By Other Means (Defending The Future), page 1
BY OTHER MEANS
Book Three in the Defending the Future series
Edited by Mike McPhail
Dark Quest, LLC
Special thanks to “DAN
. . . Fix it!
Dark Quest, LLC
Neal Levin, Publisher
23 Alec Drive,
Howell, New Jersey 07731
Copyright ©2011, Dark Quest Books, LLC.
Individual stories ©2011 by their respective authors.
Blankets icon©2011 by Jeff Young.
Radiation Angel icon ©2011 by James Daniel Ross.
Shards icon ©2011 by Peter Prellwitz.
All other interior art ©2011 by Mike McPhail.
ISBN(trade paper): 978-0-9830993-5-2
All rights reserved. No part of the contents of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
All persons, places, and events in this book are fictitious and any
resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.
Series Website: www.defendingthefuture.com
Design: Mike and Danielle McPhail
Cover Art: Mike McPhail, McP Concepts
Copy Editing: Danielle McPhail
MOTHEROFPEACE James Chambers
CYBERMARINE Bud Sparhawk
BLANKETS Jeff Young
SHEEPDOG Mike McPhail
SPLINTER Andy Remic
ATHINGOFBEAUTY Charles E. Gannon
ALONEANDAFAR Peter Prellwitz
HUNGER Jeffrey Lyman
TRUECOLORS Danielle Ackley-McPhail
DEVILDANCERS Robert E. Waters
THEOATH James Daniel Ross
AMEALFITFORGOD C.J. Henderson
DAWN’SLAST LIGHT John G. Hemry
SPECIAL STORY: DEMONTECH
DELAYINGACTION David Sherman
This book is dedicated to the memory of:
Charles Nicholas Ackley, Sr.
1940 - 2010
Lieutenant Commander, U.S.N.
A Highly decorated Naval Aviator
who served his country in Vietam.
Mother of Peace
They prowled the ghost city by night and hunted the thoughts of dead machines. Dr. Bell told them it was the only way to win the war. Find the old weapons and reactivate them. They had all heard it before, but she repeated it when they moved out of the jade moonlight into the shadows of a crumbling tenement row. It was her way of saying “Be careful” as they detoured around a dirty bomb hotspot leftover from a battle fought before any of them were born. Dr. Bell hoped Calypso’s contact did not lie inside the high-becquerel zone. The sievert count there was more than the thin-skin suits they were wearing could deflect.
As they neared the next avenue, Sergeant Tanner ordered the squad to stop and sent two soldiers to scout the intersection. His voice came over Dr. Bell’s earpiece. “Can your mutant give us a location yet?”
“How many times must I tell you he’s not a mutant?” Dr. Bell said. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
“Figured he already knew I was wondering.”
“He gave his word he won’t peek into your head without permission.”
“How would I know if he did?”
“You wouldn’t,” Dr. Bell said.
She missed Sergeant Williams, whom Tanner had replaced two weeks ago, but she reminded herself it had taken almost three months for Calypso to earn Williams’ trust. It would take Tanner time too. Leaders did not like telepaths. Dr. Bell considered it fortunate that most of their squad had been together so long now that they treated her and Calypso as equals. Despite the growing number of telepaths appearing in the population, most people still considered them outcasts.
“If this duty doesn’t suit you, Sergeant,” Dr. Bell said, “I’ll support your request for reassignment.”
“No, ma’am,” Tanner said. “The brass handed me this job, and I intend to do it.”
The two scouts returned, crouched low. Dr. Bell thought they looked nervous, but it was difficult to read expressions through their faceplates. Her earpiece went silent as Tanner switched to another channel for their report. The men gestured high and low at the intersection then separated and took new cover.
“Hey, Calypso,” Tanner spoke over the squad’s open link. “You got a hard twenty on our contact yet?”
“Narrowed it to two blocks,” Calypso said. “But we’re on the wrong side of the hotspot. Shortest route is south at the next avenue, thirty blocks downtown, then cut over on 14th Street and loop back uptown about five blocks. Should be somewhere around there.”
“Can’t take the next avenue,” Tanner said. “Enemy presence there.”
“How many?” Dr. Bell asked.
“Three locations for sure. Two ground level. One high, probably a sniper. Six men minimum. Could be more.”
“Let me feel it out,” Calypso said. The comm link went quiet for several seconds, and then Calypso came back. “There are eighteen, at least. All Chinese. Calm thoughts. They don’t know we’re here.”
“Thank god for small favors,” Tanner said. “Okay, let’s turn back before we blip their radar.”
