Year 2342 Earth Standard, Operation Cyclone, plus thirty-two hours
Paul watched as the thing he loved, his rifle company, was torn to pieces. The rail gun rounds were coming in hard and fast, and the Harpies swooped overhead.
His M-372 burped again from his shoulder mount, and another Harpy died. The dead alien was a small consolation for the death of Trooper Pinero, whose armored suit had just exploded in a wash of red mist and suit segments, one of which had bounced off Paul. He had no idea which part it was, and he wondered why he cared.
His halo was feeding him a mad rush of data, and voice transmissions threatened to overwhelm his situational awareness. He had his comm channels set to command only, but it was still too many transmissions at once. It was typical combat chaos, but this was as bad as Paul had ever seen.
Charlie Company, Second Battalion of the Fifteenth Armored Infantry, was melting away, and Paul was desperately trying to halt the bleeding while fighting for his life.
A voice transmission spoke from his halo. “Charlie Six, this is Charlie One Six.” That got Paul’s attention; he was Charlie Six.
“Go ahead, One Six.” Paul’s halo detected an incoming round, and his armored suit automatically sprang sideways. In a wash of actinic light and brown dust, a gaping crater appeared where his suit had been a split second earlier.
“Six, we just can’t hold these bastards back! What the hell do I do?” said One Six, a certain Lieutenant Anderson. She was right. Paul’s halo display told him as much. Hell, Anderson was lucky to be alive. Besides Paul, she was the sole remaining officer in Charlie Company.
Paul’s orders, though, were clear. His company was not to retreat an inch. His soldiers were on Fifteenth Regiment’s extreme-right flank. And the regiment was holding Hill 453, a piece of key terrain in the assault on the Aerie, the aliens’ stronghold on Brasilia.
The watery light of the planet’s star shone down on Paul’s armored suit. The machine that enveloped the man stood a couple of meters high and bore the marks of heavy combat. Part of the camouflage paint had been blasted away, revealing the default light-brown layer beneath. His weapons pointed toward the sky, where the Harpies swooped toward his soldiers on the hill.
“Well, One Six, we hold on for as long as we can,” Paul said. “Shift your troopers to cover the gaps, and calm down. Either you get zapped or you don’t. Getting excited doesn’t help. Six out.” His voice was monotone. An eerie calm had descended on Paul, a familiar feeling he had experienced years before fighting unarmored on Juneau Three.
Either you get hit or you don’t. Fuck it.
Against mere human adversaries, Paul’s armored suit was a death machine that could withstand artillery, flamethrowers, small arms, and tomahawks. The powered exoskeleton had shielded Earth’s soldiers for centuries. The suit was a symbol of Terran military might on the ground, just as the cigar-shaped, bulky cruisers were symbols of the navy’s dominance in colonial space.
The Harpies had changed all that. One of their rail gun rounds could blow a suit apart like an overripe cantaloupe, and their lattice-shaped corvettes and dreadnoughts had fought the navy to a standstill. Since this war of extermination had begun, nearly a billion humans had died, and the Pan-American and ChiCom Forces had been bled white.
And that’s how a certain Capt. Paul Thompson, Pan-American Forces (Retired), had been recalled to the colors.
Now he got to watch his soldiers die. Again. The entire engagement was like a bad dream he couldn’t wake up from. His halo, the communications and virtual reality device in his helmet, was scrolling the display in front of his eyes. Sixty-six percent casualties. Seventy of his soldiers were dead. No wonder Anderson was freaking out, and it didn’t help that Operation Cyclone was her first combat mission.
This bitch of an operation was enough to turn a veteran soldier’s hair white, let alone a rookie’s. Paul’s suit bunny hopped again, and his shoulder autocannon burped. His suit was tossed like a dish towel in a dog’s mouth, and his halo failed to keep the whirling vision of sky and ground from disorienting him as the explosion threw him through the air.
With some help from his suit’s autogiros, Paul landed on his feet, mostly. His halo told him he had bagged the Harpy who tried to turn him into pulp. Charlie Company’s position resembled nothing so much as a kicked-over anthill, with all his troops’ suits jumping, firing, and attempting to keep station. But one by one, the casualty figure crept upward.
