Ophiuchi 70

THE BOMBARDMENT:
Prologue to "The Star Nomad Chronicles"
(Vol. II, Part II "Tales of Casa Alto")

by Rick Blackburn

Stardate: 6903.30
Casa Alto, 70 Ophiuchi

[Editor's note: "The Bombardment" is the second installment of a tale of invasion that began
in Planet Magazine No. 2.]

After the interceptors had gone overhead, the neighborhood children had waited
excitedly for more thrilling sights. But when half an hour had passed with no further
action, while the children talked excitedly about the possibility of invasion, Bobby, David,
and several of the neighborhood kids had gone to the mini-park at the end of the cul-de-sac
court where they lived and began a spirited game of kickball. It was said that kids on
ancient Terra, since before the advent of space flight, had also played this game. It always
gave David a sense of awe, thinking of those dozens of generations of kids playing kickball
since the dawn of time.

When the Vipers had again flashed overhead at supersonic speed, everyone had stopped
playing for a moment to look up. Their view of the Starport was obscured by distance and a
glade of trees, but when the "Wodin's Beard" blew up, it was heard all over the city.

By the time they got into the street, there was an enormous cloud of dense, black smoke
towering into the sky. As the kids watched, the cloud was shot through several times by
hints of red and orange flame. From a long way off came the warble of fire sirens.

"David," one of the older kids said, "You're an expert, your dad works at the Starport.
What do you think it was?"

"I don't know," he said slowly. "Maybe a CRASH!" he said excitedly.

The last crash at the Starport had happened several years ago, when an ill pilot had lost
control of a giant freighter during landing. It had plowed into one of the large
mono-hydrozine storage tanks at the edge of the Starport. It had caused a fire that had
raged for several days before being brought under control by the Fire Department. The
possibility of a crash at the Starport caused much excited conversation.

Janice Everett, 29, long brown hair and hazel eyes, pulled the family jetcar up to the curb
and leaned out the window to yell at her son in the park. "DAVID!" she shouted, a little
exasperated because David was being stubborn and pretending not to hear her calling him.
"DAVID!" she shouted louder. Thankfully, one of his playmates nudged him and pointed at
her. David came running up to the jetcar.

"Come on, David. Get in."

"Aww, but Mommy, we...."

"David," his mother said, in the tone of voice that said she was cross and in no mood to
argue. "I'm not going to tell you again."

"Aww," David whined, but turned to wave good-bye to his playmates, unaware of the fact
that this might be the last time he saw them alive, and climbed into the jetcar next to his
mother.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"To your father's office," Janice said, trying to remain calm. Eric had sounded grim as he'd
outlined what the Saurian Admiral had said, and now she was frightened for her child's life.

"Leave everything that isn't already in the car," Eric had told her, "and you and David get to
the Starport at once. There's still a chance that I can get us safely offworld and out of this
mess."

"The Starport?" David asked excitedly. This wasn't so bad after all, he thought,
considering the extra status he would have in the gang by being able to report on whatever
had happened at the Starport, first-hand.

* * *

The Terran Imperial Marines at the Starport gate recognized the car and came to
present arms in salute. They both grinned despite the seriousness of the situation as the
Port Captain's small son returned their salute. At that point, neither of them were aware
of the death sentence hanging over all the children of Tarsus.

David jumped out of the jet car before Janice had completed the landing cycle, while the
skids were still six inches off the ground. She wished that David had not seen his father do
the same thing countless times, leaving the car on auto to complete the landing cycle.
Janice mistrusted automated equipment of all kinds and insisted on retaining manual
control of the jetcar at all times.

Thankfully, Eric was waiting for them outside the Port Captain's bungalow, and David
streaked up to him, yelling at the top of his lungs, "Daddy, daddy!"

Eric effortlessly scooped up in one arm the twenty-seven kilograms of affectionately
squirming little boy. "Hiya, Brat!" He said, grinning down at his young son.

"Can I go if you have to go up an inspect a starship?" David asked eagerly.

"Yes, I promise. You and Mommy are going with me everywhere I go now," he said.

