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Night of the Sun

by Douglas Van Hollen

part 1 of 2

Without any words being said, without any Galactic Legislation or commands from on high, everyone began to agree that all the romance had left life among the stars, stripped bare by the simple overabundance of peoples and worlds.

And gradually all of the populated planets with their bold names from ancient human mythology now grown threadbare from overuse were reclassified by number in order of their conquest, starting with One. The cities were giving boring letter combinations that were unique per planet and unimportant otherwise.

The data warehouses of all two dozen military organizations who kept order were filled with digital delight at these more easily parsed and indexed data. The actual work did not get any easier, but the technologies of war, peace, control, and rebellion bloomed fiercely, like algae in a warm sea.

Private Samantha Meade had been told some of this during basic training, but its relevance had dwindled the longer she remained trapped in the dirty, dark, perpetual night of planet Nine. Her father would have called the job a nightmare, but the distance between her life and his had made her stronger than he. To her, it was her life, and she had no other with which to compare it.

She was suddenly aware that her nails were too long, and the tips had gone black with accumulated grime. She rested her rifle on the ground and leaned it against her shoulder as she cooked the tips of her nails away with a cautery. Private Meade had no sense of smell any more, but the smoke collected in the soft tissue of her throat, and she was stimulated to spit. A disgusting, manly habit, slowly acquired over the past eighteen cycles. She put her gloves back on.

Patrol did seem like a dream, though. Like being stuck inside a moment. A zero-dimensional sense of time.

Before rising from her squatting position she tossed coarse handfuls of dirt against the toes of her boots. This was another habit learned from men, but unlike the rest of such habits, this one was backed by prudent reason. It had been drummed into her by the Training and Acclimation attache on Seventy-Four, two missions ago, to prevent detection by the ToeDAR technology cooked up by Seventy-Four’s tiny, tooth-filled criminal underworld. Nobody on Nine even knew what ToeDAR was, but she still took the time to obscure what little shine her boots had left before rising to her feet.

She stood and hung her head and chewed on a stick of gum until the blood stopped rushing. Then she left the little shack, which was missing corners and blackened by some past fire, and walked along the alley towards the noise of the plaza. She stood for a while on the periphery, neither an imposing figure nor a passive one, her race obscured by dirt, her gender erased by a barber and by the Combat Ultimatum.

She stood for a while chewing the flavor out of her gum and feeling the weight of her gear, and the weight of the rifle dangling from her hand, and the weight of duty. Not duty as defined by poets and romantics, but as defined by duty rosters with penalties for non-compliance.

She stood and shirked the start of her patrol until the weight of duty became greater than the rest, and then she swallowed her gum and pulled her helmet out of her epaulet. She rolled it down over her head, and her consciousness expanded.

The helmet was thin and flexible like rubber, and the rolling-down motion of pulling one on over your head and face was similar enough to an old-style prophylactic to be funny to a new recruit and disturbing to everyone else. The microcircuitry on the inside gave Meade a cartoony head-up display of her team’s status as represented by colored symbols and avatars, and whatever maps or videofeeds that Overwatch deigned to share.

If everyone in the company had been good, each Overwatch was allowed to play music for patrol. Tonight it was some kind of old white-boy party music from One, which meant that it must be Stev on duty. Stev was from One too, but Meade felt no particular kinship with him.

“Nice of you to join us, Private Meade,” he drawled into her ears. She acknowledged with a single ping of her transpond. This was like the middle finger.

Meade turned on her syncface and walked towards a spot on the plaza marked on her overlay with a maroon bulge. This color meant a “statistically elevated chance of an interpersonal incident.” The job of patrol in the United Spacing Military Option was to play the numbers. They sold their services with the promise that they would chase the chance of a chance of a chance.

During the uprising on Seven, Corporal Rose had once listed for Meade all ninety-six contributing variables of the Hayes Tactical Incident Estimate Distribution, on which the colors in Meade’s overlay were based. He had grabbed her shoulders and pulled her too close to his face and rattled them off in a single breath of septic air, as the field medics ventilated the bone marrow in his legs to drown the parasites. He had not survived that tour. Meade did not think about this.

The clustered figures emerged from the overlay as she got within the narrow visual range provided by the fires around the plaza. Their backs were to her. Satellite snaps showed a dozen hot figures clustered in a ring. Prose scrolled in her helmet’s sidebar regarding crimes associated with similar arrangements and threat colors, some as recent as four minutes ago in the city of C-A-B near the equator.

That other incident had been a ritual gang rape and had resulted in three civilians dead and forty-five bucks lost in spent ammunition. Despite this news, Meade did not quicken the pace that she had been trained to walk during an investigation.

