“Love in the Time of Interstellar War” by Brendan DuBois
I was late getting into the NCO staff meeting at the Mitchel Joint Navy-Army station that morning and when I started getting ragged on by the other three NCOs, I took my cane and rapped it against my right leg—the metal and wooden one—and I said, “Give it a rest, guys, okay? One of the K-9 units dragged my leg out last night for a chew toy.”
That got some laughs but my Ell Tee—Antonia Juarez, a regular Army officer who was sent down to this unit once her spine got broke during a Creeper attack—moved her wheelchair a bit next to her desk and said, “Very good, Hart. Have a seat. And then come up with a better excuse. That’s the third time you’ve used it in the past six months.”
I sat down with a thin folder in my hand, joining the other NCOs who were part of the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the New York National Guard unit tasked to keeping peace and order on Long Island.
I was the unit’s intelligence officer, which should have been assigned to a lieutenant or captain, but since the Creepers invaded a decade ago, the thinned out armed forces of the United States had to adjust to doing a lot more with a lot less.
Including me, a one-legged first sergeant whose stomach felt like it was on fire, and who had skipped breakfast again this morning.
More than a century ago the Mitchel Joint Navy-Army station had been an Air Force base, flying and training a lot during World War II. Post-war, it was eventually decommissioned, parts of it were turned over to civilian use, and then it was only re-founded ten years ago, when the Creepers invaded. Technically it should be a Navy-Army-Air Force station because of its history, but since the Creeper’s killer stealth satellites in orbit burn down anything with electronics that flies, the United States technically doesn’t have much of an Air Force anymore.
Lieutenant Juarez glanced down at her clipboard. “All right, let’s get with it. Give me your morning stats, and keep it short and to the point.”
One by one, we gave our status reports.
Armed patrols along the abandoned and tsunami-swept towns of Long Island reported the detaining of forty-three coastie refugees trying to sneak back to their homes. They were being fed, processed, and would be returned via ferry to a Red Cross camp near New Canaan.
Logistics reported that a convoy successfully arrived yesterday at 1400 hours after an uneventful trip along the old I-295.
A couple of other reports followed, and it was my turn
“Ma’am, I beg to report that no alien activity has been monitored at the enemy base dome at Cunningham Park during the last twenty-four hours. During that time period, mobile artillery from the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery, fired a total of six 155-mm shells at the dome.”
“No response?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” I said.
“Very well,” she said, and after going through the day’s schedule and other housekeeping details, she said, “Dismissed . . . save for you, Sergeant Hart.”
There were sounds of chairs scraping and a low “uh oh” as the other NCOs walked out, and I shifted in my seat, adjusted my wooden leg, and when the door to the lieutenant’s office—a former classroom—was shut, I said, “Ma’am, I apologize again for being late.”
She reached over and took a red-bordered file folder from her desk. “Shut up, Hart. Apology not accepted.”
I kept my mouth shut, and Lieutenant Juarez said, “We’ve got visitors coming here tomorrow. You’re tasked to escort them, accompany them, give them what they need, and ensure they have a successful visit. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am. May I ask why?”
“Because you’re what passes for intelligence in this unit, that’s why,” she said. “You’re to escort them to the base dome and do whatever it is that they require.”
“Are they VIPs? Visitors?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” she said. “They’re from Russia, and they’ll be arriving by watercraft at about oh nine-hundred, at the harbor at Hempstead. Provide meals, shelter, transport.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Are they military?”
She glanced over at me like I was an errant first-grade student who had just wet himself. “No, they’re an advance unit for what’s left of the Bolshoi Ballet . . . Christ, of course they’re military.” Lieutenant Juarez went back to her paperwork. “They are Russian Navy personnel . . . Petrov and Kosanskey. Special detail from Kallingrad. They’ve been on the water now for nearly a month.”
“I see, ma’am,” I said. “And how long do you expect them to be here?”
“Long enough to do their job.”
She waited and I waited, and then I bit.
“Lieutenant, what’s their job?”
She closed the folder, put it back on her desk.
“To destroy the alien base dome at Cunningham Park.”
Well, that got my attention, because I’ve only heard second- or third-hand about successful attempts to destroy the base domes. Scores of them were scattered around the United States countryside, and many others were stationed around the world. They were the base of operations for three types of Creepers—Battle, Transport, Research—that skittered out in their armored exoskeletons to explore, kill, or whatever else aliens do as part of their occupation.