David was puzzled, the words sounded great and promised great things in the future, but
there was an undercurrent of tension in his father's voice that David was not used to. For a
moment it bothered him, but then he happily put it out of his mind as he walked into the
office and realized that there were other kids here today.

He recognized several of the other kids; there was Christopher and Laura Random, age eight
and eleven the son and daughter of his father's chief lieutenant. Christopher and David
delighted in teasing Laura, who was just beginning to discover boys in a whole new way.
Laura, although she dearly loved her little brother (and could stand David the little
snot) considered both younger boys to be almost unbearable pains in the behind.

As far as Laura was concerned, the single most important person in the room was
twelve-year-old Michael Bryhers much cuter than her last boyfriend. Taller than
average for his height, Michael had chocolate brown hair and green eyes. Laura thought he
was the most delicious-looking boy she'd ever seen.

Michael, searching the faces in the room was glad to see his friend, Tyrone Sanders and a
little distressed to see Laura Random. He knew that Laura had the hots for him and she had
already let it be known at school that she would very much like to go steady. For three days
the youngster had been trying to duck her it wasn't that she was unattractive (just the
opposite, in fact) but he simply was not ready to get that serious with any girl yet. With
Tyrone here, he'd have an excuse to pester his friend's dad in the control tiers....

It was less than a half hour later that the adults, by unanimous vote, decided that the
children should play outside in the small, grass-filled park area across the access road
from the Port Captain's complex.

With a mixture of joy (because they would be outside) and sadness (because they might
miss something), the children went outside. Soon a vigorous game of chase was under way.
As the sun began to inch toward the horizon, the children were glad to see that their
parents had apparently forgotten about the time and had not called them in. By mutual
agreement among the two dozen children, no one found it necessary to remind the adults of
the time and the impending sunset.

* * *

The swollen, blood-red disk of the sun was just touching the horizon when the
attack came.

Inside, Eric Everett swore and reached for the comm-web as he watched the Distant Air
Warning Radar, which electronically patrolled the air space around the capitol. On it, a
squadron of Planetary Assault Cruisers could be seen, streaking toward the city from out of
the west. They were accompanied by hundreds of Viper interceptors. On the comm-web
the face of Major McKinnison, the Marine Detachment Commander appeared.

"Mac," he said to the Marine Major, "It's started. Get those 40mm ack-acks limbered up."

"Aye, Aye Sir. The ack-acks are manned and ready. We'll knock down as many of those
slimy lizards as we can."

"Spaceman's Luck, Major."

"And to you sir." The comm-web screen went dark.

Outside, the children looked up as a half dozen Vipers roared overhead, shot straight up,
and did a bloom over their heads. The younger children "oooed" and "aaahhhed" as the
spectacular sight unfolded. The older children looked at each other with a premonition of
danger.

The Vipers began their strafing runs, firing at everything on the ground. Sun-bright
flashed intensely; pure red, green, and yellow-white crisscrossed the sky as the Vipers
fired on ground targets and the Marine ack-ack batteries returned fire.

David stood, his mouth open. For a moment he didn't understand what was happening. Then
a pulsar beam struck a warehouse across the wide access street from where the children
were playing. The building exploded into a red-orange fireball with a deafening report.

Another Viper roared overhead, strafing the ground. One of the hyper-laser blasts struck
Laura full on as she attempted to shield Christopher both children vanished in a puff of
ionized gasses. An instant later, another laser beam struck the building where David's
mother and father were. With a loud crack and a huge gout of brick-red flame, the building
fell into a pile of rubble.

"Nnooohh..." David shouted, and ran toward the debris of the Port Captain's office. A cloud
of choking smoke nearly smothered him as he desperately tried to dig through the rubble
with his bare hands. Crying bitterly, he finally uncovered a hand sticking out of the
rubble. The signet ring he recognized as his father's.

Gradually, David managed to uncover most of his father's upper body the man's legs were
still pinned under a huge steel joist beam.

Eric was semiconscious as he lay trapped in the rubble of what had been the seat of Star
Nomad power on the planet the Port Captain's office. David was shocked at the weakness
of his father's grip as the man took his son's hand.

