Written by Ray Tabler
Illustrated by Phil Renne
"Somthin' smells," one of the thousand or so shock troopers milling about in the staging area said, staring straight at me. That was unfair. I'd just had a shower. Most everybody did shower right before an assault, no telling when you'd get the next chance to clean up. Days, weeks later? You never could tell.
"Just ignore him, Danny," Jenny muttered. She shot him a black look. "Stupid bastard."
Jenny didn't need to worry. This wasn't my first assault. I admit I was wound up pretty tight. Everybody was. Needed to be, to get through the chaos we were about to wade into. But, I wasn't set on a hair trigger the way I was the first two or three times.
Either this little guy was too stupid to figure out that starting a brawl in the staging area would get us all thrown in the brig, or he was smart enough to figure out that starting a brawl in the staging area would get us all thrown in the brig. He might get injured in the confusion, but he wouldn't be dropping into a fire-laced hell with the rest of the division. I looked down at the guy with the sensitive nose, flashed him a very toothy smile and marched on with the rest of the team. The sour expression on his ugly face was a tasty treat I savored all the way across the hanger deck to our assigned drop carrier.
"Damn!" Pete complained when Sarge led us up to a scorch marked and rust stained old tub with the unlikely nickname Yolanda Sue stenciled on her grubby side, just forward of the official alphanumeric vessel designation. Nothing smaller than a frigate is supposed to have an actual name. It was one of those rules that generally got ignored after a couple of years into the war. Yolanda must have been some dead hero. You'd see that a lot. There were plenty to choose from.
"What's your problem, Kezelsky?" Sarge bellowed.
"Another sardine can, Sarge. Can't the navy spare a decent transport for us?"
Sarge rewarded Pete with a withering glare. "I'll be sure to pass that question along the next time I have lunch with the fleet admiral. Until then, get your smelly goon asses on that dropper! This is the one we're supposed to be in. It's almost show time and all of these tubs are goin' to the same place! Move!"
We moved. Sarge is pretty tough for a little guy. I think I could probably take him in a one on one fight, but I'd end up with important pieces missing.
Pete wasn't the only one disappointed with the drop carrier. It was quite a squeeze getting all twenty-five of us into the cargo bay of the Yolanda Sue, DC24569 Navy designation. Sarge ordered us all to exhale and then slammed the ramp closed before anybody thought to breathe again. Sarge had a bit of free space around him at the forward end of the bay, next to the ladder up to the control deck. Everyone else, goons and little guys were jammed in so tight it reminded me of a crude joke I'd heard back in high school.
"What's so funny, Danny?" Jenny asked. Being a little guy, she could sit on one of the benches.
"Nothing," I shook my head. That was about all I could move without poking a teammate. I was sitting on the deck with my knees tucked under my chin, back up against the port-side bulkhead and my arm brushing the now vertical surface of the ramp/hatch. That meant I'd be first out once the Yolanda Sue skidded in, assuming she got that far. I wasn't overly concerned. It wasn't the first time.
"Danny's always smiling. Haven't you noticed?" Pete teased from the same position against the starboard bulkhead. Our combat kits were between us; lumpy with all of the toys we'd soon be playing with.
"I have, actually," Jenny confided to Pete in a loud whisper. "I don't think it's normal, if you know what I mean."
I wagged my head back and forth with a foolish grin. "Ah, Duh, Doyh, Doyh!"
"Can that chatter, back aft there!" Sarge was on the horn, probably letting the lieutenant know we were good to go. He hung up after a minute and yelled up the ladder. "Yo. Up topside, we're all secure down here."
A swabbie stuck his head through the forward hatch to make sure we'd shut the ramp. Then he got a look at us and went forward. We could all hear him talking to the bosun's mate in charge of the dropper. The word "goons" was clear enough. Shortly, the mate appeared in the hatchway. She took a good long look at us.
The mate looked like a female version of Sarge, if you can picture that. To her credit, she may not have been pissed about being tasked with dropping a goon unit simply because we were goons. The problem was that we goons don't drop anywhere but the hottest LZs, and that could seriously shorten her life expectancy.
The mate and Sarge glowered at each other for a few seconds, and then she hustled back up to the control deck and clanged the hatch shut behind her. Sarge watched her go and shrugged. Orders were orders and grunts were grunts, goons or little guys.
