(First chapter of a nearly finished post-apocalyptic, alien invasion, military science fiction novel. Not sure why I can no longer get proper formatting in these posts anymore…)
I watched the endless lines of humans allow themselves to be herded to their deaths from three miles away. The combat scope’s digital zoom was top-notch, and allowed me to see too much detail. A woman in a torn red dress, crying with two children clutched to her chest, a family of at least eight, most of the children still in their pre-teen years, a group of at least thirty senior citizens, all of them too dazed to resist as they were led like cattle to the slaughterhouse.
The building that housed the Kai ovens reminded me of a warped children’s toy, one invented by a sadistic madman. Instead of malleable clay being fed into one end and spaghetti or pizza coming out the other, this one took in human beings and belched out an oily, blackish-grey smoke that hung in the air like thick smog. I wondered if the Kai had bothered to learn some human history, then decided to pick one of the most terrible events ever recorded as a fitting end for us. We had no idea what the Kai had done to the Hanura, other than once the Wire had gone silent, their amusing voices no longer chattering on the network, we knew that they’d become part of galactic history. The same with The Seven, our other ally against the Kai. Maybe this was the way that the Kai always vanquished their foes.
A commotion to the right caught my attention and I shifted the scope. A Kai soldier had picked up a human in each of its two powerful hands and carried them toward the entrance of the furnace. The two Kai soldiers guarding the doorway stepped forward to block the mass of humans while their comrade dragged the kicking, screaming men inside the building. The soldier reappeared three seconds later, and began patrolling the area as if nothing had happened. I thumbed the power button on the scope and rolled over when the Kai began shuffling people into the incinerator again. I couldn’t watch anymore.
“How bad is it?” Sergeant McAdams asked me from a few feet down the hillside.
“The same as Denver, Salt Lake, and Great Falls,” I whispered down to her.
“Come on, let’s go,” she said.
I slid down the hill, grabbing on to the sergeant’s arm to steady myself once I reached her. She gave me a hard smile, one that looked full of regret that I’d been chosen to scout the scene playing out on the other side of the hill. I thought I was going to be all right until my stomach rippled and my knees buckled. I spewed C-rations all over the soft dirt and pine needles, barely missing her boots.
“Dana—” she started, but I held up my hand to let her know I was okay.
I tried to stand, but my stomach lurched again, and I fell back to my knees. I couldn’t get the images out of my head, no matter how many times I gagged, puked, and coughed. The familiar, cold, acidic pit began to form in my stomach. Hearing that the Kai were putting the last of us to the torch was one thing. Seeing it in action in four major cities was another, especially when I considered that it was happening all over the world. I felt Sergeant McAdams’ hand on my back. She’d knelt down and tried to comfort me as best she could while I fell apart. We’d all done it, and this wasn’t my first time. I’d been there for Sergeant McAdams, Krista when we weren’t acting in an official military capacity, when she’d popped after watching the citizens of Salt Lake City being funneled to their deaths.
Her hand moved from the middle of my back to around my shoulders. I dry-heaved one last time, then put my arms around her. We held each other for a few minutes, the silence overpowering anything we might have said to each other. There was nothing left to say.
“It’s the end of the line for us,” I whispered.
Krista touched her forehead to mine and forced a smile onto her lips. I wanted to break down and cry, but it wouldn’t do any good. I returned her smile and let her help me up.
“Where do you think Sergeant Lowell will want to go next?” I asked as we made our way down the hillside to the tree line.
“Hell if I know,” she answered. “If the bastards are in places like Missoula and Great Falls, then they’ll be pretty much everywhere. If not now, then when the bigger cities are empty.”
We walked for another fifteen minutes until we were deep under the pine forest canopy. Private Monohan challenged us with an FoF ping when we crossed the camp’s perimeter motion sensor ring. Sergeant McAdams touched the comm screen sewn into the left forearm of her fighting suit, letting the three automated turrets know that we were friendlies. The KTL-300 automatic plasma repeaters were a bitch to lug around, especially over the two thousand miles we’d had to carry them, but when the enemy came calling, a single 300 could target and fire with the efficiency of ten Terran Marines.
