War Story

It started the way every war story does: in a crappy bar with a grizzled veteran saying, “This is no shit.” The bar was Xeno’s, one of the numerous shitholes on the lower levels of Shackleton Station, a favorite of military operators, both active and inactive. The veteran looked old enough to be the latter, but appearance is not a reliable indicator in this case as the martial life is pretty hard on the body. I’ve seen soldiers I’d have sworn were geriatric cases who turned out to be younger than my relatively youthful 60 years. This old customer was no exception. He was wearing the colors of the Terran Defense Forces and early on, I’d noticed the Ranger tab on the shoulder of his jacket. That, and the ribbon for service in the Gliesean campaign of the Tangrun Wars, meant he’d seen some shit. I had wandered in during a layover before heading out to the Sednoid Wormhole en route to the colony on Trappist-1 hoping I could pick up an idea for a story. I settled in next to him and bought us both a healthy shot of Saturnian Sambuca, hoping to loosen his tongue a bit. Things had been tight since I’d had to pay back some of the advance after my last novel had bombed. I really needed a win to get back in my publisher’s good graces. It took a second shot before he’d even talk to me.

“You serve?” he asked.

“I did,” I said. “Pilot during the Kepler Police Action. And I was at Pegasi during the second Tagrun War.” That much was true. “Caught a bolt that got me invalided out.” I tapped the carbon fiber sheath of the prosthetic that filled in for my right leg. That last bit, however, wasn’t true. Not even a little.

The old vet nodded. “What did you fly?” he said.

I told him drop ships and fed him some bullshit about losing my leg during a medevac mission. (I was a trash hauler who never saw combat but infantry types love drop ship pilots). I’ve still got enough of a soul for the lie to feel a little icky, but I needed a story. And to do that, I had to get him talking. That called for another drink. I motioned to the bartender to set us up again and she did. Xeno’s may have been a dump, but the drinks were strong, and the staff knew their business.

“Damn,” he said. “That’s tough.” He sat there quietly for a bit before asking, “So, what are you doing in this shithole?”

I told him I was a writer, killing time during a layover, adding I was heading out to the Trappist system to report on the recent unrest there for SolNews. Which was true. I mean, you gotta pay the bills one way or another. And he didn’t really need to know I was fishing for a story.

He nodded, saying, “SolNews is all right. As far as media vultures go, that is.” News outlets have never been popular with soldiers. They’re always too busy trying to get a scoop to be interested in the truth where military matters are concerned. Especially if that scoop makes the military look bad. SolNews, being founded by a former TDF public information officer, was better than most. He sat there for a moment before asking, “You ever see any weird shit during your tours?”

I dug through my brain for some bullshit to feed him. Fortunately, I remembered a story I had heard while in the hospital recovering from the drunken crash that actually took my leg and got me a dishonorable discharge to boot. “Well,” I said, “There was the time I saw one man take down a Uqurian by himself.” Uqurians are notoriously bad-tempered primates who average about 9 feet in height and weigh almost as much as an XM-222 scout ship. You do not want to be around when they’re on rampage.

“Interesting, ” he said. “But that’s tame compared to what I’m thinking of.” He stared into his drink for a moment before he said the magic words: “This is no shit.” He knocked back the shot and rapped the empty glass to get the bartender’s attention before pointing at it. When it was topped off, he continued. “I was assigned to Detachment 7, working behind the lines on Gliese with a group of En’id partisans that were giving the Tangruns hell.”

Oh man, I thought, this is going to be good. Detachment 7 was the shadowiest of some pretty shadowy groups and their ops on Gliese were the stuff of legend. Or they would be if anyone talked about them. Any time I asked, I got stonewalled. All this sambuca was expensive but if this panned out, it’d be so worth it.

