Pillar of Fire

By the time the squad reached the launch pad, more cyborg troops started breaking through accesses that were barricaded earlier.

Deuce’s annoyance, sparked with the realization his unit might have made a cleaner escape if they hadn’t come back to rescue him, flared with renewed resolve.  Since they took it upon themselves to get him to the shuttle hidden within a larger, incomplete ship, he might as well do everything in his power to insure they made takeoff.

“Load everybody up!” he barked to Quint.  “I’ll hold them at bay!”

“Don’t take too long!”  The colonel tossed his own blaster to him and drew a sidearm instead.

Utilizing both blasters, Deuce sprinted in spurts toward the main bulk of the unfinished interstellar ship.  To his consternation, he no longer drew the brunt of enemy fire.  IMP2 must have decided stopping their escape took precedent over the satisfaction of killing him….

The com patch near his ear continued to chatter with updates on the dozen completed ships.  Most had launched, but he’d lost track of which ones they were.  He glanced back toward the shuttle and regretted at least two more soldiers had fallen.  But the hatch door closed, securing the rest of them behind solid steel that repelled blaster fire.

“The ship is down!” crackled from the com patch just before a searing punch thrust into his chest.

The jolt knocked him against the frame of the doorway where he’d been taking cover.  Then he dropped to one knee.  No more reports issued from the com patch.

He also couldn’t breathe.

Deuce surged to his feet and staggered into the armory room, one element of this decoy ship that was complete.  His body armor had managed to keep the buster round to penetrating only partially into his chest.  But he was mostly grateful it didn’t set off the bomb implanted only a decimeter above the wound.

IMP2 had brought out the big artillery, and that was probably who shot him before refocusing on the shuttle….

He lurched toward the turret controls and fumbled with the com patch near his ear.  It remained silent, and upon lowering his hand realized it wasn’t only his chest that was bleeding.

What ship had gone down?  His throat tightened at the possibility Ita could have been on board that doomed vessel.  No, he couldn’t allow dread to overtake him….

Breathe.  Only his genetically-engineered athletic superiority permitted him to suck in wisps of air, and that was still only with concentration.  He had to keep breathing.  Every breath, however meager, bought him a few more seconds.  And every second he gained allowed him to help the shuttle succeed in launching.

The four cannons could be programmed to fire in a predetermined pattern, and Deuce activated three of them.  He took the controls on the fourth, however, and first targeted the battalion that directed more potent buster rounds at the shuttle.

Steam was hissing from its launch boosters, but it wouldn’t be able to take off and fire upon enemy troops at the same time.  Then again, it wouldn’t need to – anybody in the vicinity of the launch pad would be reduced to a pile of ash from the flaming rocket engines.  That included him.

Breathe.

He bombarded several charges into IMP2’s battalion while the other cannons fired into the supporting flanks.  The booms and explosions muffled other sound, and it was only when he spied boulders and dirt and support beams falling around them he realized the ceiling was caving in just like it was supposed to.

The descent of the debris was controlled, opening up the ground above them so the shuttle could blast off.  He also appreciated how it added to the chaos the enemy had to contend with.

Concern surfaced in his mind about the ship that had gone down.  Was Ita on board?

The view screen of the control panel showed steam and smoke and dust, but he couldn’t detect any more activity.  No movement.  No shooting.  Had IMP2’s forces been crippled that much, or were they only regrouping?  The roar of engines firing up confirmed the shuttle should lift off soon, so nobody had much time left here.

Then this was it.  His vision grew blurry and fatigue seemed to seep down to his bones.  If he allowed unconsciousness to overtake him, he would stop breathing.  And maybe being unconscious or already dead might be merciful when the shuttle took off and engulfed the launch pad in flame.

The revolution that had endured for decades was finally going to end … at least as far as he was concerned.

But what about the other ships?  There was no guarantee they would be safe upon breaching the stratosphere.  If his prayer that Ita was on board another vessel proved true, she and all the others could still be in danger.

Dying now would be too … convenient   He could almost hear Ita’s voice, tinged with droll sarcasm, telling him “Don’t think you’re getting out of this that easily.”

Breathe.

He stumbled off the platform and staggered in the direction of the shuttle.  It was just as well he experienced difficulty breathing – the air was thick with particulates.  And this attempt could turn out to be an exercise in futility.  His enemies might drop him with another shot.  His comrades might not be able to see his approach, and he’d be incinerated while trying to reach the vessel.

