Beta One

 

Robert Marcom

 
Urban combat has never been my strong suit. The basic infantry weapon, the helmet, the armor; they all made me feel kind of silly as I walked down the center of the street. The city was fully occupied by civilians going about their mundane occupations. They ignored me.

I knew what I was looking for: holobots. I didn't know for sure what might be looking for me. There! Just inside the doorway, I spotted the dull grey sheen. A dive--quick roll to the curb--the bot swung out and snapped a plasma shot off. The beam splashed off the curb in useless malevolence just above my head. Two shots, explosive slugs, ripped into the bot. One would have done it, the hologram melted away. The citizens were oblivious. The adrenalin was pumping now. I felt the sweat begin to course down my ribs under my arms. Senses were heightened, my blood was up.

As I entered the intersection, I saw another trooper passing through a block away. We nodded to each other, I raised finger tips to my visor in the age old recognition sign--one soldier to another: I'm on your side. All the civilians were gone now, prudently taking refuge from the fire fight. There was no warning for my fellow warrior. The shadow sprang from the pavement, just behind the distant trooper, a black apparition, bearing down at an incredible rate. I realized I was too far away; I would be of little help. I thumbed my weapon to full auto, took cover behind a SkyTrans booth and drew a bead on the enemy. A bot was behind me, the first I knew of it were the thuds on my armor.

"DAMMIT--god-dammit to hell!" I was angry that the enemy had wounded me, but I was livid at my own carelessness. The epithet ricochetted off the walls. I felt the impact of the rounds and then pain came as I spun to face my assailant. Spraying explosive rounds like a fire hose, I watched as chunks of masonry leaped from the buildings in parabolic trajectory. The bot was firing from a window. I used up most of the rounds in my cartridge before I spotted it. The last of my rounds cut it in two. The weapon it carried clattered on the pavement. I could feel the grating of fractured ribs as I ran to recover the fallen weapon. The armor had stopped the rounds from doing mortal harm but wasn't able to completely absorb the impact. The bot's weapon had a nearly full cartridge.

Holding my side, running, running--duck against the wall of a building--run low--erratic stop, start, no pattern--. I closed on the other trooper, not sure this was good strategy, not able to think of any other. The shadow was resolving, it seemed to contain a wraith.

"Freeze trooper!" I yelled in admonition, "Don't move!" The briefing said that wraiths responded to motion and were not always hostile but *were* always dangerous. My warning had not come in time; the other soldier was in mid-jump as the wraith wafted him into a wall with shattering impact. I jumped up and gestured wildly to attract the wraith's attention.

"Here! You dumb bastard--come for *me* dammit!" The shadow began moving toward me. "Stay *down* soldier! Don't try to get away, it'll leave if you *don't move*." I tucked myself in a ball and froze. I knew that if another bot came along, I was dead meat.

The tendrils of breeze probed me. The wraith hovered above looking for some motion, some sign of being. My heart beat was so strong, I thought my body must be shaking with each throb of it. Breath came in searing doses. Then there was stillness. When I couldn't stand it any more, I glanced, barely moving my eyes side to side.

Leaping up, I paid the price for my rashness as my side knotted in spasm. I ran to the downed trooper while fumbling in my pouch for the soldier's best friend, a serette of Benzedrine and morphine. The stilled figure lay on his side, arms and legs in disarray. I prepared the serette, lightly shook the uppermost shoulder.

"Hey buddy--it's gone now, it's ok. I'm gonna give you something for pain, then we gotta get the hell outa here." As I glanced nervously over my shoulder, the wounded trooper took my wrist--and began to crush it. The serette dropped from my rapidly numbing fingers. I'd laid down my weapon; mistake number one, to render aid to an assumed comrade; mistake number two.

The sinister deceiver rolled over; the visage was that of a holobot, slick grey, impersonal and evil. My personal hide-out weapon is a photon-blade that I keep in my belt at the small of my back. I reached behind with my left hand, found the handle, pressed the stud. The grinding pain was clouding my vision. The seam where the bot's head and neck came together surged in and out of focus. I stabbed over and over, the focused energy of the photon-blade must have found something critical; the damnable thing stopped moving. Laboring to remain conscious, I pried the thing's fingers from my rapidly swelling wrist. Grabbing the weapon in my left hand, I ran, lurching down the street. I knew that there was a bunker somewhere and I also knew that I didn't have much time left.