But they were nearly invulnerable to any form of attack, from lasers to explosive shells to napalm. My mention earlier about six 155 mm shells striking the dome in Cunningham Park—about 29 klicks to the west of us—was just the Army’s way of telling the Creepers inside that they were still being observed.
Not that it seemed to bother them that much. We had one reliable weapon to use against the Creepers, a binary nerve agent fired from an infantry weapon, a Colt M-10, but more often than not, when it came down to a fight, sometimes the Creepers got killed and most times, the attacking soldier or Marine was either scorched to a cinder or sliced into pieces by a laser beam.
But to destroy a Creeper base dome took one thing and one thing only: a nuclear bomb.
Seemed simple enough, didn’t it. There were tens of thousands of nuclear bombs among the world’s arsenals when the invasion took place, so why hadn’t each dome been destroyed upon its establishment?
Delivery devices, that’s why.
With the killer stealth satellites in orbit, anything flying—from a missile to an aircraft to even an unmanned drone—would be blasted out of the sky before it posed a threat. Which left delivery by truck, tank, or even a horse drawn carriage. But even then, the Creepers could detect the electronics contained within the weapons, and they would still be destroyed by a particle beam or a “rod from God” before it got close enough to do any damage.
But just over a year ago, word filtered down from the government in Albany that our allies, the Russians—everybody was an ally nowadays—had come up with a way of destroying a dome by a nuclear device.
It involved breaking the bomb into several components, being able to shield the electronics from detection, and then slowly, gradually, transport those pieces up to a Dome, usually by two or three soldiers armed with nothing more than a knapsack. There, the soldiers would quickly reassemble the device, and then set it off.
Not by timer.
Not by a remote switch.
Not by anything electronic.
But mechanically, using Mark II eyeballs and hands.
If the mission was successful, it meant a destroyed Dome and lots of dead Creepers.
But it also meant two or three dead humans as well.
But the Russians being the Russians, some were prepared to pay the ultimate price.
And now they were coming here to Long Island.
“Ma’am?” I realized she had just spoken and I hadn’t heard what she had said.
“Did you hear what I just said?”
I decided to throw myself on the mercy of my superior officer and confess the truth.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I didn’t.”
“Late for the briefing, not hearing a word that I uttered,” she said, shaking her head. “A hell of a way to start the day.”
“You’re one sloppy NCO, aren’t you.” It wasn’t really a question.
“The sloppiest, ma’am.”
“But you also happen to be one of my smartest, which helps. Sometimes. Don’t push it.”
She referred to another piece of paper. “What did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“Ah . . . I was running late, ma’am. Didn’t have breakfast.”
“Major Glenn reports that you’ve vomited blood twice in the last week.”
I didn’t reply to my boss.
What could I say?
She said, “How are you holding up?”
“You’re probably lying to me, Sergeant Hart.”
“It’s a possibility, ma’am.”
She stared at me with her brown eyes and I saw something there that was not usual.
“When the time comes,” she said, “we’ll change your duty status.”
“If you say so, ma’am.”
“I do so.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
The lieutenant picked up another sheet of paper, a thin light yellow message flimsy, and she said, “You were stationed at Fort Saint Paul in New Hampshire three years ago, correct?”
“And served in a Ranger Recon platoon with a Randy Knox?”
A slight smile at the memory of being at that platoon and Knox’s silly but very capable Belgian Malinois named Thor.
“That’s right,” I said. “Sergeant Knox.”
“It’s now Lieutenant Knox,” she said.
“Great,” I said, feeling just the tiniest bit jealous of him earning his lieutenant’s bars before me.
“Not so great,” she said, putting the message flimsy down. “Got last quarter’s casualty reports this morning. He’s listed MIA after an ambush in Connecticut.”
“Connecticut?” I asked, hoping for a mistake. “Last I knew, he was still stationed in New Hampshire. What was he doing in Connecticut?”
“Getting ambushed,” she says. “He was part of a convoy, heading east to Massachusetts when they were attacked by a band of Creepers. Most of the convoy was destroyed. Knox was listed MIA. Sorry.”
I took a breath. Losing friends and family members was nothing new in this ever-constant war, but one tried not to get used to it. And I wasn’t going to fool myself by hoping he was, indeed, missing. Not in this time, not in this war. In a very few instances, being listed as MIA was a way of a soldier deserting into the wild and not being listed as being absent without leave. But most times it was a way of facing reality, that in a war when we humans faced lasers, flame weapons, rods from God and kinetic energy weapons, sometimes there were no remains or dog tags left behind.
So Knox was MIA.
