Don’t Feed The Bears
Robert Allen Lupton
I never wanted to be a soldier. I hate to fight. I suck at fighting. When I was eighteen years old, twelve year old girls picked on me. So what in seven levels of hell was I doing leading a rescue mission into Harem, the largest city on the planet, New Eden.
The most important question was why was I in charge of the invasion forces? The answer was the same as the answer to the question about why I was there. I was drafted. I didn’t volunteer, but I didn’t buy my way out of service. Dad said, “Bret, show some spine. A tour of duty in Space Fleet will make a man out of you.”
I finished basic training and officer candidate school and the Fleet commissioned me as a lieutenant. Technically, I was eighth in command of a squadron of four hundred drop troopers. In reality, I was the maintenance officer. I fix things. I didn’t shoot people or blow things up.
I didn’t sleep the night before we made our first assault on Harem. It went badly. The Scourge of God, a bloodthirsty religious cult of pirates, slavers, and thieves were ready for us.
They nailed us before the first trooper cleared the space ship. Protocol dictates officers drop with their men. One officer, forty men, and then the next officer.
The Scourge of God was the scourge of officers. They deciphered our recognition beacons and targeted the officers. I only survived because I was the last officer scheduled to deploy. Commander Janet Ralston said, “Lieutenant Coleman, don’t you dare give any orders. Stay the hell out of the way and try not to get killed. If you don’t know what to do, ask Sergeant Judy.”
Sergeant Louise Judy responded. “I’ve got him, Commander. If he does anything stupid, I’ll kill him myself.”
The seven officers who outranked me were dead before I closed the faceplate on my Marauder Seven Attack Suit, sealed my drop sphere, and rolled into the deployment tube. I watched their lights go out on my display. When number seven went dark, I canceled the attack and ordered the three hundred plus men already launched to assemble at predetermined recall points.
I went from unbloodied rookie to commanding officer before I saw combat. The sergeants felt the same way about my leadership skills as the deceased Commander Ralston. I planned to keep quiet and stay out of the way.
We rescheduled the launch and I was promoted to acting commander and the first to launch. Before the ship fired me into the gravity well, it fired four dummy spheres and a barrage of chaff to confuse the ground forces. It worked. I didn’t get blown out of the sky.
My sphere sloughed off fifty thousand feet above sea level. I spread my arms and legs, checked the drop formation, and watched the altimeter and variometer. My speed maxed out at 320 miles per hour. I popped the first chute at ten thousand feet. It lasted about five seconds. I cut it away. The second chute held for twenty seconds and slowed my speed to 128 miles per hour.
I deployed my landing chutes at two thousand feet. The trio of radar neutral polysilk parachutes tangled above me. Not good. I cut the streamer away and popped the reserve parachute. It opened properly. The altimeter said I was eight hundred feet above sea level. No problem. I glanced down and the treetops were less than a second away. Dumb butt, I told myself, ground level and sea level aren’t the same.
I didn’t brace for impact. I didn’t have time. The chute did its best, but I ripped through the trees like a freight train. The leafy canopy shredded the parachute to tatters and I bounced like a pachinko ball to the ground.
A Marauder is a tough suit and I was alive. I checked my vitals. I was battered, beaten, and dizzy from the rush of survival, but nothing was broken. I flipped on my monitors. Twelve men didn’t make it down. The Sergeants were green dots in a field of blue dot soldiers. The men were assembling in attack formation.
They were waiting for me to order the final attack. I checked my location relative to my men and I’d missed the drop zone. I opened the private channel to the senior noncom and said, “Sergeant Judy, I’m out of position. You have command.”
She didn’t answer and I repeated myself. I turned the volume to maximum and tried again. My radio showed power, but it wasn’t receiving. It was dead quiet inside the suit. There were no ambient sounds from outside. My com system was down. Bad for me and good for everyone else. Without me squawking orders, the men might live through this.
At least I had visual. The blinking red lights were the retrieval points. The closet one was three miles. I started walking.
It was eerie. I couldn’t hear my footsteps. I watched the assault by shifting around from one sergeant’s head camera to the next. It was like playing a first person shooter video game with the sound off. The battle went badly. Every time a blue light flashed orange and then went black, I lost a man.
I cursed because I couldn’t call retreat. My men were getting slaughtered. My attention was on the battle and my feet chose their own path along the course of least resistance. I kept moving, but I was oblivious to the silent world around me.
I willed for the Sergeant Judy to call recall. I prayed for it. Her light went orange. She was down, but wasn’t dead. If I made it to the recall point and the recovery ship was there, I could use their system to order retreat. It was time to run.
It’s hard to run in a Marauder. The balance is different. The wearer’s movements are magnified and augmented by the power assists built into the suit. Some of the men were naturals, but I wasn’t. If I didn’t look where I was going, I ended up in the same place every time–face down in the dirt.