We’d lost six of them since Little Rock, but then again, we were what was left of the 140-man B-Company. Sergeant Vasquez and Corporal Jordan were the only two left from all of A-Company, which was better than SPC Goldman, who we picked up outside of Denver. Goldman was the only surviving member of the 133rd. When we’d found him and heard his story, all I could think of was how weird it must be to be the only person left out of an entire twenty-five thousand man division.
These days, I had a pretty good idea. Goldman wasn’t alone in sharing such a burden. Ensign Kirilenko, a combat nurse from the 7th Support Wing, Gold Fleet, was, as far as she (or anyone still living) knew, the last surviving member of the entire Terran Navy. I’m sure there are still a few human ships out there somewhere, but by the time the call came in alerting us that the Kai had taken our home system, none were broadcasting on the Wire.
We’d heard about the Kai extermination camps on the Wire, and had raced home from TS-137, the last standing outpost of humanity, sixteen light years away. The enemy fleet had slaughtered us when we’d spun down from Q-space. We had translated into the system in the asteroid belt, two light minutes above the plane of the ecliptic, with over sixteen hundred warships and nearly two million marines. It was everything we had left.
There’d been arguments that maybe we should try and use our forces to break through the lesser-defended Kai regions and on to deep space beyond. We had enough genetic diversity to restart our civilization somewhere else, and we had enough tech, fuel, and food to make life difficult but not impossible until we could get a resource production system going. The argument against it was partly that we’d assembled the largest fleet ever known (to humans, anyway, as we would find out a week later), which gave too many of the command ranks too much confidence. The Kai were decent fighters with superior tech. Humans were superior fighters with weaker (and mostly stolen, then hybridized) tech, which gave our generals and admirals the idea that if we overwhelmed the enemy with numbers, our numbers would be the winning factor.
When the orders were handed out, my first thought was that we were making another wrong decision. We’d made a series of wrong decisions, all the way back to when the Terran Coalition decided it was a good idea to join forces with the Hanura and The Seven to take on the Kai. It must have seemed as if we’d easily route the Kai and send them home to lick their wounds while they sued for peace, lest we impose blockades and sanctions on them. For a while, it seemed as if the strategists and think-tanks had been correct in their predictions and endless simulations. Then, I guess, the Kai finally decided to do more than swat at annoying flies.
Someone higher up than my pay grade had apparently forgotten to do some history homework. The Kai were already feared in our neck of the galaxy, but for the most part, as long as no one intruded upon their domain, an empire that stretched across 12,000 light years, they ignored the other races. The Hanura and the Kai got into a spat about something, then The Seven began fighting with them soon after. I guess humans decided it was time to get some fightin’ in, since we’d been at peace with our neighbors for almost a century other than minor conflicts (and whenever one of our own colonies needed to have an uprising quelled). At some point, the Hanura and The Seven formed an alliance with the Terran Coalition, and then it was on, as the old saying goes.
The history lesson would have been the Varu and the Hoerus. We found out about them three months after a very furious Kai representative landed in Gelta-III’s capital city, hacked the airwaves and the local Wire, and explained to humanity that there would now be no quarter, no mercy given for bringing war to the Kai. The rep then proceeded to go on a killing spree with two small automated combat mechs, eliminating almost four thousand humans before being brought down by the local Terran Home Guard units.
Someone had finally decided to ask around about our new adversaries, and what we found out is that we were up against an enemy who didn’t believe in winning and losing like most of the galaxy’s denizens did. The Kai, when angered, exterminated their enemies. Down to the very last member of the species. They’d gone to war with the Varu more than a millennium earlier, and had defeated them within the first forty years. The Kai spent the next three centuries hunting down every last Varu in the galaxy. During that three hundred year hunt, the Kai had wiped out the Hoerus simply for helping the Varu hide or escape.
The big mystery for humanity had been exactly how the Kai went about exterminating their enemies. Once the Kai had an opponent surrounded, the Wire went dead, and none of the races watching from the sidelines ever heard from the doomed civilization again. At least we knew the answer to the mystery now.