Poor Randy. At some point, years from now, some overworked and undermanned graves registration unit might find a charred bone or two, tangled up in his dog tags, and that would be that.
I hoped his Thor had made it.
“Ma’am?” I replied, knowing I had been caught again, not paying attention.
“Your visitors are arriving at approximately oh nine-hundred tomorrow, at Hempstead Harbor. Be there.”
The next morning I was standing at one of the floating docks making up the Hempstead Harbor structure. Pre-war there were lots of harbors scattered along Long Island, but the invading Creepers had dropped asteroids in oceans, lakes and rivers, causing artificial tsunamis. That meant a lot of cities around the world were drowned, and places like Long Island were pretty much scoured clean, and any surviving ports were tumbled places of junk from broken docks to boat hulks.
That meant most harbors were artificial, built with floating docks, and the one I was on took care of this part of Long Island. Fishing boats of all kinds were moored on two long docks, and the third dock I was on belonged to the Navy, as small as it was.
Out on the waters there was a distant haze masking the Connecticut coastline, and among the fishing vessels out there was a steam-vessel of some sort—it looked like it had once bore masts—and at the stern of the craft a flag was slowly waving in the steady breeze. It had three stripes—white, blue and red—and in the corner was a yellow square with a double-headed eagle.
One of the Navy’s harbormasters came up to me, and she said, “Looks like our Russian friends have arrived.”
The harbormaster was cute, wearing a khaki blouse and pants, and a blue baseball cap covering her blonde hair. She seemed to be about my age, 16 or so. Per her nametag, her name was COOK.
“What’s the flag?”
She had a pair of binoculars hanging from a leather strap around her neck, and brought them up. One of the lenses was missing.
“Russian Imperial flag,” she said. “The Russians now have a czar again.”
Two launches slipped out from the dock, being rowed by six crewmen each, and in a few minutes, they were coming back, the boats riding lower in the water. There were large containers in the center of the first boat, and two passengers riding in the rear, and four other Russians in the other.
“This way,” the harbormaster said, and I followed her to the end of the dock. The first launch came around and there was a flurry of lines being tossed, oars being raised, and a couple of beefy guys managed to unload the containers—made out of scuffed black plastic—and then two individuals stepped out, wearing dark blue uniforms of a type I had never seen before, with garrison caps with badges on their heads. The near individual was a heavy-set man, with a big smiling face and close-cropped hair. He turned and spoke to the person behind him, who turned out to be a young Russian woman, and she smiled at me, and I fell in love at that very moment.
She quickly walked up to me and extended her hand, which I quickly shook. She was about my height, wearing the same uniform as her male comrade, but she looked nothing like her fellow officer. She was slim, pretty, with bobbed blonde hair, wide smile, blue eyes, and clear skin.
“Good day,” she said, speaking fine English with a Russian accent.
“Hi,” I said, knowing, at that moment, I sounded like a moron.
She let me hand go, gestured to her companion. “This is Senior Lieutenant Kosanskey, Imperial Russian Navy.”
He smiled, saluted, and I saluted back, realizing that while these two had probably traveled for weeks across the Atlantic and looked like a Russian Navy recruiting poster, I was dressed in mended and slightly dirty Army fatigues.
He said something quickly in Russian, and the woman said, “Yuri extends his deepest greetings in fraternal thanks to the American Army. I’m sorry, he doesn’t speak English.”
“That’s all right, I don’t speak Russian.”
“Ah,” she said, “my apologies. “Captain Lieutenant Ludmilla Petrov. Glad to meet your acquaintance.”
Then I realized, like a dummy, that it was my turn, and I said, “Sergeant Walter Hart, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New York National Guard. I’m your escort for your mission.
Ludmilla smiled, revealing dimples on both cheeks. “So happy to greet you, Sergeant Hart.”
Yuri stepped forward, smiling, and slapped me on my shoulders. I winced. He rattled off something in Russian, and Ludmilla said, “Yuri says . . . after many weeks . . . so glad to be in America, so glad to help you kill the . . . nasekomyye.”
“The nasekomyye,” she said. “The insects. The bugs.”
“The Creepers,” I said. “Thank you for coming here, to kill our Creepers.”
They had some more gear to get off their boat, and there were more Russian naval officers that came ashore to meet the senior officers of the Mitchel Joint Navy-Army station. A photographer from Stars & Stripes was also there, and after a while, I got them secured in their temporary quarters, and their gear was placed under guard in an adjacent small warehouse.
