Saturday, 10 October 2015

Winning a war always comes down to infantry.

I read this somewhere when studying war tactics, and it struck me as an odd idea for science fiction. After all, worlds could be destroyed from space, so where was the need for infantry? Of course it depends what the objective is - destroying worlds is a huge waste of resources. Perhaps from space you could wipe out all the sentient life and keep the rest of the planet. But what if you wanted the sentient life, if that was the resource you were after?

The Eden Paradox series climaxes with Eden's Endgame, where humanity is holed up on the planet Esperia; it's not great, but we've made a life for ourselves there. Trouble is, aliens won't leave us alone. In fact, a virus is infecting various species, re-writing their neural software, and the Manekhi, pretty much the only race that looks like us, have been overwhelmed, and are now set to invade Esperia.

In this scene, the real commander, Blake, has been 'turned' by the virus, leaving the civilian president, Petra, in charge, and she feels way out of her depth. Luckily Vasquez is there to help, and the city has a shield, but still...

It rained on Esperia. Petra stared up through the transparent barrier erected by the Spiders, the protective dome made visible by rivulets chasing down its outer surface. It hardly ever rained on Esperia, but when it did, it was relentless. Several drops collected on her upper lip despite the peaked cap Vasquez had given her. She blew them off, and continued to search the sky. She wasn’t alone. It seemed the whole town of Esperantia was gazing upwards, watching and waiting. But they often glanced in her direction. She recalled what Vasquez had said to her.
            “You’re the CIC, Petra, our Commander-in-Chief. This is a Military Op, the population is under imminent threat, and need to see their President out there. But you must stay out of the fray. If you enter it, then no one is in charge, and we’re lost. I need to be here to manage the aerial situation and organise our ground troops, but you are the eyes and ears on the scene. Stay close to the battle, but don’t be drawn into it. If things go bad, I’ll be there before the end.”
            A raindrop entered her eye, making her blink. The barrier didn’t stop all of the rain; she had no way of asking the Spiders how it worked, but guessed it had some basic intelligence. It made sense; such a shield could be used for an extended period – a siege – in which case it would be useful to allow rain to pass through while keeping out enemies and biological agents.
She glanced at the four Spiders standing behind her. They looked soggy, but otherwise unperturbed. In their midst was Blake, locked inside a grey metal body glove that came all the way up to his eyes. He could stand, but was otherwise immobilised. He was still golden; they had no idea if the medical procedure had truly worked, and until now had no way of testing it. Blake was potentially an antigen, a catalyst to trigger a reversal of the Orb virus that had already turned trillions of aliens into Qorall’s minions. The Ngank surgeon had said that if it did work – and there were no guarantees it would – then it would activate on physical contact with a recoded individual, and would work faster than the original recoding, because the individual – like Blake – would be fighting it from the inside. But Blake was still golden, and was still infectious. She felt the device in her pocket that would release him from his bonds, noting that the nearest people – a trio of Youngbloods – were a good ten metres away, and returned to observing the sky.
            Vasquez called on her wristcom. “Thirty seconds.”
            Loud cracks made her flinch: sonic booms, but she couldn’t see the Mannekhi Javelin ships. Xenic called them Dropships; released from their Mother-ship just before entering Transpace. They’d fallen like needles navigating their way through the Shrell-field, and would barely slow as they entered the atmosphere, and would pound into the ground. More difficult to shoot down that way. The recoded Mannekhi inside would be in deep stasis, encased in inertia-dampening gel, but would emerge very shortly after landing, to invade the town.

More cracks stretched into scraping noises that grated in her ears, and then she heard shouts from behind. “There!” At first she couldn’t see them, but then narrow glints of silver caught her eye. She counted: four, five… then all seven. The shield darkened, as if polarised, dampening light and sound. Yellow blotches erupted on its surface, accompanied by dull booms as the Javelins fired on the town. She heard children’s’ screams in the background, quickly hushed. The Spiders didn’t move. The shield continued to darken, until Esperantia was plunged into night, fireworks billowing all around them. The ground shook, and Petra wondered how deep the shield penetrated Esperia’s surface.
She could barely make out the Javelins amidst the bombardment. But then a bright object, like a comet, grew in size. She braced herself. One of them was going to try and break through the shield. 

