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EP378: Scout

By Bud Sparhawk
Read by Corson Bremer

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All stories by Bud Sparhawk

 

Scout
By Bud Sparhawk

Captain Sandels came in during prep.  “Falcon,” he said, but softly, as if he didn’t want to disturb the techs working on squeezing me into the bomb casing.  I twittered our channel and winked: Kind of busy right now. Something come up?

“No,” the captain responded, again so softly that I knew he definitely didn’t want the techs to overhear.  The only reason I could hear him was that my acoustic enhancements were so sensitive that I could hear a mouse fart from a klick away.  “I just wanted to wish you luck.”

For making it back? I answered.  Not likely.

“That’s brutal,” he replied and I heard his pain. “I thought that, after all we. . .’

I stopped him there.  I’m not Falcon; just a revised edition.

“So it’s just goodbye, then?”

Sure.  I closed the channel before he could say anything else.  What I don’t need now is some damn puzzling reference to a past that no longer concerned me. Better not to dwell on the past.  Given humanity’s precarious state, sentiment was dangerous.  Besides, I had to concentrate on my scouting mission. We had to learn more about the aliens on the planet below.

I shut everything but the maintenance channel as they oozing the cushioning gel around me.  Its plasticity enfolds me in a warm, soft embrace that creeps into every crack and crevice, sealing me off from sight and sound and every sense save an assurance of my own humanity.  My form might be much reduced, to be sure, but nevertheless I retain my inherent humanity.

“We’re closing the lid,” the tech reports over the maintenance channel.

It’s time for sleep.  Landing will wake me up.

 

#

The idea behind the drop was dramatic and simple.  Three attack cruisers would carpet bomb the area where the aliens landed.  The drops consisted of ten burrowers, thirty sweepers, and twenty HE bombs from each ship, all distributed to randomly bracket the target. The third, eleventh, and nineteenth bomb of each pod were slow-fuse HE duds, except for the one that contained me.

I woke as soon as the bomb slammed into the ground on an oblique angle.  I was not quite fully awake by the second bounce but fully aware as my container rolled down some piece of bumpy geography, stopped, and rocked for a moment before finding a stable orientation.  I pushed up to pop the hatch and got out, dripping gel over the dented casing of the faux bomb.

I quickly scanned the area around me.  Apparently I’d tumbled down a steep cliff to come to rest at the bottom among assorted rocks that had fallen from the eroding slope.  I could feel the shock of exploding ordinance through my feet as the delay fuses fired.  That told me that I’d landed near the center of the distribution.

My empty casing still packed a punch –enough to fool a casual inspection into thinking it was just another delayed bomb– and the clock was running.  I moved away to put as much distance as I could between me and the bomb before it –WHAM– exploded and threw me tumbling ass over teacup.  Shit!  The techs had set the fuse’s timer too short.  Well, nothing I could do about that now, but I check my systems to be certain and find that no harm was done.  I am hyper-alert to my surroundings and take note of insect sounds, random wind action on the sparse vegetation, small animal movements, and the trembling ground beneath my feet to establish a baseline of whatever passed for “normal” on this planet.  So far, everything agreed with the data the former colonists had provided.

Every ten meters I stop to feel the ground for approaching footfalls.  I am continually sniffing the air for any unusual smell, listening for any sound, and watching for anything that might be artificial. At the same time I was “listening” on every radio channel.  All normal.

The ground ahead of me levels the further I got from my drop site, which makes movement easier, but means I have to dodge from rock to rock to remain hidden.  Proceeding across open ground increases the certainty of detection.

I didn’t expect to run into any aliens until I got closer to the town; about a dozen kilometers away from my current position where, we hoped the alien gleaners were still scouring the town.  Their presence gave us an opportunity to find out what they were doing and learn how they behaved.  From my scouting reports command might even be able to guess the why of their attacks.

Thus far the aliens hadn’t held any colony after they wiped them clean and moved on.

#

Closer to my objective the terrain slowly changes from rock-strewn scrub to more ambitious bushes that later become a grove of spiky trees with upright branches and needle shaped leaves.  They remind me of upside down Christmas trees.  They are spaced widely enough that I have no problem wending my way through the grove.