He almost tripped over the ramp that led to the hatch, and nearly crawled up it.  He reached out and felt the smooth metal pitted slightly from buster hits.  Was any of the structure compromised?  Would he trade suffocating here to suffocating in a vacuum otherwise sprinkled with colliding asteroids and lethal radiation?

The metal retracted from his fingertips and at least two pairs of hands grabbed his arms and yanked him forward.

Breathe.

The voices around him were muffled by more than the roar of engines.  With two soldiers supporting him, and a wall nearby, Deuce managed to stagger to his feet.  Despite his dimming vision he locked his attention on the view screen beside the hatch.

The lurch of takeoff added to his wooziness, but through the haze both outside and in his head, he caught sight of movement where IMP2’s battalion had been.  From the familiarity of the motion, he figured it was IMP2 himself.

And then flame filled the vicinity.

“Get a stint for him!” Quint’s voice sounded oddly distant.

His vision darkened more as a remorse he hadn’t anticipated swelled through him.  In a way, he was glad IMP2 perished this way.  Most likely his former comrade would have been executed by the Elite for failing to quash the evacuation.  And although they found death by cremation efficient, they were also known to take hours turning up the heat when especially displeased with the condemned.

When the physical pain subsided as he faded from this world, Deuce couldn’t decide whether or not to welcome that release….

###

When the word this month for #BlogBattle came out, I nearly laughed out loud:  It was Revolution.  Considering this is the next to last installment for this novella, I’m glad such an appropriate word for the story arc came out before it got finished….  You can find the earlier installments on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.

And with such a great word, don’t miss out on the contributions from other writers this month!

Pharaoh’s Chariots

His resolve steeled as Deuce surveyed the smoky battlefield.  Withdrawing from this arena alive was a natural desire, but his concern for the lives of the score of soldiers with him finalized his decision.

Over twenty men had originally volunteered to assist him with luring the cyborg forces to this fallacious location, even though each one of them knew it was possible none would return.  And the ones that had already fallen knew no more about the bomb surgically lodged inside his chest than their surviving combatants.

The people he had become part of were on the verge of escaping their tormentors.  There had been enough death already.  He was determined to see that these brave servicemen would rejoin the families they were fighting to keep free.

“They’re flanking to cut off our access to the chute!”  The voice that buzzed from the com patch attached near his right ear disclosed strain but not panic.

Although battle hardened, Deuce was a bit struck at how calm his own voice sounded.  “Retreat now, before they get there.”

“What about–”

“That’s an order!  I’ll hold them back.”

There was a couple seconds hesitation before he heard “Yes, sir!”

He set the charges in his blaster for a cluster spread.  That meant he would run out of ammunition soon after reaching the entrance of the passage that sloped down to the launch pad, but when he detonated the bomb within his chest, that wouldn’t matter anymore….

Once the soldiers cleared the chute leading to a purposefully unfinished interstellar ship, they could board the real escape vessel hidden within.  Right now, in a dozen locations scattered around the Earth, completed space-bound behemoths were launching from their hitherto underground platforms.

The com patch also chattered with reports from those other sites.  Some of them were under attack as well, but at least he’d succeeded in drawing the majority of the Elite’s forces here.

He was, after all, the best bait he could offer.

“Go!  Don’t wait for me!”

Deuce leaped from behind the jagged boulder that was inherent to the rocky outcrop shielding the underground launch pad.  Maintaining cover behind other stony features, he fired into the closest enemy troops as he trailed his soldiers pulling back to the chute.

Return fire was aimed more toward his retreating unit than him.  He knew why.

Less than a minute after the last man disappeared into the downward tunnel, he darted into the entrance, but then held his ground.  After only a couple more blasts from his weapon, the cyborg forces scattered as though fearing the meager obstacle he presented.  They ceased fire and ducked into cover of their own on the other side of the rocks.

He wanted to hold this position for as long as possible before activating the bomb and blank off this chute.  But even though he was fairly exposed here, the enemy still didn’t fire.  They had to be under orders to leave him for the individual who wanted him most….

When IMP2 stepped into the clearing, Deuce figured his former ally wanted to make this confrontation really personal.  Good, it gave his soldiers more time to escape.

“You’ve been wasting ammo.”  As IMP2 approached, he held a blaster in his remaining human hand even though his mechanized arm was also a shooting weapon.

Deuce gripped his nearly empty blaster in the ready position.  “Considering your casualties, I wouldn’t call it a waste.”

