The tension builds to “Shock and Awe” levels, but from which side? I did not say it before, but each numbered paragraph in the storyline will expand to one chapter or more. If you just tuned in in the middle and feel lost, please go back to my earlier posts, starting with Background, etc. Another couple posts and I’ll start heading into the Chapter previews.
- A shuttle from a robot trading ship landed in Sector 87 with supplies. While the robot was waiting in the local pub for the humans to offload the supplies they needed and load their meager food stuffs and mined minerals, he overheard two humans at another table talking about a new species of humans they called Rats.
- When the robot returned with his shuttle to the main ship, he reported what he overheard to the Office of Human Affairs on his home planet over the QEB. The watch officer suggested that the robot take the shuttle back down and scout around the other sectors and Uncharted Areas to see whether there were any signs of this new human species. The trader robot took the shuttle back down to the surface and sectors known to be inhabited as well as the Uncharted Areas. The robot found signs of human habitation in the infrared range of the spectrum and set the shuttle down nearby. The robot jumped down from the shuttle and started walking in the direction of the infrared blobs. He walked into a forest and found himself surrounded by dark blue humanoids.
- Lem led the robot to his home, accompanied by the rest of the group. Lem explained to the robot the differences between Homo Sapiens and themselves. Homo Sapiens called them “Rats”, a pejorative term for “Rationals”, their dominant characteristic, aside from being blue-skinned. They had accepted the name, Rats, good-naturedly, and referred to the Homo Sapiens equally good-naturedly as “Saps”. Saps were rather exclusive in their concept of humanity, whereas Rats were far more inclusive. No intermarriage of Sap and Rat had ever produced offspring, although a few Rats were born of Sap parents, like Lem and Yani. Most Saps would prefer a Rat-free world. There had been a number of Rat births from Sap parents. Maybe it had to do with the cyanide compounds mined for processing gold ore in some of the sectors. Most Sap parents killed their Rat infants after child-birth. A very few, like Thort and Evanor or Kivo and Thana, let their Rat infants live and raised them as Sap children.
- The robot asks Lem whether the Rationals need any special assistance from his bosses. Lem said there wasn’t very much the robots could do for the Rationals. They could see where they were going and they knew what to do. Their problems had to do with the Saps, who did not know where they were headed and certainly did not know the right things to do. The Saps would never accept the Rationals, although they could use their help and they would continue to attack them, even though they did not stand a chance. In any event, the robots did not share the Rationals’ time line, except to intersect with it once every 64 years. Lem did not tell the robot that the Saps only shared their time line up to a certain point.
- The robot said finally that, if there is nothing the Rationals need from the robots, there is probably nothing they have or want to trade off-world with them. Lem and the rest of them concurred. The robot promised to stop by just to check on them once every 64 years, no strings attached. Lem said somebody would always be here to welcome him.
- The Rats had a good year, actually a good 10 years. Farms were thriving, but even better, the successes appeared to be sustainable. People were healthy and nobody went to bed hungry. There was no government, no laws, no judges, and no police. From time to time, a forum of people would meet to deliberate apparent conflicts of interest that were too difficult for both sides to resolve. The assumption was that both sides were right and their intentions were good, but there was probably a challenging paradox involved that warranted group deliberation. All human societies have complex needs and the Rats were no exception. It did not make sense for everyone to be a farmer; besides, there were enough farmers producing enough food for everybody. The Rats could have produced enough food for the Saps too, but the Saps hated the Rats more than they loved eating. The Rats began to specialize their labors. In addition to farmers, there were doctors, teachers, builders, researchers, transporters, and broadcasters. Nobody received money for any products, services, or work, so there was no need for money. Everybody did what was necessary to maintain a sufficient level of abundance in his area of specialization. It made sense. Once you were born, you have to do everything you can to survive until the day you die. If there are people in a society who lack the means to survive, that society will break down.
- A mob of worked-up Sap neighbors set fire to Evanor’s small farm. They drag her out of bed and tie her to a tree. They pile twigs and tinder around her legs and douse everything with oil. Evanor is set on fire. She screams until she dies.