I start to feel a slight vibration through my feet, like approaching footfalls.  I hunker down with every sense alert.  Is my camouflage sufficient? Will my coverings really prevent detection of any stray electronic emissions?  Had I been detected and was this the search party?

There are two sets of vibrations that feel like a pair walking in step; bipedal for certain I realize as the steady pad-pad, pad-pad continues for seconds and then, when I sense they are a few meters from my position, I feel another set of vibrations, more pronounced and faster: Thump, thump, thump!  Then the other set resumes, but faster this time; pad-pad, pad-pad, thump, thump, pad-pad, pad-pad, thump and WHAM!

Silence.

I listen to the sounds of something tearing and feeding for a long time as a coppery smell wafts by   me.  When the feeding noises stop I hear something chirping contentedly and feel it pad-pad, pad-pading into the distance. Predator and prey, I think and, relieved, resume my progress, certain that the scavengers would soon be drawn to the kill site.  I’d best be far away when they arrive. Something would probably be interested in the disturbance and come to investigate.

It takes me hours to realize that I’ve drifted far right of my projected line of march.  I look around to see another ridge about a kilometer away.  I decide to transverse and get back on my original heading.  I set off hopefully, every sense alert, as the stars appear overhead.  I wonder which of them might be our ship before I recall that it is virtually undetectable. Then I wonder which of them might be the home that I barely remember.

 

The good news is that by morning’s light I am within a few meters of a ridgeline from which, I hope to finally spot my objective.  The bad news is that there’s a sheer, precipitous drop of nearly twenty meters to a jumble of shattered, sharp and decidedly hard rocks ahead of me.  There is no way I want to chance going down the cliff face, despite the ruggedness of my compact scouting form.  I have to waste more of my precious time finding an easier route.

A few hours later, at midday, I find a spot where the cliff is less steep but wait so night will hide my progress.  On my second step I hit a loose boulder and tumble to fetch up against a huge tree at the bottom, none the worse for wear.

As soon as I right myself I sweep the area for odd sounds, smells, or sights and feel for any unusual vibrations.  There’s nothing abnormal so I continue moving forward, taking advantage of whatever cover I can find.

By nightfall I am close to the town.  The dark of night on this moonless world is not a problem.  The eyes the reconstruction doctors gave me are far superior to the ones I was born with.  I can see up into the infrared and down to the near ultraviolet, which is many times the bandwidth of human vision.  I’d lost my eyes, along with most of the skin on my face, an arm, and both legs during the evacuation of New Eurpoa. That was an almost successful mission, but we still had a horrifying loss.

They told me I was the only survivor of a squad. The only one who thought it worth going through reconstruction to fight another day.  The only one who wanted so badly to get back at the bastards who did this to me, to my squad, to my family, and to my . . .  The name evades me, which means it was among the many memories excised during reconstruction.

That’s the drawback of being rebuilt; the loss of memories.  Operating the many sensory enhancements requires so much processing that there isn’t room for much else in my brain.   I recalled a little, but not much.  There were a few warm childhood memories that anchored my humanity, a burning hatred of the aliens for all they’ve done to our colonies, and the skills I’d acquired from basic training and three years of combat.  All the rest, a lifetime of memories had been washed away like sand castles on the beach.

There were compensations however.  The doctors turned me into the best, most technologically advanced scout in the universe, a form that might let me survive enough to learn more about our enemies. Hopefully, some facts about how to kill them.

 

The forest consisted mainly of the spiked trees that reminded me of Christmas, when I was a kid; a bright memory of wrapped presents, warm fireplaces, and cheerful people bustling about as they cooked far too much food.  I recalled with absolute clarity the rich smells of puddings and meats, the stinging aroma of pickled fruits and malty beverages as I played among their feet with my new puppy.

