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W I D E   A W A K E

NEW FICTION: Radio Silence (Earth/Ryka War Series)

December 2, 2002

From the personal data files of SDS Ariel Baxter (PFA Division 10-13):

Having completed our task of destroying the Rykan mining operation in the southern quadrant of the Trianalyte, we begin the short trek toward the Skimmers by which we will return to the central base of operations. However, it quickly becomes apparent that we won’t all be heading back at once.
Four of the six Skimmers are inoperable.
Throughout the Earth/Rykan conflict, the PFA Skimmers have been, at best, semireliable. The crafts were not designed to withstand Saturn’s harsh environment. They’ve been overhauled several times to compensate for design flaws in the engines’ fuel-injection pumps, though it seems unlikely this defect would immobilize four Skimmers simultaneously.
“The hell is this?” CMA Preston Iberman asks, assessing the front quarter panel of one of the disabled Skimmers; for once, interest is taken in his query. A dozen or so personnel gather around the Skimmer while several of us begin loading the KAK components and gear into the cargo holds of the two operable Skimmers.
“Lemme in there,” COO Stone says, pushing aside curious onlookers to inspect the damage personally. Gloved hands evaluate the quarter panel, the structural integrity of which has been severely damaged, as if it were a strip of wood infested with carpenter ants and termites.
“Those look like…bites…of some sort,” Asst. Lt. Phillips comments.
Stone points toward the two operational Skimmers.
“Finish filling those cargo holds. Check the fuel tanks; transfer whatever you can from the disabled Skimmers into the ones that still work. Move it!”
“Commander, what happened to the Skimmers?” Marz asks.
“You familiar with acidic structural decomposure?”
They are,” Stone says, casually removing the custom-made Peterson 0.75 sidearm from its holster. He discharges the weapon, finding a target approximately 20 meters distant, and returns the weapon securely to its holster.
A moment later he holds a slightly disabled artificial life form in his protected hands. We gather around him, staring curiously at the object. Containing a flat, disc-like center with nearly a dozen pinchers extending from its edges, the object looks very much like a seawater crab.
“What the hell is that?” SFS Jackson asks.
“This is a self-mobile acid deployment unit. It’s Rykan. And as you can see by the Skimmers, its potential for destruction ain’t nothing shy of remarkable.”
“Heard of these bastards but never saw one before. Programmed to hone on anything composed of or containing base metals, which in the case of the PFA, is just about everything. No telling how many of these things exist, and it’s a damn good bet they’re in the Trianalyte.”
“I can modify the motion trackers on the Skimmers,” Martinez says. We can pick ‘em off one by one.”
“Do it.”
Twenty minutes later, the two functioning Skimmers depart. They are loaded well beyond capacity, carrying a total of 45 personnel. Ten of us—Asst. Lt. Ram Phillips, Marz, Iberman, Drake, Del Tores, Sawyer, myself, and three members of E-Division—remain behind to await transport. We have a week’s worth of provisions, though our rescue is expected within 1 to 2 days. After watching the Skimmers vanish in the fog of the Trianalyte, we find a clearing and unpack our gear. Phillips runs the show.
“Going to be a long night.”
“Hey Lieutenant. How come we don’t just radio for air transport?” CMA Preston Iberman asks bluntly.
Phillips does not answer but continues to unpack his gear. A few minutes pass and Iberman asks the question once more.
“Seriously, why not radio for assistance?”
“You familiar with A-02?”
“What’s A-02?” Iberman asks.
“It was a Division, like us, only stationed in the southern hemisphere. Company of 100 or so personnel. A-02 was part of the initial campaign—the infamous ‘Big Push’ against the Rykans.”
“What happened?” I ask, while attempting to carve a decent foxhole into the terrain.
“I can’t believe you guys haven’t heard this before. Okay. Listen, in ’08 the war was a lot different than it is now. There were only two base camps on Saturn—none of this scattered across the planet shit like we have now. All the Rykan forces were stationed in one camp, and the PFA forces were in the other. Rykan excavation was a lot smaller at that time.”
Phillips pauses for a bit and adjusts his H20 intake.
“Can’t ever get enough fluid outta these goddam units.”
The rest of us are no longer engaged in camp preparation. We are close to Phillips, like young campers gathered around to hear a ghost story.