“I was having a hard time understanding how the En’id struck such fear into the Tangies. They were the most timid, disorganized, least interested in training bunch I had ever seen.” He took another drink. “And I’ve worked with Gaeks, those lazy SOB’s.” The Gaek’s were a minority species from TOI 700 system with a reputation as slackers, especially among older folks like my new acquaintance. The truth was that Gaek’s just did things differently. And, they had different priorities. Once they understood the why of something, they were pretty decent workers. I did, however, understand where he was coming from. He went on: “It made no sense. One night, I was sitting around a fire with several of them, drinking grok (a Gliesean liquor that tasted like absinthe strained through a sweaty sock. Kicked like a Mudusian mule, though). After a few shots, they all admitted that fighting wasn’t really their thing. They could do it, given the right circumstances, but they didn’t consider themselves warriors. That threw me and I asked how it was that they were doing so well against the Tangies. One of them laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s not us. We’re just the support crew.’ I was dumbfounded. ‘Wait,’ I said, ‘you guys don’t do any fighting?’ They all just shook their heads and one said, “Well, maybe a little. But we’re not the main fighters.” I snapped, ‘Well, who is? ‘Cause it sounds like that’s who I need to be working with. Can you take me to them?’” The four of them huddled up and chattered away in a language that, I swear to God, sounded like ping-pong balls hitting the floor.’ He took another drink. ‘I know that sounds bad, even racist. Well, speciesist, really. But I liked those guys. They were truly decent beings. Just so unmotivated.” I waved the bartender over for another round. I mean, things were just starting to get interesting, and I had to keep him talking. “After a minute or so, they turned back toward me and told me all my questions would be answered tomorrow. And then, they all walked off without a damn word.” He shook his head before saying, “Hold on for a minute. Gotta go drain the lizard.” And he staggered off to the bathroom.

It took him long enough that I was beginning to think he’d ditched me, but he eventually came back. I had another shot waiting for him and he settled onto the stool and knocked it back.

“The next morning, I woke up with the most godawful hangover I’ve ever had. You ever tried grok?” he said.

I nodded. “It tastes like crap,” I said, “but once you get enough of it down, the buzz is amazing.

He grinned. “Yeah, it’s like floating on a cloud and everything is kind of softened but intensified at the same time. Really awesome stuff. But the aftermath is a mother.” He waved for another round and the bartender looked at me.

“Hit us again,” I said and she did.

“So, I’m trying to get some coffee going, hoping that a little caffeine and plenty of fluids will stop the jackhammer that’s going to town in my head when I hear the rumble of a transport approaching. One of the En’ids came running up, talking so fast I could barely understand him. Took a minute to finally get him calmed down enough that I could make out what he was saying. Basically, that my question from last night was about to be answered. Then, I made out the word, ‘Vorzir’ and I was hooked. We’d heard of them before but just assumed that they were a legend. I mean, the stuff attributed to them was just too good to be true.”

I knew what he meant. The Vorzir were considered the fiercest fighters in the galaxy and before Gliese, everyone thought they were just an old wives tale. I started to get excited, thinking I might be hearing the story of Earth’s first contact with them. “So, the transport rolls up and stops in the middle of the laager. The tailgate drops and the Vorzir pile out and I’m thinking somebody’s yanking me because they all look like the schoolgirl characters from that anime, Volatile Blossom. From a distance, that is. From a distance, they look human. A little cartoonish but human. Up close though? They’re covered in this fine, almost silky fur. But short, you know? Except their heads. That hair’s long and flowing. Really, they look like sweet innocent little schoolgirls,” he repeated, as if he still couldn’t believe it. “Until they smile. Freakin’ terrifying.”

“Really?” I said. “Why?”

“Remember how in the posters of the 21st-century horror flicks the monster would have a mouth full of these long, sharp, pointy teeth?” I nodded. “That”, he said. “Except it’s way scarier when it’s real. And, they had retractable claws like a big cat. Their weapons were something else, too. Not a projectile or energy weapon among them. All blades. One of my En’id hosts said it was a religious thing with them. It’s an article of faith among the Vorzir that blades are a gift from the gods, and they can never be without at least one. Most of them carry 3 or 4 of different sizes and shapes. One of them had a battle axe. Not kidding. A goddamn battle axe. I was standing there watching this crazy scene when I saw what turned out to be the leader. She was short, with long dark hair and what looked like a light complexion. It was kind of hot, to be honest. Anyway, she split off from the rest of the group and headed over to where I was standing with Engi, one of my En’id troopers. They talked a bit and then the Vorzir captain turned to me, bowed, and said in perfect Terran Standard, ‘Good day, Master Chief. I am Throsnaek, leader of Clan Akuts of the Vorzir Collective. We honor your presence.’ I’ll be honest, it kind of caught me off guard. Throsnaek was the first Gliesean native I’d met who spoke good Terran. It was a little weird though because Vorzir is kind of hissy-sounding. Everything about them gave off strong cat vibes.”

He looked down at his empty glass and signaled for another round. I hoped it was worth it because these drinks were expensive, and I was beginning to wonder if he was putting me on. But I’ve seen some truly weird shit in my travels, so I hung on. He resumed.

