A quick glance to the left reveals the next position in the line, the top of two helmets visible above the rim of a hastily-dug fighting hole; the helmets are dark, almost black, against the night-vision’s pale green background. Look right — another position, another pair of helmets — before the view shifts back to the front, a seemingly endless expanse the same shade of green.
The quiet of the scene, a total absence of noise like a vidset with the sound muted, is suddenly shattered by the metallic barking of enemy assault weapons. The green worldview briefly flickers as the helmet CPU adjusts night-vision to dampen the flashes of pulse rounds flying past from behind; the other side of the perimeter is under attack.
The sound of quickened breathing is barely audible under the burping sound of the company returning fire and metallic voices on the comms. It is easy to distinguish between those on the firing line and those commanding; high-pitched bursts of nervous voices versus calm authoritative direction.
“Contact to my front!” “…five or six bogeys, ten meters out…” “Negative <static, likely caused by return fire> more than that…” “Where the hell did they come from?” “No warning! Trip flares failed!” “Fire discipline, people! Fire at what you can <static>…do not give your positions away without a target…” “Stay alert, all of you! This is a probe. Main assault could come anywhere!” “Oh, man! So many <static> no probe…”
The breaths come in short, ragged gasps from the mouth. The barrel of an assault rifle appears and the view slowly tracks from right to left and then back again. Hundreds of bright pinlights scream in from the pale green to the front accompanied by the deafening sound of enemy weapons firing; the lights seem to slow, hang in the air, and then disappear from view as they fly past.
The pitch of the voices on the intercom rises; shouts, curses and screams intermix with implacable direction from officers and non-coms. Pulse flashes flare and lights criss-cross to the front as the enemy’s fire is returned. A bright flash to the right reveals the detonation point of a thrown explosive; the battle should be deafening but the helmet dampeners maintain a steady volume loud enough to discern distance and direction without covering comms.
The sound dampeners serve another purpose moments later as a pinlight comes straight in, striking armor with a hammer-like thud. The screams are artificially muted as the view slews from side to side, finally resting on the bottom of the fighting hole, and a detached forearm, the gloved hand still clutching the pistol grip of an assault rifle.
A recorded message about automatic lifesaving features joins the chorus of other sounds; the view shifts up from the arm and settles on the blackness of the sky above.
* * * *
“The wounded soldier was semi-conscious at this point.” The colonel’s voice was monotone as she froze the picture with a touch of a controlpad embedded in the conference room table. The officer’s face was expressionless as she swiveled in her seat to look at the man seated directly across from her.
“This is recent?” The man, a political emissary from the high council, addressed the question to the colonel while his eyes were fixed on the other person in the room, an imposing officer at the head of the table. Tall and fit for his age, the commodore’s narrow face was partially covered, diagonally from mid-forehead to lower left cheek, by a molded mask of flexible plastic. His one visible eye was bright blue, the salt-and-pepper eyebrow over it arched as he returned the politician’s stare.
“Yes. A few hours.” The commodore answered before the colonel could. The old officer’s voice was hoarse and the politician silently wondered if the vocal harshness was from injury or a lifetime of yelling orders. “This vid is representative of daily ground operations planetside.”
They were midships, two decks up from the main level and outboard on the port side of Elpis, a Logistics Support Vessel. Orbiting high above the greenish-blue planet where the battle from the vid had been fought just hours earlier, the ship was blocky and bristled with antenna and docking extensions, an altogether ungainly and unattractive cousin of the three sleek warships stationed nearby.
“To continue,” the colonel’s hand hovered over the vidscreen touch surface. “Next is an overview of planetside naval operations—”
“Enough!” The aide spat the word out, chopping the air with his hand. “I’ve already seen hours of vid from this front. I don’t need to watch more.”
The colonel’s face reddened and her eyebrows drew together in anger; the aide imagined it had been some time — if ever — since she had been spoken to in that way. He returned her stare with an impassive face, no stranger to poking the overinflated egos of much more senior officers during council briefings.
The commodore leaned forward in his chair. “Very well. Tell me, how did you find the tour? Did that answer your questions?”
