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.





A Hook, Overheard.

21 11 2009

This is an elderly piece, constructed in 1992 or thereabouts. With it and others like it, I had a weak, weak plan for a compendium novel, or some kind of framed collection. I re-read it again recently and it showed some energy, but terrible, terrible execution. This snippet in itself is possibly the best executed, but still what’s missing is the visual imagery of the setting and the narrator that would be necessary to make it of further value.

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Umbhel! Fair jewel of dawn! An oasis of unconcern in a desert of parched self-interest. Let me take you there, though some may find the way unpleasant. If we start from here, this pit of a city, and if we go forth through the Ragged Gate we must journey for a matter of twelve turns before we come to the blasted land that marks the the start of the IronWorms domain.Uggghh, if you could hear that place, hot weaponrock screaming as it is tortured by huge mostrosities shaped from the same stuff, if you could smell it, as the peaked heaps of rotten matter ooze rainbows into the poisoned earth, if you could see it, with a ochre fog overlaying all, horrendously backlit with the vicious red fires of Urrn’s wrath, the biting blue flames of Grreii’s venom. Worst, worst of all, if you could fsllaan it, it is lanced through with skeins of skyparts, flying, bouncing, invading everything. Errhh, it makes me shudder to think of it.

Ummph, yes, Umbhel. On reaching the blasted place, we must turn towards the lightdown way until we find a Gate, no, not the little wooden things you have to keep the straallg out of your garden, this is made from Rock! And Huge! I don’t reckon myself to be small for my age and fifty of me could have walked abreast through this Gate! In appearance it is very plain, being made from that red-blue rock that you can find in the area of Denphod, although how it got there is a mystery. The shape is that of a square, and there are runes deep-graven about the Gate entrance on one side. This is the entry side. Walk in through here. Be careful of what you’re carrying. Giirtt tried to bring through a good luck piece that he had found in a ruin on one of the planets that the forked people used to own.  The skyparts were very angry on that world, and I hypothesised this was because the device he found held the skyparts’ companions in thrall. When we walked through the Gate, there was a brief period of wandering, where my senses appeared to change and move in a most unusual way, although I could feel nothing at all. I kept walking. Then I was somewhere else. I waited for Giirtt. He appeared, but he was wrong, his parts were not the same. As I perceived him, his parts…turned…and he was not there. So you can say that the gate is guarded, or there is at least something that can perceive your passage through it.

More beer, please.
Now I was in a place that felt very different, there was noise, and a different smell, and it was bright. The sky-light was not the same as it was before the Gate, so I assumed I had moved greatly in space. I was not aware of my removal in time…




The Eaters

16 07 2009

I have such a strong visual for this piece, but is has been deliberately excluded, and it’s all pure dialogue. What if we had souls and our souls had predators? Why would the universe waste anything? Maybe souliverous insectoids could take that role. And maybe their fathers had issues with the kids just like we do.


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Now, ‘spring. We’re getting close, not so many steps left to take. Remember. What happens when we get to the Sheen?
» We stand beside each other, a little apart.
How far apart?
» Just as far as it takes for my claw to touch the tip of your claw.
And what happens then?
» We..uh..we take a firm stance.
Yes…
» And we..um..wait. We wait for the souls to come through.
And what do we do while we are waiting?
» Um…
Hmm?
» Eh..do we just wait?
Yes. We just wait. No talking. No moving about. Be still. You’ve practiced that with the other ‘spring, haven’t you?
» Yep! I used to lock my leg plates together and that was cool, I could stand totally still!
Don’t.
» Don’t what?
Don’t lock your leg plates together! What are we trying to do here? Catch souls! That’s what! Catch them! Not wait for them to fall into our mandibles. You need to be able to move at a moment’s notice. Don’t lock your plates together!
» ’k, dad.
And don’t call me dad when we are at the Sheen! You’re going to be just one of us eaters. So what do you call me?
» eater, dad.
Good. Ok. So we are waiting at the Sheen. We are spaced correctly apart. We are eaters. We are waiting – without the benefit of locked plates – for a soul to appear. How do we know that a soul is coming?
» The Sheen will ripple a little bit.
Right. Now, when you see the ripple, what do you do?
» Be ready! Soul’s coming!
And where does the soul come out?
» Near the ripple, but not at the ripple.
And it is for that reason that you…?
» Say “soul’s coming” loud enough so that you and the other eater next to me can be ready.
Perfect. That’s it. That’s why we stand so close together, it’s because we don’t know where the soul will come out. And we don’t know when, but when there is a ripple, a soul will arrive soon.
» Does a soul ever escape, Dad?
Yes, it happens. If someone locks their plates together, for example, and can’t move quick enough to grab it. Or if two or three come through really fast, but that doesn’t happen that much. Remember I told you that souls come in different sizes? Well some of them aren’t the length of my radula. I usually don’t bother with those ones – and sometimes the ripple they make is so small that you could barely notice. Not much nourishment there.
» What happens to them after they escape?
Well, nobody knows really. I mean, why would you want to chase after them? You couldn’t catch up, and there are always more on the way, so nobody pays any attention to them. Maybe they just mill about in the galleries or something.
» Maybe they go back into the Sheen somewhere else.
That’s an odd thought, why do you think that might be the way of it?
» Well, if they were moving around the galleries, wouldn’t somebody catch them and eat them? Wouldn’t we hear about it?
I suppose we would. Maybe they just get lost, or stuck in the rock, or fade.
» So what’s the Sheen, really?
What?
» What’s the Sheen?
You know what it is – it’s where we get our food. Has your memory got a crack in it? You’ve nearly used up all the food that you had in your body when you began, if you don’t go to the Sheen to take the souls, you’ll slow down and you’ll stop. You’ll be just like that rock over there. You won’t get bigger either, so you’ll be just a little rock.
» But where do the souls come from?
No-one knows – they just arrive, ok? You a see ripple, then you pay attention and then the crisp little soul pops out and you grab it and you get it into you, and then you wait for the next one. Nothing else to it. See soul, crunch soul, feel good, grow. That’s the clew and the claw of it.
» Can they talk? Can the souls talk?
No, they can’t talk. Neither can they roar, nor clack their plates. All they do is slide out of the Sheen and move away from it. They aren’t even aware we are there.
» They have plates like us? I thought they were kind of, you know, like our moving parts, but all over.
Tell you what, ‘spring, when you grab your first soul why don’t you have a chat with it and see does it bend? Then you will have a level of practical experience that during all my attendance at the Sheen I will have not achieved. Eh? What about that?
» Sorry dad, I’m just excited, it’s all new to me.
I know, I can feel the heat off you from here. We’re nearly there, count off your paces and let your fires bank a bit, I don’t want you grinding to a halt just before we get there. This is it ‘spring, you and me are both eaters now. Let’s get stuck in, eh?
3
1