I remember the sounds and smells of guests, even though their faces and names slip by.  There were aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Each group opening the front door to the wind and making mother’s little glass centerpiece jingle as they shouted warm greetings. Coats would be flung, shoulders hugged, and warm wet kisses bestowed on every exposed cheek.  Chaos would reign, entropy decreasing exponentially with each addition until suddenly, at some point, order would emerge as everyone found their place, the food would appear, and the pleasant hum of conversation would fill the room.

The Christmas memory was sharp, like every other memory in my much-reduced mind.  I couldn’t remember whatever happened to the puppy or even my poorly remembered family.  Were they still celebrating Christmas or had they been evacuated?  Maybe they’d been wiped out by the aliens, or worse.  Whatever their fates they were memories lost and that worried me more than remembering, or so I hoped.

Aside of those clear holiday memories I recall nothing of my former life, former body, or even my former lovers.  Is that who Captain Sandels had been?

I estimate that five kilometers remain to be traversed.

 

I sense the vibrations long before I hear faint sounds of approaching movement.  It isn’t the same rhythm as the animal I’d run into earlier. This is more of a three part tempo; pad-pad-pad, pad-pad-pad.  I mask myself in adaptive camouflage and try to become one with the forest.

At the limit of my hearing there are faint sounds of broken glass that get louder as whatever it is continues to advance.  Pad-pad-pad, pad-pad-pad.  I don’t have to wait for long before the heat signature of a three-legged monster emerges from the relatively cool forest’s background.

The alien is easily four meters tall and twice that in circumference.  There is one fore leg and two behind that move sequentially.  The center of its body flares hotter than the extremities and I notice a halo of some sort around it. As I move up the spectrum from infrared into the ultraviolet its shroud glows an almost fluorescent blue.  This could be an alien in a suit or some sort of robot.  Hell, for all I know it could be a vehicle, but that’s for Command to figure out later when they analyze the data I’m recording.

The broken glass sounds are more evident as it passes.  I can’t smell any sort of odor at its closest approach nor any residue as it disappears into the woods on my left.

As I wait for the pad-pad-pad, pad-pad-pad to recede into the distance I encapsulate the data and bury a timed transmitter, one of several I carry, and smooth the dirt to make its presence undetectable.  The little capsule will fire it’s burst when scheduled when, hopefully, the ship would be listening.

That is, if they haven’t been detected and destroyed.

#

Sandels swore as a bright point of light appeared near the rim of the planet.  “Could be a ship,” the navigator remarked. “Want me to ping?”

“No.  Just use optical.  We don’t want to use any active systems like radar.”

The image was fuzzy at first but clarified quickly as the ship passed between them and the dark planet below.  There seemed to be little symmetry to the object and from the way it flashed and glittered had numerous reflective surfaces. Points projected in odd directions, disappearing from view as the ship rotated on an inclined axis.

“It matches all the descriptions,” the navigator remarked.  “Definitely a Shard.”

Sandels had to agree.  “Shards” was the way the first observers had described them and the word stuck.  The Shardies had attacked the Jeaux colony without warning, destroying everything: ships, orbiting stations, ground-based settlements–anything that wasn’t of natural origin.   Only a single ship escaped, which the aliens might follow and put every human colony at risk.

No one understands why they attacked with such ferocity. There have been no prior attempts at contact, nor any response to our signals.  Nor could anyone figure out what sort of aliens drove their strange ships. The fragments gathered after the few successful battles have been nothing but dirty glass – no metals, no organics, nothing that indicates what we know as technology among the wreckage.

Falcon’s scouting mission was an attempt to learn more of this implacable enemy, of these creatures who seem hell-bent of destroying all traces of humanity, Sandels thought.  Unless humans learned what they faced, and hopefully how to defeat them,  the human race faced eventual extinction. Fighting was the only alternative.

It was clear that there would be no other choice.

 

“It looks like its descending, sir.”

Sandels looked again. “Are you sure it didn’t just go around the planet?”

“No; it definitely went into the atmosphere.  It’s moving across the big ocean now. There!”

Sandels checked the time.  “Our target’s coming up.” Down below the edge of sunlight  was racing across the surface.  Soon dawn would strike the area where the aliens had landed and put the ship in line with the scout’s narrow-band transmissions.

