[The following is a work of fiction, as would be obvious even without this note. It is copyright © by Henry E. Neufeld, 2007]
I wake up, but I don’t recognize where I am. For a moment I think I’m in the barracks back home, but there is a strange light.
Slowly it begins to come back to me. I’m Captain Tad Tillman, a tank company commander in the Terran Defenders, charged with combating the alien menace. I should be out commanding my tanks in the invasion of, oh, I can’t remember the number. Some planet somewhere, inhabited by aliens. That’s the job of the Terran Defenders—get them before they get us.
My eyes are adjusting slowly to the light. My head aches and makes concentration impossible. This room looks something like the inside of a tree. The shape looks natural, with none of the straight lines and sharp edges so beloved by humans. The light is dim and diffuse. It looks like I’m on the inside of one of the native dwellings.
I’ve been inside one or two of these dwellings over the last few days. I am excessively curious, or so my superiors have always told me. I haven’t let on, but the native dwellings are extremely interesting. It appears that they are produce by guided growth. I have seen no signs of the natives using tools. We were told in our briefing that they must, that the level of control they exercise over these growths means they must have some unknown tools using unknown power sources.
The word “unknown” is designed to strike terror to our hearts. The alien menace operates by unknown means destroying human colonies and perverting various humans by unknown means. I fight the dread that rolls over me. I am inside an unknown dwelling built in an unknown way by unknown creatures.
So why am I here? Clearly something has gone wrong. For a moment I panic, thinking I have been captured by the aliens, a fate worse than death. We are told to take our own lives before capture.
But I’m certain that I was not in any danger. The aliens who live on this planet appeared unable to do anything to stop us as we invaded their homes.
No! Not that! Now I begin to remember. There was the briefing. Major Nachson assigned us our target, admonished us to be careful and to avoid casualties. It was then that I mumbled to myself, “As if these aliens are capable of causing any casualties.” That would have done it. Nachson didn’t like me very much to start out with, and that line would have been enough for him.
“Denying the alien menace,” was the informal name for the charge. The formal line in the law books was “treason.” It had built up to that point as the war progressed. At first people would be removed from their post and sent to bases near home, but that turned out to be an easy “out” for people who wanted soft duty. Soon people were sentenced to the brig, eventually for life. Now the standard sentence was death, administered in the field, with no appeal.
That had to be the reason I had been put in this native dwelling. My life was over. Nachson would simply be waiting until he had a suitable audience and the proper video equipment before he had me hung. Oh yes, absolutely. Hanging had come back into fashion as the main means of execution for treason.
I start to get up and examine my surroundings. Why should I do that? I can hardly plan to escape. I would just be killed? And the problem with being killed is what, I wonder. I might get shot instead of hung. Out here in the wilderness, half the time they bungled the hanging and you strangled to death over minutes. Perhaps getting shot would be a good idea.
I look out what appears to the a door. It’s not blocked. A few feet away there’s a guard . He’s slouching against another plant—something like a tree—and looks like he’s daydreaming. Nobody else is in sight. Apparently they don’t expect me to try to escape. Why should they? There’s nowhere to go. I’m on an alien planet, with no equipment, and nothing but aliens and empty space around. Except, of course, for a crowd of humans who would be anxious to get rid of any alien menace denier.
On the other hand, what difference would it make? I might as well run as hang out here and wait. It was the work of moments to knock out my guard. I grab his equipment, most importantly a particle beam rifle, a knife, a PDU (personal data unit), and some ration bars. The data unit will identify organic material that I can eat and water that is safe to drink. It should also have a complete map of the planet.
What do I do now? The sound of voices answers that question. Move! So I move away from the voices, reversing all my instincts. I have been repeatedly indoctrinated that to separate from the Terran Defenders is to court not only death, but potential capture by the alien menace. Nobody knows what happens to people who have been captured by the aliens. Nobody has ever returned with the story. All are absolutely certain they don’t want to find out. I, however, have decided—I don’t know when—to run as long as I possibly can.
