LIVE TO TELL
David L. Burkhead
Staff Sergeant Mike Yamada saluted as he stood in front of the Captain’s desk.
“You wanted to see me, Sergeant?” The Captain returned the salute. “Well, here I am.”
Yamada winced inwardly at the tone of the Captain’s voice, a wince that he was careful to avoid showing as he stood at attention before the Captain’s desk. He could understand why the Captain was upset, but that did not make what he had to do any easier.
“Well? In case nobody’s told you there’s an Eres task force on our tail and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get away. The crew of this ship, including me, is about to get very busy.”
“Yes, sir.” Yamada paused a moment. Despite the Captain’s sarcastic comments, he could not have avoided hearing the announcement. The hospital ship Mercy and her two escorting destroyers were currently running for the system’s jump limit at the maximum acceleration the Mercy could sustain. And although there had been no general announcement of the assessment of the Eres fleet’s capabilities, he had also heard the scuttlebutt that gave the Eres longer legs–enough longer that the Mercy could not possibly reach the jump limit before being overhauled. The destroyers could probably get away, but they would not both leave the Mercy. The more seriously sick and wounded were being moved to the Soyokaze, the newer, and faster, of the two destroyers in the hopes that they, at least, could get out. “First off, Sir, I’m sorry about what happened….”
Since his rescue, Yamada had gone into screaming fits whenever anyone approached him. One corpsman had tried to restrain him and received a dislocated shoulder for his pains.
“The corpsman’ll be fine.” The Captain sighed. “At ease, Sergeant. Post Traumatic Stress. I’ve seen a lot of it in this billet. You’re not at fault here although I’m glad to see you’re finally getting past those panic attacks. But I don’t think that’s all you wanted to see me about, was it.”
“No, sir. Uh, sir–” Yamada shrugged– “whatever happens, you can’t surrender this ship.”
“Can’t I?” The Captain leaned back in his chair. “And since when do you tell a ship’s Captain what he can and can’t do?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand what will happen if you do.”
“The Eres are good about taking prisoners. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.”
“That’s just it, sir. It’s better… better not to be taken prisoner. Anything… anything at all is better than to be taken prisoner.”
The Captain nodded. “I’m sure you’ve had a bad time, but you’re here, now, in reasonably good health, when you wouldn’t be if you’d followed the advice you’re giving me now.”
“And a lot of the time I wish I wasn’t, Captain. You have no idea, none at all, what it’s like.”
“Look, Sergeant, I haven’t got time for this.”
“Please, Captain. Please listen to me. You may have heard of an old story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’?”
“Can’t say that I have, but….”
“Well, I don’t suppose it matters. Look, after Defender was captured and we were taken to a POW camp, or what we thought was a POW camp, we were treated well–good food, clean housing, exercise yards, excellent medical care. It was only later that we found out why.”
“Move your ass, Lieutenant!” Yamada punctuated his statement with a shove.
Lieutenant Thompson responded by sinking to the carpet of leaves on the ground. His right leg bulged purple above the remains of his boot. “I’m done, Sergeant.”
Yamada squatted next to Thompson and grabbed his shoulder. “Done, hell! On your feet and get shagging… sir.”
Thompson shook his head. “Not going to happen. You’d better clear out before they catch up to us. They can’t be too far behind.”
“That’s an order, Sergeant. If you stay, they’ll just get both of us.”
“Move your ass, Sergeant. That’s an order.”
With a groan, Yamada scooped up the sharpened stick that served him as a crude spear and dashed into the underbrush. Once through the nearest thicket, he hesitated, then turned and crouched behind a tree. He could just see Lieutenant Thompson straightening his injured leg on the ground in front of him.
A noise from the far side of the clearing drew Yamada’s attention. Two Eres appeared almost as if by magic from the shadows under the trees. Instead of the standard issue magnetic slugthrowers, they carried long spears, the shafts of a local plant similar to Earthly bamboo and tipped with flaked stone.