“Listening window open,” the comm tech looked up from his console. “Nothing yet, sir.”

“Keep listening,” Sandels snarled. “It’s been nearly forty-five hours since the drop.  We should hear one of the transmitters peep soon.”

“Maybe the unit didn’t survive the drop.”

“Don’t refer to Falcon as a damned “unit,” kid. There’s a marine down there; a damn fine one at that.  I know Falcon will finish the mission. A marine that tough isn’t built to fail.”

The tech tried to stifle a giggle at the word “built” but recovered quickly when he saw the Captains darkening frown.  “Sorry, sir.”

“Don’t ever, ever say that again,” Sandels growled.   But in all honesty Falcon, or what remained of Falcon after that intense fire, really was an “it”; the built thing the doctors  had resurrected from the shredded and fried stub of what Falcon had been just three short years before.

Sandels mind went back to that fateful morning; the stinging smell of ordnance, the screams of the colonists as they herded them on the evacuation craft, the cracks of sound as the hypersonic rocks of the aliens’ attack split the skies.  When some of the weaker members were moving too slowly Falcon and four of the squad had raced back to help. This was the last load that would make it to orbit, the others would . . . Sandels didn’t want to think about that.  War made people do ugly things, but that ugliness was nothing as compared to what awaited those who fell into the alien’s hands, or tentacles, or whatever the hell they used.

Then there was an explosion and bodies were flying in ten directions, a fire raged where the squad had been and there were no more slow colonists.  Sandels saw half of Thomas, what looked like Ting’s head, and Posies’ bare ass with little else of her remaining, spread out in a fan pattern.  Falcon was the only one that looked reasonably intact but was a human torch, writhing on the ground.  Only after they’d quickly rolled the flaming hulk to extinguish the flames did Sandels realize how much of Falcon had been lost.  There was still a faint heartbeat and he could hear the raspy wheeze of tortured breathing.

“Medic!” he’d barely screamed as someone rushed up with four “Save-my-ass” bags and a rescue pack, took one look at the carnage and threw three of them away.  They stuffed what was left of Falcon inside the remaining bag, and hit the quick-freeze tab.  Sandels threw the bag over his shoulder and rushed for the final evacuation ship.  Falcon had weighed sixty-five kilos but the bag only held a quarter of that weight.  He just hoped enough remained alive until they reached the fleet’s hospital.

It had been touch and go, first keeping Falcon’s heart going, the brain functioning, and the lungs pumping air.  After ensuring that those continued did they work on kidneys, bladder, and liver.   There was little of the skin that hadn’t been turned into a crispy crust or of the muscles and ligaments that held Falcon together.  Only after taking care of those things did they start working on the nervous system.  Falcon might have been screaming in pain the whole time, but nobody heard because most of the lower face was gone and the exposed vocal chords were charred nubs.

Falcon had spent nine months in reconstruction, the first three recovering enough to communicate, two more coming to terms with what Command offered, and another four learning a new purpose and destiny.

Everybody hated what reconstruction offered surviving marines, but the exigencies of the war left humanity few options to create what was needed.  Ethics, or at least what remained of medical ethics, prevented the doctors from turning healthy marines into tools, even though the military need for superior warriors was so great.  The technology to create super soldiers was available, as were hundreds of barely alive potential donors, each of whom was offered an opportunity to serve, each of whom was informed of the consequences.  There was no ethical problem converting those who made a clear and informed decision and Falcon chose not to be a crippled hero.

Falcon chose not to die.

 

“The ship hasn’t reappeared,” navigation reported.  “I think we can assume that it landed somewhere.”

Sandels hoped the “somewhere” wasn’t where Falcon was heading, but then realized that if it had then there would be even more data than they expected; provided Falcon survived long enough, that is.

#

I encounter no more aliens as I edge closer to Ettire’ where the Shards have landed.  A little bit ago a four-legged predator had sniffed me, chewed on an edge of my shell, and then trotted away disappointed that I wasn’t as tasty as its usual menu.  My scouting shape’s not optimal for rapid travel, but ideal cover for a human scout – that is, if you consider a ten kilo turtle as human.

