Fear from the Past
by Lance J. Mushung
We’d just hopped to a new star system containing a yellow sun very much like Sol. Although Magellan was a new cruiser with an improved drive, interstellar travel still left me feeling as if my head had been squeezed in a vise. As usual, I massaged my temples and told myself that someday I’d be done with ships and hopping. I’d be in a nice lab, and after that a retired guy in some pleasant spot. The sudden warbling wail of the alarm claxon made me forget my head and future plans. My next thought, and fear, was we’d stumbled across the Druxels.
The displays on my console told me we were receiving artificial radio signals, and I jumped onto studying them. In addition to the Druxels, I had to worry about the captain. I was the only member of the Science Corps onboard, and there was little doubt he’d call in short order. The voice of Captain Boris Malenkov boomed from a speaker within a minute.
“Mr. Steinmetz, in twenty-three minutes we’ll be too far into the gravity well to simply hop away. I want your report in fifteen minutes.”
He’d called me mister, which always meant he was serious. I acknowledged and continued working.
The captain’s face appeared on a display fifteen minutes later. He often struck me as a bit sinister with his cold eyes, heavy features, and bushy eyebrows. However, this time he looked like a lover of mysteries who’d just come across a strange new crime to investigate.
“Captain, the second planet is very similar to Earth and the signals are coming from one of its small moons. They’re in a low frequency band and resemble weather monitoring station transmissions of over a century ago.”
“So, we haven’t found the Druxels?” It was more of a statement than question.
“It appears not, sir. I recommend we recon the planet.”
Magellan reached planet two and settled in behind one of the moons, an ugly and misshapen gray-brown rock. We deployed spy drones, and I had a busy few hours assessing the resulting torrent of data. I thought I’d get some down time after I sent a summary report to the captain, but the XO, Commander Johara Nasser, was at my console minutes later. She was her usual vibrant self, a lean brown petite bundle of energy.
“What can I do for you, sir?” I said.
She smiled. “Knock off the sir, Jeff. We’re alone. I saw your report. It has to be a lost colony. We’ve got the abandoned human town, Earth cows and chickens intermingled with native grazing and gathering animals, clumps of Earth wheat and corn in the fields, and scattered chunks of Earth alloys that I assume are from a ship.”
“And the weather monitoring station conforming to century-old Earth technology.”
“The station has actually been here since before the Druxels hit Earth?”
“I’m amazed it still works. Any idea why the town is empty?”
“Nope. Then again, there’s no one home anywhere, not just at the town.”
“What’s the deal on the two-story house with the wall and firing platform off by itself? The street grid and other houses make the area look like a suburban subdivision.”
“There’s nothing stopping us from sending the marines down for a closer look. They always say they’re ready for anything.” Her tone and expression made it clear the marines had told her that many times. “You’ll leave with them in three hours while it’s late night there. You’ll set down a klick or so southeast of town and walk in through the grassy fields.”
“I’m not wild about blundering around in the dark.”
“The marines have great night vision. You’ll start with the fortified house at dawn and play it by ear from then on. I’ll brief the marines. One last thing. You’ll direct the mission, but not the marines. Is that understood?”
I nodded. The marines didn’t appreciate taking tactical orders from naval personnel, and I was part of the Science Corps and looked like a history professor to boot.
I thought how useful something that worked independently, like a robot, would be doing recon. I didn’t voice the thought. Johara would have lectured me on the heresy of suggesting robots could be helpful. Robots and anything like them not under firm human control had been banned for decades. When the Druxels took over Earth, they’d used our robots against us. After the Druxels left, for reasons known only to themselves, there’d been quite a backlash against autonomous systems. And the hundreds of vids made since about that time guaranteed nobody forgot, not to mention the accounts of the eight billion people who’d died from combat, starvation, and disease.
Three hours later I walked into Magellan’s docking bay. I’d traded my naval uniform of sky blue and white for the battle fatigues the marines wore. Other than my helmet’s visor, I was covered in a green camouflage pattern that resembled the native grass.
The battleship gray bay contained our delta-shaped navy-blue Warhawk fighters and transports of various shapes, sizes, and colors. One end was dominated by an airlock bounded by bold yellow and black stripes. The Stinger assault craft used by the marines was squatting there on her three landing skids. She was a forest-green knife with wings and a tail, and her wings were loaded with menacing rocket pods and cannons. Grace was visible in the pilot’s seat, and I waved before boarding through the aft ramp.
I knew who the marines were, but didn’t really know them. Anton, Marie, Scott, Shing, Sango, Armando, and the squad sergeant, Mosego—each looked confident holding a DE-3, an over-under energy rifle and grenade launcher. I took my seat next to LT, Lieutenant Lien Trang, whose face was marred by her characteristic stern no-nonsense expression.
“Are you ready, Subcommander?” LT asked me.