- Another mob captures Kivo and Thana. Their neighbors hang them side by side from the same tree branch.
- Laws were passed at the sector level and regional levels to mandate that all blue infants be terminated immediately after birth, whether or not they were deemed viable. The various rag-tag mobs in each sector are consolidated into a more-or-less regular army. Officers are appointed to develop a viable strategy to track down and kill the Rats once and for all. It would require crossing into the Uncharted Areas. The Rats did not see the need for a hierarchical military organization. They would defend themselves and their families as best they could, but each man, woman, and child knew what had to be done, come what may, and there was no need for any general to command them to do it.
- That year there was another drought and the only crop farmers like Styg reaped in Sector 87 was dust. In Sector 84, Javid, Thort’s neighbor and co-worker at the local mine, passed away. His wife, Dorka, said it was from Blue Lung. Javid had been coughing up blue phlegm in the worst way the last few months. The company doctors said there was no such thing as Blue Lung. They explained that Javid had probably smoked and drank too much.
- The Sap army moved through Sector 127 toward the Uncharted Areas with scouts, infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, observational balloons, and logistics trailing behind. Command and Control Centers were set up just behind the forward units. Communications antennae were planted on hills behind the CCC’s. It was an impressive display of military power and organization. The weather was difficult though. There were constant electrical storms throughout the sector with horizontal lightning streaking across hilltops and through valleys. The ground was soggy at best and at worst the foot soldiers and the drac-drawn carts sank down in the mud. Thick bullets of ice hailed down on their dented helmets and thwacked the soldiers on their insufficiently padded shoulders. It was impossible to set up camp that night prior to crossing into the Uncharted Areas at dawn the next morning, so the soldiers hunkered down for the night and tried their best to ignore the relentless hail and the terrifying lightning.
- Dawn arrives, not much different from the previous night, and the men, animals, and carts move forward slowly. They reach the river bank and look across to the mists hiding the far side. The black river current is faster in the middle than along the bank. The field commander sends scouts up and down the river to find a place where the river may be safely forded. The scouts are ordered to return before evening. Radio silence must be maintained. Two scouts are sent in each direction. By nightfall none of the scouts had returned.
- The next morning at dawn cavalry units accompanied two fresh pairs of scouts up and down the river. The scouts and units were to return before evening. Again radio silence was to be maintained at all costs. Night descended, not much different from the day, but neither the scouts nor the cavalry units returned.
- The morning after, the field commander divided the infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, observational balloons, and logistics units into two equal groups, each with its own group commander. Each would move in opposite directions up and down the river bank until they found a point where the river could be crossed. Both groups would use encrypted radio signals to communicate with each other. The two groups would meet up on the other side, possibly organizing a pincer movement around the Rat enemy although they had no idea where the Rats were. The upriver group slogged its way around the bend and soon was out of sight of the downriver group, which moved slowly downstream.
- The upriver group marched three days before they found a point apparently shallow enough to ford the river. The scouts and cavalry units were never found. There were rumors that they had been beheaded or skinned alive and left hanging upside down from a tree. The rumors served to increase their hatred of the Rats and their resolve to massacre every last one of them. No mercy would be shown. Among many of the soldiers, however, the rumors served to make them afraid and to wonder whether this military campaign was really worth sacrificing their lives. The upriver group commander called the downriver commander over the STU. The downriver commander had not reached a point where the river could be safely crossed but was optimistic that it was only a matter of time until they found it. They had not found any sign of the scouts or cavalry units sent downstream. He feared the worst had happened. His men were itching to kill the Rats with their bare hands.