 

The edge of the flood plain, where the settlers’ had cleared open fields for their farms, lay before me.  The land sloped down toward the town of Ettire’ and, beyond that, the sea.   Ettire’ had been a decent sized place, five-six hundred thousand strong with a flourishing sea trade up and down the coast.  Of Ettire’ there are only a few ruined brick buildings poking up amidst the rubble.

There are icebergs, or a close approximation, that look to be a half a kilometer away.  They have to be ships so I record them, trying to capture every detail in high resolution despite the shimmering of the atmosphere from the heat rising from the sun-warmed fields.  After a moment’s reflection I realize that there’s far more heat than a sun-baked field could produce – at least twenty degrees above ambient, I estimate.  When I switch to infrared vision I see the entire landscape ablaze in lurid colors, cooler further from the center of town but increasingly warmer toward the middle.  The ships also look fiery hot.  I bury my second data packet – there’s less delay on this one due to the excessive time it took to get here.

There’s a shallow drainage ditch nearby which I could use for concealment to get closer and discover why the town is so hot.  I’ve barely started to move when a large form lurches out of a ship. It’s a machine I think and hotter than the ships.

The machine has two sets of tractors on either side that have big pneumatic tires.  I spot some smaller things beside it and all of the sudden the scale becomes clear.  Those smaller things are the three-legged objects I spotted earlier; which means that those ships are a lot further than half a klick away. I have to get closer.

The drainage ditch is scarcely quarter of a meter deep. It’s shallow, but deep enough to hide me. The dirt is so soft that I have to carefully erase any traces of my passage with my rear legs as I creep downhill.  There is enough debris in the ditch to allow my camouflage to blend in and make me look like just another rock.

The pad-pad-pad vibrations start again. Nearby.  This time I decide to lie doggo; shutting off everything to go dormant.  I want to chance nothing that might let them know a human is here.

 

My hatred for the Shardies runs deep, and not just because they’ve attacked without provocation, that they destroy everything humanity has built, or that they are slowly and implacably driving us off our colony worlds as they drive toward the Earth.  No, that would only be the normal “they’re not us” type of hatred, what we used to feel for one another before the Enlightening, the kind of hatred you feel for your brother, knowing that some time in the future you will once again be friends.  Not that kind of hatred at all.

We captured one of their ships at Outreach, a hybrid ship as it turned out, and found out what happened to the humans they’d captured and the reason they had been so successful in every encounter.  Initially our battles with them were pretty straightforward; they’d attack directly and seemingly indifferent to their losses. Then, over the course of time it seemed that they learned how we would act.  Suddenly their ships started behaving like humans, only faster and with greater purpose. Somehow they had gained insights into our very thought patterns.

The captured ship answered the question of how they’d changed so quickly and how they were being so successful.

There were sixteen humans on the ship, or what once were humans.  They’d been edited to slugs lacking arms, legs, and most of their organs.  Fluids were pumped into brains from which hundreds of glass fibers protruded and extended into the ship’s walls.  Scans indicated that what remained of the people were still conscious.  If they’d had throats and lungs they’d be screaming in pain.

The medics did the only humane thing.

Command quickly came to the conclusion that the aliens were somehow using those sixteen minds to understand human thought patterns – not any knowledge, but accessing the patterns and behaviors wired into each us from birth, the very things that make us human.  The horror was that they stripped those people of their humanity and used them to betray their own race.

It was vile, offensive, and so horrifying that Command went to lengths to prevent any more humans being captured and used.  Command went to any length to keep any more people from becoming the meat components of some war machine.  Any and all lengths.

My hatred is the burning, visceral presence that fuels my mission.

 

At daybreak I make a tentative sensory scan of the immediate area.  The normality of smells, and sounds reassure me.  Better, I cannot feel any vibrations that would tell me that the three legged monsters are nearby.  From further away I sense the heavy rumble of movement.  I slowly peer above the rim of the furrow.

The treaded machine was approaching one of the buildings, rolling over the rubble and dirt instead of detouring around them and avoiding the occasional shining, too-hot patches scattered throughout the area.

