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Picket Ship

by Brad R. Torgersen


The seven-man picket ship bucked and slewed wildly as it flew through thick, turbulent air. Tall spires—the trunks of temperate marshland trees—whipped past the forward canopy while Chief Warrant Officer Amelia Schumann fought for control. Computerized alarm bells screamed in her ears. There had been too much battle damage. Coming down from orbit had made things worse. Schumann slammed her throttles wide open, pulling the control stick into her stomach and willing the vessel to gain altitude.

No good. The little spacecraft shuddered horribly. Piece by ragged piece, chunks of the starboard retractable aero wing peeled off. The control surfaces of the tail planes also remained frozen—their power leads cut by hostile fire.

A large hill loomed in the distance. It was all Amelia could do to nudge the nose of her vessel a few centimeters to port, hoping desperately to avoid the bluff.

Too little, too late.

The belly of the picket ship caromed off the top of the hill, sending it ass-over-teakettles, to come crashing into the middle of the huge trees on the other side. Chief Schumann screamed, every muscle in her body clenching up—waiting for the end to come. Branches and leaves smashed through the ruined canopy, whipping the cockpit and tearing viciously at her flight armor.

Cloudy water suddenly flooded the cockpit and immersed Amelia’s helmet as she hung upside down in her seat. The flight armor should have sealed tight to the helmet when the cockpit was compromised, but something was wrong. Water began to flow around Amelia’s scalp, reaching upwards to cover her eyes, then her nose. Amelia screamed and fought with the restraints of her seat as the water flooded her sinuses, cut off her air supply: stinking, choking, killing. Schumann writhed and banged back and forth in her seat, the straps holding her in a death grip as her wrecked spacecraft sank, sank, sank—

#

Amelia suddenly blinked. She was awake. There was complete silence, save for the sound of warbling insects. Not precisely Earth crickets, but similar. The bright stars of night filled Amelia’s vision. Sweat dripped off her face, and her throat felt ragged. There was a firm grip on her right hand and she realized that she was shaking.

“Are you all right, ma’am?” said a concerned, deep voice.

Ladd, Amelia thought with a sigh. Thank God!

“I . . . I think I’m okay,” she whispered hoarsely.

Sergeant Warner Ladd held a canteen to Amelia’s lips, and she found herself greedily gulping at a stream of lukewarm, clean water.

“You were dreaming,” Ladd said, deadpan.

Amelia sat slowly upright, becoming aware of the other Fleet soldiers who surrounded her. They were barely visible in the night light, but they were there, watching.

The tension was palpable. Amelia could feel their uneasy contempt. For her. For putting them all in this predicament. Instead of being well on their way back to Sol System—to warn Earth—they were now grounded. Unable to complete their primary mission. And in serious jeopardy of getting killed. This wasn’t what they’d trained for. This wasn’t how the war was supposed to go.

Amelia almost laughed at the absurdity of her thoughts. War. What did any of them really know about fighting? She was an astronaut, after all. And the others were technicians of one kind or another. Their rank had been largely thrust upon them when the mantis aliens had crushed the human colony known as Marvelous. A lone starship—fleeing in the wake of Marvelous’s destruction—had managed to warn Earth. And Earth had slapped together a hasty defense.

The Fleet: a drafted amalgam of existing civilian and military personnel matched with existing ships and space stations.

Dozens of little vessels like the one Amelia had flown—and lost—were hastily constructed, and posted in orbit around every human world. So that if the aliens struck again . . .

That the mantes had attacked New America meant that they might be striking elsewhere too. It was the job of the picket ships to send word of attack, while the bigger ships took the fight to the enemy. And gave Earth—and the other worlds under Fleet’s protection—enough time to prepare a response.

But the space surrounding New America had been quickly flooded with enemy ships. The few missiles Amelia had managed to fire, had died impotently against what she could only describe as translucent energy shielding.

There’d been almost no chance for escape.

Which didn’t make Amelia feel any better. She was the pilot. It had been her job to make a quick exit. She’d acted too slowly. The jump apparatus could not be operated in close proximity to a gravity well as deep as that of New America. When a mantis missile had proximity detonated near her spacecraft . . .

Amelia wiped at her eyes.

“Ma’am, I think we should pick up and move on,” Ladd said. “The mantes have no doubt been searching for us since we left the crash site, and that muffled scream you just let out will act like a beacon for any mantis within a thousand meters.”

Ladd’s voice held no hint of emotion. To Amelia, his manner was relieving and infuriating at the same time. The rest of the crew blamed Amelia for what she had done to them, so why not Ladd? She almost wished he would simply chew her out for her mistake. She deserved it. Yet, he remained nonplussed and professional—the picture of a model NCO.

“You’re right again, Ladd. I . . . I’m sorry.” Amelia said. “We should get away from this place. And try another call to the Aegean.

