Second installment follows reprint of first.
On the Far Frontier
Book One: First Post
James Atticus Bowden
“The Speed of Light is an absolute limit throughout the Universe!” Cale daydreamed about his favorite rant from the Academy. The oddest professor there made the most profound effect. “No one can go faster than light. Ever,”
Cale’s seat belt tugged tightly. The braking from Mach 2 on the land rail started a very long way from the Fort Hope terminus. Fort Hope was the furthest point out on the far frontier of the Other continent. Alien Country! And I’m posted here to fight’em. His heart pounded. Cale saw the uneven line of the Great Escarpment stretch across the whole horizon for the first time. The Escarpment is so huge! Nothing beats seeing it for real. Praise the Parent Pilots! Awesome.
Cale looked across the open, flat, nothingness for wrecks of the great space ships, the Arks of the ancestor Pilots who brought all life and people to this planet. Cale smiled recalling Professor Josi B.’s theatrics, “The limits imposed by the speed of light shape everything on this frontier planet except one thing and one thing alone!” My first duty post. A bachelor living on this piece of frontier with the Potways. Weirdo cult.
“And what would that one thing be?” Professor Josi B. craned his neck like a vulture looking for a victim. “Mister Smit C., yes, you Mister Smit C., what would be the one thing that the speed of light does not dictate on this furthest forward planet of the Great Galactic Order?”
Before the cadet could answer Professor Josi B. banged the lectern with his fist and screamed shrilly, “Destiny, Mister! Destiny! The speed of light doesn’t determine
Potways. Religious cult of clans found mostly on the Other Continent. Constitute a majority of the population on the frontier. Tolerated, but not encouraged by GGO Colonial Government.
the destiny of this world! Humankind determines the destiny of our frontier world! Praise be the Pilots!” He lowered his voice to growl, “Humankind, that even means you, Mr. Smit C., defends the border of our Great Galactic Order against the Alien invader. Even though all communications from the Center of the G.G.O. ceased, humankind makes this planet a place of civilization, peace and prosperity. Are you equal to this mission? Frankly speaking, the miserable graduates of this military academy are the best hope for shaping any destiny into one which includes our survival. Sad, such, is our state of affairs. You are The Army. Upon the shoulders of The Army we survive. Or not.”
The brakes hissed louder. Minutes passed like an excruciatingly long sigh. The chair on the bubble roof was worth every chit. Cale listened in and out as the guidevoice droned on softly, “At this latitude only low growth forest survives.” It sure doesn’t look like the tall trees and warm, rolling hills of home. ‘Back Old’ as they supposedly say out here. There’s another saying. Throughout his last two standards at the Academy, Cale studied everything about his first post he could get his hands on. These frontiersmen say Spring comes as ‘fast as a train pulsed from the port fusion engine.’ It should be Spring by now. All I see is snow.
The guidevoice thanked him for purchasing their Land Rail services and signed off. This newly commissioned combat leader was happy to pay. Cale would know as much as he could about the unit, the mission, the enemy, the troops, the terrain, the locals, the history, culture – you name it – before his first duty day.
The Great Escarpment barely changed across the horizon as the buildings of Ft. Hope’s outskirt buildings quickly grew higher in perspective. It seemed to rise just a little bit higher. The Escarpment must be a long, long way away. And really, really big.
Cale recalled his last image of the awkward, painfully, intellectual Professor Josi B. “Yet, praise be to the Pilots, our people of this far frontier know only of the heroism and brilliance in combat of your forebears from this most military Academy. They don’t know how weak you are. You must leave my tutelage and go grab life to achieve a destiny for us all. Go beyond your weakness. Do it well, Cadets. Do it well!” Everybody snickered. Me, too. But, he’s the ‘P’ I remember the most.
The car came to the hard stop. The brakes protested. Cale grabbed his kit and headed for the exit. I’m going to try my code for real. I’ll be tested. Bring it on.
The ground flight engineer waited at the door to wish passengers well. She saw his gray ‘business dress’ uniform some distance away. She took off her skull cap and shook her short blonde hair out. Cale saw her from a distance too. Her shapeless flight suit couldn’t hide her female curves.
Cale smiled a crooked grin, “Thanks for the great ride. Is this your regular route?”
“Yes, Sir, it is,” she offered her hand. She gave him a quick once over as thoroughly as any inspecting officer. There were no service slashes or combat icons on his frock coat. The highly polished gold rank insignias on his shoulders and at the center of his chest proclaimed most junior officer. His face said it first. The bright, light blue shoulder service piping spoke direct combat branch. The pink collar piping said Academy graduate. The black and gold wreathed knife on his forearm shouted ‘Alpha’ school grad. Cale saw her eyes flicker at his Alpha patch as they shook hands. He held her hand long enough to be just right. He looked into her eyes just that little too much too. He said, “I’ll look around for you.”
