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NEW FICTION: Correspondent (Earth/Ryka War Series)

December 8, 2002

From the personal data files of SDS Mikal Stoyonovich (PFA Division 10-03):

Throughout the course of the human/rykan conflict on Saturn there have been various nonmilitary personnel responsible for reporting the latest breaking war developments. During the first 100 days of combat, as many as 375 news correspondents arrive on Saturn via long-range commercial transporters which, until the onset of war, had been used solely for the purposes of hauling raw materials needed in the construction of orbiting space stations throughout the solar system. Boeing Universal is the first multinational conglomerate to realize the vast profits to be had in offering passenger transport to Saturn. The corporation’s chief executive officers greenlight plans for the HGW-1000 commercial space transport vehicle (CSTV).
The first ion-powered Boeing HGW-1000 is launched from earth orbit on October 10, 2007; it carries 21 passengers and 3 crew. Transit fare is staggering, though the waiting list for transport, to Boeing’s delight, grows rapidly with each passing day. And with the exception of billionaire industrialists J.W. Rippkley—who makes the voyage for purely hedonistic reasons—the entire passenger load of the first CSTV consists of the most well known journalists and several camera personnel in visual 4-D media. Theirs is a rare opportunity—a chance to visit another world in the midst of an escalating conflict, while remaining merely observers, conduits for transmitting data to the curious on Earth.

At least that’s what they were told.

The reality is quite different. Initial contracts between the PFA and Earth’s top news agencies ensure that the correspondents receive food, lodgings, and provisions. There is, however, no guarantee of safety.

On December 21, 2007, PFA Division 10-03 enters the Pyranasuss, a recessed land mass of approximately 1,000 square acres, 194 miles north of the uppermost tip of the Trianalyte, for the purpose of scouting the geology of the terrain. Because the Pyranasuss is strategically located between two PFA centers, it is hoped that the area will be suitable for the construction of a remote command center. Our Division is small, consisting of a commanding officer, an AR, and 11 infantry personnel. Also in the division is Tavis O’Reilly who, prior to volunteering for the Saturn correspondent assignment, was the coanchor for CBS-MTV World News Nightly. O’Reilly’s willingness to journey across the solar system is viewed by his television-personality peers as the act of a desperate man. And while he would deny this accusation publicly—were it so stated—he knows the allegation is nevertheless true. At 38 he is, in visual entertainment industry terms, a dinosaur, even though his television-polished good looks belie his age. His stay on Saturn is contingent with the quality of his correspondence; his network superiors have made this fact clear. And he knows that, should he fail to provide what the CBS-MTV CEO’s have asked for (as one network assistant vice president stated, “the story of the year”) it is likely Tavis O’Reilly will return to Earth an unemployed, unemployable man. But O’Reilly is a seasoned reporter, having covered several wars, and he has no inclination toward failure. Yet having been with Division 10-03 for over a month he’s seen little chance of obtaining a decent story, much less story of the year. Already several hundred human interest stories have been recorded, edited, and transmitted to Earth from O’Reilly and his contemporaries during the correspondents’ first week on Saturn. On Earth, human interest stories are dead. The public—as well as the networks—realize the enormity of the human/rykan conflict; they realize the scope of the war could escalate until the entire planet’s populace is directly affected. Personal and human interest stories be damned.

O’Reilly wears the standard issue zero-g worn by the PFA. The uniform has been modified and includes head- and shoulder-mounted digital cameras with zoom lenses operable through sensors located within the fabric of the zero-g’s gloves. O’Reilly carries a single firearm—a Zodiac .08 single-shot pistol, holstered at his side. The Zodiac .08 is not a regulation firearm. Because of its limited effectiveness it is jokingly referred to as the pacifier of handguns, more suited for an infant than infantry. He is instructed to use the weapon only in the most crucial of emergencies.

