PART TWO – SEMPER GUMBY
Rucker and I watched Tien Chang burn.
Not like we hadn’t seen the effects of an orbital strike before. But there’s just something about fire.
We were across the river, five kilometers away, and could still hear it roar. Buildings were torches. Signs, light posts, cars, flared like kindling. Downtown was a shimmering inferno of melting asphalt, glass, and steel. It is hard to believe those things burn like that. But they do. A city, a hundred and forty thousand people, turned to cinders.
I could see flames raging higher and higher, gasping, grasping into the night sky for more air. Soon a vortex would form, pulling everything inward to the white-hot heart, and a pillar of fire would rise on scorching winds over the city center, writhing and howling like Hell’s own tornado.
“Damn,” Ricker grunted. “Admiral Sota is not fucking around.”
“No, he isn’t,” I said.
Lights flickered south of the city along the riverbank. I cranked my optical neurochems and zoomed in: a string of trucks was racing down the highway away from the blaze. Compensating for the light-wash, my tacti-comp ID’d them as Isuzu bulk haulers. Might be insurgents. Might be civilians. It didn’t matter – the evac deadline had passed twelve hours ago. The drone cordon would take them out before they got another kilometer. “The Admiral is not a ‘fuck around’ kinda guy,” I finished.
Rucker nodded absently. He had spotted the trucks too and was tracking them. “So I’m thinking the Timmies said ‘No’ to his offer of a cease-fire?”
“Word is they shot the diplomatic android first,” I explained. “Then told the rest of the negotiating team to chī shǐ back to the 18th generation. That hurt the Admiral’s feelings, so he decided to send a message.”
Rucker gave a harsh laugh. “Rods from God? Who’s left to hear it? That’s a helluva contingency.”
I jerked my head south where Xuan Chang and Wen Chang, the two remaining colony cities, stood. “The Turkistan Independence leaders. I mean, nothing quite says, “Listen Up!” like hypervelocity tungsten telephone poles fired from Low Planetary Orbit, right?”
Rucker shrugged. “Well, when you care enough to send the very best….”
It was my turn to laugh. I snorted, looked back across the dark, flame-lit water. “I just hope they listen.”
Rucker shrugged, and started to walk back to our camp. “Bah. I give it two days, boss. Fleet has the entire system on lock-down. Absolutely no traffic from the moons, Belt mines, or orbitals unless it is UNE authorized and got a military escort. Meng Tian is cut off. Methinks the Tim’s glorious revolution just got strangled in the cradle.”
“Can’t argue your logic, but…” my voice trailed off. I had a feeling about this one.
Rucker spread his hands in mock surprise. “Seriously?”
He pointed across the river. “Once word of this spreads, they’ll have to come to the table. Who wants Chang Two and Three lit up like that? The Timmies may be fanatics but they’re not stupid. The Planetary Council won’t go for it. Not the U.N.E. either, not really. Crisped miners, slagged infrastructure, delayed ore shipments… bad for business all around.”
Rucker spit, shifted his Steyr-19 to the crook of his other arm. “Fifty yuan says we’ll be back on the Hephestus in forty-eight hours, cryo-ed, and zip lining our way to the UNE’s next cluster fuck.”
“From the Freezer to Hell in sixty seconds,” I intoned. “Or your money back. Guaranteed.”
“Zombie Six. That’s how we roll.” he said.
I thumped my chest plate despite the itch at the back of my mind. The Kepler solar system was effectively blockaded, Fleet Marines had landed at New Shenzhen, Tien Chang was burning. I so wanted Rucker to be right. But…
An A.I. generated, strategic, socio-psych profile can be as meticulous as it is wrong. People are spectacularly illogical. Brute truth is sometimes a kick in the head makes people give up – sometimes it just pisses them off.
I could feel the anger coming off Tien Chang in waves.
He raised one eyebrow. “You’re not taking my bet.”
“Hey, I’ll take your money,” I said. “In the meantime though, make sure our ammo and power cells are topped off. Chandra has first watch.”
“I’m not jinxing us,” I said. “I want Zombie Six to be ready in case the Timmies won’t see reason, is all.”
Rucker saluted. “Semper Gumby,” he drawled, and went back to the rest of the squad.