"David," he croaked, and suddenly blood began to trickle out of the corners of his mouth and
from his ears. "You have to listen carefully to me, I don't think there's much time left."

"Don't talk, Daddy. You're hurt. I'll try to get you out. I I haven't been able to find
Mommy yet...."

"David," Eric said softly. "You remember I told you this morning that you might be called
upon to be brave braver than any nine-year-old should have to be this is that time."

David began to cry softly.

"Mommy is dead," Eric said bluntly, "And I'm dying. There is nothing that you or anyone
else can do about that now...." Eric paused to pant and try to clear his lungs.

Outside, the attack was still going on. Michael Bryhers, the only other survivor of the
group of care-free kids who had played together a short half hour ago, staggered into the
ruined building, and automatically began to work at helping David dig Eric free.

"David, I'm dying, and the next few days are going to be very hard for you but always
remember that you are a Star Nomad. Someday this will all be over and the Star Nomads
will return. YOU must go to Valhalla, and stand before the Eagle Clan. I am sorry that I
will not be there on your thirteenth birthday to see you participate in the TEST, which will
be your passport to Nomad citizenship." Eric took the heavy gold signet ring from his
finger and handed it to David. "Always safeguard this," the Nomad said. "It is the symbol of
your birthright ... and your proof of right, should any challenge your right to stand before
the Eagle and take the TEST."

David's sobs had turned to sniffles, but the boy managed to say, "I promise, Daddy."
Eric used the last of his life force to turn to Michael. "I'm sorry about your parents," he
said. "You and David must watch over each other ... Spaceman's Luck...."

And with those words, Eric Everett, Lord Commodore of the Fleet, Knight of the Realm, and
small boy's hero, departed from this corporeal, three-dimensional existence and entered
infinity. Deep star probe had always been Eric's favorite assignment.

* * *

Michael looked at the man and knew that he was dead. Poor David, he thought.
His own relationship with his father had been strained at best, and now the 12-year-old
found that he could not cry over the loss of his parents. David had buried his face against
his father's chest and was weeping uncontrollably now. Awkwardly, Michael tried to pull
the younger boy away.

"No! NO!" the nine-year-old cried.

Finally, Michael managed to pull David away. "You heard what your father said," Michael
tried to scold him. "I'm suppose to watch out for you now ... you're gonna be like my little
brother now...."

He could do worse for a brother, Michael reflected. He'd always liked David because he
wasn't a showoff or a crybaby ... like most kids his age.

"Yeah," David said, sniffing and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. "I I guess
you're right. Where are we gonna go?" He looked up at Michael. David was an only child,
and the idea of having an older brother was a new and exciting concept. David comforted
himself partially by observing that Michael looked a bit like what he imagined his father
might have when he was a boy.

KKAAHHH  BOOOMMM  OMMM!  OOMM!

The shock wave of exploding mono-hydrozine washed over them with a painful pressure on
their ears.

"Come on," Michael said, heading straight for the jetcar park. "The Starport is going to be
a major target for the aliens."

They reached the jetcar park. It had not taken a direct hit, but the debris of several
buildings close by had piled up in the park. Brushing shards of blasted, blackened
permaplast off a sleek sports car that still looked in good shape, the two boys climbed in.

"I've always wanted to drive one of these," Michael said with authentic enthusiasm.
Michael fired up the ignition cycle, and the jet car rose into the air. He nosed it out onto
the vast expanse of Starport Avenue and headed east, opening the throttle wide. The boy
kept the car low to the ground to provide the worst possible target for the prowling Vipers.
The jet car howled up the avenue at 300 kilometers per hour, half a meter above the
high-density concrete.

* * *

The air overhead suddenly flashed, and then a flickering yellow-gray replaced the
deep indigo of the Tarsan twilight as the city's defense screens were switched on.
Immediately, it came under bombardment from the alien fleet. A
several-square-kilometer patch of the screen shifted up the spectrum from yellow to
green and finally to blue-white as a volley of photon torpedoes smashed into the screen,
detonating against the intense counter-energy field generated by the city's defense.