“No…sir.” The aide grimaced, his lips compressed into a tight line, the pause calculated to show the honorific was an afterthought. “I’ve seen the workshops where you repair and fabricate the equipment and weapons the troops need. I’ve seen armor plate spun on multi-dimension printers and inoperable assault rifles broken down to components and then restored to full utility. Uniforms and environment suits created from scratch and the labs where nutrition packs are created.
The commodore nodded and stared off for a moment before turning his good eye back to the aide. They sat silently staring at each other for a moment before the politician shook his head slowly back and forth. “Nothing I have seen so far today tells me what I was sent here by the council to learn.”
“How have we done it? Is that it?”
“How have we managed to capture and hold this Godforsaken planet, in this most remote part of the galaxy…”
“… fighting off vicious and repeated attacks by an enemy with near-suicidal dedication…”
“…an enemy with internal lines of supply and a seemingly endless supply of soldiers…”
“…and to do it all with so little support from the home systems?”
“Yes, commodore, yes! That is what the council wants to know.”
The commodore smiled, a ghost of an expression, and his one eye briefly darted up to the overhead. He looked to his right at the colonel and from the corner of his eye the political aide saw the woman’s head move slightly back and forth, a nearly imperceptible recommendation. He was about to say something, to insist the council had a right to full disclosure, but was cut off by the commodore.
“Colonel, I believe I can take this from here. Thank you.” The commodore smiled and there was genuine warmth in the visible part of his face. The woman paused for a second before getting up from her chair. She nodded smartly to the commodore and left the compartment without a glance at the aide. The old officer stood up. “Come along, there is one more thing to show you.”
* * * *
“The kids in the fleet have a different name for this planet.” The commodore did not look at the aide as he spoke his first words since leaving the conference room and leading the politician through a maze of passageways and down two decks. They were standing in a large, well-lit docking bay facing six airlocks. To their right cargo containers were stacked to the overhead; to their left was a row of workstations around which stood a small group of white-coated men and women the politician realized were medical technicians. Many of the med techs had bags over their shoulders or small items in their hands and those who were unburdened stood next to wheeled carts loaded with equipment.
The commodore gestured to this group with a hand that was covered with thick, rope-line scars that disappeared from view up his sleeve; the aide realized the injury was on the same side as the older man’s missing eye and he wondered what the rest of the commodore’s shoulder and arm looked like. “Sorry. I think of them as kids…at my age most everyone is a kid. Anyway, they call it ‘The Fish Hook.’ Care to guess why?”
The aide shook his head, his eyes glued to the commodore. “Because we’re at the end of the line.” The commodore’s voice took on a softer tone. “Off in a forgotten corner of the galaxy, fighting and dying over a planet with no real importance to the war effort other than the fact that the other fellow also finds it worth fighting and dying for. We’re at the end of a line that will go no farther and means nothing…and they know it.”
“Every battle is important, every dead enemy, regardless of where killed, is one less—” The aide got no farther as the commodore spun to face him, scarred hand in the air and his visible face twisted into a sneer.
“Don’t attempt to lecture me about fighting a war.”
The aide stood silently, several responses floating through his mind. He thought of reminding the commodore the council found the planet of strategic value, and therefore worthy of the death of some of its soldiers. The aide realized instantly such an approach, coming from a politician, would seem self-serving. He decided to rely on the little used tactic of speaking plainly.
“Look, commodore, the council has decided…we both know further debate is fruitless.”
The scarred officer’s face slowly relaxed and he dropped his hand. “Yes, we do.”
“I am simply here to find out how you’ve managed to keep this planet, this objective, in play for as long as you have with limited resources.” The commodore turned his head at that, the eyebrow over his good eye arched upwards. “Let’s say…minimal resources?”
“Make it criminally minimal resources. I may agree with you on that.”
Before the aide could reply yellow lights on either side of the airlocks began flashing. The relaxed posture of the group by the workbenches disappeared; hands began rummaging through medical kits and equipment-laden carts were inched closer to the airlocks.
