Authors: Eric S. Brown,Tony Faville
Eric S Brown & Tony Faville
Copyright © 2013 by Eric S Brown & Tony Faville
After The End
Drake leaned against the blackened and burnt out rubble of what had once been someone’s home. His breath came in ragged gasps as he slowly turned his coal grey eyes this way and that, taking in the carnage, as he searched for potential hostiles that might still be in some sort of fighting condition.
The destruction that surrounded him would have been less if an old earth class five hurricane had swept through. So even though he was vigilant, his rational mind told him there was not much possibility of encountering hostiles at the moment.
Sweat mixed with someone else’s blood dripped from his oak brown hair that only the truly brave or mentally disturbed dared to remind him had a touch of gray. His normally crisp black uniform showed the now standard issue darkened and salt encrusted sweat stains near the armpits along with a mixture of human bits from the closer combats he had encountered in today’s foray.
The worst thing, right now, about being planet side, where one of this rocks two suns were always blazing down on you, was how the heat hastened the ripening stench of the chunks and pieces of former soldiers scattered throughout the blasted out buildings. Scarred and twisted metal support trusses reached up towards a fiery orange sky like all too many open fractures. This still smoldering wreckage would be all that remained of New Antrim for some time to come.
The Coalition’s victory here was complete, but had not come without its hard earned pound of flesh. More than half of those who had fought at his side were just as dead, and smelled just as bad, as the Earth loyalists they had crushed in every battle so far.
From what little he could catch on the flooded com channels, it seemed to him that similar victories were being reported from all across the surface of the planet.
Drake fumbled for the crushed cigarette pack he had won in a poker game last night from one of his squad mates. The last time he had seen his battle buddy was sometime later, in the eternal day of this planet, shortly after they had made contact with their first hostiles.
As he recalled, the front of the man’s head was in a big hurry to meet the back of it, just before the whole thing had exploded into a fine red mist.
Drake took a moment to steady his hands as the adrenaline slowly dumped out of his body. Then he dug around in his right breast pocket for his pack of smokes. Shaking out the last nicotine stick, he then handled it like the most precious mineral in the universe and gently straightened a subtle bend.
With ritualistic ceremony, he set flame to the end before dragging a long pull of the acrid smoke deep into his thankful lungs. Looking at the cherry red ember smoldering at the end, he considered how much of a fortune the blasted things went for on the black market, but even so, there were just some things not worth living without.
Only a few feet from where he stood, lay the eviscerated body of an enemy soldier. Purple, sticky and charred strands of intestines trailed out into the dirt from the gaping hole torn in the man’s abdomen. From the still moist drag marks on the ground, Drake could tell the soldier must have survived long enough to attempt to crawl towards cover before he either bled out or succumbed to shock.
Looking closer at the soldiers trousers, he could tell that the dead man had at some point in time, been crawling on his own guts.
Over the years he had been in combat, he had stopped counting them long ago, Drake had gotten used to the sights and smells of death. At least that’s what he told himself as he tried to choke down on his own bile when he noticed the small, mangled arm of a child protruding from the mound of rubble the dead soldier had been trying to reach.
Failing in the attempt to swallow down the bile, he casually cleared his throat, and spat the acidic, yellow fluid onto the ground at his feet.
Humanity was far from alone among the stars they had colonized over the last few centuries. Somehow, Drake had always figured that it would have been the Ratids, the Darians, or even the cult like Geners, who would bring war to the Sol system but for all the threats and skirmishes with those races, none of them had the stones to make a direct run at Earth as the Coalition was doing.
It didn’t matter how fierce and disciplined the Darians were or how brutal the Ra-tids were. Even the Geners and their vaunted superior tech could not match the sheer numbers that the whole of Humanity could throw at them. Like swarming warrior ants, mankind would sweep over them and tear them to shreds in the long run and for all their posturing, those races knew it.
Since the creation of the Mars colony in 2052, humanity had moved through space claiming each new world they had come across as their own. Before the civil war had begun five years ago, there were twenty-six major human colonies across the galaxy.
While they were independent civilizations unto themselves, they were still held together by the central government, cleverly named the Earth Republic, back on Earth.
The civil war between the Earth Republic and the Coalition had engulfed all of the colonies and had already shattered two of the major worlds and a third had fallen here today at the Coalition’s hand.
The corporate masters of the outer colonies were coming to take their home world and Drake was no longer just a small part of it. He found himself directly in the middle, in a key role he had never asked for, nor desired.
Drake was torn from his thoughts as the com-link in his helmet crackled to life.
“Drake, you there?” Flint’s stained voice rasped in a whisper just loud enough to be heard over the com. “We have survivors over in sector 17. We’re herding them over to you.”
“Understood,” Drake grunted. He took a final drag from his smoke, flicked off the red hot cherry, which only served to remind him of the last moments of the man he had gotten the cigarette from and rolled the butt between his fingers before eventually sliding nothing but the small ball of rolled up paper into his pocket.