The Harpies soared like vultures overhead. Their flight could barely be seen with the naked eye, so the suit’s systems and a halo assist were entirely necessary to hit them. The closest Earth equivalent one could use to describe a Harpy was the pterodactyl; they were all wings and teeth. And every one of them wielded a rail gun expertly.
The dumb humans below were stuck with chemical-propulsion weapons. Earth’s scientists, although very capable, had never mastered the trick of miniaturizing the rail gun, even though they understood its principle. Also, weapons development had really slowed down after humanity spread to the stars, and now Earth’s children were paying for it. Humankind’s tools had worked well enough during the expansion of the diaspora, and war had been far less frequent in those days. Not anymore.
Nine years previously, some settlers on this same world, Brasilia, had stumbled across the first intelligent-life artifact ever found, some three hundred odd years after humans started to pour into space.
The artifact wasn’t much; it was just a tower made of some odd titanium-based metal. The discovery had caused quite a stir around the time that Paul was fighting for his life on Juneau, but people calmed down after a while. After all, it was just a dumb, metal tower. Nothing much. The settlers and explorers on the “new” world, Brasilia Four, pulled the tower out, crated it up, and sent it by slow freighter to Earth.
The tower must have been some kind of trip wire.
Five years after the tower was found, in 2338, the aliens showed up in Brasilia space and proceeded to kill everyone. Everyone. Settlers, soldiers, explorers—it didn’t matter. The navy, after centuries of assuming they would never encounter intelligent life, had been caught napping. The forces on the ground in Brasilia, the Second Battalion of the Fourth Regiment, were caught entirely off guard by an enemy that both appeared suddenly and fought in a fashion they had never seen.
Waves of flying Harpies had killed the few defenders to a man. Then, they started in on the population. Physical violence wasn’t necessary for the civilians; the Harpies had developed a very efficient nerve agent for humans. And they had brought a lot of it in their lattice-shaped fleet.
Their campaign to take Brasilia Four could probably best be described as fumigation. Men, women, and suckling babes died like cockroaches.
One ship, the freighter Merton R. Johnson, had escaped and spread the tale. The war started immediately and disastrously for humanity. For the past four years, it had taken all of Earth and her colony’s resources to push the waves of Harpies back to the starting point, Brasilia.
Operation Cyclone was the twelfth campaign in this interstellar war, and the result was very much in doubt.
Another one of Paul’s troopers died. If he would have had his comm channel open to the platoon frequency, he might have heard an abrupt shriek, but probably not. When a rail gun round contacted a suit, the sheer kinetic energy of the 2.8 mm round would blow the suit apart, usually in pieces that were scattered at random across this alien world. Men and women were fighting and dying in droves here in Brasilia.
Paul kicked a dead trooper’s severed head by accident while moving to his next randomly chosen position. The head spun lazily in the sun. Another room formed in Paul’s mind, and he shut the image behind it. After all, his psychologist back on Old Earth had said he was a master compartmentalizer, and here he was, proving her right.
Of course, the lesson of his previous military career had been that everything that was shut in eventually came out. But here in the midst of the heaviest combat he had ever seen, that didn’t matter. What mattered was survival in the here and now. Paul’s suit dodged again and did a half flip. Another round cracked by, but his autocannon hadn’t burped.
That moment was when Paul noticed he had clocked out, and his weapon was dry. And more Harpies were pouring in.
Escape from Juneau Three
Nine years and change before Operation Cyclone, year 2333 Earth Standard
Paul felt like singing when he and Force Military Advisor Team 1.69 entered Departure Hold at the airhead in Jade, the capital city of Juneau Three. He had said his good-byes to his Pashtuns at Camp Kill-a-Guy that morning. His rifle-company commander, Captain Bashir, had seemed particularly moved.
“Good luck to you, my friend,” Bashir had said, his liquid eyes looking up at Paul, who was sitting in the ground car that would carry him to Jade. Paul felt guilty about leaving Bashir to his fate while he made a getaway off the war-torn planet of Juneau.