Its companion tripods scatter in pairs, triplets, or singly and do Gods-know-what.  They too are careful to avoid walking into the sparkling patches.  I watch for a long while as they move about, understand nothing, and record everything.

The big machine finally reaches one of the remaining buildings and disgorges a flowing carpet that sparkles in the sunlight like a million diamonds.  I crank up the acoustic enhancement and hear the tinkling of glass, as if someone were slowly shaking an intricate chandelier, making each delicate crystal strike another.  There is a musical quality to it and a certain repetitive rhythm much like the ebb and flow of waves washing against a shell beach whose outlines I vaguely recall.

The carpet flows toward the building and up its walls, covering it so completely that it becomes a shining tower that radiates like a small sun had been brought to ground. The glare is so intense that it blinds my infrared vision.  I filter vision and watch as the building starts to melt like a wax candle.  The upper levels become nearly transparent and then collapse inward. The cascading diamonds sparkle across the entire spectrum as they fall into the remaining mass.  The dissolution continues, a sight both beautiful and horrifying for the four hours it takes for the building to disappear.

As the carpet flows back into the machine I look for any trace of rubble, but not a single block of concrete or stray steel beam can be seen in the pile of fine sand they’ve left behind.   After the last of the carpet entered the machine it moves slowly toward the next standing building and starts to repeat the process.  In the distance I observe other similar operations, all of which I record in a data capsule/transmitter and bury in the wall of the ditch.

 

Six hours and several hundred meters later I finally reach the town’s outskirts and a pile of fine sand, which might have once been a building.  The pile is soft and flocculent so I have little difficulty burrowing into its heart and tasting of its composition.  The results are surprising; the samples contain nothing but silicates.  Even if this building had been a barn there should have been some trace of metals or carbon in the residue. What the hell did those things do when they ate a building?  I need more data and move on.

The next heap I taste is composed of the same ingredients, or should I say ingredient; nothing but sand, finer sand, and microscopic bits of sand.  The aliens had definitely been extracting or consuming everything and leaving nothing but grains of silicon behind.

As I start to dig out I detect multiple vibrations but cannot determine their direction.  I listen, trying to hear something through the dense insulating sand surrounding me.  I feel a rumbling and all the sand around me starts shaking and settling as the rumble goes on and on, getting more pronounced by the moment and I realize that something very large and heavy is coming toward me.

I pull in my limbs, tuck my head inside, and damp everything before dropping into sleep.  I hope I will wake, but now that the data is ready for transmission that’s not important.

#

“Coming up on fifty hours,” the comm tech announced as the crew gathered around him.  Their clustering was more for psychological need than physically necessary.  All that would happen at the mark would be that a little diode might change from red to green, quickly flash amber, and then return to red.  There was no need for twiddling dials, no anxious straining to catch a whisper of sense among the static, nor would there be numbers scrolling numbers across a screen, and no clatter of printers or hum of image transmission.

What the winking light signified was the inquiry-response, acknowledgement, sign, confirmation, and redundant transmission of a coded stream in both directions to ensure that the message had been received with zero sum errors – all of which took place as the light blinked red-green-amber-red. In that same interval processors within the ship reviewed the data, expanded the compressed string into a long chain by raising the first number to the exponent of the second, deciphering the resulting string into its appropriate prime factors, and translating those into sounds, images, and filling twelve sensory channels with data.

The resulting packet, suitably enhanced and encrypted was transmitted instantly, along with the brief, original feed to ships hovering undetectably near the star’s corona and one of which, the instant a message was received, winked away to friendly skies.

“Thirty seconds,” the tech whispered as all eyes focused and each mind strained to will the light to change, to wink, to show that all of the lives, all of the resources, all of the effort it had taken to place a single scout within enemy lines had been worth it.

Captain Sandels was more worried than the others.  There were so many things that could have gone wrong.  What if the impact of the drop had destroyed their scout?  What if the bomb  had gone off prematurely?  What if the Shardies had realized the ruse and reacted or if Falcon had been crippled and unable to reach the objective, or maybe got lost in the wilderness, fallen into a stream, dropped off a cliff, been buried under a slide, or, for God’s sake, become trapped?  What if the life support batteries had been damaged before Falcon had planted a single transmitter?  What if, what if, what if?  There were too many variables.  There was too much left to chance.