Dr. Bell shuddered. This was the strongest contact Calypso had made since she taught him how to recognize the brain waves that identified a Centry warcraft. She did not want to lose it. She had searched for missing Centries across North America for two decades and found only rusted-out wrecks littered on old battlefields. The cybernetic machines, built to end the war, were meant to last a hundred years, but after thirteen months in the field the entire system had collapsed. Many units were destroyed in battle; most vanished and their tracking units went dark. But despite the quixotic nature of Dr. Bell’s commitment to finding a live one and reigniting the program, the top brass had not yet lost faith in her.
Dr. Bell thought at Calypso, Will you make this contact again if we don’t find the source tonight?
Because thought communication was instantaneous, she had given him standing permission to scan her surface thoughts, keeping anything personal behind a mental barrier. She did not like the hesitation in Calypso’s reply.
Maybe, he thought. But you know how it is. We’ve been through this city before, no contact like this. Things are how they are right now, today. It feels good. We should go for it.
Calypso had been with Dr. Bell since he was eight when she found him hiding alone in a bombed-out school. That was ten years ago, and he had been helping her ever since then. He wanted to end the war as much as she did. He would have been out front of the squad running for the contact if only he were allowed.
Dr. Bell braced herself and then told Tanner, “We can’t turn back.”
Tanner unleashed a string of profanities, but he stopped short of demanding a retreat. Dr. Bell rode out his tirade and explained that they could not risk losing the contact. She had full authority for such decisions. She did not have to justify them, but she did not want to antagonize Tanner.
With a mumbled curse, Tanner clicked off comm. He scrambled across the street to where his second-in–command, Corporal Dolan, was crouched behind the blackened skeleton of a city bus. The two officers conferred, and then Tanner’s voice came over the open link.
“Subway entrance off the avenue. Uptown side of the intersection. If the tunnel isn’t blocked we can walk under the ambush points and come up six blocks south of our target then double back. Should cover us.”
“Assuming no one’s waiting in the tunnel,” said Dolan.
“I can give a warning if anyone’s there,” Calypso said. “They won’t get the drop on us.”
“Fine. But down there, you and Dr. Bell bring up the rear,” Tanner said. “Ladies and gents, weapons ready. Let’s go.”
Following Tanner’s lead the squad spread out and edged toward the avenue. Moonlight tinged faint green by a haze of dust and ash fell like water over their thin-skins. The transparent suits reflected their environment, blurring the soldiers and giving them a sort of shimmering camouflage. Dr. Bell checked the clip in her rifle while she waited for Calypso to fall in ahead of her. She knew if the tunnel was blocked Sergeant Tanner would insist on turning back, and he would be right. But it would not be fair, not after so long, when she was so close, and so much was at stake. More than any other contact she had traced in recent years, she felt this was the one for which she had spent so long looking, the one that would lead to all the others.
As they neared the intersection, Tanner ordered everyone to drop to their bellies and snake-crawl through the rubble. Ahead of them was a gap in cover. Beyond a burned-up delivery truck, an explosion had left a shallow crater and scattered the rubble. It was a space of only about fifteen feet, but for the time it took them to round the corner and descend into the subway station, they would be exposed.
“Don’t like that blank spot,” Tanner said.
“I see it,” Dr. Bell said. “We’ll have to be fast.”
“You and Calypso go first. With me. Get you down the stairs before they can take a shot if they see us.”
Dr. Bell thought the plan to Calypso, who agreed, and then the two wormed their way to Tanner’s side. The squad surveyed the avenue. Through night-sights, the enemy positions were visible by turquoise splotches that marked the half- hidden faces of the hostile soldiers. Otherwise the cracked street was desolate.
“Can you figure their locations?” Tanner asked Calypso.
“They’re not far, between us and the contact,” Calypso said. “Sorry, I can’t be more specific at this range.”
Tanner put Dolan in charge of bringing the rest of the squad into the tunnel. Then keeping low, he darted like a ghost across the gap and disappeared into the deep shadows of the entrance. Calypso went five seconds later, a blur flashing through the gloom. Dr. Bell followed him, moving fast on the cybernetic, prosthetic legs that let a woman in her fifties keep up with the others. Tanner directed her down the stairs, where Calypso was scanning the subway station with an LED lamp. It looked clear except for old litter. Dolan came next and relieved Tanner at the entrance. Then the rest of the squad rushed into the gap.
Dr. Bell froze the moment she heard the whistling sound coming from the sky. It sounded like a howling wind, but she knew it was an anti-personnel, fragmentation mortar, a glorified grenade, but nasty, like the one that had stolen her legs and left arm, and condemned her to rely on prosthetic limbs. It had taken the life of her unborn child too. She grabbed Tanner with her cybernetic arm and dragged him downstairs. Dolan bolted down the steps from street level, shouting over the comm for everyone to take cover. Bell thrust Tanner into the darkness then clutched Calypso by the waist and leapt after him.
The whistling became a clipped shriek.
Then the missile hit.
The subway station trembled.
