Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Makes the Grass Grow

Here is the short story I wrote to go along with the image at the top of this blog... give it a read and let me know what you think. It is based on Heinlein's book, "Starship Troopers". Feel free to pass it along to anyone you think might like it.


What Makes the Grass Grow

By David Monette

WHAT MAKES THE GRASS GROW?! BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD!

For some reason that shouted chant was the first real thought Pvt. Kitten Prayner had when he regained consciousness. It rose sharply through the swirling confusion of blurry images buried in his neocortex… a birthday cake, a red ball on a hardwood floor, tears on a smooth cheek… and stuck on the back of his eyes like flypaper on a hot summer day.

“Eyes… open them, open your eyes,” he spoke to himself as he recalled their existence. His eyelids fluttered open grudgingly as if they wanted to spare him the reality of his condition. There was nothing to see. Literally. It was so black, he doubted whether his eyes were even open. A series of rapid, hard blinks told him they were. That is when the panic started. It kicked in at the base of his skull and thrashed about like a caged bird searching for escape. It flew up to his clenched jaws and forced him to bark aloud, “Lights On,” before he had a chance to stop those words. It was instinct, pure and simple. A need to see. A need to banish the darkness. Under the circumstances, not knowing where he was or what was out there to see him, it was not an overly brilliant move. For as soon as the sounds left his mouth, strong halogen lights located on top of his helmet and chest plate immediately popped up and illuminated his surroundings. Almost as fast, they went out. Blackness again.

That was when Pvt. Kitten saw the small green light on his face shield which told him that the “brain” in his powered jump suit had reoriented itself after his crash and had gone into safety mode. Crash? “Shit, that’s right, I fell,” he recalled. The memory of it trickled back into his mind in shard-like pieces of jagged thoughts. There was the lonely claustrophobic confine of the egg shaped delivery module, the hair-raising descent, the hissing sounds as layers of the module disengaged when the atmosphere burned them into uselessness. That was normal. Those were things that he at least expected. He remembered hearing in his helmet the calm, confident voice of his Sergeant organizing his squad while they were in free fall a thousand meters over the planets surface. Again, that was normal.

In fact, it seems like things only started to go oddly wrong when the polished, two thousand pound battle suit he was wearing, with its incredibly intricate DNA computer brain, couldn’t seem to give him a coherent reading on the ground below. He was about five hundred meters up and had just orchestrated a graceful flip from a head down fall to a foot down descent, so that the gyro-jets in the suits feet had time to slow his momentum, when the glowing altimeter display on his faceplate changed from five hundred meters to nine hundred. A four hundred meter difference? Then it changed back to five hundred meters. Then nine hundred and back to five. “What the hell?” He had thought. He had no time to think about it and neither did his suit.

The ground was rushing up and the gyros were on full burn…

Two hundred meters… heel jets kick in, nudging him forward…

the display reads six hundred…

stabilizers switch on at his toes…

Snoopers engaged, searching for enemy targets…

one hundred meters…

five hundred…

I miss my little girl…

speed, ninety kilometers an hour… slowing…

fifty meters up, speed fifty…

Contact. Contact?

The ground shattered beneath the weight of the suit like brittle paper and Pvt. Kitten Prayner disappeared into the hole seamlessly. What happened after was a horrible sequence of falls and slides as he ricocheted off the sides of a carved, vertical shaft. His suit was frantically searching for the ground, for any surface where it could find a purchase. As fast as its biological computing circuits were, though, it couldn’t react fast enough to the sloped ledges that were jutting out from the walls at haphazard angles. All it could do was use its titanium and high-density ceramic armature to shield him from the bone-jarring impacts of the one thousand meter fall. As he was relatively unhurt, the suit had done that very well. And it had shut itself down in the process with the final, crashing collision at the bottom of the pit.

Now here he was. Alone. The panic threatened to rise up again. He could feel its corded hands inside his throat, trying to stop his breathing from within.

No.

