Guaranteed Analysis: An Eventuality Tale
We fell towards Horatio-17 in one of 600-plus eight-man drop ships. We were all strapped tightly into our harnesses, but the turbulence still tossed us around like marbles in a tin can, causing a few of us to lose their morning chow. The motion didn't bother me -- but the sight of three people spewing their guts out did. By the time the ship started to burn a path through the night sky I was retching with the best of them, the vomit plastering itself into every crevice it could find under the torture of high-gee.
Instinctively I checked my weapon. The Infantry 10-2-8, commonly known as the 28, was a true multipurpose weapon: a compact rail gun that would accelerate any ammo that would fit to a couple thousand clicks per second. Depending on the mission, we might carry anything from solid slugs to encapsulated bacterial fungicides and chemical sterilizers to needle-sized rockets with high-explosive warheads. For this trip, I had opted for bio/chem loads -- two clips of a particularly nasty quick acting defoliant with another four D-loads on standby.
On Horatio-17, bullets and rockets came second, if at all. Plants the size of small ground cars with their roots and most of their mass underground rarely cared if you shot them. Rockets would destroy large sections of their leafy parts but would do very little to the root system. These things were like icebergs on the ocean; you saw so little of the actual monster, until it was too late. I have seen a trooper walk over smoldering remains only to watch him be impaled by a stem from the root system. It took us days to kill that plant.
I braced myself with a mild stim-breath and pulled down the visor of my armor and read the blue safeties as they told me that all was well in my little-self contained-world. Every time I dropped onto a new planet I remembered something a fungal-infection instructor once told us: "We can train you to pull your own toe off but it will never be the same until you have to do it." It was an anti-climactic phrase but one that seemed to strike home just as the doors opened and I got my first glimpse of the wide patch we’d just fried to create an LZ and the encroaching green nightmare trying to make its way back in.
I was second out, my small AG belt providing a gentle drop, and the sensors in my armor came alive. Combat. The readouts told me everything -- from the residual heat from the weapon we’d just fired to the virulent spore-laden atmosphere we’d just been dumped into.
I dropped to one knee and took a covering stance as the rest of my squad took up their positions. As the last of them hit the dirt the drop ship pulsed its drive and shot straight into the air on autopilot. Now bereft of human cargo it rose at a brain-squishing rate. I was amazed.
The Natives were restless. My boot came down on something black, it popped, and readouts told me that I had just ruptured some kind of egg-like spore body. Further information came in and I felt my guts twist as I realized that I had just stepped into deep shit.
We had just vaporized a nursery and the land of writhing, spiked, stems sliding our way did not seem one bit happy about it. As I prepped my first D-load I realized that I didn’t blame them for being angry.
I had been on Horatio-17 for all of 33 seconds before I fired my first shot. The LZ had not been as efficiently cleared as we had all thought and these fuckers were fast. This had become horribly apparent when a three-foot-long barbed thistle skewered one of ours --RT Lizze Smara. She might have survived that except that after it had gone through her it extended those barbs as it retracted into the ground. It nearly turned her inside out. I nearly turned inside out as I’d been with her since our first after-basic train-up. She had been a good soldier with an endless wit. Now she was fertilizer in a place that didn't need it.
A quick review of latent-imaging showed a rapidly advancing "Bunny-trail" just before the spike shot up out of the ground and through our squad mate. I noticed that everyone went from scanning around them and focused their gaze to the blackened soil at their feet. It seemed like the tendrils came all at once and we all opened fire, each using our preferred method of destruction, myself using the defoliant on an explosive tipped penetration round. I was going for depth to get under the root system, then the round exploded upward and killed instantly.
The strategy worked up to a point. The problem was that we had so disturbed the soil that it all looked jumbled and upturned and was still so churned from residual energy that even if dozens of the damn things were coming our way it would be another minute or so before the ground settled enough to were we could see it coming.
Even veterans can act like fucking amateurs sometimes.