Try/test my code. Old expression for experimenting with software code for functionality. Later changed to mean testing an individual’s DNA code for errors. Archaic expression, usually associated with men in a test of manhood.
She kept her eyes in his. “You can find me. Alphas can find anything. Right?” she smiled.
“Alphas Always. Ground Flight Engineer Tust,” Cale read the name tag held up and out by her ample breasts. He raised his eyebrows and smiled. He turned from the crush of people behind him to go. Cale looked back as he stepped out. She was taking a second glance too. Good. Very good. Remember Tust. Tust like bust. Blonde, built, Ground Flight Engineer, Tust.
The train terminus in the military colony town of Fort Hope was built low and thick like the bunker it was meant to be. There was a cold dust in the air. The food kiosks poured out new and striking smells. Overpowering foreign scents. The people moved in a blur. Cale followed the flow.
No signs. No directions for incoming military. No one in uniform. Where’s my unit rep? They have to know I’m coming in today. His orders specified that very train for transit. Cale worked up a sweat, despite the cold, carrying his full kit with sling bag and boxy helmet case slung over one shoulder. He kept one hand free for military courtesies.
Cale stepped to the bright outside into another wall of smells and cold wind. No
one’s waiting here for me. He threw his stuff in the back of the lead taxi.
Alpha School. The toughest training allowed in the GGO Armed Forces was meted out in the school designed to separate the Alpha Males from all other officers and enlisted combat leaders. Graduates were trained to assume command in the most complex and dangerous, demanding combat scenarios.
The grizzled driver needed a shave and bath as much as he needed to finish his dripping sandwich. “Hey, I’m on break!” he motioned to his meter with both hands wrestling his smelly sandwich.
“You’re the first car in the pick up line. You have to go first,” Cale slid in behind his cargo. The driver frowned and took another bite. Cale looked hard at the quadrant screen. “What’s your license number? Name?”
“Close the door. Let’s go,” the driver shoved his sandwich in his mouth. He flipped the switch disengaging the charging unit from the heating post. The engine quickly whined up to the right RPM. They lurched forward.
“Fort Hope, please,” Cale used his officially polite tone.
The driver gulped hard and licked his oily fingers, “New recruit, huh?”
“New Officer,” Cale answered gruffly. One quadrant of the back seat screen pulsed with icons for the white ‘t’ and the blue ‘x’ alternating with the words ‘Lamb’s Cross’ and ‘Lion’s Cross’. Potway symbols. “New here.”
“I know where you go, Sir.”
The driver slowed to enter a round traffic circle full of vehicles. A huge statue on a high square base covered in flowers overpowered the bustle. A giant woman was lunging forward. Her lips curled on her teeth in a defiant, silent scream. Her eyes were ablaze in stone. She thrust a crying baby by the scruff of the neck forward like a shield. Her other hand coiled a long knife back by her hip ready to strike. Each side of the base proclaimed, ‘No Surrender.’
Cale twisted in his seat to take it all in. “That’s the monument to the Massacre at ’84 Easterly Settlement. Right?”
“Why fresh flowers? In the winter? Is this the day?
“No, no. The grandmothers take care of that monument everyday,” pride filled the driver’s voice. “They’ll tell you why. There’s some who seen their great-grandmothers and heard them speak of the Alien fighting. Course not actually at Longitude ’84. No one that far forward survived.” The driver eased his exit off the circle. “Yeah, yeah. Their kin in other settlements survived. Of course, they seen the sensor spots and know what happened.”
“It’s been a hundred fifty-two Standards,” said Cale.
“It was yesterday, Sir.” They passed a line of older women walking, bundled darkly against the cold, carrying bright fresh flowers.
“Must be expensive.”
“That’s Potway women for you.”
They were still in the city when Cale saw the arching gate and hard walls of Ft. Hope. I imagined it was way out from the town. I guess the town grew out to it. ‘G.G.O.’ was stamped in the concrete pillars. The arch bore one word, ‘Duty.’ The sensor suite at the outer gate was broken. The rusted box hung loosely by a single screw. A voice came on the taxi’s internal speaker, “Proceed to the next gate.”
At the next barrier the guard and driver smiled and nodded mutual recognition. The guard motioned for Cale to lower his window. Cale complied and held up his wrist. The guard’s eyes looked with bored indifference at the rank hologram slowly rotating over the wrist band data display. He slowly came to a half-hearted position of attention and saluted sloppily. Cale returned the salute sharply.
