Perihelion - October 2002
Tour of Duty - Anon
Gun - Anon
(page 4/16)


Tour of Duty

Part 1: The Gun.

It was midday when my suit died of starvation. Rations scarce enough to feed ourselves, let alone the fuel-generating bacteria chambers that form the suits' gut. The suit's muscles cramped and my full weight returned with its dead weight causing me to fall to my knees. The Gun towered over me like the king as I knelt in front of it, it's subject and it's protector. Dragging myself back to my feet under the full force of the local gravity, I wished I were back in the centrifuge on board the destroyer; small and claustrophobic though it was, and uncomfortable compared to the hours of weightlessness. The rest of the squad dragged themselves on behind The Gun, over the frozen mud, their SI's fixed to their chests, while the Gun rolled onwards on its tracks, its barrel clutched close to horizontal. Perhaps in three days we would reach the rest of the unit and get some rest and more supplies before the move on the city.

So many of them, so few of us. I thought of the carrier as I remembered it (still under construction) from the destroyer's screens as it and IST's had begun the boost towards the gate. Whereas the colonists had moved through space over decades we had crossed the distance in months, but the lead they had on us had allowed several generations to be born and grow old here. Our leaders' estimations on their numbers had proved conservative.

That night I skinned the outer suit and ate the stringy remains of the muscles, and tried not to dwell on those artificially grown muscles' origin.


In the hot, loud darkness, pressed into my seat, I clutched my SI. Despite the dull red artificial horizon line projected onto the bulkhead and landing hatches, matching the false balance my suit's helmet silently screamed into my ear, my senses rejected the fiction and the sharp acceleration and buffeting still gave rise to a sense of nausea. The ‘horizon' crept slowly higher and higher and then suddenly flipped over my head as the dropship, a light loader with two brick-like containers full of men strapped to either side, flipped back so the hard deceleration in final decent forced the blood into our legs rather than our heads. Light-headed and totally off balance, a wave of motion-sickness flooded through me. I was not alone. Somewhere in the darkness someone made a dry retching sound.

A countdown began, and we checked our SI's in the darkness by touch. The doors fell open to form ramps, and we charged out into the night, thankful of the darkness of the dropship. Though lit by a large white circle, it was dark enough to require good night vision. As had been predicted, the moon circling this world reflected light from the sun, ensuring that the night was not as dark as on our own, lonely planet (lonely us, so far away. As far away as any man has been from home, save for the rebellious colonists).

They hadn't had much warning, but they had been ready for us... even this small settlement. The force of our attack and our Special Issues brought them to the floor like cattle to the slaughter.

Daylight shines on hundreds of dead cows. Our landing came down on a herd wandering near the town. The smell of burning hair is inescapable, such obscene blood and gore. Big, round, innocent, surprised, stupid eyes stare out of the gutted body of a bull hit by the full force of an SI round, a sculpture of revulsion in charred, dead flesh, daubed in blood, carved out of living beings with hot steel.


I watched the bright trail of light move across the sky, high and far off or closer and lower I couldn't tell. It might have been one of our dropships, or one of our Longboats.

The Longboats. We had had eight of them, four to each Inter-Stellar Transport. Big crude rockets really, that had the Longboats bolted to the sides: Long, flattened tubes four hundred metres long, covered in heat shielding with huge flaring wings and a rounded end, carrying two thousand men and machines through space and then down through the atmosphere. I had seen one of them land after the fury of the spearhead operation and our own units landing from small "dropships". The ‘boat' had lumbered through the air, slowing and stalling to hover momentarily above the ground, a giant cushion inflating on its underbelly as it wallowed for a second before collapsing on to the plain.

It was then that the sense of exposure sank in. There was to be no way back until the carrier came, with its shuttles and its massive onboard construction machines that would build runways allowing Longboats to land and take off.

Then again, it could be one of their missiles. The colonists hadn't spent much time furthering their technologies. They had spent it harvesting this new God-given world. So much like our own, the creatures and plants almost identical to those provided to us on our old world. I am not sure that I had truly believed in God until I had seen the themes of His creation repeated, with plants and animals laid out and awaiting only the harvesters to fulfil their purpose. How could these colonists see this and rebel against the Crown, God's anointed?

