Friday, July 4, 2014

Portal Worlds II: The Ten Thousand

Happy 4th of July all.  I thought I'd post something to pass the time on the holiday weekend (and for my non-US readers, it's just one chapter, so a normal weekend should be enough to get to it!).

Portal Wars II: The Ten Thousand, the sequel to Gehenna Dawn will be out in early August, but here is a sneak peak - the first chapter.  I'll publish the second chapter in about a week and probably the third at the end of the month.

For those of you how haven't read Gehenna Dawn, if you're interested, it has been on sale for 99 cents the last several days.  It was supposed to end today, but I'm going to keep it reduced for an extra day for any of you guys interested in picking it up.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.           
                            - Friedrich Nietzsche


Part One


Chapter 1


From the Journal of Jake Taylor:

Trust.  It is the hardest thing to embrace, especially when you have seen what I have, been through the hell to which I was consigned.  Yet it is also one of the greatest things man can experience, to rely without doubt on others, to know they are there for you, that if your vigilance fails they will step in and lend you their own strength.

It is something people don’t understand well.  They place their trust carelessly, recklessly, seeking to feel better, to convince themselves they can rely on those who have not earned such confidence.  Organizations cannot be trusted, nor governments.  By their very nature, they are changeable and soulless, subject to the caprices of those in positions of power.  It is a great fallacy that groups and institutions are trustworthy, one that continually causes mankind to make poor choices, to tread down dark roads that lead to slavery.  Vigilance is the cost of maintaining freedom, questioning everything and demanding proof of all you are told.  Yet that is a heavy burden, one most people cast aside for the drug of false trust.

My life has been one of sorrow and pain, inflicted on me by an evil regime bent on maintaining its power at all costs.  All I once believed in was a lie; those I called my leaders were soulless monsters.  I was a fool, believing in things because I was told to, because it was easier, because I did not think for myself.  I am as guilt-stained as anyone, for once I willingly followed the powers I am now sword to destroy.

My men, and those we must now fight as well, are all victims of this nightmare.  Many innocents, led by lies into an unjust cause, will die before the stain is washed away.  There is nothing I can do to prevent this.  I must do what I must, regardless of the cost.

But there is good, even in the pit of hell, for it was in the middle of my ordeal that I rediscovered trust.  In my battles there were men in the lines next to me, fellow-soldiers who fought with me, bled with me - who risked their own lives to save mine.  I have served 14 years with these men at my side, protecting my back through the horrors of Gehenna.  Through the years of deadly warfare those men became closer than friends, closer than brothers.  I trust each of them with my life - a trust that has been forged through long years of bitter service together in hell.  I know every one of them will do what I ask, no matter what the cost.  I can never achieve the victory I pursue without the help of those close to me, my comrades in arms. 

But there is a weakness there too, for I know too well the difficulty of the task ahead of us, and I fear my friends, many of them at least, will die before it is over.  They will die because of where I send them, the orders I alone give them.  And I will see their cold, dead faces staring back at me for as long as I live.


“Keep moving.  I want you in position and ready to fire in ten minutes.”  Major Karl Young stood on the small rock outcropping, waving his arms to urge his troops forward.  It was almost time.

Young was a true veteran, a ten-year man.  He’d survived more than a decade in the burning hell of Erastus, and that was as true a mark of toughness as any warrior could bear.  He was as close to fearless as a man could be, the survivor of a hundred bloody combats.  But he was excitable too, prone to loud outbursts and over-the-top enthusiasm - so much that his friends and comrades called him Frantic.

The troops were moving forward.  He had a full battalion, all enhanced Supersoldiers.  They were jogging faster than a normal human could sprint, carrying their full load of exos as they did.  Young’s troops were moving to flank the enemy, part of General Taylor’s plan to cut off and surround the advancing UN forces.  Young could feel the victory within their grasp, and it showed in his shouts and gestures.  He was earning his nickname with every yell and wave of his arms.

