The Orange Hills of Eron
by Frank W. Clark
Incoming balon rockets screamed across the night sky, the light from their massive discharges reflecting in web-like patterns off low-hanging clouds. At the edge of the jungle, giant magnetron generators held the Confederation's command center disrupter-fields in place. From the orange hills skirting the Pelacci Mountains in the west, strategically placed Tagon-70 cannons pulsed intermittently, their plasma capsules leaving yellow and blue tracer streaks as they arced into the dark canopy of the jungle.
Deep in the tangled undergrowth on the fringes of Baker Company's northwest control sector, PlasmaFire Sergeant Jerry Wilson and CommSpec Seth Thomas lay cut off from their command by Zorlu reconnaissance troops. Sometimes crouching, other times crawling, they worked their way through the dense, viney maze. The planet's clay topsoil, turned to a reddish-green muck by the constant downpour, boiled past them in muddy streams.
"This place..." Wilson complained under his breath, "...gonna be the death of me...guys in their ivory towers...oughta be the ones sloggin' around in this mess...."
"Sarge," Thomas called over his headset. "I have to take a break. This scramble pack's bashing the hell out of me, and we've got to report in."
"Now there's an idea," Wilson replied, "let's do it."
"If you're saying anything, Sarge," Thomas said, "I'm getting nothing but static from your comm link. If you can hear me, flash your helmet light.
Wilson signaled, keying his helmet light on and off.
"We gotta to shut it down," Thomas said. Must be getting moisture in the control relays or something. I'll check it out."
Wilson touched the power switch on his helmet, the seal hissed, and his night-vision screen went dark. He flipped the hinged plate up off his face and crawled ahead of Thomas into a den-like opening that beckoned from between the elephantine roots of a massive tree, towering high above them in the canopy.
"Make it quick, Thomas," Wilson said quietly as he slid the helmet set off. "Holdin' down one place too long is dangerous. We're gonna be sittin' ducks for a plasma cap."
"Right," Thomas grunted. He shrugged off the scrambler pack with its piggy-backed disrupter field unit, then propped his plasma weapon beside it. Sitting down awkwardly, he leaned back against the wet tree and keyed in communications tests on the scrambler pack. Switching it to continuous phase, he uttered a prayer to whomever might be listening that the satellite up-link would be quick.
Good thing the disrupter's running, Thomas thought. With a comm channel open for the up-link, and Zorlus so close, it's damned risky.
The Zorlus, a cold-blooded, lizard-like race of bipedal beings, had come to Eron in search of a new home. Their planet had died, its atmosphere toxic, its resources depleted. Eron was chosen by the Zorlus for its resemblance to
their own planet eons before.
On Eron they found acceptable air, a widespread variety of plant and animal life, and most importantly, pelacite. For the Zorlus, the pelacite ore was life: processed into a granular form and used in breather canisters, it extended their life span by tenfold.
Both Wilson and Thomas had been on station when the violent assault had begun two weeks earlier. The Zorlus had started the third anniversary celebration of their arrival by launching concentrated plasma assaults from deep in the jungle. Hundreds of Confederation troopers had been killed, and Alpha Company headquarters had been wiped out.
Since the first expedition to Eron four hundred earth years earlier, the Confederation had brought seventy prime combat battalions from all parts of the System to guard the giant planet. For good reason. The stockpile of pelacite on Vargus, in the Alpha Centuri System, had been mined out. Eron was now the only known source of the ore within generational reach of Confederation Starships. The orange-colored mineral was a carbon-based substance used as a catalyst in all the Heinlein Transport Drives, and the Confederation's very reason for being there.
Now, Baker Company was running low on supplies. Because of the fire-fight, none of the big freighters had been able to touch down, and were maintaining geosynchronous orbits directly over Baker Control, protected only by one Confederation battle cruiser and an escort.
