I was thinking about the novel I referred to yesterday (the one whose plot is a bit too close to Avatar to really try and sell now, thanks, Cameron!). I figure, if I’m going to bury the damn thing anyway, might as well post some of it here. Why not? So here are the first ~8,000 words or so of The Only Time, by Your Humble Author. Love to hear your thoughts, private or public, on it.
THE ONLY TIME
by Jeff Somers
I. The Long Dark
Hollith was hell.
One thousand men and women died on Hollith every day, defending the Pump Stations and fighting for control of new territory on hot, wet Hollith. No one could say accurately how many Holls died every day, and very few people asked.
Hollith was a large planet second from its sun. There were few bodies of water to speak of. It appeared to be one huge land mass, covered almost completely by vegetation. The only non-vegetable life forms on Hollith were insects, microbes, and the creatures that everyone called, simply, The Holls. No one who hadn’t seen one could understand what they were like, or so it was said.
On video they appeared to ape-like, a grey-white in color, with rudimentary faces comprised of a jagged rip for a mouth and two small, dark eyes. They had fearsome claws and a thin, fleshy frame that sagged almost comically when they were viewed in captivity.
On Hollith, in the jungles that were their homes, the Holls were terror. Their entire bodies acted as sails as they leapt from tree to tree, flying short distances, like bats. In the endless rains of Hollith they blended into the night and were invisible. They clawed through bullet-proof vests with small difficulty and they screeched. Grown soldiers heard that sound in their sleep, and shivered involuntarily.
The Holls attacked in groups, which the soldiers called Tribes. From fifteen to thirty at once in an attack. If the Holls had the element of surprise, a similarly numbered human patrol usually suffered fifty-percent casualties, at the least. The Holls usually had surprise. There was no way to accurately track them: their body temperature did not vary noticeably from the atmosphere’s, and they rarely seemed to gather in numbers sufficient to track excretory gasses.
On Earth, many of these facts were at best little-known. The predominant theory as to why these nontechnological savages continued to offer stuff resistance to the human invasion was: sheer numbers, meaning there were simply too many Holls. The fact was, Military Intelligence could not accurately say how many Holls there were. They died at an incredible rate, and still they came on. They died and died and died —were slaughtered— and yet, after twenty years of war the human race held only three percent of Hollith, and that precariously. And the humans died and died and died —were slaughtered— and the Holls never spoke, never retreated, and never relented.
Hollith was hell.
On the transport ship MSLL3B Shepard, powering down from the long-range flight, Private Damien Kramer came out of Induced Sleep screaming.
He sat up in the metal tube he’d been preserved in for the past six months, damp and shivering. The cold air was artificial and tasted like it, and was filled with the echoes of thousands of men and women waking up at once, mixed with the strident recordings urging them all to remain seated and to not attempt to stand on their own until the scanners had ascertained their metabolism and fluid levels. He awoke into cacophony and refused to join it, stifling his screams as soon as he was aware of them, preferring to shiver, naked, in his tube and pretend he wasn’t there.
He’d been dreaming of Draft Day; he supposed he’d been dreaming it for six months. He remembered the notice, in the mail, his family accepting it as something they’d expected for months. The names listed on television. His Mother crying, his father not speaking to him for months. He remembered the day of his scheduled report, staying in his room, terrified to run (where to?) but terrified to show up and be taken away.
The Military Police had come, and taken him to the Draft Center in handcuffs. Throughout Basic Training, they called him a pussy, which was a word they only used on cowards.
He looked to his left and right: seemingly endless rows of tubes, each with a young body emerging. Some of the new recruits were retching empty stomachs, not a few were crying. Now and then someone else woke up with a shout, in the distance, sounding weak and dream-like. Each time, Kramer shuddered.
He looked up at the grim Sergeant who loomed over him with clipboard and Medic droid. He wondered how every single noncom in the army seemed to know that he’d failed to show up at the Draft Center as scheduled —it was as if they shared one brain.
“I said, up.”
Kramer pulled himself up and climbed out of the tube to stand dripping next to the middle-aged man in the crisp green uniform. Kramer didn’t look at him. He stared into the distance of the Shepard’s holding bay.
“All right, pussy: you know the drill. Read it off for me.”
Kramer fought the urge to shiver. He was nineteen years old and he had read somewhere that new arrivals usually lived an average of fifteen days on Hollith. If they made it past two weeks, they had a good chance of making it to six months, for some reason. He’d read it in one of the pamphlets they handed out at the demonstrations, but he wasn’t sure if it was true.
“You go deaf in there, pussy? Read it off!”
Kramer cleared his throat and felt rusty. “Kramer, Damien R., Private First, Seattle, nineteen, group number 45536-a. Coded: Able. Class: B. Rated: Seven.”he said in a rote monotone, as he’d been trained. “Hard as nails and ready to rock, sir,” he finished, his voice trailing off into a nasal mumble.
He could feel the sergeant’s eyes on him. “You trying to be a fucking smartass, Private?”
