Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | International Category
 

Story by Topias Uotila


“The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts.”

Gerald O'Hara, Gone With The Wind

 

I had to admit it. Not to others, but at least to myself. I would’ve run, if I’d known where and how. I’d still run, but I still didn’t know where and how. I was terrified.

Another intense heat flash on my shoulders followed by the scent of burnt dirt and feeling of sweat running in my armpits. Not just any dirt. Really good crop growing dirt with lots of organic compounds. Not just any sweat. The produce of overheating a small part of a stressed body otherwise struggling to keep itself warm.

I knew the beam couldn’t have lasted more than a second. I knew the sensation of the heat shouldn’t have lasted more than three. I knew it had felt like minutes curled up in a ball in my foxhole holding my rifle between my legs. The fiery hell of a star looming above my head. The hard cold of a grave freezing my knees as they press against the frozen ground.

They had kept talking about the dirt and the soil as the land of our hopes and of our father’s hopes – as something to stand up for. The soil was good, but they didn’t come off as people able to tell good soil from bad. Or to appreciate it, if it was shown to them. People were so detached from growth. What it took from the world and from you to make life flourish. You can’t just gene hack away the problem of running out of specific atoms. There’s a balance to growth. We had a lot of the good soil, more than many others, but most of the people didn’t show any hearth in taking care of it. The soil can only give what it gets. Nothing more.

It took the longest for the radio to start working again after the beam. I might have been given a broken one. Just the pod in my left ear held firmly in place by the helmet. No way to know, if the radio should have worked all the time. If it should have had noise cancellation. If it should’ve even had squelch. Or if this was normal. Just crackling and humming in my ear with each beam.

“Enemy units within two kilometers. No dismounted infantry detected. No indirect fire support detected. Stay low.”

I didn’t recognize the voice. It was calm – more than was comfortable or appropriate. It may have been synthesized from our standing orders and the intelligence data coming in. I had been told I could not talk back on the connection. “One-way. Just to keep everyone in the know.” Yeah. Right. I wouldn’t have had anything to say. Still, they surely were listening in. They were also monitoring my vital signs – “to keep everyone in the know”.

The crackling came back. Next the scent with considerable delay. That beam must’ve been slightly off from my foxhole. The smell made the ground feel colder without the heat from the beam I had associated with it.

They had told me about the enemy weapons in basic training after the draft. I had really learnt about the weapons from a friend of mine. Our support had the same technology. Their grunts had the same technology. Our grunts, that being me, shot bullets, if given the chance. The only thing that made me believe our support was around, was that theirs had to be shooting at something. Apparently, key people had known equally little of preparing for war than they did about growing crops. What a blunder to have fewer units with worse technology, when you are by far the richer country? A country where we felt no hunger? This blunder was heading to my death.

“Enemy units within one and half kilometers. No dismounted infantry detected. Enemy preparing indirect fire support. Stay low.”

Run, but where. Last chance. Indirect meant that they knew about our foxholes. The tillage is starting and I’m in the ground. The enemy gunners probably joked about the benefit of tillage for the farms they’d conquer. I’m a common earthworm in the field, the gunners are operators of machines of high technology. I have nothing on them.

I kept being violently pushed to the sides of my hole. My ears hurt. Dirt was raining on me. I think my ears were bleeding. Another push and my elbow stung. More dirt-rain. Head turned to the side by a rock flying at it. The rock made a bang as it hit the helmet. I didn’t hear anything else anymore, but the bang echoed inside my skull.

The foxhole held. Even the small shelf, I had dug for the grenades, held. Some roots creeping towards the grenades like they’d want to suck in the grenades’ electromagnetic powers. Some roots bleeding from my shovel hits. I’m sorry. This war is not against you. It is for you. Can you see the difference?

Our fire support was at least now gone, since shooting down the projectiles should’ve been trivial. Shooting anything flying was trivial with a beam. You just couldn’t carry effective armor. Low hover hugging the ground and erratic maneuver might get you somewhere, if you really needed to fly.

I heard the radio, but couldn’t make out the words. The rhythm sounded similar to what had been said the last time.

Warmth. Heat. Turning to slight pain on my shoulders. Sweat. Scent of burnt dirt. Crackling sounds.

“…thin one kilometer. No dismounted infantry detected. No indirect fire support expected. Stay low.”

I had been careful not to get attached to others on my team. Now I wanted to know, if everyone else had been killed in the strike. Partly, because of who they were, but mainly because I didn’t want to be left to die last. All alone. The ground would probably no longer be runnable. Too many holes and craters.

No way our crops could’ve polluted their crops with wild DNA strands. That was not how life worked. Maybe some of the crops had gotten out of containment and spread beyond the border to replace some of theirs. But that only meant the crops were better. Grew and spread better than their old crops. No harm to us and more food for them. Harnessed evolution.

“Enemy units within 500 meters. Enemy dismounting infantry. Stay low.”

Now would be the time to strike them back. Their final approach in the broken-up landscape with dismounted infantry. Rip them apart and blow them away like autumn leaves. I waited. Maybe I had lost my hearing in the strike. I tapped my helmet to the muzzle of my rifle. Tap. Very much audible. I waited some more for our fire support.