A couple of minutes later we could hear the dropper's engines powering up. A few bumps as the tub skidded along the deck, and then we were outside the ship.
The bosun's mate came over the loudspeaker, "ETA, thirty-seven minutes."
Pete muttered another curse about the sardine can as he tried to get a bit more comfortable. The folded-up bench seat must have been digging into his back. Its port-side equivalent was digging into mine.
Pete had a right to be pissed. The navy did have a fair number of drop carriers designed specifically for us goons. They're nice, big, roomy tubs with seats that I could actually sit on. They usually have friendlier flight crews as well. Trouble is the enemy is smart enough to tell the difference. The Rigelians target the bigger tubs preferentially to minimize the number of goons we can get on the ground; so much for ergonomic design.
I leaned my head back against the cold metal of the portside bulkhead and closed my eyes.
"How can you do that, just fall asleep anywhere, anytime?" Jenny asked shaking her head.
"It's a goon thing," I teased.
"No, it's not," Pete commented sourly. As usual, Pete hadn't slept a wink the last two nights before the assault.
The Yolanda Sue pitched suddenly, engines vibrating unevenly. Shrapnel pattered the hull armor like hail. One of the other droppers must have been hit.
"Lucky shot for as far up as we must be yet," I said.
"The lieutenant said this one's well defended. The Rigies want to hold on to it," Jenny speculated. "They must be pitching a lot of plasma into orbit."
The lieutenant said a lot of things. You learned to filter out the parts that didn't have to do with the job at hand, like the name of the mudball the Yolanda Sue was hurtling towards. Nobody but a Rigie could pronounce it anyway. Besides, what difference does a name make?
Well, it can make a lot of difference. The swabbies topside sure seemed to feel a lot better about riding Yolanda Sue down into hell than DC24569. The Human Worlds Alliance calls us an Enhanced Capabilities Tactical Unit. That's what you see in the news and hear on the 3D. In practice, people call us goons. We call ourselves goons. We call everybody else little guys. As long as we call each other by these convenient labels, we can all pretend that we're all humans, which, by strict definition, we goons aren't. So, now you see the problem.
We all think of ourselves as humans, and maybe that's all that counts. It's worked so far, and will probably hold up for the duration. After the war's over, we'll just have to see.
The tub pitched and dodged more and more as we got lower. Some guys bitched about not being issued pressure suits in case the tub got holed. The truth is a suit won't do you any good. I've seen a couple of droppers that took plasma hits. There wasn't enough left of the whole damned tub to fill a pressure suit. And those clumsy suits just get in your way once the ramp drops.
"There's the light," Sarge warned. The amber bar above the ramp flashed slowly. It was hard to hear him. The atmosphere was getting thick, wailing like an angry ghost on the hull. The amber light flashed on and off faster and Yolanda Sue's main gun began to speak. It made the hull ring like a bell.
"ETA, sixty seconds." The bosun's calm voice over the speaker sounded like she was piloting a commuter shuttle from Chicago to St. Louis. The flashing amber light turned into a flashing green light.
"When the ramp drops, haul ass! Spread out, stay low and maintain your intervals!" Sarge had to yell over the racket. We'd heard it I don't know how many times before, and he'd said it many more than that. Didn't matter. He had to say it, and we felt better for hearing it.
Pete muttered a prayer, kissed his St. Stanislaus medal and tucked it inside his shirt. Jenny caught my eye and winked. I gave her a thumbs-up and got a good grip on my combat kit bag.
"Brace for landing," the bosun announced.
The ghost's wail changed to a deafening rumble punctuated with bone-jarring thumps.
"Think we're coming in a little hot?" I screamed into Jenny's ear.
"Naaah! This is the way the swabbies always land these tubs," Jenny mimed steering.
We were coming in hot. Tubs that didn't were just ordering a plasma breakfast. Then, with a final skewing to port, Yolanda Sue shuddered to a stop. The ramp flew open.
"Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" Sarge thundered in the sudden silence.
I rolled out, literally. I couldn't stand up in the dropper, and standing up isn't something you want to do coming out the rear of an assault craft. I crawled at least thirty meters on my hands and knees as fast as I possibly could, which is pretty damned fast. Once the dropper is down and the payload is out it's no longer a worthwhile target. It's done its job and the deployed assault team is the greater danger. But, psychologically, it'll draw a large percentage of the enemy's fire. It's a healthy thing to get far away from it fast.
