Colonel James Abbott awoke to the feel of soft vibrations emanating from the cabin recliner of his shuttle craft. He had been asleep for what seemed to be a tremendously long period of time, or since the shuttle had left Charon. Attempting to shake off the effects of prolonged slumber, he made an effort to regain his bearings even as the recliner’s vibrations were becoming incrementally more annoying. He was more accustomed to waking on a hard slab in the command post of a war zone on some mud ball in deep space, which made waking on the soft recliner all the more disorienting.
“What’s our status?” he asked the shuttle’s navigational computer, sounding as if his mouth was filled with dirt. As distorted as it was, the sound of his voice brought about an end to those obnoxious vibrations.
“We are currently passing Earth’s moon, approximately one hour and seven minutes from our scheduled arrival,” answered a deep, sedate voice that seemed to come from everywhere.
“And Major General Tan will be meeting me there?”
“Yes, sir, he has confirmed.”
“And no one else, correct?”
“As you requested.”
Satisfied with the computer’s statements, Abbott began to stretch his limbs, which were sore from his extended sleep. He looked out of the front viewing port and saw the distant blue-green sphere with the thin red line that led to it. That line was not physically present, but an on-screen visual representation of the path in which the tractor signal was leading the shuttle. Interspatial speeds were not allowed within the heliosphere and to enforce that rule all shuttle crafts were driven by tractor signal. In the ships to which Abbott had been accustomed, the rest of his present journey would have taken seconds.
Grabbing a soma stick from a dispenser to his left, he casually placed the business end of the thin shaft in his mouth, flipped a diminutive switch at the end and sucked in the calming drug. As he relaxed, he considered how long it had been since he had been on the home planet. It seemed to him that it had been five, or no, maybe six years since his last furlough there. The last communication from Abbott’s wife, Shelby, had stated that Danielle, Abbott’s eldest daughter, was now nineteen and he recalled that it had been her thirteenth birthday on that furlough. His daughter had been respectful and pleasant enough, as any daughter of the military would be, but she had also been distant which might be expected as Abbott had been an almost complete stranger to her. In her lifetime he had been to Earth four times, never for more than six weeks. Now, he would be returning there for good.
As the image of Earth began to fill the front viewing port, Abbott noted that it was still a swirl of blue, green and white, but now large areas of gray-black accompanied those colors, as if the planet had been infected with some form of global cancer. There were large sections which were once inhabited but were now unlivable, the festering reminders of three hundred and twelve years of interplanetary war. With the war ended the population of the planet could turn it resources and energies to revitalizing those areas.
Abbott closed his eyes again and, as he had done so often over the past few months, pondered his own future. Like all other humans, he had been a soldier all of his life, and had never known a time when there was not war. Human history stated that over three centuries earlier the Ilyans had first attacked the Terran outpost Xi-417 in the Altebaran system, thus initiating the Great Interplanetary War. The odd, slug-like Ilyans had been unknown to humankind up to that point, and as the creatures communicated through bodily excretions rather than with sounds and gestures as humans did, the act of communication with the race was next to impossible. So alien was the Ilyans form of communication that, in three centuries of warfare, humans were only able to decipher the most rudimentary elements of the Ilyan language. Without the ability to communicate, and thus no means for diplomacy, war ensued.
For decades the war took place in various locations throughout the explored universe, with Earth and the Ilyan homeworld far removed from the front of the conflict. Then, at the dawn of the war’s second century, Terran intelligence operatives were finally able to pinpoint the location of the Ilyan homeworld. Taking the planet was not so simple, however, as the Ilyan defenses were far greater than the Terran Command could ever imagine. The Ilyans possessed spatial disruptors, weapons of a design unknown to humans which could cause a rift in the flow of time and space in a concentrated area. The disruptors were so powerful that one could cause an entire Terran fleet to dissolve in the cosmic medium. It was the thinking of the Terran Command that these weapons were not mobile; otherwise the Ilyans would have already won the war. Shortly after humans discovered the Ilyan homeworld, their spies discovered the wormhole ports that Terran ships used for deep space transport and were able to overtake a few smaller ones that were not as well-fortified as the others. Thus the Ilyans were able to make short but effective strikes on the home planet, and war had come to Earth as it had come to the Ilyan homeworld.
