From the author: Field Engineer Callan and his squad battle separatists in Jabodetabek, ever-watchful of the skies for the sign of alien attack. Pusat-Selatan II has been plunged into darkness, and only Ardiyanti and her Cemetery Children have kept their cool in the midst of the horrors and madness of civil war. But for how long can Jabodetabek’s innocents fend off the threats from all sides?
Even at night, the heat is oppressive. The sweat is just running down everyone’s faces, making their fingers slippery. We keep pushing.
A wall of flame billows to our right. Heat and light fanning over us, blinding us. Bad fucking spot to be in. I get into a fast trot, squinting my eyes and spraying a few rounds of multi-impact ahead of me. They tear through the screen of dust and smoke, spiralling the smoke after them. I get clear of the obstruction, and immediately feel indirect fire zip past my ears. I duck and roll, taking cover behind the shell of a burnt out vehicle. I hear Westerling yell for his Circus Battalion to do likewise, spewing a volley towards our hostiles.
Gunnar slams in next to me, locking in a fresh bullpup. He gives me a sour look, says something about how I should have been the first out there, then he motions for me to cover him.
I think to hell with going up, and simply hold my Adaptive Combat Rifle sideways to let off a pineapple. It shoots out with a poomp, and within a few seconds there’s a blast big enough to rock the burnt out car and rain blood and debris onto our heads. But Gunnar’s off the moment the blast hits. He’ll be covered in blood. Grenades these days...
I’m hoping this run doesn’t turn into a fucking meat eater. I don’t even know where to go from here. OBUA’s like this go kinetic quickly, and this one is slipping in that direction real fast.
A pack of mongrel dogs shoot past, and then an EV veers past me, and it’s in flames, but there’s someone behind the controls, and he propels straight into the platoon as they emerge from the maelstrom. They spin and throw themselves away from the flaming vehicle, but Mahomet gets caught under the wheels and screams, his embedded biosensors emitting a high-pitched squeal as his organs are almost certainly crushed. The car plows into the maelstrom, and there’s a weird crashing sound a moment later, the capacitor spewing an electric charge that fries anyone within ten yards. Westerling’s company start plugging rounds into the hedge of roiling smoke.
The dogs run from the sound of the rifles, and dart past me again, back into the wasteland, taking their chances back over in hostile territory. What do they care for allegiances?
A hypersonic rocket tears across the airspace above and a building goes down over yonder. I see figures fleeing from it as it tumbles. Too far for me to see who. Insurgents or civilians? Who knows?
I see Gunnar running along the top of a wall, and there’s a huge mural along its length that looks burned in, all smoky and black and probably made using a flamethrower. Gunnar’s heading towards where I think the rocket came from. Laessig has seen him, and is off after him.
Jones steps out, a total fucking soup sandwich, his fingers up like sharpshooters and he’s blazing away for all he’s worth, with just his hands! He’s dropped his gear, and he’s stepped out there all bow legs and grinning, high and off to the right, unloading nothing into nothing. His hands reload, his dickbeaters again at the ready, and I’m waiting for something to tear through him, rip him in half and leave him tits up.
Jones keeps on shufflin’ like a celluloid cowboy across the wasteland, and he eventually disappears from view. When the distant gunfire gives it a break for a second I can still hear the crazy cunt pew pewing away in some kind of sing song, in beyond the ruins of the trees and gardens. He’s expectant, on his own now.
I peer through a bullet hole in the shell I’m taking cover behind, and I can see the concentration of insurgents is now over by the money-lender’s bank on the corner. They’re using the outside infrastructure (a deep pedestrian walkway, like a moat, fashioned around the perimeter of the building to deter car bombers during regular trade) to position themselves. Good spot.
I press my finger pad against the Rifleman wetwire implant in my temple and radio to Captain Westerling and tell him about our friends over by the bank. I give him the co-ordinates, and scuttle back away from my shelter, back to where the rest of my squad are.
Mahomet is gasping as I pass him; the sweat is drowning his features. His face is all screwed up. I barely recognise him.
Walling and Roisin push past, steering the railgun into position. They lock it down, set its co-ordinates, reconfirm by visual, and get the capacitors humming. Walling has the detonator in hand, and as soon as Lieutenant Stone gives him the thumbs up, we’re all clear of it and Walling’s firing off the cannon and the speed and whipcrack of the ignition gives us all a start. Barely the blink of an eyelid later, and beyond the plume of static smoke at the end of the rails, we hear the projectile hit home. It decimates the hostiles and pretty much the entire building behind them. We hear the explosion of glass as the bank topples.
The whole company has sucked its collective breath in. We’re waiting for the next bit, and it’s something we’ve never accustomed ourselves to, even if we’ve witnessed it a few times already.
The din dies quickly. The glass stops falling. All goes quiet. Gunnar and Laessig are climbing down from a felled billboard, its mass of plastic fibres and laser diodes strewn across the road. Gunnar is grinning, eyes eager for the spectacle to come. It makes me sniff and eye him disdainfully. Laessig is looking uneasy. We can hear their boots stumbling over bricks and crunching diodes as they make their way across to us. Other than that, there’s an absolute stillness to the scene.
It’s the dogs first. We hear their feet scampering over the debris, their nails clicking on the stones, and in the thick of the dust from the carnage we rendered, we see their silhouettes come closer. They’re running at a haphazard lope, without any sound save for their feet tripping and scooting along the destroyed earth.
We ready our weapons.
“Flame,” someone says. I think its Kernan.