“What is your strategy, IMP17?  Your speculation is consistent, but this maneuver is deviant even for you.”

Hearing his old designation churned a slight touch of nausea.  “Are you sure you want to find out?”

A leering smile formed on his opponent’s face as he stepped closer.  “I will deign to compliment your evasiveness, but observation of your tactics conveys desperation.  Whatever ships don’t get grounded before takeoff will be terminated by the hunter satellites when they reach orbit.”

They had a plan in action for those satellites, too.  But even though IMP2 was about to die with him, this was no time to tip his hand.  But he might enjoy giving them something to worry about, even if was a bald-faced lie.

“Didn’t you know satellites can be remotely reprogrammed to change their targets?”

The commander hesitated and studied his face, perhaps searching for some unconscious betrayal he might let slip.  With half of IMP2’s face outfitted with technological improvements, Deuce didn’t bother trying the same.  It didn’t matter.

“You are too calm for somebody who knows his life is forfeit.”  That statement sent a chill through him, and Deuce began sliding his left hand up the front of his uniform.

IMP2’s gaze locked on that hand.  Deuce knew he was anticipating he would draw a weapon, but had no idea what was actually about to happen.  Self-sacrifice didn’t register in his psyche.  When IMP2 continued, Deuce was relieved to hear his assessment confirmed.

“But you will not remain so complacent.  My enhancements far outweigh our biological engineering, and you owe me satisfaction for the trouble you have caused.  By the time I’m through with you, you will wish you’d been executed by the Elite.”

Deuce’s index finger reached the thoracic depression at the base of his throat.  The seconds began crawling, as though every cell in his body understood life in this world was about to end and wanted to savor what little time was left.

A reflection on Ita, with her fiery hair and emerald eyes, surfaced from his subconscious.  More so it was her feisty personality and stoic bearing he would miss.  They had only recently started to understand each other, and he regretted they wouldn’t finish working out their differences.  Still, it was comforting to know he’d taken part in her ultimate escape….

He pressed hard into the shallow cavity until his fingertip sensed a small, hard protuberance that hadn’t been there before the bomb’s implantation.  One more push set the device to standby, and he had only to murmur the single, five-syllable word that would detonate it.

“Uni–”

Fired charges from behind hurtled past him.

IMP2 spun and twisted and leaped to avoid the barrage like any Intellectual Militant Prototype worth his genetic engineering should.  A couple of sparks emitted from his arm, but with a few shots of his own succeeded in taking cover with the cyborg troops.

Deuce swung to one side as charges continued streaking past him.  Had anybody other than the colonel who strode forward and grasped his arm performed such an action, he would have demanded they withdraw.

Quint was supposed to be back at the ship as the commander of the crew that would launch it.  But considering he was one of the first people to accept Deuce when he joined their forces, he was inclined to concede to this change in plans.

“Let’s go, general!” Quint barked.  “No man gets left behind.”

Arguing would only cause a delay that would endanger all of them.  Deuce retreated into the depths of the passage with his troops as they fired back at the enemy resuming attack.

###

If you noticed this month’s story submission for #BlogBattle seemed a little longer, good for you…!  The rules of the battle have changed a little this year, including we can now go up to 2000 words.  This month the prompt word is Blank.  And as always, be sure to check out the stories others have posted.

I confess I learned a definition of that word I hadn’t been familiar with before, but it was one that worked well for the next installment of this arc.  And if you’re new to this serialization, you can catch up on my BlogBattle Short Stories page.

Standing on the Shore

Ita strode into the medical ward.  Choking back tightness in her throat only seemed to push it down to her chest, and the sight of half a dozen terminal patients lying in beds on either side of the room increased the sensation.  Most were accompanied by monitoring equipment.

The only other person present was an elderly nun in a light blue habit.  She looked up from an emaciated girl whose hand she grasped, then murmured something to the patient before stepping toward Ita.

“How may I help you?”  Her voice was thin yet warm, like a shawl offering comfort on a cool summer evening.

“I’ve come to see Oswald Taggart.”  As her eyes swept across the room, Ita spied her grandfather on a bed near the far wall.

The nun nodded as her gaze matched.  “He’s weak, but coherent.  The priest has already been here.  Unless there’s something you’ll need, I’ll leave you be so you can visit.”

