Chase pushed his way through to his designated spot on the stadium field for the ceremony. Graduation was being held in the outdoor Piecer Academy Stadium. It was an enormous field, larger than a standard football field, rebuilt from the ground up after the Great War. It was specifically designed for Piecer Corp cadet training and doubled as a sports arena.
Today it was packed with Corp families anxious to see their foster sons graduate. For twenty-two-year-old Chase 523 and his twenty-one-year-old brother, Loose 524, it was the end of their training and the only life they had ever known.
“Did I miss anything?” he asked Tripp.
Tripp 523 stood in formation behind Chase in the 523 section. Tripp was the foster son of Adrian Mckinnis, a veteran and victim of the Great Klix War. Mckinnis adopted Tripp after being medically discharged from the war for losing half his foot.
Twenty years ago, the Earth had been caught completely by surprise when the Klix attacked without mercy. The Klix were from the planet Kattar in the Tork system of the Shephard’s Galaxy. They were a bipedal species, like humans, but larger and stronger. They had gray-blue leathery skin, retractable claws, and small bones protruding from the top of their head like a crown.
Four cricket-leg-like appendages, called scrapers, grew directly out of the back of their heads. When rubbed against one another, these scrapers would make the clicking sound the Klix used to communicate and from which they got their familiar name.
“Yeah, Cha-Cha, you missed it all,” said Tripp in a dead serious tone. “You missed your own graduation.”
Cha-Cha was Tripp’s bastardized version of Chase Chambers, his first name and his foster parents’ last name.
“You’re shittin’ me. I’m not that late.”
Tripp looked serious, but couldn’t hold it in, then started laughing.
“Nah, you didn’t miss a thing, just a bunch of sweaty people bakin’ in the sun.”
“For a second there I didn’t think you were gonna make it,” said Tripp.
“Had to, my parents are here.”
“Had to? You didn’t want to come?”
“Fuck no. Disband the Corp? It’s bullshit, total bullshit.”
“Well, it’s been twenty years since we had any trouble, and there are plenty of normies now that can take over.”
Unlike the Piecers, created in a lab from superior DNA, “normies” were biologically conceived humans.
“Twenty years is nothing,” Chase replied. “It’s an eye-blink. You always have to be ready and—I saw something.”
On Earth, before the Great War, it was not unusual to see a light in the night sky appear then disappear, seemingly out of nowhere, like a twinkling star. The event was so common it was given a name: “shy-sightings.” People presumed these were worm-drive ships visiting our world, much like the Earth’s starships had visited their worlds. It was thought that these beings were shy, popping in, then changing their minds, and popping out to return to their own star systems. The night sky twinkled with shy-sightings. The public humanized these beings, thinking them timid, cute, and cuddly, and likened them to tiny space aliens from Earth holographic cartoons.
“Shylien” plush toys were created: fuzzy, teddy-bear-like soft toys about the size of a soccer ball, with oversized eyes and tiny antennae. They came in different colors, green and gray being the most popular. Every little boy and girl slept with their Shylien and often gazed out the window hoping to see a shy sighting, making a wish when they did. They soon became highly prized collectibles, and most children had more than one.
Everyone was eager and ready to meet these cute aliens and few suspected the shy-sightings were anything more than a friendly curiosity. No one knew they were being watched, analyzed, and recorded. Only a few suspected that these sightings were scout ships, observing and planning, but they were dismissed as crackpots.
“You saw a shy-sighting, “Tripp asked, “when?”
“Last night. I couldn’t sleep. I was lying in my bed and I saw it.”
“Anyone else see it?”
“So you’re lying in bed, looking up, and you saw something?” asked Tripp with one eyebrow raised.
“Y’know, you’re kinda slow,” said Chase, half annoyed, half joking, “but I think you’re getting it.”
“Ha, Cha-Cha, that’s called dreaming. People do that, at night, in bed. Geez, you’ve always been such a worrywart, and you fell asleep worrying. That’s all. Don’t need a shrink to interpret that dream. You wanna drill twenty more years waiting for something to happen? For what?”
“You have to be ready,” said Chase.
Tripp looked at him skeptically.
“Umm…I suppose, but let the normies be ready. I’m done with it,” said Tripp. “No more drills. No more orders. No more shitty Corp food. No more four a.m. rousts to run thirty miles. Dang, I won’t miss that. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I won’t miss that.”