Thomas hung a small accessory light from the tree and turned it on. Taking the Sergeant's headset he hooked up test leads from the scrambler pack, keyed in a secondary test program, and then watched the display as it ran.
"So far, so good," he muttered. The display flashed at Thomas on completion of a loop, then reset itself for the next stage.
Wilson, bored by technical details and discomfited by the uncertainty of their position, scanned the darkness around them uneasily. Squatting, he eased his muscular frame into a huddle beneath the shelter of a giant, fan-shaped leaf, and dropped his plasmapack in the mud at his side. Hooking the long, triangular nozzle of the plasmasweep onto his belt, he touched the arming pads and set the sensitivity to one hundred meters, then pulled a cylinder of cigarettes from an inside pocket of his mesh disrupter suit. Sliding a yellow cigarette out of one half, he lit it with the canister's heat ring. Cupping it with both hands he drew heavily on the cigarette.
"Here, sonny," he said, offering the cigarette to Thomas as smoke leaked from his nose and mouth. "Try some of the Eron tobacco I scored from one of my ladies at Daben Gruder's place last Friday."
"I'll pass," Thomas said, fiddling with the communicator's settings and resenting the man's sudden intrusion. "Besides, that stuff'll kill you. Dried,
Eron bat wings--disgusting!"
In the dim light of the small lamp Wilson's bemused expression mocked him. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, Thomas looked down at the glowing screen, concentrating on the test tones that emanated from his headphones, the friendly burbling sounds reassuring to him.
"Yeah, well, look, man..." Wilson said, his speech matching the heavy look of his eyes. Wiping a hand on his suit he loosened the collar of his heavy field jacket and continued. "It looks like we're gonna be stuck out here for awhile. You might as well relax and enjoy, 'cause we ain't goin' anywhere."
"I'm doing the best I can," Thomas snapped.
"Don't get your bowels in an uproar, Seth, " Wilson said. "I'm not blaming you. Even though we can't see them, this sector is probably thick with lizards...."
"...All right, Sarge," Thomas interrupted, "I get the picture."
Wilson smiled. The job was getting to Thomas too.
"What I meant was," Thomas went on, "don't you think, while this test is running, I ought to go ahead and call for a pick-up? I mean, we've been out here two days now. I'm beginning to feel like a prune!"
"Me too," Wilson said.
Wilson sat watching shadowy images from the video screen flicker across his partner's freckled face. Something in Thomas's voice didn't quite ring true, but whatever it was it evaded him. He didn't like Thomas, and hadn't since the day he showed up at the base.
"That's fine by me, Thomas, go ahead and make the call. But--" Wilson said, his voice rising."Here we go," Thomas said under his breathe. "The old teeth grinder routine again.
"What I wanna know is, how come the Confed Army can always manage to screw things up?"
"Like what?" Thomas asked, still glaring at the display.
Wilson eyed the man in disbelief.
"Well, take me, for example," he continued. "Twenty-nine years in this man's Army. I've seen action all the way from Earth out to the Gamma One star system, and what happens? One lousy year to go before retirement an' I get stuck out in the farthest corner of the universe, on some God-forsaken planet, in a jungle full of lizards. And what do I end up doin'? Babysitting a bunch of green-horn mama's boys! Howzat for dirty tricks?"
Cause they don't want your lazy old lifer's ass anywhere else, Thomas thought. He laughed aloud, then stopped when he realized Wilson's sarcasm was meant for him.
"I guess that's the breaks, Sarge. Me--I got no say in the matter. I'm obligated eighteen more months in this hellhole, and when I've done my time, it's bye-bye. No more military for this man."
Wilson inhaled again as he thought about the first lieutenant at Baker Company. For some ungodly reason he had insisted on reassigning Wilson to barracks further out from the command center, on the compound perimeter. Shit Bird City is what the other non-commissioned officers had called it. Where the riff-raff of the Confederation was housed at any given point in time.
Wilson had not minded that. What had really torqued him was the fact that Lieutenant James had immediately assigned Specialist Thomas to his vacant quarters. His quarters for so many years.