I get my ACR ready. I feel its grip; push it back into my shoulder. I fairly hug the thing.
The dust clouds part now and the dogs come at us, or rather in our direction. I doubt they know we’re here. Their eyes have all but melted from their sockets, their noses burnt from their snouts, and their skin hangs in bloody tatters around their bodies.
We don’t think, we just act.
Fire spews from our ACR’s and engulf the dogs. We burn them up as fast as we can, get them to stop moving as quickly as we can. It doesn’t pay to have half-skinned rampaging dogs snapping in your company. We down them all, and the smell of charred hair and flesh and burnt blood is making some of us gag. I spit a foul taste from my crumb catcher and ready myself for the next wave.
“Let’s go,” says the Lieutenant, and we start making our way into that stubborn cloud of dust.
These electromagnetic railguns are effective and all, but the mess they can leave behind makes me really wonder. The first railguns used actual projectiles, but when we talk about projectiles now, it’s a throbbing bubble of electromagnetic energy. I’m not up on the know-how of its mechanics, but I’m well versed by now in its consequences. If it doesn’t crush your skull, it skins you alive. You die from shock and blood loss. But it’s not quick, and so we’re obliged to clean up. Makes for a better camp.
Our hostiles, those who hadn’t been pounded to pulp by the railgun blast, rise and stagger towards us. Jaws hung loose, eyes dripping down crushed cheekbones, legs and arms bent askew at wrong angles. And their skin, just like with the dogs, hang in ragged ribbons around their torsos; drapes from their arms like sodden, bloody bandages, exposing the meat and muscle underneath. They moan and fall down, struggle to get back up again.
We flame the fucking lot of them, and turn away in disgust.
The medevac sees to Mahomet, gives him an injection of nanoparticles, and suggests he’s for the meat wagon, but the Lieutenant barks back something about being unable to bring a helo in. The sap’s going to have to sweat it out, but he’s broken real bad. Kernan comes over with an autoinjector in her hand, but it could be anything in that thing. The way the medevac turns away suggests something not legal, because he seems to worry about his ethics as a medical professional. Whatever it is that Kernan gives Mahomet, it does the trick. The bastard quiets down and gives us all some peace at last.
Jabodetabek’s beyond the veil of smoke and haze that encircles Pusat-Selatan, where we are at the moment. There are pulses of light, gun-flash fire and Christ knows what else is being dropped or detonated in that zone. Judging from the density of the smog that sits over it, Jabodetabek must be a mess. I wonder if it’s even worth pushing on. But it’s not my call, and I can’t say how much of the insurgency stronghold there is still intact. But if the sky has bled fire and fuck knows what else all over it, I can’t imagine that stronghold really living up to its name now.
And then there’s what’s happening up there, beyond said bleeding sky. Our fine cannon fodder of the Stellum Corps, up there beyond our thermosphere holding back an attack from extraterrestrial beings, which isn’t all that novel these days. We can hear the rumble, like a dense thunderhead, across the heavens. Sometimes I think it’s like the planet is being shook. Can’t fucking win these days: if it’s not down here, it’s up there.
It’s all quiet down here though, for now. With a fifty percent stand-to, we decide to get a makeshift camp going; decide to hunker down until the morning light. We get the EIO fired up, get ourselves some electricity, heat some water, and boil all the brine and nasty shit from it. I can feel eyes on us from the darkness, the residents of Central Jakarta Selatan II doubtless watching from their darkened homes, envious of our power and water. The West Papuan separatists’ took out PLN Areo, the company in Rajamandala responsible for supplying (mostly) desalinated sea-water to most of the eastern and southern parts of old Jabodetabek, and with it went most of the power-grid this side of the city, too, because before PLN went private the Government had transferred most of the city over to hydroelectricity. There’s a continuing reign of chaos from self-starter cells popping across the urban sprawl. It’s hard to keep a handle on the situ here, with various terrorist factions all at it, and for tonight we have four OP’s rotating in three hour shifts. One of the observation posts is above where I sit with Laessig.
“Shit, man,” he says, “I’m tired but I can’t sleep, you know?”
“Me, too,” I reply, and he screws his face up at me.
“You taking the piss, Callan?”
“No, man,” and I think stuff this, I don’t need this hassle, and get up and walk away.
There’s a cemetery, Taman Prastasi, to our left was swept by Roisin for IED’s only an hour ago, so I wander in and it’s quiet. Really, it’s too quiet. Nothing moves in here, and that tells me that somebody is in here, and it has either spooked the animals that would dwell here into silence, or it has spooked the animals away altogether. I bring my ACR up and flick on the sensors and the multi-impact mode. It immediately sends a signal back to my squad. I get down low and wait, listening hard to the silence before me, blocking out the sounds of the company behind me, the sounds of the city beyond.
I wait, and I hear the platoon go silent behind me, gather themselves for a fight.
Nothing is showing on the thermal scope: just the flat grey of tombstones, like everything was smothered in ash.
Something whistles through the air, almost inaudibly, and even as I’m pricking my ears to the sound, something hits me hard on the helmet, and my first thought isn’t that I’ve been shot, not at all, because it’s nothing like that. My first instinct is that I’ve been turtle-fucked; some prick out for a laugh and throwing his own bowler at me.
But I see there isn’t anyone near me, and nothing else happens. I peer around and see a rock sitting a bit away from me. I walked in from that direction; I don’t remember a rock being underfoot.
I flick off the multi-impact, relax a bit. I touch the Rifleman wetwire implant.