Damien waited as many seconds as felt safe. “No, sir.”
“Then let’s hear it again, pussy!”
Kramer took a deep breath and bellowed “Hard as nails and ready to rock, SIR!”
He let his eyes slide over to the Sergeant’s, who was staring at him coldly. “You’re gonna have a lot of fucking problems here, pussy.”
“For about fifteen days, sir.”
“What was that?”
“Ready to rock!”
Hollith was a completely military operation. The fifteen Pump Stations (active) the United Military forces had managed to set up and maintain (out of more than twenty sites attempted) were precarious despite the seemingly nontechnological and frail nature of the Holls, and required constant defense. The Pump Stations were not inexhaustible, and new ones had to be established on a regular basis. For twenty years the Earth had been invading Hollith. After twenty years of losing a thousand soldiers a day, the Earth held three percent of Hollith safely.
The Emergency Powers Act passed the World Congress two years after the initial surveys of Hollith showed conclusively that the planet was a huge resource of fossil fuels, enough to fuel the world’s ever-increasing consumption indefinitely. Besides legally enabling the World Congress to declare ware against a race that seemed to lack government, speech, or technology of any sort, it allowed Congress to conscript soldiers and engage a military action towards the acquisition and incorporation of Hollith. The Act also placed Military Intelligence in charge of the operation, and, thus, in charge of Hollith itself. Military Intelligence answered only to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which technically answered to the Congress. In short, MI was an empire onto itself.
The Director of Military Intelligence was General Miles “King” Coblan. He was a career military man who had served in the United States Marine Corps in the waning years of that country’s sovereignty, in several mercenary units in the chaotic times before the World Congress was formed, and had been a senior member of the United Military ever since. He was sixty-three years old and he was the sole power in MI, which made him the sole power on Hollith.
Technically, the invasion was supervised by Field General Murray Ambrose. But Miles Coblan, King Coblan, had to approve and screen every arrival, departure, supply ship, or mission on Hollith. Field General Ambrose couldn’t even request a driver without Coblan’s memo on it.
Hollith was hell. And King Coblan ran it.
The second largest percentage of lost troops, next to death, was, strangely enough, desertion. This was strange because there was, apparently, no place on Hollith to go.
“Gather ‘round, rookies, and listen to the man.”
Kramer waited as long as he dared before standing up from his temporary bunk on the transport ship. He’d showered. and changed into his standard issue uniform, which all the noncoms referred to as standard issues, and had been given two hours to collect, clean, and pack his gear. He was tempted to do a poor job of it, but it might save his life after all, he thought.
He walked over to where the sergeants were shouting, a loose crowd of new soldiers around a crisp-looking officer with a lot of rank showing on his arm. He waited quietly until the entire group had assembled, and then began speaking without preamble.
“I am Military Intelligence Attaché Harris. In three hours we will Hot-Drop onto Hollith and you will be assigned to your patrols and divisions. Some of you will be in the Pump Stations, some of you will be in the field. You’ll all be a part of one of the greatest enterprises the human race has ever undertaken.”
Kramer fought an urge to roll his eyes. He looked nervously from side to side.
“When we land your group sergeants will call out your assignments. First, however, you’ll have a brief meeting with them and myself. As there are a great many of you, these will have to be quick. I want you in groups of ten every five minutes, starting now.”
And with that he turned and walked away. Kramer blinked dumbly for a moment, but before he could decide what to do the sergeants were yelling again.
“All right, rookies, line up by group and don’t make me kick any ass, goddammit!”
Kramer sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair with the nine other privates in his group. Across from them sat his Group Sergeant and Military Intelligence Attaché Harris.
“We only have a few minutes, men,” Harris said despite there being four women in the group, “so I won’t waste any time. We have implemented these pre-landing meetings due to the increasing activity of a subversive force on Hollith. This is classified information, privates. Not only will you not be familiar with any of what follows, you must not discuss it with anyone. Understood?”
In the chorus of instant “SIR, YES SIR!”, Kramer hoped his silence was not noticed.
“Eight months ago, a full patrol unit involved in an equatorial push disappeared. For some days we couldn’t figure out what had happened to them. The Holls don’t care to clean up after themselves, and lost units are usually pretty easy to spot.”
Kramer had already been told on numerous occasions, by various people, in decidedly pointed terms, that the Holls did not ever take prisoners.
“After five days, we received a communication on one of the emergency channels. It was very brief, only a few words long, and it follows: we are no longer yours, we belong to the planet now, we defend it, our adoptive mother, we are the new Holls.” Harris looked up from his report and Kramer studied the fine lines in his taut, tanned face. He looked like a good officer, Kramer thought. They were getting low on those.
“Men,” Harris continued, “this is the first documented case of desertion we have ever had on Hollith. At first, it was assumed that they would be dead within a few days, without supplies or backup. From what we could tell they had moved deeply into strongly-held Holl territory.” He paused to light a cigarette, a dark, thick kind that sent thick blue smoke into the air. “Miraculously, units began reporting contact with this rogue unit. After a few such reports, it became clear that these New Holls were not attacking their own species, as we originally feared. These were clearly recruiting missions.”
