Coming 2019 from Severed Press.
On the Plains of Velasan
The Citadel Demiworld – 2297 A.D.
‘[...] through Velasan’s clouded gate,
In legion waves bold heroes came,
And Good Lord Death knew each name.’
‘The Battle of Velasan’
2nd Unity Skald (Regis) Carlos (Circa 2451 A.D)
White Noise Death
- Vidar Dawes
Lieutenant Fran Flores held her gun in her right hand, tight trigger finger loosing explosive rounds in a stitched line across dark-blue rock. Chunks of rock and dust and sharp fragments flew, cutting our own soldiers and none of the enemy.
It was Private Second Class Jonah Nunez who took the shot, took the initiative. He was close. Maybe twenty metres. He fired just once. His Gauss rifle – a metre and a half of concentrated power – made a hell of a mess close up. Nunez’s high-velocity shot punched a hole through Flores’ head. The wound was around an inch in diameter starting from the base of her skull through and out her nose on the other side. The shot didn’t fragment. It was just a shuttle-train on its way through a heavy snow, ending up some place a hundred miles away. Maybe Flores’ nose was still on the coil, someplace. Nunez swore later when the long day ended that he’d seen right through to the other side until the Lt’s brains slopped down and fill up the hole.
She was already dead when he put her down. A plasma ball from a Chelon had torn off her left arm and most of her torso. In death she’d squeezed the trigger, like a reflex, a spasm.
Private Second Class Nunez did what needed to be done, and what needed to be done was not die.
I heard a lot of black tales in days since I took up the gun, the kind you laugh at, because what else is there? Far too many of those stories were forgotten and gone long before they got stale, but there was always a fresh one right around the corner. For those who lived or those who died those stories were like newscasts, or cartoons. Just a way to wind down for a while, to laugh. Somewhere in there was a kernel of truth, too. Like newscasts, or cartoons. I remembered the story. Wasn’t about characters, and the names went by so fast it wasn’t like they mattered.
It wasn’t the faces or the names which stuck in my head. It was the heroism, the cowardice. Dumb shit, too. There was always plenty of stupid to spare in war. It was just as common as bullets and bolts.
It was a good enough story to pass five minutes before we sank into an exhausted hour’s sleep right there in the long, sharp grass covering the field closer to the Citadel. Nunez was dead the next morning anyway and didn’t get to tell it anymore, but whatever.
The corpses of friends covered the field around us, the carcasses of the enemy, too – things of all shapes and sizes. Wrecked armoured suits stood empty or acid-burned, or blasted smoking hulks. The stars were distant, tiny. The light was constant and unchanging. The big guns barked around a mile ahead of us. Those guns got to be like the tick of a clock, and after a while it was just white noise lulling tired marines to sleep, and whenever we could sleep, we did.
Gunfire, pain, fear, death. It was all white noise and lullabies.
- Vidar Dawes
There was always something else. I learned that the day they came to Earth. Seven years down the line and it wasn’t a lesson any of us could ever forget.
Everyone but me ran. I was looking at what they were running from. Cartwright passed me. His gun slapped against his chest, fists pumping like a sprinter instead of a marine. Dumbass.
‘Threat. Multiple fatalities. Seven o’clock/Thirty-five degrees elevation.’
I looked behind as Sergeant Pain’s words invaded my skull with that familiar scratch I’d once hated and since learned to love, but I saw nothing.
Not exactly nothing, maybe.
Fifteen or twenty dead marines of Patriot Company. And a dead LAWS.
A LAWS. Lethal Autonomous Weapons System. One of the largest things we’d brought through to the demiworld with us. Not exactly a tank. Maybe three levels down. Bigger than a D-Guard, bigger than the fat-wheeled bikes Cavalry rode.
The LAWS, the dead marines...none of those were at thirty-five degrees elevation, though.
The demiworld was flat but for the one towering structure ahead of us, and for many misshapen lumps left on the dull landscape by all the dead things.
I was the dumbass right then – I wasn’t doing what I should, doing what Pain knew I had to. Instead of tracking my gun up to the threat, I wasted precious seconds staring at the dead unit.
It was an AI construct, a complicated autonomous weapon, but nothing more than that. It wasn’t smart, but simple and determined. You wouldn’t think it could die, though. It’d break down, or explode. ‘Dead’ was the right word for the job. Dead like a soldier would die; like something organic.