“Ten four, guys,” I say, transmitting the message. I hear the guys relax behind me, and some resume their touchpad poker or field stripping.
I get to my feet, trigger finger still eager.
“Throw another rock, and I might just finish this place.”
Silence. I make a gesture with my hand, holding it palm up and letting my fingers open wide all at once. “Ka-boom,” I add.
I hear a shuffling sound, and where one of the large flat stones has half-fallen, the ground there yawns open and from the darkness of that hole I see a bony hand creep out. It’s small and lean, white as the moon itself almost, and beyond it appears the bulbous head of some apparently alien thing, eyes huge and dark. It creeps from the hole, pulling its tiny body behind, all ribs and scrawny legs.
From behind some of the other tombstones, I see more little faces appear. So young. Indo kids, grubby faces, cropped hair. Can’t tell their gender, they all look the same at this age with their hair razed down to their scalps. Big eyes. Suspicious eyes. Some with hate in them. Skin dusted with some kind of white powder. It’s all over them, making their eyes appear even bigger and wetter than they already are.
I wander towards them, but not directly at them, feigning indifference. I sit on the edge of a pretty impressive looking piece of old stone. The headpiece long gone, snapped off in a crooked line down near the overgrown grass. I flick the safety on my ACR and take out some gedunk, a few bars of protein and nuts or something. Don’t know why I’ve got them, I don’t even eat them. As I’m unwrapping the food, the children emerge fully from their hiding, their eyes now on my food.
“Who threw the rock at me?” I ask it of no-one in particular. They don’t say anything, won’t snitch each other in. Especially not to the likes of me, I imagine: a bule riding roughshod over their land. I’m not stupid. I don’t have any disillusionment about the role I’m playing in this war. “You’ve got good aim.”
I see one of the little bastards almost smile. He’s probably about seven years old. I don’t know. Hard to tell. I throw him the rest of my gedunk, and he catches it with hungry precision. It’s in his mouth without me even seeing his arms move, and he’s fending off several of the other children as he devours his catch.
There must be about a dozen of the kids. They’re all filthy, wearing worn out clothes, nothing but rags, really. I’m guessing they’re street kids. Orphans, maybe. Could be runaways. Who knows? The war here was going on a lot longer before PANPAC-NATO got involved. These kids could have been born on the streets, for all I could guess.
“Got any more?” A girl, about ten maybe? Definitely older than my assailant.
“Sorry,” I put my hands up. “All out.”
“Liar,” she says, eyeing the bulging pockets of my pants.
“Sorry, kid, you shoulda been the first with the rock.”
“We could roll you,” she says, firmly but without the threat to back it up.
I chuckle, and she slaps one of the other kids about the ear when he stumbles into her from fighting with the prize-winner, who has now downed the gedunk and is looking well satisfied with himself.
I’m not in the least surprised by their command of the English language. By now, you’d be hard-pressed to find any part of the world that hadn’t adopted it in some form or another. But the accents on these children were strong. Indo accents, maybe something else in there, too. These weren’t the orphaned children of the middle-classes.
“You kids live around here?” I ask.
“Here,” says a tiny one. I don’t know if the child is answering or parroting what I’m saying. The older girl shushes the child and pushes it away.
“Here?” I ask, slightly surprised. “You mean, you live in the cemetery?”
The girl’s eyes bristle with indignation. Her chest puffs out and her chin, small and child-like as it is, sets itself resolutely against me.
“Hey,” I say, raising my hands in surrender. “Just asking. No harm in asking.”
“What your name?” asks another boy. He’s lean and looks like starvation has corralled him into death’s threshold. He only has to step through the door now. I hope its starvation, and not some airborne disease, like those ones cooked up in labs a couple of decades ago that wiped out the east coast of the States. Fucking disaster that was.
The children roll my name around, sounding it out. It sounds very different when they say it. They make it sound like it is being sung. I prefer it, almost.
I ask for theirs in return. Idle chit-chat. It’s a good distraction from the job. The older girl is Ardiyanti. She doesn’t know what it means, when I ask, but I guess it’s probably fire or something like that. It has to be. The origins of names is a long forgotten thing, especially for these children. Just another unaccommodated luxury. The boy who threw the rock at me is Cumi. And there’s Gerni, and Citro (Cumi’s little brother) and the tiny one, Kepapaan. The rest I immediately forget. I take out another protein bar and break it up for all to share, even Cumi the little rat. He takes his piece and goes and sits with a small girl, sharing his piece, and the two start pounding some old bones with a rock, reducing the frail things to powder in no time. Cumi is helping the little girl spread the powder over her arms and her face. It makes her look like a little ghost.
I ask them why they don’t move further on, away from the battle, away from us. But the kids won’t have it. They say they’re ready for anything that comes their way. They sound convincing. They don’t look it.
As if to persuade me, Gerni has slipped in behind a tombstone, and emerged carrying a heavy-ass assault weapon in her skinny little arms. She struggles with it.
I raise my eyebrows and nod my head in appreciation.
Cumi chastises the girl for revealing their secret, and she glowers at him as though she’s considering using it on him.
“One gun a war won’t win,” I tell the children, and incongruously think of the old rhyme: this one's for fighting, this one's for fun. No, but they can certainly start them.
“I have one,” Kepapaan squeaks.
