Prengathu — a short story

Posted: March 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

Artwork by Craig Mullins

 

Sergeant Hans Traiger leaned out the side of the dropship, looking for a sign of the battle.  A hundred meters or so below, land rovers sped to and from the front lines, throwing up clouds of the red dust that covered Prengathu.  The height didn’t bother him; under any other circumstances he would have enjoyed the ride.  As it was, he wanted to vomit.  He and his men were about to join in a skirmish against the Xehari, and Traiger had never lead a squad in combat before.  Word in the rear was that these were crack Xehari units, maybe the best the Collective had to offer.  Whatever the ‘hari were looking for on this planet, it must be a big fucking deal.

 
Traiger glanced back toward the rear of the vessel.  His designated marksman, Lance Corporal Leggett, sat in the seat just aft of the opening.  Leggett was fiddling with his meter-long .50 caliber rifle and staring vacantly at the horizon.  The lad was a killer shot, but had never been in combat before.  Traiger moved over to him and slapped him on the shoulder, shaking him out of his reverie.

“You all right, kid?” he shouted over the dull roar of the wind.

Leggett nodded.  “Ready to kick some ass, Sarge.”

“Hey, don’t get too excited.  We need our marksman calm.  You work slow and methodical, y’hear?  You’re the ‘hari’s worse nightmare.”  Sergeant Traiger gave him a grin and a firm squeeze before moving away.  It was his job to keep morale up.  He probably could have done a better job of that over the last few weeks.  He was letting personal bullshit distract him too much — so what if some broad back on Mars had stopped returning his transmissions?  Plenty of fish in the sea. So what if North America was in the throes of violent revolution?  Not his problem.  This lifestyle could drive a man crazy over time — dancing all over the galaxy, having to wait weeks at the minimum to communicate with anyone back home.  Wherever home was.  He had spent all week obsessing over the last message he had received from her, nothing else to do.  Nothing to do but wait, and wonder, and worry.  And train, damnit.  He had a job to do.  The dropship was racing toward a line of jagged hills now, shimmering in the heat from the ion thrusters.  The fight was on the other side.

Traiger pulled his head inside and turned to his men.  “Alright squad, listen up!” he bellowed over the noise of the dropship.  “We’re about to land!  Get out fast and set up a perimeter on me!  Steele and Browning, you’ll be setting up the rocket launcher first thing.  We’ll be right on the ‘hari’s flank, and it should be a damn slaughter.  But stay alert!”
The hills were coming up fast now.  There was smoke beyond, pouring up from the battlefield.  Traiger thought he could hear the dull thump of explosions.  He took one last look around at his men.  The shit was about to hit the fan, and this was the last calm moment they would have for hours at least.  He caught the eyes of those he could, made sure they were good to go, gave them each a slow nod.  Across from him, Private Delgado watched the view out through the cockpit, gulping frantically.  Sergeant Traiger reached over and tightened up Delgado’s ammo harness, giving him a lopsided grin.  Delgado implored him, wide-eyed.  Sergeant Traiger leaned back, checked the chamber of his rifle for the fiftieth time, and winked.  Delgado smiled.  Atta boy.

Then his stomach lurched as the pilot pulled up at the last second to clear the top of the crags, and suddenly they were flying over hell.  They could feel, as well as hear the explosions now, and the scents of sulfur and ozone whooshed into the cabin with a burst of hot air.  Looking out, Traiger saw muzzle bursts lancing out all over the terrain, along a convoluted battle line that stretched between the twisted, smoking wrecks of vehicles.  From the other direction, the area they were firing at, came the bluish laser blasts of the Xehari troops, sending up smoke wherever they seared the terrain.  The fight surrounded a huge ruined stone fortress that now loomed into view.  Traiger recognized it from his five-minute briefing.  He examined it as the pilot banked en route to the LZ.  It looked ancient, crumbling, made from the same red rock as rest of Prengathu.  There was a circular wall surrounding it.  Inside, the fortress rose on a hill to an apex in the center where there was a tower.  Something glinted there, blinding Traiger momentarily.  That didn’t belong.  He slid his visor down and magnified the image.  There was machinery at the top of the tower, definitely Xehari.  It was unfolding, turning his way, brightening.  An icy torrent of adrenaline hit his bloodstream.  That was a solar laser.

