Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Listen

by Stephen Patrick


"Listen up, Angels!" barked Lt. Barnes. "They're sending us in because the big boys in the fancy orbiters can't seem to focus their lasers through this soupy weather. Keep it by the book. In and out in a hurry and I'll be buying everyone a pint by nightfall."

Barnes exhaled as he mentally sorted through the CommNet information flooding into his auditory canal. He was inundated with data about approach vectors, atmospheric ionization, and countless minutiae about their mission. He closed out the sounds by focusing on his other senses, feeling his weapons click into place and trusting his hands to tell him that his holster was snapped shut.

The Angels were packed into the cramped cargo hold of an Orbital Lander. Each was held rigid to his seat by magnetic clamps that locked on to their armor. Their armor was standard SNC marine issue-hardened ceramic plating coated with laser-dissipating crystals. In addition to their armor, each carried a plasma rifle and holstered a laser pistol. Two of them, Corporal Pion and Private Tory, carried "sub-nukes", nuclear detonators that could level a city block, or even the fortress of a known terrorist. Their job was to raze Gideon's chateau.

Barnes closed his eyes as he fought through another barrage of messages: "Mission elements in place"; "Evac unit on standby"; “Atmospheric vectors verified”. This wave included final reminders for his mission as well as the results of other missions from the battleship. He struggled to suppress the noise to hear the only message that mattered, a final check from his second in command, Sgt. Tayp. "All Angels ready, Sir."

Barnes tapped a series of pads on his left wrist. A transparent red display came up on his visor. The implants were functioning perfectly. A series of bright red dots showed him the precise position and physical condition of each of the Angels.

Barnes slapped his hand against a green panel on the wall. The cargo hold was plunged into darkness. He took a deep breath and called out to the pilots.

“All clear, let's go!”

The pilot's hands danced over the controls while the Angels sat silently in the cargo hold. The ship shuddered and creaked as it lurched free of the launch rail.

An orange light next to Barnes's berth blinked in the dark cargo hold. He mouthed more words into his comm-band.

"All right, boys. It's going to get a little rough." Barnes watched as five of the red dots on his visor turned slightly yellow, a sign of physical distress.

To his left, just beyond his field of vision, five of the Angels pulled down their comm-bands. They slapped their hands to their mouths and swallowed hard to down the last of their nausea pills. As Barnes focused on fighting his own nausea, five of the yellow dots on his visor returned to bright red.

A dull chatter began to fill Barnes's ears: the sounds of men mumbling to themselves or humming softly to pass the time. The murmur faded into silence as each man began their mental checklist for the landing. Barnes remembered how soldiers in earlier wars hated the silence, the quiet before the storm. Barnes actually enjoyed it, because it meant that everything was going right. There were no last second changes by command staff, no requests for body counts, and ETAs. He wondered how those ancient warriors would have dealt with the constant presence of a communications implant. He imagined it would have changed their appreciation of the silence.

The ship tore through the upper atmosphere, trembling as flames licked at the hull. The metal walls creaked and moaned as the raging storms outside tried to peel the thin shell of the lander. The mission called for a dark landing, so all of the interior lights were turned off, making the cargo hold dark as a sealed crypt.

Suddenly, the ship began to shake, jostling the men from side to side within their magnetically anchored suits.

"Just a little turbulence boys" came Barnes's synthetic voice from the blackness. "We're into the storms over the mountains now. We'll be down in a minute."

The ship whined louder, begging for relief. Metal shrieked against metal, bolts demanding to be free. Suddenly, two panels of the hull were gone, exposing the interior of the Lander to the freezing storm raging outside.

All of the dots on Barnes's visor flashed yellow. Two of them turned white as two of the Angels were torn from the ship and cast into the atmosphere. Thick clouds of methane grabbed them and they disappeared into the darkness. Barnes heard their screams from his implant, piercing pleas for help that went unanswered. The white dots faded to black as their armored bodies shattered against the surface a few hundred feet below.

The other men remained silent, a testament to their training. Their silence prompted Barnes to say something, anything to keep order as the lander struggled to the ground.

"Almost there. Just another minute more." He shouted, trying to convince himself. "Steady, steady…" He made a silent prayer for the pilot to get them down safely. His eyes locked on the altimeter on his visor: two hundred meters to go.

