When Zed is drafted into the People's Army of Earth he has to undergo a fearsome training regime in order to fight for his species. But is the enemy closer than anyone thinks...
Zed felt faint. The journey to the camp had been a gruelling one, culminating in a four hour flight over the desert in the back of a troop-carrier. Then he and his fellow recruits had been ordered into a vast store where they had been quickly issued a baggy black uniform, along with an assortment of other items whose purpose Zed could only guess at. They had stuffed their new possessions into the cavernous holdalls provided and now they stood outside groaning under the weight. All Zed wanted was some breakfast and a chance to lie down somewhere cool. Or better than that, to return to the chemical factory on his home planet where he had been happy as a process operator, third class. The light on this new world was brighter than he was used to and he screwed up his eyes as he looked with dismay at the parched desert landscape.
"Welcome to Hell you scum!" The voice echoed around the parade square. "I am Master Sergeant Instructor Toom — you may call me Master or Sir." The Sergeant stood before them resplendent in his black tailored uniform, the silver stars on the collar gleaming in the early morning sun.
"You have been selected," Toom continued, "By a completely fair and impartial ballot, to serve in The People's Army of Earth and to defend humanity against all foes. It is my job to ensure that you are worthy of that honour. Before you leave here, I will turn you into the finest soldiers ever seen — or I will kill you trying!"
Zed shuddered. The Sergeant was a huge man. His uniform clung to his body, emphasizing the overdeveloped muscles. As he spoke his eyes narrowed with contempt and his mouth twisted into a sneer.
"Today, our civilisation faces a threat to its very existance. The Shape-Changers of Altos 4 are seeking to expand their empire into our space. Already there have been clashes on the border planets. We must be ready to strike back in self-defence and to uphold our inalienable rights. To do that, we need the best equipment and the best soldiers. I will turn you into those soldiers!" Toom paused to let his words sink in. "But until then you are miserable civilian scum barely worthy to breathe the air of Earth. Any questions?"
For a moment there was silence. Zed felt vaguely curious. There was something that had been troubling him ever since he had heard about the Shape-Changers and their nefarious plans. He looked nervously around him, then slowly raised his hand.
"Er, Sir, I was wondering — what do the Shape-Changers look like?"
"What's your name dickhead?" Toom bellowed making the whole squad flinch.
"Er, Zed, I mean Private Zed, Sir."
"Are you mocking me Zed?" The sergeant spoke quietly with his face now only a few inches from Zed's.
"What? No, I mean no sir!"
"Nobody knows what they look like you moron!" The sergeant's voice rose to an ear shattering scream, "They're shape changers!"
Zed swayed backwards, but not far enough to escape the massive fist which drove into his solar plexis. He collapsed to the ground gasping for breath. Toom glared at the rest of the assembled recruits and rubbed his knuckles.
"Any more questions? No? Good! When I say 'go' I want you to get inside, find a bedspace and put on your uniforms. Then get back out here formed up in three ranks. You got ten minutes. GO!"
The barrack room had exploded into chaos as thirty men struggled into the shapeless black combat suits. They fiddled with the unfamiliar boot clasps and tried in vain to make the badly fitting field caps assume a military appearance. Exactly ten minutes later they stood in three ranks in front of Sergeant Toom.
"You scumbags!" He roared, "When I tell you to be somewhere I expect you to be there five minutes before the time specified! Now drop and give me fifty push-ups!" There was a gasp of dismay from the squad. "Fifty push-ups, GO!"
Toom paced up and down as the recruits struggled to complete their punishment. "Now to make sure you crudheads are never late again I'm going to take you on a tour of the camp. On your feet! Turn to the right! Prepare to double! Double — MARCH!"
Toom set off at a blistering pace calling the time. He took them around the camp three times before stopping at the cookhouse. Zed's spirits momentarily rose as they filed inside. His lungs were racked with pain from the unaccustomed exercise, and he hadn't eaten since the day before. The cookhouse was fitted out with long tables and benches. In the wall opposite the door was a serving hatch with a hotplate, next to which stood Toom like a demon at some hellish barbeque. Zed was first in the queue.
"Looks like you're learning Zed," Toom's twisted features formed the parody of a smile, "It pays to be first in this man's army." He pointed to a large cauldron of steaming grey porridge that was being slowly stirred by a greasy looking cook. "This slop is Protein Porridge, or PP. Three bowls of PP a day will give you all the nutrients necessary to sustain life. The army will give you exactly that and only charge you for the cost of the ingredients. You can also have all the water you can drink — free of charge!" He indicated a single tap at the other end of the vast room and then looked at his watch, "You have thirty minutes — enjoy!"