We were in a muddy field; a muddy field planted in a crop that looked a lot like purplish orange soybeans. I'd marched past enough soybean fields at the training base west of Saginaw to know what they looked like, and I would have preferred something taller like corn or even wheat. But alien soybeans were all we had. Yolanda Sue had plowed an ugly furrow across the land; a long, earthen arrow pointed straight at our objective.
The compound was about one hundred meters away. The dropper had brought us almost to the edge of the bean field, where the dead ground stretched to the high, razor-wire fence. Guard towers stood at each of the five corners of the layout. Rigelians are big on pentagons. Yep, this was the place.
The dropper's main gun fired again, making the air between it and the compound shimmer with the passage of the plasma bolt. The roof of the nearest guard tower seemed to blow away in a high wind. I could see other tubs skidded, or skidding, at other points around the objective. They were firing too. The Rigelians were returning fire.
"Advance by squads! Second squad, go!" Sarge's voice cut through the noise like a meat cleaver. It was time to earn my pay.
Along with the rest of second squad, I rose and dashed forward in a crouching run, firing assault rifles as we went. I wasn't trying to hit anything, just keep the Rigies minds off of their aim. When I figured I'd gone far enough, I found some cover and dove for it. I might be ten feet tall, but I'm not bulletproof.
That cover turned out to be an agricultural robot which had the great misfortune to be tending purplish orange soybeans that particular morning. It was a big, slab-sided, gray ovoid that normally moved about on several dozen short, stout legs so it could gingerly step between the plants. The robot's AI must have dropped into self-preservation mode and directed it towards the supposed safety of the compound. A stray plasma bolt had vaporized its control module, instantly converting the robot to five or six tons of scrap metal and carbon fiber composite.
A second or two after I set my back against the lee of the robot, Pete dropped down next to me, breathing hard and cursing like he'd slammed his thumb in a door. Then Jenny jumped in between us. Damn, but she could run fast for a little guy.
"Nice place you boys have got here. How's the rent?"
Three bolts from a heavy plasma gun slammed into the other side of the robot in quick succession.
"Stiff!" I replied.
"Location. Location. Location," Pete commented. Greasy, black smoke started pouring from vents on the top of our robot.
"Jenny, you're hit," I pointed at drippy line of red on her upper arm.
She looked at it and giggled. "I gouged my arm on the fire extinguisher on the way out of the tub."
Pete and I started laughing, too. Who knows how much lead and plasma zipping about, and Jenny had injured herself on a piece of our own safety equipment.
"Second squad, cover fire." Sarge sounded tinny and distant in my earphone. "First squad, advance!"
Jenny, Pete and I leaned around or over the dead robot and hosed lead at the compound. Yolanda Sue's gun was firing more frequently now that her thrusters were powered down and the entire output of her engine was dedicated to generating ballistic plasma. First squad swept by us at a desperate sprint and flopped down to fire prone almost at the fence line.
"Here it comes," Pete lamented.
"Second squad, breach the wire!" Sarge ordered into our ear pieces.
Training is that thing that delays the perfectly natural resistance to leaving cover in a firefight until you're three steps out, screaming like a madman. Then it's too late to turn back. Momentum suffices where courage fails.
Pete and I got to the fence, and I knew without asking that he wanted to cut. You're more exposed that way, standing there severing one strand of razor wire after the other, but that's the way he is. Pete would rather be doing something, even a dangerous something, than waiting around for something to happen to him. I dropped to one knee and plinked away at various likely targets while Pete worked his cutter. Jenny ran up, fished a grenade launcher out of my kit bag and made herself useful by keeping heads down in the nearest guard tower.
The last wire went ping and we all rushed into the compound. It's not like we were being heroic, dashing into the thick of the enemy. It just was pretty unhealthy out by the wire, with both sides firing through it.
