"… This is not a drill, repeat; this is not a drill. Kailai forces have been detected approaching from sector 25. All Interceptors scramble immediately. Battle stations, battle stations, this is not a drill, repeat…"
From an outside viewpoint, the asteroid base looked like a beehive of confusion, with men and women rushing here and there with no apparent purpose. This was anything but the truth; each person had a specific function they were performing, and were accomplishing their tasks with a minimum of wasted motion. The battle alert launched all three operational shifts into a three-dimensional ballet, the lack of gravity making it unnecessary for personnel to stay on the "floor", or even to keep in any particular up and down orientation.
Control station personnel took their sensors and communications off standby as hanger crews checked the ready status of the giant combat machines racked in the bays. Catapult crews built up the electrostatic charges in the capacitors that would power the linear accelerators, the massive electromagnetic tubes that would shoot the base defenders out into the darkness of space at immense velocities. This was an operation that was practiced several times a week at random intervals and the crew knew their tasks by heart. By the time the flight personnel had suited up and received a hasty briefing on the approaching enemy, their machines were ready to go and Command had their targets and flight paths planned out for them.
This is typical of how a first-line Galactic Federation combat squadron responded to an emergency. They always got first pick of supplies, equipment and replacement personnel out there on the "sharp end", and only the very best piloted the humanoid-appearing MECO armored combat robots against the insectile Kailai.
Behind the loosely defined 'front lines', however, it was a different story.
-Journal entry number one-
I don't know if anyone besides me will ever read this, but what the heck. Maybe I can show it to my grandchildren, if I ever have any.
Who am I? My name is Garth Jensen. I'm seventeen years old, and an ensign in the Federal Combined Star Fleet. Like all young men my age, I have the usual dreams of being a hero. Sure, I tell myself that I'm unexceptional and things like that don't really happen, but in my daydreams, I'm the one leading the Federated Space Forces in the decisive battle that will end the war.
Right. Like that could ever happen.
In real life, I know all too well that I may never see real combat. My grades in secondary school were good enough to get me noticed for Officer Candidate School, and once there, I was selected for MECO training. Sad to say, though, I graduated squarely at the bottom of my class. My ability to control a MECO is only average on my best day. Heck, there are guys even younger than I am doing a better job of it. My problem is with what they call "multi-tasking". I can only just barely read all the gauges and make the robot move and shoot simultaneously. In a MECO pilot, that's almost unforgivable, the piloting version of being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. In test situations, the stress gets to me, and I panic; that ruins any chance I might have of getting a good assignment anywhere.
Maybe I should stop for a moment to explain something. I don't know if the person reading this is a historian, so I better let you know what it's like right now. (Another conceit of mine, maybe, to think that my scribbles would be significant enough to be of historical interest!)
We've been at war with the Kailai for a hundred and twenty-two years. It's been a disaster for both sides, I think, though it'd be worth my hide to say that out loud. You can never guess when an Internal Security agent might be listening, and defeatist talk can be grounds for arrest. Heck, I now that I've written this much, I'll have to hide this journal real carefully when I can't keep it with me.
Anyway, so many people have died fighting the war that conscription age was lowered to fourteen about two generations ago. I was tapped for OCS, though, so I spent three years there, instead of being shipped out to the fighting after six months of infantry training, like so many of my friends were.
I'm posted at a base on my home planet, Sirocco's World. Sirocco's World is an arid rock out near the fringes of civilized space. We aren't exactly a frontier world, but we aren't on the main trade routes, either.
My base, and the others like it, are supposed to prevent the planet from being taken back by the Kailai 5th Expeditionary Force, but that's a joke. The Kailai are all but finished on Sirocco's World. The war seems to have turned in the Federation's favor, and all of the Kailai Expeditionary Forces are withdrawing to defend their home territory, farther in towards the center of the galaxy. The idea that they would launch a sudden counterattack on Sirocco's World is ridiculous. Darn near all of the mineral deposits have been mined out for the war effort, so we just don't have anything worth fighting over any more.
