Back when I was at the university, getting my writing degree, I’d encounter people, mostly students but sometimes adults, who said they wanted to be a writer. So I would ask if they had written anything. In a lot of cases, the answer was no.
I don’t know what being a writer meant to them, then. A lifestyle of sleeping in, drinking coffee at a desk with a typewriter or a word processor, or something. But they weren’t writing, and they weren’t submitting things for publication. And I was.
Oh, it was so easy for me then. I was blatting out short stories, poems, personal essays, and articles, and I submitted them to magazines by the score starting with a short story I wrote from my dog’s perspective in the eighth grade. McCall’s passed on it (and where are they now?). As a matter of fact, most magazines passed on most things, but I have a collection of contributors’ copies, and I once got paid for a short story (“Reading Faces”) by a Kinko’s-produced magazine called Show and Tell. I even had an agent at one point, although I’m not sure if they actually submitted my first novel anywhere for publication.
Somewhere in my twenties and thirties, though, my writing tailed off. I wrote a couple of poems. I wrote a novel that I couldn’t place and self-published to no great success. I held a couple of technical writing positions, so I was a writer professionally, but not in the writer sense.
So I eventually stopped considering myself a writer. I don’t even think of myself as a blogger even though I’ve been tapping at this for almost twenty years. I’ve written and published some professional articles in periodicals, on QA Web sites, and on LinkedIn, but that’s more akin to technical writing than creative writing.
A couple of times at career crossroads, my beautiful wife asked me if I wanted to focus on writing another novel, but I’ve demurred. I did not have much luck with that first self-published one, and I have not been completing even short stories with any regularity.
So I don’t consider myself a writer, and yet within the last year or so, I have finished, what, five or six poems (and I’ve submitted them and gotten rejected from the local university’s literary magazine and sent them off to another literary magazine, but using the online submission system is less interesting and even colder than form rejection letters). And….
This year, I finished two stories.
The first, I wrote completely from start to finish. The second I finished from a draft I started probably not long after I read The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia. Reading that and watching the old episodes of that program stirred my creativity a bit, and I guess it’s coming to fruition.
I actually submitted that story for publication the other day.
So do I want to be a writer?
I guess time will tell. I didn’t have much success with it earlier in my life–the stack of contributors’ copies and a couple of appearances in national magazines notwithstanding.
But I have written something.
I’ve tucked the first short story, the one I wrote completely this year, under the fold. It’s a short military sci-fi thing, just a run through a draft, but it’s something that I powered through. Like I said, I used to blat out things like this all the time, and I need to get disciplined and used to doing it again, I suppose. If I want to be a writer.
Lieutenant Belasko scanned the skies and horizon as he brushed aside the air curtains and eased his frame through the narrow barracks door. Sergeant Michaels, his second-in-command, sat on a crate with his back against the wall outside the door. Belasko’s face prickled immediately. Gemma IV was just at the edge of the sun’s habitable range and did not have a lot of available water, so the days were cool and dry and the nights bitterly cold. Michaels let everyone know he was from Wisconsin back home, but Belasko knew the NCO made a point of showing his toughness by taking his recreation out-of-doors. If Sergeant sat outdoors for hours after dark, how can I complain about the cold in the sun? Hopefully, the platoon and their peers in the other platoons took notice as well. “How long we got, Chris?” he asked.
“Sixty-one hours forward,” Michaels said. “Eighteen days on planet. Three days to jump point, three days home.”
“It seems like it’s been longer than eleven months,” Belasko said. “The quiet trips always do.”
“The worst are the quiet trips that get loud all of a sudden,” Michaels said. “The equipment is sparkling, though.”
“Who’s on the wall?”
“E team. Rogers, Bonn, Randall, and Jamil. They’ve got two hours until A team takes over. Our boys are not up for six.”
“Let’s walk it and then get some shut-eye,” Belasko said.
Michaels uncoiled, and they walked inside the perimeter of the camp. A steeleen wall surrounded FPD Lycress, someone had named it, one hundred yards a side. Atop twelve feet of black metal fiber, Belasko could see one of the men walking, periodically lifting no-lights to his eyes to scan the fields outside the wall and the hills in the distance. Belasko and Michaels didn’t say a word as they worked their way around the compound: the transit pool with its sloggers and its hoppers; the mess and porridge storage dug into the ground; the separated barracks; the entertainhut. Two men manned the gate on the north side of the compound, and another walked the wall above them. Everyone was wearing their puffers to keep warm, and everyone looked alert. Belasko was pleased. He looked up to the sky, to the stars, and to 272 and 13. It had only been a year since he’d been home, but it had been a slow year.
In the southwest corner of the FPD, a purple shower of light curved from the horizon to the edge of the wall. Belasko reacted a second slower than Michaels, who shouted “Arc light! Arc light!”