What right did he have to live when so many had died? He had played God with his Pashtun rifle company by sending them into situations where men perished. That had been his job as an advisor. And now he was done advising. Bashir, the local commander of Second Rifle Company, had to fight on. Paul felt like a jerk. He felt he should stay to finish the job.
But the orders from FORSCOMJUN, Force Command Juneau, were clear. FMAT 1.70 was relieving FMAT 1.69, a collection of random goofballs who had been forged into a dysfunctional family by the fighting in the Baradna Valley. It was time to leave.
Paul’s ground car rolled out of the gates of Camp Kill-a-Guy, leaving the sorrowful Captain Bashir in its dust.
When FMAT 1.69 got to Jade’s military airhead, each team member had received separate sets of orders. Paul’s halo, the wearable networking device linked directly into his brain through skin contact on his temple, popped up an icon into Paul’s visual display. movement orders said the icon in glowing, red letters. Paul made a gesture with his hand and clicked on the icon, revealing its contents.
He heard Dirty, the supply guy, in the background. “Rio! Fuck yeah!” Paul deduced that the other soldiers on the team had received their orders, too. He then concentrated on his own script, which was scrolling down in front of his eyes.
SM (Service Member) will depart Jade Departure Hold via shuttle to FSS Joshua L. Chamberlain on DEC 04 33.
SM will travel via government transport to Canton Four. Travel time will be 113 days, +/− 15 days.
SM will report to Force Installation Canton for medical evaluation. SM duty station will be Nightingale Treatment Center, Force Installation Canton pending further disposition.
A bunch of crap was listed below—travel allowances, weight limits, etc. Paul didn’t give a shit about that, though. Now he knew his fate. He was going into the hands of the docs, a fate he had feared.
Yeah, his halo had told him for months that he needed to see a doctor. (The halos were amazing devices. They even kept tabs on your medical status. Military-grade halos shot your info straight to your medic and an autodoc.) But damn it, he had a mission. In his mind, that came first. Now that the mission was over, his halo was ratting him out. These orders were the result.
The Colonel, the team’s commander, walked up.
“Hey, Paul. Got a smoke?”
Paul chuckled, reached into his sleeve pocket, and produced a pack of Fortunate near-cigs—a locally grown, genetically modified tobacco product. Near-cigs wouldn’t give you cancer, as the original Earth plant was known to do. The Colonel took one, and Paul lit one up, too.
After a few puffs, Paul spoke. “Well, sir. Where you headed? Bastards have me going back to Canton to see the docs.”
The Colonel nodded. “Figured as much. I knew you were hurtin’ from what my halo told me.” Paul wasn’t surprised by what the Colonel said. The Command mil-grade halos constantly updated commanders on the status of their troops. The Colonel spoke again. “Me, I’m retiring. I’ve had enough. I opted to return to Earth. No more living out of a duffel bag for me.”
A soldier got three chances to return to Earth. The first chance was guaranteed by the initial enlistment contract; the enlistee could return upon separation, or he or she could opt to stay out in the stars. The second chance was if the enlistee’s career happened to return him or her to Earth via the assignment pool. Paul had never been that lucky; he hadn’t seen the world of his birth for over eighteen years. The third chance was at retirement after twenty years of service. That ticket to Earth was indefinite; a retired veteran could opt to return at any time. Apparently, the Colonel had opted in and was going home. Paul was jealous as hell.
“Shit. Well, sir, I wish you luck. Me, I’m liftin’ off in a couple days, and then I report to the docs.”
“Yeah, not much you can do, Paul.” The Colonel paused. “I sure will miss this pack of fools. If you ever get back to Earth, look me up.” He held Paul’s gaze. “I mean it.”
“Will do, sir.” Paul finished his smoke and looked around. All of a sudden, he felt an intense burst of impatience. He wanted to get on his shuttle right fuckin’ now. The other eleven soldiers on the team were milling around, joking and swapping the details of their orders.