The cab’s navigator voice gave instructions in metallic monotone. I know why they have drivers here and operators on the frontier for everything that a good robot could do. People can’t be hacked remotely. Still, weird stuff. Inefficient. They went around a big open field and past long dirt-buried bunkers. Ammo bunkers. The first long, low building that looked fit for an office had a sign out front. “‘A’ Cohort, 1st Fighters, 21st Battle Group” and in larger letters ‘Duty.’ Cale tapped his chit card against the driver’s quadrant display.
The driver didn’t help him unload. Cale piled his things in the right order to lug them into the first combat unit of his military career.
Cale took a deep breath. His insides quivered. Now. He picked up his kit and went into the building. The door sensor announced his entry. “Officer present.” The words echoed down the hall as he strode past each embedded watchdog.
The orderly was standing at attention when Cale stepped into the Cohort office. The junior team leader was a short swarthy fellow suited in the combat utility uniform. His five o’clock shadow was shaping up his face well before noon. His eyes swallowed Cale with curiosity. His eyes lingered on the Academy pipette on Cale’s collar, then darted to his Alpha School patch. He saluted, “Alpha Cohort, First of the Twenty-First. Duty, Sir.”
“Warrior Leader, Officer Third Grade, Cale B. reporting for duty,” said Cale evenly. He masked his internal tremors totally. He handed the personnel disk from his identity case to the orderly. The young team leader, probably a year or two older than Cale, took it quickly into the next room. Cale read the walls carefully.
The unit’s history was handsomely documented in 3-D displays. It was a proud battle history. First to find, or more correctly – be found by – aliens and fight them. Holding frontier outposts against impossible odds, killing a lot of aliens in tough fights, suppressing two revolts, and supporting humanitarian assistance whenever nature caused disasters. Now, patrolling through the longest so-called truce ever. Except for the quick fire fights that happen when least expected. And, the long patrols that never come back. Here’s a memorial for guys they lost last year. Which is why I’m here. I’m going to fight. I know no one on the frontier calls it ‘peace’. Only folks Back Old take the safe luxury to speak of a lasting peace. The Top Sub was at Cale’s elbow before Cale knew he was in the room.
They exchanged salutes nose to nose. The Top Sub locked his eyes on Cale’s eyes. “Glad to have you here, Sir. The Old Man’s been expecting you. This way, Sir,” said Top Sub Dant. He was as dark-skinned as the orderly and a powerfully built man twice the orderly’s size. He had a thick brush mustache and shaved bald head. Suddenly, he turned and pointed at the orderly. “Hey, Jacs! Where’s the duty driver?”
“I don’t know First Sub. Last I seen he was getting the duty vehicle out to go pick up the new officer.”
“So, where the Dark Space is he?”
“I’ll call him. Maybe he didn’t get the duty vehicle past the inspectors.”
Top Sub, First Sub. Top Sub is the military rank for senior subordinate soldier of a combat cohort – not an officer. First Sub is the form of address.
“Call him now,” Top Sub Dant raised an inquiring eyebrow to Cale.
“I never saw him. Came here by myself,” said Cale. The Top Sub clenched his jaw and snorted through his nose.
Cale’s first commanding officer was hunched over a tactical engagement table. The holographic images flashed as he fingered the surface for new data. Warrior Leader, Officer First Grade, Commander Toll wore his combat suit and personalized command helmet. He was covered in dust and grime from the field. He stunk badly.
“Okay, that’s it Swen. Break it off and come back to home station,” Toll’s orders were short verbal jabs. “We’ll work on your immediate action drills later. Remember, time, distance and speed. Time, distance, speed! Tell your men that they did proud today and last night. The second fight was second to none in this exercise. Good job. Duty, out.” Toll pulled off his helmet. His head plug came out with a slurping sound. He was average height, wiry and a dirty blonde.
“First Sub, get a hold of First Fight and the Third Herd and tell them to drag their sorry butts home. They fell off my comms again. I don’t even want to talk to them now. And I don’t want them to hear what I’ll say right now. Just get them in gear.”
“Will do, Sir. We got a new leader for the Third Fight,” Top Sub Dante nodded to Toll’s rear.
“Well, I’ll be alienized!” Toll smiled broadly. His eyes stabbed Cale’s with their intensity. Toll’s quick inspection once over from top of the head down to toes, back to top the head missed nothing. His eyes returned for another jab in Cale’s eyes. Toll gave a hard military grip to Cale’s hand and elbow. “Welcome to Alpha Cohort, Warrior Leader. Awful Alpha Always Able.”