He sighed, a practiced gesture that made Kramer smirk slightly.
“Men, your units have been understandably reluctant to open fire on humans, even humans who have gone AWOL. But I am here to warn you rookies: just because we are not actively hunting this unit in the field does not mean we will not bring them to justice. They are guilty of dereliction of duty, treason, and cowardice of the worst kind. They will be brought to justice, when the time is right.
“Do not romanticize these lunatics,” he said sternly, “do not regard them as adventurers, and do not let any sign of their presence escape you. If you have contact with the New Holls, or if you see any sign of them, report it to your Officer in Charge immediately. These soldiers will be dead before the year is over, rookies. Do not ever doubt that. Understood?”
“SIR, YES SIR!” Once again, Kramer mouthed the words, and felt guilty.
Kramer stood with the rest of them. They were one hour away from Pump Station One, and Hollith.
It rained six days out of seven on Hollith, an almost ceaseless downpour of acidic rain that rusted every Earth metal brought to it, at an alarming rate. Even alloys and plastics did not fare well in the atmosphere. No one as yet had established what effect the largely corrosive atmosphere of Hollith had on human beings in the long term.
As such, rust prevention was an important aspect of the day-to-day discipline on Hollith. Recruits were trained to scrub down all weapons three times a day, to stow them properly in the watertight sleeves provided (called condoms by the grunts), and to notice any signs of wear and tear on the complex firing mechanisms. Rust, as much as anything else, killed on Hollith.
When it wasn’t raining, rainwater was steamed off the eternally moist ground and vegetation by the too-large and too-orange sun. The steam made it even more difficult to breathe, see, or spot Holls, and was regarded as a bad omen by the grunts. There had been cases of units refusing to hump because of undue rising steam.
Marching in the steam was called taking a bath by the grunts. They had a smart name for everything.
Kramer was assigned to an Advance Penetration Unit. This was nothing special: 90% of the rookies were sent into APUs, like meat into a grinder. The APUs were the patrols that marched into hot Holl space and cleared the Holls out. It usually took several APUs to accomplish the job. Usually, whatever was left of these APUs after a few brushes with the Holls were combined into a new APU and reassigned.
To his surprise, Kramer was made the Heavy Gunner of the unit. The Heavy Gunner, or HG, or Heavies, lugged the huge Rapid Burst Launcher around the jungle. They were the anchors of their units, mowing down almost everything in their line of fire, a wall for the others to shelter behind, a plow under which the Holls died. Kramer had heard that they usually assigned this duty to big guys, guys who not only found lugging the big gun around no chore, but who looked fearsome, solid, like walls. He was no shrimp but he knew he wasn’t one of those kind. He decided they must be running low on big guys, too.
Each APU consisted of thirty men and women plus an Officer in Charge. Kramer was one of seven new recruits assigned to APU 809-D, to fill in recent casualties. He sat glumly with his new comrades, waiting for transport to the surface. He leaned back against a crate of ammunition and stared openly at his new unit. There were five men and one woman being assigned with him. The woman was tall and dark-skinned, with straight, almost reddish hair. She smiled at him when their eyes met and he looked away, uninterested.
With one exception, he cared as much for the men. one of them, however, was a small, compact black man who broke out into a smile when Kramer looked him over, and then got up to walk over to him.
“What, you think ‘cause you’re the big man with the big gun we’re all supposed to be scared of you? You a rookie just like us, baby.”
Kramer shook his head. “I wasn’t being a hardass. Just not feeling like a conversationalist right now.”
The black man nodded. “Sure, man, sure.” He held out a hand. “Well, if I’m going to be hiding out behind your pale white ass for a while, I’d like to know your name, man. Mine’s George Baxter, but you can call me Stat.”
Kramer watched him sit down. “Stat?”
“What my friends call me. I’m gonna make sure you’re my friend, baby.”
“Why they call you that?”
“On account of I’m so fast. Get it? STAT.”
Kramer nodded. “I get it.” He took the offered hand. “Damien Kramer, Private First. I don’t have a nickname.”
“Sure you do. Down here all the HGs are called Heavy, baby. We could call you Heavy Kramer, man!”
Kramer cracked a smile. He noticed that one of the other new recruits, a gangly white man with a huge nose that threatened to overpower his neck muscles, was staring at him. He looked over as casually as he could. “Yeah?”
“I heard about you, Kramer. You ran. You’re a fucking pussy.”
Kramer looked away. After weeks of being call nothing but, the word had stopped having much of an effect on him. “Who the fuck are you?” he said to his boots.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kramer could tell that the smart ass had bad skin and a huge Adam’s Apple to go with the nose.