Ladd voiced agreement, and Amelia levered herself off the root bed she had been sleeping on. Then she dropped into the hip-deep water that surrounded her. The wetlands were humid, and cool, and it was only the vacuum-capable combat armor—worn by all—that kept them from falling prey to hypothermia. Amelia shouldered her compact pilot’s rifle by its sling, and followed Ladd as he waded his way back to where the other five survivors of the crash were huddled amongst the trees.

#

It moved over the water with its siblings—the many acting in unison, to almost form a single entity. Like wolves following the trail of their prey, they hunted, tracing the taste of machine oils, metal, and human flesh. The creature—using the sensory capacity infused by its saucer-shaped, biomechanical carriage—surmised that its tactical group had indeed discovered the location of the crashed hostile spaceship.

The mantis group leader’s orders had been clear: exterminate all humans. This order had come from the very top. The Queen Mother was very angry that such a prime, vital planet as this one had been violated by the presence of the soft, bipedal aliens. It was an affront to mantis supremacy in the galaxy.

Human intelligence was dangerous. Much too random. In mantis society, every individual knew his or her place from the moment awareness was attained. The humans, meanwhile, were messy. Disorganized. They built haphazardly, they lived haphazardly, they were stupid, and they were in the way. So, the Queen Mother’s forces came to this world—which would make an excellent future mantis colony, by the looks of it—to cleanse, and to prepare the way.

The tactical group found the human crash site.

Like the insects that they were, the mantes swarmed over the ship, probing for any signs of life. The scent of humans was still strong in the area, but there was no sign that the human crew had loitered. They’d fled further into the wetlands. Either towards what they thought would be safety, or away from pursuit. The group leader surmised that it mattered not. His force was good. If the crashed human ship was any indication, the fugitive crew numbered few. And the mantes could glide through the trees with ease, while the clumsy humans slogged.

When eventually the tactical group caught up with its prey, the humans would be no contest.

Signaling for his troops to follow, the group leader hurried off.

#

Amelia could almost sense the enemy lurking out beyond the farthest trees, waiting for the chance to spring and pull her human crew to pieces with their serrated forelimbs. Grainy digital camera footage from the ship that had fled Marvelous told the story: the mantis aliens were carnivorous beasts. With bulbous insect like eyes, and fearsome beaks filled with terrible teeth that vibrated when the aliens were aggressive. Or feeding. The footage seemed to indicate that there was little difference, once battle was joined. And those flying saucers the aliens rode on . . . nightmarish!

Still, while the company was true, hope flickered like a candle.

Amelia watched Sergeant Ladd’s back, and wondered about the man. He had served ten years in the United State Army, and fought in no human wars of which she was aware. Yet being pressed into Fleet service seemed to make no difference to him. He knew his job, and he knew his people, and he didn’t seem to worry about that which didn’t need worrying about.

Which just made Amelia’s guilt worse. The crew were clearly Ladd’s to command. Not hers. Oh, there had always been a degree of deference. But Amelia was only a Chief by accident: utility pilots of all description being accorded the middle-step rank of Warrant Officer in Fleet’s laddered hierarchy. If Amelia flew the ship, Ladd clearly drove the men. Each of whom regarded the sergeant with trusting eyes.

For Amelia, there were only wary glances.

She kept her eyes forward and pushed through the knee-high water. New America’s alien trees began to thin out, and the remnants of the picket ship’s crew soon found themselves in a wide, shallow patch of marsh which was only ankle deep.

Overhead, the bright stars sparkled and danced. But the eastern horizon was just becoming visible as dawn approached. Little lights maneuvered crazily in the sky overhead. Occasionally one of them would flare brightly, and die. Loud booms sounded in the distance—explosions from the mantis planetary invasion? The nearest city was over a hundred kilometers off. Perhaps other human craft had crashed? The bigger Fleet ships had numerous escape pods . . .

Amelia stopped, and called everyone to a halt. Ladd didn’t need to be told what to do. He hastily erected their portable emergency satellite dish. He tapped a few codes into the wrist key pad on his left arm and waited for his armor’s internal communications computer to uplink to any of the human-made ships that should have been in orbit. The Aegean was the newest, largest, and theoretically toughest. If any Fleet ship would be giving it back to the enemy, it would be the Aegean. Alien shields, or no alien shields.

There was a long pause, followed by static in the crew’s ears

“Awwww, man!” Specialist Shaw drawled with much displeasure.

“We be effed,” came the voice of Corporal Powell, a heavy weapons engineer who knew a picket ship’s missile bays like the back of his hand—and was the only troop large and muscular enough to tote their single squad weapon through the uneven, flooded terrain of the wetlands.

A cacophony of groupwide bitching suddenly erupted. Ladd tried to interject, but the crew had had enough, and were jawing at full steam, drowning out the Sergeant’s baritone barking. A day and a night of forced marching had rubbed nerves raw. Men went chest to chest. Somebody shoved somebody else.