I shifted away from the battle screen and looked at my surroundings. I was on a road. I’d unconsciously chosen the easiest path and I’d moved from path to trail to road. How stupid. I was completely exposed on a road, I might as well have activated my emergency beacon and carried a sign that said, “HERE I AM. KILL ME NOW!”
I shuffled forward and stumbled into an uneven run. I saw movement in the rear view monitor just before the truck hit me. My suit caught in the undercarriage and the truck shifted gears and drug me back and forth. In training, we were required to drop a fragmentation grenade and stand still while it exploded. Our suits could take it. The explosion might knock you on your butt, but you’d live through it.
I was already on my butt and halfway to becoming roadkill. I thumbed the ignition button and shoved the grenade into the engine housing. I counted. Three, two, one, and closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes and it was dark. I tried to stand, but the augmentation system was down. I blinked to shift my monitors. Nothing happened. I was flat on my back inside an eight hundred pound metal coffin. I pulled my right hand inside my sleeve until my fingers slid inside the wrist gauntlet. I twisted my hand and found the emergency release. I opened the cover and exposed the button. I pushed the button and nothing happened.
I don’t know how long I lay in my sensory deprivation tank. I could breathe until the air supply ran out. The inside of the suit got hot. I guess the sun was up. It became stuffy and harder to breathe. I told myself not to sleep and then promptly dozed off.
I woke and my head was pounding. No, it wasn’t my head. It was my faceplate. There was a point of light where the tip of a pry bar forced its way through the gasket. I smelled fresh air. The tip disappeared and the pounding started again. The point came through about an inch from the first spot. It worked its way around my faceplate like a mechanical can opener.
My benefactors or captors pried the faceplate away. It wasn’t the pirates. All members of the Scourge of God are humans and that says a lot about our species. These were the natives, furry marsupials built like brown bears and as pleasant as a baby Labrador retriever except they go Tasmanian devil when they’re hungry or protecting their children. I guess they didn’t know my standing operating orders were to avoid them at all costs.
I had plenty of time to remember what I learned about Eden Bears, beside the part about leaving them alone. They had their own language, but hadn’t developed writing. Their opposable thumbs made them weapon users and they were hunters rather than hunter-gatherers.
My suit weighted eight hundred pounds and without power, I couldn’t do anything except wiggle my fingers. This wasn’t covered in basic training. I tried to look cute and adorable in an unappetizing sort of way. I was trying for a help me, but don’t eat me look.
The bears were slow, but methodical, and eventually found the manual helmet release. After they used the first release and knew what the toggles looked like and how to operate them, they quickly had me out of the suit. Two of the bears held me by the arms while the rest of them argued about the suit. Eventually, they rolled the suit onto a wooden skid and used a rope pulley to pull it onto a wooden-wheeled cart. The cart complained bitterly, but it held together. My new best friends and I pushed the cart. It was hard work and I remembered what my drill instructor said, “A drop suit without power is a boat anchor.”
If it wasn’t for the talking bears, I could have been on Earth. Fleecy white clouds roamed the blue skies. The trees seemed familiar and the ground, well, dirt is dirt. Gnats, flies, and mosquitoes, or at least their New Eden equivalents, were just as annoying as they were in a Mississippi hayfield.
Fires were in front of the stick and animal hide shelters scattered throughout the bears’ village. Teepees and wickiups, if I remembered my history correctly.
We rolled the heavy cart to a stop and my new friends marched me to the largest teepee. A female bear seated on an animal skin seemed to be in charge; at least the rest of the bears deferred to her. There was another bear whose fur was almost white. His nose was scarred and his ears were tattered.
I smiled and said, ‘It would be nice if we could talk.”
The old bear said, “We can. Call me Scar. Are you Scourge?”
“No, we came to destroy the Scourge. They raid our ships and homes. They kill or make slaves of my people. How is it you speak my language?”
“The Scourge make slaves of us. I was taken in childhood. I learned your language before I learned my own. We have no love for the Scourge. You look like Scourge.”
The old bear rumbled to my side and sniffed me. “Smell kinda like Scourge, but a little worse.”
“I’m not Scourge. I can help you fight them. Stop them from taking your people.”
The regal female answered, “Unless they capture us as babes in arms, we don’t make good slaves. When they capture adults, they put them in the flying houses. The houses go into the sky and my people never come back. Our elders lived in villages, not tents, and I grew up in a stone house with mica windows. We hate Scourge. How can you help us, man-who-smells-worse-than-Scourge?”
“My suit is powerful, but damaged. It is a great weapon once repaired and recharged. Let me fix it. It can communicate with more of my kind. They’ll bring weapons, food, medicine, and other supplies. We can fight together.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“We have a saying on my planet; the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The bear queen stared at me and said, “We have lots of sayings, but words don’t kill Scourge or put meat in the stewpot. When it looks like a frog, croaks like a frog, and swims like a frog, it’s a frog. Even if it waves its arms and says it can fly, it’s not an eagle, it’s a frog.”