I considered asking for a DE-3, but saw she only had a pistol like me. “When you are.”
She hesitated for a moment and then said, “Sir, just to be clear, I’m in charge of my marines and combat situations.”
“Thank you, sir. Let’s get to it then.” A smile appeared to show how pretty her face was, but it was gone in seconds.
The Stinger shot from the airlock. Magellan was a beautiful sight on the Stinger’s display screen, a smooth wide sword with a cruciform hilt. She was soon lost from sight as her deep navy-blue color was swallowed by the overwhelming blackness of space.
We disembarked after a twenty minute flight. It was a pleasant clear night that allowed me to admire a view seldom seen on well-lit Earth. The twinkling misty-white band of the Milky Way was stunning and seemed softer and friendlier than its stark appearance when viewed in space. I was sorry when I had to turn on my night vision.
Even cats would have been impressed by our stealth as we moved through rolling hills that reminded me of my home in Kansas. Only a slight rustling of the grass betrayed our passing. The fields were quiet except for flying animals that glowed an iridescent aquamarine color and made noises like frogs. They reminded me, a bit, of fireflies. Sango called them croakers and the name stuck.
An hour before dawn found us on the crest of a low hill about 250 meters from the fortified house that LT called a stockade. The stockade wall was a hodgepodge of reddish-brown bricks and metal panels three-meters tall and was unbroken except for one open gate. The second story and pitched shingle roof of the ordinary-looking brick house rose above the wall.
We formed a line in the grass along the hilltop. LT and I crouched together with the squad placed at five-meter intervals to our sides. A gentle breeze came up, making the grass sway and the gate swing as if beckoning us in. I opened my visor for a few minutes to let the air brush my face. I picked up a faint whiff of something similar to lavender, which was refreshing after the metallic and antiseptic smells of the ship.
The sun had just peeked over the horizon when the shout, “Mother of God,” from the left end of our line startled me. I jumped to my feet and saw a tall humanoid wearing ragged green clothing picking Armando up as if he were a child’s stuffed animal. There was a brief scream when the humanoid twisted Armando’s torso, followed by him flying with the limp arms and legs of a rag doll when he was tossed away. DE-3s made deep electrical hums while he was still in the air. Their violet beams disintegrated the upper half of the humanoid and then, unblocked, were visible out into the distance for a few moments.
“Five more of the bastards just stood up,” Mosego said. He sounded as if it was a common occurrence. “Take ‘em down.”
My heart was pounding as I drew my pistol and aimed. The humanoid’s head disappeared before I squeezed the trigger. Three more were hit in seconds.
“One ducked back into the grass over there,” Mosego said.
I turned in the direction shown by my visor’s tactical display and heard three almost simultaneous pops, the sound of grenades being launched. Three thumping bangs followed, blanketing the target with smoke and shrapnel.
“Grace, get over here,” LT said, sounding as calm as if she was calling a taxi. “We’re under attack from unknown hostiles. Inform Magellan. Sergeant, have the squad form a square on me. Check on Armando and get me his weapon.”
I replayed the initial encounter in slow motion on my visor. The humanoid’s clothing was a human sniper’s Ghillie suit. Magnifying gave me a look at its face and eyes. That, along with the age of the colony, told me what it was. I tried to sound less shocked than I felt saying, “I’m pretty sure they’re H-17 robots and some of the alloys we saw from orbit scattered around here must be more of them.”
The marines responded the way I figured Transylvanian peasants would after hearing the word vampires. There was dead silence, and I saw hatred and fear replacing the confidence I’d seen earlier.
Grace broke the silence. “I’ll be over you in a few seconds. It will take awhile for the Warhawks to get here. They weren’t expecting any action.”
The drone of a distant beehive became audible as the Stinger slowed to a hover above.
“Grace, can you pick us up?” LT asked.
“I don’t think so. There are several robots approaching, and we’ve got a shitload of orange animals coming this way. They’re about a meter tall and resemble apes. And they don’t look friendly. You’ll see the lead elements pretty soon.”
The orange apes appeared on the crest of the hill behind us. The orange splashed in with the green of the grass triggered an incongruous memory, and my mind’s eye showed me a pumpkin patch.
Four robots stood up, headed toward the apes, and were covered by them the way ants swarm an interloper. The robots responded by smashing them on the ground, shaking them so hard their necks broke, or tearing them limb from limb accompanied by spurting salmon pink blood. Undulating shrieks from the apes proved they weren’t mute, as I’d thought at first.
LT looked at me with a puzzled expression and I said, “I guess the robots aren’t friends of the apes.”
“The enemy of an enemy is not necessarily a friend, sir. We’ll assume they’re all hostiles. I’ll apologize to the next apes we meet if they turn out to be friendly.” She chewed her lip for a second. “Sergeant, we’re too exposed here. We’re going to the stockade. Make it happen, fast.”