That did it. They were ignoring the sergeant, dogpiling like children, splashing and shouting and filling the air with profanity.

Amelia tried to drown out the noise with her own sullen thoughts, but it was impossible. Even if there was no contact with Fleet in orbit, they still had to find a way to evade detection. Get back to civilization. Find a way to make a difference.

A hot spark of anger suddenly flared up within Amelia. Maybe it was the deep exhaustion, or the sudden hopelessness, or the bitter resentment at her own guilty self pity that caused her to snap.

“Have you lost your minds?” she bawled. “Do you really want to draw them down on top of us, like hawks on a pack of rats?” 

The crew, not used to taking sharp orders from their young Warrant Officer pilot, froze in place.

“Keep your effing mouths shut!” Amelia barked. “The next person that says a single word is getting my boot in his balls!”

Amelia’s chest heaved with anger as she spat her last words. And, for the first time, something barely approaching respect appeared in the eyes of the crew. Also appearing for the first time was a slight smile on the lips of Sergeant Ladd.

“Sergeant?” Amelia finally said, motioning a palm to Ladd as she plodded back over and retrieved the satellite unit from its watery perch.

“Right,” Ladd growled low and strong. “You people heard the chief.”

Amelia continued. “We’re still Fleet. We can’t accomplish our primary mission. But maybe we can do something else constructive. Those lights moving in orbit tell me that somebody is still fighting. We should see if we can too. We’re all from Earth, I know, and this isn’t our world, really. But for hell’s sake, as long as we’re stuck here, we should defend it like it is Earth! Because if we don’t, then what we’re seeing above us might soon be replayed in Earth’s night skies. Do we want mantis ships dropping down over New York or Hong Kong or Paris?”

The crew muttered negatives.

“Then let’s get moving,” Ladd said. “And keep an effing lid on it.”

Amelia was already heading away from the group, her back ramrod straight in disgust, her legs making strong, swirling strides through the muck and water. Adrenaline warred with hesitation. Anger brought with it a certain bravado, that would drain away very quickly. She’d surprised them. She wouldn’t be able to surprise them again. Her only choice was to try to prove to them—and to herself—that they still had value as soldiers. That they could make the mantis aliens pay for daring to attack another human world.

One by one, the others fell in line, Ladd hauling up the rear.

They slog-marched for almost an hour, nobody saying much, eyes and ears wide open, looking for any hint of trouble. The sky grew brighter and brighter, until the first rays began to peak over the far horizon. The mantes could be anywhere in this morass, waiting to spring. That much was certain. But the crew was small, and if they put their minds to it, they could move quickly when they wanted to.

Eventually, Ladd called for a break. None of them had rested much during the night. All eyes were growing dim and weary.

Amelia clutched her pilot’s rifle tightly and continued to brood, standing in the water, until the strong, gauntlet-clad hand of Sergeant Ladd gripped her shoulder. She turned her head and found herself face to face with the older man.

“That was a good thing you did back there,” Ladd said warmly, a smile on his face. “I was wondering when you were going to pull yourself out of your sulking.”

“I only wish I felt as strong as I talked,” Amelia replied glumly, eyes avoiding Ladd’s smiling face. “Christ, Sergeant, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.”

“Listen,” Ladd pulled her, “I know you feel like scum for what happened. You were muttering every detail in your dreams. But these guys are starting to get a different angle on you. And frankly, so am I.”

“Thanks, Sergeant,” Amelia replied honestly.

“Right,” Ladd said, squeezed her shoulder again, then dropped back into the group. Amelia watched him go, a silent thank you in her mind.

#

The scent was hot.

The mantes and their group leader slipped easily through the trees to the clear patch of shallows where the human smell was strongest. Here, the bipedal aliens—with their clumsy weapons and cheap, artificial carapaces—had stopped for some purpose. The group leader swept outward from the middle of the shallows, seeking the new direction of the trail, and quickly found what he wanted. An unvoiced computer message flowed from the group leader’s disc, and that message was heard by the others. The command simply said, follow me!  And the horde of praying mantis like cyborg creatures shot forward into the trees once again, sensing that their quarry was not far away.

The group leader eventually dispatched a scout to snoop ahead—the scout’s natural predator’s senses combining with his artificial carriage-enabled awareness to ferret out the humans. It wouldn’t be long now. The group leader wondered what it would be like to kill one of the aliens. Mantes had done it before, on other worlds. Long ago. Would humans die easily? Or die hard?

The group leader grew anxious to find out.

#

Private Wang Li had relieved his comrade at the rear of the little column, and slogged through the water, grunting at the weight of his automatic rifle and cursing the partly cloudy sky. Though Li dreaded the thought of face-to-beak combat—for which he’d received what he considered was minimal training—he also hated the never-ending anticipation. Waiting was always the worst part of anything unpleasant.