The COO is Darnby Gray; he wants neither to be on Saturn nor to be around O’Reilly. I know this because I am quiet and trustworthy; as such, COO Darnby Gray has told me several facts about his life. Though perhaps his willingness to disclose personal information has less to do with his trust in me and more to do with his need to share details—however few—about his life. COO Darnby Gray joined the PFA in 2098 believing the experience would provide him with the real-life research he believed was necessary for his first, soon-to-be-written novel. By 2103, having obtained the research, having written and rewritten the manuscript several times over, having sent it to every publisher imaginable, and having been rejected by each and every one in less than one month’s time, Darnby Gray elected to renew his PFA contract and was, six months hence, promoted from ASCOO to COO, a career advance he quite liked…until the Rykans…until the war.
Darnby soon found himself far from home, far from those he loved, and (because PFA regulations prohibit active officers from stepping down their commands during times of war) unable to say “no” when his division was ordered into combat duty on Saturn. COO Gray hopes for a quick end to this interstellar conflict, but believes the war may escalate for many months. He writes to his family daily, receiving prerecorded video and audio messages; however, these images seem less than real, like phantoms from a lifetime ago.
COO Darnby Gray walks toward SDS Monique Ryder as she collects data regarding the stability of the Pyrnasuss.
“How is it?” he asks.
“Solid. Stable. Unlike most of the land masses on this planet.”
“Super. How long ‘til you’ve completed the assessment?”
“Five—maybe ten minutes. Except—”
“Well, I strongly recommend an evaluation of the cave?”
“What cave?”
SDS Ryder points toward her left. Approximately 20 meters distant is a small opening in the ground, barely noticeable but nonetheless distinct.
“Jesus, I hadn’t even noticed it.”
“That’s okay,” SDS Ryder says, smiling. “That’s why you’ve got me.”
COO Gray leaves Ryder to finish data collection and walks toward the cave, the oblong mouth of which is, perhaps, six meters in diameter. He knows it is highly unlikely the Rykans have been here. He knows it is even more unlikely they have forged an underground base or set explosives inside the cave. However, he is obligated to make certain. Minutes later, when SDS Ryder has completed her analysis of the terrain, COO Darnby Gray gathers his squad.
“We’re going to do a walk thru. I’m not expecting problems, but I want everyone ready for the worst. Weapons loaded; safetys off. But no firing unless necessary—I don’t want to be buried alive thank you very much.”
The AR is SGS Brighton Royer. He is first to descend into the cave, and drops weighted flares that glow a ghostlike green.
“Bring ‘em in,” he signals Gray one minute later.
Tavis O’Reilly stops the commanding officer as he is about to enter the cave.
“Where would you like me?” he asks.
“Where would I like you? About 600 million miles away from me is where I’d like you, O’Reilly. Just…just stay in the back and try not to get in anybody’s way. And holster that weapon for Christ’s sake. I don’t need you shooting any of my personnel with that candy-ass Zodiac .08.”

Soon we are all together in the closed confines of the cave. The pathway is steep and narrow, and it appears to be unoccupied. We march into the blackness guided by infra-red vision and location flares dropped by the AR, Ryder. Nevertheless, several personnel toward the front of the line lose their footing and tumble nearly 20 meters before coming to a stop at the base of the cave. There is a moment of panic as the fallen troops rise and quickly assess the structural integrity of their zero-g suits which, thankfully, are undamaged. The remaining troops reach the cave’s base without loss of footing. As we regroup with AR Ryder, she asks Gray the question that is on everyone’s minds:
“Left or right?”
There are two paths we can take, two tunnels, though it’s obvious both need to be checked. COO Darnby Gray sections us into two teams of four (assigning two personnel to remain in the main corridor) and allows O’Reilly to either remain behind or two accompany one of the scout teams. Thus, while four of my colleagues descend into one tunnel, O’Reilly—along with Ryder, Gray, SGS Gabrielle Alonse, and I— head into the other.
“What exactly are we looking for,” Tavis O’Reilly asks.
“The enemy,” Gray responds in matter-of-fact abruptness.
“An entire planet plus numerous satellite moons and you think the rykans are holed up down here.”
“Doesn’t matter what we think, O’Reilly. Can’t okay the ground above us without checking out what’s below it. SOP, you know,” I say.
“Not much of a story though.”
“Maybe not,” COO Gray replies, “but there’s more to life than reporting the news. You might know that if you ever actually live a day instead of passively watching them elapse.”
“Like I don’t know that.”
“No. I don’t think you do. You’re here for the story. To watch it unfold and to send a report back to your network superiors. You might do well to leave it all behind and enlist.”
“You working as a PFA recruiter, commander?”
COO Darnby Gray does not reply. He and SGS Gabrielle Alonse are crouched on the ground.
“What the hell is it?” Gabrielle asks.
We move closer toward them. The cable is ultra-thin, nearly invisible in the darkness, though once noticed it is impossible to miss.
“Whatever it is…it’s not ours.”
“What now?” O’Reilly asks.
“That should be apparent, Mr. O’Reilly; honestly. We follow it.”
“Shouldn’t we…you know, cut the cable?” he asks.
“Only if we want to disclose our presence to whomever or whatever is at the end of it,” Gabrielle Alonse says flatly.
“Take the lead,” Gray says to Ryder, “everyone tight. Clock it.”
Marshall 21 AS-1s are locked and loaded, and we proceed cautiously deeper into the void.
At mission time 23:07 there is a silent, almost insignificant tremor. Several rock fragments drop from the roof of the tunnel, though the pieces are small and no injuries result.
“Ryder, what was that?”
“Not sure, sir. Ground is stable. Most likely an explosion.”
“Difficult to gauge. 500, maybe 700 kilometers.”
In the minutes that follow we make numerous attempts to radio the other personnel—Templeton, Anges, and the others. There is no reply.
“Could be structural interference,” Ryder says, unconvincingly.
“Not likely.”
“Do we go back?” O’Reilly asks. His face is tense, perspiration hangs heavy atop his brow despite the climate-controlled artificial environment of the zero-g.
“We follow this out,” Gray replies, as he and Ryder continue ahead.
At mission time 23:37 a second explosion is felt. This one is closer, the intensity greater, and the path behind us is partially obscured by falling debris. It will be difficult if not impossible to return from the opposite direction. And so we continue ahead, following a length of thread-thin cable that seems to have no end. The shadows cast from the searchlights are many and varied, and there is a nervousness that escalates with each passing minute. Too little is known about the Rykans; too little. We begin to jump at every imagined phantom. Even COO Gray is becoming visibly agitated. There is no sound, but for the resonance of our breathing which, through built-in earphones, assumes an eerie, ethereal life of its own.

