Blitzkatarrh

18 08 2010

Future war. We were brought up on it – whether it be 2000AD or Larry Niven, future war has given writers the opportunity to construct far-out artifact scenarios and readers an easy road to suspension of disbelief : war is madness after all, is it not? This is a short piece on future war, unfortunately manhandling a series of well-worn and existing tropes. I’m sure I had something of the Starship Troopers in the back of the noggin here, but with a couple of tweaks. It works out a little pulpy, but I do like some of the language. In any case, this little piece has had its two alloted form rejections, from Strange Horizons and Kasma Magazine, so here it is in Creative Commons.

Have all future war stories been done? Or have they been refined to the absurd? (Witness the millisecond-spanning engagements of the Ships in Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, especially Excession.) What next for future war? Let me know in the comments.

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I slung my rifle over my back and bellied up to the top of the ridge to scan the canyon. Before peering over the packed clay of the edge, I pulled a sniffer from my chest pocket and raised it. Any Greven chimerics in the canyon wouldn’t be able to resolve the narrow dust-coloured plate against the raw clay, and with us cocooned in our gelsuits, there were no olfactory cues. That’s one thing that we’ve learned from them – the sniffer has a molecule sensor that can detect a chimeric’s fart five kilometres off, and can even tell you what the damn thing ate for its breakfast.

The canyon beyond the ridge scanned empty. I took down the sniffer and poked my head up to get a real look at the scene. A track from the ridge led down into a short canyon that ran west. We would need to descend a moderate slope, carrying Grinder, then follow the track to the mouth of the canyon, which lay between two great spurs of stone about fifteen hundred metres off. Our unit’s mobile habitat was camo’ed and slung under an overhanging rock three kilometres further out at the edge of the prairie.

The dusty orange globe of Saraken was setting, painting the canyon mouth with a fireside glow. I always found it creepy to have come this far from the green and blue Earth and find a place so vividly like it. The air was good, or at least it used to be, the gravity perfect and the plants had developed the same green strategy for absorbing the light of a G2 star. Where we were right now was like being in the Heart of Illinois.

Our unit was in a severely reduced state. A couple of hours ago, we had stomped over an underground nest of hell-hornets. We ended up losing nearly half of the unit to the giant insects before we managed to flame them and their nest into crispy oblivion. Usually encounters with the chimerics were cut and dried. You either met a chimeric face-to-whatever-it-has, in which case you were dead, or you didn’t, and walked away on your own two feet. So we rarely had to carry anyone home. This time around though, the biggest guy in the unit needed the stretcher.

I could hear Grinder’s cough echoing from the gully where I had left the remains of the unit to rest and get medicated. Grinder had been standing on a scree slope when the hornets had attacked, and the loose footing meant he’d gone down trying to avoid a fatal sting. His breathermask had been knocked off, and even though he’d slapped on an emergency gelfilter, he’d still managed to suck in a mouthful of the poisoned air. The blitzkatarrh had already sunk into his respiratory system. Last time I checked, they bright intimations of damage around his lips were already showing through the translucent filter, harbingers of the pink foam to come as his body rejected the dissolving membranes of his lungs.

It was time to get the unit moving. I stood up, a signal that we were clear to proceed, and walked back to the gully.

We bumped into the Greven here on Daly’s World, one hundred and twenty Daly years ago. Two crews sent by two races with similar physical needs landed and both decided that this planetary haven would be the place where they could stretch their limbs, or pseudopodia, or whatever. It used to be my old man’s opinion that the universe runs on two things: greed and spite. It must have been sheer universal spite that put the two teams on this world at the same time, within a thousand kilometres of each other. And it must have been greed that caused those two groups of idiots, one familiar, one alien, to engage each other in a military action. There were no survivors on either side, just some autonomic ship reflexes which sent the message back to both sides – hostile alien presence, discovery team eliminated. We’d been at each others throats ever since.

The Greven were masters of the biological. They didn’t have an industrial revolution. Instead they had spent their time and energy on breeding beasts that would pull their vehicles, plants to grow as their homes. While we made transistors and monoclonal antibodies, they created viruses and weird symbionts which meant they could be sustained indefinitely on only sunlight and water and still be lethal with half of their body burnt away.

We brought our machine technology to the fray – coherent light projectors, hypervelocity missiles, portable rail guns. They brought the results of their biotech – chimeric creatures like the landsharks, customized animals with enamelled skins and shears for jaws, hell-hornets, half-metre insects, with fifteen centimetre long stingers, sharper than scalpels and chock-full of heart-stopping neurotoxin. We fought back with ceramic armour, with missile-bearing drones, but never with the megadeath weapons. We wanted a planet to live on, not a wasteland that would be sterile for twenty thousand years. And that’s where our tech lost. We could turn the planet to slag in a matter of hours. But we couldn’t destroy the enemy and keep the planet whole. The Greven could deploy their biological weaponry – viruses tailored to human metabolism – and not only would they destroy their enemy, they would also be applying a layer of fertilizer to the unaffected native biota.