I was heading back to my quarters when I got word that there was a dinner being held at the Officer’s Mess to honor our Russian allies, and I got an invite, which surprised me, because I was listed as an NCO, despite my Intelligence Officer position. But a meal was a meal, and I managed to get something resembling a dress uniform together and got to the mess hall.
I was late, so it meant I sat in the back, near the swinging doors leading to the kitchen, but the meal was pretty good, pre-war canned stew that had made it through in reasonable shape, along with homemade bread, and there was a speech by both of the base’s commanders—Army and Navy—and dessert was chocolate chip cookies, and after it broke up, I was mingling around, leaning on my cane, when there was a tap on my shoulder.
I turned and it was Ludmilla, smiling at me.
I leaned into my cane, something in my chest going thump-a-lump.
“Thank you for welcoming us,” she said.
“You’re very welcome.”
“You are taking us to the Dome tomorrow, correct?”
Damn, those dimples looked so sweet.
She leaned over to me and said, “There’s a . . . what you call. Association. Get-together.”
Ludmilla quickly nodded her head. “Yes. A party. Please join us.”
I had reports to type up, laundry to do, and a review of incoming telegraph traffic from other intelligence battalions in New England, but I instantly said, “I’d love to.”
The party was in an abandoned building on the edge of the old landing strip, and was made up of a bunch of Americans and Russians from the ship, which I learned was named the HMS Alexander III. An American flag and Russian flag had been nailed on a wall, and somebody had rustled up an old stereo that played records.
Lots of loud music, some snacks, and the Russians had brought along a case of their vodka, which tasted a hell of a lot better and sharper than our Long Island stuff, made from damaged or surplus potatoes. There were lots of toasts, laughter, and I danced as best as I could with Ludmilla, using my cane, and at one point, I needed to go outside and get some fresh air.
Even on this lonely stretch of the base, there were gas lamps, illuminating the cracked roads and sidewalks, and overhead was the never-ending light show of pieces of space junk burning up as they re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. A lot of the debris came from satellites and the old ISS that had been destroyed when the Creepers had invaded, and for the past several weeks, some of the larger chunks had come from the Orbital Battle Station, destroyed in some desperate attack by what was left of the Air Force.
It was supposedly the end of the war, our ultimate victory, but like the earlier nightmare of alien invasion, a sequel had been planned.
The war wasn’t over.
Not with a second Orbital Battle Station suddenly appearing in the sky more than a month ago.
“Enjoying yourself?” a woman’s voice spoke up, making me jump.
I turned and it was Cook, the assistant harbormaster. She was dressed in patched jeans and a very faded New York Giants T-shirt, and she lit up a cigarette. She offered me a puff and I declined, thinking of the irony of it all, and I said, “Very much so.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” she said. “Can I give you a word of advice?”
“Me and about half the base can see you mooning over the Russian blonde chick. Don’t.”
“Why the hell not?”
She took a quick puff. “Really? You don’t know why? I thought you were in intelligence.”
“The best around,” I said.
“Hardly,” she said. “Ludmilla and her bulky friend? They’re the team that’s going to bring the bomb components next to the Creeper Dome and set it off. Both of them will be dead in a few days.”
The next morning I was ordered to take Ludmilla and Yuri as close as possible to the Creeper Dome, and I got a chit to sign out an electric Humvee from the motor pool, but it was in the middle of being overhauled so I had to make do with a quartermaster’s horse and carriage, with two old dark brown farm horses taking us out to the west. A young Explorer Scout with a bad complexion who was doing an internship with the motor pool was our driver.
In a few minutes we were on old Route 25, going along the remains of small businesses and single-family homes that were abandoned after the war began. Other wagons and carriages were on the road, along with horses, bicycles, some old cars that had basic engines that weren’t fried ten years ago, and a couple of Humvees trundling along on routine patrol. Ten-year-old hulks of abandoned cars and trucks were on either side of the road, where they had been dragged over in the past years.
I managed to sit across from Ludmilla, and Yuri sat next to her, smiling and looking around at the old desolation. Both were dressed in denim workpants and blue-and-white long-sleeved shirts.
I tried very hard not to recall what Cook had told me last night, not wanting to think of this pretty young girl across from me and her large friend dying in a nuclear flash.
Ludmilla said, “All the people who lived here . . . where are they?”
“Refugees or dead,” I said. “The bugs dropped an asteroid near Staten Island, and in the middle of Long Island Sound. That meant New York City was drowned and a lot of the towns on the Connecticut coastline and here were washed away. The survivors eventually left, either on their own or via the National Guard. Pre-war, the population of Long Island was about eight million. Now? Maybe eighty thousand, if that.”