I push up off my resting spot, and alarm crosses the children’s faces when they see me walk towards the tombstone Gerni got her gun from behind. At the back of that stone lay a cache of weapons. Mostly old SS3’s, some standard adaptive combat rifles (much older than mine, which is has an integrated Precision Effects system and MAPS kit) and an assortment of other, less impressive weapons. I ask them how they came by them, but I already know the answer.
“We trade,” says Cumi flatly. He’s eyeing my own weapon, but I’m giving him a look back that says forget it, kid. I can guess what these street kids trade in, and I don’t want anything to do with it.
“May I?” I ask Ardiyanti, pointing at the stockpile. She nods. It’s obvious I wouldn’t steal from them with what I’ve got slung on me.
I check out their SS3’s. They’re in surprisingly good nick. I was expecting bits to be missing, the hard plastics brittle or worn down.
Ardiyanti looking at me sideways, her chin tilted and a smirk on her little cupid’s bow lips. “We don’t really need no-one’s help,” she declares. “We going to kill them ourself.”
“An entire groundswell of terrorists, you mean?” I say. “You and these kids can handle that, eh?”
She springs up suddenly, and leaps onto a crooked tombstone in front of me. She stands there, sort of victoriously, her hands on her hips.
“And when we finished with them, you lot are next! Even your kind!” she crows, and the other kids whoop and hooah in support.
I grin. I can almost imagine it: these skinny, undernourished little children that live in a cemetery taking back their own city from impossible forces.
“You gonna need this when we do,” she snorts, and throws a stick at me. It bounces off me and lands on my boot. I see that it’s not a stick, it’s an arrow. Hand hewn from a femur bone.
“Did you make this?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “We use them before the gun. Still use, sometime.”
“Cute,” I say, and pocket the souvenir.
She rankles at my summary of her talents. Cute doesn’t cut it, apparently.
Cumi’s little brother tries to trip Ardiyanti off her perch with a quick hook of his foot, but she does a little jump and leaps at him, wrestling him to the ground and holding his face in the dirt. He’s laughing and the spittle is making mud around his mouth.
There’s a flash in the sky, the clouds lighting up from behind. They glow bright blue for a moment.
We’re all looking up, in silence. A couple of moments pass, and then we hear a low rumble.
Stellum Corps doing the thing, engaging hostiles just outside our atmos. It makes me jittery, thinking of those battles up there, so expansive compared to ours down here. But I should never undermine what we do on the ground.
“I should get going,” I say to the children. “Got OP evolution. I’ll keep an eye out for you.”
They’re scuffing their feet, swinging their arms, pulling random faces at me or at each other. Kid stuff, you know? Put a gun in their hand, they’ll act five times their age. Tell them you’re leaving, it’s all awkward child stuff. I like them. They look like such a scruffy bunch, so helpless, but they’re not. They must be looking out for each other, and they’re doing their bit. They want their city back, and they’re prepared to fight for it.
I’ll see what I can do to help speed that up for them.
I’m on OP4 and Westerling’s got part of his company ready for patrol. He’s sending out a couple of platoons ahead for a mounted IED sweep and one back for a dismounted patrol. At first light, I’ll go with my team ahead and Westerling’s counterinsurgency company will flank our rear and deal with any problems that flare up. I need to hit the head, and so I unclasp the front of my uniform and piss off my post, which is an old concrete pillar, some kind of relic for a monorail the local Government never delivered. I take aim and get one of Westerling’s guys, a real Pretty Ricky. I hear it splash off his helmet.
He’s going nuts, threatening to climb up here and throttle my biosensor-system from my skull. I’m laughing and it’s sending him insane. The other guys are shoving him forward and telling him I’ll get mine. What does it matter, anyway? Most of us already smell of piss, our own or others’, from having laid in it during battle. There’s no chance of washing these wretched uniforms out.
I see some movement down behind me, and it’s the kids, those cheeky little monkeys. They’re covered in bone ash, practically naked but for their threadbare shorts and shirts, and they’ve crawled across the seared earth and are rummaging as quietly as they can through COIN company’s gear, ganking food and even some pistols and knives.
I grin. So much for being on the fucking ball, guys.
The kids steal away back into the cover of the palms growing from the ruins of the cemetery’s entrance. I can almost hear their excited chatter over their stolen booty. The COIN are none the fucking wiser.
Suddenly, Westerling’s patrols drop and they roll in on, firing into the wall of skyrise and towering malls across the wasteland. There’s return fire, but the company pushes the hostiles back towards our main objective. They’ve got them on the run, it seems. It never lasts long, not when it’s these small starter-cells. But insurgents are tenacious rats, and they’ll hold their ground again before long.
I can see some of the cemetery children, led by Ardiyanti, their impossibly small bodies loaded up with their vintage weapons, skirting the perimeters of the wasteland. I hope they give those rebels hell.
“What’s the dope?” calls Walling to me.
I check but I’ve got no info for him. It’s just bank of smoke and dust that Westerling’s guys head into. I can’t see shit.
“Dilligaf,” I call back to him.
He rubs his scalp and stares across the wasteland. There’s nothing we can do, and he knows it. We could use thermal but it’s sketchy. Sit it out and see what happens. And just as well. Westerling’s guys come back, say that they pushed the cell back towards Central Jabodetabek. One of them is carrying a dismembered arm, from the enemy, and he curls its fingers and stretches out the thumb and holds the thing in the air to give us a thumbs up. Blood leaks out of the stump and down his uniform, and he doesn’t even notice.