Four hours of hard hiking lead me to, well, does it really matter where? The problem is that I can hear the sounds of firing. I am coming up on an active battle. I should avoid the battle. There will be both humans who want to execute me and aliens whose intentions and abilities are unknown. But what difference does it make? I intend to run, but I have no destination. Curiosity drives me.
I find a vantage point on a small hill. Aliens are fleeing a small village, and our troops and tanks are driving them in a classic formation. In years of training, hundreds of simulated actions, and two previous actual planetary actions, I have never really considered the value of these classic actions. We are not taught to think out our tactics; we are taught to apply the right response to the right situation.
The commander of this brigade sized force is using the classic attack pattern for attacking a position where defenders are expected to stand and fight. As it happens, however, the defenders are not fighting. They are fleeing, and from my position, I can see that they are doing so in a fairly orderly fashion, avoiding the fields of fire of most of the attackers.
It’s an odd picture, now that I look at it from outside. Then I hear the sounds of approaching troops. They have to be human. Besides, I haven’t seen any non-human troops on this planet. They are clearly approaching this very hill to get a better line of fire and kill the escaping aliens. The aliens look helpless. They appear to be some kind of herbivores, very vaguely like Terran deer.
I look behind me and see five soldiers approaching with a heavy particle beam gun. Should they get that in position, hundreds of the aliens will die. Perhaps I am disoriented. Perhaps I’m angry that my own people would execute me for a few muttered words. I swing up my rifle and before the troops have time to react, I sweep the beam across them. I break away from my position at a run, just in time. One of the tanks targets the hilltop, and vegetation burns off. I would be dead had I stayed up there.
I run straight toward the aliens. It’s a bizarre feeling. Why should I run into the unknown when all my training tells me to run away? Perhaps it’s because the actually look like an exceptionally well organized herd of deer.
The aliens don’t react to my presence in any way that I can detect. It’s hard to tell whether I’m making room for myself, or they are making room for me, but I begin to move along with them away from my own people. Are these the terrifying aliens who do unspeakable things (though unknown) to everyone they capture?
We continue away from the village. The aliens are moving through deep valleys. They show an exceptional concept of where fields of fire might be. It won’t save them in the end, but they are going to stay alive as long as they can. They might even leave behind the current group of attackers as they take time to secure the village itself. Our human tactics are thorough, if not efficient.
It appears that the aliens are diurnal, as they find a camp for the night. They move me into the center of a circle, and gather around me. It appears that they sleep standing up. I am so tired that I sleep all night, and awaken to one of the aliens nudging me forward. It offers me some organic material. I check it with my PDU and it registers as poisonous to me. I point at my device and then push the item away.
We begin to travel again, heading for nearby mountains. They look pretty rough. Perhaps 15 minutes further along, another organic sample is pushed at me. I can’t tell if it’s the same alien. This time the PDU approves the organic material. It doesn’t have much taste, but according to the analysis, it has some major nutrients. I will still need some of the rations I have with me, taken from my first guard.
Toward noon we’re attacked from the air. Several aliens are killed. I struggle to find a position from which to fire. It seems to me that the aliens are moving to protect me. I am an excellent shot, and I have success shooting down the shuttle. It is a lightly armed vehicle. Later, I suspect they will send more.
It is only another hour before I note another shuttle, equally light. There are numerous vehicles available to the invasion force that could shrug off anything I can do with my rifle, yet here comes another. It lands nearby. I try to use hand signals to indicate that I need to go toward the shuttle. I don’t know how well my signals are understood, but the aliens seem to support me effectively. For the most part this means that they put their bodies between any attackers and me. They seem to instinctively recognize that I’m their sole offensive weapon.
This protection proves critical. There are a dozen men coming who have spread out in a skirmish line and are moving toward me. I wonder how they have such an accurate position. I’ve been traveling for most of the day in places that would not be visible from orbit. After a moment of reflection I feel incredibly stupid. Here in my hand I’m holding a PDU, connected into the Terran Defender data network. They would know my position within inches! How stupid can I be?