Flame and smoke and shattered concrete flooded down the stairs. For a moment Corporal Dolan was part of it, a twisting, tumbling ragdoll, and then the cloud enveloped him, and he was gone. The shockwave rolled through the station, cracking the information booth windows and slamming Dr. Bell to the floor. Calypso’s voice stayed in her head, letting her know he was all right. She shouted for Tanner, but the rumble of the explosion drowned out any reply. Dr. Bell rolled until she bumped up against something hard. She curled into a ball and covered her head with her cybernetic arm. After awhile, the concentrated chaos faded away to a plastic stillness broken by dripping bits of stone and ceiling tile.
Through the dust cloud, Dr. Bell found Calypso against the iron bars of the turnstile gate. She tried to raise Tanner on the comm. He came through sounding faint and faraway to Dr. Bell’s explosion-deadened ears. She and Calypso located the Sergeant and helped him to his feet. They found Dolan dead at the bottom of the stairs, half buried in a frozen sluice of rubble that had sealed the station entrance.
“We’re trapped,” Tanner said. He pulled Dolan’s dog tags from his neck and stuck them in a pouch on his belt.
“I’m so sorry.” Dr. Bell would miss Dolan. He had saved her life twice.
“Most of the others are still alive. I sense them,” Calypso said. “Enemy soldiers came on foot after the mortar strike. Now it’s a firefight.”
“And not a damn thing I can do to help them,” said Tanner. “Can’t even raise them on the comm link.”
“It’s the radiation.” Dr. Bell gestured toward the ceiling. “Or the old pipes and wires in the ground. Communications are always sketchy in the city.”
“Sarge,” Calypso said. “If you want, I can convey your orders to Private Rasmussen. He gave me permission to talk to him thought to thought. At this range, I should be able to pick him out of the crowd.”
Tanner frowned. “Alright, tell them we’re alive. Tell them to fall back and withdraw. Return with reinforcements to wipe out those enemy installations.”
“What about us?” Dr. Bell said.
“Unless you can clear half a ton of rubble from this exit, we’re going down the tunnel, like we planned.”
Dr. Bell raised an eyebrow.
“You said it was a good contact, didn’t you?” Tanner said.
“The best we’ve ever had.”
“Yeah, well, I want to see this war over as much as anyone, so let’s do our job. To hell with whoever tries to stop us.”
They clipped LED lamps onto their chests then jumped the turnstile. Tanner led them to the end of the platform and down the steps to track level. The tunnel looked empty and deathly still. The city had been so hard hit by the war that Dr. Bell doubted even rats were left down here. There were not enough people in the city to support them, and unlike cockroaches, they could not live in the irradiated places. Tanner went first and Bell took the rear with Calypso between them. After they went only a few yards, the station was lost to the darkness behind them. Walking the railroad ties like steps, they settled into a steady pace along the center of the downtown track, traveling in a bubble of icy light. The gray concrete walls caked with dirt and soot never changed. The only colors there were the faded remnants of red and yellow warning signs.
Rounding a curve, they entered the next station and found an abandoned subway train. Calypso detected no one inside. Tanner led them onto the platform, and they flashed their lights through the grimy windows as they walked the length of the train. Most cars were empty, but in some were broken skeletons dressed in rotted clothing.
“What do you think happened?” Tanner said, as they left the dead train behind them.
“They probably came down here to hide from the fighting,” Dr. Bell said.
“Not with the people on the train. With the Centry program. You’ve been after this longer than I’ve been in uniform. Figure you must have some theories.”
Sooner or later, Dr. Bell had this conversation with almost everyone who came into the squad. They had all grown up with the mystery of the Centry program and its shattered promise of victory an
“A lot of things might have gone wrong,” she said. “I think it was a flaw in the cybernetics programming. If I can correct it, maybe I can revive the sat link and fix the others. The Centries were built to be self-sustaining for a hundred years, so there’s a chance I can bring back online any machines that are still intact.”
“You work on the original program?”
“I was twenty-one when Centry began. If you were going into the sciences then, you were contributing to Centry. That’s what I did for more than ten years until it all went live. Then a year later, the Centries were gone, and the only work left was this. These days I’m the only one who hasn’t given up the ghost.”
She did not tell Tanner the real reason she kept looking or why she kept coming back to search this same city. She had shared that with no one. She suspected Calypso had pieced it together, because he knew the last reported coordinates for each Centry as well as she did. He knew the three Centries that had gone down in this area. But he would never dare ask her. Anyway, it was better to hide the personal element or risk people seeing her work as a crusade, which she knew it was not. If she was right about why Centry failed and if she could find one live Centry craft, even if not the one she most wanted, she really did stand a chance of ending the war. And in the end her reason for doing what she did—personal or not—was the only real reason there was for fighting in the first place.