Thursday, February 24, 2011

Common Words: Alpha Pavonis

When I was a teenager, I wrote - but it was without direction. I didn't yet have any idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to take any of my narratives, and at that point I'd barely managed to stick with one story from beginning to end. If I was aware of the SF short story markets at the time, it was only peripherally at best: I don't remember buying any of the magazines until university, and even had I been, there's no way the stuff I produced back in the '90s would have passed muster. It's only now that I've managed to not get a rejection slip every once in a while.

This story, "Alpha Pavonis," is another one of those blue-sky story projects; I don't remember if I knew where I was taking it back in 1999, and I certainly don't know. Nevertheless, this story will always be meaningful to me for one simple reason. I can still go back and be there - still early on January 20, 1999, and I sat in one of the study carrols in the library of Barrie Central Collegiate, writing the first draft of this story on three-hole-punch, lined paper. I remember it well because my understanding of the times involved led me to the conclusion that it was while I was writing this story that my grandfather died.

I don't want to forget it, even though I know it sucks - in my defense, I was sixteen. Though I'd be interested in knowing what inspirations influenced the style within.

"Alpha Pavonis"
by Andrew Barton

The convoy of trucks crawled through the dense undergrowth at a snail's pace, their wheels sinking into the mud left by the storms of the previous day. It was mainly the slowness that annoyed Arkady Yakov. He'd been appropriated from the motor pool for this run by Military Transportation, apparently because they were short one crew and needed one on the run they were making into the nearby air force base, a run which was very important and needed to be made that night, no matter what. But Yakov didn't really care about all that. All he cared about was that he was driving through some godforsaken forest in the middle of nowhere where he could be back in the barracks, sitting back and watching the Deseret Cup.

"Damn, look at this mess," Yakov said to his crewmate, Dan Ziggs. Ziggs was a native of the world of Deseret, like Yakov, and didn't seem to be enjoying this run much either. His usually jovial attitude had subsided ever since they'd joined the convoy, probably as a result of the job assigned to them. "You'd think the least they could do is cut a decent road through this bloody forest. It's not like there's any shortage of trees on this rock."

"Nah, that'll never happen, Yak," Ziggs said, using the nickname Yakov had earned during their first run together, back in '14. Has it been six years already? Jeez, I'm gettin' too old for this, Yakov thought idly. "Why's that?" Arkady said a moment later.

"When was the last time the military made something easy? You ever seen one of their damned forms? Entry forms, exit forms, requisition forms... Jeez, you probably have to fill out five seperate forms just to take a dump," Ziggs commented.

"Yeah, I hear that." One of the unfortunate things that had accompanied humanity when the diaspora began was the incredible system of bureaucracy that had evolved on Terra back in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even if the military was correct in asserting that its bureaucracy was nothing to the one developed in the United States in the 2050's, Yakov shuddered at the thought of even a Federal Armed Forces form. Twenty-five pages just to order a chicken sandwich, Yakov thought.

Yakov tightened the grip of his hands on the old-style, yet still effective, steering wheel of his ArrowMotors 509 light truck and silently cursed the bureaucracy, one of the things he truly hated from the very core of his soul. Even though the entire human sphere of influence was connected by a hyperradio network which provided near-instantaneous communications across hundreds of light-years, and though Deseret and Terra were separated by a mere sixty-seven light years, just a trip around the corner with FTL speeds, the bloody inefficient Senatecritters in London still managed to make everyone wait six to eight weeks for delivery.

Unexpectedly, a pitter-patter of rain began to beat down on the truck. "Great, it's decided to rain again," Ziggs said. "Guess the satellite network is down again..."

Yakov was not surprised when brake lights, in a kind of domino effect, surged through the convoy. He hoped that they would get out of this damned forest soon, else the already precarious mud-ground would turn into a quagmire that even the trucks wouldn't be able to get through. Activating the windshield wipers, he grumbled about the weather and the ineptness of the human military, then turned to Ziggs. "How's the cargo doin'?" he asked.