The impact was like a sonic boom, and made her clamp her hands over her ears. The shield lightened, revealing the awful carnage of a ship flattened into an amorphous slime of blood and metal. A second later there was an earthquake as the six other ships slammed into the area outside the shield, knocking Petra off her feet. The shield became transparent again as rock and soil spurted high into the air, then rained back down. As Vasquez had predicted, the ships had landed in the valley just south of Esperantia, the closest one a few hundred metres from her position. The open landscape favoured a large ground force. She recalled that Blake had once told her that decisive battles in wars often came down to infantry. Break the infantry, win the war. But how could you defeat an invading force you could not afford to touch?

She got to her feet and noticed that the shield had stopped letting the rain through. Blake remained standing, his eyes looking toward where two of the ships had struck home.
Vasquez called her. “Now, Petra.”

She used the translation flashlight device to ask the Spiders to open a hole in the shield for thirty seconds, long enough for four tactical groups to sprint outside and engage the enemy before they emerged from their ships. Two skimmers powered up behind her. She raised her hand until one of the Spiders flashed back in the affirmative, then she dropped it. The skimmers zipped past, one carrying three Youngbloods, the other a trio of Vasquez’ militia, both teams loaded with heavy ordnance. The rush of wind from their wake blew her hat off. She let it go. Twenty seconds later another two skimmers dashed past – they had been stationed in the middle of town, just in case. She was relieved that Brandt wasn’t among the Youngbloods, reminding herself that his size would have worked against him for this type of hit-and-run mission, as the skimmers were mainly designed to carry two people, not three.

The buzz of the engines powering the four teams towards the ships keened and then diminished. She turned back to the Spiders, and they raised the shield. Along with others, she approached the inner edge of the barrier. She stared through the rain coursing down its protective skin. Brandt arrived next to her, panting from having sprinted across town. She resisted the urge to embrace him, or even reach for his hand.

Craters smoked from where the two closest Dropships had landed, and through a viewer she saw the skimmers race towards them. Go faster. The Youngbloods arrived first, two of them crash-rolling off the skimmer, deadly packages clutched to their chests, while the driver slewed the skimmer to a halt. The first two ran to the crater and leapt over the edge. Seconds later they re-emerged and dashed back to the skimmer.

Nothing happened, and the Youngbloods waited. She zoomed in on the second skimmer, crewed by Vasquez’ militia, as it headed to the next crater. Before they arrived, Mannekhi burst out of the pit like angered ants from an anthill, armed and firing. The militia returned fire but were cut down.
She swung to the left and then to the right to see the third and fourth skimmer meet similar circumstances, in the latter case the skimmer was able to turn around in time. The Youngbloods still waited, despite a growing number of Mannekhi emerging from the other Dropships.
As she realised what they intended, she spoke to Brandt, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Tell them to come back.”

“It was their choice, Petra.”

She knew there was no point in further discussion, and put the viewer to her eyes again. The Youngbloods had booby-trapped the Dropship to explode as soon as its hatches opened. The Mannekhi inside knew that, but could afford to wait for reinforcements. She switched to the last remaining skimmer, racing back towards sanctuary. She judged the distance. They would make it. Then she noticed some kind of weapon emerging from one of the far craters, shaped like a cannon.
Vasquez came on line. 

“Petra, don’t drop the shield. We don’t know what that cannon does.”

“They’re your men, they can get back here in time.” She could just make out their faces.

“They understood the risks. You put me in charge of tactical ops for a reason.”

She watched them. The militia men might understand the risks and sacrifice with their heads, but they looked terrified. She turned to the Spiders, and used the flashcoder.