“We chatted for a few minutes before they took me over to meet their squad. We walked up and they were all standing around, tittering like a bunch of school girls getting to meet the star forward on their school’s Murderball team. I was fielding questions about Terran weapons and tactics when one of the En’id scouts came running up, saying that a column of Tangies had been picked up a few klicks from our camp. The Vorzir all made this weird rumbly sound, almost like purring, you know?” I must have made a face because he said, “Yeah, I know it sounds like crap, but it’s true. They were purring. Then, they let out a scream that sounded like ripping cloth and grabbed their gear. One of the younger En’id who was acting as my aid came up with my battle rattle and I noticed my troopers, who—up to that point—couldn’t seem to be bothered with anything that even remotely resembled military action, were transformed. They started piling out of huts, loaded up like Mirnathean bandidos. They had gear I’d never seen before, wearing bandoliers of those solid bolts that will absolutely wreck a Tangie scout car and were grinning from ear to ear. I guess hanging out with the Vorzir really brought out their aggressive side. It’s the only thing I could think of that would explain this new aggressive side I was seeing. We loaded up on our transports and moved out to one of the pre-sited ambush zones I’d had them stake out. When we got there, Throsnaek looked around and nodded approvingly before taking her crew and disappearing into the bush, moving like a bunch of goddamn ghosts. Me and the En’id set up an L-shaped formation and settled down to wait.”

“After a bit, we saw the Tangies. They came on slow and stealthy but I could feel their nerves. They were wound tight just walking through Vorzir territory. Once the whole group was in the kill zone, the Vorzir’s leader let out a scream like nothing I’d ever heard before. Then, the rest of them answered. It scared me and I was on their side. The Tangies, though? They lost it. That row of spines that runs up their back and turns into a crest? Every single one on every single member of that platoon stood up and their crests turned purple. That’s how you know they’re really scared. They were jabbering in that “language” of theirs (he actually did air quotes). They were freaking out, looking around frantically, trying to spot their enemy. It was crazy. I have never seen them so scared, before or since. And then, right when the panic was peaking, these little cat bitches dropped out of the trees and into the middle of that Tangie formation, ripping it to shreds. Literally. They were hacking and chopping and slicing like you wouldn’t believe. Some of them must have had mono-blades because they went through that Tangie armor like a hot knife through butter. And the one with the battleaxe? She was a headhunter. I saw more than one Tangie noggin go rolling. And, when they couldn’t bring a weapon to bear, it was teeth and claws,” he said, shuddering at the memory. “After a few minutes, the air around them turned crimson there was so much blood in it. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.” He gulped down another shot. “And it wasn’t just the Vorzir. A couple of Tangies in the rear of the file that tried to run, but the En’ids, those timid little jokers that I thought couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag? They had moved in behind the Tangies and closed off the trail behind them. And, they had a TM-92 sound cannon. The big one. One pulse from that sucker and those Tangie bug outs got turned into a big ol’ puddle of goo. When it was over, the Vorzir stood in the midst of all that carnage and howled at the sky. Right about then, I thought it would be a good idea to search through whatever was left and started to break cover but Nalil, my…,” he hesitated, looking for the right word, “liaison, I guess, grabbed my arm and pulled me down. I started to say something and shook his head. He pulled out his data pad and typed out, “Do not let them see you while the blood lust on them. They can’t control themselves and will kill you too.” After everything finally calmed down, I walked through the kill zone and couldn’t find one intact Tangie body out of that whole platoon. 27 living, breathing soldiers—damn good fighters against anybody else. All that was left were bits and pieces.” He looked down at the bar and shook his head. “I’ve gone up against some really tough customers in my time and never backed down from a fight. But if I knew I had to face the Vorzir in battle? I’d surrender immediately. Un-freaking-conditionally.”

I had spoken to several Detachment 7 members over the years, and they were all seriously motivated, gung-ho types. The idea that one would surrender right off the bat was shocking, to say the least. Between that and the utter incredibility of the story I’d just heard, I was beginning to question whether he was Detachment 7 or not. The thing is, his story was so good, I wasn’t sure I cared. The question was, could I turn it into something that would sell?

Just then, he looked over his shoulder and stood up saying, “Well, there’s my old lady. Hopefully, she won’t be too mad about me hanging out here all day.”

“You’re married?” I said.

“Sure am,” he replied. “Thanks for the drinks. And enjoy your trip. Trappist is, let’s call it “an interesting place,” he said and walked away.

I turned to watch him and saw a slight female who, God as my witness, looked like she stepped straight out of a “Volatile Blosson” episode wrap around him in an embrace. After a second, what looked like a ripple passed over her face and I realized what I saw wasn’t skin but a layer of fur. As I watched, it hit me that she was giving off serious cat vibes. Not only that, she was short, with long dark hair, and a light complexion. Holy shit, I thought, that old fucker had married a Vorzir. Just then, he must have said something because she looked my way and smiled. He was right. It was fucking terrifying.