Gave me some piss-ant excuse, Wilson remembered, said it was so's I could `keep an eye on the goonies of Second Platoon.' They made me a
babysitter. Nothin' but a goddamn babysitter.
Thomas was always mouthing off about something, a real dipped-in-stink braggart. Either it was his Top-fucking-a-Secret security clearance, or it
was the money the Army had spent on his special training. After hearing it umpteen times Wilson knew the whole story by heart.
But he knew something they never taught in any school. Something he had
learned out in there in that black chasm, face-to-face with aliens and their strange ways: loud-mouths, scared shitless, were usually the first to get it.
Wilson smoked in silence, until the last bit of the drug was gone.
"At last," Thomas said.
The message was flashing on the tiny screen. He punched in the code for the station's communications band, and immediately the control center's automatic transceiver chord sounded in his headset. The system was finally up-linked and ready.
"Red Fox to Baker One," Thomas said softly into his mouthpiece. "Red Fox to Baker One."
"Baker One, go ahead Red Fox," came the static-filled reply.
All was not well with the scramble set. It had probably been damaged during the crawl up the hill. Thomas knew he would be the one to catch hell.
Brilliant strategy, Sarge, he thought, just brilliant.
"How are you reading me, Baker One?" he asked.
"Loud and clear, Red Fox."
"Your transmission is full of garbage, Baker One," Thomas replied. "Have penetrated Sector Thirty-Four. Minor contact made, but return route is cut off. What now?"
"Stay put, Red Fox. Have matrixed on your comm link. Will send evac platform as soon as possible. Go to priority stand-by, Red Fox. Stay out of trouble Baker One, we're on the way. Out."
"Roger, out," Thomas sighed.
Turning off the communicator he felt relieved that without his headset Wilson couldn't hear the scrambler's static. Wilson's anger was the subject of many a barracks discussion, and Thomas knew that he would explode if he even suspected the disrupter field or the comm scrambler might be compromised.
Thomas knew they could make it if the comm unit went down, but without the disrupter's magnetic field they would be in great danger.
We are most definitely, like Sarge says, Thomas thought, obvious as tits on a frog.
He entered the transceiver's priority stand-by code into the scramble unit keypad, and leaned back against the tree. He knew Baker company would beacon in on the signal, and they would be back at the base, high and dry, in a matter of hours.
Dead tired from the belly-walking, and ears ringing from the receiver noise, Thomas felt the effects of twelve hours of point patrol creeping up on him.
"I'm gonna get some shut-eye, Sarge," he said.
"Whatever you say, doo-da," Wilson mumbled.
Thomas wiped at the clamminess that covered every exposed inch of his skin, then scrunched himself down between the huge, tentacle-like roots at the base of the tree. Taking a stainless-steel canister from his pack he popped a tarp, and pulling it over himself like a blanket laid his head back on a smooth rock lodged between two of the smaller roots.
The comm tests would take another hour or so to complete. Thomas, with the prospect of rescue close at hand, let the warmth of the scramble unit power-pack humming next to him lull him, and within seconds he was asleep.
Wilson sat under the meager shelter the giant frond offered, feeling tired and chilled in the downpour. Thomas was scared, and so was he. But, unlike the younger man he bore the scars of battle, and was seasoned by too many close calls to let down his guard.
He heard Thomas's deep, rhythmic breathing, then reached over and yanked the test leads off his head gear. Putting the helmet on, he powered it up.
I don't need the damn comm unit anyway, he thought, just my night
vision. Something's goin' on out there, I can feel it.
Wilson touched a pressure-sensitive pad on his helmet and his face screen came on, lighting the landscape with a bright orange eeriness. He blinked, adjusting his eyes to the glare, then scanned the surrounding jungle.
Then he saw it: just a slight movement at the top of a tree near the edge of the clearing, but enough to make his blood run cold.