She turned down vox and music as she approached the scene. When she was within a meter of the nearest male, she stopped and armed her targeting reticule. This was standard protocol, even though the pheromonal analysis did not indicate violence.

Arming the reticule required the activation of additional sensor units distributed throughout her suit and their start-up routine was accompanied by a high-pitched “squeee.” Throughout the Worlds, this sound had come to be associated with Order, if not necessarily Law.

The syncface being displayed on the outside of her helmet was a smoothed out version of her real face and this gave civilians something to look at, which helped some of the time. The circle of males turned to look at it when they heard her squee. But their surprise quickly became simple male impatience. They parted the circle.

In the middle of the ring was a hairless female on her knees performing some complicated act of copulation with either an animal or a very tall male disguised as an animal. Meade subvocalized, “Is there a problem here?” Her helmet, tightly bonded to her mouth and throat muscles, translated her English into this region’s chirping dialect. It used the top of her helmet as a speaker, which vibrated and tickled her shaved head.

The female did not look up from her task. She screeched at Meade before Meade’s message had finished. The gentle male voice chosen by Meade to be her translator because it sounded like her elder brother, spoke softly into her ears: “I’m working here, bitch.”

Meade scanned the female’s anklet with the beamer on her rifle, then withdrew. The circle closed again. Meade subvocalized a two-sentence report on the incident, clipped the female’s ugly headshot to it, and sent it into the etherband.

The details of the interaction, before, during, and after, would be indexed and cataloged for confrontational and xenthropological research. The next time the female worked in public, her HTIED color would be a little less intense.

Butch Meade was a cycle and a half overdue for rotation, but there was not really anyone to complain to. The squishy humanity of the pre-Flight militaries had been squeezed out by the statistical success of more dehumanizing methods of control. Nobody minded. Nobody who worries about loss of control becomes a soldier anyway.

Meade wasn’t here trying to acquire skills for a civilian career. She wasn’t trying to earn money for her family. And she wasn’t sure, but she didn’t think she was sating a latent bloodlust. Meade had no goals, plans, ambitions, or agendas. She had just never said no to anything, and the Option recruiter had asked her before anyone else.

So she had learned to shoot a VR7-series rifle and she had memorized the nerve centers on two dozen sentients and she had let them boil away her gender when they gave her the Combat Ultimatum. There are no breeders on the front lines, they had said. Be fightful or multiply.

Meade stuck her rifle to the magnet on her back and peeled the backing off a squawker and stuck it on a building. Her overlay said the building was a place to have religious icons recharged with spiritual energy, although that was probably an oversimplification for her benefit.

A squawker was a portable button about three inches across with a superstring telecom relay hardwired into it. It was intended for anyone to press if they required emergency assistance. It stuck and glowed a soft blue that was invisible to anyone farther away than Meade because of the firelight. It stared at her like an accusing eye.

It asked if she would being sticking a squawker here if that had been a male skinner in a circle of females. Asked if she remembered that there was no gender disparity here, that males and females had equal muscle mass, equal social stations, and equally violent roles in the reproductive act. Asked when she had last had her hormone levels checked. Asked if she instead preferred a world where the victims always looked like her.

The shutting down of her targeting systems made no noise. Meade turned her audio-feed back up and heard that an argument was going on between Stev and Vindu. There was an incident developing north of the plaza.

Stev was saying that the situation had exceeded pretty much every parameter governing the activation of the Werewolf Protocol, and Vindu was saying that he didn’t need a bunch of goddamn rock monsters trampling all over his sector. There were minors everywhere and he didn’t trust their goddamn hand-wavy, voodoo threat ID. Stev had not bothered to turn off the music, so the discussion had a lively amerirock soundtrack.

Using subvoc commands, Meade pulled up a map and rotated it until the burning yellow blob that was the developing situation was at the bottom edge. This was a psychological trick to make the threat not seem like it was looming over her. She did not turn her body or head towards this point, but kept the cone of her attention pointed at the populace.

The plaza in the city of A-A-B on Nine was hexagonal, one hundred and twenty-eight meters wide, and paved with bricks milled from the khaki soil of the northern hemisphere. The great miracle that night was the water coming out of the fountain in the middle of the plaza. Well, it was water-9, but it was clear and you could drink it. There was just enough of it on Nine that on this one day of the cycle, the young were allowed to play in it and splash each other and laugh their barking laughs.

Everyone stayed out of her way as she walked across the plaza, attempting to be part of her patrol team’s visual net. She turned off her syncface and her helmet’s blank stare parted the dancing groups and spinning glo-bees with something like deadpan hostility which the civilians returned.