Grinder’s face was subtly distorted by the protective gel membrane that protected him from pore contact with the aerosolized bugs. I scanned his skin. There was no sign yet of the tan blotches that would mark him as a dead man. We had about twenty minutes or so to get back to the hab and throw him in the scrubber, then he would have a couple of weeks of downtime while the medichines rebuilt his destroyed tissue. If we didn’t make it to the hab, we’d have to apply the field cure – a single copperjacket to the brain, followed by a white phosphorus spray-down. That was what we all had promised to do, leave no part of a man behind. No DNA for the Greven.

The blitzkatarrh was their latest effort to kill us off. An extremely virulent pathogen, we reckoned it to be something like the RNA viruses that used to cause the haemorrhagic fevers back on Earth. It was viciously fast in its effect. Coughing first, an hour after infection. Vivid pink rash around the mouth, eyes and nose after three hours. Tan blotches on the face and body after three and a half hours. A corpse at four. Once we twigged what was going on, that the other side had managed to create tailored bioweaponry by studying the bodies of our fallen, command made sure that there were to be no bodies available for further experimentation. Phosphorus/magnesium cartridges and grenades became standard issue. If you viewed Daly’s world from space, you would see its surface sparkling with the pyres of the dead.

Deep down everyone knew we were screwed. The blitzkatarrh was in the air. There was no way we could survive on Daly’s world. Labs had made machines that could clear out the bugs, but we were nowhere near developing a field kit. No-one had any idea how long the blitzkatarrh could live in the air without live hosts to use as incubators, or whether it was engineered to mutate and grow hardier, like Earth bacteria did when we were over-generous with antibiotics. Daly’s world was still there, green and Earth-like to the eye, but as far as humans were concerned, it had less value than the vacuum it displaced.

Given that argument, some had said, we shouldn’t we roll out the cobalt bombs and turn the place into a molten blob. Why bother letting the Greven take it? Then maybe in about twenty thousand years we could come back, re-create a biosphere from scratch, then wait for another thirty or forty thousand for it to establish and differentiate sufficiently. But that won’t work either. The Greven knew Daly’s world existed and they were the guys with the bioskills. There’s no doubt that they would get in there and establish a hostile biosphere first. It would either mean we lose the planet, or find ourselves re-engaged in a combat we’d already lost. Never mind the fact that the attention span of the human race was far too short to make good on such a proposal.

Once the unit was ready, we lined up in file, Grinder on the stretcher, and started down the ridge. We made it about half-way down the track before the ground started to shiver beneath our feet. A great noise grew about us, echoing around the canyon walls. In the deepening twilight, we saw a line of landsharks pass the canyon mouth, headed south. This line was followed by another, and another, thousands of the creatures, in formation, galloping with their claws up and clacking their razor-edged jaws. Behind me, Drizzle was calling out our position over the comm, reporting the massive chimeric offensive. I heard Grinder groan as he was put down with an ungentle urgency onto the uneven track, then came the rattle and clatter of ceramic and metal weaponry being made ready.

I unshipped my rifle and watched for the inevitable. Within moments, a couple of hundred of the hulking creatures had entered the canyon and were packed close between the spurs, milling about and waving their sensoria stalks, scanning the area. Scenting for us. We had our gelsuits on, but the eyestalks of a landshark are as accurate as the eyes of an Earth eagle, and they would spot us soon enough. I shouted to the unit to hit the dirt, ordered Drizzle to request air coverage and a pick-up. In our theatre, skyhook arrival time was anything from ten to twenty minutes. We had the high ground advantage and could take out the first few thousand chimerics without any difficulty, but if the skyhook didn’t arrive before we ran out of ammunition, then we would be here for ever. It wasn’t looking good for Grinder either way.

We waited, still and silent on our bellies until we heard a chimeric utter its staccato alert call, announcing our discovery, then we opened fire. The chirp and whine of hyper-velocity projectiles, what we call the dawn chorus, lasted for about five seconds before the last landshark fell, only to be replaced ten seconds later by a river of the snapping animals that had split from the main horde. The dawn chorus began once more and bodies started to pile up in the narrow mouth of the canyon. I heard the distinctive pop-pop as someone behind me launched hi-ex squash-heads. Moments later, the rock on either side of the canyon mouth appeared to detonate, sending huge boulders down onto the crush of charging and dying landsharks below, blocking the canyon. The dawn chorus stopped, to be replaced by a ragged cacophony of victory shouts and back-slapping. Just after I gave the order to stand down, we heard the low propmotor thrum of our air coverage. I looked over my shoulder to see half a dozen bright tiltmotor aircraft appear over the Greven chimeric horde. The craft were painted signal orange – Flamestrike class machines, built to barbeque the enemy. While the rest of guys in the unit watched the deadly fireworks of fuel-air detonations tear the landshark offensive to smoking pieces, I sat with Grinder as he coughed his life away.

It was ten more minutes before the skyhook set down on a level patch of ground nearby. As commanding officer I was last on board, Grinder’s tags gripped in my hand. One more life for Daly’s World. We took off into a world of knife-edged shadows, chased by a consuming magnesium light.

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