Then, unexpectedly, Wang got his wish. Looking over his shoulder, he realized he was staring at one of the enemy. The creature had maneuvered stealthily through the trees, using its flying saucer to stay above the water, such that nothing was heard. Until now, suddenly, it was too late.

An instant of alarmed recognition passed—human to mantis.

Aiming his weapon from the hip, Private Li flicked off the safety and squeezed the trigger. For the first time since Initial Entry Training, Li felt his weapon feed round after round through the firing chamber. No brass casings were ejected. None were needed on Li’s space-age rifle. Both the propellant and the soft casing were vaporized the instant the firing pin punctured the thin wall separating the two halves of the propellant proper.

Spouts of water flew up around the lone mantis. Several rounds impacted solidly on the creature’s disc, causing metal and sparks to fly.

Amelia froze, as all around her rifles began to belch propellant and bullets in every conceivable direction. The hammering noise of the guns was only bested by the incoherently terrified cries of the crew.

A chortling WHAM-WHAM-WHAM could be heard as Corporal Powell churned up the water with his powerful squad gun, which fired a larger, more potent shell. The lone mantis burst into fragments of alien gore and splintered machinery that fanned outward and splashed into the water.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Ladd yelled.

All of them crept toward the remains of the mantis that drifted in the foamy water. It was the first time any of them had seen the enemy up close and in person. Private Li himself was in a near-daze, his chest heaving mightily. His eyes bugged out so far Amelia thought they were going to pop from their sockets.

Then, the noise of the mantis soldier’s comrades could be heard. The humming sound of multiple discs far off in the trees, but growing louder as they grew closer.

“Must have signaled the rest of his squad,” Ladd said, watching in the direction from which the noise came.

“How many?” Amelia asked, backed up two paces, her pilot’s rifle leveled from her shoulder, but the barrel wavering just slightly as adrenaline made her arms shake.

“Damned if I know,” Ladd said. “Everybody get behind a tree and shoot at the first mantis you see!”

When no one moved—their eyes still transfixed on the alien gore that drifted in the water—Amelia hissed, “Do what the sergeant says! Go!”

Seven humans slipped behind fat tree trunks just as several disc-riding mantes came into view. They moved over the water—the liquid beneath each disc making strange patterns that swirled and distorted according to whatever force it was which kept the discs in the air. None of the aliens spoke, nor made any sound. Their insect like eyes and heads scanned furiously. Until they saw what was left of their comrade.

At which point both Amelia and Sergeant Ladd shouted for the group to open fire, and again the air was filled with the ear-splitting reports of rifles. Only, this time, it wasn’t just human bullets chewing up the scene. Mantis rounds smacked and popped against tree trunks, bursting off great splinters of bark and wood. Amelia flattened behind her own tree as at least a dozen mantis rounds chewed into it. She almost fell to her knees, she was so instantly petrified.

But when she peered to the side and saw Sergeant Ladd still up, and still firing, she forced herself to mimic him, peeking around her tree and popping off shots at the mantes as they scattered between the trees. At least three of the mantes appeared down, their discs half submerged into the water and their exposed upper thoraxes split open, with fresh mantis ooze pouring from the lethal wounds.

Amelia felt a sudden, almost insane surge of pride. If she’d been unable to fight back in orbit, at least down here, humans could successfully defend themselves. That the aliens had fallen at all suddenly gave the mantes a mortal quality which they’d lacked before, in Amelia’s mind. Amelia remembered a line from a very, very old two-dee motion picture entertainment she’d once seen. If it bleeds, we can kill it.

Though fictional, the two-dee movie seemed oddly appropriate, given Amelia’s present circumstances.

But then the firefight turned against them. The remaining mantes ringed the humans, and suddenly everyone was shooting at everyone else. Human had to be wary of shooting at human, while attempting to shoot at the mantes, and suddenly the picket ship’s crew were diving from behind their trees, risking exposure to enemy fire while they tried to regroup. Lacking the kind of concentrated squad-level maneuvering skills a proper infantry element might possess, the crew was quickly routed, and sent fleeing east—for their very lives.

Amelia ran fastest of all.

#

The tactical group leader held his force back, letting the humans go. The patrol had lost five of their number, having achieved no significant human casualties that the group leader could detect.

Except for one.

The human who lay in the water was not dead. Not yet. He dragged himself along, clearly wounded in the leg, and trailing a thick plume of human blood behind him as he want. The tactical group leader called his fellows to him and together they hovered over the human, who’d thrown away his weapon when it became empty of ammunition.

The group leader pointed with a serrated forelimb at the bleeding human and said—in the silent carriage-to-carriage language of his kind—Observe here, the enemy of our people. An animal. Vermin. We are here on this planet to pave the way. Soon, the Quorum of the Select will launch the Fourth Expansion, and every human on every world will fall to us. Wherever they may be. Look at this one, and remember. Remember how easily they die.