- The upriver commander, being senior in command, decided to cross the river without waiting for the downriver commander’s group to cross. He ordered some men to wade across the treacherous rapids with heavy coils of rope slung over each shoulder and shot-blasters held high above their heads. The rope coils were tied around thick trees and boulders growing stubbornly from the river bank. The stones below the white water were sharp as axe blades and provided slippery footing at best. The lead man slipped and hit his head, opening a bloody gash across his cheekbone. The second man caught him by the collar but lost his shot-blaster downstream while scrambling to maintain his footing. He waited for the third soldier to reach him and together they dragged the unconscious soldier to the other side. They laid the soldier on the sandy beach of the far bank and looped the ropes around gnarled tree trunks. One of the soldiers carried the excess rope back across the river to the near side. The ends of the rope were tied so that a long low hanging loop of rope crossed over the river. A hundred or men tied themselves to the ropes overhanging the river and waded across with their weapons aimed at the forested hill tops on the far side. They reached the other side and established a beach head facing their weapons inland, the direction from which they thought the Rat attackers would come. The remaining soldiers built several rough-hewn rafts and thick staves to pull the carts, animals, and heavy equipment across, while trying to brake the strong downstream currents. The sun seemed to break through the thick roiling clouds hiding the treetops on the cliffs surrounding the beach they had secured. Some of the men were heartened to see a keyhole of golden sunlight, the first rays in more than a week, what with all the dismal weather they had slogged through. Some men wondered how in God’s own hell were they going to scale those cliffs. Small but sturdy piers were built under the ropes on either side of the river. An empty raft was tethered to the rope and to the pier and pushed, sliding into the water. The first drac and cart were driven reluctantly onto the unstable raft. The drac snorted and brayed, swaying his head and neck left and right, and nearly charging off the edge of the raft. The cart held a heavy cannon battened down for the river crossing. The rope to the pier was released and one soldier pulled the raft via the loop rope while another soldier planted the stave into the riverbed to keep the raft from flowing downstream.
- When the raft was halfway across the river, a lightning bolt ripped through the grey sky and blasted the thick tree to splinters, around which the crossing rope was looped. The looped rope catapulted uselessly into the air and the raft capsized, drac, cart, soldiers, and cannon. The rope held onto the raft as it swung along the radius downstream of the tree trunk on the far side of the river, that is, until a second lightning bolt blasted the tree trunk into splinters. The capsized raft, now released from any and all commitments, flowed downstream until it broke up on one of the sharp rocks jutting up from the riverbed.
- The upriver group commander was undaunted by the singular bad luck he had witnessed with his own eyes. He would not be deterred and resolved to cross the river again but the grey light was waning and soon the night would render it virtually impossible to cross the river. He called his men across the river to make camp as best they could for the night and the logistics units would bring provisions to them in the morning. He watched with his monocular the camp fires sputtering across the river. His own men made camp and settled in for the night. He ordered two standing guards and two roving guards to patrol the perimeter. He gave the same orders to the unit commander on the far side of the river.
- At the crack of dawn, the commander scanned the far side with his monocular but saw only the grey mists. He called the unit commander on the STU but only a dead silence issued from the earphone. He called the downriver group commander for position and status. The downriver commander reported they were about to break camp and continue downstream looking for a safe place to cross the river. The upriver commander told him about the two lightning bolts and the lost cannon, cart, and drac. He had an eerie feeling about those lightning bolts but he did not mention it to the other commander.
- The upriver commander slipped the STU into his backpack. He ordered some soldiers to tie a new rope around one of the other thick trees on the near bank of the river and some other soldiers to tie the other end of the rope around their waists. The first group of soldiers fed the rope out slowly as the second group waded into the river with their weapons trained on the cliff tops. The men in the river moved slowly, trying to maintain their footing in the rapids. They disappeared into the mists. After twenty agonizing minutes, the commander heard his STU bleeping gratefully. “Sir, we reached the far bank of the river,” the voice reported, “but we don’t see any of our guys. There’s no tracks in the sand or mud either.” “Keep looking!” the commander ordered. “There’s gotta be something left behind, a cigarette stub, a food bar wrapper, a smoking pile of dung, something…” “We’re looking again sir,” the voice crackled with static, “but we’re not finding anything.” The commander ordered the men on the other side of the river to stop searching and to secure the perimeter immediately. He told them to call him every ten minutes to update their status whether or not there was anything to report. Two men looped the rope around another tree. One of the men waded back across the river with the excess rope.
