No one knew if their head shapes conformed to their beaked, metallic face-shields. They were taller than us by half a meter on average, and though slender, didn’t seem wanting for strength.
I keeled over, but crawled back up to my feet.
My arm could take a whack. So could my ass. Hell, I really thought I might never have to push another cart of whatever that glowing stuff was again… until he rammed his cannon-rod straight into my gut.
So, yeah. I pushed the cart.
“Easy when you’re the one holding the cannon-rod,” I muttered.
He kept his eyes on me till I was well on my way, if those slits in its mask even concealed eyes.
Actually, I was in the ‘They’re human’ camp, myself. My comrade Tigon disagreed.
‘Too advanced,’ he said.
Honestly, their technology wasn’t that awe-inspiring. They had machines that could fly and cannon-rods. Whoop-dee-doo. I’ve dreamed up better. Doesn’t every kid dream he can fly?
In any case, our frontline didn’t last long. So much for those impenetrable border walls we‘re famous for!
All across the country we heard their roaring engines over our heads.
They landed wherever they wanted, firing bits of stuff into our bodies from those rods.
Our political leaders refused to endure much of this. I think the boys and I would rather have slugged it out, but soldiers like me can’t disobey the white flag. It flies and we stop fighting. Those were the rules.
Yeah, me or Tig would have kicked and screamed to the last of us had anyone known what surrender actually implied.
No one knew who or what we were fighting against, or why. They didn’t speak our language. They didn’t offer terms for peace. No chance for a ceasefire or anything!
The conventions of war did not apply to these jerks. It should have been apparent to our generals that any nation willing to attack without a declaration of war, was not one we should surrender to. But hey, I’m one of those give me freedom or give me death types.
It was just our luck that we got to meet these birds ahead of our allies. So there was no intelligence at all. We threw our spears as hard and precise as we could, but unless we pegged them precisely at their joints, their armor deflected. And yes, I’m talking steel and laser-tipped spears. We weren’t some band of savages, you know? This was an army!
Now, we’re mining. Digging tunnels and pushing carts. Three weeks in.
And where, oh where, are our pals from Bimurthia!? Your guess is as good as mine.
The Bimurthians had the most impressive mechanical slingshots on the planet.
I take it back. The birdmen’s rods were better and they’re here now. But Bimurthia’s were still damned good!
To think, we were just one week away from that historic trade deal. You know, I was selected to train on the Bimurthian hand-fired sling-pistol on the twenty-first of next month! Timing is everything, I guess.
Aw, who am I kidding? Only the birdmen could fly! That was the real problem. Still, I would have liked to shoot stuff at them while they landed.
What could I do, now? I asked myself.
Well, I guessed by all my cart pushing, that my efforts helped these birds in some critical way. Maybe the rocks in my cart were what powered their rods or engines, I thought. Who knew what level of radioactivity this glowing stuff had. I didn’t want to be carting it around much longer.
That’s why I planned to blow the mine.
I never let them know I was more than your average troublemaker. I only needed to see how strong they were hand-to-hand.
Yeah, they were stronger than me, alright, but mostly that was a factor of length. They could whip those cannon-rods down from all sorts of far off places. Still, I noticed their joints moved same as mine, and suspected if I was their size — and holding that damned stick — I’d pack the same punch, at least.
I never acted like some revolutionary. Just a bit disgruntled. And who wouldn’t be during their latest round of forced labor, sleeping every night among the bugs, and eating that processed bread product all week. I longed for an egg.
The birds gambled that my people were too primitive to know what we were digging. I gambled that these glowing rocks, minerals, crystals, whatever, would go bang if you shot them with a cannon-rod.
“Psst. Hey Tigon,” I whispered in the dark one night.
“Learn anything, Craz?” he replied.
“No way he beats us two against one. Let’s jump him in the tunnel.”
“How you know he ain’t holding back?”
“He brought that stick up mighty high and I’m still ticking.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Shh.” I heard the patrol-bird rounding past. We continued when he was out of earshot. “We’re gonna blow the mine.”
“With the glowing stuff.”
“The glowing stuff? It don’t look like kill-gel to me.”
“I think it’s fuel.”
“Dang, maybe… But isn’t that suicide?”
A few low-level soldiers in trade for the survival of our entire nation seemed like a fair trade, but it took a lot of midnight conversations with Tigon to settle on us being the ones named in that exchange.
It also took a bit of dubious argument on my part to convince him that ‘most crystalline fuels have a long delay between the moment they become unstable and the point at which they explode.’ Tigon knew this made no sense.
So I said, ‘something, something, has to be converted into liquid first, something, then it can explode.’
And I said, ‘that’s how it works in automobiles,’ and, Tigon, not being a science officer — and not enjoying slavery so much — decided to join my rebellion.
Also, I convinced him the stuff was radioactive anyway.
“You’re already showing the signs of displasmodiosis, man.” I told him he’d be dead in a week.
As usual, I began exiting the mine with my glowing payload first.
They kept us a long way apart from one another, but I knew Tig sprinted the 50 meter challenge in under six glims back in basic training. So he was never as far away from me as those falcon faced fools thought.
I knew he’d be counting the exact number of paces I told him to. When I got thirty steps into the tunnel —where I hoped it was deep enough to blow the mine and shallow enough to seal the entrance — I started my rebellious act.
“Oww!” I cried, and dropped to my arse.
The sentry wasted no time before scolding me.
“Ree-lorrup-nuk-twin!” he commanded, rushing up next to me.
“It’s my leg, birdman. I can’t push.” Actually I had readied my leg for action.