Ziggs turned his head to the rear of the drivers' compartment and referred to a Geiger counter, mounted semi-securely on the wall of the cabin. It seemed like it had been installed in a hurry, judging from the numerous welding torch burns on and around it. Fortunately, the darkened areas of the counter didn't provide much of an impediment to Ziggs as he checked the device.

"Damn military techies, always goin' too fast to get anything done right," Ziggs muttered, facing forwards once more. "It's a damn wonder none of them bloody starships haven't fallen out of the sky yet."

"Give 'em some time, Dan. Just give 'em time," Yakov said, not taking his gaze off the tailights of the truck ahead of them. "Everything's running okay back there, right? I don't know about you, but I get kind of nervous when I'm babysitting a thirty-kiloton nuke."

"Yeah, me too. One bump too many, and you get a lot closer to understanding just how hot Lithovoreland is."

As the streamlined trucks pressed on through the wilderness, the mud seemed to harden somewhat, allowing them to travel at a blistering ten kilometers per hour. Their drivers, all of them concentrating on the path ahead, were blessedly unaware of what lay in wait for them.


Aleksander Kinsey hated the rain. It hardly ever rained on his homeworld, a huge, terraformed, climate-controlled paradise. The only time precipitation came from the sky was either every once in a while to prevent drought, a possibility which an extensive groundwater supply almost completely precluded, or one of those freak accidents with the weather control matrix.

At least those damned crickets had stopped when the rain started coming down. Though they probably weren't at all like the Terran crickets that had infested his homeworld, they made a noise which was just as annoying. Kinsey didn't take that much time to mull over it, for zoology or botany or whatever it was that studied bugs wasn't one of his interests. All his concentration was taken up by the grey-white trucks which edged their way toward his position, a leafy undergrowth which was hidden by multiple plant outgrowths. That alone made them almost undetectable, and coupled with the darkness of the night and the infrared-blocking suits he and his team were wearing, that would make them almost invisible to prying eyes. Unless, of course, someone got stupid.

"Seven trucks in the convoy, sir," reported a young soldier, hidden nearby and peering through night vision goggles. His name was Randolph, or something like that. Kinsey was terrible with names. "A couple of them have what looks like fuel pods, and the rest seem to have cargo pods on board, just like our intelligence indicated." The soldier, Randolph, stood up to try and get a better view. "Have to hand it to the Feds, they stick to their schedule like nothing else. Which truck do you think the--" Before Randolph had a chance to finish, Kinsey grabbed hold of his arm and pulled the soldier to the ground. True, Randolph was the newest member of his team, but he had to learn the tricks of the trade the easy way or the hard way. And Kinsey valued his team too much for them to learn the hard way.

"First lesson, idiot, is to stay down at all times. You never, ever take risks like that when you're in this game. For all we know, the Feds have a whole division hidden in that forest. You want to make your head a nice and easy target for them, go ahead."

"Sir, I just thought that--"

"You thought! Sure didn't seem like that from what I saw. Maybe next time you should think it through a little more. Get it through your brain, you are not invisible!" Kinsey growled, making sure to keep his voice low.

"But, the night--"

"Who cares about the night?" Kinsey said, interrupting Randolph once more. "You see this night vision stuff we got? Take a look at it. This is fifty years old. We got them at a fucking flea market, for Christ's sake! And if fifty-year-old equipment can do all this, imagine what kind of gadgets they have."

"Yes sir. Sorry, sir." Randolph had made a stupid mistake, a rookie mistake. But a common mistake nonetheless. Kinsey reflected on how young Randolph's perceived invincibility had just been removed. Hopefully he wouldn't make another mistake like that in a worse situation, and he'd be able to go back home and retire. Randolph was lucky, though. Kinsey had lost scores of men under his command through stupid mistakes such as that. Men who at one point had had a future ahead of them, and were now pushing up a thousand varieties of flora on a hundred different worlds.

"Now then, Private, look through your goggles at that convoy. It's time for Lesson Two." The private did as he was told, and firmly fixed his gaze on the slow-moving column of vehicles. "See that one in the middle? That's the one carrying the nuke," Kinsey said, pointing to an ArrowMotors 509. "See the differences in its cargo pod compared to the others?"