The sad reality is that this post is a dumping ground. A lot of the personnel serving here were sent because they burned out in first-line units. The base is staffed by people that the brass figure can't handle the stress anymore, and it shows. The place is clean enough at first look, but most of the guys walk around with their shirts unbuttoned, and maintenance requests don't get serviced for weeks, if at all. The base has a grand total of eight MECO suits, all of which are first generation Grendal Mark Seven's that were rotated out of other units as unserviceable. The maintenance crews make occasional attempts to keep a few of them operating by cannibalizing parts from the rest. New parts are too valuable a commodity for us to have them. The Federation sends them to the front lines, not to rot in bases that never see action. Heck, I sometimes wonder if my uniforms aren't hand-me-downs.
Despite that, I guess I'm happy enough. The base is close to my home in Reisburg, so sometimes I can get a pass so that I can go have dinner with my grandfather and my sister. I can even get to meet my mother when she comes back from her post at Zion Base, over in New Australia. Seeing how homesick the other guys at the base get, I know how lucky I am to have family nearby. I even get to pilot a MECO regularly. The base commander sends out patrols once or twice a week so that he can write reports to Central Command, and I'm one of only five active pilots on the base. The others are veteran combat pilots, and they tell me all kinds of outlandish tales about their combat tours while we walk the suits around out in the middle of nowhere. I guess that's about as close to real action as I'm ever likely to get. I'm pretty much resigned to a military career of complete boredom.
"Captain Brooks? This is Major Winston at Zion. Got a hot one for you if you're interested. Our scouts are reporting that the Kailai forces in your district are planning on falling back onto their base near Hope City for extraction. Their airlift will take them just a few kilometers away from you, right over Reisburg. All they have left are infantry and air units; the last of their MECO squadrons were boosted off-world three or four weeks ago."
"Yeah? And what does that mean to me? You know that we have zip in the way of combat effectiveness. If they want to do more than wave bye-bye as they pass, we can't do anything about it."
"That's not a problem. Me and the rest of the boys over here are planning a 'going away' party just to let `em know how much we'll miss them, and wanted to know if you would like to send some pilots along for the fun of it? We want to hit them just before they get to the city. It's just going to be harassment, not a full scale engagement, so there shouldn't be much risk involved."
"Yeah? Okay, count us in. I got a green kid down here that's been itching for a fight ever since he got here out of OCS. I'll send him along with a couple of good nursemaids to keep him from underfoot. We should be able to keep three suits moving long enough. Let him pop off a couple of rounds and earn himself a ribbon, and that should keep him happy until he's rotated. I haven't seen a boy yet who didn't hanker for a decoration to impress the girls with."
"Good enough. I'll make sure that my man knows the boy's supposed to see enough action to make him think he's been in real combat. Hey, we still on for baseball next Saturday? I got twenty credits that say we're gonna cream your guys…"
-Journal entry number five-
Early this morning, I found myself helping the techs load my Mark Seven with live rounds. I wonder what the heck is going on? We aren't scheduled for firing practice this week.
Oh, well, they told me that I could go in to town tonight, as long as I kept my mouth shut and got back by nine p.m. I want to take a quick shower and make tracks before they change their minds, so this will be a short entry.
-Journal entry number six-
Just a quick entry before I hit my rack. Dinner with my family was pretty much the same as usual. Grandfather is a great old coot. He was a sergeant-major of ground forces back before he hit retirement age, and he knows an endless supply of dirty jokes from God knows how many different planets. My father was lost on Eltima Four about eight years ago, and his father died fighting somewhere in space. I never met my grandmother on Dad's side, and Grandpa's wife died before I was born, so Grandpa is all we have in the "grandparents" department. I don't even know if I have any cousins. That's okay, though. They say you can't miss what you never had, right?