Fortunately, our lieutenant did not. He turned to me and growled, "RT2nd Catch, pass it along: use secondary comm units as passive seismographs. Just throw ‘em!"
It worked brilliantly. Each of us focused on our own comm unit; when it relayed the hiss and crackle as the plant tendrils carved their way through the soil, we knew trouble was coming from that direction. We cut up dozens more of the fucking things before they even got close. The method worked, disturbed soil or not. After the LZ was clear, command passed the word to every squad leader on the planet. The lieutenant's bright idea saved dozens of lives -- and killed hundreds of the enemy.
For this infraction the Natives hit back and all at once. It was only after the counter-offensive had been put down-twenty-five hours later that it was determined by the chemist officer that the Natives were using pollen to convey tactical information. We brought in weather satellites to help control prevailing air currents -- a stopgap measure, but it gave us time to regroup and count our dead.
For the next two days we fought on the run and we would gain ground only to lose it again. After a week we were fighting a stalemate and it was realized that we were going to have to come up with something, and quick, or we were going to nuke the planet to sterilize it -- losing it to human terra-forming for a decade while the radiation wept away. We didn’t want to wait that long. We would if we had to, but a conventional victory was always preferable.
It nearly happened, too -- the sterilization option, that is. An Admiral surveying his troops lost a hand to a fungal stinger fired by a Native hiding in a trap-door. It was rumored that as the admiral's aides strung the Native up, cutting him from his main root system, to let him dry out under solar lamps, the admiral said "Fuck it, fuse it." But a guard, a non-com who was standing watch and was in charge of positioning the solar lamps on the captured Native, came up with an idea, inspired by but opposite of the way they were killing the prisoner.
"Water, sir. Dry a plant out, and it dies. But too much water kills plants even faster."
So it did and it was actually in line with one of the major terra-forming goals. Our forces had already positioned hundreds of massive water-ice comets, some natural, some artificial, in-system in preparation of creating oceans, lakes and rivers.
Calculations were done and another hundred artificial comets were brought in. One by one at first, then two by two, and so on, we dropped megatons of ice onto the planet. It rained for two years straight with an average of ten inches per day. During this action the fleet used solar reflectors to increase ambient humidity by 200%. Within six months most minor Natives had simply wilted under too much rainfall and half way into the second year the rest had begun to die due to humidity driven disease and reduced sunlight. The planet's population was dwindling fast -- but they still mounted a number of major offensives.
The battle of Hill 337 was a particularly gruesome example of this, but it was nearly the last of such actions. After three years, the fight had simply gone out of them and we were told to expect a group of senior delegates to discuss terms. I knew from experience that the Natives were not going to like our terms -- but they simply didn’t have a choice. They could make peace -- or be exterminated.
Each of the four Natives was large and very impressive, similar looking to the ancient earth Cycad. Scans told us that these plants were all well over a thousand years old. They were almost stately in their movements, their main root systems stabbing into the ground that smaller water plants were saturating before them, their secondary roots buzzing in the air as if tasting it or twitching in nervousness.
They were here to meet with their human conquerors and to bow to any condition put before them. If they wanted to save what was left of their species they would do so with a smile on their stamens. It had already been decided that the native species of Horatio-17 was not going to get much and that they damn well better be happy with what they got.
After three hours the remaining population of Horatio-17 had been given a continent in which to live. They accepted it with a well played weariness, and once the meeting came to a close they even offered a token of grudging respect. It was a Native foodstuff, non-sentient, and they explained that over the previous three years that they had actually fed this to POW’s and that they thrived on it -- so much so that they discontinued the practice, since healthy, vigorous prisoners were more likely to cause trouble.
The Admiral in charge thanked the Natives for the offer with a wave of his biomechanical hand (yes, it was that Admiral) and passed it on to an aide. It was against regulations for officers of Earth Guard to accept tokens of any sort, especially from an enemy force, so it would probably be used as a supplementary crop for the initial group of colonists. Personally the admiral could care less and just wanted to get of Horatio-17 as quickly as duty allowed. Let the civilians eat the fucking salad!