“Let’s not get bogged down in semantics.” The politician’s eyes remained glued to the airlocks. “The point is, you — and your soldiers — have done a wonderful job here, tackling an extremely difficult mission and carrying it off in trying conditions. It took the council time to notice, I’ll give you that, but now they have. I’m here to learn how you did it, in hopes that knowledge can be put to equally good use on other battlefronts.”
The commodore sighed. “I am well aware of why you are here.”
One by one the flashing lights below switched from yellow to red, indicating smaller vessels had successfully docked with Elpis and the atmosphere in the airlock was normalizing. Moments later the lights began to change to green and airlock doors began to slide downward, slowly revealing small staging areas which just seconds earlier had been exposed to space and were wet with the frostmelt associated with re-pressurization.
From the left-most four of the six airlocks, soldiers began stepping clumsily over the doors as they slid downward, the men and women staggering and half falling as they entered the docking bay weighted down by armored suits, packs and weapons. But the aide saw there was more at work than merely the bulkiness of their gear; the soldiers appeared disoriented or exhausted, several needing help to get through the airlock opening. Once reaching the dock many slumped to their knees and a few began to turn in slow circles as if seeing the inside of a ship for the first time. Helmets and armor plating thudded to the epoxy-coated deck. Blackish-brown mud was smeared on the arms and legs of every soldier; the aide noticed other stains on many of them.
“These are the troops from the vid?”
The commodore nodded and pointed to the right side of the docking bay. The aide’s eyes followed to watch the scene unfolding in the final two airlocks, which had been swarmed by the medical techs. Stretchers rolled from the airlocks, one after the other and each loaded with a wounded soldier. Nearly all the injured were missing limbs and had been kept alive by the automatic tourniquet feature of their suits; the protective torso armor of one soldier had been split open, revealing horrendous injuries briefly visible between the medics working over her.
With one or two medics attending each, the line of stretchers rolled diagonally across the docking bay to disappear from sight behind the commodore and aide until no more injured bodies appeared from the airlocks. Two dark green body bags were then carried out and gently laid on the deck near the workbenches, and crewmembers from the two docked shuttles began rolling empty stretchers from the line near the workbenches back through the airlocks.
“Very efficient, commodore. But, what—” The officer cut him off with a small wave, and pointed back to their left.
Following the commodore’s gesture, the aide glanced down and saw a new group of white-coated men and women moving among the soldiers who had slumped to the deck in loose semi-circles radiating out from the airlocks. The politician watched as a female medic knelt next to a male soldier who looked up at her with a tear-streaked face. She held a small device up to the dataplate attached to the breast of the man’s protective suit, then keyed something into the device touchscreen.
Completing that, she reached into her bag and pulled out a hypo syringe which was placed against the shoulder of the weeping man. He immediately began to nod and the medic gently pushed his head and shoulders down until he was flat on the deck. The soldier’s eyes fluttered briefly and then his face and body relaxed. Tapping something on her datapad, the woman moved to the next soldier and the process repeated.
“You sedate them?” The politician turned to the commodore, who was staring into the distance with unfocused eyes, having watched the scene before them more times than he cared to.
“Part of the process.”
The smell hit them then, a fetid, ripe odor of sweat and rot, mud and something darker and more organic. The aide turned his head, eyes watering and one hand as a fist to his mouth. The commodore did not seem to notice the man’s discomfort. He grabbed the politician’s upper arm in a vice-like grip and pulled him toward the soldiers.
“For two weeks, this company manned an outpost on one of the planet’s medium-sized islands. Islands…well, that’s what we call them anyway, but they’re mostly just high ground in the seas of wetgrass. Damn planet is overgrown with vegetation.” The commodore paused as they reached the first mud-coated soldier. “At any rate, these kids were completely surrounded and on their own from the moment their boots hit the mud. They carried in what they needed, hauled out what was left, and were under near-constant attack by a much larger force better adapted to the unique conditions of the battlefield.”