His people were moving forward through a narrow defile, with high rock walls on either side.  They were well in advance of Taylor and the main force.  When the general launched his frontal attack, Young’s battalion would emerge from their hidden position and take the enemy in enfilade, just as Bear Samuels’ troops would hit the opposite flank.  The Alantrian forces were marching through a tight valley.  They’d have a hard time repositioning to face the threats coming in from all sides.  Trapped between converging fields of fire, they would be slaughtered.  At least that was the plan.

Young was aware that most of the soldiers they were facing were involuntary conscripts, just like him and his men.  He didn’t have any hostility toward the Atlantrian troops – indeed, he sympathized with them.  But the battle was almost underway and his blood was up.  Once the fighting started, he knew it was either his people or the enemy.  There was no room for hesitation in combat.  Sparing an adversary was likely to cost the lives of one of his own – and that was unthinkable.  There was an unbreakable bond connecting the men who’d shared the hell of Erastus, even stronger than that between soldiers elsewhere.  Taylor had tried to show the Alantrian troops the truth; he’d beseeched them to desert UNGov and join his crusade.  If they wouldn’t listen, Young thought grimly, there was only one option.  They would die.

“We’re in position, sir.”  Lieutenant Hemmer’s voice came through Young’s implanted comlink.  “The head of the column has reached the designated deployment area.”

Young nodded, a pointless gesture since Hemmer was almost a klick forward of his position and there was no visual link active on the com.  “Very well, Lieutenant.”  Young tried to hold back the excitement he always experienced in battle.  His face was flushed and he felt the heat around his neck and ears.  He was a gifted officer and one of Taylor’s most trusted compatriots, but he always had to struggle to keep himself calm.  Frantic had earned his handle more than once.  “You may begin deployment.”

Almost time, Young thought, feeling his hands shake as they usually did before battle.  Almost time.  He closed his eyes for a few seconds and took a half a dozen deep breaths.  Just like always, he thought…the same as every battle you’ve fought before.  But he knew that wasn’t true.  This would be their first combat off Erastus, and they were facing a group of troopers just like them, men who’d been lied to and pressganged into fighting an unjust war.  Before, when they’d killed, the soldiers from Erastus had been facing the Machines – and then an army of UN career enforcers.  Now they were about to engage soldiers very much like them, men who should be their allies, but weren’t.

He took one last breath and flipped on the unitwide com.  “OK, 5th Battalion…prepare for battle.”


*          *          *          *          *


Jake Taylor stood inside the HQ tent, staring at the monitor.  The plan was complex, a series of maneuvers so intricate he wouldn’t have even attempted them with any but his own veteran officers and men.  There were no less than six columns on the move, and when they completed their respective marches, all of UN Force Alantris would be enveloped – and subsequently destroyed in detail.

“It looks like everything’s going according to plan, Blackie.”  There was a touch of sadness in Taylor’s voice.  He would do whatever was necessary to destroy UNGov, but annihilating these soldiers, conscripts ripped from their lives just as he and his own men had been, was something he abhorred.  He would do it if there was no alternative, but the thought of it made him sick.  For an instant he wanted to leave HQ and run away – to hide in the wilderness and let someone else bear the burden.  He inhaled deeply and clamped down on those thoughts.  They were all sworn to see this through, and Taylor had promised to lead them if they would follow.  He’d never break that pledge, not while he still drew breath.

“We’re spot on, Jake.”  Tony Black was Taylor’s second-in-command, his most trusted friend and confidante.  “The men are maneuvering like they’re on the parade ground.”  Black had been a little concerned about the complexity of Taylor’s plan, but the troops were coordinating flawlessly, and the hapless enemy forces had no idea what was about to hit them.

The UN forces on Alantris had been dispersed when Taylor and his people arrived, conducting the types of search and destroy missions common to the middle stages of a pacification campaign.  The Machines had been forced onto the defensive on Alantris, but they still held large areas of the planet.  Had held, at least.  As soon as Taylor’s people came through the Portal the Machines broke off and withdrew from the planet, leaving the two human forces to face each other alone.

The Alantrian army hesitated for a few days, uncertain what was happening.  Then word came through the Portal from the high command on Earth.  The human invaders were rebels, murderers who had slaughtered their comrades.  The orders were straightforward – attack and destroy them.

