Below, you’ll find Chapter Five of the Uncommon Bravery short story. If you’re interested in reading the chapters as they’re released, please subscribe to my newsletter.

Chapter 5 – First Contact

“Hey, Tinker, you want some noodles? I’m getting hungry,” Knight called from the couch he’d occupied for the better part of the morning, watching as the Third Ranger Battalion dug in. They were fortifying a position his old commander would have referred to as ‘danger close.’ The armaments they were setting up could easily reach the Burrow if aimed properly.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the arrival of his old battalion was the later arrival of NMCB 3. The Naval Mobile Construction Battalion was perhaps the best-known team in the entire country – famous for pulling off minor miracles for as many centuries as Seabees had been building things.

No good could come from two such decorated battalions setting up shop only forty kilometers from his home. It was one thing for the war to land in someone else’s home, it was another thing entirely for what was shaping up to be a forward operating base to be set up in the farmland of western Iowa and eastern Nebraska.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact was that if he understood the orientation of the base, the Burrow would end up just short of the front line. He doubted sixty meters above the field of battle would be particularly safe, even with the meters-thick rock walls.

“I’m good,” his friend’s distant voice called back.

Knight tripped over a pile of long plastic boxes Tinker had left in the middle of the hallway and cursed.

“What’s up with all these empty cases?” he yelled, annoyed. His friend’s curious activities were almost as interesting as the spectacle of the massive military operation in the valley.

“It’s a surprise and I’m almost done,” Tinker called. The sound of his voice came from even further down the cavern than Knight had expected. He kicked the boxes out of his path and tripped again as the awkward cases slid back before he could jump out of the way. Struggling for a few moments, he danced down the hallway toward Tinker’s voice.

“Where are you?” he asked, not finding Tinker in the rounded room they’d labeled as the laboratory.

“Up here.”

This time Knight identified the upward position of his friend’s voice.

Knight quirked his head, looking at the ceiling of the passageway where a cylinder of light shone down over a ladder illuminating the floor. From experience, he knew the hole in the ceiling punched through the bluff’s rock, soaring ten meters to the surface. Knight gripped the worn handholds on the ladder in the claustrophobic stove-pipe and worked his way to the surface.

“What in the heck?”

“Like it?” Tinker gestured at a ten-meter in diameter circular pipe that hovered two meters above the ground on grav lifters. Beside the lifters sat a portable power generator.

His eyes came to rest on a portable generator. “That’s a lot of power.” Focusing on the model number, Knight’s AI presented a spec that indicated 196 megawatts — roughly enough power for a few hundred homes.

“I recommend not touching the terminals,” Tinker said, a twinkle in his eye. “I only have enough fuel for ten minutes.”

“Enough for what? It looks like you built the world’s most expensive hamster track.”

Tinker grinned. “I might have borrowed my department’s electromagnetic particle cannon prototype.”

“A whaty what? How is that circle track any kind of gun? What? You have to get some guy to jump onto the track?”

“You’ve heard of a railgun?”

“Sure. Navy has a few of ’em. Not very practical though. Need a huge amount of power and the only ships long enough are the old ocean-based aircraft carriers.”

“Let me guess, you never paid attention to the title of my doctoral dissertation,” Tinker said.

“Wasn’t it something about packaging? No, delivering medicine or something. Frak, hang on,” Knight said, waiting for his AI to locate and load the document he’d been sent. “I was right. Here it is: ‘Deterministic Delivery of Micro Payloads using Capsulized, Electromagnetic Accelerators in a Constrained Space.’”

“What part of that made you think of medicine?” Tinker chuckled.

Knight shrugged his shoulders. “Capsules?”

“No, this little baby here is a vacuum based, circular track railgun. See that little port on the side, pointing at your leg?”

Knight followed his friend’s eyes to a thumb-sized cylinder that poked out from the side of the otherwise contiguous circle.

“Yeah?” he asked, skeptically.

“That’s where the capsulized payload exits. It shoots a little projectile about the size of a green pea, only oblong. Comes out of there at around 1,600 to 2,400 meters per second.”

Knight stepped away, looking at his friend with newfound respect. “That’s real deal power,” he said. “What do you need that kind of velocity for?”

“Armor piercing,” Tinker replied. “The goal is to punch a hole in armor and deliver some sort of substance, presumably something nasty and short-lived.”

“That’s horrible,” Knight said.

Tinker nodded in agreement. “Yeah, real moral dilemma type stuff.”

“Why would you bring this home?”

“I invested five years of my life in it,” Tinker said. “And, it’s cool as hell.”