“Willie Adams, pussy. I don’t know how they ever gave a coward like you the HG job. Shit,” he continued, grinning, pronouncing the word shee-ite, “what we gonna do with our HG crapping his standard issues every time some Holls show up?”
As Kramer considered this, a small smile playing across his face, Stat spoke up suddenly. “If you don’t start showing some respect, you cracker motherfucker, you’ll be fucking Holl food ‘cause this fine white boy won’t feel like laying down cover fire for your pimply butt,” he said vehemently. “You know what it’s like to die like Holl food?”
Kramer glanced back at Willie. “Or from friendly fire, Willie?” He shrugged. “It happens.”
Adams snorted. “Fucking pussies,” he muttered. “You already got butt-buddies, been here five freaking minutes. Figures.”
Kramer kept his smile and made a gun gesture at Adams with his hand. Next to him, Stat giggled.
There was surprisingly little hazing on Hollith. Despite the constant influx of young new recruits, there was a grim solidarity between all soldiers, new and veteran. Of course, the term “veteran” meant little on Hollith; the average term of duty was eight months. After six months, the grunts started calling you a Lifer. You usually died shortly thereafter.
A Hot-Drop was a death-defying plummet to the surface of Hollith in a specially designed module. They packed fifty recruits into one, released it from the couplings and let it drop at terminal velocity. At the last moment, thrusters kicked in and braked, a hard burn, that allowed the module to crash into a landing pad with the mere force of a bus hitting a tree at ninety miles an hour. They generally did not lose too many recruits, and those only to incorrectly fastened restraints.
Kramer found himself feeling suffocated, packed in with so many other people, all wearing their full gear, all breathing hard and pumping out the invisible scent of terror. The restraints kept them from moving much at all, and the claustrophobia was sharp and inescapable. He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes and the five minutes spent waiting to be de-coupled seemed like five days, an orgy of pushing and shoving and muttered curses, muttered prayers.
When the module decoupled, Kramer thought for a moment that nothing had happened —a fleeting moment of floating, it seemed, and then nothing. Then, the person next to him suddenly rose up with the force of a planet and he was three thin restraints away from slamming into the side of the module harder than he would have previously thought possible. After a few seconds, he passed out, his limp body becoming a bludgeoning random factor for the others to deal with.
He dreamed of Draft Day again.
He hadn’t been sure what had taken so long; they had dropped the draft age to sixteen a year before and he was almost eighteen and his name hadn’t come up yet. No one seemed sure of what kind of procedures the government used to pick the names, what random generators, what lists, rosters, or databases. He’d spent a year and a half, waiting, and when his name scrolled across the screen on a Tuesday night during the regular broadcast, it had almost been a relief.
Two weeks. One day after his name had drifted by the screen on channel seventy, the notice had come in the mail: two weeks before he was bound to report. His father had stopped speaking to him, almost immediately. His mother had begun crying, almost immediately.
In his dream, this happens because he was already dead, struck down by the announcement itself. Strangely, he fell directly into a coffin he was sure had not actually been in the living room.
Two weeks. Two weeks of sleeping, all day. Two weeks of drinking, all night. Getting into Dad’s Scotch, and not hearing a word about it from anyone. Two weeks of waiting.
And then, the day came, and he was sitting in his room, hearing the sirens, the loudspeakers, hearing the Military Police, Earth Adjunct, driving around exhorting people to obey the law and report to the Draft Center. He just sat there. He sat until the loudspeakers stopped, he sat until the MPs came to the door asking his father if he was at home. They had a warrant.
And then, they carry him from his home in the casket, a low dirge playing in the background. They load him into a hearse and drive him to the Center, where he is embalmed and measured for his standard issues, and put into a coffin-like tube which he rests in for six months until
“This,” it was announced with all the grim and unironic seriousness an army man could muster, “is your EVA pack. Learn to love it, rookies, ‘cause Hollith most definitely doesn’t love you.”
Kramer sat with his fellow new members of APU 809-D in one of the many classroom-like halls that had been built into Pump Station One. The man standing at the front of the group was a Hollith veteran, a real statistical hero. Rumor had it that not only had he achieved his 18-month Minimum Service Requirement, but had done so years before. He was held in awe by some of the Rookies, in contempt by others, and was treated as some sort of dangerous psychopath by anyone who’d been on Hollith longer than a week.
MSR’d soldiers who returned to Earth did not return to any sort of celebration, and they were often mistaken for draft-dodgers and attacked or beaten.
“The atmosphere of Hollith is pretty much breathable,” he went on to say, “but there are certain abrasives and corrosives in it that, over time, will turn your skin and lungs into something resembling old cheese.”
The speaker was only a few years older than Kramer. None of the Rookies knew his name, but he had a sergeant’s patch on his arm and they’d heard some of the other noncoms refer to him as Whisker. They all assumed incorrectly that this was because he was bald as a bowling ball and clean-shaven.
“Thus, you should try and keep your exposed skin to a minimum. Most importantly, however, wear your EVA packs all the time. They’re hot, they’re heavy, they process the air into something that smells like vomit —but going without it guarantees you’ll end up in the infirm, choking up blood.”