“I guess,” said Chase, “still a big mistake.”
“You are so gung-ho-Charlie about the Corp. I don’t get it.”
“I wouldn’t be here without the Corp. You either, bonehead.”
“True, but now that I’m here, I’d kinda like to run my own life,” said Tripp, “if you don’t mind.”
“Well that oughta be a train wreck,” Chase said laughing. “You seen my brother?”
“Probably,” Tripp replied, “but it’s my train to wreck, and he’s twelve rows up on the right in the 524 section, daydreaming as usual.
The air was hot and deathly still, the trees behind the stadium unmoving, as if painted on the sky. The Piecer pennants surrounding the stadium hung limp like wet rags in the stifling breezeless heat. It was one of those muggy days so humid you could rub your fingers together in the air and feel them wet on your fingertips.
Chase stared out at the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of his parents. Ivory white hand fans, one for each person, flittered rapidly back and forth across the blurry faces in the bleachers. From where Chase stood, they looked like a field of thousands of white butterflies flapping their wings.
A cheer grew louder and louder as General Gilbert Tupi, a large man with a weathered, noticeably scarred face and buzz-cut gray-white hair, stepped up to the wooden lectern placed in the center of the stadium. Clenched in his bionic right hand was a heavy satchel filled with silver and gold Piecer Stars for the graduating cadets.
The ultimate goal for any cadet was the Piecer Star, a silver and gold double helix on a silver star badge with a small sword, said to symbolize the Sword of Damocles, centered through the DNA strand. The badge doubled as a communicator and was the Corp’s symbol of achievement and initiation into the brotherhood of Piecers. Sacrificium Pro Victoria, a Latin phrase lettered in gold and silver, each word on a separate spiral of the DNA strand, meaning “Sacrifice for Victory,” was the Corp motto.
Five tiny bronze stars, indicating rank, stood out on General Tupi’s shoulders against his black uniform, sparkling when the sun hit them just right. Though unnecessary, Tupi had the habit of turning his head toward the Piecer Star communicator attached to his chest whenever he used it. He had never gotten used to having a Star badge communicator, having always worn an older tech ear piece.
Tupi smiled and waved until the crowd quieted down. Most people used the older tech ear piece, but the Star badge worked just as well broadcasting to these devices.
“Hello everyone,” he said, and the sound was relayed to the receivers in each crowd member’s ears. The chattering crowd hushed, waiting for him to speak.
“Welcome everyone, cadets, friends, and families,” he said, smiling. “Thank you all for coming. I’ll try not to drone on too long in this horrendous heat.”
A smattering of applause rippled through the stands as Tupi wiped his brow with his sleeve. Being a “normie,” a non-engineered human, in a dress black Piecer uniform, he was not immune to the dreadful heat, and sweat trickled down his face. Normies were often of high rank, as they had the luxury of a normal life-span, and had miraculously survived the war.
“As you all know,” he said, “many years ago, we fought a great war against the Klix.”
As he said the words, he looked down at his prosthetic arm and made a fist. It was a perfect replacement, and though he had full use of it, hand and fingers, it was not his arm. He winced with recalled pain of the searing explosion that changed him forever. Then he returned to his speech.
“The Earth incurred massive casualties. Many brave soldiers on both sides suffered greatly.”
Chase mumbled under his breath, “Brave soldiers on both sides, my ass! Politically correct bullshit.”
Tripp laughed as General Tupi continued.
“We are here today to honor the brave men of the Piecer Corp, thank them and their families, and bid farewell to a once useful, and now, thankfully, unnecessary program.”
“Bullshit,” said Chase under a covering cough.
General Tupi paused and glared in his direction. Some of the 524 graduates turned and looked disapprovingly at him. His foster brother, Loose, laughed and pointed at him. Chase gave Loose the middle finger salute, mouthing the words fuck you, which only made Loose laugh more.
In the Corp, batches were addressed by their last three digits, so the 19524s were simply the 524s. It was easier and sounded more like a platoon number than a batch ID. General Tupi, however, preferred using the surname of the cadets’ foster parents as their last name. He disapproved of the numbering system for anything other than military records and emphasized that the cadets were human beings not machines.