The light faded, and I thought of the Carrier. Later I heard that it was indeed a Longboat, but not from the Carrier, which was still not complete, but a duplicate expeditionary force to allow us to maintain the foothold on the major continent. My squad was assigned to escort one of our artillery pieces north to replace some of theirs lost in fighting.


Dull roaring.

How...

A question? How did I get here?

Rumbling... like the dropship. Crammed seven to a side and one up front, fifteen to a ‘coffin', one slung on each side of the light loader chassis, screaming through the atmosphere, upside down (to stop the blood rushing to our head when the retros slam on) twisting suddenly for the final descent. In the dark (so our night vision is good when the doors open on the anti-aero cannon site).

But that's not right... the dropship was crippled.

How...

A Question? No... not a question. But something.

Stay with it.

Back in the centrifuge, spinning round (so my bones don't turn to sponge). Stuck full of steroids... no, not there, because the destroyers are all gone now... Where is the carrier?

How...

...are they fighting us? With their ancient chemical fuelled weapons, their cylinder engines... but millions of them against thousands of us. But that's a question... it's not a question! Exclamation?

How... no... Howit... Howitzer

Vision returns - the shell detonated on the shield but the blast knocked us all down. The Gun is ready, it's electronic instinct homed in on its industrial age counterpart, waiting for me to press the button. There is something hot in my side. The muzzle flash blinds me again and the magnetic catapult squawks through my communications bead.


The trench is a bubbling swathe of water, the surface plucked by the downpour, a sheet of water jets from the sodden ground. The city is visible in the distance; the ground slopes away on all sides so it appears to rise like an iceberg of concrete from a sea of mud, marsh and mayhem. To add insult to the injury inflicted upon us by rude chance, the drainage of the city has been manipulated to pour all the water caught on that smooth, impenetrable concrete apron in our direction. Each act of defecation therein precipitates into our trenches, driving home our lack of food as well as shelter.

I wade through the churning mass, boots pressing into the thick, rich, soft clay under the water. It feels like dead flesh. I think of cows. My boot catches in something and I crash into the water, hands clawing through thick mud to either side but finding no purchase in its slick mass. Fully under the surface, the roar of water on water is dulled to a rumble.

I reach The Gun ten minutes later. Occupying its own dug-in position, an island of metal now in this sudden sea. A few of the designated engineers (though of course, we are all trained to do everything) are tending to it, trying to stop it sinking irretrievably into the mud by forcing tree trunks under its body. The other vehicles have been moved a few miles away, over the next ridge. Denied by man the power to destroy the city and by God the power to take it.

The Gun could feasibly annihilate the city with a few, maybe ten, shots, melting glass and metal and stone with the fire of the sun itself. But we only have fifteen shells, and we may need them later, as we need the city now. Or at least when the rain stops and the ground freezes again.


Gun by Anon

The gun is crude, even by the now ubiquitous antique standards. Originally an anti-armour weapon it has become an anti-aero weapon, a pale imitation of The Gun. Cranking to follow the target, staccato crackles match the jingle of spent cartridge cases as I race the plane. It flies in a line, its bomb will fall in a curve, and the line of my fire is a projection in dotted black smoke of the elevation of the barrel which sticks fast at eighty seven degrees, as high as the jerry-rigged frame will go...

We broke into the newer outer districts of the city. The enemy seemed to have accepted its eventual loss and stopped sending reinforcements. The occupants and defenders retreated into the old town, the highest part of the city now that the surrounding later buildings are gone. A siege within a siege, a noose tightening, seemingly inexorably, around the neck of our enemy.

...the hatch on the plane opens, the wheel turns, light glitters off droplets of water as a case falls into the puddle of snow melted by its predecessors...

There is a new sound and smell to our war, chemical gun cotton, machine oil and hot metal and the crack, whistle and clink of near clockwork machinery, and now a new sound. I stared at the sky, filled with the shapes of a hundred aircraft rumbling across the sky. The first bombs blasted the already shattered ruins smaller still as we ran for cover, the saving grace that there was nothing left here to burn.

...it all seems to hang there, glittering and stationary before falling through the air...

We worked underground on the artillery piece. We found it fused into a patch of trinitite with the wheel chassis a hopeless melted wreck, the product of The Gun's work. We cut the firing mechanism and barrel away from the mess, and built a new chassis out of materials to hand, and a cunning sighting apparatus using a mirror so that one could aim the gun while facing towards the earth to crank the wheel. But we couldn't get the barrel to go all the way up to vertical.