Taylor broadcast his entreaty for the Alantrian troops to join him.  He told them of UNGov’s perfidy and the great fraud that caused the war.  A few scouts and outposts deserted to join his force, but his story was just too far-fetched for most to believe.  The propagandists from Earth had gotten to them first.  They told them Taylor would lie to them, tell them crazy stories to try and subvert them.  The Alantrians were confused, but most of them remained in the ranks and prepared to meet Taylor’s army.

On Erastus, Taylor had been well-known, one of the senior officers, the first Supersoldier and a celebrated Ten Year Man.  His words carried credibility, and the troops there had flocked to his banner.  But no one on Alantris knew anything about Jake Taylor – except what UNGov was telling them.

Taylor’s army was concentrated, drawn up in formation all around their entry Portal, so the Alantrian forces formed up as well, and marched on their positions.  Jake let them concentrate and advance, keeping his forces in place while they did.  His apparent lack of aggressiveness lured his adversary in, and the enemy’s confidence soared.  There were over 22,000 combat troops on Alantris, including a healthy core of veterans.  Taylor’s forces numbered less than 14,000, and that number included a large contingent of support personnel.  The Alantrians expected to overwhelm and destroy the invaders, but they didn’t know that 10,000 of Taylor’s troops were surgically-enhanced Supersoldiers, and hardcore veterans of the most hellish world where men have ever fought.

“Majors Young, Samuels, and Daniels all report their troops are in position.”  Black stared at Taylor, realizing he wasn’t listening.  His friend had drifted into one of his periods of introspection.

Black couldn’t imagine the burdens Taylor was forced to bear, and how difficult it was for his friend to order the attack on an army of fellow-conscripts.  Tony Black had grown up on the streets of the Philadelphia Metrozone, one of the most dangerous urban enclaves in the world.  He known brutality since he was a child, and he’d learned to fight, for a scrap of bread or a dry place to sleep, at an early age.

Taylor, on the other hand, had grown up on a farm.  He’d known hard work and poverty, but not the constant violence and filth of the ghetto.  Black knew Taylor was a veteran now, one of the toughest who’d ever lived.  But he’d also known love and family.  Taylor acted like he’d forgotten about all of that, but Black knew it was still there, the flickering remembrance of a better time and place.  He wasn’t sure if it did his friend any good, but he knew it made it that much more difficult to issue the orders.

“Jake?”  Black raised his voice a little.

Taylor shook out of his daydream.  “Yeah, Blackie…understood.”

Black looked over at his friend, but Taylor didn’t say anything else.  “Jake…do you want to commence the attack?”

Taylor hesitated for a few seconds.  Then:  “No, Blackie.  Not yet.”  He stared back at his friend, and Black could see an instant of weakness in his eyes.  “I want to address the enemy one more time first.”

Black let out a deep breath.  He understood.  But he also knew they had to win the battle.  They were about to hit the enemy with a surprise attack from all sides.  Warning them didn’t make any sense, at least not militarily.  But he knew better than to argue with Taylor.  “OK, Jake, but try to keep it short.  Every minute we give them to react is going to cost more of our men before the battle is over.”

“Maybe there won’t be a battle.”  Taylor’s voice was soft, with an odd tone.  “Maybe they will understand.”  He took a breath, knowing in his heart he was fooling himself.  “Maybe they will understand…and we won’t have to kill them all.”

Black nodded slightly.  “Sure, Jake.  Maybe.”  But he didn’t believe it – and he knew Taylor didn’t either.


*          *          *          *          *


“Attention all soldiers of UN Force Alantris.”  Taylor stood next to the HQ tent, looking out in the direction of his deployed army.  He couldn’t see the troops from where he stood, except for the reserve formations lined up waiting for the orders to advance.  But he knew where they were, every squad, every man.

“This is General Jake Taylor, the commander of the Army of Erastus.  I am addressing you one final time before battle is joined.  My people and I are just like you, soldiers conscripted into the ranks for life, sent to a distant world to battle an alien enemy.”  He paused for a few seconds, his mind racing for what he could say to convince them.  To save them.  “Like you, we once believed in that cause.  Whatever suffering we endured, we knew we were protecting our homes, our families.”  Another pause, shorter than the first.  Taylor could feel Black’s tension as the seconds ticked off.  It was time to launch the attack.  “But that was a lie, a foul deceit conjured by those who used it to seize power.”