“Anyway, July 4, ’08—one year to the day after the Declaration of Worlds War was signed—the order was given to converge upon the Rykan base of operations. This was a major offensive involving close to 90% of the PFA on Saturn at that time—about 4,500 personnel. Big mistake. The PFA had surprise on its side, but the Rykan’s defense quickly recovered from the initial assault. The PFA objective was simple enough. Command had isolated a hot spot—a weak point of entry in the Rykan stronghold. A perimeter breach would have proven catastrophic for the Rykans. But the perimeter held.”
“You’re telling me 4,500 PFA, armed with KAKs and ARFs couldn’t breach a hot spot?” CMA Preston Iberman asked. “That’s insane.”
“KAKs, RAFs, SAMGs, and ionized electro-cannon fire. More than 250,000 rounds in the first 10 minutes of combat. The perimeter held.”
“What about subatomic smart bombs?”
“Couldn’t use SSBs. PFA was too close to ground zero—would have gotten the job done but the combat personnel wouldn’t have lived to see it.”
“Why didn’t they retreat? Fall back a few hundred meters. Put a delay switch on the SSBs before launching?”
“Smart thinking, Iberman. In fact, that’s exactly what they decided to do.” Phillips pauses again, trying to quench his thirst.
“But before they could fully retreat, the Rykans deployed a series of CNS bombs.”
“CNS, as in central nervous system?”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
“Rykans aren’t really using them anymore, not as far as I know. Zero-g suits you’re wearing have CNS stabilization software wired directly into your bodies. The zero g-suits worn during the Big Push didn’t—cause the PFA didn’t know CNS bombs existed.”
“What happened?”
“Rykans launched a dozen CNS. Maybe more, maybe less. There was no detonation. Rather, the CNS bombs spread a toxin that was capable of seeping through the PFA’s g-suits. Wasn’t long before the effects were felt. Personnel started collapsing; electrical impulses typically sent to and from the brain stopped being sent. Men and women dropped like insects being sprayed with Chem-3. Everyone scattered—those who could still function. About two-thirds of the assault team was wiped out. They just lay on the ground, unable to think or move, ‘til their internal O2 ran dry.”
“Shitty way to die.”
“Got that right. So those who weren’t hit with the CNS eventually regrouped and doubled back to central command. But as does sometimes happen, one of the divisions was unable to find its way back.”
“There were 21 of them. But not a one was wearing a directional navicon. No way they could make it back to base without a DNC. SOP was to just sit tight. Sit tight and wait. And absolutely, positively, don’t even think about it—no radio transmissions. At close range it was believed the Rykans could intercept and isolate nonsecure communiqués.”
“So…you’re telling me A-02 had no navigational, and they weren’t permitted to radio for help?”
“SOP was to sit tight a minimum of seven days—seven—which on this rock equates to only three Earth days give or take. Search and rescue was forthcoming. They knew this. Every PFA knows this. A-02 had ample life support. But sending a nonsecure transmission in an isolated area in the vicinity of Rykan central…might as well wield a neon sign.”
“Seven days though. Long time to just sit tight.”
“It wasn’t seven days! I mean, it was, seven sunrises and sunsets, but it was—the days were shorter, period. What I’m saying is, it shouldn’t have been a problem, physically or emotionally. But…”
“You got 21 PFA, about one-half of whom were fresh. Isolated. Lost. Adrift. Wasn’t long before a few of the recruits started getting itchy fingers. Senior officer in the group was named Bebe Walters; Asst. Lieutenant with five years served. She’d survived worse scenarios on Earth.”
“What did she do?” Iberman asks.
“What would you have done?” Phillips asks.
“Collect radios from all personnel.”
“Day four, that’s exactly what Walters did. She even went one step further, and disabled the power cells in each communicator. Pissed off a few personnel, but it was the right decision.”
“The morning of day seven finally arrived. But—hold a minute. Marz?”
Above us a series of red-orange lights begin appearing across the star-filled sky. Their radiance is negligible at first, but the lights soon grow in intensity, cutting a path through the blackness like a determined butcher.
“I ain’t ours. Best find cover, fast, Lieutenant.”
We grab our gear and move quickly across the rocky plain toward a hillside that offers shelter. There are three ships; they descend to 75 meters and pass slowly by.
“Watch for SGs,” Phillips tells SDS Howie Drake in a hushed voice. But Drake is already prepared. The javelin in his right hand is set to soar at a moment’s notice. The greater likelihood, however, is that the Rykan’s will detect our presence and open fire. At this close range, even a near miss would cause the rocks above us to collapse. Fortunately, the ships pass beyond us in the direction of the recently destroyed mining excavation, most likely they are here to assess the damage and look for survivors. The lights quickly fade and darkness once more envelops us.