“You heard LT,” Mosego said. “Anton, Shing, carry Armando. Marie, Scott, rear guard. Let’s go. Double time.”
Marie responded with, “The orange apes are hostiles too?” She sounded bewildered, as if her brain couldn’t process anything beyond enemy robots.
“Don’t worry about it. Just shoot at anything not human. Now move.”
I looked back from the gate and saw the apes were already on the hilltop we’d left. I could only wonder about the robots.
“Sergeant,” LT said. “Deploy our people to cover every side. Anton will make sure there aren’t any surprises in here with us.”
“Where do you want me?” I asked.
“Sir, I’d like you to go with Anton and keep an eye out for anything we can use.”
I went in the front door of the house while Anton circled around back. A stained wall that looked as if it had been chewed up by monsters was on my left. To my right, I was staring down the muzzle of a large dusty gunpowder machine gun colored coal black.
Anton whistled when he joined me. “It’s a M2A4 and in good shape, sir. It shoots explosive rounds and has a ceramic barrel, so we can fire it continuously. The loaded ammo belt is bad, but the one in the can will be good. It’ll help even up the odds, provided we can find more ammo. I’ll get it to the gate if you’ll finish going through the house?”
My search of the rest of the first floor uncovered dust, household items, a few gunpowder hunting rifles, and splatters on the floor and walls, a good bet was old blood.
As I went up the stairs, sharp explosions rattled the entire house. I found a room with a window overlooking the hill in time to see the Stinger fire a salvo of rockets. Explosions again shook the structure and threw up clouds of smoke, dirt, and grass, and what I imagined were chunks of apes. No apes were on the hilltop when it was visible again, but more appeared in moments. The Stinger drifted closer firing cannons. The violet energy beams seemed ethereal in the brightening day, but were devastating to the apes in the line of fire. At least those died a quick death. Ones on the edges of the beams were left running in circles with their fur ablaze.
The room was empty except for furniture and a single journal that I thumbed through. It was full of hand printing in 21st century English, a language I’d learned because it was Earth’s technical language before the Druxels. Entries by date said I had a diary or log, and I began speed reading from the back forward. I was so engrossed that the voices in my earphones, hum of DE-3s, explosions of rockets, and rattling of the M2A4 were only background noise. The thumping bangs of grenades nearby reverberated through the room and broke my concentration. I looked out the window and muttered, “Jesus Christ.” A band of burnt grass along with charred bodies and pieces of bodies ran along the hill.
“Cease fire,” LT said. “They’re pulling back.”
“Can we bug out?” Mosego asked.
“They’d be on us again before we could board.”
Grace added even less cheery information. “There’ll be thousands here in five to ten minutes.”
“LT,” I said. “I’ve read a lot of a diary left by a leader of the colony.”
“Interesting, sir. What good is it?”
“The robots only attacked us because we were unknown bipeds outside of town. They can help and the diary gives the codes and frequencies to bring them here. They’re programmed to stay clear of machine gun fire, but can cover our rear and flanks.”
“Sir, you’re certain?”
There was trepidation in her voice, so I answered in my most confident tone, “I am.”
“Grace will help you transmit the commands, sir.”
“There’s more. The colonists distributed caches of supplies, including ammo, around town. One is only about 300 meters away on the next street. I’ll go get any M2A4 ammo.”
“Thank you, sir. Mosego and Scott will go with you.”
It took forty-five seconds with Grace to transmit commands to the robots. Thirty seconds later Mosego, Scott, and I were jogging down streets that had become meadows and past houses in decent condition except for the ubiquitous encroaching grass. Rumbling from behind the hill told us Grace was pounding the apes there with rockets. Two turns brought us to the house we wanted. Scott kicked down the door and we found seventeen cans of machine gun ammo, other miscellaneous supplies, and a two-wheel garden cart the colonists must have used to move everything.
After we loaded the cart, Scott gave me his DE-3 and spare power cell, took my pistol, and grabbed the cart’s handles. We left the house and saw a group of apes heading straight toward us from in town.
“God damn it,” Scott shouted. “Where’d these sons of bitches come from?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mosego said. “LT, we’re going to need some help.” She acknowledged and he continued. “Subcommander, you and Scott get going. I’ll follow after you’ve had a head start.”
“I’ll stay with you,” I said.
“Outstanding, sir. Scott, why are you still here?”
Scott dashed away pulling the cart at a speed that would have made a sprinter proud.
“Sir, the stockade can see and cover our east flank. I’ll cover the west from the next street over while we fall back.”
Mosego disappeared between two houses, and I backed down the street pulling my weapon’s trigger. The DE-3 dropped whole lines of apes as I swept it from side to side. But I could have been in an arcade shooting game. Another ape replaced each that fell, and they kept coming. “Sergeant, I think it’s time to run.”