As Toom strode away to the instructor's restaurant next door, three more squads of recruits arrived. Soon the cavernous hall was a chaos of jostling black-clad recruits milling around the single tap, or struggling to get to the serving hatch. Zed found a space and sat spooning the PP into his mouth. He felt light-headed and his arms and legs throbbed with pain.
"Holy Crud!" He gasped between mouthfuls, "I hate the army."
"Look on the bright side," said the recruit sitting opposite also frantically shovelling food, "It's only for two years."
"How long have we done so far?"
"Oh Crud!" Zed felt the tears well up in his eyes. "I wish I was back in the chemical plant."
"If those dirty Shape-Changers get through the first thing they'll do is blow up the chemical plants." Zed's new found companion nodded sagely as he spoke, jabbing his spoon in Zed's direction to emphasise his point.
"That's a good point," Zed admitted, "My name is Zed by the way."
"I'm Kerl — pleased to meet you." They shook hands.
"Listen you assholes!" One of the cooks was shouting, "If you've finished stuffing your faces get off your butts and get out and make some room!" The hall was full of recruits looking for seats. Zed swore quietly to himself, took a last mouthfull of PP and got up to leave.
After lunch Toom continued the tour of the camp at the same crippling pace. They visited the lecture theatre, the assault course, the hospital, the jailhouse, and finally the armoury. Here they entered one at a time and were each issued a weapon. Outside Zed, never having held a weapon before, examined the long heavy piece of blued steel curiously. He could identify the handgrip, and the trigger just in front of it, and it was apparent which was the dangerous end, but the proliferation of other levers and switches which confronted him remained mysterious.
"This is the LS2 SmartGun Explosive Flechette Launcher, or EFL," Toom held up one of the brutal looking weapons so that the recruits could see. "It fires a self-propelled explosive flechette bullet which can be set to detonate on impact or on a one second delay. It can fire single shots or on fully automatic at a rate of six hundred rounds a minute. From now on this weapon is officially your most precious possession."
They spent the rest of the day learning how to take the Smartguns apart and then reassembling them. "You crudholes are going to learn how to do this blindfold," Toom declared. As his fingers became more and more adept at the task Zed felt a strange pleasure in handling his Smartgun. He was just beginning to feel that the army might not be so bad after all, when the small spring that he was easing carefully into position flew out of his hand and hit the recruit next to him in the ear. Toom pounced.
"Private Zed! Fifty push-ups! GO!" Zed quickly assumed the position and discovered immediately that his muscles had not recovered from their earlier punishment. The pain was excruciating as he struggled to straighten his arms but, with a final grunt, he managed it.
"ONE!" Toom roared as he stood over him. With an agonising gasp Zed collapsed back onto the ground. It was going to be a long two years.
Zed's days passed in agonizing physical activity and his nights in a fitful sleep, constantly interrupted by the snoring of his room-mates and by dreams featuring Sergeant Toom's snarling face.
He rose at 4.30 am and donned his uniform and reported for Physical Training. This consisted of an hour of exercise under the PT instructor who was even more frightening than Toom. The exhausted recruits would then stagger back to the barracks, where they could enjoy a freezing cold shower and put on a clean uniform. At 6.30 they went to the cookhouse, quickly swallowed a bowl of PP and then reported for training at seven o'clock, or oh seven hundred hours as they had learned to call it.
The camp was located in the desert miles from anywhere. All day the sun beat down on the hapless recruits as they marched around in full combat gear, moving from one training area to another, trying desperately to arrive five minutes early — and always failing. Their punishments invariably consisted of some kind of exercise, although the lessons themselves were never less than gruelling tests of physical endurance. On the range, they practised shooting from all positions, throwing themselves down on to the burning sand, then leaping up again, then down again, and so on, until their elbows and knees bled. To the north of the camp was a vast forest of plastic trees, where they practised jungle fighting, hacking their way through with machetes while trying to avoid the deadly traps the instructors had hidden there for them. To the south they learned alpine warfare by climbing over a towering range of specially built concrete mountains while carrying huge rucksacks. They marched for miles across the desert, sometimes staying out for days on end, living off shrink wrapped blocks of PP and whatever water they could carry. More often they finished at six o'clock (or eighteen hundred hours), and then spent an hour or two cleaning their SmartGuns until they gleamed. When Sergeant Toom was satisfied the weapons were locked away. All they had to do then was clean and iron their uniforms, polish their boots and have a shower, and they would be free to fall exhausted into their beds and get six hours sleep before they had to get up and do it all again.