Why wasn’t the light blinking, for God’s sake?

“Mark,” the tech said quietly.

#

I woke and hoped that meant I was safe, at least for the moment.  I felt for any vibration and, aside from a slight shift of sand against sand, detected nothing that varied from my baseline.

Very carefully I began making my way through the sand pile, hoping the while that my ever-so-careful digging would not disturb the pile’s surface and alert the aliens. Eventually I was able to detect the sound of shifting sand as the sand asserted its angle of repose and knew I was close to the surface.  I poked an eye through the last few millimeters of concealing sand and beheld wonder.

A carpet of crystals covered the ground in every direction, sparkling and glistening in the bright sunlight.  More wondrous yet was that they were flowing like a glass river that reflected rainbows.  And in the middle of the river marched the tripod things that avoided stepping on even a single shard.  There was continual tinkling, clinking as the multiple crystals touched one another. It sounded like a symphony of crazed xylophones.

I looked at the nearest edge to see how the tripods were pushing them along and realized with a shock that they appeared to be mere escorts.  Each tiny crystal was following its own path, but maintaining its place in the flow.  I couldn’t see any means of locomotion; no legs, wings, or any sort of appendages. Whatever propelled them was hidden from me.

There was a cement block ahead of the flowing carpet, no doubt tumbled from one of the destroyed buildings. I watch as the gem-crested waves wash over the block and, as the carpet continues, see that the hump had been diminished until it finally disappears. When the trailing edge moves on I see that nothing remains but residual heat.

When I could no longer feel the rumble of the heavy machines nor the pad-pad-pad of its tripodal companions I emerged from the pile. I had to find out more of what was happening.

I am scuttling between piles when I feel a wave of intense heat from an immense iceberg floating above me.  It has so many jagged shards and planes that I can’t make sense of its shape.  Worse, I can’t capture its entirety in a single frame and  have to pan along the longest dimension.  Even that doesn’t allow me to record it all in so I resort to a distorting fisheye view, which seems to bring it closer.  Only it isn’t “seem.”  The ship is descending, coming down on top of me!

I panic and race forward, uncaring of detection in my headlong race to avoid being crushed.  The heat radiating from the iceberg’s underside intensifies.  I look around for something that might insulate me from its flaming touch, but there is nothing in sight.  My legs pump as fast as they can, draining my batteries at a prodigious rate.  I wonder if I can just get safely beyond the nearest edge of the descending ship.

Escape is another twelve meters away, then ten, eight, and almost six when I feel it touch my back.  The pressure intensifies as I hunker lower, hoping that will help.  I manage to struggle forward, but it is increasingly difficult with all the weight bearing down on me.

Only three meters to go. My legs dig deep furrows in the dirt, leaving scars behind that I no longer bother to erase. Two, then one meter remains, but the ground is too hard. The heat intensifies, almost more than I can bear.  I can barely move but if I don’t I’ll be baked and crushed.

I throw all caution to the wind and dig, dig, dig furiously, throwing masses of dirt behind and to the sides with abandon to escape of the pressure and heat. But my back leg becomes trapped by a sharp protrusion that slices it away.  I try to ignore the intense pain as I stagger toward the forest’s edge while praying that iceberg’s huge bulk will shield my flight.

The cool woods offer a brief respite.  I detect no pursuit.  I am safe for the moment. I have to shut down and let my autonomic systems restore what they can.

#

I move sluggishly as I wake.  My leg no longer hurts, but I am sure my body’s stolen sparse resources for repairs.  Moving on three legs is difficult and makes me tend to the right.  I envy the easy pad-pad-pad rhythm of the tripods.  Were that my own staggering was as graceful.