The old bear said, “Queen Ursaline, it does us no harm to let this man prove he’s an eagle. Let him try to fix his metal clothing. If it works and he brings help, so much the better. If not, there’s time enough to eat him later.”
Queen Ursaline grunted her approval and the old bear led me to a large wickiup at the edge of the clearing. My suit was inside along with the remains of three other battle suits, several broken and rusted weapons, and the remains of several Scourge vehicles. Scar said, “The Queen says to help you. I’ll translate and teach you to speak our language.”
He pointed to the pile of equipment and said, “There are tools scattered in the junk.”
I searched for a moment and opened a small plastic case. There were three screwdrivers, pliers, and an adjustable wrench. There wasn’t a hammer, but in a pinch, almost anything is a hammer. “Okay, Scar, leave my suit on the cart and I’ll see if I can figure out what’s wrong. This could take a while, but I’m better at maintenance and repair than I am at fighting.”
“I hope so. The queen is not patient and the stewpot needs meat every night.”
‘Lovely.” I opened the emergency supply pod on the back of my suit. It contained wire, modules, a spare motherboard, and a universal testing meter. There was an electronic manual, but since my suit didn’t have power, the manual was useless.”
I salvaged a charging harness from one of the ancient suits and replaced the one in my suit. I checked every fitting and connection and seven days later, the charging light went on when the morning sun came over the trees. I’d only needed one day longer than God. The Queen checked my progress every day and pointedly indicated the stewpot. I explained the charging light and she said, “One feather doesn’t make an eagle fly.”
I let the suit charge for half a day. I verified there was power to a functional motherboard and traced the circuitry to the status reporting functions. After that it wasn’t hard, the suit told me what it needed and I replaced or repaired it one step at a time. Some of the modules weren’t interchangeable, but I cobbled together adapters.
It was lonely. The bears were nice, even though the Queen kept threatening to serve me as stew, but I missed other people. I really missed Sergeant Louise Judy. I saw her face before I drifted off to sleep. I re-imagined our relationship. Some nights I remembered her as my soul mate, even though we’d never kissed, and some nights I remembered her as a military non-commissioned officer who barely tolerated a freshly minted lieutenant.
Three weeks after I crashed, I put the suit on. It worked pretty well, but the left arm was slow and had a limited range of motion. I walked into the clearing, activated the jump protocol, and leapt over Ursaline’s teepee. Flight mode was functional within the power limits. There were no parachutes. I considered activating the beacon, but I was afraid the Scourge would detect it and find the village.
I worked faster in the suit and I jury-rigged four interstellar range beacons from the other suits and installed solar power chargers. I flew to the Queen’s teepee and presented myself.
“You have done well, Not-a-Scourge. Do your people come to help us?”
“I haven’t called them. The Scourge can hear the message just as you can hear the mating cries of the birds.” I pointed to my four makeshift beacons and said, “We need to plant these in the forest away from the village. My people will hear and so will the Scourge, but remotely placed beacons won’t lead the Scourge to your village. When my people arrive they will contact me and I’ll guide them to us.”
“Excellent, Not-a-Scourge. Tell us where to hide the far talkers and how to turn them on.”
I gave three of the beacons to the bears and used the fourth to demonstrate how to activate them. I’d learned to speak pretty good bear. I showed them the uncomplicated final connection. “Twist these two wires together and leave it in the sunlight. Get away as fast as you can. The broadcast will draw the Scourge.”
I bent, smoothed the ground, and put a rock in the cleared area. “This rock is where we are.”
“Queen Ursaline said, “Of course, the rock is where we are. Where else would it be?”
“No, the rock represents where we are.” I sketched two lines in the dirt. “This line is the path to where your men found me and the other line is the creek.”
The Queen stood and pointed. “Ridiculous, the path is right there. I can see it. The creek is behind my teepee. I hear the water gurgle. Is this magic?”
I tried to explain the concept of maps, but eventually gave up. Maps had no meaning to the bears of Eden. Their idea of directions was something like, “Follow the trail that starts at the berry bush until you come to the second bee tree. Turn toward the hill where we killed two elks last winter. Stop when you find the honeysuckles. We’ll meet you there.”
The Queen and I were deciding where to place the beacons when the first Scourge flyer buzzed the village. Three more were right behind it. The first flyer banked and strafed the compound. The bears scrambled for cover. I grabbed one of the beacons and ran into the woods. I stopped to connect the wires, but it was already activated. A bear had connected the wires when I demonstrated how to turn it on. I placed it in the sun and worked my way toward the wickiup and my battle suit. Evidently I wasn’t as fluent in Bear as I’d thought.