With that, the group leader dipped the leading edge of its carriage, scooped the screaming, bleeding human up—serrated forelimbs holding the squirming human fast—and began to feed.

#

After many minutes of frantic flight, Amelia heard Corporal Powell ordering them all to stand down. Amelia was so exhausted, she literally sank to her knees and panted, eyes staring into the murky water. Her ears thundered with the beats of her own heart, and she would have gotten back up and run some more, if not for the fact that she simply couldn’t get enough oxygen into her blood to make her muscles work.

A minute later, Powell’s voice prodded her.

“Ma’am?” he said in a half-worried tone. “Are you hurt? Ma’am?”

Amelia didn’t respond. She just turned her eyes this way and that, counting bodies as they crouched behind tries, faces flushed and mouths open, taking in great gulps of air.

“Sergeant Ladd?” she said. “Where is the sergeant??”

One by one, she met their eyes, and very quickly she realized the truth. He’d not made it. When they’d broken cover and run, she’d heard someone yell in pain. She hadn’t realized it was him. Of all the people to fall, it had to be the one troop upon whom Amelia felt she could rely with any degree of security.

She let her chin hit her chest, and closed her eyes against the gentle sob that was trying to tear itself out of her.

#

The tactical group was thin now. The leader became worried. He had lost almost half his attacking force in the melee with the humans. At the cost of many, his group had destroyed only one of the enemy. And while the feast had been glorious—what a thrill to devour human meat!—the present casualty ratio was not going to yield a successful end to the chase. New tactics would have to be employed. The humans had not gone far. But the water and abundant life forms of the wetlands made it difficult to distinguish the humans from their surroundings. If the group leader sent out a scout, would the scout be any more successful than his fallen sibling? The humans might have been few, but they were heavily armed—something else the tactical group leader had not expected. For a moment, he considered the idea of calling in reinforcements.

It was the logical thing to do. If the humans had proven much more difficult to deal with than expected, overwhelming force would be best. It had worked in orbit. Already, the tactical group leader knew that almost every human craft had been destroyed, or forced to land, whereupon the occupants were slaughtered.

Still, even mantes had their pride.

No. The group leader knew he just needed to be more patient. Calling for help at this stage would be a sign to his superiors that he was not fit for his station. A warrior did not cry for assistance at the first sign of difficulty! A warrior adapted, and overcame.

Using his silent contact with his troops, the group leader dispensed a series of new instructions.

#

Amelia and her crew dragged themselves from the water and flopped onto their backs at the bank of a small stream filtering into the wetland. At last, they had found truly solid ground. Having spent almost all of their duty time where it was dry and clean—Fleet spaceships and space stations being fastidiously neat and orderly—being put through the hell of the swamp march had almost taken the life out of them. They lay or curled on the solid ground, dragging in breath, eyes unfocused and practically pushed to the point of uncaring.

Amelia’s body felt leaden from the forced march. They had only traveled a handful of kilometers, but it felt as if she had walked the circumference of the entire planet. Most pilots had to be in better-than-average shape to pass the standard flight and Fleet physicals. But nothing had prepared her for this. Her body was chafed raw where the flight armor had rubbed against skin, and her legs and feet and thighs were a quivering chorus of agony.

She rolled over and muttered something about the satellite dish.

“I’ve got it,” Private Li said. “I almost dropped it a few times. But it’s our only way to talk to Fleet now.”

Off in the distance, a new noise: the whine-and-thunderclap of hostile ship’s guns could be heard. Only, this time they were firing in-atmosphere. Amelia was just curious enough to crawl her way across the ground to where a pile of half-rotten logs gave her a little elevation. Across the hard ground to the south she could see a stupendously large craft sitting on three, thick, extended legs. It was ringed with what seemed to be smaller craft. Or cargo containers? Troop pods? Amelia couldn’t be sure. They hugged the side of the mother ship. Occasionally one of the nozzle like weapons on the ship’s crown swiveled skyward, and blasted a shot into the sky. What the enemy could be shooting at—when Amelia could not even see it herself—was a mystery.

Suicide, Amelia thought glumly. Leading the crew past this is totally out of the question. But we can’t stay here! And we can’t go back into the swamp. It will kill us, as surely as the mantis patrol will kill us. Sooner or later we’ll run out of ammunition and then . . .

Amelia did not want to contemplate what would happen then. Poor Sergeant Ladd had been the first to fall. She felt a desperate need to make his death count for something.

Dear God, I am so tired, Amelia thought, as her eyes closed.

An indeterminate amount of time passed, and she drifted, at once present, yet not present, her consciousness swirling away into nothingness.

The ground suddenly rumbled and rocked beneath her. Amelia sat up groggily, her mind racing to catch up with the action taking place around her. How long had she drifted off? What was happening now? The rest of the crew were also getting to their feet, the hot rays of New America’s yellow dwarf home star blinding them as they looked towards the horizon, and the source of the trembling.