At mission time 23:53 O’Reilly cries out unexpectedly, and removes the Zodiac .08 from its holster. He is several meters behind us, having drifted somewhat, as he fires thrice into the ceiling of the tunnel. We have merely a moment to realize he’s shot at the deceptive shadows, nothing more, when the inevitable occurs. The ceiling begins to collapse fast and violently as several tons of rock drop upon us. Our escape is more a result of luck and good fortune than skill. Fortunately, the passageway is only partially blocked.
COO Gray slams O’Reilly against the wall with his left hand, absconding O’Reilly’s handgun with his right.
“I’ll keep this. Do try not to get us killed.”
“I thought I saw—”
“Just shut up and stay out of the way.”
We forge ahead. I look back periodically, expecting we are, perhaps, being followed, but see nothing. We forge onward, following a thin strand of cable, winding upward and downward through the tunnel, the mouth of which is becoming increasingly smaller.

It is 24:03 mission time as we quite literally reach the end of the line.
“What the hell is this?” COO Gray asks.
There is a moment’s confusion as we stare at the cable which has abruptly ended.
“Christ. Fucking waste of time,” Ryder says.
“Wait. What’s this?” O’Reilly asks.
He notices what we hadn’t—that the cable is attached to a star-shaped object, half buried in the ground.
“Don’t touch it,” Gray says, “keep out of the way and don’t touch a goddam thing.”
“Major infrastructure readings,” Ryder notes, checking the readout on a portable RY-22. “There’s something below us, and whatever it is, it’s massive.”
“A Rykan outpost?” Gray asks.
“Highly probable.”
“The PFA wants to build a satellite HQ above a Rykan outpost. Fucking brilliant.”
“Sir,” I announce, “I’m picking up life readings 20 clicks ahead and closing.”
We hug the walls, Marshalls loaded and charged. Through infra-red vision we watch as the rykan patrol appears out of the darkness. The first three or four kills are easy, but the advantage of surprise is short lived. The rykan squad falls to the ground systematically atop one another in layers of two and three personnel, like a pack of wolves trying to find warmth from an unanticipated storm, and quickly return fire.
Ryder is the first to fall. She drops to the frozen earth, dead before her body hits the ground. Dead before her plexi faceplate shatters, her blood freezes, and her skin turns icicle blue. Her suffering is, mercifully, brief, though her dying cry is like the scream of a fatally wounded animal and will forever haunt my dreams.
“’We’re sitting ducks!” SGS Gabrielle Alonse cries. She is no longer firing but stares at her fallen friend as the rykan onslaught continues. A barrage of shells rips into Ryder’s body as the rykans try to anger us into the open.
We are outnumbered and outgunned, but I tell myself that I will not die here, far away from my friends and family on this dismal, icy planet, and drop two of the enemy. The rykans continue to return fire, but employ a new strategy by aiming not at us, but above us, hoping to affect a ceiling collapse.
Several meters distant, Tavis O’Reilly continues to hug the ground. He pulls loose the half-buried star-shaped object connected to the cable that has led us to this makeshift tomb. He dislodges the object from its cable and clutches it pathetically like a small, frightened child holding onto a treasured stuffed animal. The object is no larger than the size of a gloved palm. Each of the eight points of the object begins to glow in a multitude of colors, and with every passing instant the intensity of the glow increases until the radiance is near blinding. O’Reilly holds the object tightly in his grasp, trying to diffuse the glow it casts, which is like a spotlight exposing us to the enemy.
The rykans suddenly cease fire and begin a hasty, maddening retreat. We drop three or four before they escape into the darkness and out of infra-red range.
“What the fuck?” COO Gray asks, adrenaline racing through his body. “We were as good as dead. Why would they—?”
Gray stops in midsentence. One by one, we turn toward Tavis O’Reilly, who slowly rises from the ground, still holding onto the star-shaped alien object that continues to glow in his hands.
“Tavis,” Gray says firmly, “whatever you do…do not…fucking…drop…that thing. Mikal…”
Since the start of the war, the PFA have catalogued all rykan weapons confiscated during combat. If the PFA have encountered the object in O’Reilly’s grasp, a record of it and all known facts pertaining will be accessible through PFA’s central command database.