The man closest to the purple beam shouted at the same time, and the base alarm system kicked on. He threw the no-lights up to his eyes. Belasko and Michaels tucked their ear pods in. “Arc light from the hills at 248 and 1. I don’t see the firebase; they must be using spotters….” Bonn said. The purple shimmer reached the wall and almost invisible pulses followed the beam, falling in a moving hail of AM across the wall and into the compound beyond. Bonn looked as though he was leaping away from the wall as the first rounds fell.
“A and B to the south wall. Diggins and Mulroy, check Bonn by the south wall. C team to transit—we need to get to the hoppers and get to the arc firebase. Singer, get the satellites to locate the source if they can and hit it for us. Bates, wake up the captain, please,” Belasko said. Confirmations erupted in his ear bud even as he trotted to the transit barn, away from the arc fire but probably not for long. “Amiri, bring Sergeant Michaels and my kit to transit, if you don’t mind. We would like to shoot a couple separatists on principle.”
“Sky eyes and air support will take thirty minutes. Or never,” Michaels said.
“Thirty minutes from now, we won’t have much left to defend,” Belasko acknowledged. The arc fire churned up ground near the second barracks, but the men within it poured out and avoided the purple beam widely. “Siege or assault, we’ll be hard pressed.”
“The natives are happy that we’re not more heavily armed,” Michaels said. “It shows we mean peace.”
“Especially the ones with the arc,” Belasko acknowledged.
Six members of C team met them at the transit barn. Amiri handed over expedition packs and rifles. Stenson finished slzipping his night gear on his left side. Tork was on automatic pilot—understanding would come into his eyes later. Yurgens checked his rifle load and stroked the steelen barrel. Paters and Singh already had rifles in the scabbard of their preferred torpedo-shaped hoppers and were velcroing their packs to the sides.
“All right, we’re going now for the source of the arc fire. Spread tri-delta 8,” Belasko said. “Johns and Dablemont, when it’s convenient, you can join us mark 248, hoppers on 7E.”
Eight men in the transit hut finished stowing their gear on their hoppers and grabbed the go handles. The short-distance personnel missiles flitted through the door and towards the nearest hills southwest of the compound.
They crossed over the flat land in a freezing few seconds. Belasko wished he’d worn a hat out of the barracks door. He would have turned watery eyes to Michaels, but he was afraid that the Wisconsinite would be rolling up his sleeves. The other members of the team spread across three dimensions in following him, a pyramid of air infantry with no close air support. They were brave men, he knew, trusting in themselves, in their training, and in him.
As they neared the first hilltop, Tork erupted in a geyser of plasma and his hopper flew on before him before gentle curving and settling on the ground.
“All fire! All fire!” Michaels tore his rifle from its saddle scabbard and nosed his hopper lower with his knees while he tried to find targets through the no-lights scope. He fired as he looked to lay down suppressive fire. Bits of ground and trees erupted as he scanned. After a second, the ground ahead churned as the others opened fire as well. “Let’s get on that hill and hold it!”
“All down and set up a perimeter,” Belasko said. The seven hoppers dropped to treetop level—well, many of the trees were gone from the suppressive plasma fire—and landed in a star-shaped pattern facing away. “Defensive positions. Radio squad-local only.” The radio traffic from the base, the calls for help and air support, squelched in the squads’ ears, but Belasko could still hear them.
“I’ve got heat signatures 182,” Amiri said.
“Heat signatures hilltop 290,” Stenson said.
“Arc light source 244,” Yurgenson reported. Everyone turned to look at the opposite end of the arc light, the purple shimmer arising from beyond a hilltop west-south-west from Military 0.
“Topo,” Belasko said.
Amiri uncapped and unrolled the v-screen. Their current location displayed with a blue dot on a map; they were at the edge of a range of rolling hills arranged concentrically around a valley or depression that might have been a volcano at one time or a separatist base millennia ago. Amiri and Stenson tagged the hilltops where they registered heat signatures on either side of their hill. The arc light source lay in the direction of the valley, which might mean the valley itself, surrounded by the hills. Which might be covered with spotters, snipers, and signatures that would heat up when their plasma rifles shot more of the squad off of their hoppers.
“Where did the separatists get an arc fire?” Singh said.
“The same place they learned concentric defense for an arc fire base,” Michaels said.
“We need to get to the center ring,” Belasko said. “They don’t have much time.” The team wasn’t hearing the reports of buildings collapsing and supplies lost. The men at Lycress stayed out of the beam and were safe enough for now, but if a band of separatists large enough to hold multiple hills fell upon them when they had no ammo or food….
“Dablemont and Johns incoming.” Dablemont’s voice rang in his ears.
“Come in low,” Michaels said. “We’ve got potshotters all around.”
“So we heard,” Dablemont said.
“You need topo guidance?” Belasko asked. He could guide the hoppers in remotely with but a voice command.
“We’ve ridden these hills enough over the last year to know where to go,” Johns said into his mic still some distance off.
“So we go in, guns lit either side?” Michaels said.
“Charge of the Light Brigade,” Belasko said.
“Sorry, sir?” Yurgenson asked.
“Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die,” Michaels said. “We will make it. They can’t hit us in Delta 6.”