The only thing that Zed found himself enjoying was the SmartGun training as Toom taught them the capabilities of the weapon and how to use it. On the firing range Zed was soon able to hit a target the size of his hand at three hundred metres, or on automatic he could pepper an area the size of a Dodge-ball pitch over a kilometre away. He felt a strange satisfaction as he watched the glowing stream of explosive flechettes curving away towards the horizon, knowing they were destroying something he could barely see with the naked eye. Zed was proud of his growing proficiency with the weapon. It seemed to him that it almost had a personality. It could be called different names. It was a SmartGun, or an E.F.L., or an effel, or a seffel, or even, mysteriously, a gat. By flicking a switch near the handgrip you could deploy a long wicked blade with a serrated edge from under the barrel and engage in hand to hand combat with the enemy. Another switch would give a one second delay to the detonation of the flechette so you could fire them through the walls of buildings and kill the occupants sheltering inside. Handled correctly the SmartGun could kill anyone or anything.
Once Toom was satisfied with their progress he said they could proceed to what he called 'tactical shooting'.
"This is the Close Quarter Battle Range, or C.Q.B.R." He indicated the area in front of them. "When I activate the range you will observe multiple moving targets. Shoot only at the targets in your own lane. Yellow targets are friendly and must not be engaged, green targets are enemy forces. Any questions? No? Good. Stand by."
Toom stepped away to the control console. Zed looked at the large open area to his front and felt a pleasant thrill of anticipation run through him. Then he heard Toom's amplified voice.
"Point your weapons down the range." Zed adopted the correct stance for firing in the standing position. "Load!" There was the clatter of metal against metal as the troopers fitted the flechette magazines to their SmartGuns. "Ready! Watch and shoot! Watch and shoot!"
Zed scanned the range in front of him. He had a lane about twenty metres wide and over three hundred metres long. The ground was uneven and dotted with boulders of various sizes. Suddenly a yellow man-shaped target popped out of the ground about half way down the range. Zed watched as it moved leisurely from side to side for a few seconds before disappearing again. There were a couple more friendly targets before the first green appeared. It emerged from the behind a boulder and moved rapidly towards him. Zed quickly lined up the sights and pulled the trigger and felt a jolt of exhilaration as the target exploded into fragments. More yellows appeared then two greens simultaneously. Zed was only able to catch one with a snap shot. Suddenly the range was a maelstrom of whirling targets, both yellow and green, intermingling and crossing each others paths. Targets changed colour from yellow to green and back again. They hid behind rocks, and each other, and darted about while Zed unleased shot after shot. The troopers on either side of him were similarly occupied so that there was a continuous roar of exploding projectiles and clouds of dust and sand rolled across his vision. Try as he might he couldn't avoid hitting the yellow targets.
Zed had no idea how long the shooting went on for. The targets started to appear less frequently and the firing slackened until there was silence.
"Unload and clear weapons!" Toom's voice sounded less distinct to Zed's dulled hearing, "Listen in to your scores." As the results were read out it became apparent that the squad had not done well and Zed cringed in anticipation. He knew he had hit a few friendlies. "Private Zed – twenty seven green and sixty four yellow — Zed you are officially an evil crudhead!" There was some half-hearted laughter. "It may be funny now but it won’t be when the enemy are shooting back! Now drop and give me one push-up for every friendly hit! And I will be counting!"
After six weeks their numbers had thinned. There had been many training injuries, including one fatal one, and two suicides. A scrawny youth who could not keep up on the marches had hanged himself in the latrines, and a quiet agri-worker had blown his head off with a flechette from his own SmartGun. No one knew why. Those that were left were different. The fat had been driven out of them. Their bodies were hard with wedges of muscle. Their uniforms, once baggy and black, were now faded and patched and had shrunk to fit their newly shaped physiques. Their boots were polished and they had learned how to stitch the brims of their hats so that they were neat and trim instead of floppy and shapeless. They had honed the daily routine so they had almost an hour free in the evenings, during which time they were allowed to visit the other rank's club and drink a warm beer.
The club was no more than a large hanger with a bar at one end and a huge vid-screen at the other. The floor was covered with acres of plastic tables and chairs which constantly shifted their configuration as the herds of troopers that passed through moved them hither and thither in a vain attempt to find the perfect viewing position. One night, as Zed and his companions sat sipping their beer and watching the screen, the normal vid-soap was suddenly cut off in mid flow.