Yamada’s grip tightened on his own, cruder, spear as he watched Thompson wait for the approaching Eres.
Adult Eres stood just under 2 1/2 meters tall. Their smooth skin varied from a pale olive green to a straw-amber to a deep russet brown. Their heads, perched on the ends of half-meter long flexible necks, had rounded skulls that stretched forward into blunt snouts, giving them an egg-shaped appearance. Tall, narrow ridges, the crests whose height was the only visible different to Yamada’s eyes between male and female Eres, ran from just over the eyes back across the skulls to join just above the back of the neck.
A lipless mouth bisected the snout horizontally where knife-edged serrated teeth were constantly exposed in a mirthless grin. The upper and lower teeth overlapped, producing a shearing action to cut through flesh or the Eres could thrust forward their lower jaws, turning upper and lower teeth into pairs of saws that could carve the stoutest bones.
The Eres bodies were rounded, almost bulbous, with arms that seemed short in comparison to their full size but were, in fact, about the same size as humans and no human could match the strength of an average Eres arm. The legs were about a meter long, with elongated, clawed feet. Eres walked on their toes, with a spine from their heels pointing backward. The hips had a second, locking joint that allowed the Eres to either stand and walk fully upright like humans or to shift into a forward-leaning position where the weight of their heads and bodies were counter balanced by a thick, muscular tail. In this position they could run at great speeds for seemingly unlimited distances.
One of the two Eres–a female by the crests above its eyes–stopped. The other took two more steps then stopped as well. He–the smaller crests indicated a male–raised the arm that held his spear. The arm whipped forward and the spear flew in a near invisible blur to bury itself in Thompson’s chest, just to the left of his sternum.
Yamada screamed. Without conscious thought, he charged from his own place of concealment straight at the Eres who had killed the lieutenant. The Eres turned to face him, the male who had cast his spear blocking a clear throw from the female.
In another instant, Yamada reached the Eres. His own spear, driven by the full momentum of his charge, caught the Eres in mid-torso. Yamada found himself tangled with the Eres’ body as it fell.
“I thought I was dead then,” Yamada told the Captain. “An adult Eres masses more than 200 kilos and that world had a little bit more than one standard gravity. I was pinned as the female walked up to me. I expected her to spit me just like they had the Lieutenant. But all she did was club me unconscious so that I woke up back in the camp.”
The worst part of that episode had been learning that the Eres he had struck had survived. His spear had pierced one of the Eres’ hearts, but while that was a serious debilitating injury it was not necessarily fatal. Given time, an Eres would recover and the heart heal, weakened perhaps, but not fatally so.
The Captain leaned back in his chair. “You made an escape attempt on a planet held by the Eres? That took guts.”
“You don’t understand. It wasn’t an escape attempt.”
“They let us out so they could hunt us. That’s what they do with prisoners–feed and care for them so they’re at the peak of health and strength, then hunt them down and kill them.”
“My God,” the Captain whispered.
“They love a challenge,” Yamada continued, “I came to learn that if you’re good enough, or lucky enough, if you wound or kill one of the hunting Eres, or avoid being caught long enough, they often won’t kill you. Instead they’ll bring you back in, nurse you back to health, and send you out there again for another hunt.
“We weren’t prisoners, we were livestock. I think this whole war is just a great hunt to them.”
“Thank… thank you for your report. Now, if you will return to your quarters, I have a ship to run.”
Yamada saluted and left.
The “honor,” such as it was, of being the only prisoner so far recovered from the Eres had earned Yamada his own small cabin and he paced within it. His gaze kept darting to the door as if some deeply buried corner of his mind expected an Eres stalker to burst through it.
Activity on the ship had changed after Yamada’s conference with the Captain. Even more of the sick and wounded, and much of the ship’s company, were being moved to the destroyers–both of them this time. To make more room in the destroyers, their marine detachments had been moved to the Mercy.