“Brace for impact!” he screamed, lurching toward an empty seat at the rear of the craft.  Before he got there, a light bloomed out, throwing his shadow, pitch-black, over the suddenly contorted, squinting faces of his men.  The dropship lurched, and Traiger felt an intensely hot wind that seemed to carry him forward off his feet.  Then the light blinked out, and he hit the floor, which was now slowly canting upward.  He scrambled up, slipped as the deck dropped from under him, and made a desperate grab for the safety belt which dangled toward him.  His rifle slid away behind him.  Browning, who was sitting just to his left, came to his senses and helped muscle his Sergeant up into the seat.  “Hold me up!” screamed Traiger as he strained his pectorals, moving the buckle across his waist.  He locked it home as he stared at the red desert ground, coming straight toward him and what remained of the dropship. The front half of it was gone.  One wing had been taken clean off, and the remaining thruster sputtered, attempting to compensate. Acrid smoke swept toward him from the red-hot, seared edge, and he smelled burnt flesh.  Delgado was still strapped into his seat, but half his face was gone.  Half of Delgado’s face, and nearly half of Traiger’s thirteen-man squad, gone in a flash.  He turned to Browning, and nodded thanks.  Browning’s eyes were red, rimmed with tears.

“What the fuck, Sarge?” Browning implored.  Browning was the biggest man in Traiger’s squad, real macho type.  But he looked like a child now, scared, helpless.  Traiger shook his head.

“It’ll be all right,” he heard himself say.  “Just a rough landing.”  He raised his voice toward the end so what remained of his squad could hear him over the wind.  A few faces turned toward him, uncomprehending.  He cinched his belt up, straining against almost his entire body weight now.  The dropship had begun to shudder violently as it traced a lazy spiral across the sky, losing altitude.  Smoke billowed up from electrical fires in front.  For a moment it poured back into the cabin, searing Traiger’s eyes and choking his lungs.  Around, through the rushing turbulence of the air, him he heard prayers, sobbing, and incoherent mumbling coming from what remained of his squad.  He watched the ground coming up as the dropship slowly toppled forward.  Traiger felt strangely at peace.  It was a beautiful way to die.  He wondered if it would hurt.  The ground rushed closer.

 

* * *

 
Thirst.  He was so thirsty.  Hans’ mouth seemed to be gummed shut with dust.  He opened his eyes and half his view was filled with the stuff, stretching away from him.  Stretching off to the vertical horizon, where it met the pink sky.  His face was half buried.

Somewhere down at the bottom of his vision, there was something there.  He moved his left hand.  Yes, something there.  A strap.  That was his rifle, safe and sound.  Hans tried to sit up, but his muscles didn’t work.  He couldn’t remember how to use them.  With great effort, he rolled over onto his back.  A torn, rusted canopy of metal loomed into view.  What was that?  Wind whistled through the sharp angles in the metal, echoing in the interior.  It was so quiet.  So quiet. Hans’ eyelids slid shut.  So tired.

 
Later, Hans woke again.  There was something.  Some reason he had to get up.  Slowly, he lifted his knee.  It felt like a rusted hinge, searing with pain the entire way.  He curled his fingers into a ball.  Pain throbbed in his knuckles.  The pain made him angry.  Panting, redfaced, Hans rolled over, lifted his body up, planted a foot in front of himself, and stood.  His vision washed black, and he staggered to the side, slamming into metal.  He lost control of his body, sliding back onto the ground.  As his vision slowly cleared, a skull swam out of the darkness.  A skull wearing a helmet.  In front of Hans was a skeleton in combat armor.  It sat slumped, just like Hans, against a curved metal bulkhead.  On the chest, there was a nametag: “Leggett”.  A spear of ice slid into Hans’ heart.  He knew that name.  He looked around.  There were more skeletons, dead soldiers.  Hans staggered back onto his feet.  There was a skeleton strapped into a seat, a shard of metal jammed through battle armor into its rib cage.  He turned around.  There was another skeleton in a seat, half its skull missing.  But more importantly, there, in the distance, beyond the metal canopy, beyond the red sands, there was a fortress rising up from a hill.  Hans shivered.  He walked forward, out of the rusted tomb.

 
This was a battlefield.  Rusted hulks of machinery were here, craters, blackened patches of ground and sand turned to glass.  But the battle happened long ago.  Hans stood and stared, for perhaps a hundred years, trying to understand what happened here.  Had he been here before?  Gradually his eyes settled on something a few feet away from him.  It was a corpse, half-buried in dust.  Hans stepped forward and nudged it with his boot.  It gave way with a crunch. The thing was dessicated, but much of it was intact.  Scaly plating and cables twisted within.  Xehari… the name floated to Hans from a great distance away.  The cyborg race.  This was his enemy.  Holes were punched through its plating, one right between the crumbling compound eyes.  Hans remembered.  He had held his pistol and aimed it, as this creature came at him up this hill.  Squeezed the trigger and nailed it in the forehead.