The colonists on Nine were humanoid of course; why else would the Option care? But in the thousands of cycles it had taken the Option to travel here, human-9 had had a chance to fork off from the tree of Man.

One of the diversions was called glo-bees. They could illuminate their distended stomachs when they were hungry. It was some genetic throwback to Nine’s old sub-cities like M-R-R. For festivals like this one, they fasted for weeks. All of this planet’s celebrations and festivals were centered on light, which was regarded as a quasi-mystical and dangerous phenomenon.

So when Echo sector exploded and the burning white sphere a quarter-mile across slowly ascended into the sky, it was like an armageddon. The quadrant’s panic systems engaged and Meade’s suit glowed blue like a forget-me-not. The half-dozen other soldiers that she could see popped into sharp contrast against the crowd, each in their own shade.

There were very few audible screams from the civilians, just a great instantaneous stampede, like birds turning on a draft. Many closed their eyes as they ran, comforted by the dark, and many were trampled.

Stev finally turned off the music and stepped into his role as crisis coordinator. This was his favorite role in the service, and his voice held absolutely no panic. He was speaking fast but with a slightly cheerful lilt, like a stewardess.

“Charlie sector, you’re sitting pretty, report all hostiles. Delta sector, I confirm your reports of wounded. Medical is en route from Mike via Foxtrot, clear a path. Echo, back to you, multiple confirms on a big white light above you. I show Vindu flat from heat suffocation. Who’s next in command that remembered to put their helmet on right, over?”

“Parr, over.” There was gunfire in the background.

Meade’s head-up graphics changed as Stev moved mission roles around. The yellow HTIED blobs continued to bloom like flowers.

“Roger that, Parr, you now have sector control. I’ll be right back. Foxtrot, be aware of medical now point-two inside your perimeter, report all hostiles—”

On her top-down map, Meade saw the fast-moving white cross approaching from the east. She flipped her rifle onto her back and the top of her helmet chittered a warning.

She clapped her gloved hands together, then slowly pulled the palms apart. The mob of rushing civilians became diverted, a channel through them opening at Meade’s command. Bare feet skidded across the dusty stones as the mo-field from Meade’s gloves exerted a soft, steady pressure against the crowd and dissuaded them from crossing the path of the oncoming vehicle.

Meade held her arms apart as long as she could, as the three headlights of the medical drone blasted towards her through the channel in the crowd. When she was close enough to read the ident sticker on the hood, she dove out of the way. She let the air rushing around the hovering unit push her to safety and used the residual charge from the gloves to steady herself as she landed.

She dared not incite further panic by breaking into a run when she landed, although she wanted to. She re-armed her rifle and resumed her slow tread across the plaza to the spot indicated on her display as “OVIS,” “Optimal Visual Intra-Squad.”

And then she just stood for a while, listening to Stev run through the sectors again and again, round-robining his maddening, calm voice from team to team. She watched the blinded townies running away from the light she had been compelled to put her back to, although she was monitoring the situation through her helmet screens.

The worst problem was the heat. The big white thing was radiating heat like an oven, and that was what had killed Vindu and some as yet unknown number of civilians. The floating anomaly was being autotagged as “fusion1” on her HUD, and Meade saw that Stev kept renaming it to “unknown.”

The soft-cell computers in orbit, which had been put there by a biotech firm to study the adoption of the new voluntary space rabies vaccines, had just been commandeered by the Option as part of the “panic clause” in their contract. Private companies could put whatever equipment they wanted on or around Burton-class planets, as long as they understood that the Option could utilize them as materiel without notice.

The softies’ default naming convention for anomalous events was a brief description of its chemical or biological nature: “asteroid1” or “humanoid19.” So even though they kept wanting to call the big white light “fusion1,” Meade took some comfort in the fact that biotech software probably was not expert at classifying complex physical events like fusion. So there was still a chance that she and all her platoon and the whole town and the whole planet would not soon be consumed by a newborn sun.

There was no explanation yet for the gunfire. The plaza was nearly empty, only the wounded being tended by nanites and a few curious townies. She triangulated, making sure she could at least visually identify Choke’s green glow and Wabbit in her halo of pink.

More glowing forms of her platoon were visible around the plaza, but three was the minimum needed for an ad-hoc, and she had nothing else to do, so she squirted digital handshakes at them and they formed. As a line-of-sight network, their sensory throughput was increased, and they could share thoughts to some extent. There were some other tricks they could do too, but Meade didn’t think—

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Douglas Van Hollen

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