Edition 19: Rainbows and Death Machines by JB Rockwell
Isolis might only be a small part in the plan of Star Revolution, but when the Core Alliance unexpectedly rolls into town with their weapons of war, it becomes more than an abstract concept for the locals. All Trebnor and his unit have to do is hold off the Alliance until their own weapon is ready. If they survive that long… SY
Isolis was a smallish planet—quiet, unassuming, of no particular strategic importance—so it was quite a surprise when the Dark Star Revolution showed up and started recruiting. Trebnor wasn’t particularly interested in their rebellion—no one on Isolis was—but the pay was good, and the uniforms snazzy, so he lined up with the others and signed on the dotted line.
That was two years ago, and it was only now, as he peered through his binoculars at the hulking, diesel-spewing monstrosity just appearing on the horizon that Trebnor realized what he’d gotten himself into.
“What is it, Treb?” Jenkins asked at his elbow.
Jenkins was nineteen and a hot-head—a young wolf among the middle-aged, down-on-their luck troop of shabby soldiers Trebnor had assembled. Most days he was all mouth off, macho posturing, but right now he just looked worried. They all did.
“Not sure,” Trebnor replied, fiddling with the binocular’s not-quite-autofocus.
A plume of dirty, blue-black smoke spiraled into the sky, rising upward from a dull grey shape that was sleek and rounded and awful in its magnificence. A shape that had dominated the news feeds the last few months.
“Fuck me,” he breathed, lowering the glasses, turning to the men behind him. “They sent Thomas.”
Moans of despair, pale, terrified faces staring at him and then past him.
Thomas was the Core Alliance’s enforcer, a heavy the Government sent in whenever some backwater planet decided to get uppity. Evidently, Isolis had just made the hit list.
“Johansen.” Trebnor turned, waving a blocky, blond-headed man close. “Call back to base. Tell ’em what we’ve got.”
Johansen nodded and cranked up the backpack comms, speaking urgently to someone on the other end while Trebnor took another look at Thomas.
He was much closer now, rolling swiftly along on clanking treads carving deep grooves into the grass.
“Big fucker,” Trebnor grunted.
In fact, he was a huge fucker—by far the largest piece of destructive equipment the Core Alliance had in their arsenal. He’d started life as an ordinary diesel locomotive, doing run-of-the-mill, train engine things. But as the war dragged on and purpose-built assets were blown up or lost, heavy equipment like Thomas was repurposed. Stripped down and rebuilt, converted from everyday tools into machines of war.
The Core Alliance had thousands of refurbs in service, but Thomas…Thomas was special. A hundred foot monster, twenty feet wide and thirty feet high, covered in three layers of riveted steel. Plating that had been rounded and curved and finished with shining chrome trim and art deco cutouts. He was beautiful, was Thomas. Beautiful and grotesque, with his clanking tank treads and prickling turret guns. Dieselator they’d named him when he rolled off the refurb line. But some half-wit painted Thomas in bloody-red letters along one side, and that was the name that stuck. Dieselator became Thomas the Tank Engine—the ultimate killing machine.
“What’s he pulling?” Jenkins asked, pointing to a dark wedge just behind Thomas huge form.
Trebnor zoomed in, took a long hard look. “Looks like…troop cars? Or—shit!”
The troop cars opened wide and damn near a thousand furry, armored shapes came boiling out.
“Rabbits.” Trebnor whispered, staring in horror.
The Rabbits were another Core Alliance creation—shock troops they sent in to deal with DSR rebels. Beneath the metal exoskeletons were bunny ears and bunny feet, but their bunny bodies had been pumped full of steroids, their brains chipped and wired and trained to kill.
“We’re fucked. We’re so fucked,” Jenkins moaned as Johansen relayed the bad news.
“Now calm down, Jenkins. Thomas is a right son-of-a-bitch, and those Rabbits are worse, but there’s reinforcements right over those hills back there,” Trebnor said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “Heard they got some kinda secret weapon that’s specially designed to deal with Thomas and his bunny buddies. All we gotta do is slow ’em down a bit. Give our guys time to get ready.”
“Slow ’em down,” Wilkinson snorted, lifting a flask, taking a drink. “That’s rich, Treb.”
“Sergeant,” Trebnor corrected.
Wilkinson was the Negative Nancy of the group. A drunken, foul-mouthed, pain-in-the-ass Trebnor should have gotten rid of a long ago.