Ludmilla shook her head, spoke to Yuri and pointed at the passing landscape. Yuri’s face colored, he shook his head, and then spoke quickly to Ludmilla. She turned to me and said, “Yuri says . . . he’s happy to be here . . . to help avenge all those who have died . . .”
I nod but I want to ask, but what about you? How can you come so far to die on a foreign land?
After about an hour we came to a checkpoint, and after showing my ID and orders, we were passed through. The checkpoint was an old mobile home trailer shoved across the road, with an armored-up Humvee keeping watch. The top of the Dome was now in view, and the horses started whinnying and shaking.
The Explorer scout up forward turned, reins in hands, and said, “As far as I can go, Sergeant.”
“All right,” I said, “we’ll hoof it from here.”
I got out of the carriage, wincing when my fake leg hit the cracked pavement first, shooting pain up my right stump. Yuri got off, helping Ludmilla, and each grabbed a canvas satchel, and started following me.
I took my time, walking along the path, using my cane, and here the pavement was torn up, melted in places, the homes and businesses either crushed or burned. The air seemed off, still, and I knew it was from the presence of the Dome, which also caused the absence of any wildlife. Two soldiers on patrol gave us a wave, and the near one said, “Hey, folks, don’t get scorched, okay?”
“I’ll do my best.”
But when they spotted Ludmilla, they stopped and smiled and just stood still as we went by.
Up ahead, there was a cleared area, and then a high berm made of plowed-up dirt, asphalt, and concrete, with carcasses of old trucks, cars, and vehicles. There was a stairway made of wood and metal, and I said, “This’ll give us a good view. Watch your step. This stairway is pretty beat-up and old.”
Yuri went up first, Ludmilla followed, and I took up the rear, moving as well as I could with one leg. At the top platform there was a soldier I knew, a Corporal Tanner, who was sitting on an old folding chair and with a spotter scope on a tripod set before him. At his feet was a small knapsack, and next to it, a field telephone with a phone line stretching out all the way back to the checkpoint.
He turned and said, “Hey, Sarge. What’s going on?”
“VIPs,” I said. “Russian Navy, here to check out our neighbors.”
Tanner whistled. “Sure came a long way to spot bugs. Don’t you have enough back home?”
Ludmilla said, “Yes, but we’re here . . . diplomacy mission. We’re here to destroy this Dome.”
Tanner said, “Have at it. Here, want to take a look?”
So he stood up and Ludmilla bent over to the spotting scope, and then she called over Yuri, and for a few minutes, they talked to each other in Russian, and then took turns looking out over the field to the Creeper Dome. It was its usual perfect dome shape, colored a dark gray-blue, and from the dirt berm before us, the land sloped down and across to the structure. The land was torn, blackened and blasted, with foundations of destroyed houses, burnt cars and trucks, and the rusting carcasses of artillery pieces and M1-A1 tanks.
Yuri said something to Ludmilla, who in turn said to Tanner, “How active is this Dome? Have a census been taken? How often do the bugs come out?”
Tanner grinned, scratched at his ear. “Active? Not very. The bugs come out when they want to . . . no set schedule that anybody knows of. And census? What’s that?”
Ludmilla looked serious. “You don’t do census? A count?”
Tanner looked to me, and then to Ludmilla. “They all look the same. How can you do a count?”
She said, “There are three classes of Creepers, da? But in each type of Creeper, there are differences . . . marks on the legs, scorches on the abdomen, worn bits of armor. That way . . . you know how many bugs are in the Dome.”
“But why?” I asked.
Ludmilla smiled. “So you know how many is there when you kill them all.”
Yuri said something to Ludmilla, she said “Da,” picked up her bag. Yuri picked up his bag, and then they climbed over the berm and started heading to the dome.
“Hey!” I yelled out, and Tanner said, “Crap, what the hell are they doing?”
Ludmilla and Yuri walked a few meters and then dropped down, and I did my best to follow them, although with my fake leg and cane, it took a while. I fell, crawled, and stumbled, and when I got to them, their satchels were open and they were staring at the dome with binoculars, making marks on a notebook, talking to each other low.
I slid in behind them and said, “Are you two out of your freakin’ minds?”
Yuri grinned. Ludmilla said, “Out? No, we’re surveying. Doing our jobs.”
“You . . .”
Yuri said a series of words, and Ludmilla said, “The dilation. Opening into the dome. Where does it usually appear?”