Even if I did know, any boys would have all ended up as soldiers, more than likely, and I wouldn't have seen much of them anyway. Ain't universal conscription grand? If you're a boy, you end up as a soldier or a sailor, guaranteed. I guess it takes all the mystery out of "what will I be when I grow up". If you're lucky, you get a combat or combat support assignment. If not, then you end up in a labor battalion.
Girls are a different story, of course. They normally become blue-collar or white-collar workers, keeping the economy going so the guys can fight. About three in ten are drafted into the armed forces, though, if they show the aptitude for it.
My sister Anna is ten years old, so she's still in school. She has long brown hair, and green eyes. From what I can tell, she'll be a real bombshell when she's older, or at least she will if she takes after Mom. I must look like Dad; I've got dark brown hair and brown eyes, and I despair every time I see myself in a mirror. I don't know for sure, though, because Mom locked up all the pictures of him after he died. She says that it's best to make a clean break with the past or we'll spend all our time crying over 'might-have-beens'.
It'll be two years before Anna starts taking the aptitude tests that will decide if she becomes a worker or a soldier. I absolutely adore the little terror, though I'll be damned before I say so. She likes to tease me about my daydreams. I once made the mistake of mentioning one of my fantasies about being a big hero to her, and she has never let me forget about it.
Well, I guess I better stop now. 'Lights Out' was just called, and the Officer of the Deck will be by soon to see that us junior types have gone to bed like good little boys.
-Journal entry number seven-
Sergeant Dewey is confidence personified. If you go by the way he acts, he can whip the whole Kailai 5th Expeditionary Force with one hand while he lights a cigar with the other. He's going to be section leader for our mission. Oh, I forgot to say, didn't I? They told me just this morning; I'm going into combat! The Kailai are pulling back to their spaceport, and preparing to abandon their bases on Sirocco's World. We're going to try to make sure they have fewer soldiers than they started with when they do. It's supposed to be an important mission. Every soldier we kill here is one less they'll have to defend their frontier, or launch a new invasion later.
"Don't sweat it, kid. We're just going duck hunting, is all. We set the Mark Seven's up in a camouflaged position and wait for the transports to fly overhead, then we open up on them for as long as we can see `em. They may have a couple of escort fighters along, but the boys from Zion will keep those guys busy. It'll be a piece of cake. We rack up a few hits, maybe knock one of `em down, then we go home for lunch. Easy. Ain't that right, Danners?"
The other pilot with them nodded his head.
"Yep, it doesn't get much easier than this. Heck, if I thought this would be dangerous, I wouldn't be here!"
"Hey, guys? Shouldn't we be holding radio silence, or something? They told me in school that you shouldn't talk any more on the radio than you had to, to keep from tipping off your location…"
"So speaks the expert. I don't mean to razz you, kid, but that stuff don't mean much out here in the back of beyond. Even if- and that's a mighty big if- there was someone to listen in on us, why would they be interested in a piddly bunch'a losers like us? I betcha the local Kailai command has us filed away under "negligible combat effectiveness" in all that paperwork they love so much. Hell, these MECO Suits are in such bad shape, I wonder if we can even hit anything with `em. My gunsight's gotta be off by at least 2 degrees, and the part they need to fix it has been on back-order for months now. It'll be a friggin' miracle if we even hit one of those planes, much less shoot one down."
Danners chimed in.
"That's God's own truth, it is. We're just going along with the guys from Zion to throw up a few more shots in front of the transports. The best we can hope for is that one of `em will run into our fire by accident!"
-Journal entry number seven continued-
I couldn't argue with that summation at all. Our suits really are in poor condition. The weekly patrols we go on often end with us calling for a MECO transporter to come pick up a suit that broke down in the boonies.
Besides, I don't believe it will go as smoothly as they say it will. Surely the enemy won't just fly in a straight line and let us shoot at them, will they? I sure as hell wouldn't just sit there and let someone take potshots at me, if I were in their position. What makes me really nervous is that I just don't know. I have no combat experience of my own to draw on.