Unspoken, thought Kramer, was the possibility that this was a more pleasant fate than being gutted by screaming Holls.
The EVA pack itself, held up by Whisker so that its white plastic alloy shone in the weak flourescent lights favored by Pump Station One, was small and uninteresting. A tube ran from it to a mask that would, when worn, cover the face entirely. It did not hold tanks of clean air, but rather filtered and cleansed Hollith’s own deadly atmosphere. Thus, it could be used on long-term patrols without fear, unless, of course, the power pack wilted with no way to recharge.
“It’s lightweight, automatic, and indispensable,” Whisker said.
He proceeded to demonstrate how it operated, although it seemed to Kramer that it was idiot-proof. Most of the equipment used by the grunts was simple and simply used, he thought; twenty-five years of war had refined the technology to a point where it was ready to be used by the children being sent to use it.
“Just like me,” Stat whispered, grinning.
Kramer smiled a bit. “What?”
“That EVA pack. Lightweight, automatic and indispensable —just like me, baby.”
Kramer snorted a laugh, louder than he’s intended. A few heads turned his way, and Whisker glanced over.
“Private, you have something funny for us?”
Kramer instantly tried to look grim. “No, sir.”
“Stand up, Private.”
Kramer did his best to pop up like a shot, erect and blank of face.
“Rookies,” Whisker said for all to hear, “what we got here seems to be a comedian. Tell me, Joker, do you think you’ll have anything funny to say if something goes wrong with your EVA pack and you don’t know how to deal with it?”
Kramer kept his face stiff and empty. “No, sir. I guess I’d be dead in that case.”
Whisker didn’t like the hint of disrespect. “Private, jokers like you get killed pretty quickly out there, and they die laughing. you hear me?”
“Sir, sounds to me like everyone dies pretty quickly out there,” Kramer replied, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
“Not me, son.”
Kramer couldn’t resist a shrug. “Depends on your definition of ‘pretty quickly’, doesn’t it, sir?”
“We’re going out tomorrow. Joining our unit and hitting the jungle, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
Kramer watched Willie’s face. They had been given the luxury of two days in Pump Station One to get acclimated to Hollith’s slightly wrong gravity and heat. In that time, Private Willie Adams had not only stopped referring to Kramer as a pussy, but had even been moderately (albeit self-consciously) friendly towards him. Kramer was reminded of his high school years, an eternity or two years ago now (he couldn’t tell the difference) when a sudden growth spurt had somehow resulted in a spike in his general popularity. The kids who had heckled him the year before had developed this sheepish brand of friendliness at first, too.
Willie struggled with something, his face showing titanic waves of conflict. Kramer studied him placidly, waiting.
“You ready for that, man?”
Kramer was disappointed. He leaned back in his bunk and closed his eyes. “I’m not gonna die, man.”
“How do you know?”
“I know,” Kramer shrugged. “It’s a feeling, you know?”
Willie snorted. “Friend, every poleaxed idiot in uniform up here thinks they’re gonna make it. Get MSR’d. None of them do.”
Kramer thought about the ashen, shadowed faces he’d seen. “Willie, you’re wrong, man. None of them think they’re getting off this rock alive. Not really. Not deep down.” He nodded. “But I am.”
“What makes you so sure?”
Kramer shrugged again.
“Two things, assholes: there are no fucking rookies in my unit, and no one ever says word one to me that isn’t polite, well spoken, and bookended by the word sir. You got that?”
Hollith had an endless stream of leathery, middle-aged men with hoarse speaking voices, all appearing to be on the perpetual verge of a heart attack. They all seemed to be in charge of APUs. Kramer thought his new boss looked more like a cardiac condition than anyone he’d ever seen before: bulging eyes, razor-burned skin, thick cords standing out on his neck whenever he spoke. Just the sight of his captain made Kramer’s blood pressure rise in sympathy.
They were standing a few cycles outside Pump Station One, waiting for UMAP transport in what was very confident human-held jungle. For the first time, Kramer was hooked up to his EVA pack and hefting the huge RBL at his side. Seeing the planet through the bulletproof shield of his EVA mask, he felt like a soldier for the first time, and was depressed.
“I am Captain Lawrence Mannin, and I am the Officer-in-Charge of Advanced Penetration Unit 809-D. You can call me The Cap. Some of the veterans hanging around PS1 may have told you to call me your Boss. You will not. If you call me Boss, I will have you march a cycle without your EVA mask, and you will be feeling serious penance by then. Understood?”
All these men spoke in the same stentorian manner, Kramer thought, as if volume and a lack of inflection lent them authority. He stole a glance at Willie Adams, who was looking raptly on The Cap with something that smelled a lot like respect to Kramer. He supposed maybe the controlled shouting thing worked.