He held the Tegeri amulet in his hand as he spoke.  The device was allowing him to communicate with every soldier in the opposing force, to slice through any jamming or other attempts to block his signal.  “Watch your com units…witness what truly happened on the first colony worlds so many years ago.”  He turned a dial and pressed a small button.

He remained silent for a few seconds.  He knew the amulet was projecting the image of the colonial massacres on every com unit in UN Force Alantris.  He couldn’t imagine the power that transmission required, the sophistication of the alien device he held in his hand.

He hadn’t thought much about it at first but, as he began to discover the capabilities of the amulet, he came to realize that Tegeri technology was far in advance of Earth’s.  The Machines, he realized, should have been evidence enough of that fact.  The manufactured biomechanical soldiers were extremely sophisticated, and Earth science couldn’t begin to replicate whatever process created them.  But their weapons and equipment were more or less the equivalents of those possessed by the Earth armies and, in 45 years of constant war, the Tegeri never employed anything more advanced.  War on the Portal worlds had been largely a contest between equals, at least in terms of armament.

Now Taylor realized the Tegeri could have utilized far more powerful weapons.  Indeed, he wondered if they couldn’t have easily crushed the human armies, even destroyed Earth itself.  Almost certainly, he thought in answer.  The fact that they didn’t was just more evidence to support the honesty of T’arza’s claims…and the basis for Taylor’s crusade.

“What you have just seen is the truth.  The images you have been shown before are fabrications, lies designed to you to get you to fight.  Earth’s government is the true evil, one that must be destroyed so our friends and families – all those we left behind forever – can at last know the taste of freedom.”  There was strength in Taylor’s voice, and conviction.  But there was a hint of desperation too.  Not because he couldn’t destroy those who ignored his entreaties.  Just the opposite.  He knew he could annihilate the soldiers of Alantris – and if they refused to yield he would do just that.  More innocent blood on his hands.

“Now, soldiers of Alantris.  You have a choice.  Drop your weapons and join us.  You will not be harmed if you do.  You have my word.”  He paused, and when he continued his voice was dark and foreboding.  “If you remain in your lines…if you stand with the evil of UNGov, we will destroy you utterly.  For this fight is for the future of mankind, and there is no place for mercy or weakness.”

He cut the transmission and turned slowly to face Black.  “OK, Blackie.  Maybe that will reach a few.”

Black nodded.  “I’m sure it will, Jake.  You are becoming quite eloquent.”

Taylor suppressed a laugh.  Words like ‘eloquent’ never sounded quite right in the thick urban accent Black had never been able to shake.

Black knew Taylor better than anyone.  He understood his friend’s need to try again, to do all he could to save some of those men.  But he knew just as well that Jake Taylor would never allow pity or guilt to stand in the way of the crusade.  He would see every conscript on Alantris dead on the bloodsoaked field if that is what victory required.

Taylor turned and walked back toward his tent.  “Give them ten minutes, Blackie.”  His voice was thick with sadness and fatigue.  “Then launch the attack.”


*          *          *          *          *


The field in front of the line was covered with bodies, but Samuels’ troops kept firing, raking the formations caught out on the flat, open ground.  “Pour it into ‘em, boys.”  He knew what he was supposed to say.  His voice on the comlink was calm, just what his men expected from their commander.  But inside, he wanted to drop to his knees and wretch his guts up.

Bear Samuels had been a gentle giant from Alabama when he first arrived on Erastus, and he’d somehow managed to retain a remnant of that good-natured innocence, even after all the years of brutal combat.  He’d became a good fighter and a strong leader, at least in battle against the Machines.  UNGov’s propaganda had turned the Tegeri’s manufactured soldiers into a pure manifestation of evil, and for years Samuels and his comrades had believed it all.  It was easy to slaughter an enemy you thought of as soulless murderers, but killing other human beings didn’t sit well with him.  The men he’d fought in the last battle on Erastus were government thugs, bullies and institutionalized murderers, at least.  He imagined all the people they’d killed or dragged away to the reeducation centers as he led his men into battle against them.  It helped him get through the battle, at least a little.