“Straight ahead,” I said. “That’s why we have a spotter there, keeping an eye on what’s going on.”
“Ah,” Ludmilla said.
She and Yuri went back to work, and I tugged at her near boot and said, “You’ve got to get out of here, now! This whole area is a killing zone.”
Ludmilla smiled and I couldn’t be angry with her any more.
“Da, and we’re here to kill them.”
Two more days followed where I escorted Ludmilla and Yuri around the Dome, where they made drawings, took measurements, and otherwise scoped out the Dome and its surroundings. I kept up as best as I could, though my right stump ached something fierce and twice when I was out with Ludmilla, I doubled over with nausea and vomited with no warning. Luckily, though, she never saw me in distress.
But on the third day, everything went wrong.
I rolled out of my bunk and the door to my room opened up, with a young orderly standing there, looking at my cluttered quarters and then at me, trying to put on my wooden and metal prosthetic.
“Yeah?” I said. “Don’t you know how to knock?”
“Sorry, Sergeant,” she said, staring at my stump. “Lieutenant Juarez needs to see you, soonest.”
“Got it,” I said. “Now get the hell out so I can get dressed.”
And about fifteen minutes later, I was in Lieutenant Juarez’s office, and she said without hesitation, “We’ve got a problem. One of the Russians is missing. Deserted.”
Something went thud in my chest. “Which one?”
“The male,” she said. “Yuri. Ran off last night.”
Then I hated myself right then, because I was torn. If one of the Russians had indeed deserted, I would want Ludmilla to have been the one. But by staying behind . . . I could see her again.
And maybe she would abandon her mission.
“Go see her,” Juarez said. “See what we can do . . . if anything.”
Ludmilla was in her own quarters, and it was crowded because there were four of the large black plastic cases that had come ashore when they had first landed. The tops of the cases were open and Ludmilla seemed to be checking the complicated gear and electronics nestled in dry black foam.
“Yes?” she said, still looking at the pages in a thick manual written in the odd-looking Russian-looking letters. “What is it, Walter?”
“I . . . sorry to hear about Yuri.”
She shrugged. “A temptation . . . being here in America, battered as you are. He and I, everyone else, they are volunteers.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Ludmilla looked at me like I had just suggested we flap our arms and go up to the Creepers’ Orbital Battle Station. “My duty, of course. I am going to do my duty.”
I leaned on my cane. “But I thought it took two . . . persons to do the job.”
“Da, yes, usual. But this is not usual, correct? I have sworn to my family’s memory, to the Czar and my God, that I will do this mission. I will find a way.”
I said, “Ludmilla . . . don’t.”
“Don’t ask me that again. I have no choice.”
“But if you do it yourself, you might not make it.”
“What other choice do I have?”
My gut is churning, from fear and something else.
“I have an idea.”
She looked at me from her manual. “What is that, Walter?”
“I volunteer,” I said. “I’ll take Yuri’s place.”
After two day’s worth of arguing, meetings, more arguing, finally permission was granted.
And it all came down to our unit’s medic, who said to Lieutenant Juarez and myself the day before I was deployed, “I’m not sure how advanced the tumor is in Sergeant Hart’s stomach, but I know its inoperable and untreatable. Even in the best times, before pre-war, Sergeant Hart’s case would be a difficult one for long-term survival. Now . . .”
I didn’t need to hear any more.
And neither did my boss.
Her eyes moistened. “Are you sure, Sergeant Hart?”
“The end of my service was written last year,” I said, remembering the onset of my symptoms. “But the last page . . . it was going to be either in a hospice room somewhere, alone, or on the battlefield. I prefer the battlefield.”
Lieutenant Juarez just nodded, and in a quiet voice, whispered, “Bless you.”
So today was the day, or more accurately, the night was the night.
I demanded from my lieutenant that I didn’t get any kind of send-off—I was afraid that seeing all of my fellow troopers would spook me and I’d turn around at the last minute—so the only person to see me off was the same soldier as before, at the OP at the top of the stairs.
Corporal Tanner was there, blanket around his shoulders, and he said, “Hey,—Sarge, I mean—“
“Keep quiet,” I said, “and help us with this stuff.”
The “stuff” was two plastic sledges, with black boxes and components tied down, and ropes to drag them. He helped Ludmilla and me over the top of the berm, and he gave me a quick slap on the back.
“That’s my plan.”
Ludmilla said “Soldier?”
“Go away now. Far away.”
“Yes, ma’am,” and Tanner scampered down the stairway.
Now it was just Ludmilla and me.
“Great,” I said.