A growl bellowed from the bowels of the ship, a ravenous, hungry groan. A violent explosion cut through the center of the lander, splintering it and sending its contents tumbling into the thick methane atmosphere. Barnes’s armor broke free from its magnetic moorings, sending him tumbling limply through the dark night. The sky was visible from the flames of the burning lander spinning toward the surface. The orange glow disappeared as the lander splashed into the snow-covered mountainside. The darkness swallowed Barnes, protecting him from seeing the mountain that was about to embrace him.

Cold air snaked in through a hissing puncture on his left arm and a fracture in the left side of his helmet. He rolled over and stared out through the spider web of cracks spreading across his visor. Dawn had come and he could see all around him. The dots on his visor were white, but the screen was flickering enough that he dismissed it as a malfunction.

He pulled a strip of sealant tape from his belt pouch and sealed the tear on his left sleeve. Luckily, his helmet was still secure, despite the cracks. Even so, it was already becoming poor protection from the cold.

"Sanders? Wilcox? Tuey? Damn it, boys, this is no time to play around!" The cold air in his helmet burned his lungs. Barnes listened for the others, but heard nothing except a loud buzzing in his head. His first instinct was to remove his helmet, but the frigid gas would kill him in moments. He heard nothing except the static in his ears where the battleship must be trying to reach him. He tried to make sense of the chatter, but could not make out any words. The buzzing grew louder and louder until it forced him to his knees. He raised his left hand to his head, hoping to calm the erratic chatter. His hand found a jagged mess of metal instead of the smooth side of a combat helmet.

He was curious at first, letting his gloved fingers slide over the rough edges. He turned his head inside his helmet and felt the first trickle of blood run down his neck. He turned a bit more, but a stabbing pain in his ear stopped him. He again fell to one knee, the blood dripping more freely.

He used the mirror on the back of his right palm to survey the damage. The side of his helmet had been crushed in the crash, collapsing inward and driving a piece of jagged metal into his head. He started to panic, thinking through countless scenarios of what terrible injuries he might have suffered. But the soldier in him surfaced and he withdrew his hand, scrambling through his belt pouches for his sealant tape which he deftly taped to the side of his head.

Satisfied that his helmet was sealed, he attended to the damage to his body. His vitals were erratic, but at least he was alive. Blood loss was one thing, but deep tissue damage was harder to deal with without a medical unit. He grabbed his medical syringe from his belt and jammed it into the neck of his damaged suit. He pressed the plunger and sent a small gray cloud of nanites into his suit.

His neck tingled as they began working on his tore flesh, knitting it slowly back together. The tingle turned to a tickle and then more of an itch. It grew to a searing pain as he discovered that the single injection would not handle the work to be done. Even the nanites could only do so much with his damaged body. He gritted his teeth until they were finished, each nanite exhausted.

A small explosion drew his attention to his left. The wreckage of the transport still glowed in its own fires, the final bits of fuel burning off in a spectacular blaze. Red-hot metal had been torn from its rivets and driven deep into the side of the mountain. The fuel tanks had ruptured on impact, immediately turning the transport into slag and sending each of its passengers abruptly against the mountainside. Most died in the explosion. Others were killed by shrapnel, debris or the blazing fires which roared through the biting cold.

Barnes found his rifle beside him in the snow. He wrapped his right hand around it and used it to prop himself back to his feet. He steadied himself and took a few tentative steps, still scanning the area for survivors. The buzzing in his head returned and he struggled to fight back the nausea and pain from the loud chatter. He tried to fight back the noise, but the sounds doubled their effort. A wave of blackness overcame him and he fell facedown in the snow, his rifle falling limply beside him.

A few minutes later, he awoke to a familiar sound.

"Charlie One, Angel's site confirmed, proceeding with Omega." It was the voice of Lt. Remorn, from Charlie Company.

Barnes heard the crunching of armored boots in the snow. He looked up to see five Marines trudging toward him. All were carrying standard plasma rifles, but two also shouldered large "Inferno" flame projectors. It was overkill for a rescue mission, but Barnes dismissed them as tools for the cold terrain. He raised his hand and called out to them.

"Hey, boys. Good to see you!"

"Charlie One, I've found Lt. Barnes. Delta Mission compromised."

A high pitched voice interrupted him, one that Barnes did not recognize. "Mission override, initiate Omega."

Lt. Remorn's voice responded, "Target sighted, initiating Omega."

"What are you talking about?” asked Barnes. “What's Omega?"

He was answered with the energy pulse of a plasma rifle. It impacted in front of him, sending him flying backwards and showering him with snow and earth.

"Boys, it's me. It’s Barnes. Damn it, I trained you. What the hell's wrong with you?"