The soldiers his people were massacring now were different.  They were ordinary men, just like he had been, like all his fellow soldiers on Erastus.  The fighters out in that plain, dying in bunches under the withering enfilade fire, were conscripts, ripped from their homes and families just as he had been.  They’d been kids, barely adults, when they were taken from all they’d known and sent far from home to fight a brutal war, never to return.  Nothing he could tell himself made him feel better about what he knew he had to do.  Nothing but his faith in Jake Taylor.

Taylor had taken him aside one night after the battle against the UN forces on Erastus.  The two of them killed a bottle of Bourbon and talked all night.  Samuels never knew where Taylor found the whiskey, but the things his commander and friend told him that night would stay with him as long as he lived.

He would draw his strength from that conversation, and he would do whatever had to be done, no matter how upsetting he found it to be.  Because if he didn’t, what had happened to him, to Taylor and all their comrades – even to the men his troopers were slaughtering now – would never end.  Unless UNGov was destroyed, generation after generation of young conscripts would be fed into the machine.  The war wasn’t about holding back a bloodthirsty enemy; it wasn’t even about conquering the Tegeri.  It existed for one purpose, as a source of propaganda to preserve UNGov’s dominance over a humanity too frightened to stand up for its own rights.

Taylor was right, Samuels thought as he watched the murderous fire from his autocannons tear apart the hapless formations, now little more than terrified mobs, as they tried to flee.  There was no choice, no other way.  He had to do this; his men had to do it.  No matter how they felt about it.

No more than a third of the enemy had made it past the flanking forces, and their formations were shattered.  They were heading back the way they’d advanced, a tumultuous, panicked mob, fleeing wildly.

Samuels watched them sadly.  Yes, he thought, head back toward your bases.  Right into Hank Daniels’ waiting line.  Daniels, Samuel knew, had no pity at all for them.


*          *          *          *          *


“Get those guns set up and ready to fire.”  Hank Daniels stood a few meters behind his firing line, barking out orders to his sweating troops.  “Now!”  His force had gone the farthest, and they were spread out in a long formation along the enemy’s rear, completing Taylor’s envelopment.

The battle was already underway.  Colonel Black had hit the enemy frontally, driving into them with such ferocity they broke and ran – right past the two flanking forces Taylor had positioned along their route.  He tried to imagine the horrendous losses Bear and Frantic were inflicting on the panicked soldiers as they fled past their prepared flanking positions.

The Alantrian army was experienced from over a decade’s continuous combat, but they’d never encountered anything like Taylor and his veterans before.  Supersoldiers, stone cold killers forged in the furnace of Gehenna, no warriors who existed could stand against them, not without staggering numerical superiority.

Daniels knew what was happening, even though he couldn’t see it.  The Alantrian lines, what was left of them, were buckling.  Their formations were melting away under the sustained fire of Taylor’s perfectly placed flanking forces.  By the time they reached his position, they would be a routing, panic-stricken mob seeking only to escape.  That’s were Daniels’ people came in.  His troops were stretched out all along the enemy’s rear – now the direction in which they were fleeing – waiting.  Taylor’s orders were brutally clear.  Allow no one to escape.  He was to accept any surrenders he could without endangering his command, but not a single enemy soldier was to get off the field.  Not one.

Daniels treated Taylor’s orders like they were commandments from heaven.  Spider Daniels had served under Jake Taylor for all the years he’d spent fighting on the brutal battlefields of Erastus.  His devotion to his friend was total, verging on fanatical.  Daniels was a true believer, his mind and soul given without reservation to Taylor’s crusade.

Daniels was the angriest and most resentful of Taylor’s top officers, the one most determined to destroy UNGov.  Taylor, even, had mixed feelings, his convictions still tempered by doubts, despite the steel-hard image he portrayed to those around him.  He hated UNGov, and he wanted to free mankind from a totalitarian nightmare.  But he was uncomfortable with the cost his men – and the people of Earth - might be called upon to pay.