Hans felt like someone had shot him in the head.  His fingers pinched the bridge of his nose; lights flashed in his eyes; he tried to remember.  It was so long ago.  He opened his eyes and looked up.  That fortress.  There was something there.  Some reason to go there.  Hans strode ahead through the dust.  He wanted to move faster, to think faster, but his mind and body wouldn’t obey.  It was as though he were moving through a viscous fluid.  His head felt thick and dull.

At the lowest shoulder of the hill, volcanic rocks rose out of the dust, waist-hight.  At their base, Hans spotted shell casings scattered around, the brass tarnished but otherwise the same as new.  They were .50 caliber, the kind used in a sniper rifle.  Hans squatted down and fingered a casing, then looked over the rocks at the expanse between him and the fortress.  He remembered.  He had knelt here, rested the barrel on the rocks, looked through the scope, and shot dozens of Xehari as they had worked their way toward the hill, using those boulders as cover.  Steele, and someone else, had run forward under his fire.  Had run down there, down where that dry stream bed flattened out . . . Hans caught sight of something, at the edge of a boulder the size of a house.  He continued down the hill.

The corpse was disintegrated, half inside a small blast crater, shards of bone and armor sticking out of the dust all around.  But here an arm was intact, the fleshless hand still gripping a rocket launcher, its barrel empty.  Hans moved on.

As he walked toward the fortress, he passed the dead and mutilated corpses of many Xehari.  Then another dropship, wrecked, surrounded by more dead, of both races.  A dead soldier leaned against the nose of the dropship, helmet and rifle discarded, pistol in hand, surrounded by hundreds of spent rounds.  Hans recognized the insignia of a Lieutenant.

 

Sergeant Traiger stood over his platoon commander, flanked by his two surviving men.

“Lieutenant Vickers?” he asked softly, not sure whether the man was dead or alive — one of his legs was missing.  Vickers moved.  His head slowly, unsteadily rose up.  The lieutenant’s eyes were wide, and his blood-smeared face seemed locked into a grin.  Steele took a step back.

“Do you hear it?” said Vickers.  Traiger dutifully listened, but heard nothing.

“Hear what, sir?”

Vickers turned toward the fortress.  “That.”  His expression didn’t change.  “It’s coming from there.”

A moment passed.  “He’s gone mad.” said Ivanov.

“We’ll get you out of here, sir,” said Traiger, shouldering his rifle.  Vickers looked at him sharply, and his smile faded.  The light disappeared from his eyes, and his head went slack.

* * *

The fortress glowed a supernatural red in the light of the sunset.  Its contours and crenellations diced the light up into a mosaic of red and black.  The night side of the wall was a great swoop of darkness, a hole in the fabric of space, sucking everything in, including Hans.  He didn’t want to go there.  Something evil was waiting for him there, in the darkness.  But he didn’t want to stay.  Didn’t want to be with the corpses from his past that he couldn’t remember.  There was certainty ahead, terrible certainty.  Hans began to choke, and cry.  He was scared, and he was sad.  But most of all he was lonely.  He looked over his shoulder.  There had been someone there once.  Hadn’t there?

 

Finally, they reached the fortress wall.  A giant archway opened up here, and through it they could see the hill rising up, the walls and ramps that formed the base of the fortress.  Sergeant Traiger motioned for Steele and Ivanov to press up against the wall behind him as he scoped out the interior.  Still no sign of any more Xehari.  He couldn’t believe he had successfully penetrated their line.  It seemed too easy.  Still, he couldn’t hesitate, he had to seize the initiative.

“Fan out,” he ordered his men, and moved quickly through the archway in a low crouch.  He had just passed beyond the wall when heard a mechanical whirring from ahead, and saw a metal barrel swing into action.

“Get down!” he yelled, and dove for a low rise, the only cover nearby.  Steele landed next to him a second later.  Then an earsplitting hammering sound came from above and Traiger turned in time to see Ivanov, sprinting toward him, eyes wide, erupt into gouts of blood, intestine, and brain, as a stream of bullets tore into his body.  His body wetly collapsed, inches from Traiger’s feet.  Blood speckled his face as he watched slugs pound into the pile of flesh, boiling the meat away.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” muttered Steele, casting about for an escape.  Above, they heard the whir of the sentry gun scanning its field of fire for more targets.

“Shut up,” said Traiger.  “There’s only one way out of this.”  He pulled a grenade off his vest and popped the pin.  Steele’s eyes widened.  “When I say go, you run that way as fast as you can.  It’ll try to track you.”  Steele nodded furiously, ditching his rifle, helmet, vest, any extra weight he could find to get rid of.  “Ready?” asked Traiger.

