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…”
Karryunite, a super-hard and radioactive ore, was too dense for industrial use. However, being harder than standard hull plating—and naturally occurring in skull-sized lumps—the stuff would be merciless as a weapon.
We all stood with our necks craned, watching three white streaks converge in the sky. If any Mitasterites were alive here on the ground, they would’ve seen them, too. The rockets were impossible to miss. Our Enemy would’ve shouted warnings, to no avail. From what I’d heard, the Global Attack Ships above couldn’t maneuver too well in a hurry. 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 Mitasterites,” 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. I bet it was 150 miles up to reach lower orbit. The Global ships were sitting up there, comfortably.
“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 Mitasterite war machine neglected to count this among 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. Delayed 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 about the assault? Had they sensed it—inevitable defeat?
The Cecelia system’s mainframe must’ve sensed 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.
The rockets came from launch silos. Another subject I don’t know much about.
“What about the launch silos?” I asked, for any of the others to pipe up.
“Uh, sorry Captain,” Dhani said. “They’re probably 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.” He meant the wind and the coming night’s freezing temperatures.
“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 range of all our weapons, combined with his superior vision. It made me feel lesser, just a smidge. The rifle was one thing; his eyes were another. Someday, I’d have to ask Bohl why his rods and cones were better than my rods and cones.
“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-tinged emptiness. It must’ve looked spectacular from the perspective of our satellite up there. Half the T.U. Central Command must’ve been watching. 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. She 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 traditional, 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 do it 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. Dhani couldn’t hold it without his missing arm. Bohl 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 beast, about 9,000 feet long and 3,500 wide. There must’ve been the full complement of tanks out there this morning—over a hundred. G.A.S. ships also holds various landing craft and an assortment of fighter ships for defense.
Nine thousand feet, almost two miles. That’s quite a load of metal and material…tons and tons of it…entering P-75’s atmosphere in big chunks…
I whirled around and pointed my rifle to the sky.
“Damn,” 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!”
In the lead, Esch hurried toward some rock formations with overhangs. The snow was deeper—we had to fight it 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 remarked.
“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 fought to get the sled under cover. How much protection did we have? I felt it now—the oxygen content of the air was lower than I’m used to. Probably lower than any of us were used to, like we were at altitude.
Prubius was breathing hard from the effort, his breath like smoke. A few of his telltale Pashunderran scarlet hairs peaked out of his warming cowl, and stood out brilliantly against his blue skin. Without all the whites and grays of his uniform, he’d stand in stark contrast to the winter tones 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 a hundred feet away, within earshot and safe.
“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 called back, starting a little dance.
I couldn’t help laughing. 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 stuck his thumbs in his ears and made a comical gesture. I laughed so hard I could feel my eyes getting wet.
“You know, Prubius, I do believe this place—”
A sudden 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 otherwise 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 other men’s 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, this mass of mangled metal rolled slowly. Like a great wounded animal, it tumbled off the top of their rock, rotating, and crashed to the ground. I felt it hit. The men seemed to be scurrying away, but 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 new visitor. There was the sensation of heat on my face, but I don’t think that’s why I was wincing. For a moment, the only movement came from puffs and tendrils of greenish steam floating off the thing.
The others were okay, rising up. Through the heat distortion, I counted three upright shapes walking. Prubius and I cautiously stepped over the remains of big icicles that had fallen and broken with the impact.
“By the gods,” my friend uttered. I wondered if he could smell the hot metal and snow melting the same way I could.
We approached the chunk of ship—a slightly-curled mass of glowing red metal. It was twenty-two feet long and tall, and fifteen feet across. Bigger than the Mitasterite battle tanks we’d faced that morning. Shorn arms of this G.A.S. chunk had curled inward from the heat and rotation, from tumbling through the sky. First the destructive blast—Thank you, Cecilia!—then atmospheric entry at some incredible velocity. The heat and acrid stink kept me back about ten feet.
They 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 pointed.
“Ah, well,” Esch started, rubbing his hands. “At least we get to warm up a little,” he laughed.
Dhani reached down, clumsily gathered a wad of snow and threw it on a section of metal. We all 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 chunk was growing. Rock underneath.
“Look at this,” Esch exclaimed.
We came over and he gestured.
“Wow,” Dhani gushed.
A blackened, crooked object was stuck to an inner wall of the debris. It ended in a boot. The material, pants leg and boot, 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 Mitasterite 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 armory warheads. Then, a vicious 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 or something. 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.”
A chunk of something landed with a thud in the distance. After a second, 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 are 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 were hiding under. We came over to look. Sky shown 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.