The shuttle sizzled softly as it entered Earth’s atmosphere, and the port image briefly glowed red as the craft accustomed itself to the radical change in temperature. As the red faded, Abbott noted that the sky was still blue in the daylight, the clouds were still gray-white, the oceans remained a deep blue-green. The difference, of course, was in the landscape. There were those dark, lifeless areas from which an eerie smoke continued to rise, as if the planet’s soul was seeping out through them. Adding to the eeriness brought about by these areas was that, other than ruins, there were no visible cities on the planet’s surface. As a direct result of generations of conflict, humans now lived in large pod communities underground. One of the casualties of war had been the ability to live in daylight.
It was dusk over the Australian continent as the shuttle came down for its landing. The western half of the continent was one of the planet’s wastelands. The Ilyans had targeted it for good reason. Their attacks had missed the Terran High Command by 1037 kilometers, an event that resulted in a massive refortification of Terran defenses and created a contingent command post on the North American continent. However, the High Command had stood, a fact that had led to the strengthening of a myriad of religious beliefs and lent itself to the manufacture of patriotic song and verse.
Abbott prepared himself as the shuttle made it final approach to the landing pad. The only items now visible, the pad’s guide lights, created bright red, blue and green streaks on the view port as the shuttle moved past them. The shuttle slowed, then eventually halted, setting itself on the circular, green-lit pad.
Abbott attempted to raise himself from the recliner and immediately felt the aches of several weeks of inactivity. As much as he had lived most of his lifetime in either artificial or no gravity, he also began to feel the effects of planetary pressure on his various artificial parts. Over a three-decades-long career as a soldier, Abbott had his left eye, the left side of the base of his skull, his bottom three vertebrae, a lung, his pancreas, his left hip, the lower half of his right leg, his left kneecap and his upper intestines replaced by various metals, plastics, chemicals and electronics. The result had been dull pains throughout his body on most occasions, but nothing as severe as the pain he now felt. Picking out another soma stick and activating it, he stiffly made his way through the shuttle’s open portal.
Once outside, Abbott inhaled the acrid air at the Terran High Command and immediately began to cough violently. Somewhere in the distance, illuminated smoke billowed into the atmosphere, and below him were the white-clad servicemen, who appeared grotesque in the green illumination. One of them quickly made his way up the shuttle’s steps and shoved a device into Abbott’s mouth, after which his coughing abated.
“Having problems breathing our atmosphere?” asked a short, stocky Asian man in blue military dress standing at the edge of the landing pad.
“General Tan, sir,” Abbott coughed out, awkwardly saluting the general, a salute which was casually returned.
“You soldiers always forget what it’s like to come back here. Years of breathing artificial air and the lungs just don’t want the original stuff. That breather that Sergeant Yawney put in your mouth will help. Leave it in your mouth for a day or so and it’ll acclimate your lungs to our atmosphere. I’d forget about the soma sticks while it’s in there, though.”
“Yuh–yes, sir,” Abbott said, limping his way down the steps.
“You’re in pain?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“It’s the neural connections, isn’t it? How much of your body has been replaced? Or would it be easier to tell me how much of it is original?”
“It may be, sir.”
“Sergeant Yawney, would you please?”
The serviceman opened up Abbot’s shirt and placed a blue strip on the left side of his chest. The strip dissolved and Abbot’s pain disappeared with it.
“And we can dispense with the ‘sir’ after every other sentence,” General Tan continued. “Our returning soldiers are being feted as heroes; field commanders such as you are our new gods. Administrators such as myself who sat on our cans and barked orders are pretty much afterthoughts now.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. So, explain the mystery to me. We are in the midst of a planetary celebration, or at least as much celebration as a ravaged planet can muster. Every platoon of soldiers that return home is treated better than the one before. Our field officers, officers such as yourself, are being treated to a never-ending list of honors and ceremonies. Entire communities are being named after them. Your arrival should have been attended by no less than three hundred of our finest military journalists and a bevy of dignitaries. Full honor guard. The works. So, why so low-key? You don’t like crowds?”
“Something like that. I really just want to see my children again.”
“I see. Understandable. I hope you fare better with your wife and children than many of our soldiers are. It’s difficult being a father to a child who barely knows you.”
“That’s why I would like to get at it as soon as I can.”
“Hmm. And why call me out here to meet you?”
“I need someone to debrief. Sir.”
Tan released a chuckle and slapped a palm on Abbott’s shoulder. “Still the professional soldier, I see. You realize there’s not a lot of call for those anymore.”
“Yes, I do. I suppose I’ll have to find another calling.”
Tan turned and led Abbott down the steel pathway to the administration building, followed by the servicemen.