Steele took a deep breath.  “As ready as I’ll ever be, Sergeant.”  Traiger released the trigger and started counting in his head.  At three, he said “Go.”  Steele took off at a sprint.  Servos hummed to life above.  Traiger stood, in full sight of the sentry gun, and threw the grenade straight at it.



Hans stood over the pile of discarded gear.  He was in almost complete darkness now and wouldn’t have found it if he hadn’t known what to look for.  But there it was — the battle vest with the name tape that read “Steele”.  He looked into the darkness, in the direction that Steele had run.  There was a momentary flash of light and Hans saw the outstretched corpse, spread-eagle, just where he expected it..  Far off, a storm was brewing in the sky, sucking in the darkness of the gathering twilight.  Thunder rolled through the air.  Hans charged up the hill, past the demolished hulk of the sentry gun.
Steele had died to save him.  He had been too slow.  The machine had gotten off a single round, and that’s all it took.  Single round, center mass.  He had tried CPR, but Steele was already dead.  He had raised his blood-caked face to the sky and screamed.  Gathered up Steele’s assault rifle and charged the citadel.  Climbed these slabs of dusty red stone, rage bubbling up through his skin as it did now.

A bolt of lightning struck beyond the far wall, and a wind began to batter Hans.  It didn’t rain on Prengathu, just lightning and dust.  He hauled himself over one last great slab of stone, and found himself on a battlement.  He stepped forward, and his foot landed on something that rolled right out from under him, sending him crashing into the stone.  Lightning flashed again.  There were .50 caliber shell casings everywhere.  Yes.  It was here.  He leapt to his feet and rushed to the wall.  His sniper rifle was still leaning here, its barrel rusted.  Hans picked it up, sighted in, looked through the scope into the courtyard below.  Its light-enhancing optics still worked.  Remains of the Xehari HQ were visible below, machines set up around the edge of the courtyard with thick cables twining between them.

 

And there, in the middle, was the carriage, like a small tank with treads, above that a life support system topped by a dome of glass, now shattered.  It was a Xehari hivemind, dead, its three-hundred pound brain torn through by a round from this rifle.  He had stumbled onto it, and taken it out before the bodyguard had even realized he was there.  He had used the rest of his rounds to take out a Sentinel, one of the eight-foot, armored guards that protect the hiveminds, as it charged at him up the crumbling side of the fortress.  Then he had switched to Steele’s assault rifle and fought off a platoon of Xehari regulars.  There were too many of them, they had forced him to take cover.  Back along the battlement into the fortress, through this doorway. Hans entered, taking refuge from the clouds of dust that were now sweeping over him.

The dusty stone hallway was filled with massive clumps of lichen.  It was the only plant native to Prengathu that anyone knew about.  It exploded into gouts of green mist as Hans tore through it.  There were dead Xehari here, littered through the fortress.  Hans’ foot kicked something metallic that slid across the stone.  The assault rifle.  He had run out of rounds, switched to his pistol, killed the last of them.  Or he thought he had.  Then a second Sentinel had come at him, blasted him with its laser.  He had managed to hold it off for a few seconds, here, at this corner, while he cooked off his last grenade.  His timing was perfect.  But the Sentinel was unstoppable.  It kept coming at him, around the corner, one arm missing, part of its head gone, oozing that blue biomechanical fluid that kept the Xehari alive.  Hans had tried to get away, fired off the last of his pistol rounds, tried to run, but he was wounded, wounded all over, he now realized, and the Sentinel had grabbed him.  In a last, desperate effort, he had thrust his hand inside the thing’s head, grasping for a brain to crush.  It rammed him against the wall, trying to crush him with all its weight.  And the wall had given way.

Hans stood before the hole in the wall.  There was a void beyond, black and silent.  The only light now was emanating from the lichen, an eerie bluish-green that streaked across the walls in swirls and patterns.  Lightning struck the fortress, shaking the walls and sending streams of dust sifting down through cracks.  Hans kicked a loose rock into the hole.  A few seconds later, he heard it faintly rebounding.  He knew this was his goal.  He had to go in.

He crawled over the edge and let himself down into the darkness, hanging from the edge of the hole.  His body swung freely — there was nothing under the hallway.  He still could see nothing below, and the air here was musty, dead.  For a moment, Hans contemplated pulling himself back up, going back out into the desert with the skeletons of his dead squad, out in the light and open where he might find something, anything, but this.  Then gravity seemed to increase and Han’s fingers slipped away from the stone, too weak to hold on.  He felt the darkness enveloping him from behind, pulling him downward.  Then the ground slammed against his feet and his left leg snapped.  Hans screamed with pain as he sprawled out against the damp, slimy floor.