“We are an APU, people, and that means our primary function is to march. Perhaps you have been told that our function is to fight Holls. We will be kicking some serious Holl ass while we march, men and women, but what we do is march. We penetrate. You will get used to walking twenty or twenty-five cycles without stopping. You will not complain. You will not lag. I realize that your minimum training was not sufficient. You will compensate. Understood?”
Kramer stared along with the rest of the unit. The seven rookies stood together, but Kramer didn’t think they looked any different from the vets. No one said anything.
“One last thing,” The Cap said. Behind him, a transport ship was settling from the sky, defying gravity. The army had entire crews of convicts (mostly retrieved deserters) who kept landing areas clear; the Hollith jungle defied all efforts to keep it from growing back at an alarming rate. “When I speak to you, whether it is to impart an order, information, to tell a joke, to spout profanity, or to vent frustration, you will respond. I don’t care if you have nothing better to say than “sir yes sir” you will say something. I do not work well with mutes. Understood?”
Only slightly behind the veterans, the seven new recruits shouted out “Sir, yes sir!” with what Kramer thought was insane enthusiasm.
The Cap stared at them until the ship behind him had been sitting on the ground for almost thirty seconds. “Some of you smart asses may think I’m an asshole.” He said in the same uninflected way. “Be assured that I do not care. Now, doubletime, board our ride in clean style. Move!”
In the hubbub, Kramer forgot to shout “sir, yes sir” but no one noticed.
Reluctantly, he liked The Cap. They were flying from Pump Station One to a new landing area cleared a few cycles outside Pump Station Eighteen, not far from hot Holl territory where they were assigned to do their best to penetrate. On the way over, The Cap took the time to ask each of them a few questions.
Kramer found that the found rookies he’d had no use for at PS1 were just as colorless outside of it, and after a few questions The Cap moved on too, satisfied that these would pose no challenge.
“Adams, where you from?”
“Sir, I’m from New Orleans. Mosta my life; I was born in Chicago, originally.” He seemed nervous. “Sir.”
There was a minor stir. Chicago was where the refineries were based. That was where the Drum Ships landed. Rumor had it that this was the only hope for deserters: to hitch a hide on a Drum Ship and make a break for it in Chicago. This was one of many stories passed around in boot camp and beyond, and no one knew how much credence to give it. The Cap gave no hint that he knew of the rumor.
“You nervous, Adams?”
Willie looked around. “A little, sir. I don’t know —”
“Adams, when you’ve got Holls all over your ass, biting and screaming and scratching, trust me son you don’t have fucking time to be scared. You may find yourself with a standard issue full of your own shit when all’s said and done, but during the encounter you will not have time to be scared.”
Willie seemed glum at this. “Sir, yes sir.”
“How ‘bout you, Kramer? You gonna be shitting your shorts too?”
Some of the rookies grinned, but the Cap sent them a sharp look and they stared at their boots. The vets didn’t even look at him, Kramer noticed. “There are no cowards in my unit, skags,” the Cap said darkly. “You don’t soil yourself first night out here you ain’t fucking human. Don’t forget that later on.” He turned back to Kramer.
“Sir,” Kramer said evenly, “I’m not afraid of anything. Never have been.”
The Cap studied him for a few seconds, a smile implied in his eyes. Kramer strongly suspected that this was as close to a smile as the Cap ever got. “I believe it, private. I do. I suspect you’re in for a whole new experience, then. These fucking animals will teach you to be afraid. You got me?”
Kramer shrugged, but remembered to say “Sir, yes sir.”
The Cap studied him for a second longer, and then turned to Stat. “Well, Black Beauty, what’s your story?”
Stat had a grin ready. “The White Man don’t trust me on Earth, Cap, so he sent me here in hopes that I get killed.”
To everyone’s surprise, the Cap laughed, a peculiar grinless barking. “I ain’t had three fellow Americans in my unit in a whore’s age, boys. Most of the rest of these bastards are French and Russian right now. A few months ago I had thirty orientals, no joke. It’s a pleasure to have some familiar accents around here.”
Stat looked at Kramer and winked. Kramer didn’t know what that was meant to convey, but winked back.
The shuttle suddenly began its descent. Kramer glanced out the windows and saw nothing but green, the endless jungle. The Cap suddenly grew serious again.
“All right, when we hit the ground you ditch this ride in twos and you hit the ground marching. You do a sound check on your EVA mikes and you start humping and you don’t even bother to change direction until I say something about it, got that?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“All right, look alive!”
The Hollith sun was bigger and slower than Earth’s, and military time had taken over long ago, leaving the grunts with the non-days given them by cycles and clicks. For most of them, Hollith was just one eternal day of rain and marching and insane fighting in the dark. There were plenty of stories of soldiers meeting their MSR and being informed, their amazed faces and almost always the same question: how long? It was so easy to lose track of time on Hollith there were also endless stories of mythical grunts who had forgotten how long they’d been in the jungles, and their MSR time had come and gone and no one in MI had bothered to alert them. Some of the more adventurous rumor-mongers in the field liked to claim that there were some very old grunts out there who had been serving on Hollith for years, not realizing that they were free to go at any time.
