Silence, darkness. All is quite still. The cold bites my face. I move my lips against the bitter chill. I imagine the cloud of vapour in front of my mouth, dissipated by the steady wind. The lights have all gone, and I am alone in this dark, silent place.
The stars above, unknown to Earthmen, will appear after the clouds leave. But now it is dark and silent. Near my feet, I know, lies the weapon I placed there. It has cooled, and is now cold, no longer hot and glowing red like earlier. I blink against the cold; against the darkness. There is still some snow, in patches around the plain. I saw them before the mother star fell beyond the horizon. There is no moon. People on Earth have no idea how blessed they are to have a moon to light their night. It will be, by my watch, fourteen more hours before the light comes again. It will get colder in a few hours, much colder. I will then make my way to the SOPC (Sub-Orbital Personnel Carrier), and wait out the bacteria-killing frost of hell. Not just yet, though. I know tomorrow will show the carnage of today's fight. Tonight, in darkness and cold too dense to bear the smell of raw flesh rotting, I enjoy the peace of Salerna's night.
The Comm Center had buzzed incessantly during the phaser fight, directing, redirecting. But now it was silent. The machines were plotting their next moves. Chesspawn-like I stood under the cloud in the darkness. They would tell us what else to do tomorrow, but now we were stilled like machines in cold boot.
Silence, darkness. Where does my heart lie? I am but a gun in a machine's grid. I know nothing but that which I've seen, nothing but that which I've heard. I heard once of an old man who had seen a book. It was hard to believe at first, until I had found out that before the machine spoke, there had been books. The gun at my feet could kill at ten thousand meters, could knock a satellite out of orbit, could dig a ten-meter hole in the frozen ground. All that I could do with the gun. I had placed great faith in the word of the machine. It knew everything. It had pictures of everything. When I had asked to see a book, I remember that the machine had showed me a picture of white leaves and little symbols running up and down the leaves. I had thought the book hadn't looked like much. Anticipating my question, the machine had announced that the knowledge of books had been transferred to the machine's mind, and that men had gradually lost the knowledge of how to make or understand the little symbols. The machine had explained that the great philosophers of that age had come to the conclusion that the purpose served by books, namely the passing of knowledge from one human to another, was better served by the machine's mind, since it held all knowledge.
Now, I wondered silently how men would abandon their wills to machines. I did not question their wisdom in doing so, simply wondered as to how, knowing man's thirst for all knowledge, his curiosity, his childlike wonder at the universe, how it could be that man would relinquish, willingly, his self-determinism?
I saw a star in the distance, just above the horizon. The edge of the cloud was there. Not clouds of vapor, clouds of zanon, this especially deadly cloud, thankfully kept at high altitude by some more esoteric man-made gases.
Very soon it would be much cooler now, and much brighter. I blinked again, consciously this time, and stared at the star. It seemed impossibly bright in this total darkness, making it darker even, in contrast. I lowered the visor of my helmet. The tint immediately turned to dark, then mild minty green. That single star's light was enough for my night vision.
I bent at the waist, lowered my armored glove to the ground and lifted my Walter 90. I shouldered it, aimed at the horizon, toward the star, synchronized the helmet with the Walter 90's scope, and began surveying the field.
As expected, the shuttle's hull still stood at the far end of the valley. Its nose had disappeared into the ground, its wings had snapped and lay a few hundred meters away, mangled like crumpled leaves.
Bodies lay everywhere, also as expected. They had been no match for us. I saw limbs, heads, torsoes, tattered flags, ripped uniforms. There had been no fire. Our weapons had been set to molecular disruption, according to our orders. They had not suffered, the machine had said. There had been no wounded.
In the morning, the scavengers would come. Nearly invisible to the eye, they ruled the day and hid deep in the frigid night. In ten rotations, there would be no more of this battlefield than moved dirt, and perhaps a little bit of the shuttle. The scavengers did their work on metals too.
I let my Walter 90 point to the ground, turned visor display off, and dimmed night vision to RealLight. A few more stars had appeared. It was colder.
Had we suffered losses? Of course.
Would It bother me? Of course not. I was a Federal Trooper, and I had seen enough battles to dim the emotions I had felt at first.
Darkness again. A couple or three stars, but nothing else now. And silence.
I knew, if I took my helmet off, I would hear the gentle humming of the wind, but I would also freeze my ears off.
After the drumming of the phasers, it was better than anything.
The SOPCs, or, as we humans called them, the saucees, were incredible machines. Mine had become home to me. Well, to me and my team. Jake and Megana and Gael had survived the fight. They were in the saucee, had been since the phasers had stopped. They knew I was here, out in the cold, enjoying the silence.
Once, Megana had asked why I sought such solitude, and the machine had reassured her that it was good to be alone after a battle. Then she had asked if she, too, should seek solitude after the battle. The machine had said nothing. Megana had grown restless, and still the machine had said nothing. Finally Megana had asked the machine again, whether she should. The machine had said no, since she didn't fare well when her questions remained unanswered.
Later, much later, Megana had asked me why I liked to be alone. I had replied that I liked to explore mysteries.
"Why don't you ask the machine?" She had wondered aloud. I had smiled, patted her shoulder, brother-like, and replied slowly: "There would be no more mystery left, now, would there?" After that I had known there would be more questions, from the puzzled look on her young face. I had kissed her. "Ask no more, Megana lover, and let this be our mystery."
Sometimes, after hard battles, she would come out and stand next to me, holding my hand in the darkness. But she would never stay more than about ten minutes.
She had not come tonight. She would not now, it was too cold. It was almost too cold for me. More stars appeared, further up, following the passing of the zanon cloud.
I turned, statue-like, on my heels; moved a bit, shifted a little, then walked the ten steps to the saucee. The smooth hull parted in a kaleidoscope of triangular shapes. I entered, swallowed almost by the hull's gate. There had been precious little air exchange. Inside, my armor split along the limbs and I stepped out of it, naked.
Megana was asleep. I fell next to her. She stirred. I smoothed her hair. She was almost seventeen earth years. If she survived another year, she would have another shot at motherhood. Her son, now three, was back at Kugell, being raised by lovely women, mothers all, who would die rather than let harm come to their charges.
She turned. She too had felt the saucee lift into the black sky. Most likely we were the last federal troopers to leave this now humanless planet. I had been the last man standing on its soil. I might be the last one, ever.
Megana turned her sleepy face toward mine and said: "The fleet waited for you two hours."
I was going to say "How nice!" but I felt the sarcasm would only puzzle her. Instead, I whispered in her ear: "I thank the fleet for its patience, and I thank you too."
She fell asleep with a smile on her face.
© 2001 Christopher Mahan