...and crashing into the surface. The splintered plane and fallen bomb, mother and child, dissolve into flame as a face, (my face? Surely not?) coalesces in the pool of melt-water.


The old town hunkers in the midst of the shattered stumps of the later generation monoliths. The ruins of what might have once been, for a short time before God and King were abandoned, a church or cathedral. Old, abandoned in peace, in war the black heart of our worn enemy, saturated with the air of power in decline but still present, the scruffy and down-at-heel exterior inhabited by a brooding authority tenaciously clinging to its remaining resources: ruthless, brutal and cunning in its course as its means.

The siege is over, and now the fight wallows into its long final stages. Bloody urban warfare, the crackle of automatic projectiles and the close intimacy of a bayonet silently slipping into a heart. Metal and stone and flesh and blood, the four elements from which all within are carved. The Gun left outside and behind, awaiting the day it can march in victory into the captured city. Its castle, its seat of power, its fiefdom in waiting when we, its knights, seize the city and sack it, putting occupants to fire and the sword (metal, stone, flesh, blood. They strike a primitive chord. They resonate).

Then artillery pounds at our city and across the debris field and through the gaps in the thickets of steel trees and tufts of girders, a thick tail of kicked-up snow marks the wake of tanks in their thousands as they storm past the city, so nearly our city, some ringing us the rest surge onward back south, back towards the distant Northfall beachhead. So this is despair. I contemplate, briefly, surrender. Surrender, traditionally, is only an option when ammunition is totally expended. SI's can fire anything, from high explosive standard issue ammunition through to the crude chemical packages the enemy has found easier to produce, thanks to a modular firing chamber and an adjustable barrel diameter. The SI was built to fight for as long as it lasted. Were we? We run like rats, rifling through the bodies of the dead to find projectiles to rifle through our enemies. The tinkle of cartridge cases falling onto the masonry and the chink of stone carved from the wall. Chemical charged projectiles... how low we have sunk, civilisation in tatters. I wonder also how low we shall, in the final reckoning, get in this long march from the wonders of electronics to the crudeness of mechanics. Soon even the chemical ammunition will be gone: from solid state to solid state. We never thought that we would, that we could, bring ourselves to that muddy tussle. We who crossed between stars brought finally and irretrievably to the sod, and there bogged and buggered by crude weapons a hundred years out of date. What did they think? They threw themselves on crude engines into the space across the stars (where we stepped round) looking for another planet, trusting in God and his benevolent creation, and they found a new world in the image of the last and complete to every detail, ready built for them, and they descended into the mud like seeds to grow. We descended like a meteorite, a burning lump of metal to seize this from them. It is true they have turned from God, from the King at least (and isn't that the same?). Metal. That's what we are, unyielding, hot and sharp. (My long knife plunges the enemy and he dies, that's the last here. I am alone in the sculpture). The symbol of office is a sword: Metal. The Symbol of rule is a crown: Metal. That's what it is. I want to escape this. I don't want to fight anymore. How long have I felt this? That's what I have to do, cast off the metal. I shall be metal no more. It's the culmination of a journey, process, as I look back all I can see is a swathe cut through the land covered with bits of metal like the skin shed from a snake. First the dropships, then the suit, weapons, armoured vehicles, ammunition, The Gun. Now I shall hasten the process, off with my helmet and gun and weapons. My suit has buttons... metal, off with them. Naked and cold on the blast-shattered road, but free of metal (human again) but no, there is metal in me yet... in my side. I must exorcise myself so I pick up my knife again.

I dream of shining steel God. He has a knife in His hand and he cuts into His side and blood pours out. The blood is white-hot iron, and explodes out of Him into a spray of fine drops which form the stars. The wound begins to scab over with slag that flakes off and forms the worlds. With His lifeblood leased out, power diminished but not spent, a brooding authority, as ruthless in His measures as brutal in His means.

I awoke later in a mobile field hospital. I passed out before I could do serious lasting damage to myself in the madness. The lack of court martial has less to do with record as with scarcity of men. The Carrier had been delayed, emerging well above the plane of the ecliptic. It took months to get to orbit, by which time our forces were already staging a withdrawal from the city, a shining metal stud in the sky settling low on the horizon to our south.

Anon