“Petra, what are you doing?” Brandt asked.

She didn’t answer. She turned back to the last skimmer, raising her hand. But the skimmer changed course. She could see one of them touch an earpiece, and shout something to the other two. Dammit, Vasquez! The skimmer raced back towards the advancing horde, firing as they went. She saw one picked off, then another, rolling to a stop on the sandy ground. The driver, hunched behind his protective windshield, accelerated toward the advancing Mannekhi.

The front line of Mannekhi soldiers suddenly split, like a golden sea opening, leaving a passage in front of the skimmer. She didn’t understand why until she caught sight of the cannon, which now had a direct line of fire at the skimmer. A long corridor of shimmering air lanced forth from the cannon, and enveloped both skimmer and the driver. The driver must have detonated the ordnance, because the corridor became a conduit of fire, stretching all the way to the shield. Flames bounced off a point just in front of where Petra stood, though there was no sensation of heat. The corridor vanished, leaving no trace of the skimmer or its driver.

Not a single Mannekhi had been killed.

“They were brave men, as brave as our Youngbloods,” Brandt said.
She touched his hand, and zoomed in on the three remaining Youngbloods who had moved away from the crater into the horde’s path. Each Genner warrior stood with arms outstretched, holding two daggers.

“What the hell are they doing?” she asked. “They’ll be shot to pieces.”

But they weren’t.

“It’s a Mannekhi fighting ritual,” Brandt said.

“But they’re Qorall’s minions now.”

“We’ll see. We need to know.”

The leading edge of Mannekhi slowed to a walking pace, then stopped in front of the three warriors. Three Mannekhi attacked them, and were quickly dispatched by the Youngbloods. Petra could feel the tension all around her, as everyone drew closer to the barrier for a better view. As another three Mannekhi fell to the floor, a hissing sound arose on her side of the barrier, in Hremsta, an encouragement Genners used in sparring matches to cheer their fellows on. Petra took a breath and made the same noise between tongue and teeth.
            Three more Mannekhi died, but the blood of one of them spattered onto a Youngblood’s face. He wiped it away, then buckled as if punched in the stomach, his face lined in pain. Petra zoomed in, and saw the first cracks of gold etch down his cheeks. She screamed a single word in Hremsta, cutting off the hissing, hoping her voice would carry on the breeze and be picked up by the Youngbloods’ superior hearing. Brandt glanced at her with a look of surprise, then echoed her command in his far louder voice.
    A fellow Youngblood moved to the infected warrior and slit his throat. A roar erupted from the Genners, chanting the same word Petra had used. Many of the Steaders tried to imitate the word, neither knowing nor caring what it meant. But the two remaining warriors were set upon by the Mannekhi until Petra could no longer see them. The chanting ceased, the crowd craning their necks to see. After a minute, the two Youngblood warriors emerged from the Mannekhi horde, their skin golden. They walked towards the lip of the crater, as the Mannekhi drew back. Petra grasped Brandt’s hand, and squeezed hard. The turned warriors calmly disappeared into the crater. Five seconds later flame and dirt mushroomed from the crater up into the air.
            Even before the dirt had come back to the ground, the Mannekhi from the last ship emerged. As one, the golden infantry advanced. Petra noticed armoured vehicles, several with serious-looking hardware and cannons of varying sizes.
            She stood her ground. Everyone else did, too.
            At last the invading army stood some ten metres from the shield. One golden man walked forward, only recognisable as Mannekhi by his eyes of pure black. He stopped at the other side of the barrier from Petra. At first she thought he was staring at her, that this was some other kind of pre-battle ritual. But it was always hard to know what a Mannekhi was looking at, and it dawned on her that he was studying Blake. The man returned to the front line, a mixture of male and female soldiers, all golden, and various vehicles and artillery.
            “Now what?” Brandt asked.

            “We see who blinks first.”