The Scourge missed everyone on their first pass over the camp. The four flyers skimmed the camp in formation and released gray smoke like crop dusters. The fog was heavier than air and it engulfed the village. The bears collapsed at their first breaths. The smoke drifted into the trees. I held my breath and ran. I needed my suit. I jumped over fallen bears and dashed around cook fires. I ducked through the low opening in the wooden structure, slid my legs into the suit, flexed my fingers inside the gauntlets, and activated the closure protocol.
I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, but my helmet was still open. The used faceplate I’d installed was the slowest part of the suit to seal. I reached to force it into place. It wouldn’t move. The suit spoke into my earpiece. “Internal air contaminated. Purging. Thirty seconds to environmental integrity. I gasped and took a breath with twenty seconds left.
I woke up chained to a block wall in a dark room. The technology involved was five thousand years removed from a Marauder battlesuit, but the chains were strong. The facilities weren’t much better. Two buckets, one for water and the other for waste. At least the buckets weren’t the same.
The conditions were reminiscent of a thousand stories I read as a child. In the stories there were very few options about what happens next. My evil captor might come in and gloat about his nefarious plans or disclose hidden weaknesses that would allow me to escape. A fair maiden could bring food, fall hopelessly in love with me, and help me escape. My captors could force me to fight in gladiatorial style combat. I would emerge victorious and lead the other slaves and prisoners in a revolt. Any of these three outcomes were acceptable, but I remembered that I’m not a fighter and I was never the kind of man who inspired beautiful women to acts of heroism.
A guard entered. He brought food, fresh water, and a clean waste bucket. “Don’t give me any trouble or I won’t pay attention to which bucket I put your water in.”
“Where am I?”
“Don’t be stupid. You’re in Harem. More specifically, you’re in a prison cell. Be happy. We usually kill people who look like trouble. Slaves we keep, soldiers we kill and you were in a battlesuit. What’s your first name? Is it Sergeant or Lieutenant?”
“Why am I still alive?”
“Not for me to say. Your battlesuit was cobbled together from five suits and some vehicle parts. Could be the Golden Sword thinks you’ll make a decent repairman.”
“What’s a Golden Sword?”
“Asking questions qualifies as bad behavior. You don’t want your food filtered through a bear’s butt do you? The Golden Sword is the supreme commander. When he wants you, he’ll call you. I’d eat my food right quickly. The rats and roaches will be after it soon enough.”
Three days later, two guards escorted me a modern restroom where I shaved and showered. I was given clean clothes and taken to the Golden Sword. I expected a throne room with tapestries, chandeliers, and religious icons scattered about. What I got was an office with a medium size desk and three ancient computer monitors on top. The Golden Sword was at least sixty. He wasn’t particularly imposing and his right eye was a vision module hardwired into his brain. He rolled around the desk. His legs were gone from the knees down and the prosthetics had wheels like inline skates. His left arm was a metal construct of gears, wires, cables, and metal.
The Golden Sword pointed to a chair. “Unchain him and leave.”
He opened a refrigerator and took out two beers. He opened them with his metal hand and gave me one. “Name’s Bruce. I trust you’ve enjoyed your stay so far.”
“Not a bit. By the authority vested in me as an officer of the Interstellar Fleet, you are under arrest for piracy, slavery, murder of sentient beings, unauthorized use of military equipment, theft, resisting arrest, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and …”
“Give it a rest. I’ll give you a full list later if you want it.”
“The Scourge of God is an abomination.”
“The Scourge of God is a business. If this was a videotale, this would be the part where I tell you about us and I will tell you enough to make you useful. This is my business. People fight better when they think God is on their side and that’s how I set this up. People love it when God tells them to do the things they want to do anyway. That hasn’t changed since the first Crusade. God wants us to kill and enslave the infidels. That’s you, by the way.”
“I tell them the Good Lord is happiest when we liberate wealth from non-believers. He wants my soldiers to have slaves. Be fruitful and multiply–the men really like that one.”
“I invest the profits on a hundred planets. Five more years and I’m out of here. I’ve got my eye on a little Goldilocks zone moon in the Antares system. I’ve always liked red suns.”
“So what do you want from me?”
“The easiest thing,” he said and brought two more beers. “The easiest thing is for me to exercise the Joan of Arc option. You’re a Fleet officer. My men would enjoy that, but I’ve got a graveyard of battlesuits, weapons, vehicles, flyers, and a half dozen inoperative space ships in orbit. I want you to fix them the way you patched together your suit.”
“And if I don’t?
“Entirely your choice. I’ve got twenty or so of your shipmates imprisoned. It would be a shame if they came to any harm. No one eats free. Work or die. If you’re more trouble than you’re worth, there’s always the fiery furnace. Are you as tough as Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego? If you work well, I won’t kill the other soldiers or any more bear people. My recruits come from a hundred planets. Some sought us out, some we captured in raids, and some were born here. Turnover is high and within a year, the men will consider you one of us. If you behave, you’ll have the same privileges as everyone else.”