Checking the magazine of his M-220, he found the metal of the machine-gun/rifle hybrid was still hot even through his thick gloves. To say it had seen its fair share of use in the last few hours would be an obvious understatement. Deftly, he ejected the mag, dropped it into the cargo pocket on his left leg, and drove a fresh one home as he ducked behind the partially standing remnants of the buildings wall he had been leaning against.
Leaning his head back, Drake took a deep breath to clear his mind and waited, enjoying the break from the sun’s relentless rays offered by the small amount of shade from the rubble. As the sound of distant gunfire drew closer, he could hear the panicked screams that intermingled with the shouts of soldiers.
Drake could tell from the voices that there were civilians among the group coming his way and he was about to introduce them all to the fires of Hell.
Gritting his teeth at his mixed up luck at civilians being intermixed with the enemy, he made his move.
Stepping back deeper into the shadows, he slowly brought his weapon to his shoulder, and then carefully leaned over, taking note of how many soldiers, and their exact location in the group of people. Taking a deep breath, and slowly exhaling, Drake cautiously stepped to his right, giving himself a clean field of fire.
With his first three controlled bursts, he took out the three soldiers in point formation before the remaining soldiers were able to dive for temporary cover.
Without the combat training and experience of the soldiers, the civilians, including two men, a woman, and a cluster of four kids in ragged school uniforms, simply huddled together, upright, in the middle of his killing field.
With a quick burst, Drake decimated the unarmed and woefully unprotected group of civilians.
Before the pink mist of a child’s head erupting like a ripe melon could dissipate, his next burst cut the soft flesh of the woman’s midsection in two as the bolt of his weapon locked back on an empty magazine.
Dropping back behind his cover, he dropped the empty magazine into the rubble at his feet. Sliding a fresh mag into the receiver, he hit the bolt release, and sank into a crouch as the remaining soldiers returned fire.
Smiling as their rounds hammered into the chunks of rubble above his head, Drake lowered his head slightly as a few rounds found chinks in his cover, penetrating its thick block structure and raining dust down over him.
He waited with the satisfaction that his ambush had the desired effect. Successfully stopping the groups forward advance, he had bought Flint and the others a chance to overtake them from behind, and quickly move in for the kill.
Waiting patiently, he smiled again at the familiar staccato of Flint's squad and their weapons fire. In seconds, the area was silent except for the whooping and cheers of Flint and his victorious squad.
Drake got to his feet, thoughtlessly flicking the safety up on his weapon, and calling out to Flint before stepping out of the shadows to meet them.
He stepped over one of the kid’s crumpled form, averting his eyes from the bloody mess of the severed spine that poked through the torn cloth of the boy’s blue and yellow school uniform.
“Fragging hell, Drake,” Flint waved to him. “You got those bastards good. I was about to think you weren’t going to leave any of ‘em for us, man.”
Drake nodded, accepting the compliment but kept his mouth shut, knowing all too well, there wasn’t anything he felt like saying, at least not out loud anyway.
Dinah stared at the recruiting advert continuously playing on the full wall vid screen that made up one of the waiting room’s wall. Dim blue light was reflected off the gunmetal grey that made up the rest of the tiny undecorated office walls. It quickly cycled through images of young men and women from both the Fleet and the Infantry in active service. In between glimpses of their smiling faces and perfectly tailored uniforms, it also showed scene after scene of some of Earth’s great victories in the seemingly never-ending, five year long civil war with the outer planets who called themselves the Coalition.
There was a shot of the great Earth Republic Fleets Battle Fortress Tao, pockmarked and battle scarred but in high orbit above the blasted remains of seven Coalition battle cruisers as their debris slowly floated down in a fiery decaying orbit towards Solstice.
Yet another image featured a glorified and overly romanticized scene of a squad of battle ravaged Earth Republic Infantry raising an Earth Republic flag over the capital of the Coalition world Doxam.
Dinah’s gut tightened as her body felt both excited and terrified by the images flashing across the vid screen before her. It was only yesterday that she had turned eighteen, and like all citizens of the Earth Republic, she was required to serve a four year stint in the Armed Forces. Despite the media’s progressively failing propaganda to the contrary, there was no doubt that Earth Republic was beginning to falter in the war and the long time stalemate of power between the two was shifting in the Coalitions favor.
Dinah jumped slightly in her seat as her mother gently squeezed her hand and said, “It’s your turn, Dinah. The Sergeant is waiting.”
“Sorry, Mom,” Dinah tore her emerald green eyes away from the worry line wrinkled face of her mother. With a quick goodbye hug to the one who had given birth to her and had been there to care for every hurt she had suffered these last eighteen years, she rose and headed across the room towards the Sergeant’s office door.