The shrill voice spoke again. "Initiate Omega."

The five marines trained their rifles on him.

Barnes didn't wait for a second rifle blast. He scrambled up the mountainside, stumbling in the thick snow. He was still weak from the crash, but the adrenaline rush of the plasma bursts impacting around him urged him on. His feet slipped in the icy sludge, sending him onto all fours. Inching forward, he clawed with his hands, scratching at the ice until he had enough traction to return to his feet.

Barnes took two steps before a second plasma burst launched a drift of soft snow into the air. He used the shower of ice crystals as cover and stumbled around a rock formation on the side of the mountain. He staggered forward, scanning for some place to hide. A heaviness grew in his limbs and darkness tugged at the edges of his vision. The thin trickle of blood on his neck returned, matched by a new smear of crimson across the left of his visor.

He found a clump of evergreen trees and darted through them into a small clearing. He turned around to see his footsteps in the snow. They were the perfect track for the others to follow and within moments. He turned back, spreading some of the soft snow cover over his tracks, just as the five armor-clad marines ducked past the trees.

Three of the marines, including Lt. Remorn, shouldered their plasma rifles. The other two men shouldered Inferno flame projectors. All were aimed squarely at Barnes. A dull hum came over the infernos as the men touched the trigger to start the energy reaction within the weapons.

"Target in sight," came Lt. Remorn's voice into Barnes's head.

"I'm not a target; I'm Lt. Daniel Barnes of the Solar Navy."

He considered his options. He was injured and lost, his crew dead on the side of the mountain and he was facing five well-armed marines.

A soft, raspy voice whispered. "You still have your pistol."

His right hand darted to his belt and unsnapped his holster.

Barnes winced as the high-pitched voice returned. "Initiate Omega."

The raspy voice returned, but seemed to address Lt. Remorn and the others. "Belay Omega. Challenge Target."

Lt. Remorn lowered his rifle. His voice became stilted. "Do..Not..Move. Drop…your…pistol!"

The staggered commands of Lt. Remorn rattled Barnes, but he was not willing to die this way. The buzzing in his ears became louder, but he could make out the soft raspy voice again.

"Fire into the trees."

He felt pistol beneath his palm and made his decision.

With practiced ease, he snatched the pistol from his holster and held it high above him, firing a series of pulses into the trees. The laser ignited several of the tree limbs, quickly turning the snowy canopy into a chilly waterfall which soaked everything in the clearing.

The hum of the Marines's inferno projectors turned to a whine as their internal reaction became tainted by the melted snow. Barnes studied the puzzled look on each soldier's face. Standard procedure for a water-contaminated inferno projector was to dissipate the energy by disconnecting the contaminated fuel charge and removing it. Highly skilled soldiers could do it in twenty seconds. Marines with no experience or those who slept during training might waste minutes on the process. He smiled as he imagined them trying frantically to reload their weapon, giving him several seconds to fashion an escape.

Barnes heard Remorn's voice screaming at the others.

"Remove the charge! The fuel is contaminated!"

The shrill voice disagreed. "Initiate Omega immediately. Target is in range."

Barnes's smile dropped into a frown as all five of the soldiers simply re-shouldered their weapons.

"Fire", Remorn answered reluctantly.

All five soldiers pulled their triggers. Each rifle hummed with power, just like normal. The whine spiked into a shriek before falling into a dull throb. The soldiers stared down at their weapons, feeling the warmth growing within. A dim light flickered in the plasma chambers of each rifle and Barnes dove toward the edge of the clearing, frantically pulling snow around him to form a barrier.

The rifles reached critical mass and exploded in a shower of light and flame. There were no screams. Death found the men immediately.

Barnes peeked up from his hands, grimacing as he saw the five bodies frozen upright, their armor fused to them in a grotesque mockery of the human form. He fought back a wave of nausea and stumbled toward the bizarre scarecrows that had once been his soldiers. Even with their faces deformed by the blaze, he could recognize them:

Manning, Rowe, Eleazar, Noo, Remorn.

He paused as he studied the charred helmets and chest plates. He pried their identity tags from their armor and tucked them into his belt pouch. "To honor them," he whispered.

As he stumbled back to the crash site, he was surprised to find no rescue team attending to the bodies or the wreckage. He called out into his comm-band, but got no response. The buzzing in his head returned, building and building, until he was forced to his knees. He fought back the pain to listen and managed to make out over a dozen different voices in the myriad transmissions. The raspy voice was gone, but he heard the voice of the Mission Controller, high above him in the orbital battleship.