Rigelians tend to build things with five sides, and cluster their structures in threes. Nobody's figured out exactly why yet, but then we haven't had much of a chance for cultural exchange since first contact. And that's another thing; most people don't even realize they're not from Rigel. Rigel happened to be where humans first encountered them. I don't have to remind you how that went. The war was well underway by the time we found out different. Faced with the choice of calling them what they call themselves, which nobody can pronounce, or some form of the stellar catalog number of the star their home planet actually orbits, we stuck with Rigelians. Why not? Rodriguez, in first squad, calls me a gringo, which I'm pretty sure I'm not.
If this had been a normal assault, one of us would have blasted a small hole in the wall of the nearest building and another would have tossed a grenade in, to insure a friendly reception as the old saying goes. This time was different. Any one of these buildings might've held what we'd come to find. So, we had to do it the hard way.
Sarge marshaled us into the lee of big concrete shed, and laid out the general plan. He or the lieutenant couldn't hope to conduct a thorough and systematic sweep and clear operation. There was too much chance the Rigies would decide to destroy what we were after. We had to strike hard and keep moving fast, until the objective was secured. Troops were pouring in through the breach in the wire behind us, but, as usual, it was goons to the front.
There was a momentary lull in the firing as something big blew up to the south. A tall cloud rose that way, above the Rigie city twenty kilometers away where the main assault was happening. It might have been the city's fusion plant going up or maybe one of our ships crashed. There was no way to tell from where we were. We never did find out. We never do.
Pete, Jenny and I advanced farther into the compound, two moving while the third covered. Normally, two cover while the third cautiously advances. We called it our hurry-up offense, and it's dangerous as hell. But, we were running short on time and playing it safe just isn't in the job description. Our luck ran short, too, about three hundred meters in from the wire.
Jenny and Pete ran up to an ugly gray building that might have been a warehouse and dashed around the corner. I was about to jump up and follow, when they came back around the corner and threw themselves into an open doorway. Having seen this type of behavior before, I wasn't at all surprised to see five Rigies come boiling around the corner about a femto second later.
I opened up on full auto and two of the Rigies went down. One of the injured Rigies was good and dead, but the other made it to cover with his buddies. He'd only been hit maybe a couple of times, and that's not near enough to stop a Rigie.
I would have just loved to stick around and dealt with this group of Rigies, but we were on a tight schedule. Sarge ordered forward a light plasma gun at the double quick. The plasma gun, with help from a squad of little guys, backed the three Rigies into a corner. While they were pinned down, we goons skirted around and pressed on into the compound.
There wasn't any real chance that those three Rigies would surrender. The very concept of surrender was new to them when the war started. Some little guy, a clerk in an intelligence unit, told me once they even borrowed our word for it.
Basically, the Rigies are big and mean and they never give up. That, in itself, wouldn't mean that they will win the war. The trouble is that the Rigies and the human race happen to be pretty evenly matched in resources and technology. The quantity and quality of ships and weapons are about equal. So, ironically, the edge the Rigelians have in physical strength and ferocity made a real difference in our interstellar war. For a while, they were kicking our butts. The human race needed some big, tough, mean bastards of their own.
The firefight behind us tipped off the Rigies where we were, so Pete, Jenny and I worked our way wide to the right and continued the advance. The intensity of plasma bolts and rifle fire doubled and then doubled again. The Rigies were feeding troops into the firefight we'd touched off. This, we reasoned, would have the effect of pulling them away from the rest of the place. We decided to take advantage of the situation and sprinted along.
Pete and I pulled ahead of Jenny by a dozen meters or so. Any other time one of us would have picked Jenny up and carried her. But we needed both hands free, because who knew what could come boiling around the next corner.
It might seem silly to have little guys like Jenny in our unit at all. But, they're there to make sure we goons feel a personal connection to actual factual human beings and the human race in general. It's the same logic as having us raised by normal foster families. I think it worked. I have a soft spot in my goon heart for Jenny, or at least some impure thoughts.
Pete and I didn't even need to talk. We each could tell what the other was thinking. That's because we've been buddies so long, even before basic training. Pete grew up two blocks east of me, on Lakeshore Boulevard. I can close my eyes and imagine the way over to his house from mine, right past that big, rusty old twentieth-century tank on a concrete pad outside the library.
I think I actually smelled something different first. I stopped short of a right-hand jog in the "road" and carefully peeked around a peeling concrete wall. Ten meters away was a young Rigie standing guard in front of a door. He was alone. At that moment, I knew that we'd found what we'd come to get.