We wait it out a bit longer and then it starts up. Good old red on red action. Our hostiles from just earlier have evidently encountered the insurgent stronghold beyond the wall of sky-rises that we face. We can hear the tête-à-tête carry on for an hour or so until it peters out. The stronghold should be a little weaker now, for the effort. All the better for when we finally break through.
I climb down from my perch, am replaced by Karman, and grab a cloth to wipe the grime away from my forehead and neck. I kinda wish it would just pummel down rain, but there hasn’t been any rain in these parts for years. Probably not since before I was born, even.
Gunnar’s giving me the eye, staring hard. Fancies himself a Captain Jack. I’m not in the mood for this. What does that prick want?
Captain Westerling has taken the dismembered arm away from his men, and he’s got it piked and roasting over a flame. I’m not sure I’m seeing this right, and his men are crowded around him and a few are glaring at me as I pass by. There’s a bad vibe going on there. A dangerous mob mentality. Fuck it. Let them eat the bloody arm, if they’re that desperate for meat.
Roisin’s fast asleep against the wheel of an APC, and I tuck in beside him and lower my bowler over my eyes, just enough to block out the light above the EIO but not enough that I can’t see Gunnar. He’s looking edgy, but I don’t why. Maybe it’s Westerling and his bloody carnivores? Maybe he’s yearning for that cooked flesh himself?
“Where the fuck is my gear?” It’s one of Westerling’s company. He’s yelling about his missing rifle and grenade launcher. Now a couple more guys have taken up the same complaint. They’re looking at us, convinced it’s a practical joke, probably. It’s going to be a long night.
Beyond the commotion of the missing weapons, I become aware of something else. I cock my head, and I’m looking at Gunnar, and he’s looking back at me, meaningfully, and he starts to nod. I look over to Westerling and his hounds, but they’re too engrossed in their clamour. The rest of my platoon has noticed, though, and they’re all looking across the wasteland towards the centre of the metropolis.
It’s dead quiet over there.
Gunnar stands and casually saunters across and past the rest of the guys, and just goes out and stands beyond our camp. Just stands there, feet apart, his rifle ready, and watches the horizon. The buildings there are dark and silent. They look haunted, flanked as they are by chemical vapours and trails of smoke, their windows hollow and lifeless. There’s probably a dozen of them visible from here, receding into the smog and smoke. Its eerie thinking about how they were all once occupied, brimming to capacity with life all times of the day and night, street vendors between them hawking all manner of goods and eats.
Some of Westerling’s guys have clocked us, and also noticed how quiet the Central Jabodetabek has become. Unease is starting to spread throughout the COIN. They’re readying their weapons.
Walling turns to Lieutenant Stone.
“Ready the rail?”
The Lieutenant just nods, and Walling kicks Roisin awake and tells him to help him get it fired up.
“Can’t be more of them,” I say to the Lieutenant.
He’s not convinced, either. He looks up to the sky, to the brooding clouds up there. They throb with a dull light, evidence of the battle beyond Earth’s borders.
“We haven’t seen anything come down,” I note.
“I know, right,” Stone says. “And they’re Jellies up there, apparently. They’ve never entered our atmos without riding one of our own. It’s their way.”
“We have too much oxygen for a Jelly, anyway,” says Kernan, and I just look at her like she’s fucking stupid.
Roison says he’s got a cold sensation along his back, like frost he says. Weird feeling to have in this smothering heat.
Damn this heat. As our planet got closer to the sun, it got more likely for something like those bastards above to survive it. I had a mate say he reckons there’s intel that says those things have developed some kind of osmosis for core temperatures of planets. There’s nothing on Earth that can even do that!
Stone sees my trepidation.
“Nothing got through,” he says. “Understand? We’d have seen it.”
Westerling’s goat-roping his men to scout the horizon, and he himself is checking the sky.
“CFB,” he says to Stone.
You can see everyone would prefer it if the gunfire returned. If there were the sounds of some kind of insurgent conflict, somewhere over in the city centre, or at least what counted for the centre in this place. The silence is too much. It’s got everyone spooked now.
Suddenly, our equipment starts acting up. Now everyone’s yelling. The EIO microgrid starts to struggle, our lights dimming. Scanners have frozen and our systems’ readings don’t add up.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” hisses Karman up on his post.
I hear the railgun generating. It gives me a cunts hair of comfort, but if it’s Jellies then it won’t matter much. I’ve heard they’re almost impervious to the electromagnetic pulse. Something about their anatomy, made up of polysilanes or something. We’re just not equipped on the ground to fight them.
“They can’t be down here,” Laessig is saying. “When the fuck did they come down?”
There’s a burst of fire in the sky, up behind those pregnant clouds, and an orange blaze crackles in their roiling depths, growing brighter. The boom of an explosion now, sounding hollow and faint, and then the clouds swell and burst and from them emerges the nose of a ship. One of Earth’s own. The fiery haze comes with it, engulfing all one side of the vessel. Now the sound of screaming metal and straining engines reaches us, and the din is enough to make the hairs on my arms stand up.
The light from above has lit up the city, exposing all, and shadows stretch and fall as the calamity above races across the sky. It’s an unreal moment, seeing into the districts between buildings where only a minute ago gloom and dust made it impossible to see much of anything. It’s not like the polaroid bursts of illumination from gunfire, punching holes in the darkness. This is a prolonged exposure, an aching revelation of the destruction all around us. Seeing it on this massive and damaged tableau, it is mildly terrifying. I want the gloom and impenetrable dust back.
But before the ship above has run its last leg, something steps from between the edifices and shows itself in the unforgiving and shifting light.