Cale snapped to attention. He saluted sharply, “Sir, Warrior Leader Cale B., reports for duty.”
Toll returned the salute and pointed to a chair by the training table. He leaned back on the table and crossed his arms. “We wondered when you’re ever going to get off leave after Alpha School,” Toll’s blue eyes were warm. Their warmth seemed almost out of place with the menacing large scars on his forehead and cheek.
“I took the authorized amount, Sir, no more,” Cale stuttered.
“Yeah, sure, Warrior Leader,” Toll walked over to his console and sat down with a sudden heaviness. “How much weight did you lose in Alpha School?”
alienized. Literally, to be melted by high powered microwaves directed by the aliens. Or, in common speech to otherwise be rendered useless or finished
“Sixteen kilos, Sir.”
“Humph,” Toll snorted. “They’re getting too soft. Put it back on, yet?” Toll reached into his low pant pocket and pulled out a snack bar. He offered it to Cale.
“Got back ten, Sir. No, thank you, Sir,” Cale sat as stiffly as a New Cadet in indoctrination training.
“I may never let you stay back in garrison long enough to get it back, Cale,” Toll used his name without rank unexpectedly. He bit the snack bar in half. “Cale, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been short a warrior leader for entirely too long a scum-sucking alien-loving time,” Toll’s eyes took another very slow measure of Cale. Cale kept eye contact with youthful fierceness.
“You’re going to take the sorry rag bags of our third herd and make them into soldiers. That’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be overnight. But, you’re going to do it. I’m putting you in the field,” Toll looked at his console, “First thing next seven cycle you go to Training Area 12. I’m keeping you there until I run out of ammunition and credits for field training this standard. Questions?”
“Where are they now, Sir? When can I link up?”
Toll smiled genuinely at the right answer, “They’ll be in very late tonight. You get your gear and get settled here on post. Be back at first formation and you can meet the sorriest Fight serving the Galactic Order. If there is, in fact, still a Galactic Order.”
Cale rose quickly, saluted and left the room. How much of that was gut check? How bad is the Third Herd? Who cares? The Third Fight’s mine. They’re going to be best soldiers in the whole Galactic Order anyway. Screw it, if the Galactic Order is gone. Conquered by aliens, or whatever, then they’ll be the best on this free planet. That’s my plan. Didn’t need the pep talk, Sir.
Top Sub had the duty orderly take the new Warrior Leader to process in. Full combat/vehicle crew kit, personnel – officer’s records section, calibrate individual wrist weapon on the virtual range, and put in the unit codes on his helmet comms interface.
Cale eased into the chair in the cramped warehouse room called an office. When Cale lifted the flap of skin on the back of his head protecting the female receptor plugged through his skull into his brain, the Cohort Comms Sub couldn’t help himself, “Been a long time since I seen a skull flap with no tattoo.”
“Yeah?” Cale controlled his irritation. “I could’ve put on an Alpha School tattoo. But I’m thinking there’s other things to come.”
“Lots of young Leaders have an Academy tat. Or an Alpha School tat,” the Comms Sub changed his tone of voice markedly. He spoke more softly. “I likes my own tat, Sir.” He leaned forward to show off his skull flap. It read ‘Duty’ with POTWAY symbols and swirls covering all the skin.
“Been in the Twenty-First your entire term?”
“Been here, in Alpha, for all me terms, Sir. Got three done now.”
“Anyone got more than you here?” This Sub is behind on promotion because he stays planted here in one unit, or he has been busted. Cale looked for a sign on the slightly chubby, acne-scarred Sub. Where did he grow up that they didn’t have DNA snip and clip to fix simple acne?
Skull Flap. A 6 x 2.5 centimeter flap of living flesh that covers and protects the surgically implanted receptor in the skull to reach the upper medulla of the brain. All service members undergo the surgery at the completion of basic training when they are officially inducted into the service of the Great Galactic Order.
“Oh, there’s somes that got more. You’ll know ‘em, Sir. You’ll know ‘em when we go to the field. Mostly POTWAY men likes me. Borns here, serves here, dies here.”
“Got my download done, Sub?” said Cale.
“Yes, Sir. You’ll be in the net as soon as you put in your helmet plug. You know your receptor gots more holes than I seen before.”
“Maybe you’re way over due for upgrades, Sub. It’s been in for five standards. I’m not a new recruit, Sub. My academy time was as military as anything you’ve ever done. It’s been five long standards since I was a civ. “Thanks.” Cale stood up and followed the orderly. The final in-processing station was in Officer country. The orderly helped carry all his stuff to the waiting room and left. Cale signed into the Officer’s Mess, Billets, Athletic Union, Education Fund, Troop Entertainment and Welfare Fund, and anything else the pretty civ secretary put in front of him. Early forties. Nice figure but filling out fast. She wore a POTWAY wedding ring on both hands. She wore garish jewelry with more POTWAY symbols and too much perfume. She didn’t look in his eyes, but had a professional cheeriness about her. Fake enough to keep her easy office job. Bet she gets hit on every day.