“Gage and Hector are here, right?” asked Chase.
“Yep, Hector’s two rows up, and Gage is bringing up the rear.”
“Shit, I must have run right past him.”
“Yep, you did, not very observant for a guy who sees tiny things in the sky.” Tripp said laughing.
“Very funny. You see the Promise?” Chase asked, changing the subject. “Are they letting us take her out for a spin?”
“Yep, she’s over there,” said Tripp, pointing to the back of the stadium. “No one’s gone in her yet, maybe after.”
The Promise was Earth’s very first worm drive starship, and she was enormous, taking up most of the field in the back of the stadium. Her dull gray hull and angular lines made her look cold, almost dead. Two rotary guns protruded from the bow ahead of dark, almost black tinted windows. Aft sections of the engines were darker, almost a gun metal blue from the heat of repeated engine burns. On both sides of the front of the ship the Promise’s name could still be easily seen above the somewhat faded “Explore and Protect” logo painted on the sides of the cockpit.
“God, I loved that ship,” said Chase. “You could go anywhere in that thing.”
“Isn’t ‘going anywhere’ how all this shit started?” asked Tripp sarcastically.
“Yeah, yeah, woulda happened anyway. They didn’t use our ships to attack us. They had the tech too.”
“I guess,” said Tripp, “but maybe they wouldn’t have found us…and I’m okay with no more visitors to Earth…and I’m not interested in visiting them either. I think I’m going to lie on a beach somewhere until I get sunburned, heal, then get sunburned again.”
“Trained on that ship,” said Chase angrily. “Can’t believe they’re going to mothball her, in a fucking museum. She can still serve.”
“They did that to all of the worm drive ships, Cha-Cha, only a few still around, scrapped the rest. The Promise is last because they were still using her for training.”
“I know, but it’s the stupidest thing they could ever do, next to the stupider thing they’re about to do by disbanding the Corp.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Tripp, “flying around all over the place advertising Earth didn’t work out so well the first time. Klix almost wiped us out.”
“I guess we’re all just a bunch of pussies hiding under the covers now,” said Chase.
“Geez what is with you?” asked Tripp, now seeing Chase’s skinned knuckles. “You punch out the wall again?”
“It’s nothing,” he said, pulling his hand back. “I don’t know. Something’s wrong, I can feel it. Disbanding the Corp, mothballing the Promise. It’s fucked up!”
“Everything’s fine. Shit, when this is over, I’ll buy you a beer to calm your ass down.”
“Yeah, yeah. Where they takin’ her?”
“I heard she’s going to the space museum in New San Diego.”
“Sucks,” said Chase. “That’s all I’m sayin’.”
“At least they’re not scrappin’ her. Being the first worm drive ship, she probably should be in a museum anyway.”
“Hey, they flew her here for our graduation. That’s pretty cool right? It’s an honor. So gimme a smile Chasey-wasey. Come on. You can do it.”
“God, you’re so defective,” said Chase, laughing. “You shoulda been recovered.” Chase smiled.
“There it is,” said Tripp, grinning. “You know you’re beautiful when you smile,” he said, blowing him a kiss.
Chase feigned vomiting, and then changed the subject.
“Can you see my parents?” he asked, craning his neck over the other cadets.
Tripp scanned the crowd, searching.
“Section three,” Tripp said, “good seats, front row, on the right. Your family got connections?”
“Your mom is smiling, and your dad’s chatting up the guy next to him, pointing in our direction, probably bragging on you. Hey, he’s wearing Scout Specs and waving his fan.”
“Hi Chase’s dad,” Tripp mouthed, waving. “You give him those?” he asked.
“Yeah, for his birthday.”
“How’d you get ’em?”
“I borrowed them from supply. They won’t miss ’em.”
“Common thievery, I like it. You might be part Quargg.”
The Quargg were an alien species known for stealing anything they came across that wasn’t locked down.
“How can you see all that? I can see people there, but…you can see all that?”
“I’m special,” said Tripp laughing. “I gots the bird eyes,” he said, flapping his arms.
“You got the bird brain to go with it too,” said Chase.
Tripp laughed and made some funny bird call noises while Chase looked out over the bleachers, trying to make out familiar faces. Chase called out to Jack 523 who was scanning the crowd with his own Scout Specs.