“Shit,” First Sergeant Lowell muttered when McAdams told him what I’d seen. “Shit fucking shit.”
“What are we gonna do, Sarge?” Private Grummond asked.
“We’re gonna shut the fuck up and let Sergeant Lowell tell us what we’re gonna do,” Sergeant Vasquez growled.
“That’s right, Pedro,” Sgt. Lowell said, looking up. Lowell was the only one allowed to use Vasquez’s nickname.
Helen Kirilenko, the Navy ensign, sat down next to me. She looked sad, defeated, but still had a tiny spark left within her that kept her going. How, I don’t know. She’d watched her entire fleet become atomized carbon, and then during the massive escape pod exodus from the doomed ships, she watched again as what seemed like millions of Kai fighters picked off thousands of her comrades before the pods could enter Earth’s atmosphere. Not that hitting the atmosphere was any safer, as the Kai defensive batteries had opened up the second the pods came within five miles of the ground.
How the woman wasn’t a puddle of emotional goo, or worse, a catatonic zombie, was beyond me. Especially for the fact that she wasn’t a combat soldier, and the closest she’d been to the fighting before crashing into her home planet outside of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, had been measured in terms of light years. I decided it was the Russian genes in her that made her tougher than just about all of us. I put my arm around her and gave her a soft smile. I hoped the misery of what I’d witnessed from the hilltop didn’t make my smile resemble a mad clown’s grin. She returned the smile and gave my bicep a squeeze.
“Lofgren,” Sgt. Lowell called out to me.
“Yes, Sir,” I said, standing up and saluting the highest ranking soldier left in the Terran Coalition.
“Quit hamming, Lofgren,” he said. “Did you notice anything new or different down there?”
“No, Sir” I said. “Same basic setup, just a lot less of the bastards since Missoula isn’t Houston or Seattle.”
“What about defenses? Patrols? Surveillance units?”
“You planning on trying to liberate that camp, Mike?” McAdams asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” Lowell said. He looked over at me again. “What do you think, Private?”
I shrugged. “It’s a terrible idea, but whatever.”
“Why is it a terrible idea?” he asked. The entire camp had stopped and was listening to our conversation.
“There’s what… thirteen of us?” I asked. He nodded. “Okay, so we got thirteen meat sacks and three of the 300’s left, but those aren’t so hot for offensive missions. But let’s say we got them set up, without being detected, and somehow, through magic or divine intervention, we defeat or drive the Kai off from the area. What then? There’s probably twenty thousand citizens left down there, who knows, but that’s not even as important was what the fuck we’re gonna do when our liberation instantly converts them into twenty thousand refugees. We have enough weapons and ammo for maybe ten extra soldiers. We don’t have enough food to feed even a hundred of them. Then there’s the bigger question, which is how the Kai will respond to our little liberation.”
“They’ll come at us hard,” Vasquez said.
“As hard as they did our home system,” I said in agreement.
Lowell and the others nodded. When our fleet had translated out of Q-space, we’d been expecting a thousand, maybe as many as three thousand Kai warships waiting for us. In fact, Fleet Command had run the simulations to see what the theoretical limit of enemy strength required to defeat our combined fleet would be. The sim servers at TS-137 had predicted that we could still win in a situation where we were outnumbered three to one. When the sensors lit up after translation, no one believed it at first. The Kai had almost twenty thousand heavy warships parked from Mercury to Neptune. The tactical nets had nearly melted from having to track such a large number of enemies.
“So what you’re saying,” Lowell said, “is that we should do what the dipshits from Command didn’t do, which is to get the fuck out of Dodge and survive as long as we can.”
“That’s a good plan,” Sergeant McAdams said softly.
“I’ll second that,” Private Talamentez said, her voice full of resolve, though she looked as devastated as I felt after hearing that Missoula was just like everywhere else.
“And just let all of our people become firewood?” Specialist Hollingsworth asked.
“What the fuck are we going to do?” Private Bishara, the only Muslim among us, probably the only Muslim left alive by now, asked in a heated tone. “Lofgren already said all there is to say. Even if we liberate Missoula, the Kai will hunt us down.”