Randolph studied it for a moment. "It doesn't look any different," he concluded a moment later.

"Yes, to the untrained eye," said Kinsey. "But look at the outside. The other pods are titanium alloy, but that one is pure xeranium. Seems to me they've got most of the rest of the uranium and plutonium in there with the nuke, or they wouldn't need nearly that much shielding.

"You're sure of that, sir? Couldn't it be that they know we're coming, and they're setting some kind of trap?"

Kinsey sighed. Of course he'd gotten stuck with the inexperienced newbie soldier. Taking a moment to activate his nicotine patch, he thought about all his previous exploits. Victory Park, the Unity Planetary Monorail, Nekkar's Financial Square... all of those, important and infamous as they had been in their times, would pale when his ultimate plan came to pass.

"First of all, soldier, let me give you some free advice. Caution is good, but too much caution will manage to kill you just as well as charging the trenches will. Believe it, learn it, and remember it. It cost a hundred thousand credits just to train you, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna throw that much money away. Besides, you don't last as long in this business as I have by being stupid. And about the trap, the last attack was seventeen parsecs from here. They've no reason for suspicion, none at all."

Kinsey glanced through the goggles once again and uttered a Russian curse, the language of his far-distant ancestors, from before humanity had spread out from the homeworld to claim its rightful place in the galaxy.

"What's wrong, sir?" asked Randolph, who had correctly taken Kinsey's curse as a cause for concern.

"Get your damn goggles on your head and use your eyes, man. That convoy is speeding up, and there's a paved road going right to the base starting barely a kilometer ahead of them."

"But sir, if they get on an open road, how would we catch up with them? The transport doesn't have nearly enough speed to equal them, let alone catch up. And there's no way an infantry platoon charging up behind them could retain the element of surprise."

"Right you are, soldier," Kinsey said. So he does have some brains after all. "Get your weapons and be ready to go. Remember, every second we spend here is an extra second they have to get out of the forest." Kinsey reached to his belt and retrieved a small, portable radio. The techs back home hadn't bothered to put a transmission encrypter on it, the main reason that there simply wasn't anything in the area that routinely scanned for radio signals. There hadn't been much demand for the slower-than-light radio starting by the twenty-second century, when both the hyperdrive and the hyperradio came into vogue. True, radio waves were so slow that they made interstellar communication virtually impossible. But on a planet, they still retained their usefulness.

"Dugout, this is Pitcher," Kinsey said, using the laughable code names the bosses back home had decided upon. He noted the static in the background, a static which was usually absent on hyperradio frequencies. Though it was adept at masking words and making things difficult to understand, it also lent a feeling of nostalgia which modern equipment lacked. "Target is leaving the ballpark, and bases are loaded. Prepare to head for home in one minute, on my mark. And... mark."

Kinsey's chrono was set in a countdown for one minute, along with those of the rest of his team. One minute, and a new era would begin to be ushered in.


The convoy slowed down again, and Yakov grudgingly put on the brakes. Fortunately, the onboard GPS was working just fine, and in a few minutes they'd get on a road and out of this muddy hell. "Thank god, eh, Dan?" he said. "Maybe we'll even get back in time for the halftime show."

Ziggs didn't say anything, at first. He thought he spied motion at the outer edge of his vision. He looked for some sign of movement, but could not see anything. Pegging it on either an optical illusion or leaves rustling from the wind or rain, he pushed the thought to the back of his head and began discussing the finer points of the Deseret Cup with Yakov.


"Ready people, in five seconds." The tension was in the atmosphere around Aleksander Kinsey's position near the convoy. From this vantage point, he could even see the truck drivers through the light of their cabins. He thought one of the drivers in the truck carrying the nuclear weapon might have spotted him, so he lied still and unmoving. The driver has then lost interest and returned to what he was doing.

"Good luck, sir," Randolph said.

"You too, kid. And... let's go!" At Kinsey's command, two dozen armored troopers emerged from their hiding places in unison, and began charging towards the convoy.


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