Jack 523 was the “little brother” of the batch. Though the same age, he was much shorter than the other 523s but just as fast, healed quickly and could hear better than any of them. He was nicknamed “Batman” by the other 523s because of his bat-like extraordinary hearing. Jack had been scheduled to be recovered because of his small size, but anytime the New San Diego Institute for Conception evaluator or SDIC came to remove him, Jack heard him coming and was out the door, unable to be found. After multiple “surprise” visits hoping to catch him off guard, they simply gave up. Jack would come home after they left, laughing and saying, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,” and he and his foster parents would laugh at the SDIC car heading down the road without him. His foster parents loved him and had no intention of turning him in to be recovered.
“Hey Jack, can I borrow those?” asked Chase.
“Sure Chase,” he said tossing the specs to him. “I want ‘em back though. I’m checkin’ out the babes.”
“Just for a sec,” replied Chase.
Chase immediately zeroed in on the crowd where his parents were sitting. He smiled waving at his dad and mom in the stands. Then he tossed the specs back to Jack with a “thanks.”
“Your old man here?” Chase asked Tripp.
“Yeah, said he wouldn’t miss it.”
“Hey, well that’s something, ain’t it?” said Chase, patting him on the shoulder.
“I guess…if he’s sober. You’re lucky, your foster p’s are great.”
“Yeah, but your dad is okay. We both could have been recovered; at least he saved your ass.”
“I guess, but he drinks too much. He’s different when he drinks—mean.”
“I don’t blame him,” said Chase. “If I lost my wife, half my foot, and my career to a Klix bomb blast, I’d drink too.”
“Maybe,” said Tripp, “but I wouldn’t have taken on a kid to raise. It didn’t help me any, growing up with an angry drunk. If it wasn’t for Hector and his mom living next door, I would have run away.”
“I’m glad you stuck it out…and I do know I’m lucky.”
Chase thought about his foster parents for a moment and just how lucky he had been. He could have been assigned to anyone, to foster parents who might have had him “recovered” for his initial small size. Chase remembered when the SDIC came for him and how his parents saved him from certain death.
“But your father is here,” Chase said. “He came for you, and it ain’t the talk, it’s the do.”
“Yeah, it’s the do,” Tripp repeated. “I guess he does care, in his own screwed up way. When he wasn’t drunk, he was great.”
Tripp shook off his sadness, forcing a grin. “Hey, we’re on our own after we graduate. Once we get our Stars, I’m gonna get my own place. I guess the 524s get their Stars today too. You and Loose going to stay with the Chambers?”
“Fuck Loose,” said Chase. “Why do the 524s get to graduate anyway?”
“They didn’t finish their training. They didn’t earn a Star.”
“Why do you care? Won’t be a Corp tomorrow anyway.”
“It’s not right,” said Chase. “You put in the work, you get your Star. That’s how it’s done. Piecers don’t take shortcuts. And, for the millionth time, disbanding the Corp is just stupid.”
“You’re kinda bitchy today, aintcha? That time of the month?”
“Oh, fuck you. It’s not right. You have to earn it. Means nothin’ if they give them out for no reason.”
Tripp cocked his head and looking surprised. Then he laughed, and that made Chase laugh.
“Okayyyy… well you better pay attention, butthead, or you’re gonna get us kicked outta here… and we won’t get our Stars.”
“Before I go on,” Tupi continued, “I ask for a moment of silence for the valiant Sixers—those brave men who came before you, whose short and painful lives were given willingly in our defense and in defense of our home, Mother Earth.”
The crowd grew silent, and every cadet in the 523s and 524s bowed their heads. Sobbing could be heard from the families in the stands. It was not often they were asked to recall the horror. Having lived in peace for so long, most had forgotten the bad days, the death, the war, and the suffering. New “normie” families grew up not knowing how bad it had been, how close to annihilation they had come. They forgot quickly. They wanted to forget.
The Piecer Corp project, creating soldiers from specially designed DNA, was a good plan with one major flaw: it took too long. Earth couldn’t wait for cadets to mature to normal adults. By necessity, scientists went further with the Piecer Sixer program, altering the aging gene to accelerate growth, creating an adult recruit in as little as two years. They were fast, strong, smart, and deadly, but at a heavy cost.