The Vipers who had been caught inside the screen were, of course, living on borrowed time.
One by one, that time ran out as the city's ack-ack cannons caught them or they ran out of
fuel. The Saurian pilots knew this and were attempting to cause the maximum amount of
damage.

The PAC's had landed and disgorged hundreds of troops and armored vehicles that were even
now being engaged by the Armed Forces of the planet Tarsus. Luckily for the boys, the
Saurian main attack had centered on the power-generator complex, far to the southwest of
the city's center, where the Starport was located. As they drove through the
six-kilometer-wide expanse of Grand Central Park, they could see the flashes of
high-energy weapons exchanging fire to the south.

Michael breathed easier when they had crossed the open expanse of the port. The smoking
corpses of several dozen vehicles marked where others had not been so lucky. It would
have been easy for a Saurian fighter to swoop down on them. Here among the skyscrapers
that lined Starport Avenue, the boy felt more secure less chance of a successful staffing
run in here.

Neither Michael nor David were aware of the Viper coming up from behind, traveling
faster than sound. Suddenly, it was upon them and firing.

ZSWOWW!    ZSWOOW!

The pulsar cannons fired on the Saurian Viper. There was fire and smoke everywhere as
the street around them burst into a preview of hell with a sharp

CRACK.

The jet car turned over. David was thrown clear as the car skidded into the safety rail on
the side of the street. Michael managed to pry himself out of the wreckage and ran toward
David. The jetcar burst into flame with a dull

FFWUUMMPPHHH .

The concussion of the explosion threw Michael to the ground, almost on top of David.

"You okay?" The older boy asked.

David struggled to get to his feet. His left arm, shoulder, and hip were badly bruised, and
it hurt to breathe or to move his left arm. His favorite playsuit, faded blue cotton/nylon
weave with one of his father's old unit patches sewn on the sleeve, had a long rip up the left
outside seam, and was torn in other places and streaked with sweat, blood, and soot.

"I'm okay," David said, and went over to stand beside Michael to watch the wreckage of the
jetcar burn. Michael's clothes were no more than tattered rags now, and he shivered as an
especially cool breeze warned of the near-freezing temperatures of midnight in Casa Alto.

As the two youngsters stumbled down the street, their muscles loosened and it became
easier to move.

"You live close to here, don't you, David?" Michael asked.

"Yeah, we'd better get to my house, or we'll freeze out here. I live about a kilometer down
this way and a couple of blocks over." David indicated a direction.

"Okay, let's go. There doesn't seem to be any smoke over there maybe everything'll be
okay."

* * *

A half hour later, the boys arrived in David's neighborhood. All the trees in
the park were shattered like they'd been hit by a tornado. All the houses were rubble, and
some were still burning. The street lights were out. What light there was came from the
stars and the half-lit bulk of the planet Awesome, now two-thirds set in the west. There
was no sound except for the far-off barking of a dog and the howling of the wind. The two
boys felt very alone and stood close to each other with their arms around each other for
mutual warmth and compassion. They turned up the driveway to what had been David's
home. Two walls and a corner portion of the roof were still standing intact the corner
where David's room had been. Slowly and carefully they picked their way through the
rubble and entered what was left of his room. By some miracle the power was still on.

"Tom Zimmerman, who used to live next door, was about your size," David said. "Maybe
you can find some of his clothes."

"Okay, I'll go look." Michael said, and quiet as a shadow slipped out of the ruined house.

David stripped out of his dirty clothes and reluctantly threw his favorite play suit in the
corner. The autowash was still operational, and the youngster stepped into it and let its
soothing warm water and ultrasonic sound wash over him. The autowash's medicomp
scanned his body and injected the proper antibiotics into the spray to deal with David's cuts
and bruises.

Five minutes later, as he stepped out of the unit, Michael was stripping. He'd found a
playsuit and thermal jacket that fitted him.

"I thought you'd never get out of there!" Michael chided the younger boy good-naturedly,
and brushed past him on his way to the healing spray of the autowash.