He thought of the day he was shipping out. The sky, so clear it was almost white. His wife standing straight before him dry eyed and with that slightly pinched look on her face.

Something is odd there.

He quickly sent that thought scurrying away like a rodent through the underbrush once again.

She was holding their daughter. His little girl. Her long brown hair had been uncut since she was born and at three years old, it was getting quite long. Before they left for the Landing Field, it had been combed and braided meticulously. Standing at the terminal gate desperately watching her clinging to her mother he noticed that it had transformed into a mess of stray hairs and unbound ribbons. Her child’s grief at seeing her father leave was completely unrestrained by the conventions of adult proprieties. Her face was a mask of the pain of separation. Tears and snot streaked it and she did not care. There was nothing, NOTHING more important than her father leaving. Of him not coming home with her right now. It was the hardest thing he had ever done to walk away from her. It was harder than boot camp, harder than holding his father’s ashes at his funeral. It was harder than right now. Of facing this darkness alone. Alone.

Except for that one, small green light he had noticed earlier on the inside of the impact resistant surface of his face shield. And now that light suddenly blossomed into several display screens all around the perimeter of his shield and just as quickly, each screen switched to a tiny icon. He knew all he had to do was stare hard at one of those icons and the relevant display would pop into being. That was a good sign; at least the fist-sized fission reactor that powered his suit wasn’t damaged. He stared hard at the infrared icon and his vision in that light spectrum was suddenly restored.

He found that he was lying on the smooth, dusty floor of a large cavern whose distant ceiling was about one hundred meters overhead. Several wide tunnels emptied into this chamber not counting the one, far above, from whence he had made his inglorious entrance. He rose smoothly to his feet, shedding dust and debris onto the oddly polished rock floor, and the battered suit immediately began rifling through all its detection measures in an attempt to identify unseen threats. In the space of minutes, it had mapped out all the tunnels for up to one kilometer in every direction and had found no active dangers. Pvt. Kitten could see the three dimensional map on the inside of his face shield and noticed none of the tell tale blobs indicating movement. The relief he felt knowing he was safe washed away his anxiety of being alone almost completely. “Now how can I get back to my squad…,” he thought.

Wait… the suit picked up something slight on the initial gamma screening. Automatically, it sent a more powerful burst of gamma rays down the tunnels and waited patiently for the minute it took to determine if any would bounce to its detectors from moving objects. And there it was. Moving blobs in all the tunnels. So many they looked like long snakes of colored light on the display.

“Holy gods,” Kitten spoke to no one, “Holy gods, how many? How many are there? Fuck this. Oh shit, fuck this shit.”

Detecting enemies, the suit went into full attack mode. The Y-rack on his back telescoped out, its twin arms spread to either side of his head and unfolded the various weapons systems it contained. Each nozzle swiveled toward a tunnel where the computer assessed it would do the most productive damage. A prompt on his face shield asked him if he wanted to mine the area. He stared hard at the “Yes” prompt, flicked his left wrist, and heard the hollow thumps as the suit ejected a dozen mines that would stick to the walls of the tunnels. When he deemed it appropriate, the mines would directionally detonate with most of the force applied down the tunnels. In the same manner, he called for his handheld flamethrower and his massive ion-pulse cannon or IPC, one in each hand.

He checked the screens again. Now the blobs were being detected on all systems. He could even pick out individuals. They were the bugs. Of course, the seven foot tall, eight legged creatures they have been fighting since the war began. And there were thousands of them. All coming for him. It made sense in a bug sort of way. He was the product of thousands of hours of training and his suit was a feat of technological advancement previously unknown to humans or any other race they had so far contacted. He was the equivalent in firepower to a battalion of twenty first century “tanks” but was by far more expensive. The bugs were hatched ready-made killing units. Endlessly replaceable. It made a sick, horrible sense in a bug sort of way.

And Pvt. Kitten Prayner knew he was going to die here.

That thought held him in a strange thrall. It captured his imagination completely and totally. It didn’t seem real. None of it.