There’s nothing to be done about it now, so I just continue to move forward. I pull out the PDU and query it for the positions of the attacking troops. It appears that someone else is as stupid as I am. I am immediately given a complete map showing myself with a hostile icon, and the twelve attackers. I lead the attackers on a merry chase as I keep moving toward first one end and then the other of their skirmish line. They are not expecting the aliens to act in this way, and they apparently are unaware that I know their position. Each time they move to surround me, I allow them to almost close the trap and then escape by the only possible means. I had expected the aliens to die by the dozens, since they seem determined to defend me by placing their bodies between me and my attackers. As it turns out, only three of them are killed and several more wounded. I am uninjured when I shoot the last attacker. I use the attacker’s clothing to attach some of their equipment to the aliens. Inexplicably, they permit me to do so.
Then I go get the shuttle. It is in good condition with an indefinite power supply. The way these small shuttles work, I can travel anywhere in this star system for years to come using this one vehicle, always assuming that I am not destroyed. I point toward the mountains, and try to mime flying with the shuttle. It’s impossible to tell what the aliens are thinking but they don’t try to stop me when I enter the shuttle.
Now’s the time to discover just how stupid some people are. I give my voice commands, using my name and rank as I normally would. I’m authorized quite a bit of latitude in requisitioning and using a shuttle such as this. Will my voice be recognized or have I been personally tagged as a traitor? My icon showed me as an enemy on the tactical display of the PDU, but that could have been input manually.
The shuttle accepts my codes, and I fly toward the mountains. They are very close now, only minutes using the shuttle. I hope there is a cave or a very deep canyon where I can try to hide this shuttle temporarily. What I will do after that, I don’t know. Living on this planet for the rest of my life is just too terrifying to contemplate, so I don’t. I will just take one step at a time.
I get the shuttle into the mountains and with the aid of the scanners I locate a small cave, just large enough, a place where it will barely fit. That’s good. I settle in to wait for the aliens. I ask the shuttle’s artificial intelligence to provide me with the news that had been gathered before I left.
The headlines are all about the fierce fighting on this planet, and about the captain of armor who is now under the control of the aliens. The accompanying video shows fierce fighting with considerable fire coming from alien positions and severe casualties taken by the Terran Defenders. In the midst of this some captain jumps into the fight on the enemy side. The only explanation for this activity, says the reporter, is alien mind control.
It takes minutes of watching for me to realize I’m the subject of the story. The scenes are cut from my experiences of the day, but all of the aliens are supplied with high tech weaponry, which none of them possess. The fierce battles that surround all of the actions are completely fictional. In each case my actions are portrayed as tipping a very tight balance in favor of the alien forces.
Then there is commentary. There’s a legal officer explaining the position of the military. “We have long maintained that indications of poor morale, or of disbelief in the alien attack were acts of treason,” he says. “And even without today’s evidence they were, considering that every ounce of our strength is required to turn back the alien tide.”
“But this,” he continues, “Shows that there is an even greater treason involved. Apparently this weakening of one’s commitment to Terran values and Terran solidarity permits alien mind control to take over. Captain Tad Tillman, now popularly known as ‘Traitor Tad’ to the troops, merely muttered a single phrase of negativity, and he was so thoroughly taken over that he was not only lost to our forces, a terrible enough consequence, but he was taken over to the alien side completely.”
I sit in the pilot’s seat of the shuttle in complete shock. I had always assumed that the massive battle scenes, while enhanced and based on reconstructions, were generally true. I thought that I always just happened not to be where the action was. I had assumed at some point that I would personally be in such a situation. Now it seemed possible that there never had been any such battles, that the entire war was created.
For some reason that idea was more disorienting than the idea of living out my life on this alien planet had been. I looked out the front of the shuttle. The aliens were gathering quietly outside. It was very strange, but their presence was comforting.
To be continued . . . [Next episode]