A great mushroom of fire and debris spouted high into the air in the distance. Directly in front of the huge mantis ship.

Amelia stared dumbly at the sight, and crawled forward trying to understand what was happening. Then, a finger of fire seemed to fly from the sun itself and arc downward, towards the alien craft. Its shields flickered and sparkled. A third strike from the sky left a massive divot in the turf near where the first shot had fallen. Soil and smoke drifted. Another mushroom rose to join the first, and together they began floating away in breeze.

Amelia scrambled back and grabbed the satellite uplink Private Li still husbanded. She unfurled its umbrella like dish, tying quickly in to her suit’s communications computer. Then she aimed the dish a few degrees off the limb of the sun, in the direction from which the tongue of fire had come, and pressed the hail key.

Moments ticked by, and then a sharp, clean transmission broke through.

The crew huddled close, and all listened as Amelia identified herself. It was not the communication’s officer of the Aegean who answered, but a tactical officer from the Tycho Brahe, one of the new swift Fleet destroyers, specifically designed for stealth.

The voice from the Brahe was quick and to the point: those few Fleet ships that were still left were playing a hit and run game with the mantes out beyond the third asteroid belt. Most of the mantis ships had been drawn away as a result. But mantis reinforcements were expected from out-system, and the Tycho Brahe had been detailed to return and aid the very few recovery teams that had already been dispatched. New America was officially being abandoned. Any civilian or Fleet personnel still left alive were being picked up prior to the Brahe leaving for Earth.

“We’ve got a big mother of a mantis craft sitting right in front of us,” Amelia said. “You’re shooting at it, but not causing any damage.”

“The governor’s private entourage was downed a few kilometers from where you are,” said the Brahe’s tactical officer. “We’re trying to keep that beast diverted while we execute a pickup, copy?”

“Copy,” Amelia said, and considered. The same shields that had stopped her missiles in orbit were stopping the Brahe’s kinetic kill strikes as well. They might very well be able to keep the thing occupied while the governor got picked up, but that wouldn’t mean a damned thing for Amelia’s crew if they couldn’t hope for a pickup as well. The only way they were getting off-planet no, nevermind was if something—or someone—found a way to get through those shields and neutralize the big bastard where it sat.

Might as well wish for the moon, Amelia thought bitterly.

But then, there didn’t seem to be any ground troops active around the mantis ship. All of its attention seemed to be on the Brahe. Amelia watched for a few minutes while the mantis ship cracked off another round, and then another, and then still another. Each time it did, the air around the craft shimmered just briefly. At which point a small period of clarity could be discerned. As if the milky shielded air around the alien ship resolved into . . . emptiness.

“It has to drop its shields in order to fire,” Amelia deduced, letting a small smile curl up the corners of her mouth for the first time since the invasion of New America began.

“We didn’t receive that, over?” said Brahe.

“The shields come down when they fire,” Amelia said into the satellite gadget.

"We know that—but too briefly to matter."

“Just keep up your firing pattern. I think I might have discovered a way to help you.”

And to possibly help my crew, too, she thought. 

Amelia looked from face to weary face. They were all tired and worn down to the nub. There was no exhilaration of battle in their eyes. Just exhaustion. However, they pulled their weapons to the ready and waited.

“What you got in mind, Chief?” said Powell.

It was the first time he’d ever said that word to Amelia. In the past it had always been ma’am.

Amelia did not want to throw all their lives away. She did not feel brave or heroic in the slightest. But she had come this far, and she owed it to Ladd to make a final push. Then, and only then, would the crew get their long-awaited dust-off.

And if they didn’t make it . . . well, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

#

The group leader and his forces were searching the small streams that flowed from a low rise of packed soil that overlooked the wetlands. Beyond, far in the distance, a mantis drop pod super-carrier had landed, and was presently engaged with a human ship that drifted somewhere in a very-low orbit, just out of reach of the mantis guns. At that altitude, the human ship must have been expending tremendous energy to loiter over the drop pod carrier’s present ground coordinates.

The group leader signaled to the super-carrier, announcing his renewed intent to find and destroy the survivors of the crashed picket ship. The commander of the drop pod super-carrier replied that he had no way to assist. Having emptied all of his troops on a human settlement far to the west, he’d set down in his present position to await further instructions when the bombardment from the elusive human ship began.

How the human ship was evading the super-carrier’s targeting sensors was not known. Suffice to say it was difficult to get a lock on the human vessel which would last long enough to launch missiles. The super-carrier commander was therefore engaging the human ship until such a time that mantis capital ships could return from the asteroids, and clear the sky once more.

The super-carrier commander was fairly certain that a refugee crew of humans—armed with only rifles—could not do him any harm. The group leader was instructed to conduct his search and take care of the humans. The super-carrier commander would relay news of the group leader’s success to their superiors, when it was all over. There would be potential for advancement in such a victory. Perhaps even the possibility of mating.