A year later the heavy cruiser Guaranteed Analysis dropped into a defensive polar orbit as it had been tasked with a non-scheduled stopover to investigate the loss of comms with the entire planet. Personally I was a bit surprised to be back here again -- once had been more than enough. The thoughts of all of those I knew who had died here rushed back in like a tide of sorrow.
I could still see the look of pain on Smara’s face as that thistle had torn through her, hear Reynolds's screams as he’d fallen onto the root from a hundred meters up -- and there were fifty other faces of pain I’d never forget. I was going over my 28’s load-out when my door chimed. I’d moved up and as such rated a private (but still tiny) cabin. "Come in."
Training got me to my feet on the double as a full colonel walked in. He waved me down with a sweeping gesture and a brusque "At ease." After a pause, he said, "RT2nd Miles Catch, correct?"
I nodded and belted out a "Yes, Sir, how can I help you, Sir?"
He asked me if I’d care to join him for a walk. I of course nodded and we left my small cabin and made our way to the ship's secondary row of shuttle bays.
As we approached bay 27, I thought that I could hear screaming of a type I had never even heard during combat. We entered the bay as the senior officers net cleared the security system and before us was a type-5 planetary shuttle with its forward hull stripped and replaced by a clear type of armor used for view ports. In effect it was set up for observational purposes. What we were observing was human but one so pitiful that I nearly had to turn away.
The colonel noticed my reaction and led me back out of the bay into its upper control deck and closed the shutters. "You’ve been to Horatio-17 before, eh?"
I nodded, still trying to clear my head. "Yes, sir, almost four years ago during the initial put-down."
The senior was nodding "What were your impressions?"
I started with the word ‘Brutal’ and ended with the word ‘Unforgiving’ and this for some reason was cause enough to make the colonel smile. I could tell he’d just made a decision.
"The person you just saw in the shuttle is one of the guards stationed along Horatio’s island 8 --the one used as a reservation for the planet's remaining Natives." The colonel paused for effect.
I decided that I wasn't in the mood for games. If that trooper wasn't dying, he looked like he wished that he were. "What’s wrong with that guy -- sir?"
"I beg your pardon?"
I had seen people go off a drug before, and it was nothing compared to this. This wretch had torn most of his skin off and had been stacking it in piles. Then he was taking bundles of his own bloody hide and wringing them like wet rags, squeezing droplets into his mouth. And his screams -- his long, mournful screams were the stuff of legend.
"All we know is that the substance is made on the planet below and that we can no longer reliably contact over 40,000 colonists and service members."
"I beg your pardon?"
I already had my suspicions of where exactly the drug -- whatever it was -- had come from on the planet. But it was never wise to guess in front of your superiors so I waited for the explanation. When I got it I wasn’t happy.
I wasn't angry at the Natives for finding a way to strike back, or at our own forces for being so stupid or blind as not to pick up on it sooner. I was scared. Hell, we had four colony ships headed this way, almost a half million people on a slow burn in Gallagher Safes. If they became addicted, as every human on Horatio-17 seemed to be...
Once again, here I was dropping onto this little shit-ball of a planet and this time I had even less to go on than before. Was I only going to be fighting and killing the Natives or would I be up against drug-crazed colonists and armed troopers? Trying to take it all into consideration we went in under stealth and heavily armed. The ship felt sluggish under its armor cladding, even to the FNG's who'd never made a real drop.
We landed rather than making quick-drops, and the drop-ship began to erect fortified defense layers, with everything from inflatable sleeping units to a make-shift factory and hospital. Hatches then popped and out flew a dozen AG-drones to take up a perimeter. They were nasty little things... With my ship and the dozen others, we had a secure perimeter of a hundred square miles. On top of that the Guaranteed Analysis was watching overhead with the promise of orbital bombardment that could be called upon at a moments notice. In short, we were as well defended as you could get.