- After the rope loop was hanging across the river, another raft was shoved through the mud and sand down to the river side beside the pier. A drac and cart were driven onto the raft. The drac roared fire and the raft nearly capsized. The cannon was carefully lifted into the cart and tied down. The raft inched across the strong shallow currents with one soldier pulling the loop rope and the other staving off the pull of the downstream. The raft reached the middle of the river with great difficulty and then a single lightning bolt split into two tines slamming into both trees on either side of the river, replacing them with ash and smoke. The rope flew upward in a diabolic smile of flame. The raft flowed sideways downriver until it hit a half-submerged tree and the cart, cannon, and drac upended over the side of the raft and splashed under the grey water. The men were shot off the raft into the water as it flipped over. During the excitement of this rolling disaster, the commander had forgotten that he had not heard from his men on the other side of the river for more than ten minutes. He called the voice he’d talked to earlier that morning, but there was no response.
- The downriver group continued to move forward, keeping the river to their left. Around every bend, the river seemed to widen until the opposite bank was lost in the undifferentiated grey mists. Just before nightfall at the end of each long march, the group stopped to set up camp and draw up lists for guard and patrol duty. The commander called the upriver commander every hour from sunset to sunrise to give and receive status updates. The downriver commander was appalled to hear of the losses in men and material. He was even more appalled to hear about the lightning bolts. He had to consider that the Rats had succeeded in weaponizing lightning.
- The next morning the downriver group breaks camp and begins another long slog. You can’t really march in mud up to your knees. They slog parallel to the river looking over to the other bank as it recedes into the distance. Everyone suspects the uselessness of the effort and that the river will probably become a lake before it becomes a creek. The rain turns to hail, which turns to rain again, and then hail. The soldiers are indifferent to the weather. The rain softens and beats down the cloth protecting their backs and shoulders, so that the hail hurts even more against their wet skins. Their minds are elsewhere, in warm and dry local pubs or in warm and dry beds. The grey afternoon darkens into evening as the soldiers round a bend and enter a boulder strewn inlet. They set up camp for the night, sip cold soup from crusted cups, and curse their downriver commander more than the Rats.
- It seems an endless senseless cycle of night and morning, dreaming and waking. Some men have been feverish for several days and they move in and out of hallucinations, effortlessly, passively. One soldier faints headlong into the mud. His comrades lift him up, barely conscious, supporting him with their shoulders under his armpits, taking on his backpack or shot-blaster along with their own. The fog moves in low, covering the muddy ground, the sandy bank, and the river itself. The soldiers’ feet trudge along blindly, not knowing where to step. One man stumbles sideways into the river. The rain pours down straight from the low clouds in thick globules, beating away the low-lying fog, until once again the feet knew where to step. Grey morning slips unnoticed into grey afternoon and afternoon into grayer evening. The last light starts to fade from the rain. They stop to set up camp. Lists are drawn up for guard and patrol duty.
- Just before dawn, the last-watch guard entered the downriver commander’s tent and fired his shot-blaster into the commander’s snoring face. One of the other guards dragged the commander’s corpse through the mud to the river bank, waded in until he was chest deep and the corpse floated in the current, and released it to float downstream. The other men started to wake up, one by one, and tend to their personal needs. They ate in silence and then began to move upriver and homeward. The STU beside the downriver commander’s cot squawked in high-pitched tones to the emptiness of the tent.
- The upriver commander called his commanding general on his STU and reported that his troops had sustained a 75% loss of personnel and materiel against superior Rat forces deployed along the river bordering the Uncharted Areas. Apparently the Rats had superior technology, including the ability to control the local weather to their advantage and even to use lightning as an accurate and effective weapon. He recommended to his superior officer massive reinforcements to overcome the enemy, to make them regret the day they were born. The commanding general said there were no more troops available. It would take months to organize and train them. “Sir, in that case,” the upriver commander said to his superior, “I recommend falling back with our remaining forces to defend our home sectors from a Rat counter attack.
Mike Stone, Ra’anana Israel