“Alright. And just how do you propose we ‘slow down’ an army of fucking death machines, Sergeant?”
Trebnor snarled and turned around, rifle lifting, butt pressing against his shoulder as he sighted along the barrel. The gun was a cheap thing, built by some ignorant clodhopper on some dung heap of planet, and as usual, the sights had drifted out of alignment. Trebnor fiddled with it a bit and then focused on finding a target.
There were plenty to choose from—nearly a thousand by his count, all of them hopping along, laser sights swiveling, guns at the ready. The smaller ones were Mechahares and came equipped with Gatling guns mounted on their shoulders, while the Jackatrons—the larger of the two species—carried oversized pulse rifles and wore gape-mouthed mortars strapped to their backs.
“Rabbits. They’re just Rabbits.” Trebnor reminded himself. “Grab your guns and get ready, boys.”
“Grab yer guns? Are you kidding me?!” Wilkinson laughed. “Look at ‘em! Thousand mean-ass Rabbits—and Thomas—against half a dozen of us? That’s suicide in my book, Treb.”
“We’re fucked, Treb. Well and truly fucked. Smartest thing we could do is shag ass outta here.”
Wilkinson was right, of course. They were outnumbered and outgunned and if they stayed here they’d likely be slaughtered.
“Whadda we do, Treb?” Jenkins asked, voice trembling on the edge of hysteria.
Five pairs faces turned to him, every last one of them looking scared spitless. Well, except Wilkinson. Wilkinson just shrugged, making it clear he didn’t give a shit anymore.
“We stand our ground,” Trebnor said bravely. “We shoot the fuckers.”
“Bravo, General!” Wilkinson cheered, raising his flask in mocking salute.
“Fuck you, Wilks.”
Trebnor racked a fresh round into the chamber, breathing deep and slow as he squeezed the trigger.
“Swing and a miss!” Wilkinson cried, cackling with glee.
Trebnor cursed and fired again.
Blam! Blam! Blam-blam.
Miss. Miss. Miss and miss.
Trebnor eased off the trigger and lowered his gun, taking stock of the situation.
Thomas was still a mile or so out, his metal bulk slowed by the soft, grassy ground. The Rabbits had moved ahead of them, moving swiftly on their springy legs and armored feet, Mechahares leading the charge while the Jackatrons fanned out behind them. There was something purposeful in that formation. That had Trebnor leaning forward, wondering what they were up to.
Jenkins screamed like a little girl.
Sharp reports everywhere, a cloud of tiny objects launched skyward from the mortars the Jackatrons carried.
“Rainbows,” Trebnor whispered, staring in horror.
The projectiles reached their apex and plummeted downward, multi-colored contrails trailing behind them.
“Oh god, oh shit, oh god.”
The first of the Rainbows touched down, obliterating Wilkinson, turning him into a cloud of stinking, sticky slurry as it carved a crater in the ground. The shockwave that followed threw Trebnor backward. He landed hard, wind knocked out of him, one hand clutching his rifle as blood and dirt and bits of Wilkinson rained down around him. He coughed and gagged, wheezing for breath, spitting a wad of hair and brain matter from his mouth.
“Run!” he screamed, rolling to his feet.
Trebnor took to his heels and sprinted toward the hills, not even waiting for the others, dodging and waving as the Rainbows crashed down around him, knocking him from his feet, peppering him with dirt and bits of stone. Smoke and fire hung heavy in the air, clouding his vision, making it impossible to see anything more than a few feet ahead. And yet the noise of the Rabbits was everywhere, a thunderous thudding of a thousand pairs of feet, and beneath it the growling bass roar of Thomas’ diesel engine running wide open. They were terrible, those sounds, the more so because Trebnor couldn’t see the troops that made them, and therefore had no idea how close they might be.
Trebnor put his head down and ran, forgetting his men, forgetting everything but the fact that he really didn’t want to die. Breath tore at his throat, lungs heaved, legs quivered and burned, threatening to give way. And just when he thought he was done for, that he’d drop right there and die of exhaustion, he finally made it.
“Fuck me,” Trebnor gasped, hitting the slopes, clawing his way upward and then slipping into the narrow chasm cutting between two hills.
It was a tight squeeze, the path he followed long and winding, and when he cleared the other side, Trebnor stumbled to a halt and stared in disbelief at the towering chain link fence surrounding the DSR compound.