“We don’t know that,” Belasko said. “We can try Crab 8.”
“Heat signatures hot,” Amiri said.
“Return fire, cover them as they come in,” Michaels said. Amiri and Stenson fired their rifles in suppression pattern at the distant hilltops, hoping to keep the separatists’ heads down while Dablemont and Johns arrived.
The two stragglers came in low, only a few feet above the grass until they curved up the backside of the hill and dodged the remnants of trees. They dismounted, and Dablemont approached Belasko and Michaels carefully. “That crater is two kay in. If they’re all on the hills, we’ll never make it on hoppers. Five minutes flight time straight ahead, hilltop height,” he said. “We might have raced a bit, so I know the fastest straight ahead time, but coming in lower, dodging hills and crossfire….” He frowned.
“Hoppers, slave on D8,” Johns said. He’d had time to pull on his helmet with no-light lens. In the twilight, he looked like he had an eye-patch.
“What are you doing?” Michaels asked.
“Chasing the rainbow, Sergeant,” he said. “Doing what needs to be done.” Still straddling hopper D8, he torqued its control upwards, aiming his aircraft high into the sky instead of keeping them mostly parallel to the ground. The other hoppers, following his hopper’s signal, lifted up and curved after him.
“Johns, get back here,” Belasko said. “Hoppers….”
“Let’s see what he has in mind,” Michaels cut him off before the lieutenant recalled the hoppers.
“Heat signatures hot,” Amiri said.
The ground around them did not show any signs of impacts. The separatists on the hills fired into the sky, trying to find the hoppers.
“He’s distracting them, anyway. Let’s go on foot,” Michaels said. “They won’t be looking for us on the ground. Two teams.”
“No heat signatures in the valleys,” Amiri said.
“Amiri, Yurgenson, Stenson, you’re with me. Dablemont, Paters, Singh, with Michaels. We will flank to the left of the hill at 240; you go right. Stick to the outer edges of the valleys between them to stay out of sight from the hilltoppers. Go stealth; watch for sentries. Keep your no lights on.”
“We should speedrun instead,” Stenson said. “The boys at Lycress don’t have time for us to sneak.”
“We’ll move at trip,” Michaels said. “Spaced out. Your team can go stealth.”
“All right, let’s do this. Be careful. Low-comms only.” The team clicked their microphones in reply, and the two groups headed down the hill in opposite directions, both moving slowly to cover the fact that they left their position—although Johns taking the hoppers with him might have already done that.
Michaels led his team down the hill and into a lowland with sparse, spindly trees. When it did rain here, the water collected in these lowlands and allowed some cover to grow, but the trunks on the trees were thin, spreading wide, thin leaves into the air to catch the sunlight while gnarled bladders in the roots collected the water for later use. He spaced the men out at twenty terrans between them; they would be fairly well concealed from the hilltops by the leaves, but anyone ground-level might see them coming. Michaels swept his head, his right eye focused through the no-light monocle, looking for heat signatures in the valley. Nothing.
The ground shuddered beneath them, making the trees sway like dandelions in the wind. He dropped to a knee and felt eight more impacts, ballistic, he thought; no explosions.
“Johns and the hoppers,” Belasko whispered in Michaels’ ear. “Stenson’s is going up to see. Keep your team moving.”
Michaels nodded at his team and signaled for them to keep moving. Between the leaves and hills, he saw dark sky ahead.
“Stenson reports heat signatures moving away from the target area; the arc light is out.”
“Watch for retreating tangos,” Michaels said to his team.
They reached the ridges around the valley without encountering any hostiles. Diffuse heat permeated the area, but no dots of living creatures. Outside the low-light, they saw the remnants of generators for an AFHPM, damaged by the concussion from ballistic impact. The AFHPM itself was completely destroyed, a crater in a crater. “Johns,” he said into his mic, sending wideband. “Johns, report.”
“Hell of a mess,” Praters said out loud.
“Loot the bodies,” Michaels said to keep them from standing around. The team moved in concert to examine closely the human remains and to look for booby traps, but Michaels didn’t expect to find any—the separatists probably felt safe enough where they were and left in a hurry after the arc fire was destroyed.
Belasko’s team arrived as Michaels and his crew finished their sweep. “Base reports minimal casualties, but the barracks and the mess hall were heavily damaged. Motor pool scattered enough hoppers to keep patrols going, so nobody’s going to sneak up on the FPD.”
“No word from Johns,” Michaels said.
Belasko nodded. “There were nine impacts,” he said. “He must have rode his all the way down.”
“’Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,’” Michaels said.
Dablemont approached. “Johns did this,” he asked. “He didn’t mean to distract them at all.”
“He just got a deep beam from home. His wife just died in childbirth,” Dablemont said. “He must have really loved her.”
Belasko looked at Michaels, and Michaels met his gaze. “I’m going to put him in for a Gold Cluster for this,” he said to Dablemont. “So let’s not mention the message. Let just let him be a legend.”