Our MECO are carrying standard issue Gann Autocannon as we make our way to the checkpoint where the combat team from Zion base is supposed to meet us. It's a good thing that the last reports of the Kailai air convoy have them several hours away. If there were an enemy close enough to pick up short-range radio signals, the chatter on our radio frequencies would give the enemy a very good idea that something was up. I've been on grade-school field trips that were quieter than this.
Well, the break is over with; time to get back on the road.
-Journal entry number eight-
We've arrived at the checkpoint. I'm taking a break, because no one takes a new ensign who's straight out of school seriously. I'm not included in the briefings; they reserve invitations for those for "older and wiser heads".
The terrain around here is pretty typical for this latitude. Dry, arid semi-desert, but with a lot of scrub and drought-tolerant trees. Whenever an off-worlder comes here for the first time, he's usually surprised by how much vegetation there is. The continents look brown from orbit, not green, so they expect there to be sand dunes all over the place. I always get a kick out of seeing them get out into the countryside for the first time.
There was a Land Rover waiting for us, with a second lieutenant from Zion. The Zion MECO Suit team is camped nearby. They got here last night, I guess so they'd be rested when it was time to fight. They are packing up and preparing to move out, while the lieutenant gives out final instructions. Each squad has an ambush point to set up in the path the air convoy is likely to pass over, and silhouette cards to identify enemy and friendly aircraft in case the IFF systems fail. I think the lieutenant is assigning the points to the different teams, though I can't hear what he's saying.
"Remember, men, that we have a flight of interceptors timed to hit them at the same time we do, so be damned certain that you aren't firing at our guys! All I want you shooting at is the big, slow suckers; leave the fighters to our air support… except for the unlikely event that one of `em decides to come down and strafe you. This plan is so damned simple that only a real dickhead could screw it up, so even you bozos should be able to handle it. Just stick to the script. Okay, now get to it."
"No good, smart-ass butterbar. I swear, the damn war would'a been over with a long time ago if they could turn out a second lieutenant who didn't constantly need his diapers changed! I tell ya, kid, those guys are the worst. They come out here with a chip on their shoulders bigger `n the block of wood they grow their hair out of. It takes years, sometimes, to train `em how to be worth a damn. Better to have a lieutenant that came up through the ranks; they know what the real world is like. Them OCS types are so shaky they think they gotta throw their rank around to get respect. Me, I say they should give `em a blanket and let `em suck their thumbs in the corner, while us sergeants get the real work done… No offense, kid. You may be a Fleet ensign, but you don't try an' throw your weight around. You listen to us, and when a more experienced guy is given command, you don't bitch about rank. I just wish more officers could act like that."
"Anyway, this here camouflage netting ought to work to keep our suits from being noticed. Them Kailai pilots won't know what hit `em… assuming these walkin' scrap piles can put a shell anywhere near `em, that is. Wanna give us a hand setting it up?"
-Journal entry number nine-
I'm writing this in a hospital bed. I'll try to put down my memory of the battle as best I can.
"Game Warden to all units; poachers are in sight; repeat, poachers are in sight."
That's the code phrase that told us the Kailai air convoy was entering the kill zone. Hearing it on the radio woke me up from the doze I'd slipped into while we waited. At first, I just blinked as the meaning of the words sunk in, but when they did, the adrenaline began pumping into my system. I began searching the sky for aircraft and wondering why my telescopic display wasn't working… until I realized that I'd left my cockpit's armored canopy open to catch a breeze, and my forward view screen was deactivated. I felt pretty foolish, let me tell you. It took a moment for me to flip the switches that closed up the cockpit cover and activate my sensors.
As soon as my view screen came online, a repeater screen that normally shows the view to the rear of the MECO began displaying a narrow-band broadcast from one of the Zion squads positioned farther up the line. On the screen, I could see the Kailai aircraft approaching. There were four big transports, and a few small fighter craft. I was excited, nervous and scared… but mostly scared. All I could really think of was how much I suddenly had to go to the bathroom. I suppose I could have guessed I'd feel that way; every time we had a live-fire exercise in OCS, the same thing happened. I always felt an overpowering need to pee…
I took a moment to agonize over whether I could open the canopy and pee over the side, but decided to try and hold it. The enemy was going to be overhead in seconds, so I just didn't have time. Already the first MECOs from Zion were beginning to fire at the transport planes, and I could see the Kailai escort fighters banking left and climbing to engage our fighters, which were attacking at the same time.