“Thank you.”  The significance of the nun’s presence flashed into her conscience.  Mere hours ago the evacuation to the space ships began.  People all over the world discovered there was an escape plan, a last-ditch effort to elude once and for all the enemy that had hounded them for decades.

But the plan also had to address the reality there would be individuals too weak to embark upon such a journey.  Volunteers stepped up to minister to the dying, and to remain behind to ultimately die with them.

Why now?

No sooner had the evacuation begun than Ita received word her grandfather had collapsed.  Leaving her own duties in capable hands, she sped across a quarter of the globe to reach him.  It was probable none of her aunts, uncles, and cousins had time to visit Oswald in his final hours.  They had to escape quickly … before the enemy Elite caught up.

The blankets failed to disguise how he looked thinner than the last time she saw him around three months ago.  Work on this project, a job he’d handed over to her, had kept her away for too long.  If only she had been better about staying in touch….

“What brings you here?”  His eyes opened upon her approach, and he smiled.

Only then did she notice the audio sensor attached near his ear.  Oswald had been deaf for over a decade, but he must have consented to using this device in order to artificially hear what others needed to say to him.

Ita sat on the bed’s edge and grasped his hand.  “I came as soon as I found out, Grandpa.”

“It seems our journeys will be separate now.”  His voice was weaker, but his speaking still had the flat tone that developed after he became deaf.

“No, we’re supposed to travel into space together.”  Ita leaned closer to him.  As the youngest child of his youngest child, she always remembered him with gray hair, but until now he’d always been strong.  It was difficult to see him this way now.

But the glint of oil on his forehead suggested the priest had been here more recently than she’d assumed, offering an incomprehensible consolation.  Its shimmer was subtle, a reminder that humility was a potent charm and strength surged far beneath the surface.

“I always wanted to see the stars in their own element.”  Oswald closed his eyes, but his smile deepened.  “Though it seems I have other business to attend to.  And where I hope to head now will be even more spectacular.”  His eyes opened.  “When we see each other again, which I pray we will, you can tell me all about it.”

Her own eyes burned as she squeezed his hand.  “It won’t be the same without you.”

“Just pretend that Deuce is me.”  His gaze locked on her face, and his smile grew crooked.  “You have refrained from shooting him, haven’t you?”

She couldn’t resist smiling back.  “I nearly did, once.  But since then….”  She hesitated.  Oswald didn’t know about the bomb Deuce insisted be implanted in his chest.  The Elite had gotten wind of their evacuation plans, and in order to keep the project protected, he had to insure they never captured him and discover information that would bring ruin to everyone.

The willingness to sacrifice himself began altering Ita’s perception of him.  He once numbered among their enemy, and she considered him to be only a cold-blooded killer.  But lately she started admitting he exhibited appealing qualities, like discipline and humility, she’d hitherto ignored.  In fact, if he didn’t have his hands full with overseeing security to encourage success in launching the ships, he’d be here with her.

She decided to not worry Oswald about Deuce’s predicament.  “I forgave him.”

“And that right there is proof that miracles do happen.”  His eyes closed again, and his next breath staggered a bit.  When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse.  “Ita.”

“I’m still here, Grandpa.”

His eyes opened, and she could have sworn they blazed with the wonder of a child on Christmas morning.  His smile matched, and the decades seemed to slough off as though he were a young man again, the fullness of life ahead of him.

“Don’t be afraid … we are surrounded by light.”

She was so focused on his smile that she didn’t notice the radiance of his eyes dim until realizing his hand no longer clasped hers.  Ita felt her own breath shudder as her eyes began burning again.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”  The nun’s warm voice must have come from behind her, but it seemed to travel from every corner of the room.  “I’m aware of your grandfather’s work, how it will save all these people.  He’s brought great blessing to us all.”

Ita glanced at the woman destined to die with this remnant, and nodded.  As her attention returned to him, she appreciated his peaceful expression, and noticed again the oil on his forehead.

The chrism continued to shine.

###

So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this round was Charm.  With a word like that, there’s bound to be some delightful stories, so be sure to check them out!

If you’re new to this serialization of short stories I’m compiling in a novella, you can find the previous installments on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.

Charm … such a nice word to end an interesting year on…

The Red Sea

“So why didn’t you call it Noah’s Ark?”  The awe and marvel over all the structural and technical engineering surrounding them subsided enough for Deuce to ask a long-standing question.

He watched Ita’s frown from the corner of his eye since he knew better than to make any direct contact with her.  She had finally brought him on board one of the spaceships scattered, hidden, around the globe, a spectacular behemoth that offered hope for everyone … but very few knew about their existence.