“How could it be?” he spoke aloud, “this is the all important story of my life… it can’t just end here. Not like this… not here. This isn’t right.”

Then he heard it. They were close, his sound sensors detected the rasp of thousands of bodies moving along, scraping off one another and the rocky walls. He was sweating freely in his protective suit when the dreaded prompt appeared that drove home the fact that this wasn’t a drill. That this was actually happening.

“Targets Identified… ENEMY. ENEMY. All Weapons Go? Yes. No.”

He stared hard at, “Yes” and the world exploded.

The twin fifty caliber gun ports on his Y-rack opened up first with a tremendous roar, followed seconds after by all available gun ports as the bugs emerged from the tunnels. C-10 Screamer missiles launched in a furious rapid succession as thirty caliber, explosive tipped rounds laced through the air. Rear and side flamethrowers spit their burning message in bright yellow-orange script, turning the chamber into a fiery inferno. The cacophonous sound created by the overwhelming barrage forced the suit to shut down the exterior sound sensors in order to protect Pvt. Kittens hearing. But even so, it was almost as though he could feel the sheer force of the sound. Feel its power shake the walls of the cavern as the intensity of the battle increased and the temperature outside his suit rose steadily to over four hundred degrees.

The unreality of the situation flew from the Private’s mind as he was forced to bring his hand weapons to bear. His IPC had only five charges at maximum power so he used his hand flamer to hold back the press initially.

There were too many.

He crouched and whirled in a tight circle, trailing flames in a wide arc. The Ion-Pulse Cannon hit full charge and he squeezed the trigger at the massed bugs now twenty meters away. A tremendous beam of golden light exploded into the charging creatures and did not stop until it reached the wall of the cavern where it detonated in a shower of burning sparks. Again and again he fired and spun, attempting to deny his enemies the chance to approach him from behind while his suit kept up its automatic defensive tactics.

And the entire time, Pvt. Kitten was screaming in a tumultuous combination of terror, anger and grief. He roared curses at his enemies in one breath and pleaded with his gods in another. He called for his mother, for his wife, for his daughter, for vengeance and pain… for salvation.

With a growing dread, he watched his ammo counters deplete. From green to red to black, the bars indicating each load of ammunition gradually disappeared. The fifty calibers clicked dry, followed in quick succession by the remaining weapons.

No.

His handheld flamethrower cut out. His IPC was a dead weight in his hand. Still they came.

Spinning in a circle, his hand weapons retracted into his suit and he lashed about him with his gauntleted fists and arms.

Screaming, screaming, screaming! At everything and everyone.

The suit lent him the strength of fifty men, but it was of no use. The bugs piled on. One tried to use the energy beam from its hand weapon to slice through his suit but only managed to burn through several of its compatriots as it missed.

A prompt flashed on his faceplate.

“Nuclear Warheads Armed… Launch Warheads? Yes. No.”

This was it. He couldn’t seem to fix his gaze so instead said in a broken sob, “Yes, Launch Warheads.”

Four hollow thumps indicated the launch of the two foot long, ten kiloton nuclear missiles. They burst through the pile of bugs without a pause leaving a fiery trail in their wake. In seconds, their automatic guidance systems sent them soaring over the creatures and down the darkened hallways to a range of two kilometers.

At that distance, preset by the suit… they exploded.

On the surface, it appeared as though the ground merely hiccupped in four different places, all at the same time. Underground it was quite different.

In the first one thousandth of a second, the initial flashes of energy caused by the deadly chain reactions of irradiated hydrogen isotopes sucked everything in the tunnels toward the point of detonation almost as though the explosions were searching for the breath to speak. The release of stored energy when they did find their voice spread out in all directions evenly. However, the rounded walls of the tunnels offered less room for the energy to disperse, so instead, it traveled down the halls. The white hot walls of atomic power moved along faster than thought, pushing before them incredible shock waves that flattened everything in its path like leaves in a gale. Losing power only slightly, the four thousand degree fireballs arrived in mere seconds at the chamber that contained Pvt. Kitten Prayner.