Ardiyanti comes into view, but there’s no pride in her frame now. She seems defeated, her shoulders dropped and her face slack.
I immediately make to call out to her, tell her to run to me, and I have my weapon up and ready to discharge on any fucker who would think to harm her. But I am stilled, and I feel a tightening in me that I refuse to give name to.
Ardiyanti’s arms hang loose, and she appears to drag her feet. But then I see that her feet barely touch the ground, this earth that was her home and her playground, and is now torn and destroyed. Her toes leave the ground and gently float down again to graze the soil, and then they slowly ascend once more. And behind her, revealed by the flame in the sky, is the thing that holds Ardiyanti aloft.
Did it know? Did it know that this is the one thing I couldn’t witness, in all of this war, right now?
The creature has a limb driven into the back of the girl, I presume her head. I don’t care to know. All I know is that the girl is dead, and this fucking thing dares to hold her up, little Ardiyanti who was tough and would save her city herself, it holds her up and parades her at me like a fucking puppet.
I’m starting out for the wastelands, my ACR charged and ready, my finger on the grenade-launcher. I’ll finish the thing from the inside out if I have to.
Kernan grabs my vest and stops my advance. “Don’t be stupid, Callan,” she says. She understands what I'm like, how I adapt, and knows I've adapted quickly to those kids.
Gunnar turns to look at us all. I don’t read his expression, because I have eyes only for that fucking Jelly, that abomination making its way so casually from those dormant buildings across the wasteland.
“What do we do?” Roisin’s screaming, and there’s a wild panic in everyone’s eyes.
The Lieutenant is saying something about a tactical retrograde, and Westerling is screaming back at him about not retreating. One of the Captain’s men opens fire on the creature, which is pointless at this range, but despite that I race across and rifle-butt him in the face, dropping the cunt to the ground. Westerling’s company turn on me, and my squad have got my six, and there’s a stand-off suddenly.
I growl at the fucker on the ground, and go and join Gunnar out on the edge of the wasteland.
The Jelly is still holding Ardiyanti up. Like a shield. And I’m looking at the thing now, really getting a good look at it. They’re scrap beings, I’d heard, and sure enough it has armoured itself with salvaged parts from vehicles and structures. It looks like some patchwork toy, a shapeless luminescent blob with mismatched car parts stuck to its amorphous body. And its body sort of glows from within, the light rippling along its limbs. I don’t know if limbs is actually the right word... they’re a bit like tentacles, in a way, and they’re undulating across the ground like a snake’s body.
The Stellum Corps ships hits the Earth, somewhere over in North-West Central Jakarta. We see the explosion first, several massive fireballs that fill the sky there and billow towards the scorched clouds above. And then we feel the ground shake. Roisin’s ranting now.
“Great, just fucking great,” he says. “There were probably Jellies on that ship, and now there’ll be fuck knows how many of them down here. We don’t even know how this one got here, or if it’s alone!”
Gunnar’s head explodes next to me, a splash of crimson wetting the side of my grape, getting in my ear, leaving chunks of bone and gristle on my shoulder, and on my arm. I shake it off, stumbling away from him, and see the dirt around me erupt in little bursts. Gunnar’s body slams into the ground.
Stone yells out: “BOLO!”
But it’s too late. Behind me, the company has knuckled down under fire. It’s coming from behind somewhere, off to our rear right. Guys are dropping. I can see hostiles sprinting across a space between ruined walls. Who knows which insurgency they are, if any? Could be pissed off civvies, for all I know. The EIO still has some juice in it, and I take out the light above to give everyone some cover. In the melee, someone fucks up and I hear someone scream “DROPSHOT!” There’s soldiers trying to run in all directions, and then a bright flash silhouettes them.
The explosion knocks me on my ass, into a puddle of Gunner’s blood. My ears are ringing. I’m on my back, and I crane my neck towards the alien, and I see it’s still making its way toward us, but it’s slow over this treacherous terrain.
I roll over and spit out a gob full of dust, and push up onto my feet. I check my weapon, and satisfied, I start charging across the pummelled ground toward the Jelly. I’m fairly fucking roaring my rage at it, trying to burn the bastard down with the intensity of my eyes, willing it to die. I know I don’t stand a chance against it, but it’s irrelevant at this time.
The Jelly seems bolstered by my efforts. It raises poor Ardiyanti higher. I hate the sacrilege of it. I hate this creature. My boots are heavy on the ground, and over the sound of my running I can hear the slaughter behind me, and its growing fainter, not only because I’m putting distance between myself and that carnage, but because clearly my platoon and the company haven’t stood a chance against whomever attacked us. This is all messed up.
Then there’s the sound of a cannon going off, way behind me, and immediately I recognise that sound: the railgun. Either it has misfired in the commotion, or someone – either Walling or one of the dissidents – has set it off.
The elecro-pulse sweeps past me, and I’m caught in its margin and thrown forward across the ground, tumbling over myself and scraping to a halt, skinning my chin along the cracked earth. Half my clothes have been scorched off. My arm hangs by my side, lying at an odd angle. I can see that it is barely attached to me anymore. I can’t feel it. I don’t know what to think, seeing it there in the dirt, immobile and lifeless.
The alien has copped the full force of the blast, and lets out a screech that pierces into my head. I’m struggling to focus on the creature, to see the effect of the railgun on it, but what I am able to see isn’t comforting one bit. Sure, the blast has struck it and appears to have done some damage, and all that armour plate is knocked away from it and fallen to the ground. Exposed now, the creature is even more abominable, and its tentacles thrash wildly about. I can see Ardiyanti’s corpse lying in the dirt.