For these Piecers, there was a horrible downside to the accelerated aging process. It didn’t stop. A recruit had about two years of fighting ability before they were considered elderly and unfit for duty. These original Piecers became known as the “Sixers” because few lived beyond six years.
Growing at that rate was extremely painful, and the recruits had to take large quantities of powerful synthetic opiates, or “soaps” as they came to call them, to simply function. The pain of their accelerated growth increased with age, and those who weren’t already addicted to the “soaps” soon could not live without them. Some found the pain so excruciating that they killed themselves, overdosing on soaps with the help of the scientists who created them and now pitied them. Unofficially, the men coined the term “Sixer Heaven” for those Sixers taking their final dose of soaps, with many joking about how many soaps it would take to get to “Sixer Heaven.”
Those addicted to the soaps were dazed, often euphoric; others had to take so many soaps to kill the pain that they were actively hallucinating on the battlefield. It turned out that these were often their best soldiers, charging into the Klix forces without care or fear, feeling no pain, often smiling and laughing as they continued firing their weapons with their legs blown off by alien shrapnel bombs or mines. Among the Corp the mantra was, “As long as I can hold my weapon, my enemies will fear me.”
And the Klix did fear the Sixers. They gained a reputation for their courage and their savagery. Living through the carnage and the drugs, some of the Sixers became barbaric, taking souvenirs of their kills. Chunks of alien skulls hung around their necks as trophies. Body parts, alien medals, and belt buckles—anything that caught their eye was used to adorn their uniforms, proof of their kills.
Most human survivors, having suffered greatly at the hands of the Klix, cheered the tactic. However, the government tried to quash this behavior as being too savage. They wanted to do something to stop it and still appease the troops, so they decided to add an alien skull emblem to the Piecer uniforms, hoping to placate them.
Government officials felt the optics were better in what was left of the underground Earth media. The uniforms were less offensive to the few loud public critics than alien body parts dangling around the Sixers’ necks. It appeased most of the men, some actually preferring the new uniform over the uniforms covered in smelly decaying body parts. After implementation of the new uniforms, most stopped collecting souvenirs, but no one dared challenge those who continued the practice.
Talk of halting the Piecer Corp plan increased. Criticism grew, watching the Sixers come home from the war wounded and suffering, already too old to fight at the age of five. The Piecer program was questioned for its worth, as many felt it was immoral to sacrifice these brave men and inflict so much pain on them. The Sixers were heroes and should not be forced to suffer in this manner.
But the military was worried they would lose their most valuable resource, genetically superior fighting men, and would only agree to a compromise. As the outcry grew and the Sixers aged, the military finally relented, agreeing to use only “normal” growth Piecers, once there were enough of them to fill the ranks. Then the Sixer program would be discontinued.
Sadly, the Sixer program went on for years, using full divisions of ten to fifteen thousand of the disposable Sixers. Thousands upon thousands of age-accelerated recruits were sacrificed to allow for the normal aging process of the new Piecer force to grow into adulthood.
General Tupi looked up from his lectern, signaling the moment of silence had passed.
“For many of you, today is a bittersweet graduation day,” he said. “You have succeeded in your training and brought honor to yourselves and your families, but you will also be saying goodbye to lifelong friends. I know I will miss you all. You will miss each other. Our leaders have worked tirelessly, and they have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. We have lived in peace with the Klix Supremacy for the last twenty years. Our treaty has stood the test of time.”
“Fucking idiots,” Chase grumbled, “every last one of ’em.”
Tripp pushed Chase from behind again, laughing. General Tupi continued.
“We would like to thank your foster families for the selfless job of raising and guiding you to the fine men you have become. We honor your foster mothers and foster sisters. We thank them for the courage to stay home, the courage to rebuild humanity, the courage to live. Without them, there would be no us, no future, no humanity.”
“Go Mom!” screamed one of the cadets.
“Please, let’s have all our beloved mothers, sisters and daughters, stand up and take a bow,” said Tupi.
General Tupi paused as everyone applauded, the men turning to the women, the cadets turning to their foster families. The women stood, smiled, and then sat back down. General Tupi waited until everyone was seated and then smiled before he spoke again.