Daniels was driven by pure rage.  He wanted to tear down UNGov brick by brick, to strangle the life out of every member of the Secretariat personally.  He didn’t share Taylor’s sympathy for the people of Earth, at least not completely.  He hated the government, but he blamed the people too, for their gullibility, for their willingness to wear the shackles they’d forged for themselves.  Daniels blamed the government for sending him and his comrades to Erastus, but he held the civilians accountable as well, for it was they who allowed UNGov to control them.

“Enemy forces approaching, sir.”  Captain Hollis was Daniel’s aide and the battalion’s second-in-command.  Hollis was a desert rat from the old American southwest.  West Texas, Daniels’ NIS reminded him.  The neural intelligence units were enormously useful devices, and they’d saved the lives of many of his comrades – but Daniels missed being able to forget trivial facts.

“Battalion…” - Daniels’ voice was firm, commanding - “…prepare to fire.”  He looked out over the open plain, a stretch of ground utterly devoid of cover that Taylor had chosen carefully.  There wasn’t a rock outcropping or small dip in the ground to be seen.  Just one long ridge in the distance, a rise the enemy would crest before fleeing into the vast open space in front of Daniels’ position.  It was the most perfect killing zone he’d ever seen.  And it was almost time.

He saw motion in the distance, along the top of the ridge – then, a few seconds later, a mob of panicked, fleeing soldiers rushing up and over the hilltop and onto the wide open grasslands.  They were running right for his position, fleeing directly into his carefully targeted fields of fire.

He stared at them for an instant, watched as they approached, a wild disorganized mob.  With his enhanced eyes, he saw them in the open long before they would spot his own dug in troopers.  He felt a moment of pity, but it was fleeting.  Taylor had offered them not one, but two chances to yield.  Most of them had spurned both.  Now they would pay the price.  He spoke calmly, almost coldly into the com.



*          *          *          *          *


Taylor stood next to a makeshift table, really just a piece of scrap metal sitting on two saw horses.  He had been listening to the reports on the com, but he’d stopped hearing them after a while.  They were all the same from every corner of the battlefield.  A few of the enemy were able to surrender and were taken prisoner.  The rest were dead.

Taylor had planned the envelopment as a battle of annihilation.  He knew what he had to do to win this war, the level of ruthlessness it would take to give his people even a small chance of fighting their way to Earth and overthrowing UNGov.  But knowing something and living with it are two different things.  Taylor the general – the crusader - had planned the battle he needed to serve his purpose.  But the man had to deal with the consequences of what he’d done.  UNGov had ripped these men from their homes and families and sent them to Alantria – and Taylor had killed them.  He had killed them all.

He imagined the troops of the army he’d just destroyed, most of whom lay dead across 10 square klicks of ravaged ground.  There were veterans out there, soldiers like himself who had adapted and learned by hard experience, surviving battle after battle, just as he had.  He also knew there were recruits, the FNGs who’d stepped through the portal in the days and weeks prior to the battle.  They were young kids, mostly, with no idea what was coming for them.  They’d have been the first to die; they would have stumbled cluelessly into his soldiers’ fields of fire or crowded together in terrified masses, presenting unmissable targets to his gunners.  The veterans would have held out longer, at least a little.  But it didn’t matter.  They were all helpless newbs against Taylor’s hell-hardened cyborgs.

“How many?”  He was still looking out across the field, an odd expression on his face.

Black stood behind him.  He paused for a few seconds, considering playing dumb.  But that would serve no one.  He knew what Taylor wanted to know – and Jake was well aware that he did.  Game playing would serve no purpose.  “About 1,100 successfully surrendered, Jake.”

Taylor was silent for half a minute, still staring out at the clouds of smoke drifting over the field.  “So we killed 17,000 men today.”  His voice was deadpan, without emotion.  Successfully surrendered – the words stuck in his mind.  How many, he wondered, tried to give up toward the end?  How many did his soldiers shoot down in the confusion as they were trying to give up?  Perhaps, he thought, he was better off not knowing.  It served no purpose to dwell on such things.

He stood motionless, watching the orange sun setting slowly over the field.  And this is just the beginning, he thought…we have so far to go.  He sighed softly.  So many more to kill.