But the Jelly doesn’t drop. Whatever damage the pulse did, the Jelly manages to recover from. The light it emanates is still strong, but there’s a blackened burn area smack in the middle of the fucker, and the thing heaves as if with some effort to breathe or somesuch.
I struggle to my feet, note that a whole boot has been shorn away from one foot. My arm dangles down the length of my body, bumping against my thigh. I try to ignore it. When I’m ready again, I start off at a trot, determined to take advantage of whatever damage the railgun has done to my enemy, to find a weak spot. There’s none I’ve ever heard of for Jellies, but I need something for when I’ve reduced the distance between us.
And then there’s a roar. A child’s roar, all rage and unbridled fury. I glance across and parallel to the Jelly stands Cumi, his face raw and red as he screams at the alien, with his fists clenched at his sides. What the hell is he doing? Why isn’t he armed? Not that it'd matter much.
The Jelly turns to face him, its tentacles looping and coiling frantically with the endeavour. It will destroy him. It drops Ardiyanti’s body in the dirt.
I change course and I’m running for Cumi now, and the alien is doing the same thing. We’re both closing on the kid, but the little punk makes a charge at his friend’s killer, his little feet pounding the earth and he screams and raises his tiny fists.
I get to the boy first, and I scoop him up, my arm around his waist, and I’m still running. Running now for cover, for the shell of the edifice ahead, and I feel the whiplash of a tentacle behind me, but I keep running.
The kid is struggling in my grasp, and it’s all I can do to hold on to him. I realise that with Cumi under my good arm and the other hanging from its socket that I don’t have my ACR. Fuck it! It must be laying back in the wasteland, where the railgun tore my arm off.
I get past a broken doorway, and it’s so dark in here I can’t see anything and slam into a wall with my shoulder. I feel a lancing pain from the collision, it’s like lightning through my right arm, and Cumi slips from my hold. I reach back, barely able to see him in the gloom, and grab him by his neck just as the Jelly worms its way into view. It knows we’re still in here. It’s making a path straight for us. They probably have night-vision knowing my current luck.
I pull Cumi towards me and start sliding along the wall, feeling for another entrance, a back door or just any door that will take us beyond this room.
The Jelly is at the door. I can hear it clambering across the bricks that litter the threshold. The light of its body has begun illuminating the room.
My hand slips off the wall and into space. Immediately I make for it, not caring what is beyond, whether there is a floor or a massive gaping hole. We’re in luck: there’s a floor, solid concrete. The doorway behind us glows ethereally. I shuffle my feet across the floor, feeling along the wall, and we find another doorjamb. There’s a door. I can’t find the access pad. Now Cumi is helping. I can feel him pulling towards the door, see by the feeble light from the room behind us that his little hands are sliding over the panel of the door.
He finds what I’m after, takes my hand in his small fingers and guides me to it. The access pad.
The room fills with the glow of the Jelly. Cumi has gone tense beside me. I sense his fear.
I get my fingernails under the edge of the panel and lift it away. Then I find a small rubber button and depress it, and immediately we hear a release in the door’s mechanisms. I’ve disabled its lock function, but without any electricity we still need to jimmy this door open the old fashioned way. But the illumination of the room is telling me we’re in a bag of dicks. The Jelly is at my back. I feel the intense heat of it.
Cumi scoots down, his face a feral snarl, his fingers like claws. He’s going to go out fighting.
I spin around and press my back against the door. I’m trying to use my weight to slide the bloody thing across, but I’m face to face with the Jelly. It leans in towards me. Inside its gelatinous bulk converge what look like dozens of large black spermatozoa. They assemble at a point closest to me and take stock of me, seem to see and measure me.
I’ve never seen an alien up close before. None of them. Only as holo-simulcrums in the academy. They did have the skeleton of one, not one of these Jellies, but some other hostile species. It just looked like a weird skull to me, albeit black as obsidian. But the Jelly really lives up to its moniker: it looks like a kind of giant jellyfish, of sorts. The ones that choke the seas these days. But these are silica life-forms, and by rights shouldn’t even be able to survive down here on the Earth. But laced over its entire phosphorous body is a thick webbing, like oiled rubber, and I can smell something like methane being farted from pustules all over this membrane. An awful heat emanates from the creature. The Academy said that these parasites have adapted to draw heat from the core of planets that they try to infest. It’s crucial to their survival. This suffocating Indonesian warmth must be a boon to them.
The alien shifts itself slightly, and those black sperm eyes now dart down through the blob and find Cumi. The boy growls and pushes back against the door further. His skin drips with sweat, his clothes soaked with it.
“No,” I yell. “Look at me!” I punch the Jelly with my good hand, but it ignores me. It doesn’t acknowledge me anymore. It sees only Cumi.
I look at the damage to my left arm, see that the actuator cables are twisted at the socket, bleeding hydraulic fluid all down my arm. It’s dripping on the floor. That arm is fubar. I have one good arm, no weapon, and no idea.
An arm reaches from the darkness, towards the Jelly, towards where those weird eyes are all gathered and staring at Cumi. The arm extends straight, and the hand forms a pistol with the index finger straight and the thumb cocked. The finger presses against the Jelly.
“Bang,” says Jones.