I followed Ludmilla’s lead, and moved slow, very slow. We dragged the sledges behind us, and she said, “We learn . . . from hard lessons . . . to move slow. Not set any pattern.”
I followed her slim body, as we traversed the torn up and scorched earth. Overhead the constant flares and burning lights of space wreckage coming into the atmosphere continued. My stomach and abdomen were burning, but having Ludmilla in front of me calmed me down some.
We went up and down a trench, around some burnt wreckage from attacks a decade ago—some kind of artillery piece, its barrel and support melted—and Ludmilla whispered, “Stop, now.”
I sat there, and then Ludmilla rustled her way over to me and said, “I’m cold.”
I was dumb, but not that dumb.
I put my arm around her, and she cuddled in next to me, and I smelled her hair and fresh soap.
I can’t remember that last time I’ve been so happy.
I said, “How did you end up here?”
She said, “You mean, how I get into war?”
“Something like that,” I said.
I looked up at the lights flaring and burning through the night sky, feeling the dull and heavy presence of the dome base close by.
“I . . . was a child. On holiday. With my family. On a cruise ship from Vladivostok. The ship was called the V.V. Tereshkova. I don’t remember much. But the bugs come, drop their rocks . . . many tidal waves . . . our ship, she was sunk.”
She moved under my arm. “So. A long time back . . . somehow . . . I ended in life raft . . . washed ashore . . . when I grew up, in All Orphan Pioneer Party, I swore I would get my revenge . . . and here I am.”
“But . . .”
“But what, Walter?”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“Are you afraid?”
“Some . . . but I know what’s ahead of me. It’s not good. I’d rather go out doing something . . . oh, I don’t know. Special. Heroic.”
“Good for you,” Ludmilla said. “I just want to kill the bugs. Let’s move some more.”
We dragged our sledges across the landscape, stopping at Ludmilla’s command, me not too sure what she was doing, only knowing that she must have been working from years of experience. It was hard to believe that in these plastic sledges, bouncing behind us, sometimes getting caught up in torn and blasted metal, that there was a weapon that would destroy this dome.
We were closer now, and we rested two more times.
“How further do we go?” I asked.
“Right up to the dome,” she said. “Where the access hatch dilates open . . . it’s the weakest spot.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
We cuddled up again and she said, “Now, your story, eh?”
“Not much of a story,” I said.
“Tell me still.”
“Grew up in Maine, up north of here. Small family. Deep in the woods . . . and, the war began.”
“How old were you?”
A particularly big piece of space debris came in, throwing off big sparks and flares.
She nudged me.
Well, she asked.
“The weather took a hit with all the debris and water kicked up into the atmosphere,” I said. “The first year was tough, the second year was tougher. The little house we lived in was only heated by a fireplace. We took to going to bed for most of the day when the snowstorms came through. Dad, Mom and me. I was on a couch near the fire, covered in blankets and comforters. They were nearby, on a fold-out couch. One day . . . I don’t remember much. The fire had gone out. There wasn’t much wood. My parents wouldn’t get up, and then . . . well, they couldn’t get up.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Yeah. I walked a while to a neighbor’s house. Got turned away. Went to another house. Was taken in, joined the Boy Scouts soon afterwards. When I got older, I figured out my parents starved to death, trying to keep me alive.”
Ludmilla kissed me on the cheek. “So we both have reasons to kill the bugs, eh?”
I kissed her back, on the cheek as well, and then I kissed her lips, and that’s how the time passed for a long lovely while.
Two more movements, and then we were up against the Dome. I was shuddering and feeling scared, and my body was betraying me as well. I threw up again and from the light of a big chunk of space debris, I see there was blood in what came out.
Ludmilla took her time, opening the hard plastic containers, explaining how the different modules and pieces of the nuclear device were put together.
“So many experiments, so many failures,” she said, moving slowly and then stopping for a while. “Many brave men and women died to get the . . . knowledge? Information. Da. Information. We all learned hard way that the bugs monitor all electronics, from space, from the Domes. But to what level? So . . . volunteers. Would go up against the Domes, carrying various electronics . . . they would be burnt, captured . . . a lucky few would escape . . . but we learned. We learned.”
She looked around, very satisfied indeed.
“We rest now,” she said.
She came to me and we kissed again.
“Walter, your leg?”
“The good one or the fake one?”
“It’s buried somewhere in a landfill in New Hampshire,” I said. “I had been in the Army a month. It hadn’t been a good month.”