Kramer didn’t believe any of it, but he was sufficiently impressed to keep meticulous track of how long he’d been on Hollith. This lasted until he’d estimated that he’d survived to the fifteen day mark, and then he burned the little notebook he’d been marking off the cycles in, and forgot all about it. He’d very simply decided that he just didn’t want to know.
In that fifteen day period, he’d been through sixteen Holl attacks. APU 809-D was part of a major offensive designed to gain about fifteen square miles of prime real estate on Hollith from the shrieking monsters who lived in it; they were working with about three hundred other APUs in the area to oust the resident Holls by force. The Cap kept telling them that they were having an effect, but Kramer could not personally attest to that. Certainly they were moving consistently, but Kramer couldn’t tell if they were really “penetrating” or if they were circling, or perhaps even retreating. Certainly they were killing Holls, but no matter how many he shredded with his huge gun, screaming as he raked it back and forth, eyes blinded by the sudden bursts of light, ears deafened by the incessant yelling and explosions, they kept coming. Sixteen times they kept coming.
After only two weeks, he knew the salient characteristics of a Holl attack: a sudden quieting of the jungle, as if the winds themselves died when the shrieking white monsters were nearby; a feeling in the pit of his stomach, a cool rock forming ice inside him and making him nauseous; a sudden stoppage of rain, without preamble of warning, leaving the ground steaming and the air ringing in muddy quiet.
Kramer thought he’d developed a sort of psychic ability to sense Holls nearby. He didn’t know that a lot of grunts thought this. It stemmed from the fact that the Holls attacked all the time, so the sense of dread that the grunts learned to live with often seemed prescient, when actually it was pure dumb luck. The same went for the constant premonitions grunts had that their buddies or enemies or officers were going to die. The fact that so many of them did made none of them psychics.
“You ever hear of anyone getting a medical on a psyche rec?”
Kramer looked up from his ration pack. Willie Adams’ southern drawl was quiet and tight, and now that Kramer thought about it he hadn’t been talking at all for the past few days. His voice had a rusty, cancerous tone to it.
The Holy Grail of the burned-out grunt was a Light Medical Recall. This was an injury bad enough to pull them out of the field for an infirmary stay, but not bad enough to ruin the rest of their lives. These were, however, investigated vigorously by Military Intelligence, and self-inflicted or exaggerated wounds were punished severely, usually without any sense of irony.
The rarest LMR was a psyche recall. King Coblan was of the opinion that mental instability was almost always a sham. The grunts always dreamt of going crazy, though.
“Nope,” Kramer replied. It hadn’t yet been three weeks, but they all felt like vets. Of the seven who he’d arrived with, only Stat had maintained his sense of humor. Kramer barely tolerated it. The others hated Stat.
“It’s fiction, man,” Kramer said cruelly. “Never happens. Even if you get an MD to list you on a psyche, the MI Spooks will be up your ass from the moment your ride touches down, and it won’t take Coblan’s brownshirts half an hour to decide you’re fit as a fiddle and ready to rock, Bayou.”
Adams stared into the wet ground as if paralyzed. “Yeah, yeah, I thought so. Maybe I could blow my own foot off or something.”
Kramer shook his head, chewing thoughtfully. “No way, man. We’ve been here three weeks, Bayou, you notice we’ve suffered forty percent casualties? We’re down to eighteen and waiting on replacements. You think anything short of Seriously Fucked Up is going to be good enough to get you out of the jungle?”
Willie smiled. “Better than dead.”
Kramer didn’t like the laugh, but he was no MD and he let it drift. “I don’t know about that.” was all he said, and then he swallowed his last bit of show, and stood up to wash out his mess kit. Willie didn’t look up, or move.
Despite the rarity of psyche LMRs, insanity was a major topic of conversation amongst the grunts and, truth be known, amongst the officers, too. The MI wonks, who had a smart name for everything, called grunts and officers who actually did go nuts ‘Willards’.
Four cycles later, a tribe of Holls hit them hard.
Kramer had been trying to tell any one section of Hollith jungle apart from any other section, a quiet exercise he couldn’t explain the reasoning behind. Without warning, the jungle went dead.
“Going Dead” was a term the grunts used to describe the different sort of silence that preceded a Holl Fade. It was an interesting detail of the Hollith biosystem that the Holls were the only non-vegetable or insectoid lifeform on the planet. The level of noise in the jungle was therefore very low, except for the wind in the trees and the screams of the Holls.
With no apparent animal competition, the violent and aggressive evolution of the Holls was a constant item for debate amongst Earth scientists. The most popular theory, although not at all the most sound, was that the Holls had at one time very dangerous enemies on the planet…enemies which now resided below its crust, as the oil which the humans fought for.
So, the idea that the never-ending quiet of the jungle changed somehow just before the Holls arrived was a ludicrous one, since what insects Hollith sported were relatively silent partners, but it was one that every soldier serving on the planet swore to.