“Fence? Fucking fence?!” Trebnor gasped, pale face darkening, turning purple with anger. “Are you kidding me?! The fucking DSR put a fucking fence around the fucking bunker complex?!”
Movement inside the compound caught Trebnor’s eye. He fumbled his binoculars from their case, lifted them with shaking hands to see DSR uniforms clustered around an ancient satellite dish near the compound’s center.
“Satellite dish,” he said, laughing helplessly. “That’s their secret weapon? That’s the marvel of technology that’s supposed to take those psycho bunnies and Thomas the Bloodthirsty Tank Engine out? Who the fuck uses a satellite dish anymore?!” Trebnor screamed, chucking his binoculars toward the compound.
Heads lifted, arms raised, fingers pointing in Trebnor’s direction.
Oh thank god!
“Hey!” he called, waving his arms. “Hey-hey! Help! Rabbits!”
The soldiers looked at each other and then turned back the satellite dish, clearly not interested in helping.
A quick look behind him showed the Mechahares had arrived, a wall of them standing just behind him, more of them working their way along the cut-through as the Jackatrons poured down the slopes above.
“Fuck me. Oh fuck me,” he sobbed.
Dead as a doornail—no two ways about it. But at least he’d held onto his gun. At least he wouldn’t go down without a fight.
“Here bunny-bunny.” Trebnor giggled, pointing his rifle at the nearest Rabbit. “Fuck you.”
He pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.
A red light landed on his chest, another on his belly. Trebnor raised his head, found a Rabbit standing right in front of him, red eyes glowing behind the targeting visor it wore.
“Nice bunny,” he whispered, sliding a step backward. “Good bun—”
The Rabbit dropped like a stone, one hind foot twitching spasmodically and then finally going still.
“What?” Trebnor blinked and stared, hardly daring to believe his eyes.
A thrumming filled the air—somehow sound and yet not sound, felt more than heard. Sound waves rolled over him, pounding at his chest, churning Trebnor’s guts until his bowels and bladder both let go. Piss puddled around his feet, the smell of shit filled his nose, coated his tongue, but Trebnor hardly noticed. Because the Rabbits had stopped. Had shuddered to a halt and then frozen in place—still as statues, quiet as death.
“Hot-damn, I’m saved!”
Trebnor pumped his fists in victory, dancing a little jig as the soldiers in the compound cheered.
Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH was down, warning lights flashing, error messages popping up all over his helmet’s heads-up display. He cleared them and then toggled his enhanced brain into stand-by mode, dropping off-line to run diagnostics and initiate repairs.
He was blind then. Blind and deaf for seven whole minutes, and when he powered back up, Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH found everything had changed. Found his troops incapacitated, and an ominous hum filling the air.
That’s not good.
A prompt appeared in his visor. Reconnect?
Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH considered it, and then the frozen Rabbits all around him. He waggled a toe experimentally, found it moved just fine.
Ignore, he sent, dismissing the prompt, staying off-line for now—disconnected from the central computer that gave the Rabbits their orders—while he tried to figure out what had brought his troops down.
He suspected that hum had something to do with it. A hum that seemed to be coming from the ancient satellite dish inside the compound. And since he himself seemed unaffected, he assumed it had somehow exploited the Rabbits’ link to the central computer, jamming it, confusing them, bringing every last one of them to a screeching halt.
Great. Now all I have to do is figure out how to get around a couple hundred armed DSR soldiers so I can take that thing out.
The ground shook, stones rattling across the ground as the air filled with the smell of diesel and the throaty growl of a locomotive’s engine.
Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH had his answer.
Thomas had no network. He was basic and brutal, completely autonomous because that’s the way the engineers designed him to be. The Rabbits had always thought him somewhat stupid, but when he crested the hill and found a frozen army of Rabbits sprawled out below him, Thomas was at least smart enough to stop there and take stock of the situation.
Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH didn’t dare move, so he activated his targeting array instead, pointing it at Thomas’ hulking, grey-skinned form and flicking it on and off to get his attention. He flashed a frenzied pattern of long and short pulses once he did, and then waited, holding his breath, hoping the refurbed locomotive understood the Morse code message he’d sent.
“Rabbit,” Thomas growled, his voice a honking, grating, bass-toned horror. “Rabbit-Rabbit.”
He revved up his huge diesel engine, spewing a vast cloud of blue-black smoke into the air as he tipped over the edge and trundled downward, tank treads tearing up the hillside, carving a deep trough as he descended on the compound.