The news is not good.

“Approximate 15-GEX explosive capacity...”
“What else?” COO Gray asks, impatiently.
“Checking…Can be remotely activated or…”

The news is not good at all.

“Once activated—and I think it’s safe to say that’s already occurred—the bomb will detonate in approximately 5 minutes. Instantaneous detonation occurs if the if the individual in contact with the bomb ceases contact.”
“Christ. Fucking wonderful.”
“We’ve got to get out of here, now!” Tavis O’Reilly cries.
“You’re not going anywhere, O’Reilly,” SGS Gabrielle Alonse states emphatically.
“Look,” Tavis O’Reilly reasons, “I’m not going to stand here holding a fucking bomb waiting for it to detonate!”
Alonse rises from Ryder’s side and slams him against the wall. “Tavis, you haven’t any choice.”
“Fuck if I don’t.”
“Listen to me and listen good. You let it go, we’re all history. We’ve less than four minutes to distance ourselves from a 15-GEX explosion. Question is, are you going to let us?”
Tavis O’Reilly does not speak for several long moments as, in the distance, a rykan squad slowly advances. We quickly reload and prepare for the next assault. Seconds later, O’Reilly speaks. His voice is low and stern, and he says only one syllable—one word:
There is no time for goodbye. No time to second guess the decision. No time for anything. We drop Marshalls and stat packs and anything else that inhibits mobility. We leave behind counters, scanners, and provisions. We run and do not look back.
There is no time.
There is simply no time.

Hours later at the Shyapaté Command Center of the PFA, COO Darnby Gray completes a video testimony of the disaster at Pyrnasuss. Of the ten personnel under his command, SGS Gabrielle Alonse and I are the only survivors. We each complete individual reports. No charges are filed against Gray, and to his disappointment he is given the command of the 10-17, whose commander was recently KIA during a rykan air assault in the Ghandlerie. Alonse and I are reassigned to the 10-09.

While COO Gray, Alonse, and I file our official reports, the final broadcast of Tavis O’Reilly’s career airs on the 17:00 edition of the CBS-MTV Evening News on Earth and is seen planet-wide by more than 2 billion viewers. O’Reilly’s final words before transmission’s end are, surprisingly philosophical and simple:
“For peace we live; for peace we die.”

The phrase is subsequently adopted by the PFA during recruitment drives, and O’Reilly is hailed by his contemporaries as the new century’s Ernie Pyle. On Earth, the influx of reporters to Saturn continues, each hoping to transmit the next great story or, like Tavis O’Reilly, to become the next great story. At the same time, my younger brother, Peiter, is completing his senior year as a media correspondent major at Michigan State University; he writes frequently relating dreams of flying to Saturn to work as a correspondent.

I pray the war ends before he graduates.

NEXT: Simplify, a new chapter in the Earth/Ryka war series.

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