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Manwards
09-01-2006, 08:45 PM
This is a short story I wrote for a contest in British magazine SFX. Unfortunately I didn't win, but I'm still proud of how it came out. The stipulations were that it had to be between 1000 and 2000 words in length, and be science-fiction themed. Perhaps an anime forum isn't the most appropriate place to post it, but if anybody has any comments, I'd be glad to hear them. Thanks!


* * * * *

Equals
The battle was over. I had won.

The potent cocktail of blood and adrenaline that crashed against my skull like waves against a mountain gradually began to calm. The frantic pounding of my heart slowed. I looked down and saw that my hands were shaking. I was coming down from the combat high.

We’d been ambushed as we touched down on the barren surface of Brusalis III. It was a desert planet, home to one of our military outposts. They’d sent out a distress call claiming they were under siege. That was the last we’d heard. The brass had rolled us out right away. The loss of one of our bases to the kuro had been deemed unacceptable.

The LZ had been clear, but the moment the dropship had departed we were under attack. A squad of them had appeared out of nowhere, laser rifles tearing through the dusty air. We’d scattered, ran for our lives. Somehow I’d ended up in a featureless box of a room in the middle of nowhere. I’d ducked inside to regain my bearings, but found out almost too late that I wasn’t alone.

A single kuro soldier, armed and armoured, had leapt from the shadows. I’d ducked just in time to avoid swallowing a bolt of fierce red light. Instinct and training took over then, my conscious mind retreating to the ether until the time for rational thought was needed again. The battle had been fast and noisy. Somehow I’d emerged the victor without a scratch.

I looked down at my fallen opponent. If anything had ever deserved the description of “alien”, these freaks were it. Leathery flesh. Reptilian eyes. Shark teeth and a snake’s tongue. Their armour was all sharp angles, the same colour as their skin and twice as tough. Their appearance inspired fear in civilians and hatred in those sworn to protect them.

My eyes hard, I raised my foot to stamp the blank expression from its face, when it opened its eyes and looked at me. I slowly lowered my boot back to the floor and gripped the handle of my sidearm. I waited. Breathing like a creaking pipe, it slowly raised one of its hands. Kuro hands had eight long, slender fingers. They bore an unsettling resemblance to the meat spiders we’d encountered on Tritus VI. Its hand moved not towards me, but towards a circular compartment on its chest armour.

In a single motion I unholstered my pistol and fired twice. Its yellow eyes became glassy. Its fingers jerked spasmodically and fell limp. It was dead, and not a moment too soon. I’d stopped it from taking the easy way out, and taking me along with it. It was common practice for mortally wounded kuro to end their lives with the aid of a thermal detonation device secreted in their armour. A microbomb, we called it. Tactically it was sound: take the enemy out with you and leave nothing behind for their scientists to analyse. The psychologists believed it had a deeper meaning, that the kuro had a strong code of honour that prohibited their lives being ended by a race they considered inferior. I didn’t really care.

The microbombs were formidable weapons. Despite their small size, they caused fatal damage to an area far wider than our anti-tank mines. An idea came to mind: if I could remove the bomb and deliver it back to Shiloh, we might figure out how it worked and even the playing field. The only problem was, how to remove it without microwaving myself?

I kneeled over the corpse and examined the chestplate more closely. It was flat… save for a tiny button placed at the top of the ribcage. Assuming these things had ribcages, that is. I paused, weighing up the possibility that pushing the button would set off the bomb. It seemed unlikely. The risk of accidental detonation would make it an unwise design choice. Most likely, the button would simply allow access to the bomb. At least, I sure hoped so.

I ignored the lead weight in my gut, gritted my teeth, and pushed it.

The chest compartment slid open. A swallow crawled down my dry throat as my eyes seized upon a glowing object within. It was oval, roughly the size of my palm. I gingerly reached my hand out towards it. My heart beat against my breastbone like a prisoner yearning for release. It seemed to rock me back and forth on my heels. I hesitated as my hand entered the compartment. I was stalling, trying to delay the inevitable. It was pointless. If I was going to die here then a few moments more wouldn’t make a difference.

I closed my eyes, grasped the bomb between my thumb and forefinger and pulled it loose. I waited for the muted roar of detonation… but it didn’t come. I was still alive, at least for the moment. I opened my eyes and looked down at the object in my hand. It was purple, made of a solid material that felt like plastal. It glowed, but it wasn’t hot. I wondered how it was activated. There were no visible buttons on its smooth surface. Maybe it was voice-activated? Or perhaps you just had to squeeze it? Whatever the case, I wasn’t taking any chances. I stood and began to slip it into my pocket…

… and dropped it. It plummeted like a stone and clattered against the floor.

