12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
ON THE NINTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, TNC GAVE TO ME…
LIGHTS IN THE SKY
Open your eyes.
Be mildly disturbed by the acrid smell of rapidly dissolving flesh all around you and the taut, unfamiliar curtain of starless purple sky above. Do not let the cacophony of scudding projectiles and condensed impact explosions all around you send you into a panic. It is just a war; only a war. Remember why you are here; why you are supine on the gently arcuate meta-crystal terrain of this alien world, legs splayed out carelessly like the branches of a felled tree. Remember your name is Chinonso Kalu, that you are an ekdromoi commando with the 21st infantry of the United Earth Federation. Remember that a few seconds ago you were knocked unconscious by the shock wave from a detonating Triton-3 grenade. Become painfully aware of the brutal rhythmic ringing in your ears.
Jingle Bells. Jingle Bells.
Do not panic.
Be glad you were not caught inside the condensed pressure and nano-bot burst’s kill radius. Be even gladder that you can remember something, anything, despite the impact of the explosion forcing your brain to bounce against your new steel skull hard enough to knock you out. Adjust your visor and initiate a scan of your vitals. Process the data that your exoskeleton’s AI is feeding your brain through the router in your cerebral cortex. Request a visual summary.
Try to ignore the brief static burst carrying a distorted image of your daughter in a yellow frock and bantu knots dancing around an old, sparsely decorated Christmas tree with a peeling silver cross atop it that flashes across your visor
Log the most important scan data as it scrolls past your eyes in a flurry.
Armour integrity = 43.2%.
Blood pressure = 144/91
Core Temperature = 39°C
Oxygen Tank Reserves = 62.6%
Ammunition Available = 53.7%
Efficiently acknowledge that your ammunition stock is sufficient and you still have four of your six Triton-3 grenades. Good. You will need the grenades. You will need the ammo. You will need all of it.
Now get up. This is war.
Start running and dynamically adjust your path as you observe the terrain.
A smoldering tank. No. Possible undetonated incendiaries.
Something akin to a tree. No. Unfamiliar trunk strength.
A rude outcrop jutting out of the ground. Good. Extruded igneous rock formations are almost universally solid. This is cover.
Plaster your back to its hard surface just in time to evade a bright red plasma missile with vicious intentions. Watch it ride the thin atmosphere until it crashes impotently into the monolithic Hellfire-8 infantry teleport vehicle.
Watch the static across your visor transform the Hellfire-8 into a lighthouse… a concrete sanctuary that you are rapidly approaching on an overcrowded boat full of hungry, thin, cold, tired and desperate dark-skinned people just like you and your daughter. An old man passes you a large bottle of Scotch wrapped in a dirty, peeling, brown paper bag with the number ’25’ crudely written on it and manages a hopeful smile as he reminds you that it is Jesus’s birthday today and wishes you a Merry Christmas. You smile back and… blink the Hellfire-8 back into reality.
Glance over the edge of the rock and take in the swath of open, glassy ground that lays between you the main Chironi defence turret that is delivering swift, painful death to the overwhelming majority of the slowly advancing UEF formation behind you. Enable distance estimation on your visor and register the 106.3 meters between your position and the turret.
Look left, following the flash of light that grazes the edge of your vision just in time to see a survivor of the previous UEF advance flop to his belly at the edge of a bizarrely thick and angular hyaline brush. Scan his details; log vital statistics and supplies. He has two programmable plasma grenades confirmed in his weapon… warm brown eyes that are pleading desperately with you not to leave her alone in this strange place because the passport and the money and even the quality of life mean nothing if she does not have you… and 21% of his ammo load remaining. Send him a direct message on the secure short-range comms channel.
“Lance Corporal Kalu of the 21st ekdromoi requesting cover fire.”
“Lau Chen. 42nd. What’s your play, Kalu?”
Reduce your plan to a concise set of actions and inform him of his part in them. Tell him that you are, “going to charge the main turret to detonate Triton-3 and clear troop advance. Require 5.5 meter proximity. Need suppression fire to create an 8 second window.”
Listen to the querying response, “You things can run that fast?”