“But today, we are here to pay tribute and bid farewell to the last classes of a long line of heroes, the Piecer Corp graduates of 2173.”
The crowd broke into cheers, hoots and whistles. Tupi smiled and waited for them to die down. Then his smile melted away and he looked serious and sad.
“I know many of you were troubled by the morality of the Piecer Corp—creating people, soldiers, and sending them to their deaths. We all were. We loved the Sixers, our heroes, and felt their pain. We grieved when they died, when they suffered. We love our Piecers and have felt their loss too, our foster sons, all my sons.”
Tupi’s eyes teared up, and he took a deep breath to compose himself.
“But they have saved us, our Sixers, our Piecer Corp. Their sacrifice allowed us the time to rebuild. Humanity has been replenished, and the creation of soldiers is no longer a necessity.”
Tupi paused and smiled.
“I am very happy to say that from this day forward, our foster sons, our Piecers, you too can live in peace. Go home to your families. Live out your lives without war. Get married. Have children. Raise a family of your own.”
He paused and stared at the 523 section and with a gleam in his eye said, “But not with my granddaughter.”
General Tupi was known to have a gorgeous granddaughter, raising her after her parents were killed in the war. But he was very protective of her and kept her away from the military and the Corp as much as possible.
The stadium grew silent, with a few chuckles from the cadets. Finally, a slow and building “oohhh” drifted through the crowd.
Then the crowd went silent, thinking the general had slighted the 523 cadets or the “bad batch,” as they had come to be called. The bad batch was renowned—the best the Corp had to offer. The 19,523rd batch had special abilities the other batches before and after did not possess. They could heal faster, see better, hear better, smell better and run faster than any other batch. They excelled at the academy and were revered by their superiors including Tupi.
General Tupi exaggerated a head nod and winked extra-long to make sure everyone knew he was kidding. The crowd burst into laughter and hoots, and they began chanting, “Tupi, Tupi.”
He bent over, laughing along with them, and then held up his hand for silence. When everyone quieted down, he scanned the graduates from left to right, looking into their eyes, smiling, and showing his approval. His eyes watered, and a look of admiration came over him.
“Please forgive my awkward jest. These things can get so boring and we should laugh more now that our future is secure. Really,” said Tupi, “I love all our cadets and would be proud to have any of the 523s date my granddaughter.”
He glanced in the direction of the 523s, making eye contact with Chase for a moment, and then moved on.
“To the Piecer Corp graduating class of 2173, I could not be prouder of you if you were my own sons. I thank you, we thank you, for your devotion to your duties, and I am happy to say you are hereby released from further military obligation!”
The thundering sound of the crowd and the cadets cheering and stamping their feet filled the stadium.
Chase grumbled and looked at his foster brother, Loose, who appeared completely bored by the whole spectacle. Loose glanced skyward and then checked the time on the stadium scoreboard against his wrist display, as if anxious for the ceremony to end. Chase looked around at his 523 brothers, smiling and recalling the fun they had during training.
I wonder if we’ll stay in touch, he thought. I wonder if…
Tripp pushed him from behind, laughing.
“Shit, pay attention,” he said. “You’re just like your idiot brother.”
Chase laughed, and when he turned back, he looked again for Loose but couldn’t find him.
“And now,” General Tupi said, “it is time. I know our beloved Drill Sergeant Grant has pounded this adage into you: ‘always…always have a way out.’ Today, this is your way out.”
Tupi laughed, smiling and giving a nod in Sergeant Grant’s direction. Sergeant Grant smiled, gave him the thumbs up sign, and looked left and right with his hand shielding his eyes, as if looking for a way out. Tupi mimicked Grant with his hand over his eyes, turning right and left looking for his way out. Then he turned back to the cadets.
He paused staring out over the crowd and the cadets in formation in front of him. He thought about the field they were on, and what the field had looked like when he was their age, pockmarked with bomb craters and stained with blood. He blinked in the bright sun, and in that moment, he remembered all that had happened to him and those he loved, now gone. He remembered how hopeful mankind was at the invention of the first worm drive—and the horror it wrought.
This is a joyous occasion, you old fool, he thought, shaking his head. No time for sad thoughts.
He opened his eyes and forced a smile. Then he cleared his throat and addressed the crowd.