As Cale left to find his billet, he heard a commotion down the passage. At the far end the sign read “Warrior Leader and Wife Fred and Frie L. Memorial Hall.” A reception of some sort was breaking up. A tall Sub held the door open for the Battle Group Commander in business dress, some local civ – a well-dressed older guy and a striking, dark-haired woman. Cale checked out the woman. She looked to be in his age target range. She was laughing. Maybe a little too much to be a subordinate in the group. Why is she there? Her dark hair fell over her back as she tilted her head to enjoy her own laugh. She was tall with a very womanly figure. Something about the cut of the clothes looked POTWAY. They went out a side door before Cale could drink in more details. Hmm.
Cale took a billet room even though he planned to move off base, if he could, first chance he got. I want to experience this place and culture. I’ve been with the boys in barracks for long enough. The room had no charm. He was surprised when he opened one odd box with this Officer kit. It was a large utility knife with a death’s head on the hilt. ‘2/21’ was stamped on the skull. I didn’t see Toll wearing this. When do you carry this?
After he unpacked and set his room up almost like ‘as for inspection’ at the Academy, it was time to eat. Cale walked through dimly lit, shabby weather corridors connecting the buildings to the Officer Mess in the early evening, still in business uniform. I’ll probably be over dressed. Better that than go as sloppy civ. Two waiters hurried over to serve. Otherwise the dining room was utterly empty. Where is everybody? I’m missing something if I’m the only officer here. Cale felt the uncomfortable awkwardness keenly. He hurried through the comfort food he ordered. It was his own special celebration for his first day on the frontier. Finally, he asked a server, “I am too early or too late for the mess?”
“Oh, yours is just rights, Sir. The other officers been out on their community night,” the server spoke with such a Potway accent and Other cadence that it would be a parody Back Old.
“Ah, community night,” Cale replied in clipped, precise Galactic Standard tones.
The server could see Cale was clueless. “They goes to meet with the Fort Hope town officials. They eats dinner together. So we alls get along.” He smiled hopefully.
Cale saw no one on the way back to his room. He took a long look out his window before slamming the blast shield down. The escarpment was a shadow in the night. The twin moons lit enough sky to cast its high ridges in sharp definition. They’re out there. The aliens on the other side. How long until I run into them?
He lay in his bed waiting for sleep to hurry up. I still feel like a stupid cadet practicing to be an officer. Maybe when I meet the troops in my Fight. Maybe when we go to the field. Easy sleep is always carried in the kit of an exciting day. I’m at my first post. Then, his thoughts clicked off like a screen shot.
Much later it seemed, Cale found himself out in the open. He saw his Uncle calling him. How odd. What is Uncle Stan doing here on the frontier? Then Stan’s mouth opened, wide like a giant frog, and the loudest strange sound came out. The wailing grew unbelievably, unbearably stronger and louder. Cale opened his eyes. The dream stopped, but the noise was louder. The alert siren had to be right outside of his window. It’s an alert! He dressed with the speed they demanded at the academy. He ran back to his unit carrying his helmet like a ball.
Grey figures cut through the dark like flashing knives. The sirens continued. When Cale entered the building he got a stiff arm in the chest. A fully armed guard manned the first entrance. His voice was distorted, deeper, and booming through the chest amplifier, “Halt. Not so fast Warrior Fighter, Sir.”
“I’m assigned here.”
“I don’t know you.”
Cale jerked his wrist up to the guard’s face. The guard jerked back as if he was popped in the nose. A deep breath later he muttered, “Proceed, Sir.” Cale ran down the corridor. When he got to the orderly’s post he demanded, “Where is Third Fight’s battle station?”
The orderly reached out and tapped the top green button on Cale’s wrist band. An arrow appeared on the screen pointing to the outside to the left. The same arrow appeared in his left virtual eyepiece. A voice said. “Go outside. Left. Three klicks.”
I had the data. How dumb junior warrior leader third grade. Who knew? Screw it. Three klicks is a long way. Cale went outside into a cold, hard wind. He started a military trot following the arrow. Despite wearing his helmet with head plug in, he could hear the howling sirens. The rumbling of the war machines and every other vehicle made the ground tremble.