I took a sip before I answered. The Fleet knew where the Scourge stronghold was located. They’d be back. The bear activated one beacon and the Fleet knew someone survived the last SNAFU of a raid. If I worked on the equipment, I’d have access and who knows what I could build if I had time. Besides, one of the most important lessons a soldier learns is a pretty simple. Stay alive. Dead men can’t fight. A stupid gesture of noble defiance sounds great in a videotale, but dead is dead. “I’ll need tools and help to do heavy lifting.”
“Excellent. Start by looking at my mechanical arm. My thumb clicks when I tighten it.”
He gave me small tool kit. I traced the linkage on his arm. “The bushing on the thumb linkage that keeps it from binding when you bend your elbow is worn. There’s a groove binding the cable. I can replace it. If you don’t mind my asking, why are you using a clockwork arm and strap-on prosthetic skates? The fake eye makes you look like a cross between a patchwork android and a robot. You’ve captured ships with functional regeneration tanks. Why don’t you grow replacement parts?”
The Sword laughed. His eye glowed bright red and a laser beam exploded one of the beer bottles. He pulled his blaster and crushed it with his prosthetic fist. “Scares the hell out of the men. Besides, I can roll a two minute mile. Change the bushing. I’ve got work to do. The investment market opens on Polaris Prime in forty-five minutes. A local pharmaceutical company is going to announce a breakthrough this afternoon. I’m going to buy the hell out of it when the market opens.”
The broken equipment storage building was an interstellar junk yard filled with broken suits, grounded flyers, wrecked landing craft, damaged weapons, and other unidentifiable debris from a hundred planets. There were three piles of blasters and lasers in various stages of disassembly. I turned to my escort and asked, “Where do I start.”
“Anywhere you want. All the hard copy manuals are boxed on the north wall next to the tools.”
“Can I take manuals and equipment to my quarters to work in the evenings?”
“These are your quarters. We’ll bring food and check your progress every day.”
Three more guards led a dozen bears through the door. The bears included Queen Ursaline and Scar. The lead guard said, “Brought you some help. You play nice together.”
The Scourge left and I explained the situation to Scar. “I have a plan. I’ll repair enough of this stuff to keep the Scourge happy, but if we work together we can repair weapons for ourselves. One of the beacons led the Scourge to us and the signal probably reached the fleet. They’ll be back and I want to be ready. If we coordinate with their assault and disrupt ground defenses, my people will overwhelm the Scourge.”
Ursaline asked, “What happens then?”
“We’ll help you reestablish your civilization.”
The Queen barred her teeth and growled. “We’ll help you. The only help we need from you after the fight is to go away. We were fine before the Scourge came and we’ll be fine after you leave. Show us what to do.”
“We’ll start with handheld weapons. Should be a matter of moving parts from one to another. We’ll repair one for them and one for us.”
The lasers were fairly easy. It took sixty broken ones to cobble together twenty-eight working units. We hid fifteen in the pile of broken weapons. I added a modified storage capacitor to the units we gave the Scourge. Every time the weapon fired, the capacitor would store some residual energy until it overloaded and burned out the system. I adjusted it so the units would fire six times before they exploded. The second morning, I started on the battlesuits.
We repaired three of them the first day. I gave one to the Scourge and hid the other two. I modified suits to fit the bears. They walked stiff-legged and the elbows didn’t bend right, but they worked okay.
The Queen insisted on wearing the first one. She was a fast learner and adjusted the pneumatic fitting protocols until the suit fit her like a glove. She said, “I like this suit, but I need an axe. The Queen fights with a big axe. It should be taller than me and sharp on both ends. Make me an axe.”
I salvaged enough titanium and electro-forged a battle axe for the Queen. It was six feet long and the blade was a foot of razor sharp metal backed with a long spike. The base of the haft ended in a spear point. It was a terrifying weapon, if I say so myself.
“Bret Person, make an axe for yourself and let’s kill the scourges.”
“With all due respect, we don’t know how many there are. We shouldn’t attack without that information.”
“Then, find out.”
She had a point. I was ashamed of myself. Even a glorified repairman knows enough to get the best data he can. I went old school and cobbled together a thermal signature sensor. I tested it several times. I refined the sensitivity until I could tell the difference between bears and humans.
It was hard to get an accurate number because the Scourge were always moving around the compound, but I counted between seventy and eighty-five humans. Some of them were probably slaves, but who knew how many. The Sword ran the Scourge like a business. Slaves were a commodity. The slaves he kept were an expense and the slaves he sold were income. My best guess was ten, maybe fifteen slaves, but for the purposes of battle, it was important to assume every thermal signature was a space pirate armed with a laser weapon. I didn’t find my fellow soldiers. They were probably somewhere underground or the Sword had already sold them off planet.