"Avalanche at crash site, Angels and Charlie Company lost."

Avalanche? Barnes thought to himself. There was no avalanche.

The high pitched voice returned. "Omega flights inbound. ETA five minutes. Site has been prepped for natural disaster."

He listened carefully as his exact coordinates were relayed to a laser guidance controller on the battleship.

The raspy voice returned and broke through the chatter. "You are about to be buried under a few thousand pounds of snow. Run toward the tallest peak if you want to live."

Barnes turned and looked up at the mountain around him. It was swollen with ice and snow, ballooning out and ready to burst with the slightest disturbance. He turned and ran, picking the tallest peak he could see as his goal. He forced his tired legs to churn through the snow, somehow finding his way toward the highest peak in the distance. After a few moments of running, he felt the impact of the bombers on the mountain beneath his feet. Snow and ice gave way above him and slid down the mounting, a cascading wave of white death. He kept his footing for a few more steps, but finally slipped into the wave, his body tossed about in the current.

He was drowning in white, his body lost to the whims of the rumbling ice. He caught glimpses of sunlight between blankets of snow as the avalanche enveloped him. He lost track of up and down, left and right, and felt his own sensation of life and death being blurred in this bleached whirlpool of cold.

Then the mountain grew quiet. He flailed his arms and found he was only a few feet from the surface. He clawed his way out to find that the avalanche had completely covered the crash site with boulders and ice. Had he remained at the site, he would have been killed. He listened for the raspy voice that had warned him, but heard a new chorus of clicks and whirrs that disoriented him.

He decided to continue his trip toward the highest peak. Every hundred feet, his feet collapsed and gave him a visor full of snow. The cold seeped into his suit, a brutal reminder of his surroundings. Even so, it numbed the pain from his injury and seemed to overpower the buzzing in his head. He snaked his way through the thick snowfall, resigned to crawling when his legs grew weak. He finally collapsed in a mound of powder.

He awoke to find that the chatter was still there. He cradled his helmet with his hands, hoping somehow to drown out the noise. It subsided, only to be replaced by the sharp click of laser pistol being charged. He turned his head to see the terrorist known as Gideon standing over him.

"Hello, friend. What brings you to my home?"

Barnes tried to move, to protect himself from the man, but the booming in his ears buckled him over, forcing his head back into the snow.

The man tucked the pistol into a small holster on his belt. He leaned down toward Barnes and whispered.

"A little voice told me you were coming."

As Gideon talked, the buzzing increased and unconsciousness clawed at Barnes. He blissfully succumbed to the blackness.

He awoke in a wood paneled room filled with books. Gideon was seated across from him, his hands tented over his lap. Barnes's head throbbed, but he managed to focus through the pain and scan the room around him. It was an elaborate library with rows of books lining the walls. Two tables in the center of the room held stacks of yellowed documents. Opposite the mirror was a giant databoard filled with cryptic phrases and codes. Tucked into one corner were a homemade communications transmitter and a microphone.

Gideon waved his hand toward the images on the databoard. "Do you know what these are?"

Barnes studied the board. It was filled with curious symbols, letter strings, and some scratches that looked vaguely like handwriting. Gideon drew his finger across a string of numbers.

The buzzing filled his ears, but Barnes managed to answer, hoping to glean why this terrorist had rescued him from the snow. "Frequency Codes. Naval communication codes."

Gideon pointed toward a second string of numbers. "And these?"

The buzzing grew to a crescendo that forced Barnes's head into his hands for relief. Gideon answered for him.

"These are sub-frequencies used for subliminal communications. The very kind of messages that are causing the squawking in your head."

"I've got a defective implant, that's all."

"Fair enough." Gideon walked to a machine mounted to the wall. "But have you heard this voice before?" He pressed a few buttons and the room was filled with the same high pitched voice Barnes had heard before. Barnes's wide-eyed silence betrayed him.

"Yes, you have heard it before. So have I." Gideon handed Barnes a stack of yellow papers. Each appeared to be the transcription of a message. He pressed another series of buttons and the voice again filled the room.

This time the voice detailed a series of events that were familiar to Barnes: the riots at the Pluto colonies; the interplanetary crash that killed Minority Senator Solerna; the airlock accident that killed thousands on Oa; the fuel vent that condemned thousands to die as their interplanetary transport listed without fuel or power.