 
Visions swam before his eyes.  He began to shiver and felt beads of cold sweat forming on his brow, and soaking his armpits.  Shock.  He was going into shock.  No.  Not like this.  He forced himself to sit up.  He sat in the darkness and breathed, bringing his body under control.

 
And then he heard it.  A footstep, only feet away.  Every cell in his body jumped like a plucked guitar string, and he felt dizzy with terror.  “WHO’S THERE?” he screamed, as loud as he could, feeling the adrenaline surge through his bloodstream.  Something hissed.  “WHO IS IT?  WHAT ARE YOU?”  The shouting made him feel good, feel powerful.  It made him forget the pain and the fear.

He lurched to his feet, and lunged in the direction he had heard the hiss.  It scrambled out of his way, and Hans flailed his hands through the dark.  He brushed something cloth, seized it, and tugged, feeling the weight of a person.  A body tumbled into him, bony, clothed in what felt like a robe.  It tried to get away, but Hans got a hold of it, wrestled it to the ground, began punching it.  “I’LL KILL YOU!” he yelled, slipping his hands around its emaciated neck.  As he choked it, he put his knee on its chest, forcing the air out through its constricted throat in a death rattle.  No.  Not yet.  Hans wanted to see the face of his enemy.  He let go with one hand and began searching around on himself.  There was something he had, something he could use… His hand gripped a cylindrical object and tore it off his vest.  A flare.  A geyser of fire erupted, blinding him for a moment.  His captive squirmed out from under him and scrambled away.  Hans chased after, ignoring the pain. He grabbed the creature and threw it against the wall.  It was wearing a black cloak, which Hans tore aside.  Under that was another hood.  There seemed to be no end to the cloth concealing its face.  Hans thrust the flare at it.  “WHO ARE YOU?”  The last hood came aside, and Hans dropped the flare.

His own face stared back at him.  Pale, wrinkled, mottled, warted, but it was him.  It was the most hideous thing that Hans had ever seen, or could imagine ever seeing.

“You.” Hans growled between clenched teeth.  His hand shot out and grabbed its larynx, squeezing hard.  Its eyes bugged out.  “Why did you let them die? Huh?  Why did you let them die?” The desire to destroy this thing settled on Hans, thick and black, deepening even as he pulled his arm back to hit it.  It looked into his eyes, sending sickening tendrils of supplication worming their way in to his brain.  He couldn’t will his hand to move fast enough, to strike hard enough.  As his fist flew toward its face, he watched in horror as the skin on his knuckles paled and rotted away.

Then the punch made contact, knocking its head into the stone wall behind it.  As Han’s fist drove forward, the rock shattered.  Light streamed through the maelstrom of gravel created by the shockwave.  Hans and his corroded double flew through the wall into the searing light and heat of Prengathu in midday.  As Hans watched, the robed thing began to crackle, smoke, sizzle, and evaporate into the arid desert air with a final shriek of defeat.  The sun grew brighter and brighter, washing everything out into a radiant, blinding white.

 

* * *

 
Sergeant Traiger opened his eyes.  White canvas snapped and tugged at tent poles, rippling in the wind.  He heard voices, metal scraping on metal, bustle around him.  He sat bolt upright.  Pain surged through his head, and a hundred other parts of his body.  A medical tech, uniformed in white, came toward him.
“Whoah, easy soldier!  You just lay back and relax. You’ve had quite the beating.”  The med tech placed a hand on his chest and pushed him back down.  His head settled into the pillow.
“General Kasin, he’s up!” called an unseen voice.  Traiger heard several people approaching.
“General, I don’t think he’s ready for visitors yet,” said the med tech.
“Shut up and get the hell out of my way.”  A face loomed into Traiger’s field of view.  It was General Kasin, his regiment commander.

“God damn, son.  You’re the finest soldier this regiment has ever seen.  It’s amazing you’re still alive.”  He turned to an officer next to him.  “Give it to me.  Sergeant Hans Traiger, I hereby award you the Galactic Legion of Merit for kicking ‘hari ass so hard you kicked them straight out of this system.” He pinned a medal on Traiger’s chest.  “Congratulations, Sergeant.  Thanks to you, Prengathu is ours.”
Traiger stared at him blankly.
“Now don’t get too excited.  If you need anything, anything at all, don’t you hesitate to let us know.”
“Well, General,” said Traiger.  “How about getting me the hell off this planet?”

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Comments
  1. Tessa Zeng says:

    Holy crap. Was not expecting to be captivated by a story like this tonight.

    Hope you have some serious writing projects in the works, to match your talent!

  2. Thanks, mystery lady. I do plan to write a novel.

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