I barely seemed to have time to breathe before the transports were in range of my gun. Throwing aside the camouflage netting, I raised my Mark Seven to one of its knees and hauled the autocannon up into the ready position. Just as the twin crosshairs of the targeting scope locked onto the lead transport and I was squeezing the trigger, I noticed some egg shapes dropping from the wings of all four aircraft.
Those sons of bitches were carrying bombs on the wings.
It was a horror to watch as the bombs fell. The ones that had been released by the transport I was still firing at didn't seem to be moving, they were just getting bigger and bigger.
That had to be a bad thing that they didn't seem to be moving, didn't it? Or at least that was what I was thinking, anyway. I realize now that it was because they were falling straight at our position…
My finger was jerking convulsively on the trigger, but the gun wasn't firing anymore. I had just enough time to realize that I must have used up all my ammunition before the bombs hit.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up still strapped in my cockpit. There was no power, so none of my monitors worked, but I had enough light to see because the armored canopy of my suit was torn off and let sunshine in. There was a layer of dust covering everything. As I began working to loosen my safety harness, a fine cloud of the stuff puffed up and made my nose itch. When I sneezed, it was like throwing a switch; suddenly I felt agonizing pain. I looked down and saw a jagged scrap of metal from the rim of the canopy had been splintered off and driven into my hip. I was bleeding badly, and my trousers and the lower part of my shirt were sodden with blood. My vision began wavering, and I felt dizzy and nauseous. I tried to control it, but I couldn't help myself; I had to lean over and throw up into the back of the cockpit. That set off new waves of agony, and I don't remember exactly when I fainted again.
I still don't know how long I was trapped in the wreckage of my MECO. The next time I came to my senses, I was already here in the base infirmary. When a nurse came to check on me, she found me staring up at the ceiling.
"Why, hello there. You certainly had us worried for a while, but now that you're awake you should be just fine."
"What happened to me?"
"Do you remember anything at all?"
"Yes… I remember waking up in my Mark Seven and there was a piece of metal stuck into me…"
"Well, some of the pilots from Zion found you and brought you back. You lost a lot of blood, so it was touch and go for a while there. You're out of danger now."
"Huh? Why didn't Sergeant Dewey or Corporal Danners help me?"
"…I'm sorry. You were the only survivor at your position. But try not to think about that. You just wait here for a minute. The Doctor will want to see you now that you're awake again."
"The only survivor…?"
-Journal entry number nine continued-
I've been recovering my physical strength quickly, I guess I can thank my youth for that. I just wish I could think of something besides the other guys who went out with me on that "easy" mission. I feel awful, and I'm not talking about the pain of my wounds. They never told us in OCS what it was like to lose people you knew in combat. I don't know how to deal with it.
Why am I still alive? Why are they dead? It should have been me that died. I'm the rookie, the guy who doesn't know anything. They'd fought in major battles on planets all over the Federation, and survived. How could they die such miserable, useless deaths on a backwater planet where the war was all but over? I can't figure it out.
-Journal entry number ten-
The captain came to visit me personally while I still was in the infirmary, with news and a handful of decorations.
He told me all kinds of stuff that sounded like something out of a war movie. Stuff like "the price was high, but your bravery went far beyond our expectations, ensign. You performed your duty in an exemplary manner."
As far as I was concerned, it was all bullshit. He told me that the guys from Zion base said I'd stood my ground and kept firing right up to the last moment, and I'd scored heavy damage to one of the aircraft. It crashed a little later, so I'm supposed to have credit for the only enemy transport plane shot down.
If that's true, then why am I not happy about it?