"This one is a bit closer to you." Gideon tapped at the recorder and played another message. It detailed an uprising on Mars, an uprising attributed to a new faction called "STE: Space Travel for Everyone".

Barnes remembered the details of the riot, the hundreds of civilian casualties attributed to the terrorists, the heroic actions of the Solar Navy, specifically the Angels.

"So you've managed to decode a military news broadcast, congratulations.”

"Perhaps the dates would be more interesting to you."

Barnes flipped back through the pages, checking the date each message was decoded. Each message was recorded before the actual events took place.

"So you're saying someone knew about these events before they happened?”

"These aren't predictions; they are orders, commands from your Navy. Each one planned and executed with thousands of willing participants. Participants like you, coordinated with the same implants that you cling to for your precious military operations. They do it for control, for their policies, to ensure that everyone thinks they are the last bastion of safety in this solar system. Riots, disasters, accidents all mean disorder. The SNC steps in and offers order, safety, and security. Otherwise, the big scary universe will kill us all. They cause the very events they promise to protect us from."

"If they're using the implants, why don't we hear them?"

"They use a sub-frequency, filled with calculated subliminal messages. That's what's causing the buzzing you are hearing. The messages are designed to stay under the surface, but your implant was damaged in the crash."

"That's why we were sent to kill you? That's why they want you dead, because you know this?" asked Barnes.

"No. They want me dead because I've figured out how to talk back.” Gideon pointed toward the microphone in the corner. “I can send my own subliminal messages. I can bring the entire system down around them."

The dull throbbing in Barnes's ear returned. And this time it contained a new message.

"Initiate Omega." Repeated over and over, the voice was powerful and insistent. Barnes felt his hand drape over his laser pistol as he tried to sort out what to do.

Gideon noticed Barnes's struggle.

"They're calling to you, aren't they? They know you're still alive and they think I have you."

The pounding swelled so much that Barnes could only nod in response. The booming was accompanied by a second, deeper tone.

"Kill Gideon! Initiate Omega! Kill him now!" The two voices were merging, growing into a chorus of insistence.

The pain matched the voices' intensity and spread through his head like a wildfire, burning him from the inside out.

"I'm sorry, my friend. That is another of their tricks. The pain is psychological, but will kill you as much as any bullet. We must remove the implant."

Gideon pulled a large knife from a drawer. He knelt beside Barnes and began to whisper.

"This will hurt a bit, but it's the only way to stop the pain."

The blade cut deep into his scalp, as Gideon searched for the tiny metal device implanted in Barnes's damaged inner ear.

Suddenly, a flash of light filled Barnes's view. The buzzing was gone and he slumped against his chair. A strong burning smell filled his nostrils. He looked to his left and saw Gideon's limp body curled beside him, a gaping hole in his chest. He felt the weight of his laser pistol in his right hand.

“Oh my God! I've killed him. No, they've killed him, through me."

Barnes lifted the pistol to his own temple intent on paying retribution for his actions in the only way his racing mind could muster.

He caught a glimpse of the faded yellow papers and microphone in the corner of the room. He changed the settings on his pistol and turned to face the mirror. He held the pistol flush against the side of his head. A dim orange flash filled the room and he slumped to the ground. The pistol clattered on the hard wood floor.

Barnes exhaled, gasping for air. He gathered himself and looked into the mirror on the opposite wall, studying the bloody mess where his left ear had been. He reached inside and pulled out a thin metal implant, still smoldering from the mild blast from his laser.

He tossed it on the floor and quickly turned toward the microphone. He flipped the on switch and raised it to his mouth.

The microphone would allow him to reach out from the chateau. He could call out to the battleship for his pickup. He might be received as a hero for killing the terrorist. Perhaps, he could proclaim his knowledge of Gideon's conspiracy theory.

He took a deep breath and said the only thing that came to mind as he stared at the lifeless body on the floor beside him.

"Gideon is here. The walls will fall. Long live Gideon."

THE END


© 2008 Stephen Patrick

Bio: .Stephen Patrick is a freelance writer living in the Dallas, TX area with his wife and daughter. He has a Master's Degree in Human Development and works in law enforcement during the day, while writing after hours. His writing has appeared in Aphelion (most recently Farmageddon, April, 2007), Nocturnal Ooze, The Writer's Post Journal, Dark Recesses Press, and Bewildering Stories among others. Mr. Patrick won the 2007 Rowlett, TX Adult Short Story Competition and his first novel won the Special Prize at the 2007 Arkansas Writers' Conference.

E-mail: Stephen Patrick

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