Another beam surged above my head. I was holding my head higher and I caught a small glimpse of the brilliance and the brightness before I managed to push my eyes shut. It hurt. I pressed my eyes further shut and brought my hands to them. Instead of blackness, I saw a warm orange glow. The scent came and the crackling. I would’ve felt like lying in the sun on the farm on a nice day, if only it hadn’t been for the throbbing pain in the eyes and the freezing cold in most of my body. Not that similar after all.

Eyesight came back like the hearing had come. There was a small stream of muddy water flowing into my foxhole. The beams and the explosions must’ve melted something. I tried to shift, but the water streamed onto the left side of my lower back. It wasn’t warm. It would likely get extremely cold before I’d die.

Those bastards. In fact, they had stolen our crops. It wasn’t like we would let them get out of control and be appropriated by hostile states. Good old system of “intellectual property rights” should be called upon. We should be the ones overrunning them. But they had replaced hunger with anger. And hunger was powerful. Hunger had replaced the global order with the property rights. Had not felt intellectual then. Patents versus dying of hunger wasn’t new, but it had been a poor people problem – not everyone’s. Goodbye illuminati, welcome farm espionage.

“Enemy units within 300 meters. Enemy infantry dismounted. Stay low.”

The orders were to wait until they had passed our foxholes. Jump up like a jack-in-the-box. Throw a grenade on any close by vehicle. Throw another one to another vehicle. Throw another one to any vehicle. Run out of grenades. Aim and shoot with the rifle. On average you would die in the part with the jump. They hadn’t taken into account in the average the deaths before the enemy passed us.

Their livestock had fell ill in large numbers. Why did they even waste food on livestock? They didn’t have a good honest answer. And they didn’t share those genomes with us. How could we possibly analyze the impact of our hacked life on those animals then? We couldn’t. We had told them. They had hungrily asked about our animals. None of their business. End of transmission. Unreasonable bastards.

“Enemy units within 100 meters. Enemy infantry dismounted. Arm grenades. Stay low.”

I started to hear the humming sounds of the enemy vehicles. Enormous electric motors pushing jets of air down and back to keep them flying on their cushions and moving forwards across the terrain.

I had to take my gloves off. I picked up the first grenade. It was freezing. My hands were freezing. My fingers had lost their dexterity. It was as hard as it should’ve been with the gloves on. Could one die from fumbling the arming of a grenade? Likely. I unscrewed the top, the handle part. Snapped the magnet from the bottom and dropped it into the cavity at the center of the grenade. Noticed the handle had dropped to the bottom of my foxhole. I held the grenade up with my left arm and crouched and reached blindly downwards with my right hand. I reached for the handle in the confines of my foxhole. My fingers felt icy water and below the surface the metallic handle.

“Enemy units within 50 meters. Enemy infantry dismounted. Ready grenades. Stay low.”

I looked at the water dripping from the handle leaving behind speckles of dirt. I put the handle and the grenade back onto my small shelf and picked up another one.

“40 meters. Stay low.”

Top screwed off. Magnet snapped off. Magnet dropped in the middle cavity.

“30 meters. Stay low.”

I screwed the handle back on. Dirt started to fly into my foxhole and get into my eyes. Goggles. I’d love a pair of goggles. That dirt probably shouldn’t go inside a grenade. I placed the grenade on the shelf.

“20 meters. Stay low.”

I picked up the last grenade. The wind was really pushing into my foxhole. Flying dirt forced me to close my eyes. My hands and the wet spot on my back felt freezing up to the point that the pain in the hands was unbearable. I had to place the last grenade down. I felt around for my gloves. Found them. Pulled them on.

“10 meters, 9, 8, …”

I couldn’t hear the radio anymore. The wind and the roar were shocking in their intensity. There must be a vehicle right on top of me. I only had one grenade. Better make it count then.

All I had to do is pull the pin, hurl it towards the vehicle, so that it makes contact. Had been quite easy in the exercise. The grenade should magnetically stick to the metal and almost immediately short-circuit the massive battery all vehicles had. The ones with beam weapons had an even bigger battery. The short-circuit would release the battery’s energy and probably outright melt parts of the engine. Depending on the model, it might spew toxic battery chemicals around. Might take an infantryman out with it, before they shot me.

There was a new smell in the wind. It made me cough. I was scared for a second that the sound would give me away. Then the wind died. I grabbed the grenade and waited for the go order. Coughed again. Couldn’t breathe.

“Release successful. Damage assessment ongoing. Stay low.”

I had missed the moment. I was alive. The weird smell was getting fainter. I no longer had trouble breathing.

“Synth-virus effective. Enemy neutralized.”

I raised my head from the foxhole slowly, carefully, scared. The trees were gone. The bushes were gone. The snow was gone. I didn’t recognize the place. The scent of burnt was quite overwhelming, but there were no flames to be seen. I saw a few other helmets peeking from the foxholes. There were vehicles and soldiers lying all around us in all imaginable postures. The soil beneath the corpses of man and machine had been overturned in all the places. I felt like planting something more beautiful.