“For one thing, Noah had it easy.”  She never looked toward him.  “All he had to worry about was his own family and two of each animal and one boat.  Our mess is more like what Moses had to contend with.  We’ve got multiple nations and all their livestock and rootstock, and have to keep them alive on several ships in the desert of space for multiple generations.”

He nodded.  “Recreating a miniature facsimile of the world and condensing it to a dozen interstellar ships still sounds like an enormous risk.  Space is a vacuum that’s otherwise sprinkled with colliding asteroids and lethal radiation.”

“No more risky than having the Elite attack us relentlessly, where they either annihilate us or we have to annihilate them.”

“You’ll remember Pharaoh’s army got drowned in the Red Sea.”

She almost cast a sidelong glance toward him.  “Pharaoh’s army, not the whole of Egypt.  And drowning the army is your job.”

Yes, figuratively speaking, that had been the focus of his assistance over the last few months.  Once the exodus began, the Elite would do anything to stop them, even shooting the ships out of the sky as they launched.  He had been coordinating defensive measures around the Earth, and each location had different parameters around which to devise strategy.

But less than two days ago he learned of a detail which dictated there was another part of his plan he would have to implement if they were to succeed.

“I apologize to prevail upon you with a request.”  Deuce knew to get to the point, but this entreaty needed some prefacing.  “But there’s a matter, concerning that job, I need your help with.”

The furrow in her brow deepened.  “This had better be good.”

“I need to have a bomb implanted, preferably in my chest.”

Ita stared at a display panel on the wall behind him, and didn’t respond for a few seconds.  “Why?”

“Standing orders have always been to kill on sight any IMP like me that defected.  Instead, they tried to capture me at the last raid.  It’s a miracle the Red Sea stayed secret all these years, but that action can only mean the Elite have begun to suspect you have a project like this.”  He drew a deep breath before continuing.  “If they capture me, they will find out about it.  I can’t defend my knowledge from the central data core.  So … I must ensure they never make that capture.”

Her frown remained, but there was something pensive in how her lips pressed together.  “You would really blow yourself up?”

Odd, he’d expected a more positive reaction from her, like a quip “Consider it done.”  Ever since the first day they met, Ita made it clear she despised him for killing her father.

Deuce wasn’t sure whether to bless or curse the fact he couldn’t remember the man.  On the one hand it was nice not to look at her and recall the final few seconds in the life of a defender performing above the call of duty.  On the other, he would have liked to acknowledge the eminence of such a person, perhaps even confirming her father’s bravery.

“The blast must be sufficient to shatter my remains beyond reparation.  I’ll need it set up where only I can detonate it, and I must have several options to do so should any avenue become inaccessible to me.  And since this procedure must remain as secret as the Red Sea is, we need as few people as possible involved to insert the implant.”

Ita continued gazing at the wall as though she spied an instrument that didn’t belong.  “You need me to contact the right people?”

“We’ll also need to override the security protocols that would detect the implant.”

She studied the panel for several more seconds before responding, her words proceeding slowly.  “An ion bomb is small enough to do the trick, but as far as the programming … I know a woman who could probably help.”

Her statement didn’t surprise him.  With every able-bodied man needed for combat, the supportive fields of medicine, technology, and engineering were heavily populated by women.  Ita’s role in the Red Sea kept her in touch with the most pioneering individuals.

“We need the procedure to be completed promptly.”  A surreal sensation pulsed through him as the reality of what they were discussing began to solidify.  His entire life he’d been conditioned to accept the possibility of death on the battlefield, but to personally sacrifice himself carried weightier implications.

“I’ll stress its urgency.”  For a couple of seconds her gaze darted to his face, and then she turned aside and muttered, “You always have to keep us on our toes with surprises.”

“What do you mean?”

Ita hesitated and glanced back at him.  Her eyes met his for another couple of seconds, and her impassive expression continued to puzzle him.  She turned aside again and began walking away.

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

Too bad, Deuce thought.  That would have qualified as the nicest thing she ever said to him.

###

So here’s the next installment of my serialization for #BlogBattle this month.  The word this time is Miniature, which kind of like abbreviation seems like a pretty big word for a small thing….  Be sure to check out their website for other stories submitted this month.

If you’re new to this novella in progress and want to catch up, you can find the previous stories on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.  Have a prosperous November!