The sight of it stopped me. I know better than to stand around gawping after years in one field or another getting shot at. Still, sometimes you have to stop, take things in. Kind of miraculous, the way it’d been killed. Sliced up, in half. A cow’s day out at the abattoir, showing the slides for cow-class.
‘This is how not to live,’ says the cow.
I was stuffed full of stupid thoughts.
I wasn’t panicking, though, and cool, still. I scanned the sky again, switching my focus and switching off to the blink-scene of the dead LAWS and the soldier sprinkles all around. Pain didn’t update me. She probably figured she wouldn’t need to help with the minutiae like wiping a soldier’s ass for them. After years of her whispering inside my head through the old shunt just beneath my earlobe she’d learned what we could do, worked with us. She was glue holding us together, learning how to use us at the same time as we learned how to use her.
I didn’t bolt like Cartwright with his weapon slapping his chest because I have this thing where I’m always cool. I just don’t panic, even when maybe I should. Don’t know how to. Maybe once, but those days were long gone. Sangfroid. Like I’m a lizard, needing to bask in the sun to warm my blood.
Guns were opening up around me, a chorus warming up for a big congregation in Alabama or something.
I wasn’t firing.
Was I ever the guy running blindly? Maybe I was a cold-hearted, cold-blooded asshole.
I didn’t give a shit about a LAWS, sure. But damn.
Maybe it was the war on Earth made me what I am – the guy trying to figure out what everyone was running from.
I watched the tracer rounds as they skipped into the sky. I wondered what would happen if those rounds hit the dome over our heads, but dismissed the thought. An alien race that built warp confluxes, travelled to different worlds and kicked ass there probably didn’t build a force field covering what must’ve been a hundred square miles of grassland or more from thrift store glassware.
Nothing hit nothing.
I caught a hint of something hazy which slid through the air.
Cartwright and Okinado were up ahead, fifty yards apart. Slowing down as panic and the basal instinct for self-preservation gave way to sense. Their guns were up, tracking the invisible enemy in the sky.
‘Where is it?’ screamed Okinado through comms in my helmet.
‘Threat. Moving. Eight o’clock/Forty-five through fifty-five degrees,’ said Sergeant Pain.
Smoke filled the false skies around us. I could barely see through the haze.
But something was there. Shifting? Swirling?
‘There,’ I said in a tone far calmer than Okinado’s.
I was aware of my surroundings. Peripheral vision, but I knew what was happening. Dogs, those heavy armoured units, had formed a rough perimeter with their rear guns up and firing blind and wild despite all the tech crammed into their powered quad-legged, dual-armed war suits.
One of the scout bikes screeched past, bouncing hard over the rock and slicing the grass like a horse through a prairie. The rider took Okinado’s hand and I was glad.
My gun was loose in my hands, ready to roll. Quicker than I could follow it, something lashed out. I saw it, but couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t exactly invisible. Translucent, maybe. A long, thin limb like a whip, and on some kind of alien I’d never seen before.
Okinado, the rider who’d rescued her, and the bike all flipped, cut in half by one swipe rear to front.
I’d seen the look he wore on his face a thousand times. Horror – knowing. He’d seen whatever the thing was. I was playing catch up.
Sergeant Pain was speaking straight into my head, and so into Cartwright’s and the whole of Patriot Company, too.
‘Contact clear. Ninety degree direct. Engage.’
I followed Cartwright’s gaze, not really hearing Pain’s patient instructions, but she was with me, there in my head on some level like always.
My LMG Coil followed my eye line and I squeezed the trigger though I could only see a weird haze, discernable by the way it displaced battle-smoke. Camouflage flickered, and whatever stealth capabilities the thing had were gone – but it was still thin.
It hung in the air. The whole thing felt surreal and somehow disgusting. It was like I’d sunk to the bottom of the sea to find myself a tiny fish swimming beneath a predator. Some insane, flat, bloated monster with stinging, slicing tentacles hanging down.
I let loose with everything – 2300 rounds per minute, three hundred magazine. Ten seconds? Less? Minimal recoil on the coil because it doesn’t just or blow-back like powdered rounds. I must have hit with every round.
Other marines saw it and opened up, too. The .63 calibre shoulder cannons on Armoured’s dog units sang out until it came down.