The group leader shuddered with anticipated ecstacy.

Mating was reserved for males of significant rank and ability only. Never in his wildest imagination had he dared to think of such a thing. But now?

The group leader encouraged his depleted force to redouble its efforts. The humans could not hide forever. They would be found eventually. Oh yes, they would be found.

#

Loam and fire flew into the air as the mantis shields swept away another blow from the Tycho Brahe. Amelia and her group were now just a few hundred meters from the low rise upon which the alien craft sat. Like a great elongated egg—mated to a dozen smaller elongated eggs—it perched there: a shimmering dome of energy rippling above it in the blue-green sky, and great, thick landing pylons balancing it on the turf.

A concussion wave from the Brahe’s latest shot knocked Amelia’s crew flat, yet the great egg remained motionless amongst the maelstrom.

“We can’t go much further,” Corporal Powell said at Amelia’s ear. “We’re pinned down here. By our own artillery, for hell’s sake.”

“I know that,” Amelia said back, “but there has got to be a way of getting in closer. We just have to time it right. When the Brahe hits, and when the mantis ship drops its shields for a shot. The real trick is going to be getting in without them seeing us.”

Both of them began to scan around for any conceivable natural form of cover, when Powell’s eyes fell upon the group of aliens floating towards them. It was a much smaller group than the one they’d faced before. Could it be the same mantes? Or a different patrol altogether?

Though still a very long way off, it was clear the mantes had spotted the crew.

So, it had come down to this. Caught, not even in the act . . .

Suddenly, an idea leapt into Amelia’s head. She turned her gaze from the onrushing mantes to the great egg on the hill, then back to the mantes. A realization hit her like a bolt of lighting. Then she was ripping the last bandolier of squad gun shells from Powell’s back, and before he could protest, she was up and running.

Powell yelped, trying to pull her down, but she was too quick. The crew screamed after her as she tore past them, and then they were up on their own feet chasing after her, howling like Zulus.

“No, no, NO!” Amelia puffed into her headset. “Stay behind and give me cover! The mantis patrol will follow me! It’s the ship they’ll be protecting!”

Powell and the others slowed and stopped. 

It was true.

The mantis aliens—riding their discs—had turned away from the crew and were now running straight as an arrow at the shrinking figure of their commanding officer. Powell and the rest of the platoon watched in amazement as every last mantis ignored them and pursued Amelia.

“Awright, you heard the lady!” The big corporal snarled. “Up and ready!”

Each of the crew dropped to one knee and raised his or her weapon up to the shoulder, telescopic sights whining as they focused on the retreating images of the mantes.

Rifles cracked to life, sending bullets into the cluster of aliens that were right on Schumann’s heels. The creatures broke formation, trying to avoid the incoming fire, but still maintained their pursuit. Powell, using the last free round for his squad gun, adjusted the weapon’s trajectory and drew a bead on the lead mantis.

#

The group leader died, as did three of its kindred. The dream of mating—so wonderful, so fleeting—was terminated in a hail of anti-personnel shrapnel.

#

Amelia Schumann’s ears pounded loudly as her heart forced blood to her brain. Her legs pumped like pistons, muscles burning, running on pure adrenaline, while her lungs hurt with each ragged breath. The grass and weeds flowed under her feet in a blur, yet the distance to the mantis mother craft shrank ever so slowly. She could hear the hideous squeals of the cyborg bugs as they died behind her, and the reports of the crew’s weapons as they fired. She almost fell as one of Powell’s shells decimated the head of the pack. But desperation drove her onward.

Thus far no one had even put so much as a scratch in the alien ship. The Brahe’s rail guns were hurling everything short of nukes, and they ran off the egg’s shields like rainwater, dissolving into nothingness. The only way anyone was going to get to that thing, was to go right up to it and shove a shell up its ass. And Amelia had a whole bandolier of shells.

#

The drop pod super-carrier commander watched as one of the bipedal creatures—still some distance away—destroyed the tactical group leader who was leading his patrol to defend the ship. The group leader had been on the heels of the smaller biped that now rushed toward the commander’s home. The commander had not given these humans enough credit. They’d proven to have remarkable tenacity, even when faced with overwhelming numbers and technology.

The commander tried to make contact with one of the other mantes troops in the patrol group, and impose his will upon it. But the patrol was too single-minded in their focus now. The little human who ran was clearly all that mattered to them.

The little alien biped sped towards the commander’s armored battle fortress.

Deciding that caution was best, the commander temporarily took his attention away from the pesty human ship in low orbit, and re-concentrated his weapons systems on the planet’s surface around the ship. There were guns for anti-ground attack too. All he needed to do was drop the shield system long enough to squeeze off a few bursts, and the running human would be finished.

Not like a single little alien could do much to hurt the drop pod super-carrier anyway. The little runner seemed almost cute, in a pathetic way. The commander regretted that it would be too easy.