Birthday was headed to Copenhagen. Crusty was going back to Samarra, and he was cursing loudly. Al-Asad, Crusty’s medic on this last tour, would join him. Al-Asad looked none too pleased. Crest was headed to a training slot on Earth. He whooped in jubilation; he and the Colonel would no doubt be on the same ship. Mighty Mike was going back to First Forces Ranger Battalion on Szeged, as he expected. No surprises for him. Mike just sat there with a lip full of Pashtun tobacco and spat. If Paul’s guess were right, Mike would be sprawled out on the ground asleep before too long.
The soldiers on the team laughed and joked. You would think they were going off on a vacation from the way they acted, until you looked closely at their eyes. They were dead tired. They smoked like chimneys. All were rail thin; their trauma-weave, bulletproof multicams were stained and patched. Every one of them wore the wreath device above his or her left breast pocket that signified close combat. Some would flinch at unexpected noises, and all of them acted shifty, like nervous birds.
They were combat soldiers, and they had lived to tell the tale. Each of them, in his or her own way, was dying to get off godforsaken Juneau, the world where they had seen so much.
And now, at the airhead, they had nothing to do but wait on their shuttles carrying them to the far-flung worlds of the Pan-American Federation. Paul decided he would eat nothing but delicious foods at the Forces’ chow hall. After nearly a year of the swill at Camp Kill-a-Guy and at various villages, he had learned to treasure bland army food that wouldn’t make him sick. He started walking toward the chow hall, alone in his thoughts.
The next two days passed in a blur. Paul washed his gear at the airhead; he purged his stuff of the stink of the field. He imagined the reek of combat going down the drain, much as the moon dust of Pashtun Province left his clothes. But as with Lady Macbeth, the combat wouldn’t leave his soul or his thoughts. He still dreamed of killing Najibullah the Bomb Maker, otherwise known as Najibullah the Shithead who had tried and failed to kill him. When he closed his eyes at night, he saw the little girl in the village, a woman falling down the set of stairs. He felt his finger pull the trigger; he felt the recoil of his M-74 against his shoulder. He sought sleep and mostly failed.
Finally, the time came. His shuttle was scheduled first, and he shouldered his duffel bag and left. On the way to the shuttle, he pitched his last pack of Fortunates. His good-bye to the team had been profane and brief; this group of soldiers didn’t stand too much on ceremony.
He did look over his shoulder at the soldiers as his ground car rolled toward the airfield. The Colonel stood there, puffing away on a Fortunate. Mike spat, and Stork the medic was scratching his head. Paul said good-bye to them in his head and closed another mental box. He knew he would probably never see any of them ever again. That had stayed the same throughout his career; from unit to unit, guys and gals would come and go. When your next set of orders came down, you would leave, and light-years would lie between you and all your old friends. Loss was part of a soldier’s life, and it always had been.
Only now, that loss seemed greater. As Paul stepped off the ground car and grabbed his duffel, he felt a welling of intense emotion. His eyes watered. He climbed the worn, gray-painted steps of the shuttle and placed his bag in a pile of other bags that were awaiting tie-down. He made his way to an open seat and sat down. Paul grabbed the complicated red straps and buckled himself in easily. He studied the sea-green wall of the shuttle, and then he closed his eyes. After a while, the shuttle cargo door whined and closed. From his halo came the disembodied voice of the pilot, warning of their immediate departure. A loadmaster and crew chief came through the compartment checking on the pax, or military passengers. Paul heard their shoes scuffling on the nonskid deck as they walked by on their inspection. Soon, the scuffling sounds stopped, and they were replaced by the hum of the engines.
A countdown appeared on his visual through his halo, and the numbers ticked down to zero, an ancient convention. He felt the shuttle lift, and his eyes watered with tears. “God in heaven,” he thought. “Thank you for delivering me from my enemies.” He was overcome with sorrow; he was elated to escape. As the shuttle left Juneau’s gravity, Paul grappled with the fact he had lived.
By what right had he survived?