He pointed his cannon-rod at my chest. “Ree-lorrup-nuk-twin!”
That’s when I swept his leg with a swooping kick that slammed his back onto the ground. I pounced onto him and got a hold of his stick, but he wasn’t ready to give it up. It was a real tug of war until Tigon showed up.
The poor bird. Tig stomped on its metallic beak till its grip let up. I’m sure there was a terribly bruised face under that helm. Maybe even some missing rooster teeth. But it wasn’t completely knocked out.
I stood up holding the rod and pointed it at the birdman’s chest the way he pointed it at mine so many times before. He changed his tune.
“Tee-purrol-ruk-twik!” he pleaded, waving his hands in front of him, palms facing me. That was the international and possibly interspecies and interplanetary sign for ‘Please don’t shoot.’
It wasn’t him I intended to shoot.
The cannon-rod was simple. It had a little button on the shaft, and no other doo-dads to worry myself with. I kept the dangerous end toward our avian friend as I looked into my pushcart.
“Get out of here, Tig. No sense in both of us dying.”
“I love you, man!” Tig said as he ran out toward the entrance.
I guess he forgot that I told him he’d be dying of the displasmo-whatever it was that I made up.
“And you too, birdbrain. Get to stepping.” I motioned the barrel of the rod toward the tunnel’s exit, then back at him. (Him, it, whatever. Never quite sure how to refer to them.)
He crawled backwards until he felt far enough from me to safely stand, then headed for the exit in a hurry.
Tig was likely in line for a rough interrogation later, but living is a grand consolation, isn’t it? Besides, there was some kind of training Tig and I were supposed to have received that made small amounts of light torture more bearable. I couldn’t actually remember receiving any of it, but do believe he did.
Oh well, I thought, not much time before ten birds come in here and kick the pants off me. All or nothing.
So, I pointed the cannon-rod at the inside of my cart hoping my cockamamie story about crystals and liquids was true. I took a deep breath, and pressed the button to fire.
That’s when they took the VR helmet off me.
“Corporal Craz Onager. You’ve passed,” said the lab-coat wearing woman.
“What in the what now?” Things were colorful, but fuzzy.
“No need for anxiety, now. You’ll be moved back to your unit shortly, Corporal.”
I took in my surroundings, starting with all the things attached to me. Tubes, tubes, and tubes!
“What’s this?” I asked, fingering the thickest one.
“Good old Red-Blue-Red. There’s three lines in there, you know? They cycle out your blood, pull the drug out, and put your blood back in. All at the same time. It’s pretty cool stuff.”
“Holy whoa.” I said, seeing purples, yellows, and oranges where there should not be. “Red-Blue-Red?”
“Yeah, don’t worry, pal. You’re getting a much lower dose now. It’s only enough to trick you if the helmet’s on. At this point, we’re just making sure there’s no withdrawal. Well, not too much, anyway. When we cut your supply, you’ll feel some jitters for a few days. Nothing unusual.”
She was an army doctor, alright. We never got the quality bedside manner civilians did.
I looked to my right, as my eyes readjusted, and saw rows upon rows of my fellow soldiers, each connected to so many tubes. I think I glimpsed Tigon a few beds down, still wearing a helmet. Tough to be sure.
The scientist fiddled with a folder she pulled from a pouch at the front of my bed. “Hey Pundi, which program did Corporal Onager get?”
“I’d have to check the file, doctor,” replied a man tending to devices behind my bed.
“Was it number 0–5–7–8?”
“No, I don’t think anyone’s passed that one, yet.”
“Anything our corporal here can be especially proud of?”
“Checking now, doctor.”
“I ask because his bed tag says he ran a Tier 8 program.”
It started coming back to me. This was the S.E.R.E. training I couldn’t remember going through! They didn’t let soldiers perform reconnaissance missions in enemy territory without developing their talents for S.E.R.E.: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. I remembered prepping for it, but not much else.
“Doctor!” the assistant started, “he just beat number 0–5–7–1!”
“Then ‘Holy whoa’ is right, corporal!” the doctor made wide eyes and smiled with excited dimples. “I mean everybody says ‘Holy whoa’ when they take this thing off, but in your case it’s beyond well-earned.”
I didn’t share her excitement. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure if we shared the same room.
“Most of you front-punchers get Tier 6… wow. Tier 8 is much more experimental.
“People do pass it, because officers make sure only the tough, incredulous ones get to take it,” she winked at me, “but people don’t pass 0–5–7–8 or 0–5–7–1… they’re much too wacky.”
“There are… no damned birdmen.” I realized.
“Thank God for that,” she replied.
“There are no flying machines!”
“There are no flying machines.” She replied, confidently. “Cannot happen. Ha! Can you imagine what that would mean for war? We’d all be doomed.”
“It seemed so real.”
“The mind can really blow itself to pieces if you give it a few plungerfuls of Blue Devil brutoximinol.
“Anyway, congratulations. Very few will-to-resist against such superior forces. Let alone flying machines piloted by birdmen.” She left for the next bed with a grin.
I repeated the words ‘It was Virtual Reality’ to myself more than a few times to pull myself together. I focused exclusively on my breathing for several minutes. I almost felt okay.
But then, a faint noise started humming from the ceiling.
It grew a bit louder.
And louder… and louder. And more clear.
And I wasn’t sure which life I knew the noise from, as colorful sparkles danced across the ceiling, distracting me.
Until it grew so loud and near that the sound seemed as if it were just on the other side of the rooftop.
“Get cover!” I shouted, “Birds up above!”