Time froze. Every function of my body stopped cold. My heart ceased to beat. My lungs refused to draw breath. I stood like a wax dummy for what could have passed as an eternity. For all I knew, I was dead. I finally realised I was still alive when I felt a spreading warmth in my combat trousers. Apparently, one bodily function had remained in service.

I ignored it and looked down at the bomb. My eyes widened with surprise. It was no longer oval. It had parted down the middle, along the diameter, the two halves folding away to sit next to one another. The combined flat surface atop them glowed a fierce purple. As I watched, the light continued to intensify. I backed away, waiting for the explosion. I couldn’t help but be angry with myself. If I hadn’t been so clumsy, I’d have lived to tell my tale.

Instead, another surprise. The light began to form into a shape. A vaguely humanoid shape. A head, two arms and legs. Details began to appear, minute shadings in the flickering purple light, and I realised humanoid wasn’t the right term. It was the image of a kuro. A three-dimensional image; a hologram.

It was different to any kuro I’d ever seen. It was dressed in what might have been silk, and long trails of hair looped down from its head to rest at its feet. As I watched, the hologram placed both hands on its chest and began to speak so quietly I could barely hear it. I crouched and listened. I didn’t know what it was saying, but it struck me as odd that it didn’t sound threatening. We’d heard the kuro speak during battle, barking orders or screaming what we assumed were threats. It was a harsh, barbaric sound. But this voice was softer, more delicate. The words were spoken slowly, as if the speaker were choosing them carefully.

What was it? Orders from above? That didn’t fit. The speaker wasn’t dressed in armour, nor was there any air of authority in his tone or mannerisms. Perhaps he was a relative? Or-

It clicked. I suddenly understood. This kuro wasn’t a he… it was a she. The lover, or perhaps the wife, of the creature I’d killed. The hologram was a message from the one he loved, kept close to his heart. I stared at the image as she continued to speak. I couldn’t understand the words, but I could hear their meaning. She was speaking slowly because they were difficult words to say. I love you. Please be safe. Words to that effect.

The message ended then, and the “bomb” folded back into an egg-shape. I stared at it for some time, thinking. Even if it wasn’t an offensive device, it could still be of use to the higher-ups at Shiloh. Early on in the war, holograms had been proposed as defensive weapons. Deploy them in battle and confuse the enemy, or draw their attention. The plans had been scrapped due to the limitations of holographic technology. The large amount of expensive equipment needed to generate the images simply wasn’t feasible for use in a combat situation. On the other hand, the kuro could generate a hologram without the need for such cumbersome equipment. If we could reverse-engineer it, it could be a valuable asset.

There was one thing that stopped me from pocketing it. I reached into my plastal vest and pulled it out. A gold locket on a chain. I kept it close to my heart. I flipped it open and stared at the photograph inside. At her beautiful eyes, her smiling lips. I heard her tender voice in my head, begging me not to go to war. I remembered kissing the tears that trickled down her cheeks and telling her that I had to do my duty. Not for myself, but for her and everybody else I cared about.

I blinked away my own tears and closed the locket, placing it safely back inside my vest. I retrieved the “bomb”, stood and regarded the kuro I’d killed. It – he – no longer seemed quite so alien to me. He was just a soldier doing his job. It was true that the kuro were the aggressors in this war, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, but the decision to wage war came from officers, not soldiers like him. Like us.

Somewhere out there, there was a kuro woman living in a state of limbo, worrying about the man she loved. Just like my wife worried about me. I imagined the situation reversed: a kuro soldier standing victorious above my corpse, taking my wife’s picture in its spidery hands and examining it. Would it discard it? Destroy it? Keep it as a trophy? Every possibility made me feel sick to my stomach. The thought of anything touching her image hurt me more than a laser blast ever could.

I made up my mind. I’d regret it, if not now then in the long run. As a soldier in the midst of a war, I was doing the wrong thing. But as a human being – or rather, as a sentient being capable of compassion – I knew there was nothing else I could do. I knelt beside the dead soldier, and gently placed the object back inside his chest armour. I pushed the button below and the compartment resealed itself.

Had the situation been reversed, would he have done the same for me? I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter.

I quickly stood, wanting to leave before my military instincts overcame the empathy that years of training had tried so hard to suppress. I retrieved my rifle and walked to the door. Beyond it, the battle might still be raging. It might have been won or lost by now. I had to find my team – if they were still alive – but I couldn’t leave without saying something. I looked over my shoulder. In the darkness, I could barely make out the kuro’s prone shape. I wondered if he’d ever be found. If he’d ever be reported as killed in action. If his lover would ever know of his fate.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I thought for a moment, before adding “You put up a good fight.”

It was the best eulogy I could have given him.