Now, ‘spring. We’re getting close, not so many steps left to take. Remember. What happens when we get to the Sheen?

» We stand beside each other, a little apart.

How far apart?

» Just as far as it takes for my claw to touch the tip of your claw.

And what happens then?

» We..uh..we take a firm stance.

Yes…

» And we..um..wait. We wait for the souls to come through.

And what do we do while we are waiting?

» Um…

Hmm?

» Eh..do we just wait?

Yes. We just wait. No talking. No moving about. Be still. You’ve practiced that with the other ‘spring, haven’t you?

» Yep! I used to lock my leg plates together and that was cool, I could stand totally still!

Don’t.

» Don’t what?

Don’t lock your leg plates together! What are we trying to do here? Catch souls! That’s what! Catch them! Not wait for them to fall into our mandibles. You need to be able to move at a moment’s notice. Don’t lock your plates together!

» ’k, dad.

And don’t call me dad when we are at the Sheen! You’re going to be just one of us eaters. So what do you call me?

» eater, dad.

Good. Ok. So we are waiting at the Sheen. We are spaced correctly apart. We are eaters. We are waiting – without the benefit of locked plates – for a soul to appear. How do we know that a soul is coming?

» The Sheen will ripple a little bit.

Right. Now, when you see the ripple, what do you do?

» Be ready! Soul’s coming!

And where does the soul come out?

» Near the ripple, but not at the ripple.

And it is for that reason that you…?

» Say “soul’s coming” loud enough so that you and the other eater next to me can be ready.

Perfect. That’s it. That’s why we stand so close together, it’s because we don’t know where the soul will come out. And we don’t know when, but when there is a ripple, a soul will arrive soon.

» Does a soul ever escape, Dad?

Yes, it happens. If someone locks their plates together, for example, and can’t move quick enough to grab it. Or if two or three come through really fast, but that doesn’t happen that much. Remember I told you that souls come in different sizes? Well some of them aren’t the length of my radula. I usually don’t bother with those ones – and sometimes the ripple they make is so small that you could barely notice. Not much nourishment there.

» What happens to them after they escape?

Well, nobody knows really. I mean, why would you want to chase after them? You couldn’t catch up, and there are always more on the way, so nobody pays any attention to them. Maybe they just mill about in the galleries or something.

» Maybe they go back into the Sheen somewhere else.

That’s an odd thought, why do you think that might be the way of it?

» Well, if they were moving around the galleries, wouldn’t somebody catch them and eat them? Wouldn’t we hear about it?

I suppose we would. Maybe they just get lost, or stuck in the rock, or fade.

» So what’s the Sheen, really?

What?

» What’s the Sheen?

You know what it is – it’s where we get our food. Has your memory got a crack in it? You’ve nearly used up all the food that you had in your body when you began, if you don’t go to the Sheen to take the souls, you’ll slow down and you’ll stop. You’ll be just like that rock over there. You won’t get bigger either, so you’ll be just a little rock.

» But where do the souls come from?

No-one knows – they just arrive, ok? You a see ripple, then you pay attention and then the crisp little soul pops out and you grab it and you get it into you, and then you wait for the next one. Nothing else to it. See soul, crunch soul, feel good, grow. That’s the clew and the claw of it.

» Can they talk? Can the souls talk?

No, they can’t talk. Neither can they roar, nor clack their plates. All they do is slide out of the Sheen and move away from it. They aren’t even aware we are there.

» They have plates like us? I thought they were kind of, you know, like our moving parts, but all over.

Tell you what, ‘spring, when you grab your first soul why don’t you have a chat with it and see does it bend? Then you will have a level of practical experience that during all my attendance at the Sheen I will have not achieved. Eh? What about that?

» Sorry dad, I’m just excited, it’s all new to me.

I know, I can feel the heat off you from here. We’re nearly there, count off your paces and let your fires bank a bit, I don’t want you grinding to a halt just before we get there. This is it ‘spring, you and me are both eaters now. Let’s get stuck in, eh?