“Please come up as we call your name to receive your Star and your diploma…”
As he spoke, a sudden explosion lit up the sky. Tupi looked up while instinctively the Piecer cadets hit the ground, drawing their laser rifles and searching for the source. Everyone was momentarily blinded, and their ears rang from the sound. The crowd screamed to each other to run, yet no one could hear anyone else. With blurred vision, people stumbled around stunned and disoriented as they fled the stadium in a daze, as if feeling their way through the air. Bombers overhead began to unload their deadly cargo.
A follow-up fireball blast hit the lectern sending bits and pieces of the lectern flying everywhere. Exploded Piecer Stars littered the field and sparkled under the light of each additional bomb burst. All that was left of General Tupi was the tritanium frame of his artificial arm smoldering, its metal fingers still twitching.
“We’re under attack!” screamed one of the remaining officers. “Return fire. Defend yourselves!”
Families of the cadets ran screaming from the stadium as blast after blast hit the field and bleacher seats. The cadets tried to fire on the ships, but their weapons proved useless. The initial blinding blast had been an electromagnetic pulse explosion, or EMP, in the atmosphere. It created a shock wave that disabled electronics including communications and the Piecers’ laser weapons. They were helpless.
“Take cover!” screamed a lieutenant, just before another blast blew him to pieces.
“Chase, what the fuck is going on?” Hector shouted from the bottom of a crater blown out by a bomb.
“The fucking Klix.”
“But we have a treaty.”
“They never gave a shit about the treaty,” said Chase. “They just used the time to regroup and rebuild.”
“What do we do?”
“You seen Gage?”
Nearby, a pile of exploded bleachers spread apart from below. Gage was pushing broken seats aside like cardboard. He looked at his shoulder and winced. A large piece of wood about the size of a tent spike was sticking out and through his shoulder.
“Those fuckers, they bled me!” he shouted, grabbing the stake and yanking.
Blood sprayed from the wound, spurting in time with his heartbeat.
“Damn that hurts! I thought the good lookin’ guy’s not supposed to get hit.”
He examined the wood chunk closely, still dripping with his blood.
“Now that’s a fucking splinter!” he said. “Somebody’s gonna pay for that shit.”
He tossed the stake over his shoulder and put his hand up to the wound to slow the flow of blood.
A scream from the sky intensified and Chase yelled, “Hit the deck!” Everyone dropped to the ground as another Klix bomb exploded nearby sending dirt and debris flying everywhere. After waiting a few moments listening, not hearing another bomb drop, they climbed to their feet.
“You okay?” Chase asked Gage.
“Yeah,” Gage replied, “just a scratch. See?” He pulled his hand away from his wound revealing a now narrow slit where the stake had entered. The skin around the slit was bright red almost glowing, engorged with blood.
He put his hand back on the wound, and in a few moments, the blood had stopped gushing. When he pulled his hand away again, the hole had completely closed and stopped bleeding. The skin around the wound was pink and turning darker, but no evidence of an entry wound could be found, only a bruise on the skin
“You see any other 523s?” Chase asked. “Where’s Batman? Where’s Grant?”
“Jack didn’t make it,” said Gage. “Nothin’ left of him to heal. Grant’s dead too.”
“And Tripp, where’s Tripp? He was right behind me, a second ago.”
“Ran for cover. That boy knows how to cover his ass,” said Gage.
“Here,” Tripp called, running from the back of the last standing set of bleachers. “Hid under the bleachers.”
“Way to hide in the bullseye, dumbass. Only bleachers not hit,” said Gage. “You are one lucky mother.”
“I am,” said Tripp. “You see who hit us? I couldn’t see shit under the bleachers.”
“Klix,” said Chase. “I saw one of their transport ships.”
“You were right, Cha-Cha, about the shy-sighting. I should have believed you. Sorry.”
“I didn’t want to believe it either,” replied Chase. “Anyone seen my parents, or my brother?”
“Or my father?” asked Tripp.
“Negative,” replied Gage. “Anyone seen my mom?”
“Haven’t seen anyone’s family,” said Tripp. “Not since the EMP went off. Everyone ran for cover. You see anyone, Hector?”
Hector ran up from in front of them looking left and right for any survivors.