Inform him that you can. Register his contemptuous tone and his choice of descriptor for you as they flow through the comms signal. Ignore them, you have no need for Chen’s prejudices; you only need his cover fire – administered effectively and efficiently. Tell Chen to fully unload his ammo at a concentrated point on your signal. Send him the coordinates.
Wonder if you will ever spend another Christmas with your daughter as you wait for the tide of whizzing and banging and booming and screaming to ebb. Watch the explosions decorate the alien space like so many Christmas decorations on a glass tree. Let the heat and the death and the noise remind you of the insurgency that forced you to flee your home in Kano, of the insurgency that grew to become a war, of the war that took a wife from you and a mother from your daughter. Christmas only ever comes once a year but there is always a war somewhere.
When the tide subsides, send the support signal to Chen and break out from behind the rock, bee-lining for the turret position in giant strides powered by your exoskeleton.
Watch the energy membrane in front of the turret ripple and vibrate violently ahead of you as Chen’s ammo pounds itself into the repulsion field relentlessly, blinding it to your advance. Accelerate.
Tense. Veer off path as much as you can without losing speed to evade the mistimed plasma missile hurtling its way toward you. Watch it arc and seize before exploding mid-air just ahead of and above you with a spectacular sound like a star screaming to announce the birth of a king.
Ding Dong Merrily on High.
Brace. Take the impact on the contracted interlocking plates that line your exoskeleton’s back. Stagger forward. Stumble. Do not fall.
Regain balance. Correct your path. Keep running.
Ignore the fact that you can hear nothing now but a high, winding whine.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!
Realize that you are almost at the turret and that there is no more suppression fire so Chen is either dead or out of ammo. Realize that it is now or never. You have to …enlist to secure her future – the Union will make her a citizen and take care of her, protect her in all the ways you have never, will never, be able to and they will give her a life she deserves where bright lights in the sky do not always mean death is coming …make your move.
Allow the AI calculate the nearest angle and point of approach to minimize probability of impact damage. Display the results on your visor… Hug her and tell her it is the only way. Lie to her that you will be back before next Christmas because it is just a war; only a war… and align your steps with the harsh red dashes of the AI’s calculated path. Raise your weapon.
Step into range. Launch the grenade on a low trajectory, allowing it transit the open, pellucid ground and arrive with just enough energy to attach itself onto the base of the turret and shimmer once. Bank left. Hard.
Dive onto the ground, pressing your body to the alien world desperately as the turret enfolds in a bubble of broken pressure, vicious nano-bots consuming everything caught within…Hear her voice cry out for her Daddy! Daddy! Please! … in the deafening roar of the explosion that turns the turret into a bright, burning, Christmas tree of death against the alien sky, lifts you up and throws you several feet in the air like you are nothing but the doll you gave her fourteen Christmases ago. Crash to the ground rudely and succumb to the darkness that caresses your consciousness.
Welcome the silence. Welcome the darkness. Welcome the…
Open your eyes.
Be disturbed by the acrid smell of rapidly dissolving flesh around you and the crystalline terrain of the alien world beneath you. Catch your reflection in it and wonder briefly why the image you see has a steel mask for a face and two bright neon-red orbs for eyes. Remember suddenly why you are here. Remember that it has been fourteen Christmases since they bonded your mind and body to this suit, this war machine. Remember that is has been fourteen earth years since you tasted good scotch, ate hot jollof rice, kissed your daughters forehead. Remember, Remember. Remember the sacrifice of the flesh. Take in the cacophony of scudding projectiles and condensed impact explosions all around you and through it all, remember her.
Now get up. This is war.
From The Author:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is The Alchemist. But please, just call me Wole.
Making a sacrifice, is something we all are called upon to do at some point, to varying degrees, for the people or the things that we love. My Christmas wish, for you, dear reader, is that your sacrifices are all worth it, in the end. And they bring you closer to your desires, closer to your lights in the sky.
To the writer who comes next, I give a copy of Tina Fey’s excellent book ‘BossyPants’, I hope you find it as entertaining as I did.
Merry Christmas, everyone.