When she opened the door, she could see in the dim light that sitting behind a desk of the same cold gunmetal grey color of the rest of the complex, an ugly and scarred man of indeterminate age who reminded her of a troll from old Earth legend.
“Good morning, 'script,” he greeted her in a gravelly voice that was at the same time both cold and formal. Without looking up from a hand held vid he seemed to be scrolling through, he motioned with his free hand to a straight backed metal chair bolted to the floor positioned across the desk from where he was squatting on an obviously abused and overtaxed metal chair beneath him.
Dinah realized her palms were slick from sweat brought on by her nerves, so she began wiping them on her pants as she caught a glimpse of her image on his hand held vid.
She watched him closely as his eyes darted back and forth across the screen, scanning her file. His eyes stopped moving for a moment, then locked onto hers from across the top of the screen. Only then did she notice the scar across his right eye and the milky white eyeball that seemed to bore right into her as if attempting to penetrate her facade and soul.
Leaning back in his chair, he locked his fingers together across his chest and asked, "Have you made your decision yet, Ms. Ridge?"
Dinah nodded her head and averted her eyes. "As a matter of fact, Sir, I have. My father was in the Infantry and that's where I would like to serve too. Follow in his footsteps, if you will."
The troll of a Sergeant frowned at her. "First off, Ms. Ridge, don't you ever call me Sir. I work for a living. It's Sergeant Frey, or just Sergeant will suffice. Secondly, you’re seriously choosing the Infantry? I would heavily advise against that."
Dinah's cheeks flared red as if he'd slapped them. "With all due respect, Sergeant," she said, placing special emphasis on the pronunciation of the word Sergeant, "It's my right as a citizen to choose the branch of service I enter. I have already passed all the required courses for the Earth Republic Infantry, physical, psychological and academic."
The troll stifled a laugh by coughing into his burn-scarred left hand that was missing half an index finger. "That you did, just barely in the physical fitness tests. It looks to me like you had more than a few problems with the pull-ups. However, you blew the top out of the Earth Republic Fleet aptitude tests and the Earth Command ones. Your scores were so high in fact, the system flagged you as a possible Gener."
Dinah's knuckles went white from the force with which she gripped the arms of her chair. "Sir, I...," she started hurriedly before the Sergeant cut her off.
"Sergeant, Ms. Ridge, Sergeant. My parents were married, get the picture? Now just don't go getting your pretty, pink panties in a bunch. Not even the brass was stupid enough to think that it was true," he said. "You're just what we'd call exceptionally gifted. There are actual officers serving in the fleet who'd do worse on those tests than you did. I just want you to understand how bright your future could be if you go with either the Earth Republic Fleet or join the rest of those training to be the bastard sons of commissioned officers over at Earth Command."
Reaching over to the side of his desk, he grabbed a framed picture and passed it over to her. She looked down at the picture and saw a handsome young man with chiseled features standing proudly in his crisply pressed blue dress uniform. Looking closely at the picture, she was barely able to tell it was the same man sitting across the desk from her.
Pulling a silver flask from his hip pocket, he unscrewed the lid, took a pull of a liquid that smelled heavily of bourbon, and then set it on the edge of the desk. "Yeah, that was me, taken right after I completed Initial Training. I spent the next ten miserable years of my life trudging across some of the bloodiest and nastiest terrain imaginable, fighting in just about every one of the early battles of this war before what remained of me came to rest in this chair. I can assure you, if you do go Infantry, you'll be nothing more than another chunk of fresh meat for the brass to run through the grinder, and you won't have an armored hull protecting you."
"I've read the data on survival rates, Sergeant." Dinah fought to keep her voice controlled and calm. "I am well aware of what being a ground pounder means, and I would rather have my fate lay with my training and the troops around me than to be stuck behind a bulkhead praying there is not a hull breach."
Shaking his head sadly, the Sergeant looked up at her and his good eye betrayed him slightly. "The choice is yours, Ms. Ridge, and it is your right as you have so eloquently stated. You just need to understand, it is my duty, based on your scores, to recommend against it."
Dinah nodded, feeling a wave of relief washing over her. The Sergeant forced a smile that looked more like a tired grimace, as he downloaded her orders to her Identicard. "Congratulations and welcome to the Earth Republic Infantry, Ms. Ridge”. Handing her the crisp new plastisteel Indenticard, Sergeant Frey paused and then continued, “Just do me a favor, and go kick some Coalition ass for me."
Dinah's mother met her with a smile as she walked out of the office. "Your father would have been so proud," her mom said, sweeping Dinah into her arms.
Dinah felt like crying and tears burned in her eyes but she fought them away. She wasn't exactly a little girl anymore. She was going to be a soldier and allowing herself the luxury of such a public display of emotion didn’t seem right anymore.
The transit ride home was going to be a long one but nowhere near as long as her last night in what had been her room since childhood would be as she lay awake waiting for morning and the call to ship out.