There were humans and bears toiling as slaves in the fields outside the living compound. Other Scourge soldiers guarded the space ships and watched the slaves. I drew a rough map of the compound, landing area, and the fields. Eventually, Ursaline realized how a map worked. “It’s like a cub’s toy, is it not?”
Now that she understood map symbolism, I tried to explain linear battle to her. “There are many Scourge warriors and only thirteen of us.” I put thirteen bolts on the floor and surrounded them by a hundred metal screws. “Thirteen of the bravest bears can’t beat eighty men in battle, not even when they’re led by the Great Queen Ursaline.”
The Queen looked at the hardware soldiers on the concrete floor and rearranged them so the metal screws were in a long thin line. She bunched the bear bolts at one end of the line. She moved the bolts around the first Scourge screw and then flicked the screw to the side. She did the same with the second and the third. “If we do this the right way, we won’t fight them all at the same time. If we always outnumber them, we always win.”
“Wow, Sun Tzu and his Art of War had nothing on this woman. I asked, “How do you propose to do that?”
“It’s a big compound. They can’t all be everywhere all the time. We only have to be in one place at a time. When will the rest of the suits be ready?”
“Slow down. I’m doing the best I can. I’ve already got the Sword yelling at me. I don’t need you riding herd.”
“What means riding herd?”
“It means I’m working as fast as I can and it doesn’t help for you to tell me to work faster.”
“Maybe not, but work faster anyway. I want to leave this place and go back to the forest.”
It took a week, but I finished the modified battlesuits for the bears and one for me. I repaired at least twenty suits for the Scourge, but encrypted a kill switch into their software. I could broadcast the death command and the suits would turn into coffins and take that many pirates out of action immediately.
The Scourge took every repaired item when they brought our meals. At least, they thought they did. The junk area was gigantic and the bears were great at hiding the equipment we kept for ourselves. During meal time, the Queen asked, “How we know when your people come from space? Another question, how your people know to not kill my people. Everyone looks the same in a battle suit.”
I knew why she was the Queen. She’d identified the major weaknesses in my plan. The biggest one was the Scourge could discover we were hiding weapons like squirrels preparing for winter. If that happened, we’d be either dead or field slaves before help arrived. The bears had that under control, for now anyway. The other problem was mine to solve. Shame on me for not figuring it out earlier, but I’m not a fighter or a tactician, I’m the repair man.
How to not get shot by the Fleet. I could activate the ID beacons on our battlesuits, but the Scourge would see and hear the broadcasts. I might as well call the Sword and tell him where we were. I made sure the beacons worked and installed a remote activation protocol so I could activate them at the same time. I would activate the beacons at the last second. It was all I could think of.
Scar hid the last suit we needed to outfit my bear army and said, “Queen Ursaline has some things to show you. We think you’ll be pleased.”
The bears had prepared three hidden exits from the storage building by converting wall panels into doors and piling broken equipment in front of the openings. She slid an entire pile of equipment to the side. “This junk is welded together and mounted on wheels.”
“Is clever girl a good thing?”
‘Yes, very good.”
She motioned and one of the bears wearing a battle suit shoved the pile of junk in front of the makeshift door. Her battle suit was bright orange.
“Bret Person, we painted our suits orange. Yours, too. That way we can tell ourselves from the Scourge.”
“Great idea. Why orange?”
“Only paint we could find. Let me show you the other two doors.”
The night exploded before we reached the second door. The Scourge laser batteries fired shot after shot into the sky. The night was filled with fireworks. Hundreds of dropping soldiers deployed countermeasures to protect themselves from ground fire. The glowing chaff and tracer bullets made the night as bright as day.
I turned to the Queen and said, “Suit up, Your Majesty. Fleet’s in.”
I put on my suit and opened communications. “Lieutenant Bret Coleman. I have a trained squad of natives in orange battlesuits. Don’t kill us.”
“Acknowledged. Are you the only survivor?”
“I don’t think so, but I haven’t seen anyone else.”
“You and your locals stay out of our way and you won’t get hurt. You’re welcome to monitor our broadcasts, but stay the devil off this channel.”
My fighting bears were suited up. I said, “Queen, we need to stay here. My people have this. We should wait here while they attack the Scourge.”
The Queen snorted, “Remember who saved who. We will help ourselves, thank you.”
She keyed her command communication button and said, “Stay in groups of three. Kill anyone who isn’t wearing orange. Bret Person, deactivate the suits we repaired for the Scourge.”
“Done, but the Scourge have other suits.”
“I know that. Do you fight with us or do you stay here?”