Instead of Mosego, I heard Grace say, “Heads up, Subcommander,” followed by the Stinger’s cannons killing the apes wholesale.
“Thanks, Grace. That was close. What about Mosego?”
“He’s gone, sir.” A vid feed from the Stinger came up on my visor. Mosego was lying on the ground with a torn and bloody uniform ringed by apes. “You should make time to the stockade. The way is clear. The robots are engaging stray apes between you and there.”
I was next to the M2A4 on the firing platform when an orange wave started down the hill. LT gave the order and every DE-3 began humming. The Stinger overhead was out of rockets, but her cannons put down an intense barrage that even the angry gods who hurl lightning bolts would have admired. The ghostly violet beams from our energy weapons left burnt and smoldering dead apes everywhere they swept. Then the machine gun began chattering. Its explosive bullets tore into the wave, turning swaths into pink and orange goo.
The apes fell by the hundreds. So many were dying that the living were having trouble advancing past their fallen comrades. After a mad minute of firing, it seemed the wave had frozen in place part way to us. I fooled myself into optimism until Marie and Shing reported that they were on their last power cells.
We held our own through another mad minute of firing, until the M2A4 fell silent, its ammo expended. Then the apes began closing in again, like an inexorable orange tide.
“LT, I don’t have enough power left to both shoot and fly,” Grace said. “I’ll channel it all into the cannons and set them to overload when the ship hits the ground. The energy burst will take out everything in about a 200-meter radius.”
Grace and her ejection seat arced over us toward town. The Stinger rolled over and dived into the hill, followed by vivid purple energy blanketing the area. It was as blinding as looking into a dazzling violet sun, but became a shimmering haze I could see into when my visor adjusted a split second later. Geysers erupted where the moisture in the soil turned into superheated steam. Apes and vegetation ceased to exist, vanishing as if whisked away by a wizard. The haze dissipated leaving the area devoid of everything but smoke, steam, a few fragments of the Stinger, and dirt which looked roiled as if plowed by a drunken idiot.
Many of the survivors turned and ran, but one group advanced and reached the stockade’s wall. Apes piled onto each other making a couple of pyramids against the wall, allowing others to climb onto the firing platform.
The battle became a blur of action that I’d remember forever as vignettes. I fired at an ape who was so close that I could see its beady yellow eyes. Knife blades flashed in the sun as Marie and Shing slashed at apes. I was struck by how much ape guts looked like ours when one was disembowled. Sango clubbed several with his DE-3, but fell with bright red blood spurting when one ripped his throat. Anton was pushed off the firing platform and fell on his back outside the stockade. I fired down at the apes swarming him, but depleted my DE-3′s last power cell within a second. He was torn apart before my eyes, and I choked back vomit rising in my throat. LT clubbed an ape with her pistol, hoisted it over her head, and lobbed it into an ape pyramid, which tumbled apart. Scott collapsed the second pyramid by throwing the M2A4 the way stones had been tossed from castles in ancient times. I gripped my DE-3 by its barrel and batted an ape as it jumped toward me. It sailed off the firing platform with arms flailing. And through it all were the shrieks of apes and screams of humans I’d hear in my head for years.
Then, it ended. There were no more apes inside the stockade and the apes still alive outside ran off. LT started giving orders about watching for another attack and attending our casualties. I took slow deep breaths with my hands on the back of my neck.”
“Subcommander, This is Nayar. My Warhawks will cover you through your evacuation. A shuttle will be here shortly. There are more hostiles approaching, but you’ll be gone before they arrive.”
I acknowledged and added a thank you as shadows from the Warhawks moved across the field.
LT came to me looking even more serious than usual and asked, “Sir, why the hell did my people die today?”
“About thirty-three years ago the apes, named Orangs by the way, were harmless nocturnal animals. It seems a human virus mutated and crossed species, turning them into violent daytime animals. It became a pandemic that infected all the Orangs, and the colonists were overwhelmed in months.”
“So, why haven’t they killed everything, sir?”
“They’re dangerous when aroused, more or less like ants from a smashed ant hill, but aren’t all that aggressive otherwise except to bipeds like humans and robots, who they see as rivals.”
“I understand being aggressive to robots, especially after Armando,” she said. “But I have to admit they had their uses today too. What’ll happen here next, sir?”
“I’m betting the Medical Corps can find a cure for the Orangs. If there’s no cure, we can handle them in some other way, a biological agent for example.”
LT walked off to help prepare her squad to leave. I let my mind wander, and it occurred to me that I’d found my pleasant retirement spot in twenty or so years.
Lance graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He did structural engineering on the Space Shuttle in Houston, Texas for over thirty years. He has a great deal of technical writing experience and, now retired, is trying his hand at science fiction.