Yamada could well imagine the hurried conferences between Mercy’s Captain and the Captains of the other two ships. He could as well imagine the terrible decision that had been reached, the decision to cut loose the Mercy and run with all speed in the two destroyers, to get out everyone they could and leave behind only those who could fight, who could sell their lives dearly when the Eres finally caught them.
But more than any imagined scenes he saw remembered faces: Lieutenant Rick Thompson waiting calmly while an Eres threw a spear through his body, Corporal Joe Anders caught in a snare while an Eres grabbed his hair and cut his throat with a flint knife, Colonel Alan Biancetti hurled bodily off a cliff to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below, Private Sandra McIntire, her face twisted in agony as an Eres wrapped powerful arms around her torso and squeezed until she couldn’t breath and continued to squeeze until her body sagged limp and lifeless in its arms.
And through it all somehow, Mike Yamada had survived. Somehow, he had lived when the others had died. He had survived through no virtue of his that he could see. He had survived because he had been in some cases lucky, in others somewhat quicker off the mark with some makeshift weapon, in still others, to his shame, he had simply been fleeter of foot and so had evaded the Eres longer while they cut down his slower companions in the hunt.
Yamada caught his breath as the buzzer to his door sounded. Not another hunt. Dear God, not another hunt. He looked first one way, then another, searching for someplace to hide so that they would choose someone, anyone, but him, but he was alone in the room and the visitors on the other side of the door would know that. There was no place to hide where they could not find him and no other person for them to choose instead of him.
“Sergeant?” The voice came faintly through the closed door. “Are you okay in there?”
Yamada licked his lips. There was one desperate chance. He would have to strike fast and strike hard. Eres were too big, too strong, for anything else. He pressed himself against the wall next to the door.
His action had been not a moment too soon. With a soft whine, the door slid open and someone stepped through, “Sergeant? Come on. Transport’s waiting. It’s time to go.”
Yamada drove forward, putting his full weight behind a kick that struck in the side, just below the ribs, in the location that long experience had taught him an Eres was most vulnerable, though that not much.
Without waiting to see the effect of his kick he spun, sprinted out the door and down the corridor. If he ran now, maybe they would come after him. Maybe they would start the hunt early, before gathering up other prisoners. And maybe no one else would die simply because he was a little faster, or a little luckier, than they were.
Yamada did not know how long he spent running, ducking and avoiding people, and hiding before rationality returned. He had a vague recollection of an announcement that the destroyers had cut loose to make their run for the jump limit.
The destroyers were gone. The Mercy was alone. And, with a sick feeling, Yamada realized that his panic attack had thrown away his chance to escape, to leave with the destroyers.
The last announcement, the one that had finally broken through his terror, had been the call to stand by for emergency maneuvering. The floor swooped under his feet as artificial gravity generators strained vainly to compensate for the ship’s acrobatics.
“I should find someone to report to,” Yamada said to himself as another pitch of the floor made him stagger into the wall. Someone in authority needed to decide what to do with him–whether to assign him to an action station or throw him into the brig.
The pitching of the deck told Yamada that the ship was gyrating through intense evasive maneuvering, much as the cruiser Defender, caught alone, had maneuvered against an Eres task force an age earlier. This time, however, there were none of the sharper shocks of kinetic weapon strikes that had accompanied the earlier battle. Kinetic weapons had speared through the hull while those insane laser missiles of theirs–somehow the Eres had put single x-ray lasers into missiles without the need to bomb-pump them. The missiles would come in and take an aimed shot at drives or weapons emplacements. And then, and then, when the weapons on the Defender had been all but silenced, the Eres had closed in until their kinetic weapons could target the drives. With the main drives gone, the maneuvering thrusters could not pull away from the Eres tractors, so with the ship held helpless they could only wait for the shuttles carrying boarding parties.
The Mercy lurched as the shock of a kinetic weapon strike reverberated through her then lurched again as the internal gravity shifted to accommodate a significantly reduced acceleration. Drive hit.
“Not again,” Yamada said, “Dear God, not again.”