"What the crud! I was watching that!" Kerl snapped angrily.
"Yeah?" Zed yawned, "I was nearly asleep myself." On the screen a news reader appeared.
"Viewers, we interrupt your normal programme to bring you an urgent newsflash! Fighting has broken out between units of The People's Army and the Shape-Changers on Sigma Prime!" Suddenly Zed and everyone else in the room was wide awake. "We now bring you live pictures from the front!" The picture shifted to show a dense jungle landscape then zoomed in to a close up of a squad of troopers. The troopers were firing blindly into the trees and undergrowth, unleashing a deluge of explosive bullets at some unseen enemy.
"Give it to 'em boys!" Shouted Kerl, "Give 'em Hell!" There were a few whoops and cheers from the troopers in the room. On the screen, a creature erupted from the undergrowth. It stood for a moment surveying the startled figures confronting it. The creature that towered over them stood at least seven feet tall with green scaly skin, powerful, muscular arms and large hands tipped with long barbed claws. The mouth under the long snout was equiped with equally cruel looking teeth. But worst of all were the eyes, red and glowing with malevolence, that stared out at the stunned audience of troopers.
The troopers on the screen recovered from their shock and turned their weapons on the Changer, but they had fired only a few rounds before it charged towards them with remarkable speed. The first man it met was decapitated with one swipe of the terrible claws. The headless body was still standing as the creature snapped up its second victim in its jaws and tore him in two. It was only the beginning. Zed and his companions watched appalled as the creature rampaged across the screen dispatching its victims with seeming ease as the explosive bullets bounced off its glistening hide. Its whole body was a weapon; it could kill with teeth or claws or even with its wildly flailing tail. It bit, gouged and bludgeoned its way through the entire squad, then charged straight at the camera and the screen went black. The newsreader reappeared, staring open mouthed at his off screen monitor.
"Er, we, uh, seem to have lost our picture from Sigma Prime," he stammered, then quickly recovered and went on, "We now go over to our correspondent who is outside the Ministry of Alien Affairs..."
"Holy crud!" Zed was aghast, "Did you see that?"
"It just tore them apart!" Kerl shook his head in disbelief, "The bullets just bounced off!"
"Just my luck to get drafted in time for a war!"
"Maybe it'll all be over by the time we finish training," Kerl spoke without conviction.
"Yeah, right." Zed drained his glass. He felt very tired. "I'm going back to the block; I need some sack time, and I've still got to wash and iron my uniform for tomorrow." Someone at the table laughed.
"Yeah, you don't want to face an alien killing machine in a crumpled uniform."
"Crud you, trooper!" Zed turned back to the table, his fists clenched. There was a moment of uneasy silence.
"Hey, it was only a joke Zed." Kerl said looking uneasily first at Zed, and then at the trooper who had spoken.
"Yeah, well it aint funny. You want to come outside and argue about it?" The trooper kept his eyes down as Zed glared at him. "Yeah, I didn't think so." Zed snorted with contempt as he turned to leave.
The next morning after PT Sergeant Toom addressed the squad. Zed stood stiffly to attention with the rest.
"I hear some of you scuzzbuckets have been losing sleep, thinking you might not get the chance to fight against the Changers!" Toom bellowed, "Well don't worry — we're going to shave three weeks off your basic training to make sure you get there in time!" A smile twisted the sadistic features, "It'll mean a lot of hard work for your instructors, but don't worry because it'll be even harder for you!" Zed gulped. It meant they only had to endure another six weeks at the camp, but after that... The Sergeant's voice interrupted his thoughts, "Also, reports from the front indicate that our explosive bullets are not as effective against the Changers as we had hoped, so a new more powerful type has been developed." Toom paced up and down as he warmed to his theme. "It's called the L85A1 slash 2 and it's guaranteed to blow a hole right through a Changer at 300 metres!" He paused to let the good news sink in, "However, it's slightly more unstable than the old one, so you're going to have to learn some new firing drills — starting today. So get to the armoury and draw your weapons then report to the range. You got ten minutes — go!"
In the weeks that followed Zed's anxiety grew. There was little news from the front although it was rumoured that the fighting was fierce on several planets. The new ammunition was difficult to handle and had a tendency to explode prematurely. Toom cursed them for their clumsiness.