It flattened out with a damp sigh across the rock – the fake-looking grass was already trampled by troops and dog units. I was crushed beneath it, too. A sickening, putrid jelly poured from the hundreds of wounds. Its blood was a pastel gum disease kind of pink.
It was dead, but I still squirmed beneath the flaccid weight of it ‘til I could jam another drum in my weapon, then let the LMG tear me a hole.
‘Clear. Conserve ammunition. Reload.’
‘I don’t need a reminder, Sergeant,’ I told her, but Pain only speaks, and watches, and learns. She just tells you what the fuck you’re supposed to be doing. Turns out sometimes a soldier does need help finding his own ass. She hadn’t learned that, but it’s a one-way relationship and probably works just how it has to. We don’t waste time talking to her, expecting her to hold our hand. She teaches, and if you don’t listen, the lesson’s gone. Those who don’t listen to Sergeant Pain? They kind of flunk the class. Flunking war really makes you learn and think for yourself.
Seven years down the line and I just wasted a full drum on a dead thing.
Great job, Dawes.
I pulled at the flesh and climbed through, up, and atop the dead beast. I rolled out, panting, checking how screwed we were.
Okinado wasn’t recognisable as a woman now. We’d spent some good nights together, in barracks and on ships, on leave, too. Being with a woman, or a man, was more relaxed on leave. Of course it was. Barracks and ships, shared quarters? Nobody cared what you did, so long as you didn’t keep them awake grunting.
We all wore the same look. Shell-shocked. Giant jellyfish? That was the kind of thing ruined a man for anything else but war or the psyche-cells, where they’d rant and get chips put in their heads to shut them up.
Cartwright’d been hit by a tentacle, and his head was iced blue, his neck swollen like he’d swallowed high voltage cables and poison all at once.
‘Shit, Cartwright,’ I muttered, still spitting floating jellyfish bits.
The slashed LAWS fizzed. Corpses littered the trampled and charred grass, spent shell casings and cartridges. One of the Dog’s energy cells, ejected, smoked. I sort of hoped it might blow, so I could have a rest. It didn’t.
I stomped down from the fleshy body on unsteady legs.
I’d known Cartwright for years. I figured in this war, no one really missed anyone for long.
‘Later,’ I told his remains, and moved to the LAWS I’d seen before we got our asses kicked again, just as it was a better frame-of-reference than the gross blob of jellyfish.
The LAWS wasn’t something I’d forget. I’d seen actual tanks blown up, destroyed, left in hunks no more recognisable than exploded eggs. Stinking just as bad, too, with a pinch of burned human flesh. I’d seen AI war machines spread across dirt like anatomical displays, seen sand heated to fulgurite sculptures by electrical discharge weapons. Death’s messy and beautiful.
The LAWS hadn’t burned like it would have from a missile strike or one of those blue-acid-fire rounds their Chelons spat out. Those things’d go up, and up, and you’d think you were fine, that it was misfire or something, then they’d come right back down and there’d be a smoking crater full of parts of people or machines.
I was staring at a LAWS, not Okinado or Cartwright. Maybe it didn’t make sense, maybe it did. The LAWS was interesting, I guess.
I’d just seen a floating jellyfish. Maybe they had giant invisible swordfish, too. Hammerhead sharks. Dinosaur fish.
A jellyfish killed us.
‘Lieutenant? Sir?’ Gretchen Hamil’s voice. 1st Sergeant. Or Sergeant 1st Class. I couldn’t honestly remember. She’d probably be dead in half an hour. I don’t suppose it mattered much.
‘Sir...are you okay?’
I didn’t say either way.
‘Patriot Company. Move up,’ I said. ‘Let’s get on with this. Maybe we get home for dinner.’
I wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular. Patriot Company were linked, though, through Sergeant Pain who whispered sweet nothings and kill commands in our ear. I didn’t have to say more. Where else were we going to go? Either way, anyone still living would follow me toward the bulk of what remained of armoured in the front ranks. They were busy taking the brunt of the Zoan’s fury while we were standing around staring at jellyfish and other stuff.
Friends, I thought, but didn’t like that thought any more than most things that flitted through my head.
We moved. I didn’t look back.
- Vidar Dawes
That was a little over a mile after we came through the warp conflux to die on this sickly-coloured killing field. How many dead already? A thousand of us?