The aide looked down at the sleeping soldier at their feet, a woman whose pale, thin and lined face gave the impression she was decades past the mandatory retirement age of forty-five. The aide leaned over to read her dataplate, fighting back the urge to vomit because of the odor, and discovered she was just nineteen.
“Indeed. Two weeks in that hell ages you, frays your nerves.” The commodore moved deeper into the mass of soldiers, pulling the politician. “Days on end without sleep, crouching in a stinking hole for the seconds it takes to lift your helmet and eat a few bites or drink some water, until your appetite and thirst become less important than watching for the enemy, because they have ten times the numbers and you know they are out there, just beyond the few feet of that damn wetgrass you were able to knock down outside the perimeter. Day or night, doesn’t matter to them…hell we still don’t know if they sleep…so you know the only sure thing is not if but when they attack.”
The aide stumbled along behind the officer, allowing himself to be led from one prematurely haggard soldier to the next. Finally, he jerked his shoulder free and stopped; the commodore turned to face the politician, a male sergeant on the deck between them.
“I get your point, commodore. It is terribly, unimaginably difficult.” The politician glanced around the docking bay deck before turning back to the officer. “But they performed well, yes? They held their post, repelled the enemy and I imagine killed quite a few, and the cost was what? Two killed and a ten wounded? And most of the wounded can be returned to duty with prosthetics.”
“Yes, we’ve perfected the art of putting arms and legs back on.” The commodore slapped his own thigh. “The armored suits work well to minimize injuries. That part of the equation…the gear…has not been an issue. As you’ve seen, we repair or fabricate everything we need.” The commodore looked down at the sleeping soldier and what was visible of his face softened; when he spoke again his voice was so quiet the aide strained to hear him. “What we can’t fabricate is a soldier’s spirit.”
The scarred officer looked at the supine soldiers on the deck, his voice soft. “Manifest Psychic Degradation, what centuries ago they called battle fatigue, is the most common injury here. On any given day my senior medical officer tells me two-thirds of the troops on the battlefront exhibit symptoms of varying severity.”
“Yes, well, commodore. That number is only slightly higher than rates I’ve seen reported for the primary…excuse me…for other battlefronts.” The aide’s eyes flicked up to meet the officer’s one, then returned to the drawn, lined face of the sergeant on the deck. “You hardly have a monopoly on MPD.”
The commodore grunted. “The primary fronts, as you well know, also have battalions of replacement troops constantly streaming toward them. Here, we have what we have. There are no fresh troops on the way.” The old officer waved his scarred hand back and forth, gesturing toward the sleeping soldiers. “The reward these kids earned for the past two weeks is one night here on Elpis before I send them back planetside to some other piece of high ground in the wetgrass.”
The commodore’s eye blazed and the tone of his voice became harder. “You see what they look like. If not broken, their spirits are damn close to it, most of them. It isn’t just the last two weeks at that outpost, either, but the cumulative affect of being on The Fish Hook. Dangling here for months on end, killing and being killed, with no credible hope of doing anything else.”
“But they haven’t broken!” The aide glanced around the docking bay. “You’ve been on station all this time, and I’ve seen the mission reports and vidlogs. They weren’t doctored…your mission performance has been beyond expectations…stellar. Thousands and thousands of enemy killed. These soldiers’ spirits may be dented, they may suffer from some level of MPD, but they are getting the job done regardless, commodore. There must be a reason for that.”
The two men stood in silence for a moment before the politician continued. “Tell me, have you been rotating units off the planet for rest and refitting? That is standard procedure, isn’t it?”
The old officer grunted again and shook his head. His gaze drifted back down to the sergeant on the deck. “We tried that, at first, but it didn’t take. Most of the first group refused to return to duty on the planet when their recuperation period was up. A few injured themselves on purpose.”
“Mutiny? Self-mutilation? This was never reported to the council!”
“I decided it was best handled internally. Besides, around that time the enemy received a large influx of replacements and extended rest became a luxury we could no longer afford.” The commodore sneered. “The mutiny, as you term it, was overcome by events.”