Knight smiled. “Is it loud?”

“Hardly makes a peep. A friend of mine was working on stealth fields and cancelling waves. As you know, when anything breaks the speed of sound in the atmosphere a sonic wave results, hence a sonic boom. His device at the end of the port creates a negative wave when the payload is released. Our goal was to get this small enough to mount on a grav-truck so it was more portable. Didn’t quite get there. That’ll be some other lucky grad-student’s dissertation, I suppose.”

“Are you totally done with school?”

“Yeah, actually I received word from my prof this morning. Since there’s so much ambiguity around when we’ll be allowed back, they’re ending the semester early.”

“What’s that mean for you, buddy? Will you have to take it over again?”

“Nope, I’m official. Feel free to call me Doctor Tinker from now on.” Jeremy Tinker smiled broadly.

Knight turned and wrapped his arms around his surprised friend. “I’m proud of you, man. Life dealt you a tough hand with your parents and all, but you didn’t let it keep you down.”

“Thanks. Means a lot coming from you. Think it’ll give me a better chance with Clara?” Tinker grinned wickedly.

“Truth?” Knight asked, with a serious expression.

“Of course.”

“You need to bring your A-game,” he said. “Every time you get near her you freeze up. You need to talk to her just like we’re talking here. Let her get to know the real you.”

“We chat online all the time.”

“Doesn’t count. You gotta get her off the pedestal you’ve put her. She’s awesome, sure, but she’s just a person.”

With a sigh, Tinker looked away. “I will. At least I’ll try.”

“Good. Now, those Rangers are getting set up down in the western valley. It’s a good bet our lifespans would be shortened if we fired a weapon in their direction. I don’t see any reason we couldn’t test your little toy here on Frog Belch canyon.”

Both men turned to faced the canyon wall that sank out of view four kilometers from their position. The canyon was a deep cut into the eastern side, having been carved out of the yellow orange stone that had been piled up eons ago.

“Let’s do it,” Tinker agreed and jumped into the stove-pipe and slid away from view.

Knight followed more slowly than his lanky friend, who seemed perfectly fit for the small space. “Where are you going?”

“It’s test equipment. You don’t want to be topside if that thing catas.”

“English, please. I don’t speak nerd.”

“Engineering term. When you’re building equipment with a significant amount of energy, either kinetic, chemical or electrical, you want to think about what’s the worst that could happen in a catastrophic failure. Or in Ranger-speak, what happens when the bullet goes the wrong direction.”

“That could happen?”

“Happens all the time. This is my fifth containment chamber,” Tinker said, nonplussed. “First failure punched through the lab wall, a tree across the quad and took out a billboard over a burger joint. I think it’s good now, though.”

Oblivious to the mess he’d made, Tinker jogged back to the main room and pulled a metallic backed engineering pad from the front pocket of his shorts. Swiping at the pad he dismissed the large vid-screen view of the military operation, exchanging it for a tri-windowed view of his weapon, Frog Belch canyon wide angle, and a zoomed-in view of the weapon’s current target on the canyon wall.

“You know it’s starting to get real down there, right? Aren’t you worried?”

“Sure,” Tinker said distractedly as he adjusted various settings on the weapon causing different virtual gauges to fluctuate on the screen. “Looks like everything’s running okay. Splat or penetrate?”

Knight laughed. “Are those the technical descriptions?”

Tinker smiled back. “We went through an entire phase where we described the relative hardnesses using a scale of what we ate the night before and how it affected our poo. I have three grades of pea hardness in the hopper. Probably the best analogy for slug weapons is armor piercing, full metal jacket, and hollow points.”

Knight nodded, appreciating terms he could easily enough understand. “Start armor piercing. What’s your range? We’re looking at 4,200 meters.”

“Depends on muzzle velocity,” Tinker said. “We can dial up or down. We’re just restricted by the lifters I have. I can’t manage more than twenty degrees down and six up. So, let me do the math here… If we tossed one over the bluff, we’re looking at thirty-two kilometers max range.”

“Thirty-two kilometers?”

“I could get us another ten, but I’d have to adjust the platform to loft more.”

“You’re scary.”

“We’re charged,” Tinker said. “Just press the red button and keep your eye on the target. It’ll go faster than you expect.”

Knight accepted the pad from his friend and hovered his finger over a big red button Tinker rendered.

“Didn’t work,” Knight said after a few seconds. He looked down at the red button and depressed it again, still with no affect.