“I was a little busy stayin’ alive,” said Hector, “but I did see your brother break rank just before the Klix hit; probably had to take a leak. 524s got hit pretty bad. He may be the only one left. What now?”
Gage turned and pointed at the stadium field.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“Where?” asked Hector.
“There, out on the field, limping.”
Another Klix ship was headed in their direction, ready to unload more bombs.
“Scatter called Chase, he’s targeting us.”
The squad ran in four directions diving into any cover they could find.
Out on the field the limping older soldier in dated fatigues hollered at the sky and waved his arms attracting the attention of the Klix ship hovering over them, readying a bomb drop. The ship spotted Mckinnis, turned and headed toward him in the center of the field.
“Holy shit that’s my dad,” said Tripp. “What the fuck’s he doing?”
“He’s trying to draw the ship away from us by trying to shoot at the Klix with our fucked-up weapons,” said Gage. “He doesn’t know the EMP made ’em useless. He keeps picking them up off the ground and aiming them at the Klix, but they’re not firing.”
“Shit! He’s drunk again. He doesn’t know they won’t work. I gotta stop him.”
“Come down you gray fuckers,” his father yelled, picking up and throwing down one felled soldier’s weapon after another. “This is for Marie, you cocksuckers!” he hollered, aiming again and pulling the useless trigger.
McInnis limped forward to the center of the field, to the edge of the crater where Tupi had been giving his address.
“Fucking cheap-ass weapons,” he shrieked. “We had real weapons in the Great War.”
Tripp took off like a rabbit headed for his dad.
“Wait, Tripp,” Chase yelled. “They’ve seen him.”
His father shouted at the Klix ship hovering above him and threw his weapon at the ship. The ship targeted him, and released a bomb. Mckinnis looked over at his son, smiled, and then gave the Klix the finger, screaming, “fuck you.”
As Tripp ran toward the center of the field, he saw the bomb drop and his father disappear in a smoky red mist. The blast blew Tripp backwards, and he landed against what was left of the fence that surrounded the stadium.
Hector ran to him and helped him sit up. Dazed, Tripp struggled to his feet, scanning the field, trying to find his father. There was nothing left of him: he was gone. He started to yell at the Klix ship, but Hector pulled him away.
“I’m sorry,” said Hector. “He’s gone. We have to go. There will be another time.”
“They killed him,” Tripp screamed angrily. “He was a harmless old man, and they killed him.”
Tripp yelled again at the Klix, cursing and shaking his fist, but Hector wrapped his arm around him and yanked him away. The Klix ships spread out and away from the stadium continuing their bombing campaign heading into the Piecer family neighborhood.
“I know,” said Hector, still pulling on Tripp, “we’ll get ’em, just not now, not without weapons.”
Tripp started crying, cursing at the sky, while Hector led him back to Chase and the others.
“I’m sorry,” said Chase. “He was a brave man facing down the Klix like that. He probably saved all our lives.”
Tripp wiped his eyes and took a deep breath.
“I’m gonna kill those motherfuckers,” he said, “if it’s the last thing that I do, I’m gonna kill ’em all. They killed my dad. They just blew him away as if he was nothin’.”
“And we’re going to help you,” said Hector turning to Chase. “What’s the plan, Chief?”
Chase called out orders, “Help any survivors. Try to find your families and secure them. I’m going to look for my family. Then, rendezvous at Alpha-Seven!”
Alpha-Seven was code for the Pwyll crater station on Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons. In the event of an emergency, they had agreed to meet at the station to plan their next move.
“Rendezvous at Alpha-Seven? How? And what about you?” Gage asked Chase. “How will we find you?”
“Find other worm drive ships if you can. We’ll need as many as possible. Check the museums. If you can’t find one, meet me back here at the Promise. I’ll wait as long as I can. Stay alive!”
His team saluted as he turned away and he ran through the blown out stadium bleachers, frantically searching for his parents.
“Section three, they were in section three,” Chase mumbled, orienting himself in the rubble.
He found a burnt and broken section four sign and knew he was close. Scanning the area, his heart sank. Where section three should have been was a crater blast, smoke, body parts, and bloodied hand fans. Chase searched the rubble frantically for any signs of his parents. They had always protected him and now he would have to protect them, if they were still alive.
Home, he thought. If they got away, they would go home.