#

Amelia saw the guns emerge, and she leapt violently to her left as a burst fried the air above her head and smashed into the ground several meters behind. Blinded with fear, she ran onward, tears streaming from her eyes, and her breath coming in gasps. The alien craft was less than twenty meters away now. Just a few more meters was all she would need.

More shots lashed out, hitting the ground just behind the Chief. The alien guns were quick, but they could not compensate for her sudden jerking and weaving movements so close to the point of origin. Burst after burst missed Amelia, but the shield system stayed down.

If the Brahe were on its game, it would give the mantis ship a triple strike right now, and finish the job. But the human ship hadn’t fired in over a minute, and Amelia began to wonder if perhaps the giant mantis craft’s sisters in space had returned and gotten rid of the Brahe.

No matter, Amelia had but one last chore to complete. Her eyes fell on the huge, thick landing leg nearest her. The bandolier of shells came off her back. Giving a hoarse, inarticulate, cry, Amelia slipped a hand grenade into one of the empty ammo pouches on the bandoleer, flipped off the grenade’s spoon handle, and then hurled the bandolier at the leg. That done, Amelia then threw her whole body to the right, tucked into a ball, and rolled.

She kept rolling until she dropped—rather painfully—into a muddy runnel which had been worn in the low rise. It was perhaps a meter deep, no more.

The bandolier had landed in the metal gearworks that made up the “ankle” at the base of the leg. The grenade’s timer fizzed towards zero.

A blinding flash was followed by a boom that muted out every other sound in Amelia’s universe. Poking her head over the lip of the runnel she saw the mangled mechanisms at the base of the leg begin to buckle and split. The massive mantis ship tilted crazily as the leg finally gave out.

#

Surprise.

That was the drop pod super-carrier commander’s only emotion as he felt his ship shudder underneath him. The pilot and technicians who surrounded the commander’s creche all eyed him; the semi-soft portions of their carapaces flushing with confused tension. How could one little human have done so much damage?

The commander told himself he’d be more careful in the future.

Take off now, the commander ordered the pilot, who signaled his obedience, and started up the super-carrier’s lift engines. Just before the ship could lean dangerously out of whack, the repulsor effect kicked in, and the ship began to fly. Slowly, at first—being so massive. But then gradually with more power. The remaining, good legs left the ground, and the commander ordered a burst at the humans last known location. The shields went down. Then true disaster struck.

Two consecutive rounds from the Tycho Brahe broke the skin of the super-carrier—now far above the ground, and drifting north at speed.

The wounded super-carrier augered in some six kilometers from where it had taken off, at a velocity of approximately one hundred and sixty kilometers an hour. There was nothing the mantis commander or crew could do but scream oaths into eternity as their ship fractured, then exploded like a tiny fusion bomb.

#

Amelia swam in a murky pool of calm. Her body was nowhere to be found, and all she could hear was a slow, steady rumble that seemed to emanate from everywhere. Where had she been? It didn’t matter anymore.

“Hey, are you okay in there?”

Corporal Powell’s voice. It was soft, and filled with respect.

At first, the sound was completely out of place. Why was he here? Amelia’s heart saddened at the thought that she could have caused Powell’s death too. Then she noticed that the rumble was getting louder and that there was a warm, firm hand on one of her arms.

Arms?

Amelia’s eyes opened slowly. Everything was terribly blurred.

There, a certain blur looked familiar.

Working hard to focus, Amelia recognized the face of Powell. There were other faces, too: Corporal Bybee, Privates Li and Shaw, and the others. They each had various bandages and healing sleeves wrapped around their extremities, but they all seemed healthy and, yes, very much alive.

“I . . . we . . . I . . .” Amelia rasped. Her throat felt funny and her body seemed to be immobilized. Powell placed a hand on her lips and gestured to the rest of the crew.

“We’re all okay, Chief. It’s been five Earth days since the Tycho Brahe’s slicks picked us up. The governor’s party too. We’re the lucky ones. The Brahe was the only capital ship that made it. New America is history. But we’re now high-tailing it for Fleet headquarters. For Earth.”

Amelia allowed herself a small moment of satisfaction. Perhaps she and her picket ship crew would get to accomplish their primary mission after all? The mantis aliens were impressive, perhaps even overwhelmingly so. But they weren’t immortal.

Someone on Earth needs to know that, she thought. And let her eyes close once more. For Amelia, her first battle was over.

For humanity, the war to survive had only just begun.



Copyright © 2014 Brad R. Torgersen


Brad R. Torgersen is a mulitiple Hugo finalist and the winner of the Analog magazine 2011 Anlab Reader's Choice Award for best short story, as well as the 26th Annual Writers of the Future contest. "Picket Ship" is set within the univere of his first novel, The Chaplain's War, out in November from Baen Books. A full-time healthcare computer geek, Torgersen also holds the rank of Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve His web site is here.