He trotted down the line of vehicle bunkers with the heavy war machines rolling out like the behemoths they are, one by one, as crews got them running and moved them out into first battle station. The first battle station – Alpha – must be right outside the blast doors. As he looked to the Great Escarpment, he saw flashes of white light. They’re firing! They’re shooting at something! Screw! Screw me, is it happening? For real?
Cale spoke in his helmet, “Outside actual audio.” He heard all the noises all around him. He heard the wind. How far away is the firing, if I haven’t heard it yet? Or, can’t hear it at all. He’d always heard the firing on ranges. Many, many klicks from ranges. He saw familiar red lights streaking along with the white flashes. Then,he saw flashes of blue and green light. Lots of them. Oh, my Pilots! That’s Alien fire. No screw, screwing Alien fires. Aliens are there. Cale picked up his pace.
As he got the end of the battle line, no war machines were out of their bunkers. The doors were open on two bunkers and closed on two. His direction arrows pointed to the end of the line at a closed bunker.
His wrist opened the blast door. The bright light inside blinded him. He reached up for the hand hold and climbed up to the Commander’s cupola from the outside. The hatch was open. Cale hoped down to the seat with lithe athletic ease. He grabbed the plug from his chest piece and plugged it into the console. Everything in combat gear had a hard wire back up. His head display came alive.
“Report,” Cale commanded.
He saw every face assigned to this war machine in his display look in his direction. He’d never forget the mix of surprise, curiosity, and irritation that floated across ten faces.
“Acting Fight Commander Mett, Sir.” Cale saw the first face on the left of his display speak. It was Senior Sub Mett, the guy who had been in charge of Third Fight for a long time until this instant. If Sub Mett was fifteen standards older than Cale, he looked thirty. He worked and played too hard, too long. He had served as a dismount through too many Other winters.
“Right. I’ve got command. Warrior Leader, Officer Third Grade Cale B. commanding Third Fight. Report.”
“This machine, alpha three zero one, is having engine problems. We should be moving in ten. Other machines, except alpha three zero four, will move on command. Zero four won’t budge,” Mett’s face spoke directly with a deep raspiness in the display.
“Third Flight, report!” Warrior Leader, Officer First Grade, Commander Toll’s face popped up, lead left and larger than others in Cale’s left eye. His voice was brusquely demanding.
“Three systems go. One no-go.”
“Get them out of their stinking bunkers, Warrior Leader. Now!”
“Third Fight, forward to Battle Station Alpha. Prompt.” I know the battle drill orders to give. Let’s go.
Cale saw in his right eye display the main view sensors of two systems lurch forward as the blast doors opened. Another one stayed stuck looking at the door locks in front of it. His machine made loud grinding noises. The doors stayed closed. Zero One didn’t move.
The mikes to follow were some of the longest in Cale’s life. He would play them over and over in his head for the rest of his life. In a critical moment he made key decisions to the best of his ability and as good as anyone could. He bore the blame for things totally beyond his control, that happened before and outside of his responsibility. It would happen more times in his life. He’d feel the same angry frustration at being trapped in someone else’s mistakes, smeared by others’ failures and having to suck it up, take the heat, and drive on. If he was going to be found failing, let it be for his errors alone. Life was never so just.
The newly former Acting Fight Commander Mett and the machine commanders yelled and cursed at each other. Back and forth. Commander Toll demanded action. Cale reported the inadequate answers he had in a calm, controlled voice. Toll’s questions got more detailed and demanding. It was demeaning to not be performing well. Inside he seethed. Finally, he took charge.
“Third Fight All. Silence!” His voice commanded as it should. As he knew it could from being taught, trained and exercised so many times as a Cadet. “Three Zero Four, leave the machine driver and alternate with the machine. Fix or destroy as needed. Sub Mett, you go with Team Alpha on Three Zero Two. Put Team Bravo on Three Zero Three. Move in 5 mikes to Battle Station Bravo. Acknowledge by battle roster.”
Mett and four machine commanders responded in the right sequence, “Right, Sir.”
In four minutes the great ground war machines were lumbering to the road that went through a broken fence to scrub trees and thick brush. Sharp wind gusts blew snow swirling across the ground. The metal, fuel and lubricant smell permeated Cale’s air filter. It was already a familiar and welcomed scent. In the past, it meant real time training – the best, most exciting times. Cale smiled at the smell in his helmet.
It was many mikes to the next battle station. Here the Cohort got in march order for the longer trek to their first fighting position. It was called General Defense Position 1, or GDP 1 for short, appropriately as the first place from which the Cohort expected to engage the enemy Aliens. They had never done so. Not since Fort Hope was built. But, this was the closest, first defensible place to get good shots across the huge expanse opening all the way to the Great Escarpment. There were defense positions actually up the first ridge of Escarpment, but they rarely went that far forward as a Cohort. The conflicting colored lights flashing far away were around that first ridge – out on the outpost line.