A second serette injection was in the bottom of my pouch, I feared that If I stopped for it, I'd be making mistake number three. I don't know if you can understand this. If you've never been in combat, it's difficult to understand the paranoia, the disordered thought, the irrational attribution that dominates one's mind. Mine was marvelously disordered now.

The darkness was beginning to encroach. A light fog was beginning to form. The architecture of the buildings had been unusual, a strange rococo feel to them. Now the walls grew higher, smoother. The street widened and took on a metallic sheen. Streaks of green and sickly salmon infested the fading sky. I advanced "by the numbers," taking advantage of the only cover available: the twisted bare-branched shrubs rising from the grey metal of the road; seamless, as though they were appendages.

The bunker was there--and so was a battle-bot. At least four times the size of the holobot and multiple times more menacing, it stood between me and sanctuary. It seemed oblivious to me. Creeping forward, tree to stunted tree, I moved, keeping a wary eye on it. I kept my head on a swivel. I wasn't going to be taken by surprise again. I didn't have much strength left; one more wound might do me in. The armor over my left side, having taken two rounds, was sticky with my blood and throbbing to each step, every movement. Breath was coming in searing gouts. I was sure I had a punctured lung.

As I closed, shadows appeared above and behind the looming battle-bot. It turned toward me: I froze. The first spray of energy splashed off of the metallic surface exactly where I'd been standing. Landing on my bad side, I rolled behind a tree and waited--the bot rolled forward a few meters, then stopped. I knew from the briefing that explosive rounds would have no effect on the behemoth that stood between me and safety. The sickly green streaks flowed into the nauseating salmon over head, swirling but never mixing. The dark forms of the wraiths seemed to hang beneath the sky, as though in expectation, like vultures.

I could only hope these wraiths were no more picky that their cousin had been when it had attacked the holobot earlier in the day. There comes a time in a soldier's life when he just has to soldier. *Up, and out of those trenches--across the battle field and to hell with shot and shell--wassa matter, you wanna live for ever?* I fumbled for the last serette, popped the protective cap off, jammed it into my thigh. The burning was replaced gradually by a warmth, a verve coursing through me, a thrill of vitality. My mind cleared, as I lay with my head propped against a tree that never grew, in a landscape of terror.

Up, zig--fire, zag--drop and roll! Fire and fire again, until the battle-bot responds in a frenzy of activity. The wraiths are descending toward it, toward me. When they are at their nearest approach to it, I freeze! I hope I've fallen close enough behind one of the faux-trees to protect me from the battle-bot as it continues its assault. The wraiths must be occupying its attention; it has stopped firing at me.

The wafting breeze picks me up, "NO--oh SHIT! *Aahhhgh*," I hear myself curse as I'm slammed--

 
********
 

"Did I make it?" The sunlight streaming through the open window, the anxious face of Kathi hovering above me, are welcome tokens of normalcy.

"I had to pull you out. You feel better?"

"Better than I did a few minutes ago. What happened?"

"Hours ago. Not minutes. You went into shock, Dave. I've never seen anything like it. What the hell happened in there?"

I turned toward the warming glow of sunshine, touching me with gentle caress. "You're going to have to "dumb-down" that code, Kathi. I've beta-tested every combat cyber-game you ever wrote, believe me when I tell you, this is _too real_."

"We'll talk about it when you're on your feet." She turned to leave the room, then hesitated. "It was pretty realistic, huh?"

"Yeah. Realistic," I groaned. "I can hardly wait for Beta Two."

 
 
 
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Author Bio

Robert Marcom is the Chairman of the Electronic Authors & Artists Guild (http://www.eguild.org ) and the founder of and moderator for Net Author, (http://www.netauthor.org ) an online writers community. He resides in Houston Texas where he is gainfully unemployed as an author, illustrator and photographer.

Author of "A Voyage Through The Cosmos" (ISBN 1-930430-03-5)
"Earth Rocks!" (ISBN 1-930430-04-3)

Visit Robert's web site

Other stories by Robert
"Winter of One Hundred Years"
"Welcoming Committee"
"Kiowa Nights"

 


 

 
 
 

"Beta One" Copyright © 2001 Robert Marcom. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.
 
This page last updated 4-1-01.

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