Zorlus, he thought. The slimy, little bastards. Wonder how they found us? Comm unit, maybe? Only one thing it could be...scrambler malfunction...and that little shit wasn't gonna tell me anything!
"Thomas!" he whispered. "Wake-the-fuck-up, man, we got company!" He turned his head slightly and in the corner of his screen he saw Thomas move once then slide back into a deep sleep.
"Goddammit, Thomas! Wake-up!" he growled, clenching his teeth. "No comm, geezuz! Why now?"
Wilson shifted his legs around, moving slowly and quietly, then swung the plasmasweep nozzle up to take a reading. The weapon's digital screen displayed an anomaly exactly one hundred and fifty meters, dead ahead.
Keying the power switch on, then to its one hundred-eighty degree field-sweep position, he slid his finger to the trigger as the power dynamo whined, slowly at first, then climbed to the shrill scream of full charge.
Suddenly, all the hair on his body stood on end as he sat watching the underbrush for the shiny, black-skinned figures to appear. He jerked, then dove into a clump of bushes as a large pod of blue electricity pulsed past and winked out behind him. Shock waves tilted the jungle back and forth, and the explosion left a hole, red hot and smoking, in precisely the spot where he had been sitting a split-second earlier. Dirt and debris fell all around, and the putrid smell of burned vegetation reached him.
Wilson rolled up onto his elbows, swung the plasma nozzle into position and hit the fire button.
"What's happening?" Thomas croaked, as he sat up and reached for his plasma weapon. "Where are they, Wilson?"
Wilson opened his mouth to answer, fumbling to get the sweeper cleared and reset, then felt his hair stand-up again.
"Roll, Seth..." he yelled.
Another charge flashed past, and grounded in the jungle. Wilson bit off a scream, as the explosion drove splinters of wood and titanium shrapnel through the heavy mesh of his suit and into his flesh. His headset lay crushed like an egg shell three feet away, and suddenly he felt very exposed.
His right arm was too numb to reach for the plasmasweep lying beside him, but he could move his head and left arm. With his saliva tasting of blood he pushed up on his good arm and turned his head to look at Thomas. Pain, incredible, mind-searing pain, shot down his back and legs.
Thomas's right arm had been burned off above the elbow by the massive discharge. His face was blackened and blistered, and rivulets of his blood mixed with the rain that ran past Wilson.
Thomas' body spasmed, and Wilson knew he was alive but going into shock. The tree had a huge chunk blown from its side, and the scrambler pack had vanished.
"Oh God," Wilson said. "I gotta do somethin'! Why didn't you..."
He stopped, knowing the younger man could never have reacted fast enough. Knowing that it had been just plain bad luck, that when the plasma cap blew, there was no getting away. Experience is everything--and now, nothing.
Suddenly a magnaflare popped high over Wilson's head. Its magnetic sparks fell down through the jungle in an eerie red, incandescent shower, making the slanting rain and the wet jungle dance in a surrealistic pattern of shadows.
The pain in his body as he tried to move nearer to Thomas overwhelmed him, and his mind began playing tricks. His good arm was beginning to tire, and his efforts to move were exhausting.
Everything began to move in slow motion, like in a dream, as if time were coming to a halt. The hillside had suddenly grown very quiet, even though
he could still see plasma and magnaflare explosions in the jungle all around him. The flares washed the darkness away, and the jungle was as bright as day, every detail intensified, as if carved in bas relief.
Wilson saw the Zorlu soldier in the tree just beyond his sweeper's range very clearly now. The lizard's features were starkly enhanced, as if Wilson were seeing him through a powerful magnifying glass. He watched as the creature's every motion became slow and graceful, even delicate, like a ballerina.
The Zorlu's black hair, matted against his elongated, reptilian skull by the rain, reflected the reddish-yellow strobes of the flares. His hooded eyes squinted through the luminescent sights of a sweeper at Wilson, and his cheeks rose hollow above thin, taut lips and pointy teeth. The long sleeves of a red, metal-blend disrupter suit hung wetly over scaly arms, as he elbowed for support on the surrounding branches.