The road became a tracked trail. More mikes of the lumbering line of war machines. Then, as the light before the sunrise softened the sky, the trail just went away. Cale was beyond the frontier of human civilization for the first time. The lead machines broke brush and dodged the trees they didn’t crush. Every klick there was a ground marker, but nothing in between.
The thin, low forest gave way to wide spaces and undulating low ridges of what looked like nothing but heather and rocks. Masts from the Arks! Cale had seen them in museums and video, but never in person. The remains of great masts for the space sails of super-sized Arks right there on the ground. These were the masts that stretched for thousands of klicks out from a great Ark ship. They caught the cosmic winds of energy blowing across the galaxy. The blast from a super nova, the constant radiation from hot stars, the pull of black holes, and the other energy debris from a long ago, big bang propelled the Arks to as close to the speed of light that humans could get. It made a difference. Even when the big jumps across star rings of the galaxy were passages of tens of thousands of standards. Cale had read that you could follow the lines of some masts for almost a thousand klicks. They’d be broken and missing in places, but their trace remained. There they are. I’d like to see a great Ark at full sail in space. The sails were long gone. They were only a few microns thick anyway. I love studying the Arks. It’s so amazing how the Pilots figured out how to transit such vast distances. They traveled and kept on going through so many lifetimes for a single jump. And, screw me, how did the Pilots figure out how to bring life to planets? Every single planet that fit human needs and had the water to keep us alive was dead. Totally dead. The Pilots brought life to all. Praise be the Pilots. Cale looked out across the vast empty space and saw glints of light on remnants of masts in every direction. For as far as the eye could see.
After the feasting of his eyes on what he’d always wanted to see on the far frontier for a very good mind meal, Cale heard the firing. He snapped back to his duties. The deep, whump of energy striking matter and melting it, echoed from the front and right. The column of war machines continued towards the sounds of the firing. Eventually, he could hear the sound of the war machines winding up their directed energy in the drumbeats of an engine cycle. He felt the concussion of impacts.
Screw me. That’s a long way to feel that. Cale had felt the blasts move air on training ranges. He never expected the effect could go so far. Then he heard it.
Yes. Screw! That’s it. The sound was deep horn-like noise carried to the count of five while rising to high pitch followed by a loud ‘blam’.
Alien war machine fires. He’d heard it so many times in the simulators that it felt like training. But, it wasn’t.
Real Alien war machine fires. He recalled the maxim beaten into every recruit and cadet’s head from the first day of training. If you can hear it, you can be killed.
Cale completed the training mantra from memory. You are in the death zone. Prepare to survive, fight, survive. Find the Aliens first. Fire fast.
“Third Fight. Left quad.” Toll placed his cohort into GDP 1. They were finally there.
Cale put his Fight in a staggered line left formation. “Ammo warm. One-third rest.” Not ordering the ammo to be hot to fire immediately showed Cale wasn’t over-anxious that contact was coming soon, even though his heart was racing.
Starting the sleep cycle early was the sign of an old hand. The troops began to wonder where Cale had served before.
The fight is a long, long way off.
Toll dropped down on Cale’s personal channel like he was reading his mind. “They’re far away now. This is our GDP, because the fight will come to us,” said Toll.
But, the flashing lights to their front suddenly stopped. Lights flickered far away to the right and left along the Great Escarpment. The War Machine sounds moved away like thunder passing at the end of a storm.
Scout-sized unmanned drones flew forward. They were low and very fast. Sub Mett opened his channel to Cale, “Medevac.”
“Right,” Cale acknowledged. He checked every sensor in the Fight for full function. Half didn’t work. He had the systems technical sub, riding in the rear of his machine, put out all the distant sensors to see as much of his battle space as possible. When nothing popped, Cale recalled most of them to save fuel. He peered forward for an Alien war machine silhouette. Nothing. The nearest fight was over, whatever it was, far, far to their front. Being in the death zone, or kill zone, didn’t mean being close actually. Just close enough to get killed by super high energy, very long range weapons.
Cale went through every check list he could remember. He went through the battle drill check lists he could access in his helmet. He spoke to each machine commander and dismount leader about their status. He was all business. No getting to know the troops now. Not, yet. Every machine had a compromising condition. Bad sensors, low ammo reservoir, engine issues, like the awful grinding his own mount made. It was mid-morning before he was done. Are the Aliens coming back? Is that it? What was that? All firing stopped everywhere. The cold wind gave way to warm sun. Spring really was going to come there. Cale opened a ration pack and gobbled it up.