I stepped back onto the surface of Horatio-17 for the first time in years and instantly dropped to one knee. We were expecting the worst. My peripheral heads-up display showed my squad -- a hand picked bunch -- every man and woman either a veteran or a specialist with medical or xenobiology training -- taking their assigned spots around me. Each of us had a predetermined position in a pattern that left no weak spots.
The first thing assaulted were my senses, especially my sense of smell, and my armor automatically damped down that synth-sense, muting the data feed relaying chemical trace data from its external sensors. We were all buttoned up to protect against any bio or chem attack, but what the synth-sense had conveyed had been enough to identify the stench of decay and neglect. In all of my years of combat I had never come close to smelling anything quite like it. It was almost like they had tried to stink the place up.
But then they came at us, quick, frenzied, as if starving, and it was all we could do to pick them off. It barely registered at first that we were dropping fellow humans, soldiers even. Our minds simply registered threats and acted accordingly.
What followed, over the next four days, was unlike anything a modern battle force had ever had to deal with. I remembered reading about the reactions of allied soldiers near the end of World War II discovering concentration camps. They couldn't believe what had happened -- what had been done to the prisoners by other technically-human beings.
I noticed troopers even pinning photos of both such events onto their armor or other such gear as a morbid reminder of how bad things could and did get. And with each day, with each death of another human, our sense of anger, our sense of hatred grew. I believe that it was the last colony village we came across that sealed it for us. We couldn’t take it anymore.
Ironically enough the small colony village was named Little Berlin and the sights there were unlike anything I had ever been prepared for. The population was indeed squeezing the absorbed drug from the skin of their fellows, they were that juiced, and then there were the distilling vats. It went on from there, sure, but what really took us over the edge were the Natives on the outskirts of town, docile and seemingly dormant, knowing what they had unleashed.
We broke the treaty by killing them and I took full responsibility. Then, after three days more on the ground killing everything we came into contact with my squad rotated back to the Guaranteed Analysis and in force we made our argument to N-bomb the place. Apparently we had not been the only senior squad to have tendered the same opinion and we were all given the chance to sign our names or scrawl a personal note onto the Neutron-tipped bombs that were about to be dropped from orbit. Very little would be left. Geologic features mostly.
I pulled a few strings and called in a favor to have my squad and I set up with a ringside seat, an auxiliary armored bubble near the primary missile bays. Watching a Merit-Class ship like the Guaranteed Analysis fire a planet-wasting salvo of N-bombs is something that you don't see often, if ever. I found it to be impressive as well as satisfying. I imagined the deaths of the Natives and was even glad for the deaths of the rest of the humans on the planet below. At least their suffering would be over.
In the end we spent another month on Horatio-17. Deep scans had showed us that -- amazingly --not everything had been killed, and teams were rotated -- quickly, and often, due to the radiation -- in and out to determine what had survived. Ours was one of the last. The place was a horror-show, that much was clear by just looking into the faces of the teams on their way back up -- the way they didn’t talk to anyone and just left the shuttles on their own.
I didn’t really know what to expect. Most of the Native survivors had been tucked away deep in valleys and under ledges and while the estimates put it at month to eradicate the whole of them. Their day was com-fucking-pletely done. I sat, taking a pull from my water pack, and inspected the root system of a small Native I had just upturned with my trenching-tool. It was still alive -- barely -- but a few minutes of careful whittling fixed that.
© 2006 by Brad Andrews
Bio: Mr. Andrews says, "I am 34, married, two kids. I have a number of Eventuality tales online, mostly at Bewildering Stories. I started reading Sci-FI as a Star Trek fan but then finally picked up an Alastair Reynolds book then a Neal Asher and then a M. John Harrison book and went from trying to write Star TRek fan fiction to my own origional stories. I have nearly forty complete short stories and about 60% of those are set in the E universe."
E-mail: Brad Andrews
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