Dropping In for a Visit
Operation Cyclone begins
The F-71 combat shuttle Capt. Paul Thompson was riding in jumped and juked like a rodeo bull. His headquarters element was with him, along with Second Squad, First Platoon, Charlie Company. That made for twenty troopers of his command, the max capacity of the shuttle. They rode in rows of ten with each row facing inward, with armored knees and shoulders touching. In a dance as old as time, each trooper wrestled with his or her thoughts on the eve of battle. The shuttle plunged toward the surface of Brasilia on Operation Cyclone, the division-scaled assault to retake this lost outpost of humanity.
Actually, the division as such had been an anachronism for much of the time humanity had spread to the stars. During the colonial expansion, the Forces had used RCTs, regimental combat teams, because units larger than that were real overkill. Not anymore. The Third Division, “Rock of the Marne,” rode again. And Charlie Company, with an apparently calm “old man” at the helm, was part of that host.
Paul went over the plan in his mind repeatedly. Of course, all he had to do was prompt his halo, and the operations order would appear in his visual. He didn’t need it, though. He had memorized it.
His company would land in the vicinity of Hill 453. His regiment, the Fifteenth Infantry, would dominate that terrain feature and hold the northwest quadrant of the cordon that would be air assaulted around the Aerie. His orders said simply that “at all cost” the Fifteenth would hold the knob of dirt and destroy enemy forces as they marshaled to repel the invaders. He knew what that meant. This was a one-way ride for a lot of his people.
Contact—military lingo for when enemy forces would seek to engage and destroy you—was inevitable. As Paul mentally restated the plan, contact happened. The shuttle pitched wildly as a Harpy round just missed. Because Paul was the chalk commander, his halo feed was slaved to the pilot’s. He and the pilot alone knew how close that damn rail gun round had come. There was no point sharing the info with the troops; some of them were already tense to the point of vomiting.
Seven of his troopers had already been administered antinausea drugs. Paul’s halo pinged him every time with info he needed to know. Also, two of his troopers were so afraid, Paul thought they might have to be given combat stims. His halo asked for authorization, and he gave it.
“For God’s sake, we’re not even on the ground yet,” he thought. He couldn’t wait until his green company actually had to face the Harpies. It was going to be a mess.
The only reason they would be able to fight the enemy was because they were Armored Infantry. An unaided human wouldn’t stand a chance. That had been the lesson in twelve different campaigns on seven different worlds. With Operation Cyclone, Brasilia, the aliens’ first conquest, would be retaken, and humanity could finally begin to take the fight into the aliens’ space.
What lay in the path to the Harpies’ worlds was entirely unknown. Brasilia had been the farthest and latest world the Pan-American Federation had explored and settled before the war. Past Brasilia, the map might as well be blank, with the legend “here be monsters.” Humanity had spread far and wide, but they still had covered only a small fraction of the galaxy.
The ship jerked again violently. If Paul and his troopers weren’t in the two-meter-tall suits, the gravitational forces inherent in the maneuvers would have smashed them. Also, for every real F-71 headed toward the ground, Paul knew there were hundreds of decoys, both electronic and physical. The Forces had learned a lot over the past four years of war, and every lesson had been soaked in blood.
He hoped a lot of decoys got killed.
Paul’s visual flashed again, this time in red. Chalk Two, Second Platoon, Third and Fourth squads, had all just died. Paul watched the display with cold calculation. The names and faces of his dead troopers went into another mental box. His mil-grade halo came up with a suggested rearrangement of his TO&E (table of organization and equipment), and he glanced at it and authenticated with a thought. The new arrangement of his company was transmitted to all parties, and he moved on.
Charlie Company wasn’t even on the ground, and he had already taken 16 percent casualties. Damn.
Just then, the “all call” chimed on everyone’s halos. The disembodied voice of the ship spoke to all in Paul’s command. “Can do! Insertion in thirty seconds. Twenty-nine seconds. Twenty-eight…” Large numerals for the countdown appeared in the center of Charlie Company’s visuals. The shuttle flared and “slowed.” This would be a hard drop, as briefed.
At zero, all twenty troopers were shot out in a dispersed pattern from the bottom of the ship. In less than half a second, Paul’s troopers were blasted at the ground like pellets from a shotgun.