Wilson could see the deep, black pools of the Zorlu's eyes narrowing snake-like into almost imperceptible slits. He watched, stupefied, as his enemy's sharp, scaly finger pushed slowly, almost caressingly, at the trigger.
Suddenly, the booming metallic sound of the sweeper's contacts closing filled Wilson's mind, shocking him. The dull roar, of a plasma capsule charging, completed the hypnotic coupling in which the Zorlu held him. Feeling
strangely perplexed, he watched uncomprehending as the capsule, with its hot, blue haze trailing behind it, spiraled slowly and unerringly directly at him.
A scream gurgled in Wilson's throat, skewing his jaw at an odd angle. He
tried to turn away from the sickening sight, of death sliding hotly down toward him on currents of the black jungle night. The rain-laden air felt icy-cold and syrupy on his flesh. The capsule crackled and spit molten globs of electricity at him as it passed, landing in the mud beside him.
Wilson cringed, at once terrified and horribly relieved.
A default! he nearly screamed. I'll be damned, it didn't fire! My legs, I gotta get outta here...wait! Thomas!
The Zorlu dropped from the tree and landed lightly in the mud then trotted toward him. Wilson's vision grew cloudy as more flares exploded, and the momentary silence of the jungle erupted in the cacophony of battle. Over it all he heard the distinctive, harmonic hum of Confederation thruster platforms landing nearby.
The small, dark-skinned creature stopped in front of Wilson and displayed his teeth in the fashion of the Zorlu, his sweeper braced on his hip in a devil-may-care pose.
"You sonofabitch!" Wilson said, his voice raspy from the polarized, smoky air. He tried to sit up from his slumped-over position, but his strength was gone.
The Zorlu stooped and peered into his amazed expression, then spoke in the convoluted language that had twisted Wilson's tongue in the past. Now though, in that disturbed moment in time, it was perfectly understood and perfectly simple.
"Capsule armed is, default not is," the Zorlu soldier said. "Choose you, prisoner or plasma."
The Zorlu laid a small, electronic control box on a root near Wilson's head, then turned and walked away.
Wilson knew what the box was, but he also knew what the Zorlu did to their prisoners. It would be messy, one way or the other.
The Zorlu pivoted and called out to Wilson, "Generous being I, time running out is," then walked into the jungle shadows.
Wilson saw the plasma cap glowing at his side, rippling with multiple shades of blue rings, pulsating in its hard, reflective globe. It was evil, but not of its own design. He reached for it limply, his fingers brushing its hot stabilizer module, then gripped it with all the strength he had left.
"You have to pull the module off," he heard a voice whisper.
Thomas's eyes were open and his face was drained of blood, but he was grinning at Wilson. He had managed to lay over on the tree root and clamp his arm beneath his chest, but it still trickled blood.
"It's shocking the shit outta me, Seth," Wilson's teeth chattered as he dislodged the module. "Hurry up, man! What do I do now?"
"Yank it off..." Thomas whispered, his voice trailing away.
"What next?" Wilson yelled. "Thomas! What next?"
His strength failing, Wilson dropped the orb then watched in horror as it rolled down the incline and rested against Thomas's foot. He was powerless.
Seth smiled again, then a coughing spasm wracked his body. When it stopped he whispered again, "Just watch."
As Wilson watched the orb began to spin like a Roman candle, showering sparks over both of them. When it finally fizzled out and lay quiet in the mud, Wilson gasped. He had been holding his breath the whole time.
As the familiar hum of a Confederation lander came closer, a stilted voice called to them from the shadows.
"Time is not. Time next is."
Story copyright © 2000 by Frank W. Clark <email@example.com>
Artwork "Eron" copyright © 2000 by Patrick Stacey <Pld895@aol.com>