A tribe of Holls consisted of fifteen to thirty of the beasts, never any other number. The jungle went dead, the rain stopped abruptly, and the Holls would swing in from the branches above.
A good APU would already be in a good defensive formation by the time the Holls screamed in, a formation that allowed the HG plenty of range to lay down supporting fire, that gave the OIC visual command of the area, and lent the unit something approaching a sensible shape. The books were full of carefully planned formations, like chess problems, designed to handle all sorts of Holl attacks. After twenty-five years, Military Intelligence had come up with a lot of great ideas. The only problem, of course, was implementing them in twenty seconds when everyone involved was crapping their standard issues.
Kramer backtracked until he was slightly raised and behind his own ranks. He hefted up the RBL, double-clutched the pressure lever, and clicked on the infrared overlay on his EVA mask. He’d done it sixteen times before and it was becoming second nature.
First, aim upward, and as the Holls swept in (a full thirty this time, he thought) let loose. Don’t try to aim, just spread the shells around and chances were you’d get a bunch of hits.
Don’t waste time, thirty seconds no more and then drop down lower and now you tried to catch their white hides against the dark green vegetation before firing. You try to avoid killing your own people, but it wasn’t always possible.
In the final stages, the Holls usually got mixed in and even the Heavy Gunner had to drop the RBL and just defend his or her little patch of Jungle. By that time, Kramer theorized, you could tell whether you were going to die or not.
The seventeenth time he lived, but just barely.
“I hate this fucking EVA suit.”
Kramer sat, exhausted, poking at the huge bandaged gash on his arm. Stat lay with his eyes closed next to him, completely untouched after seventeen Holl Fades and starting to spook people with his luck. Willie crouched with his Shredding Rifle in his hands, shaking his head like he didn’t know how to stop.
“You’d hate coughing up bloody tumors even more, I think,” Kramer said in his usual monotone.
“Don’t you ever get fucking scared, man?” Willie demanded. “You and your goddamn sang-froid or whatever -fuck you, Kramer, you goddamn pussy.”
Kramer just flicked his eyes to him. “You know, Willie, I thought you were evolving, or something. All I ever got when I was a kid back home was beat up, you know? Beat up and called names. You can fucking bitch and whine and pray for a fucking psyche LMR, but you better calm that mouth of yours down a little, okay?”
“I am asking nice, Willie.”
Kramer waited a few seconds, and then looked back at his wound, testing it experimentally. They were down to ten, including the Cap, and they had been ordered to await pickup for redistribution. They would either be sifted into new APUs or they’d get a whole new group of rookies. Kramer found he didn’t much care; he’d passed perhaps three words with the combined twenty-seven dead veterans of 809-D, and he didn’t miss any of them.
“I fucking hate this fucking EVA suit!!!”
Stat suddenly sat up. “Then take the damned thing off, Brer Willie,” he said violently. “And quit bitching about it!!”
Kramer realized numbly that these were the first words Stat had spoken in days. As he was thinking this, Adams stood up in one jerky motion and yanked his EVA mask off his face.
Kramer blinked. He hadn’t seen anyone’s face in two weeks. Adams’ was pale and thin and unshaven, and it had changed into something shadowed and sharp. He looked around, as if expecting some pathetic fallacy to mark the moment.
The Cap, lounging easily across the opening in the jungle, sat forward. “You better reapply that gear, private.”
Kramer watched Adams look around as if trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. Then he watched as Adams shrugged off his EVA pack.
The Cap was up, arms akimbo. “You looking for a LMR, private? Cause I know for a fact that you can be coughing up blood and I won’t sign off on one, so reapply that gear now!”
The unit was just staring. Kramer found he couldn’t take his eyes off of Adams, waiting for the inevitable. They had all thought of doing this, of walking away –it was a common fantasy. Kramer knew that none of them wanted to die, not for the Earth, not for the Cap, not for oil, not for the measly little paychecks they mailed home to parents and wives and mistresses, and not even for each other. Kramer knew they had all thought about just walking away, just shrugging off their EVA packs and melting away, hitch a ride on a Drum Ship heading into Chicago and live the outlaw life.
Daydreams, Kramer knew. But still, Adams held everyone’s attention.
Without a word, Adams turned and started to walk away, into the uncharted Hollith jungle.
The Cap, unseen, opened his mouth but then stood there, silent, watching. Within a few seconds Adams had completely disappeared, absorbed by the dense vegetation. For a moment, everyone sat and stared after him, enveloped by thick quiet and stale inactivity.
Suddenly, the Cap whirled. “Nehgra!” he bellowed.
The immobility lasted another second, and then the Comm Officer scrambled up and trotted over, the bulky radio pack crowding his back. The Cap grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around ruthlessly, and plucked up the headset.
“This is Mennin L 66778-809-D OIC,” the Cap barked into the microphone, “give me MIHQ. I got myself a deserter.”