Paul had the momentary sensation of falling as his halo-assisted view tried to stabilize while he corkscrewed through the air. He slammed into the red soil of Brasilia in a cloud of dust. His halo activated his rally beacon, and the troopers followed the glowing arrow in their visuals that helped move them into their respective battle positions. Hill 453 loomed to the north; the Aerie was behind them to the south. His company had been inserted on a barren, desert plain and in full view of the enemy. The orange-and-blue sky was filled with Harpies and burning bits of debris.
Back on the ship, the night before, Paul had experienced an episode of uncontrollable shakes. He hated that shit. The tremors had been his companion from the time he had fought on Juneau Three, and nothing really helped control them. Fortunately, he had been in his quarters, so no one had seen but his halo.
And his halo didn’t give a shit. When he had been recalled from retirement, the Forces had known he was damaged goods. They didn’t care. He was a qualified and combat-experienced Armored Infantryman of the line. Because the casualties rivaled those of the American Civil War or the eastern front of World War II, almost every soldier—no matter how old or crippled—was recalled to duty.
After all, the suit could take up most of the slack. All that was needed was the judgment of the soldier inside, and trained, experienced soldiers were badly needed to leaven the waves of conscripts who formed the wartime army.
But just as on Juneau, when the party started, Paul was steady. His hands didn’t shake at all. He felt as if he were born to do this one thing and do it well.
Charlie Company had come to call.
A Wish for Violence
A little under nine years before Operation Cyclone
Paul sat in the waiting room at Nightingale Hospital, bored out of his gourd. Even with endless entertainment available on his halo, he was still bored. He had been on the planet of Canton for about three days, and this was the first of his mandatory appointments with the flesh docs. The autodocs had already examined him.
A pretty, young soldier in medical whites came through the door. “Captain Thompson? Sir, the doctor will see you now.”
Paul stood and followed the orderly down the hall and to the office on the right. Seated behind a desk was an older bird colonel. He looked up and motioned for Paul to sit down.
“How are you doing today, Captain?”
“OK, I guess, sir.” Paul had caught up on sleep during his transport from Juneau; the autodoc on the Chamberlain had prescribed and directed him to take sedatives. Under military law, you had to follow a Forces’ autodoc. So, at least he was rested. True, he would wake up from time to time with a bad case of the cold sweats, and he had completely fucked-up dreams. But he had expected that. Everyone knew about combat trauma.
It felt different when it happened to you, though. He had dreamed he was racing down a hill in a ground car with no brakes. The edge got closer and closer, and his heart was beating through his chest. Onward he rushed. The cliff approached, and he crashed, covered in dismembered arms. The smell of burning flesh was rich and nauseating. He had awoken with a shout, furiously pushing the severed arms away from him. He had expected combat dreams, but no one had said anything about the dreams being weird hybrids. But it was so, and the theme had many variations.
“Captain Thompson?” The doc was looking at him expectantly.
“Uh, yes, sir?” How long had he drifted off? He needed to get his shit together. These people simply needed to throw him some pills and look at his boo-boos, and then he could get the hell to his next assignment. This place gave him the creeps.
“How often do you have these visions?”
“Some have called them flashbacks. How often?” The doctor looked at him with kind eyes. Paul hated that. He hated the thought he might be pitied.
“Flashback is a big word, sir. I’ve got some issues, you know that. But really, I’m OK.” What, did these people think he was nuts?
“Call it what you want, Captain. But your halo says they happen frequently. In fact, I can give you a precise count, down to the last decimal point if you’d like.”
Damn. Paul knew the combat stress readout on his halo would dime him out eventually. It looked to him as if that moment were here.
He was tired. “It happens a couple of times a day. I’d still say it’s no big deal, though. It was kind of a tough year.” Just this morning, he had walked out of the Warrior Transition Unit, the fancy name for the medical hold barracks there. The bright sunlight had hit his eyes—and just like that, for a few seconds, he was standing back in the motor pool in Camp Kill-a-Guy, getting ready for a mission.
The damn things could be disconcerting, to say the least.