“Okay, well, you can enter your official report into the system tomorrow morning, but let’s go ahead and begin the informal debriefing now. What’s your assessment of the Ilyan homeworld?”
“To be truthful, we can never be absolute about these things. Their ‘cities’ are completely unlike anything that any human being would consider livable. However, bio scans indicate that nothing biological exists within the planet’s 432 communities. Rural areas are harder to determine as it would take decades to bio scan the entire planet. Biopsies tend to indicate that these creatures are intrinsically communal, however. They simply don’t do well either isolated or in small groups. Therefore, we can extrapolate that there is little chance that we will find Ilyans existing outside of their population centers. Then, of course, there are the outposts. . .”
“Informal debriefing, Colonel Abbott. Most of the facts and figures we already possess. From your perspective, what is your assessment of present conditions?”
Abbott hesitated. He much preferred facts and figures to conclusions.
“Well, sir, the percentages are great that the Ilyan threat has been nullified. Even if there were Ilyans left alive out there somewhere, they have no means in which to create a meaningful act of aggression.”
The two officers had entered the administration building. In spite of the powerful pain medication that the serviceman had given him, Abbott was still hobbling due to his lack of acclimation to Earth’s gravity. The outer, armor-plated doors slammed shut behind them as they walked down the dimly-lit gray entrance corridor towards the central nerve center of the facility. A year or so earlier, the corridor would have been alive with activity as the High Command and their attendants would be bustling about at all hours in order to convey reports, statistics, stratagems and all other necessary information to one another. Now, with darkness having fallen on Australia, the massive corridor had a strange quiet to it and the sound of the footfalls of the small group of soldiers echoed off of every surface. The end of the corridor opened out into a massive auditorium, capable of holding tens of thousands of soldiers despite the huge holographic war map in the midst of it. On escalating platforms on all sides of the war map were hundreds of work spaces of various sizes and functions, each one equipped with all forms of monitoring devices and thinking machines. At present, the map was down, leaving nothing but a bowl-shaped projector covering the entirety of the auditorium floor, and the auditorium itself was dimly-lit with only a few dozen people scattered in small groups around the structure.
“The place has become a museum now,” Tan said, stopping at the end of the corridor. “A museum and a laboratory. They talked about dismantling it, but the historians cried loud and long enough, so it stays. Five years ago, every corner of this place was crackling with activity. A year from now the whole thing will be decommissioned.”
“You sound disappointed,” Abbott said.
“Let me be frank with you, colonel. My job here, and the purpose of the High Command, put in the most basic terms, was to send men and women to die. Hard as it would be for some to believe, I hated doing it, I truly did. I’ve been at this post for seventeen years now, been a soldier for over twice as long, and I’ve never gotten used to the human loss that war brings. But, there is that part of me that will hate giving up the strategy sessions and the sense of accomplishment that comes from having those strategies succeed. Do you think that’s wrong of me, Colonel Abbott?”
“I’m not a judge, General Tan.”
Tan let out a soft chuckle and began to walk again. “Spoken like a future politician,” he said.
“I don’t think I would really be cut out for that, sir.”
“When was the last time you were back on the homeworld?”
“Six years ago. Following the completion of the Sigil campaign. I was rewarded with a furlough for my eldest daughter’s birthday.”
“Did you dock here, at the High Command?”
“No, I came in on a platoon ship. We docked near Krakow.”
“So, when was the last time you were here?”
“Thirteen years ago, sir. I received my promotion here and attended a strategic session for the Third Interplanetary Army.”
“Then you haven’t seen some of the spoils of our victory that we’ve kept housed here?”
“Come along, then. I can show you some Ilyan devices that have turned up over the past decade or so while I accompany you to your quarters.”
Abbott and Tan made their way along the walkway that surrounded the war map beneath the work stations that rose above them in sections on their left side. One work station, three levels above them, was brightly-lit, and a group of blue-clad individuals stood their gesturing excitedly around a console.
“Eggheads,” Tan said with a hint of spite to his tone. “Scientists control this place now.”
“What are they doing?”
“They think they’ve found some sort of flaw in the ancient Chronology Protection Conjecture, the law that states that macroscopic objects cannot travel backwards through the fourth linear dimension.”
“Why not? Maybe then they can go back three hundred years and stop this whole damned conflict before it even began.”
“Then I doubt that you and I would be here discussing this, which means they won’t be up there attempting to learn how to travel through time, and after that my head starts to hurt and I don’t want to think about it anymore.”