The Jelly spins towards him, a whirlwind of heat and screeching, and its tentacles flail around, catching me and throwing me against the wall to my far left. I can’t see Cumi, he’s somewhere in the dust-storm the creature is kicking up, but I can see Jones, that mad bastard, and he’s beating at the Jelly with his fists, and it has him up against the wall in a rage, and it’s gutting him as easily as punching into a bag of mud. It pulls the skin of his belly wide and lets his entrails fall in a steaming heap onto the floor, the blue glow of the creature illuminating the whole thing. Against the light of the beast I see Cumi’s silhouette darting for the doorway, for escape, but the alien is quick, spermatozoon eyes everywhere at once. It catches the boy in an outstretched tentacle and drags him back across the floor, drawing blood from poor little Cumi’s fingers as he tries to claw free.
I’m up on my feet again, but now my ankle is twisted, the plastic shell of my fibula split open and the servo within spitting sparks. My foot swings inwards, pigeon-toed, and hobbles my progress. I limp across to the Jelly, just as it gets another tentacle around Cumi’s head. I fear what it is about to do. I drive myself right at it and ram my arm into its side, the magnificent heat of it peeling away the silica of my arm and exposing the rigid plastic boning beneath. But it’s hard plastic that I’m made from, durable for battle conditions, and it holds up against the core temperatures of the alien.
The Jelly is in a rage. It lashes out at me, stripping reams of silica tissue away from my skull, trying to prise my skull apart, get at my software. It’s beginning to separate me, and all I can do is drive my fist into the oily membrane and tug hard at it, stretch it as far from the creature as I can, hoping to break this protective insulation open. But I’ve over-estimated either my strength, or the likeness of this extra-terrestrial silica to the same that sleeves my endoskeleton. Hell, even the railgun only scorched and dented the beast. It’s a futile effort on my part. The Jelly starts to pull apart my skull.
Cumi is at my leg, and I’m trying to kick him away. I scream at him to run. Instead, He reaches into the ruins of my pants, into the side-pocket and produces little Ardiyanti’s gift to me, the bone arrow she herself had crafted. A crude and useless weapon.
Cumi braces and springs up, the bone clutched in both hands, his knuckles white, and he drives it towards that stretch of azotosome membrane I’m pulling at.
The bone tip pierces the oily silica, does what the force of a railgun couldn’t do. What my robotic body is failing to do. The bone drives through the tissue and suddenly the membrane yanks from my grasp, recoils across the phosphorous bulk of the Jelly, shrivelling across it and snapping into a coiled ball of oily flesh, like an empty scrotum. It falls to the floor, and the Jelly pulls away from us, liquid methane spewing from fissures in its body as it flails around blindly. Painfully, I hope.
I reach down and shield Cumi from the violence of the alien’s abandon. He’s struggling to breathe from the noxious methane in the air, and he clutches at the ruin of my arm, his tiny fingers curling around my exposed steel tendons and hard-plastic boning.
The Jelly falls to the floor, and it rolls over on itself several times, as if to put out a fire or something. I feel the heat of it lessening, the room growing cooler as the alien’s violence lessens. It is dying. Our oxygen is poison to it.
Finally it stills. The tentacles flop onto the floor and grow stiff. The glow from within the creature dissipates, and the room becomes darker.
I feel Cumi push against my leg, and I look down and see he is encouraging me to make our way from the room. So we carefully cross the floor, and as we pass the Jelly, I chance a jab at one of its limbs with my mangled foot. The silica is hard and crumbling. There is no light left within the beast now, and it looks opaque and is slimed with a thick, oily residue.
Outside, it is eerily quiet.
My platoon has been decimated. Whatever cell ambushed us is gone. I can see the remains of our camp scattered across the dust, in the distance. See the bodies there, utterly still. I was their unit droid, and I've failed them. Over to our right, there is the dying sounds of a battle, somewhere from where the horizon burns bright orange against the night. That’s one hot LZ, over there. The Jelly’s that were undoubtedly on Stellum Corps falling ship will have killed whoever was camped there, be it PANPAC-NATO forces or sympathisers to the West-Papuan separatists’. Either way, there won’t be much left of them soon.
Cumi is over at Ardiyanti’s body, and he has removed his threadbare shirt and is wiping the dust away from her face. He sheds no tears for her. His face is hard, his brow furrowed. I realise I’ve never seen him without that creased brow.
Together, we bury poor little Ardiyanti, but we say no prayer. Neither of us knows one. It’s not really done anymore. The mound of soil looks awful. So small. When I suggest we try to find the bodies of the other children, Cumi says hoarsely that we needn’t bother. I try not to think about what might have happened to them. That’s Cumi’s burden.
I inspect the damage done to me. I’m a real mess, but I’m no TBI. Cumi saw to that, stopped that Jelly before it tore my systems from my skull. What a kid. Downed a Jelly with a human bone.
I find my missing Adaptive Combat Rifle, and I see the bits of scrap metal that were blasted off the Jelly when the railgun struck it. I attach them to myself, as strategically as possible, trying to protect any exposed parts of me that are particularly vulnerable. In the end, I figure I look pretty funny, with big squares of steel and carbon plastic tied or bolted to my legs and arms, and across my shoulders. But Cumi simply nods when he appraises me. No mirth there.
I take his hand, the one not clutching that bone, and we stroll across the wasteland and stand atop a small rise, and together we look North-West and watch the horizon and see the blue phosphorous glow behind Jabodetabek grow brighter, nearer.
And we wait for them to come.
This story originally appeared in The Jabodetabek Chronicles.