This guy was obviously a low status individual. Rigies don't have a firm, organized system of rank. Leadership and status are based on a combination of fighting prowess, clan ties and seniority. Leadership can change day to day, even hour to hour. It sounds chaotic and inefficient as hell, but let me tell you, it can work pretty damned good for them. With humans inside the wire, every warrior would charge for the sound of the guns. The fact that they left one behind, even this sad puppy, meant that there was a high value item behind that door.
Without a moment's hesitation, I emptied a clip into the guard's blue midsection. Pete and I sprinted towards the door.
The brainstorm that eventually resulted in us goons sprang from the human race's pressing need to match, or better yet exceed, the Rigelians in physical, one on one combat. From what I've heard, the initial attempts at genetic modification experiments ranged from disappointing to truly horrific. It turns out that it's pretty tough to do in one generation what natural selection took maybe a million years to accomplish. They were just about ready to give up when they found the answer.
I hugged the wall on one side of the door. "Squad two to Six. Squad two to Six. Over," I whispered into my mike.
"Squad two. Six. Go," Sarge roared back in my ear, making himself heard over plasma fire in the background.
"Found the cheese. Repeat, found the cheese. Coordinates charlie delta four niner." I read the glowing alphanumeric from my face shield display. "Repeat, charlie delta four niner."
"Copy. Cheese at charlie delta four niner. Hold position. Cavalry coming." Sarge killed the transmission.
Knowing Sarge, I took "hold position" to mean "secure the position." So, Pete kicked the door open and I rushed in, keeping me low and my weapon ready. There was a short corridor that opened up into a large room with a high ceiling. The smell I'd whiffed outside hit me like a brick wall. It was the smell of people who hadn't had anything close to a bath in two or three decades.
There were maybe three hundred of them sitting or lying on the bare concrete floor. This was a warehouse of some kind, not a barracks. The Rigies must have herded them in here on the spur of the moment to keep them from getting in the way, or more probably to make it easier to kill them all quickly.
This was the first batch of humans that the Rigelians had captured, way back at the start of the war. A long time ago there had been a lot more of them. I could only imagine what kind of holy hell these people had been living for decades, and, as it turned out, my imagination came up well short of reality. Freeing them was a big part of the reason we were assaulting this particular mudball.
In fact, I guess you could say that these people were a big part of the reason that we goons exist. The initial justification for the war was to retrieve them, before we figured out that the Rigies were going to try to wipe us all out whether we fought back or not. So we needed to be better at fighting, which led humans to develop goons by genetic modification, which didn't work. Then it dawned on some bright boy that instead of trying to rush Mother Nature through a million years of evolution overnight to make big, mean soldiers we could just use some ready made DNA that was lying around, if slightly scorched. Even at that point in time, cloning was a well-established technology.
The prisoners were staring at Pete and me. Of course they'd never seen a goon before and didn't know what to make of us. But we were wearing a uniform that was pretty close to what they'd worn a long, terror-filled time ago.
Then Jenny shoved her way past us. The people in the room saw her and slowly realized that she was undeniably human, and armed to the teeth. You could see it in their eyes. They were telling themselves that this was some kind of cruel joke or trick. They were trying to beat down the hope that was rising up inside of them.
Jenny looked at them, grinned a wide grin and said, "Remain calm. We're from the government, and we're here to help you."
There was a long pause, and then a woman in the back laughed nervously at the old, old joke. Then they were all laughing, shouting, weeping, staggering forward to touch us and make sure we were real.
Outside I could hear Sarge setting up a perimeter around the place.
I turned to see one prisoner standing next to me. Unlike the others, he was calm. His hair was white as ashes. He was missing his right eye and his left arm ended in a ragged stump just below the elbow. His remaining eye burned with an icy, green fire.
He slowly reached up and tapped my nametag: Toscanelli. "Funny." He spoke in a hoarse whisper that may have had something to do with the scars on his throat, "You don't look Italian."
"Yeah, a lot of people tell me that."
"I'll bet they do."
"Thought you might be." He paused, weighing my human uniform against my electric blue skin. "As a matter of fact, you look more like you're from Rigel."
"Well, my DNA might be from Rigel." I smiled, showing all three rows of razor-sharp, pearly white teeth. "But I'm from Cleveland."
* * *