"You dirtbags! I told you a hundred times you gotta handle these babies with care!" Zed was rolling around on the ground trying to put out the fire that had started in his ammunition pouches. Toom turned to the nearest trooper, "You, go get a fire extinguisher!"
Eventually, the flames quenched, Zed stood in front of the squad still slightly smouldering.
"Zed, you are on a charge for wilfull stupidity and damaging government property!" Toom turned away to address the rest of the recruits, "You've all been taught the correct way of handling the slash 2. Never remove the plastic protection caps before loading, never touch the red tip of the round with your bare fingers, and never store the rounds above a temperature of 30 degrees! Failure to observe these precautions can result in premature ignition of the explosive propellant!" He turned back to Zed, "You will pull eight hours extra guard duty!"
That night, as he completed his punishment, Zed looked up into the achingly clear sky above. He pulled up the collar of his jacket against the chill air and cursed his luck. It was typical of the Army, he thought, to come up with an impossible set of rules. How could you load a round without touching it? How could you keep your ammo cool in the desert? Zed felt the injustice of it all as he scanned the horizon. The stars in the desert sky were bright. Zed thought of the huge gulfs of space between those glittering points of light, and of the planets that circled them. Somewhere out there was his home planet, with his family, and far beyond that Earth itself. He thought about the men out there who were fighting at that moment. Soon he would be joining them.
His mind began to drift. He imagined advancing into battle against the Shape-Changers. He saw a shadowy figure rushing towards him, the outstretched arms tipped with vicious claws, the mouth opening to reveal rows of razor-like teeth and the great green tail flailing wildly above its head. He jerked suddenly awake. The desert landscape around him was unchanged. He looked at his watch. Five hours to go. He started to chew his bottom lip, hoping the pain would keep him awake. Falling asleep on guard during wartime was technically a capital crime.
Zed stood sweating in full kit in the stifling desert heat. They had spent an hour marching about the dusty parade square while the whole camp was assembled in review formation. The troopers stood in blocks fifty men wide by fifty men deep. The contrast of their black uniforms and the white sand turned the desert into a vast chequerboard. Each man now wore on his collar the dull bronze star of a fully qualified private third class. In front of them was a saluting dais where the Commandant of the camp stood with the recruit instructors behind him. A desert storm was brewing. The sky had turned black and there was a rumble of thunder in the distance, yet the air around Zed was still unbearable. Under his helmet his head was soaked with sweat and his arm throbbed with the pain of holding his weapon in the parade position.
Eventually the last block of men marched into their alloted place. The officers took their posts. The music that blared over the loudspeaker system stopped. Twenty thousand men stood silent and motionless. The Commandant's amplified voice rang out.
"Men, today you have finished your training. You are no longer recruits. Today you are soldiers! You will now go forth to add further laurels to the glorious history of the human race!" Zed's thoughts drifted away from the Commandant's words. The hand which gripped his SmartGun was slippery with sweat and every time he tried to tighten his grip it felt less secure. He tried not to think of the penalty for dropping a weapon on parade. He forced himself to concentrate on the Commandant's speech. "You are fortunate in having the chance to serve humanity at a time when it is most in peril, for now we face a threat to all the freedoms that we hold most dear." The thunder added a timely punctuation to the rhetoric. "The ships are waiting to take you to mankind's furthest frontier. I only wish I could go with you!"
As the Commandant droned on Zed looked out of the corner of his eye to the desert beyond the camp. The eight transport ships which had landed the night before, stood there like towering black cathedrals waiting for the troops to embark. Soon, he knew, they would be marching up those ramps and no power in the universe could divert them from their fate.
Suddenly there was a blare of trumpets over the speakers. The Commandant had finished his speech. The officers barked commands and twenty thousand men stood to attention. At another word of command they turned to face the waiting ships. The sudden movement after standing still for so long made Zed's head spin. There was a crackle of thunder from the darkening sky and a gust of wind blew dust into his eyes blurring his vision.
"Forward march!" Zed followed the rest as they moved off as one, though he could barely see where he was going through his watering eyes.
"Eye-yies, right!" Zed instinctively snapped his head over to the right where the Commandant and his staff stood on the dais waiting to take the salute and found himself looking directly at Sergeant Toom. There was a deafening crash of thunder and a flash of lightning. For a moment the Sergeant's outline was blurred and Zed thought he caught a glimpse of a row of razor sharp teeth, a glistening green hide and a pair of eyes, red and burning with hate.
"Eye-yies, front!" His head snapped back in time to see the great maw of the ship's hold straight in front of him and he felt his foot hitting the bottom of the ramp.