We weren’t many to begin with. We couldn’t afford the loss, but this was it. To the last man and woman. If we ever got to the Citadel, the home – maybe – of the Cephal there might be ten of us left. We’d be out of ammunition. Nothing to fight with but teeth and a roar when we met Lord Death.
Well, not quite nothing.
This was a one-way ticket, after all, wasn’t it?
We came to the demiworld through a portal in a gate built of what looked like gold but wasn’t. This metal wasn’t soft or malleable. You couldn’t bite down of a piece of it like a pirate in a story book.
I read a book about pirates, once. Once, we’d gotten over all that. We had peace. We were the Wide Earth. War was done. That’s what we thought. War’s not done, and if you think you’re done with it, it’s not done with you and never is.
Lord Death was laughing, or if not laughing, fat-happy on the feast coming his way. Why be angry about it, though? Anger never helped anyone, did it? It was just the way it was.
The Cephal and their Zoan pets might have been new, but Lord Death had always been there.
Just how it was, day in, day out, and soldiers reason things out in their heads in whatever ways get them through the days and nights. Meet someone, smile, pat them on the back. A few times you might share a drink or a joke over a plate of something marines called food. The next day or the next week, you wipe them off you combats.
I’m Lieutenant Colonel Dawes. Marine’s were mine because anyone better qualified to lead them was dead. Armoured were with us, same as it’d been so many times on Earth. They’d once been Bears, the 245th Battalion, though they were down, like us, to hardly a company. Bear were the Hard Dog’s puppies now. Hard Dog was Alante Brockner. I never wished a nickname for myself. She’d earned. She, at least, knew what she was doing.
I only knew one thing: We were on this half-planet to die.
The demiworld was maybe three miles from the long end, maybe just a mile and a half across on the narrows. We were at the long end, of course we were. I didn’t know much, sure, but living and dying aren’t supposed to be easy. That’s plain enough for anyone to understand, and I wouldn’t know what easy looks like anyway. I figure I’d walk straight past easy in the street, wouldn’t even notice it.
The dome over our head was an elongated half-egg of some kind of energy that kept space out and us in. There was gravity. How? I don’t know. I barely know how a coil gun works, and a gun’s a hell of a lot easier to understand than a field of energy to keep out space.
We had no fleet. No air support. The last of the few cavalry to join us died with Okinado. We only brought seven LAWS units to this hell with us because we didn’t have any more to spare.
The one left us was carrying our payload.
We moved forward because there was no moving back. There was nothing to go back to. We’d come through the warp conflux on Zoa to this. Hadn’t had much choice. It wasn’t like stepping into the unknown from that damp shithole was top of any of our Christmas list...but how could we have gone back? Zoa wouldn’t be there anymore. Zoa was just magma by now.
As far as Fleet were concerned, we might as well be dead right along with the planet they’d annihilated. Marines were expendable. Cheap. Dermal and Thermal Combats – DTC’s – and guns. We were nothing which couldn’t be replaced.
That wasn’t fair, though, was it? Fleet were almost definitely dead, and they didn’t know it. The only real difference was that we knew we were fucked.
Maybe. Maybe that was wrong, too. Maybe we were already dead. But if so, whether this was some Heaven or flat-hell, we were marines. Why not fight? We had nothing left to lose, and fighting was what we did. I might not have been career, like Hard Dog, but I was a marine and it was in my blood by right of all the friend’s gore I’d wiped from my mouth. We were brothers and sisters ‘til whatever end.
‘Colonel Dawes?’ Hard Dog’s hoarse, coarse voice in my head. ‘How your boys doing?’
‘Mopping up the dregs, Colonel Brockner,’ I told her. ‘Hie your huskies on. We’re getting creamed, but that’s how you make soup, right?’
‘You mean omelettes and eggs?’
‘Maybe? Something like that?’
‘Dawes, you’re hopeless.’
‘Ma’am,’ I told her.
‘Sir,’ she said. ‘When you going to get this shit straight? Dickhead.’
‘Lieutenant Colonel Dickhead,’ I said.
She’d probably always been that way. I could picture her kicking the shit out of kids in a kindergarten sandpit, easy.
Me? I was just a guy on the way to some alien pyramid on a mad floating half-world to give them a parcel. Postmen and women, that’s all we were now. Postmen trying to deliver a package to some junkyard full of mean bastard dogs. Our package?
Hardly Christmas, but our Christmas sucked, too, so fuck ‘em.