I checked the status on my suit. Everything was fully charged. I was probably going to be court-martialed for losing my squadron and imprisoned for providing advanced technology to the Eden bears. I might as well add ignoring a direct order to the list.
During basic training, my drill sergeant said, “Surrender doesn’t help anyone. When you’re outnumbered and outgunned, strap on some guts and step up. A man might as well go to hell smoking a good cigar.”
She was right and they could only court-martial me once. I stepped outside and said, “Queen, let’s clean this place out. If we find the Golden Sword, he’s mine.”
Stun bombs of light, smoke and fury hit the ground every few seconds. Anyone not in a battle suit was out of commission. The stun bombs are designed to create confusion, disorientation, and fear. This was the first time I’d been on the wrong end of the barrage and it was terrifying. Even inside a battle suit, I was disoriented and afraid.
The Queen blasted the front door of the main building. I followed her inside. I swept the building top to bottom. Twenty heat signatures were huddled below ground. They moved around a little, but the movements were confined to a small area. Prison. I contacted the Queen. “I think I found my soldiers. I’m going underground.”
The Queen growled, “Go. We kill everyone upstairs and then I send help. Let me know when your fleet people arrive. I don’t want to kill them by mistake.”
It’s hard to sneak up on people when everyone in a suit has the technology to see through walls, floors, and ceilings. I trusted my suit to protect me and kept moving. My auto scan function flashed. Two unsuited guards were at the top of the stairs. The walls had shielded them from the stun bombs and they were alert and ready.
It didn’t matter how ready they were because I was in a suit and they weren’t. I aimed, fired through the wall, and stepped through the opening and over their bodies. I scanned the stairway. Two armed guards were at the bottom. What to do? If my soldiers were in the basement, a firefight might kill them. I certainly could toss concussion grenades down the stairs, but that might injure or kill the prisoners. No doubt the best thing to do was to wait here for the fleet reinforcements to arrive.
The laser beams from below didn’t penetrate my shields, but it got my attention. Before I could react, Queen Ursaline and two of her bears flew down the hall. She laughed, “Kill them all. Kill them all.”
“Wait, they have prisoners down there. Be careful.”
“Careful gets everyone killed. Help us, Bret Person.”
She yelled at her two companions. “Axes up.” The three bears flew down the stairs. The basement was filled with gunfire, laser blasts, shouts, and screams, and then it was quiet .Smoke and dust silently eerily up the stairs.
Ursaline shouted, “Bret Person, do you want to open this cage or would you like me to chop the door down?”
“I’m coming. I’m coming.”
Blood glistened on her axe and body parts decorated the walls. I burned open the door to the prison cells. The survivors of our ill-fated raid were crowded in the small room. They huddled against the walls. I activated my speaker, “It’s me, Lieutenant Coleman, Bret Coleman. The Fleet’s here. I’ve got a team of Eden bears suited up. They’re on our side. Let’s move out before the pirates find us.”
One of the prisoners said, “Corporal Hulbert, Sir. Sergeant Louise Judy can’t walk.”
“Carry her. I’ll be at the top of the stairs. Let’s move, Corporal.”
The Queen and I positioned ourselves on opposite sides of the stairs. Our sensors gave us a 360 degree bubble view in all directions, but standing back to back made it less likely we’d shoot each other. I was more concerned with my safety than hers. Ursaline was a little trigger happy and she did have that axe.
The first prisoners were on the stairs when the Golden Sword drove into the hallway. He wore a custom battle suit. Instead of legs, it had heavily armored and shielded treads. His prosthetic arm was a laser cannon.
I reached for a magnetic grenade and threw it at him. It whistled for about ten seconds and fizzled out. “Queen, a little help here.”
“Bret Person, I’m busy over here.”
My readouts showed four thermal signatures surrounding Queen Ursaline.”
She screamed and charged, axe in hand. Her two companions flew up the stairs and followed her. That left me to fight the Golden Sword. He targeted me and said, “Is that you, Lieutenant? You couldn’t just leave things alone. Now, I’ll have to kill you and hold everyone else hostage.”
He fired and I fired. The two laser beams ricocheted like spotlights in house of mirrors. My power levels dropped a little more every time my screens deflected a blast. I was down to sixty percent in my makeshift suit and he was in a custom model. I figured I’d lose a war of attrition. I needed to win fast or I wasn’t going to win at all.”
An array of laser blasts from the top of the stairs lit up the Golden Sword. Sergeant Judy and Corporal Hulbert crouched at the top of the stairs. They focused the guards’ laser rifles on the Golden Sword’s right tread.
He turned and I increased my rate of fire. The Sergeant and Corporal were unsuited and he would kill them in seconds. I charged and smashed into him. He didn’t move. Double treads make great anchors. I grappled with his laser cannon arm, but it was too strong. He pointed it at the top of the stairs and said, “Say goodbye to your little friends.”