“Well, I’ll need to think about this…about including this information in my report. That is something the council would need to know, I should think.” Despite his words, the aide’s face indicated he had already decided. Motioning to the sleeping remnants of the company, he continued. “How then have you kept these soldiers mission effective all this time?”
“By ensuring they don’t know.” The commodore ignored the quizzical look of the aide. He nodded in the direction of a medical tech pulling an equipment cart through the mass of supine men and women.
The technician knelt over a soldier and unspooled two lengths of cable from a piece of equipment on his cart. Passing a data scanner over the soldier’s dataplate, the medic swiped his fingers over the equipment’s touchscreen, adjusting the settings. Next he attached the cables to either side of the soldier’s head, one at his right temple and the other behind his left ear. Completing this, the medic again swiped the touchscreen and lights flashed to life on the frontplate of the equipment.
“What is this, then?” The aide’s eyes went from the equipment to the commodore.
The commodore smiled tightly. “I’m sure you’ve heard of wave memory disruption? It has been tested in penal systems throughout the home systems, usually on prisoners who are particularly violent or disinclined to remediation. My senior medical officer helped pioneer the process before joining the fleet.”
“Wait…you mean to tell me you are…erasing their memories?” The aide’s jaw dropped.
“Not erasing entirely. Simply scrubbing some of it…paring it down. How much depends on the level of MPD.” The commodore’s voice again softened. “Following triage evaluation the subjects are administered a sedative which includes a mild hallucinogen…it facilitates the memory scrub. Surgery cases are treated in the recovery ward.”
The aide began to shake his head back and forth. “But…this…wave memory disruption hasn’t been approved for use by the military…it is still considered experimental as far as I know! These men and women are not prisoners…you can’t treat them as such!”
The officer barked out a short, bitter laugh. “They’re hardly treated like prisoners. After the procedure we take them to a troop berthing compartment where they’ll be cleaned up and outfitted with new uniforms and equipment. When they come to they’re rested, fresh and clean, ready to get back into the fight. For all some of them know, tomorrow’s trip planetside will be their first.” The commodore smiled sadly. “Those will be the ones farthest gone, most in need of the therapy.”
The politician stared wildly around the docking bay, his eyes moving from inert form to inert form. “But…you can’t do this…not on your own authority. The council would never approve of it!”
The commodore replied, his voice even. “No, but the council did decline my original recommendation, which was to never come to this planet. A recommendation, I may add, endorsed unanimously by the combined military staff. Following that, the council declined my request for a suitable number of troops. Finally, they disapproved my request to establish a troop rotation so that these soldiers could suitably recover in the home systems.”
“Regardless of that, you did not need to take these extreme measures.” Suddenly the aide’s voice was tinged by disgust. “If you couldn’t execute the mission with the assets assigned you, without resorting to this, you should have resigned your post, commodore, and allowed a more…more capable officer take command.”
The old officer shook his head. “I thought long and hard about it, believe me. But what more could anyone else do? Eventually the number of battle-ready soldiers would dwindle and the planet would be lost, meaning nothing to the war effort, of course, but…to stand by and see so many killed…for nothing. I suppose I could have just loaded them back up and retreated, took my punishment at court-martial, but the council would just send them, or some other kids, back out here.”
The aide slowly nodded, almost against his will.
“I don’t believe this mission has value to the war effort, but I wasn’t about to sit in a jail cell and know these kids were dying for nothing. At least this way some of them have a fighting chance to make it through.” The commodore placed his scarred hand on the shoulder of the aide. “The mission is being executed with the assets assigned to me. That is all the council cares about and you and I both know it.”
The two men stood silently for a moment watching the medics working. Finally the commodore turned on his heel and began walking toward the exit. “Come along, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee in the wardroom. Let these people do their jobs.”
* * * *
Ten minutes later the two men sat facing each other across a long composite table fabricated to look like wood. Neither had spoken since leaving the docking bay, but the commodore could see from the aide’s face that he was mulling over what he had seen and heard on the docking bay. The politician’s disgust and anger were no longer present as he stared deeply into the coffee mug his hands were wrapped around.