“We can’t just let them die!” Hollingsworth shouted. “They might be the last ones left besides us!”
“Too fuckin’ bad,” Corporal Jordan said. When Hollingsworth shot him a hateful glare, he gave her his middle finger. “That’s what they get for not getting off their asses and joining the Corps to fight.”
“You’re a real humanitarian,” she said with disgust. The specialist looked around to the rest of us. “So that’s it then? This is it? We just wander around the country, maybe around the world, and take note of how every single city has been emptied out and dumped into the ovens?”
“It’s the end of the line for us,” Sergeant McAdams said, but her eyes were locked on me.
“That it is,” Lowell agreed. “But not today. Maybe not for a while, if we’re lucky and we keep our heads on straight.”
“So,” Monohan said from behind me, “our plan now is to… what? Survive and…? Repopulate the planet after these assholes have wiped everyone out and gone home?”
“They ain’t going anywhere,” Goldman said. Everyone turned to him. “The Kai swallow up their enemies’ systems. There’s a thousand light year wall pinning us in. No one knows what they do once they’ve cleansed a planet, but they damn sure don’t take their toys and go back home when they’re done.”
“Where did you hear this?” Lowell asked.
“I was attached to Command S-7 before Green Fleet was annihilated at Pavonis. The Coalition had sent automated drones deep into Kai space to find the remnants of the Varu and others. The Navy sent at least one per day, and they kept that up for almost thirty years, until someone decided the trillions of dollars spent on the program had been a total waste.”
“None ever returned, eh?” Lowell asked, scratching his cheek as if in deep thought.
“Nope,” Goldman said with a sigh. “The best intel we were getting was from the Rizor Empire, as they’d been around as long as the Kai. It should have been a sign when the Empire suddenly cut their Wire with us. Command had always assumed that the Empire and the Kai were evenly matched, but when the price of losing a war is total extermination…”
“They weren’t gamblers, I guess,” McAdams said.
“None of this helps us,” Hollingsworth said.
She’d lost some of the bitterness that had erupted earlier, but I wondered if she wasn’t starting to crack. I hoped I didn’t have to shoot her in the back if she got a crazy idea to try and liberate Missoula by herself. I hated the thought of it, but it was either her, or the twelve of us. Missoula, and every other city on the planet, was doomed no matter what we did.
“Before the planetary Wire went dead,” Kirilenko said, standing up, “there was talk of the underground complexes in Moscow, Berlin, and Alaska.” Everyone looked at her as if she’d grown a second head.
“There ain’t no fuckin’ underground utopias, goddammit!” Jordan shouted, making most of us jump from his sudden explosion. “There’s no Captain Johnny Hero coming in from deep space with a ragtag fleet of misfits to save us at the last moment. There ain’t no fuckin’ cigar-chomping, hardass colonel assembling a crack team of special operations spooks to blow up the Kai main generator or power source or whatever the fuck, so we can win the war. The war is fuckin’ over! We lost! We backed the wrong horse, and now we’re fucked! Get used to it!”
The camp was quiet other than the light rustling of the pine trees in the breeze. Corporal Jordan’s face was red, his angry glare directed at Kirilenko for a good fifteen seconds before slowly passing over the rest of us, as if daring any of us to deny the truth of his words.
“I’m sorry,” Helen whispered, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
I gave her shoulders a squeeze, and she nearly hugged my ribs to the breaking point. No one said anything, no one moved, no one wanted to break the silence. Finally, Sergeant Vasquez cleared his throat.
“We need to at least get the fuck out of here. I want to be fifteen miles away from here by the time night falls. Those bastards are hard enough to fight in the daytime. They’ve got proper tech that can spot us in the dark like we’re holding a fusion torch.” He looked at Sergeant Lowell, only a First Sergeant, but it was enough to be the senior officer. Lowell nodded his head. “Right. Lofgren and Hollingsworth and Goldman, you three are on 300 duty. Pack ‘em up and get ‘em ready to move. Bishara, Monohan, and Grummond, do your best to wipe any trace of our existence from this spot. The rest of you, get suited up. We’re moving out in ten minutes.”