“I want to know more.”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
I think Ludmilla dozed in my arms, which was a good thing, because I could sense . . . something. Movement. Vibration.
A light slowly started bathing the area to the north of me, and then I turned and closed my eyes, because I knew what was happening next.
The Creeper Dome was opening up and with its opening, came a bright flash of light.
I turned in a second and off to the distant north, one and then two alien Creepers skittered over the dirt berm. They moved at a good pace, and from my vantage point, with a beautiful girl in my arms, I could see they were two Battle modes, coming back to their home base after a night of burning and lasering whatever they wanted. Seeing the armored arthropods up close again made me tense with fear and anger, and then they safely slipped into the dome, and the dilated opening closed.
Ludmilla stirred and moved away. “What . . . what happen?”
“Two Creepers just came back, into their base.”
She sat up. A line of light pink and red was beginning to form in the east.
“Good,” she said. “Two more that will die.”
The morning day looked to be pretty fine. My arms and chest felt heavy.
One’s last day.
“You and I . . . we could run away. Go to the west. They’re looking for workers, farmers out west. We would never be found.”
She didn’t say no, and she didn’t say yes. A hand came into my hand, gently caressed it, and squeezed it.
“But we would always know that we had run away, wouldn’t we?”
But to live with you, I thought . . . and there was a stab in my gut, reminding me that the decision, one way or another, had already been made.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said. “Show me what we need to do.”
Once again, we moved slowly, as different components were taken out, cables were hooked up, switches and such were inspected. Ludmilla said, “There were attempts, many attempts, to set up timers, or mechanical devices, or even a long, long cable to be used, to explode the device. It never worked. Some sort of . . . haze? Field? From the Dome? Only after volunteers hand-exploded, did it work.”
“With one, it was too long to haul, too much chances of being found. And . . . two. There would be two to press the switch, in case one . . . runs.”
I nodded, just followed her directions.
All thought out.
And then, too soon, we were done.
We sat against a rise in the dirt, the bomb at our feet, ready and connected to go off and kill everything in the vicinity.
Two cables ran out of one of the black boxes, each ending in a trigger switch. I took one and Ludmilla took the other.
“What . . . now?” I asked.
The sun started to come up.
“Down there,” she said. “That’s the battery. You turn that switch down there . . . the light goes from red to green . . . powering up . . . when it turns to green . . . it’s time.”
The sun came up higher. But there was little sound. No birds, no animals, nothing in this zone of death.
Ludmilla slipped her hand into mine, and then reached down, toggled a switch.
A red light came on.
She came back, cuddled up against me.
The light turned green.
“Ludmilla . . .”
“Wait, just for a bit.”
“Walter . . .”
“No,” I said. “There’s a reason.”
I said, “I’m in intelligence. I keep track of things . . . according to the last orbital mechanics I saw, the new Orbital Battle Station should be showing up in a few minutes.”
She didn’t say anything and sitting against the dirt, I was feeling the vibrations coming through from whatever the Creepers were doing inside the Dome. There were probably human prisoners in there, and I hoped their souls or afterlife would forgive us for what we were about to do.
Then again, they might be thankful.
“Walter, I don’t understand.”
I squeezed her hand. “Wouldn’t it be something . . . if the Creepers’ orbital base was overhead, and they were looking down . . . they would see us destroying this Dome. Showing them that we’re still fighting. That we won’t give up.”
“Ah . . . how soon?”
“Very soon,” I said.
She moved even closer to me, kissed me.
“Da, that we do. We wait. We show them.”
So we sat there, the only free humans in probably miles around, and I was hoping for a lot more time, to talk to Ludmilla, to find out more about here, her life, her hopes, her regrets . . . thinking of what we might have been able to do together if—
There it was.
Rising up from the horizon.
“I see it,” she said.
“You . . . we will wait, then we’ll do it together. Okay?”
I kissed her and kissed her.
“Together,” I said.
The Orbital Battle Station was nearly overhead, and then—
Copyright © 2018 Brendan DuBois
Brendan DuBois is the award-winning author of sixteen novels and more than 120 short stories. This story is set in the world of his science fiction Dark Victory series for Baen, which includes novels Dark Victory, Red Vengeance, and Black Triumph. His short stories have twice won him the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and have also earned him three Edgar Award nominations. DuBois is the author of the long-running Lewis Cole mystery action adventure series, and he has recently collaborated with New York Times best-selling author James Patterson on several novellas for Patterson's Bookshots. DuBois lives in New Hampshire. A former Jeopardy! champion, he also appeared on—and won—the game show The Chase.