“March Order, Return. Normal Order. Third Fight Rear Guard,” commanded Toll.
Getting Rear Guard on my first time out? That’s a plus. Or, a test.
Cale gave his orders by the book. The three machines of the Third Fight covered the rear at the right distances and times with minimal chatter on the net. By the time they pulled back into their bunkers it was dark. The troops were exhausted. They’d been on the go too long since one day and night cycle of the Other Continent, and the whole planet for that matter, was more than a single diurnals for humans. The human sleep and eat cycle didn’t match the land’s. Cale ordered, “Recovery by standing procedures. I’ll be at Cohort. When I come back, report on ready to release standards. I’ll inspect.”
Cale’s walk back in this darkness had a spring in his step. That was screwing close to combat. I can’t believe I saw Alien fires! And heard their war machines! Screw me. He felt his first adrenaline high with this brush with war. It was different than the high in training. It was a much bigger rush. He felt alive in every cell in his body from the closeness of real danger. He wanted to punch someone in the face. He was aroused enough to take a woman. He was hungry and thirsty.
Commander Tolls’ after action review went over every step, for every part of the cohort, for every function through time mike by mike. It was exhaustive. And, illuminating. Cale felt even more high to be part of this. No kidding, no playing, no training stuff. The real deal from a hard seasoned, professional commander leader. At the review, Cale saw his fellow Warrior Leaders, the Second and support Subs, like the head weapons systems manager – who was actually a Technical Officer, not a Sub, for the first time. He focused on the boss, not them. There’d be time to join and team build later.
Technicals. Technicals are selected officers in highly specialized fields. They never command, but provide such expertise in their areas to be indispensable to the functioning of all Army organizations. They may be older and more experienced than other officers, but their actual authority of rank is below and between the three grades of Warrior Leaders and always below the Cohort Commander of any rank – no matter how long they serve.
“Third Fight, what are your tasks?” Toll looked evenly at him.
“Sir, maintenance is number one. My malfunctions need to get up to rate. Battle drill for alert to get out beyond the blast doors faster is next. I won’t know about field ops until we do shake down drills. I’ll do that in my first Fight Leader training period.”
“Right,” said Toll.
Nothing else? Just ‘Right’? Good job. Good going. The other officers looked at Cale without emotion. I’m performing to standard. Good. Praise be the Pilots.
When Cale got back to his flight, Sub Mett reported they were ready for release. Cale did a by-the-book inspection of every system, every piece of equipment and every man in the Fight. They failed a third of the checks. The Fight stayed in place, working off the gigs until much later in the night. Everyone else had gone home. Cale told Sub Mett to have them fall in outside the bunkers before release. As if on parade at basic training or at the Academy, Cale marched to the front of the Fight.
“Report,” Cale ordered.
“Third Fight ready to fight, Sir,” Sub Mett responded like a drill instructor. He posted himself behind the Fight.
“Right. Rest,” Cale looked at his eighteen men. He was supposed to have forty-four. “I’m Warrior Leader, Officer Third Grade, Cale B. You know I’m the Fight Commander. You did your duty today. Good job. We got within the kill zone of the Aliens. We did our duty at the GDP. As you saw in the inspection we have a lot to do.” Some troops grumbled, but Cale couldn’t hear who said what. “We’ll do all we have to do together. Get rest and be ready to go at next formation. Duty.”
“Duty. Awful Alpha Always Able!” The soldiers slapped their legs and made themselves into hard statues.
“Sub Mett. Dismiss the troops.” Sub Mett marched back to Cale, rendered military courtesy and turned on his heel to the troops.
“Machine and Dismount commanders see me. Third Fight, dismissed,” Mett didn’t look happy.
Cale walked away confident about much of what would follow with the Subs. He could hear the soldiers grumbling.
Good. Let them sort it out. They’re too slack. Mett has let them get over. He knows that’s done. Tomorrow will rock. I’m ready.
When Cale went to his room. As high as he had been, the down was utterly exhausting. He slept without dreams. The next morning at breakfast, the Officers’ Mess was full of new faces interested in the new guy in Alpha Cohort of old Duty.
The apprenticeship in the art, science, industry, and major muscle work of war for Cale B. began. The personal calling to the priesthood of arms initiated. The love of all things soldiering, even the hardest of challenges, opened its heart. The professional shaping of officership, selfless service leadership, started. The taste of surviving danger whetted an appetite for personal risk taking. It was the first day after all the preparation ended and Cale became one with The Army, as he would be, for the rest of his life. Cale, the soldier, was born.