The commodore raised his own mug and took a drink. “Look, you are obviously going to follow what you feel is the best course of action. Do whatever you want with me, but may I suggest your first recommendation be abandoning this worthless planet? The council will listen to you. Toss me in the brig…I don’t care…but bring these kids home. Don’t simply send another flag officer out here to oversee their deaths.”
The aide sipped his coffee and sat quietly. Finally, he looked the old officer in his remaining eye. “That may be unnecessary. I admit, I was shocked and upset to see what was being done to those soldiers. But…but…” He slowly nodded. “You are right about the council, of course. And the war has not gone well in some sectors; the enemy’s supply of soldiers seems…limitless. The idea of our military becoming strained beyond reason, incapable of keeping pace, losing effectiveness…well, that seems to me is a very real concern.”
“What are you implying?” The commodore’s one eye was narrowed, the eyebrow pulled down.
“That you have perhaps hit upon a tactic to deal with the inevitable loss of combat effectiveness expected during the type of protracted war we are presently fighting.”
“I see.” The commodore sighed and sat back in his seat. After a moment, he reached across the table and picked up the council aide’s mug. “Let me top this off for you.” The scarred officer rose and walked past the seated man to a coffee machine integrated into the bulkhead near the wardroom doorway. Twisting his head around, he looked back over his shoulder at the aide. “You take it black, right?”
“Yes, thank you. And let me apologize for my tone earlier, commodore, on the docking bay.”
The old officer walked back to the table and placed the mug of steaming coffee in front of the politician. “Been a few years since I’ve been addressed in that manner but you’re hardly the first. Likely won’t be the last.”
The aide smiled up at the commodore, who remained standing. Raising the mug to his lips, the politician saw from the corner of his eye as the officer’s hand brushed against his shoulder. He heard the hiss of a hypo and a sharp pinching sensation in his neck.
“What the hell?” The aide’s vision began to swim and when his mug slammed into the composite tabletop and tipped over the sound of liquid spilling seemed to come from miles away. He looked down at the spilled coffee and laughed crazily as the brown puddle morphed into the shape of a flower, and then a house. The commodore said his name, but the muted sound of the scarred officer’s voice and the movement of his lips did not match up.
“Yes.” The commodore walked back to the doorway and jabbed a finger at a touchscreen mounted by the door. After speaking softly into the device, he returned to the table and sat down across from the politician. “I’m afraid you missed the most important takeaway from this visit. It wasn’t to export memory erasing to the rest of the military.”
The commodore’s good eye drifted up to the overhead and he sighed. “No, that decision was a last resort. A act of desperation not without precedent. At the academy we learned of ancient wars when troops called for artillery strikes on their own positions to prevent being overrun…I remember wondering about those commanders, how it was they…decided.”
The officer shook his head slowly, a ghostly smile on his lips. After a moment he grabbed the aide’s shoulder and shook it. “I took a chance that showing you what we were doing out here just may convince you this planet should be abandoned. That you would tell the council the cost was too high for an objective with no value. It was a long shot, but…well…that’s all we’ve got going for us out here.”
The politician never heard these words, having dropped into a deep and image-filled sleep moments earlier. It would not have mattered anyway: shortly after the aide lost consciousness the colonel who had briefed him earlier entered the wardroom, dragging an equipment-laden cart.
The commodore sipped his coffee. “Perhaps the next one they send out will get it.”
(1) This was written specifically to submit for an upcoming military/sci-fi anthology. As expected, it did not make the final cut for inclusion in the book so I decided to post it on the blog.
(2) This was the first short story I’ve written since probably high school. I enjoyed working at this length and in this genre so much that I wrote a second story shortly after when I was asked to contribute to the Space Jockey anthology.
(3) At the time of writing, I had recently finished re-reading Michael Herr’s Vietnam War memoir Dispatches, James Webb’s novel Fields of Fire, which is set during the same war, and The Forever War, Joe Haldeman’s mil/sci-fi classic. The influences of each of these on my little story should be clear.
(4) Thanks to outstanding sci-fi author Tammy Salyer for reading an early draft and providing great feedback and suggestions for improvement.