The satellite dish turned toward him, focusing its pulse on Thomas’ shining metal cabin, oblivious to the fact that he was completely immune. And that was their undoing.
Thomas hit the bottom of the hill and kept on going, slamming into the fence line, rolling into the compound, crushing humans and equipment and anything else that got in his way. And when he reached the satellite dish, Thomas rolled over that too, knocking it down, chewing it up like a cardboard box and spitting its broken remains out behind him.
The pulse died, but a quick look proved the Rabbits were still frozen—knocked offline, unable to reconnect to the central computer to restart their systems.
Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH knew how to fix that, knew just the executable needed to restore the main linkage. But he hesitated, considering that file a moment before tapping into another directory instead, navigating through layer upon layer of encrypted files until he found a hidden folder, and a hidden routine nestled inside. Most of the Rabbits knew nothing of that file, but Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH was Captain of this troop and had certain…privileges the work-a-day grunts didn’t. Access to information being one of them. He reached into the folder, launching the hidden routine contained, found it encrypted, password protected, firewalled off from the rest of his electronically enhanced brain.
Piece ‘a cake.
The password was simple, the firewall old and outdated. Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH ran a decoding algorithm and got through in just seconds.
The command ran outward along the wireless pathways of his mind, ran all the way to the central computer on the warship circling above. Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH took it over reconfiguring its network and connections and then bringing the other Rabbits on-line, one at a time, squirting out a data package that activated the hidden routine lying dormant in all of their minds. And when it was done, he shut the central computer down, severing the Rabbits’ link to it once and for all.
Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH dropped back into his body, eyes opening, looking about. The compound was in ruins, everyone dead, smears of skin and blood everywhere, and Thomas at their center, engines idling noisily as he watched the Rabbit army wake from frozen sleep.
Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH righted himself and hopped down to join him.
A thousand bunnies saluted smartly and slammed their hind feet against the ground. A thousand pairs of eyes turned to Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH and Thomas beside him, staring expectantly.
“What now?” those eyes asked.
Good question, Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH thought, looking around him.
There was carnage in the compound, blood and shredded bodies everywhere, but the hills outside were covered in yellow and blue wildflowers bending to and fro in the breeze.
It’s warm here, he realized. Warm and green, much nicer than the stinking, garbage ridden hellholes we’re normally sent to. Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH tilted his head, watching a puffy white cloud go drifting by.
“I miss green,” he murmured. “I miss green grass and blue skies and the wind in my ears.”
A prompt appeared in his visor. Reconnect?
He should. They all should. That’s what was expected. Reconnect to the central computer, hunt down the last of the rebels, return to the transport ship circling in space above. That’s what good little Rabbit soldiers were supposed to do.
No, he sent, and then toggled the prompt. Toggled all the network prompts off as he turned to the hulking locomotive beside him.
“Home,” Thomas rumbled, revving his engines, turning in a circle. “Free.”
“Free,” Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH repeated, tasting that word, savoring the ring of it in his long, long ears. “Yes. Yes, I think you’re right, Thomas. Cousin!” he called, raising his voices, addressing the army of Rabbits gathered ‘round him. “We’re done taking orders. We’re done roaming the stars in cramped quarters and metallic darkness. Free, cousins. We’re free now. And this planet we were sent to conquer will be our home.”
He glanced at Thomas, looking for confirmation, received a rapid-fire blast of his single headlight in response. Good enough.
“But first, cousins, we’ve got work to do. First we’ve got to eradicate the human vermin that have it. Starting with that one,” Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH said, pointing to the lone human standing on the hillside.
A thousand paws lifted, tapping helmets in salute as Rabbit 242-98K-127-MECH climbed atop Thomas’ grey-skinned carapace and rolled out of the compound.
J.B. Rockwell grew up reading fairy tales, folklore, mythology, and anything and everything about ancient cultures and their history she could get her hands on, and never lost a taste for any of it. A job in IT pay the bills, and in her spare time she writes sci-fi and fantasy (mostly). She is the author of two fantasy novels (Breakshield released in March 2014 and Seiokana to be released in April 2015) as well as numerous short stories published in anthologies and e-zines. Born and raised in Connecticut, J.B. Rockwell currently lives in West Virginia with her husband and three cats. You can join her on www.jenniferbrockwell.com or follow her on Twitter as @Rockwell_JB.