“Armor piercing aren’t that exciting,” Tinker answered. “It fired.” He walked up to the big screen and gestured, dragging his fingers apart and swiping the targeting reticle out of the way. A small, round hole appeared mid screen.

“It didn’t make any noise,” Knight complained.

“Always the same with you. It’s not loud enough. It didn’t make a big enough hole,” he mocked. “You’re the one who wanted to fire an armor-piercing round into a soft-stone canyon wall. What’d you think it would do?”

Knight punched Tinker in the shoulder, playfully. “Don’t get sassy, I can still pound you.”

“Here,” Tinker grabbed the pad from his friend and swiped at it furiously. The targeting displays changed and showed a view of the rolling farm fields off to the east. From their vantage point, they could just see through the notch Frog Belch canyon made in the bluffs. “There it is.” Tinker mused, zooming in on a meandering, muddy streamlet that had no name he was aware of. He continued to zoom in until a thick, decaying tree branch came into view.

“What are you doing? That’s on Greene Farm Corporation land,” Knight said.

“Relax, that entire farm is automated, there aren’t any people within twenty kilometers.”

Knight shrugged, the armor piercing round had been innocuous enough.

“You sure you have that range? You’re looking at 23,000 meters. That’s a hell of a shot. You’ve got windage, hell, humidity probably comes into it, too.”

Tinker turned and winked. “Let me restore your faith in science, ye unbeliever. My AI has been gathering atmospheric data the entire morning. If we don’t get a giant gust of wind at the last moment, it’ll hit within four centimeters.”

“You’ve tested this?”

“Not quite at this range, but it should be good. I’ll send an armor piercing round out first. The AI will dial it in from there.”

When Tinker fired, Knight heard a sharp squeak that he hadn’t when he’d hit the button.

“Damn. One point five meters,” Tinker complained. “Gonna try again.”

A second squeak announced another launch.

“Are you hitting anything?” Knight asked.

“Yup, hard to see in the mud. I bracketed that damn log, we’ll get it this time though. I’m going hollow point. Don’t take your eyes off the wide view, you’re going to like this.”

“Tinker? Did you see that?”

“What?”

“There’s something in the field. I saw something moving,” he said, pointing at the field just above the stream bank.

“Beg to differ. I’m running a full bio scan,” Tinker said. “There are four bullfrogs, three rats and a pheasant within thirty meters of that log.”

“I’m telling you I saw something and it was a lot bigger than any rat.”

“Could have been that pheasant. It might have taken off when the rounds hit the bank.”

“I suppose. You sure of your bio scan?”

“Absolutely. Now don’t take your eyes off the screen.”

Tinker fired.

“Nothing happened,” Knight said after two seconds, impatiently.

“Keep watching,” Tinker said. “It’ll take eight seconds of travel.”

Just as he finished his sentence, the rotted log exploded violently on the bank. Mud, water, and wood debris flew twenty meters in every direction as if a stick of dynamite had been ignited.

“Holy crap!” Knight exclaimed. “That was amazing. Replay that!”

Tinker smiled and reset the video stream back to just before the bullet hit and slowed the replay to one-tenth speed. His AI highlighted the blurry bullet as it streaked into the log. In slow-motion the impact was even more exciting than it had been in real time. The two whooped and danced around, thrilled by the demonstration.

“Again. Wide angle this time.”

Tinker obliged and they watched as the log exploded once again.

“Tinker. Back it up in slow,” Knight said, his voice suddenly serious.

“What?” Tinker modified the video stream’s display so that he could manually back it.

“There,” Knight said, stabbing his finger onto the display. Tinker froze the video-stream, finally seeing what his friend’s sharp eyes had picked out. They glimpsed a brown curved leg when a nine-foot tall row of corn-stalks was shoved aside by the blast wave caused by the explosion. At the end of the leg was a clawed foot.

“What the frak is that?” Tinker asked, rolling the video time sequence forward.

“It’s moving!” Knight exclaimed.

Tinker adjusted the stream so the explosion was no longer centered. “Something’s hiding in there.” He continued to roll the time sequence forward. Whatever it was had been startled by the explosion and moved deeper into the cornfield. For a few minutes, Tinker continued to adjust the display as he typed furiously onto his pad. Soon his AI took over and systematically searched both the live and recorded video streams.

Startlingly, the video froze onto an object. The captured image of an alien head stared back at their position. Buggy black oval eyes sat on either side of its face, its mandible mouth open, tasting the wind with its yellowed tongue. The AI allowed the video to progress and the bug, recognizing it had been exposed, slunk down into the field and out of view.