Inside the suit, the only thing the Private glimpsed through the pile of struggling bugs was a flash of light and then a single, horrible, pregnant stillness as if everything in the room with him knew it was dead.

Then the shock waves hit.

Then the flames.

Then the darkness dropped down like the closing of a book.

It was raining outside and the little boy sat by the window forlornly watching fat drops of water fall from the rain gutter to plunk onto the banana-seat of his bike while in the kitchen, his mother hummed the refrain of a song he could not name but knew he liked… black, black… my head… the young man lay on his side on the tarmac at night, watching the blood from his nose leak onto the dry asphalt toward a slowly spinning bottle of half empty beer… not there yet… she was crying… her hair… her liquid brown eyes…my daughter… he was awake.

Pvt. Kitten had no idea how long he had been out. There were small reddish-orange fires glowing all around the blasted and irradiated cavern. Wisps of smoke curled lazily into the toxic air like ghosts of those creatures whose lives lay in crumbled ruins on the floor. He was not one of them. That was the good news. By degrees, though, the bad news began to filter through his muddled senses. While his suit was still functioning at a basic life-supporting level, most of the systems were down and he had no ammunition remaining save for the now recharged Ion-Pulse Cannon which had somehow made it through the firestorm relatively unscathed. And now he noticed an odd numbness in his right arm. Creaking and groggy, he maneuvered himself into a sitting position in order to get a better look at the problem limb. In doing so noticed that from the elbow down, his right arm was just not there. It was gone.

Gone.

Gone.

Gone.

The numbness he felt in his arm seeped into his brain and he gazed at the armored stump mildly, like a sleep walker lost in a dream. The charred and blackened suit had clamped down hard on the end of the amputated limb to stop Pvt. Kitten from bleeding to death and had then pumped him full of pain killers to effectively cage the wounds devouring agony. Weak and disoriented from blood loss and massive radiation poisoning, he tried to piece together the relevance of what had happened to him but as hard as he tried, the import of the events kept slipping away.

“Get up,” he told himself, “it’s time to go home.” Dazed, he slowly rose to his feet for the second time in that cavern and stumbled to the nearest tunnel that was not collapsed. He shuffled mindlessly over the delicately crumbling remains of the creatures he had killed. When touched, their now hollow bodies, transformed into frozen tableaus of their last moments alive, disappeared in silken clouds of powdery ash. An eternity dripped by as he moved among them and turned them to dust with his passage.

Senses deadened by radiation and the syrupy concoction of drugs meant to keep him alive, he barely registered the fact that he had come to the end of the tunnel. With a start, he found himself outside and standing on a jagged mining platform fastened to the side of a cliff. Pale sunlight slipped between the cobalt blue clouds of a summer day coming to an end. In the distance, an incredible alien city, his objective, glittered with thousands of lights as it prepared for the coming night. Its hundreds of graceful towers soared over the mists of the river valley far below and pierced the sky with their beauty.

Pvt. Kitten was tired.

And he was dying.

In his one remaining hand, he raised his Ion-Pulse Cannon. Fully charged again, it leaked orange flames of power from its top bubble-vent and lit his helmet with its eerie glow.

Once again, unbidden to his mind, rose the shouted question, “WHAT MAKES THE GRASS GROW?!”

For the life of him, he couldn’t think of the response.

For the life of him.

For the life of him, all he could see were liquid brown eyes and unbound hair.

The End

4 comments:

Kevin said...

Loved it. One point though, the suit deployed mines but I don’t recall them going off when the bugs came in range, might want to add a line or two about that.

Cinnamon said...

David, I am just in awe at your talent! I reviewed your story at Best Science Fiction Stories, and have been back to visit your site several times. Keep up the amazing work!
Cin

Carl V. said...

Nicely done. I read Starship Troopers for the first time last year and was very impressed. This is a really nice homage to that tale.

JapanNewbie said...

I really enjoyed this!