Two things happened at the same time. The lasers from the stairway penetrated his shields, exploded his right tread, and red hot shrapnel peppered the room. The Golden Sword’s force field flickered and a rainbow of color paraded around his suit as it died. Queen Ursaline flew at us with her titanium axe raised above her head like an avenging Valkyrie in an old science fiction painting and chopped off the Sword’s laser canon arm at the elbow.
The Sword tried to retreat, but only one tread worked and he spun in circles. He shoved Ursaline away with the stump of his prosthetic arm. He clamped our suits together, held a laser pistol in his fist, and fired at me constantly. My power levels dropped faster than a novice loses lives in a video game. We spun so fast the Sergeant and Corporal stopped firing for fear of hitting me.
He growled, “Hope you’re happy, hero. As soon as I drain your shields, I’m blowing my grenades. I’ll take you, your friends, and the three bears with me.”
Spinning like a skater on steroids was disorientating and time was running out. I tried to reach his pistol hand, but my hands were behind him. I pushed the manual release button in my right palm and released my right arm. The suit arm opened from wrist to shoulder and I reached with my bare arm and disengaged my charging cable. I reversed polarity so the cable would discharge instead of taking a charge.
I shoved the cable barehanded into his receptor port and short-circuited my remaining power into his suit. There was a flash of sparks and the lights went out.
Sergeant Judy was performing CPR on me. The first two things I noticed were that she looked amazing for a woman who’s been imprisoned for months and that my hand screamed for attention. I lifted my arm and saw the cauterized stump.
She said, “Relax, hero. The fleet has the compound. Your bear squad was great. No casualties.”
I asked, “Is the Sword dead?”
A medic shoved her aside and said, “He’s dead, now shut up, Lieutenant. Let me do my job.” He checked my vitals and injected me full of painkillers.
“Sleep now. You can ask all the questions you want when we take you out of the regeneration tank.”
Bright lights hurt my eyes when I woke up. I immediately looked at my hand. The skin was as bright and pink as a baby’s butt. A man said, “I’m Doctor Daniels. You’re in sick bay, but you’re fine.”
He turned to a nurse. “Get him fed and cleaned up. Admiral Seaborn wants to see him in two hours.”
Admiral Seaborn said, “You should be dead. Have you ever obeyed a direct order in your life? You did some brave and stupid things and probably saved a couple dozen of your comrades. Of course, they were prisoners because of your incompetence. Then there’s the issue of aiding and abetting the Scourge of God.”
“With all due respect, Sir, I can explain.”
“Save it for your court-martial.”
“Where I will find you guilty on all charges. Desertion while in command of a squadron, aiding the enemy, and willful disobedience of direct orders. I may add destruction of government property and endangering the lives of an indigenous species to the charges. There’s also the matter of providing the New Eden bears with advanced technology.”
“But Sir, I did the best I could.”
“I know. That’s what scares me. You can avoid the court-martial by resigning your military commission and accepting a civil service position. I suggest you do so immediately.”
“What kind of position?”
“You’re hardly in a position to bargain, but I’ll let someone else explain.”
Two enlisted men escorted Queen Ursaline into the room. She said, “Hello, Bret Person. I join your federation thing. We’re a protected emerging species. I think I said that right. I only agree if you be our bass door.”
The admiral said, “That’s ambassador.”
The Queen growled under her breath. “I said bass door. You stay with us. Sergeant Judy Person stay too.”
Admiral Seaborn said, “That’s right. Judy will receive a field promotion to Captain and be assigned as chief of station. You okay with this.”
I liked the Queen and the bears. I remembered waking up with Sergeant Judy performing CPR. I closed my eyes and saw her face. I snapped to attention. “I’d be honored, Sir. Happy to accept.”
Queen Ursaline said, “Axe. We make you an axe. You need axe.”
The Admiral said, “No axe.”
I winked at the Queen and said, “Sir, no Sir. No axe.”
Robert Allen Lupton is retired and lives in New Mexico where he is a commercial hot air balloon pilot. Robert runs and writes every day, but not necessarily in that order. More than seventy of his short stories have been published in several anthologies including Chicken Soup For the Soul – Running, and online at www.horrortree.com, www.crimsonstreets.com, www.aurorawolf.com, www.stupefyingstories.blogspot.com, www.fairytalemagazine.com, and www.allegoryezine.com. About 200 drabbles based on the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and several articles are available online at www.erbzine.com. His novel, Foxborn, was published in April 2017 and the sequel, Dragonborn, in June 2018. His collection of running themed horror, science fiction, and adventure stories, Running Into Trouble, was published in October 2017. His annotated edition of John Monro’s 1897 novel, A Trip To Venus, was released in September 2018.
Visit https://www.amazon.com/author/luptonra his Amazon author’s page for current information about his stories and books.