Within the hour, Kilaney and Xenic had landed on the opposite side of town, but there was no way to let them in. Petra still faced the unmoving wall of Mannekhi, who were by now thoroughly drenched from the rain. It didn’t bother them. Funny thing was, the rain seemed to be only on them, not on the shield directly in front of her.

Vasquez had informed her there were twelve hundred turned Mannekhi outside the barrier. Only a few needed to get through, and then the chain reaction of contamination would begin. She had to admit, this conversion ploy of Qorall’s was brilliant, since in most wars even the winning side usually suffered devastating losses to its numbers, but this way, battles actually swelled Qorall’s armies. Three ranks of heavily armed Genners and militia had taken up position in front of the horde, and the crowd of Esperian onlookers were ordered back to the town. One of the Spiders nudged her hip, startling her. She tried to read its flickering comms band.
            “What’s it saying?” Brandt asked.
            She stared at it. “I’m not sure.” She whirled back to the cannons. They were silent. “Oh crap!” she said.
            Brandt touched her shoulder, holding her in place. “Petra, speak to me. What did it say?”
            She held his gaze while lifting her wristcom to her mouth. “Colonel, can you tell me the integrity of the shield? No? Can you detect if there is any energy signature from the cannons. Check all frequencies.”
            She sighed. “It said three minutes until barrier failure.” She cursed herself. The Spiders assumed the humans knew; the cannons had probably been firing steadily since they’d taken up position.
            Vasquez came online. “Sorry Petra, you’re right. It’s on a frequency we weren’t monitoring and can’t see or hear. Convergent beams from all six main cannons are focused on a spot right in front of you. You’d better move out of the way. I don’t know if the whole barrier will come down, or if it will only create a small opening for the soldiers to come through.”
            She stared at the cannons, the Mannekhi soldiers standing in the rain, and the clear – and completely dry – barrier.
“The rain,” she said. “That’s why we can’t see rain on the shield in front of us!” Stupid! I should have seen that.
            She and Brandt moved back, but she noticed the Spiders remained where they were. A thought struck her. “Vasquez, tell me the moment the cannons stop firing.” She switched channels. “Kilaney, Xenic, get ready to come through.”
            There was a sound like glass cracking, then fissures appeared in the shield. They spread outwards like ferns, then cracks opened up, stretching until a crude arch formed.
            “They’ve stopped firing, Petra.”
            She whirled to the Spiders, gave them the command. “Kilaney, Xenic, you have five seconds.” The Mannekhi soldiers began filing toward the arch. She signalled to the Spiders to raise the shield, just as militia took up position in front of her, armed with pulse rifles. Vasquez must have ordered them to open fire, because suddenly the noise of constant pulse fire deafened her. Backlash heat seared her face as Brandt dragged her backwards, away from the fray, though she watched, horrified as a mound of charred corpses built up in the arch. But more soldiers continued to pour through, despite appalling losses.
            Eventually one made it through and flung himself towards the militia. They caught him in crossbeams, igniting him like a flaming torch, but that allowed two more to try the same tactic. The front rank of militia fell back, as the second rank opened fire.
            “It’s not working,” she said. Brandt held her tight while she gripped the handle of her pulse pistol. The ten metre distance between the arch and the militia was strewn with burning bodies. There was a surge though the arch, and even though the militia caught the front wave, the ones behind continued the charge, carrying their dying comrades, and fell upon the front militia row. The second row paused a fraction of a second then opened fire on their fallen colleagues, trying to stem the flow.
            Kilaney arrived, out of breath. He surveyed the scene. “Petra, what are the Spiders saying?”
            She looked at him, not understanding, then followed his gaze to the Spiders, who had remained exactly where they had always been, Blake still in their midst. She read their comms bands, then reached into her left pocket, and clicked the release. 

The Spiders parted, and Blake stepped free of his restraints...

Eden's Endgame 

The heroes that fall burn the brightest

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