“Keep motion trackers on wide blanket. Last thing we need is to be ambushed by a ground unit.”
We adjust trackers accordingly before retreating from the cover of the hillside. After a few minutes spent watching the skies, we begin to relax a bit.
“So what happened on day seven?” Iberman asks.
“What?” Asst. Lieutenant Phillips asks.
“A-02. Twenty-one personnel. Awaiting rescue,” Iberman recaps.
“Right. Twenty-one personnel. On day four, Senior Officer Bebe Walters collects transmitters from everyone to ensure radio silence. On day seven, the long-awaited rescue was nowhere in sight. Many personnel began to panic. A few acted in manners unbecoming the PFA; Walters overlooked these actions, insisting that help was certainly on its way. On day eight, SDS Marshall Birmingham, a former electrical engineer who—not unlike our good Mr. Drake here—had only been with the PFA a few weeks, patched together a basic communication device using several of the items from his stat-pack.”
Phillips pauses for a moment to sip liquid and looks over his shoulder.
“That evening, Birmingham, along with SDS Keleita Magarity, were on sentinel duty. Magarity was a no-nonsense AR scheduled to begin officer training in a few weeks.
“At 03:00 Birmingham confided in Magarity, showing her the communicator he’d devised. Magarity’s reaction was pure textbook. She attempted to seize the device from the recruit. Birmingham, however, had two elements on his side: 1. Physically, he was much larger and stronger than Magarity. 2. He’d become desperate. Yet Magarity had no option but to confiscate the communicator at that instant. If she hesitated or tried to enlist the help of others, SDS Birmingham would have a window of opportunity through which he could use the communicator. In the ensuing struggle, Birmingham tore loose the O2 intake valve from Magarity’s zero-g. Her death was almost instantaneous…almost.
“A moment later, the reality of what he’d just done washed across SDS Birmingham like a red tide. He fell to the ground trying, too little too late, to reattach Magarity’s 02 valve. During this desperate, feeble attempt, the communicator he’d devised fell from his grasp and onto the ground, breaking into the half-dozen or so pieces from which it had been fashioned.”
“The best laid plans of mice and really, really, really stupid men,” SGS Amanda Del Torres says, half listening and half watching the readings on her motion tracker.
“So how’s Birmingham explain Magarity’s death?” CMA Preston Iberman asks.
“Never gets the chance. Unbeknownst to him, Birmingham’s communicator fell at such an angle that its transmission channel had opened upon impacting with the ground, thus breaking radio silence. As a result, between 03:21:23:57 and 03:21:23:58 a low frequency signal was transmitted—one-hundredth of a second. Long enough for the Rykan’s to isolate its latitude and longitude. Within 60 seconds the Rykan armaments were airborne. Most of A-02 were awakened by the radiance of the missiles, but by then it was too late. Meanwhile, a PFA S&R unit was less than 3,000 kilometers distant. When the explosions began, the S&R unit commander assumed it was his unit the Rykans were firing on. The S&R unit was ordered to retreat, and further searches for survivors of the Big Push were scuttled. Reportedly, four or five A-02 personnel survived the Rykan onslaught, among them, Birmingham. The survivors wandered off in separate directions, hoping someone somewhere would find them. They were never seen again.”
“Christ,” AGS Bobby Sawyer says. “So, there a point to this tale of woe?”
“The point is to always follow SOP. If A-02 had followed SOP they’d likely be alive today.”
“But…I mean…that was a few years ago. We’ve got, ya know, secure channels now. We could radio Central,” Iberman insists.
“Mr. Iberman fails to realize that technologies can be infiltrated, secret codes broken. Such is the nature of war. SOP is to await pick up; minimum radio contact. And we’re goddam following SOP.”
There are no complaints, no objections. We follow SOP to the letter, dotting our i’s, crossing our t’s, and adding umlauts for good measure. The following morning, the soft glow of Skimmer searchlights appears on the horizon of the Trianalyte. We quickly load gear and fall aboard. Words are few as we begin the long journey to Central. Although our wait for the transport was relatively brief, the isolation and feeling of abandonment was nevertheless a constant, unwanted presence. We sail north across the Trianalyte, mindful of SGs and other Rykan threats. I stare across the planet’s vast horizon, longing for the simple comforts of Earth, comforts the men and women of A-02 will never again know. Saturn has become their home, their final resting place.

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

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