While Michael was in the autowash, David found one of his playsuits and a thermal jacket
he'd need for tonight and shivering in the 20 C cold he hurriedly got dressed. When
Michael was out of the autowash and dressed, the two boys filled their pockets with the
emergency ration sticks his father had kept for emergencies.

"Ever tasted these things?" Michael asked.

"Yeah. The rice and chicken isn't too bad, but the rest of the flavors are yucky!"

"Okay. But they do have everything your body needs to stay healthy and to keep you alive,
so we'd better take them. Who knows how long it'll be before this whole thing is over
with."

"I guess you're right," David said as they stood in the middle of the street, looking back
toward Starport Avenue. "But I still think they're yucky!"

Overhead, the defense screen was illuminated occasionally by the blasts of detonating
photon torpedoes, but it looked as though the bombardment had slackened a little over the
past few hours.

"Well, let's try to find another jetcar," Michael said. "Maybe my neighborhood is in better
shape."

"Okay," David said, falling in behind his 'big brother.' He almost stumbled over something
in the dark, and he bent over to see what it was. It was a chunk of nondescript metal he
couldn't tell if it had once been a cherished toy, a favorite tool or just an empty container
that had been blasted and fused together into a lump by the fury of nuclear fires unleashed
by the invaders. He dropped it and gave it a kick. With an unreal, tinny scratchy noise it
clattered down the street.

"Who's there?" a small voice whispered out of the dark to them.

Surprised, but pleased to find someone else alive, the two boys immediately yelled back:

"David ... David Everett, and a friend, Michael Bryhers. Who are you? Where are you?"

"David?" the voice seemed unsure of itself, and then suddenly Bobby Starkie was running
toward them.

"David!" he shouted, "it really is you!" The two young friends were happy to see each other
each had come to the conclusion that they would never see each other again.

"Who's this?" Bobby asked, pointing at Michael.

"Oh, that's my friend, Michael. His father works at the Starport with my father."

"We heard on the Tri-Dee that the Starport had been destroyed," Bobby said, "and I was
afraid you were dead." By silent agreement no one mentioned missing parents. As they
talked, four other children silently came up to stand around the two newcomers.

"I thought that all you guys were dead also, when we came and saw all the houses blown up."

Of the two dozen children in David and Bobby's playgroup, only six, including David and
Bobby, had survived the initial attack. The oldest of the surviving children was
eleven-year-old Debby Carson. She and Michael immediately took joint command of the
small detachment of children. Debby's nine-year-old brother, Daniel, and ten-year-old
Marcia Valdez rounded out the survivor's band.

Of all the little girls in the neighborhood, David was glad that Marcia was still alive,
because he liked her the best. She was slim and athletic, with brown hair and jade-green
eyes. Although she was still too young to have lost her "little-boy" build, except for an
almost imperceptible beginning of a bust-line, David thought she was perfect. Although
older than David, Marcia also liked him, and on two occasions had allowed the
nine-year-old to think that he had 'stolen' kisses from her, and once had surprised the
younger boy by passionately kissing back. They had also played 'doctor,' taking turns as
the physician examining each other's body.

"It's getting cold," Michael said. "I think we'd better find a jetcar and start looking for
someplace with four walls and a roof to sleep in tonight. We might try my neighborhood,
it's further from the Starport on the north side ... most of the fighting seemed to be to the
south. Maybe my neighborhood is in better shape."

"Yeah, I agree," Debby said. "But first we should have some supper. I've got a fire going
and some hot dogs roasting that Bobby found. It might be awhile before we get to have
anything again."

For a brief happy moment, they were able to shut out the sight of the blasted buildings and
destroyed environment; the stench of cordite and tylium fumes; the chaos of battle around
them. They pretended that they were on a camping trip all by themselves. They cuddled
together under a large bedspread and some blankets, and watched the distorted glory of the
galactic hub regions through the defense screen rising over the tops of the ghostly silent
buildings around them, while they ate their hot dogs and planned for a drastically altered
future amid the blasted ruins of civilization.

* * *

(See the following two pages for Glossary and Appendixes to the Star Nomad
Chronicles.)
 

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