Our interceptors accounted for three of their fighter craft, so we did accomplish the mission, anyway. There are a lot fewer Kailai going home than they started with.
No one anticipated that the Kailai troops would arm the transport planes with bombs; the Intelligence officers thought that they would be using all their weight allowance to carry personnel. Spy satellite photos taken of the base where they landed later showed that the planes were only half filled with cargo and men… they had a light load, so they carried the bombs to attack our base on the way.
The captain gave me the Federal Commendation Medal and the Wounded Lion Third Class. He said I've also been put in for the Federal Star and a promotion to lieutenant. The company wants to have a formal presentation ceremony and reception, but I don't really feel like it. I can't believe that they think I'm special.
I got a few days leave to recuperate, and I'm going to go home. I just can't stand the way everyone is treating me like some kind of hero. It's too confusing. How can I be a hero when all I remember is how terrified I was? Aren't heroes supposed to be brave?
Heck, if I hadn't been frozen in hysteria, I'd have run away when I saw the bombs falling. I need to talk to Grandfather. He was a soldier for a long time, so I hope he can help me deal with this.
-Journal entry number eleven-
I want to die.
I really do. I just don't know if I can handle it anymore.
Not that I'm going to commit suicide or anything like that; I'm all mother has now, and I can't do that to her. She's almost as shook up as I am, but there's a critical difference. It's all my fault, and I know it.
I found out about it on the day when I was finally able to leave the base infirmary and go home on leave.
I went home by the military bus. It makes runs into Reisburg every day for the soldiers that live off-post, so it's my normal way to get there. I got off the bus at the stop closest to the apartment building where I live, but it's a long walk even when you're healthy.
That's when I found out that crutches aren't fun. When I was a kid, I thought they were neat. It looked like it would be a blast to swing along on them.
Wrong. Now that I have no choice but to use them, I know just what torture it is to have to hobble along with them for any distance. You get tired very quickly, and the top part chafes under your arms until it becomes unbearable. Add the pain from the wound in my hip that was keeping me from using my left leg, and you have one unhappy camper.
I did make a gesture towards the old fantasies; I struggled into my best dress uniform and wore all the decorations the Captain gave me. I still don't think I deserve them, but I wanted to play the part of the wounded hero for my sister. I wanted to see the look on her face when she saw them. After all the teasing she put me through about single-handedly saving the Federation when I was posted only a few kilometers away from our home town, I wanted some of my own back, you know?
Not that it would last; she would just find something else to tease me about.
Then came the truly horrible part.
As I rounded the corner of the street the apartment was on, I stopped in shock.
The entire apartment block was leveled.
Looking back at that moment, I've realized a fact about myself that I'm not proud of. I can handle day to day life just fine, and when I can see them coming, I can deal with emergencies too. When I'm blind-sided by a tragedy, though, my brain kind of goes into autopilot mode. I can talk, and speak, and act normal and calm, but I'm not really thinking. I don't ask questions I should, or take note of things that might be important later.
To this day, if you ask me who it was that told me the bad news, I can't remember her name or face.
She was a neighbor from up the street, who had been sweeping her porch. She saw me and rushed over. She was babbling something about being so sorry for me.
I probably looked calm as ever when I asked her what had happened, and if she knew where my family was.
She was crying when she told me how a big enemy airplane had crashed into the building, killing a lot of people inside… including my sister and my grandfather.
It was the transport plane I'd shot down.
I don't know how I got back to base that day. I didn't pass out or anything, but I guess I was too lost in grief to notice what was happening around me. I'm told that I was pretty much catatonic for days. They even changed my mother's duty assignment from Zion to Reisburg, so that she could help the base psychologist try to get through to me.
I suppose I'm better now. At least I don't stare at the walls or the ceiling and try to pretend that the world isn't there, like I was doing. Now I'm trying to pretend that life goes on, so that mother won't worry about me so much. But it's hard.
At least I've learned one thing. No one in his right mind should dream of being a hero. You might get what you wish for…
To be continued?
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