 

The big ship was hovering and then, as I watch disbelievingly, lifted.  There is no sound, no sign of exhaust, no scattering of electronic noise as it accelerates, dwindling in seconds to a shining mote in the heavens, no larger than a firefly above the summer beach.  I lose it in the sunlight and then see it flare brilliantly and disappear.  Had it activated some sort of drive or had the flare been merely a trick of sunlight reflecting off of its flat planes?  Not for me to say.  My role was to scout and report.      Indications are that I had been dormant for a couple of days.  All of my buried reports would have been transmitted and those bursts might have alerted the Shards that there was someone watching.  Odds are that they’d have a search party already sweeping the area.  I had no doubt that they’d eventually discover the ruse, find my transmitters and determine my line of march.  My careful scrubbing of traces would not hold for long and there would be no doubt of my destination.  Once they reached the outskirts of Ettire’ they’d find the churned ground of my desperation and, inevitably, the souvenir I’d left behind.

So, with little time remaining before they arrived I had to collect as much additional information as possible.  I checked my batteries to see how close I was to the necessary reserve that I needed to transmit my final findings.  There was enough power remaining to propel myself, but not enough for all the enhancements?  I could do without the useless radio scanning and shut them down.  I pare myself to survival essentials only – motive power, vision, and hearing – the same senses that have served scouts for centuries.

There are none of the tripodal creatures in sight so I assume that their absence gives me time to get down the slope and maybe analyze one of those strange diamonds before they reach me. I’m certain that knowing more about them will provide vital insights to Command.

The huge ship has left a vast depression that encompasses this field and those on either side. I see pits where the projections had pierced the ground, hummocks where some less sharp protuberance had rested, and long gouges on the slight rises.  None of these impede me as I stagger on three legs toward the nearest edge of a glittering carpet.

My first diamond lies within a few hundred meters, a smooth crystalline gem resting in a glassy divot.   When I view the interior in the ultraviolet bands I discover fracture planes and splinters of fibers.  In Infrared there’s a slight heat source near the center.  I can see no appendages as I record every aspect before I attempt a sample.

The mere touch of the crystal’s surface makes it flare a brilliant orange.   Instantly I feel the pad-pad-pad of racing feet and see a dozen tripods emerge from the forest’s edge.  Closer even than that I hear the shattering of a million dishes as the nearby carpet changes course to flow in my direction.

I estimate the time for the tripods to reach me, subtract the charging time for my transmitter, and realize that only by diverting all the power can I be assured that the data will be sent.   I begin the transmission and begin shutting down to let the darkness take me. The pad-pad-pad vibrations disappear, the smells of fresh earth fade away, my vision narrows to a single bright dot and I can feel my memories, my thoughts, my very self slipping into dark night.

I feel a sense of intense satisfaction as the transmission is completed and the dot of light fades completely.  Only seconds remain when I hear the tinkling of mother’s crystal centerpiece as the warmth of Christmas aunts, uncles, and cousins embraces me.

 

#

“The unit’s terminated itself,” the comm tech reported.  “Ten millisecond, high power burst.”

“I told you that he’s not a God-damned unit,” Sandels swore, but he knew that what had died alone down below was only a fragment of the happy, smiling person he’d known all too briefly.  The man he remembered was gone forever, too long for tears; another victim of an ugly war. He’d just have to live with that.

“Prepare the next scout,” he ordered, knowing what he’d have to do and say. “We dropping another string in four hours. Let’s hope this one’s more successful.”

#

Falcon was glad when Sandels left.  What he didn’t need now is some damn puzzling reference to a past that no longer concerned him.   He tried to think of something beside the mission as the techs squeezed the warm gel around his body to protect him against what was sure to be a violent landing in his faux bomb.  There was nothing else to do so he tried to recall a few memories of his former life, warm memories for the most part, memories that kept him human instead of as a cog in some inhuman Shardie machine.

His favorite memory was of Christmas, when he was a kid; a bright memory of wrapped presents, warm fireplaces, and cheerful people bustling about as they cooked far too much food.  He recalled with absolute clarity the rich smells of puddings and meats, the stinging aroma of pickled fruits and malty beverages as he played among their feet with his new puppy.

It was a memory that proved he was still human.

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