What Business Problems Do Blockchains Solve? Formaspace

[OC] Nineteen thousand

“Whiskey and water. Leave the bottle.”
The bartender produced the required glassware along with a flask of amber fluid, but made no move to open it and continue the procedure. After a few seconds of letting him stare at me, I sighed and dug out a bitcoin spear, twirling it between my fingers letting it drop onto the counter. The bartender performed a magic trick and made it disappear into a reader, eyebrows threatening to climb off his bald head at the number of zeroes on the tiny screen. Cash on the barrelhead always trumped whatever initial impression I made when walking into a new place.
Quick as a wink the previous bottle was replaced with something a bit more top shelf - probably from his private stash - along with a bowl of cashews and dried wasabi peas. I didn’t care, top shelf was probably more than I deserved. Not that I was about to turn down the wasabi peas, mind you - they just weren’t the reason I came here. I was here to drink.
And drink I did. A lot. A sip of whiskey each for those that marched in didn’t make it back out. Nineteen thousand brave men and women who went to the wall and held it, held it hard, just so that the rest of the world could keep on living. Heros each and every one of the, the best and finest soldiers I had ever served with.
All dead. All dead. All because they followed me.
The face that stared back at me from the mirror over the bar looked nothing like the man I remembered. This one had a haunted look of someone who had seen too much and couldn’t sleep afterwards. A man who drank to excess in an effort to forget and was failing miserably at it, but kept trying anyways. A man that led his troops into battle and wound up most of them killed. A man who stumbled out of the war zone, gathered up what was left, and led the charge back in. A man who sacrificed the finest men and women on the planet, but got the job done and lived to talk about it.
I hated the man that looked back at me. I hated the fact he had been showered with medals and commendations and called a goddamn hero. He - I - didn’t deserve any of it. The ones that did got nothing but their name on a wall and an email full of platitudes to their families back home. A pittance to remember someone like Private Alimah Kerr, screaming as she unloaded her service weapon into the face of the thing that was chewing her leg off. Or Specialist Robert Hue who stood his ground as the aliens advanced, refusing to yield until he too disappeared under a wave of slobbering blue-green flesh before finally detonating his remaining grenades.
The finest Humanity had to offer. And nobody to remember them but me and a handful of others that had walked away and then paraded in front of the media. Bastards, each and every one of us. Especially me.
Survivor's guilt, they called it. The shrinks tried to convince me that I wasn’t at fault, but I knew better. They hadn’t been there, up close and personal with the aliens that came pouring through the gateway, howling and screaming for Human blood. Every single last one of them a whirling murder machine, all legs and claws and teeth, a dripping nightmare from the depths of hell. The good thing was they died just as easy as we did - only there was a lot more of them.
The gateway had been yet-another attempt to create a working FTL system. In that regard, it is was a roaring success - and if the creator had survived the initial incursion, he would have won a Nobel Prize. Instead he became xeno chow along with rest of the scientists. The idiot never considered that there might be something waiting for us on the other side, ready to jump through and start fucking things up. Without thinking, he just opened a goddamn doorway to hell and invited the bastards in, leaving the rest of us to fight our way towards the portal and slam the thing shut before something worse came through.
We won, of course. But it was a victory bought and paid for dearly, one bloody step at a time.
I continued to drink, mentally calling out names with each sip. Victoria Smith. Mark Belzar. Sigivald Elwin. Andy Paz. I had memorized each of the nineteen thousand I led into battle and then left behind. Good men and women. I wish I could count myself among them. Instead I was left with nothing but their names and a fat bank account, courtesy of early retirement. That, and the memory of how I had took them right up to the gates of hell and told them to keep going. Their great commanding officer, the one they looked up to and expected to bring them home, safe and sound. But in the end, I wound up escorting them right to the gates of hell. If it made any difference I was right there with them, every step of the way. Lead from the front was always my motto. Do as I do, like this, here, you try. They loved me for it, and I loved them back, all of them. One big trigger-happy family.
I waved at the bartender for another bottle, and he swapped out the empty one for me, setting another decanter of water next to it. I refreshed my glass and snorted at the label. “None Better” it proclaimed, in flowing gold script, winner of the ‘52 international. Perhaps. I couldn’t tell - it all went down the same, burning a line from my mouth to my gut like a tracer bullet. The soft bloom of warmth when it hit was a welcome relief, dulling the pain. If only it could dull the memory of what happened.
We had been out doing maneuvers - mostly a show of force to remind everyone that the UN was serious about keeping the peace - when we got an alert indicating a hostile force at a nearby research complex. The day had been going good and I was pleased with how the troops were performing and gave the order to re-task and take back the facility. I assumed it was yet another terrorist action, a bunch of fucking losers following some jackass who thought he was the seconding coming and wanted to prove it by blowing shit up and lopping off heads. What those guys hope to accomplish by all of that is beyond me. Still, they always seemed to be able to gather supporters from those that had nothing else better to do. I guess vague promises of a glowing afterlife was better than dirty villages and crappy TV.
On the surface it seemed like a run-of-the-mill op, just like all the others that we’ve been doing since the UNSOF was formed. Somehow the insurgents had managed to slip in and take over the lab before anyone noticed - which meant overwatch had been slacking off and needed a kick in the ass. I figured it would all be over pretty soon and the grunts could look forward to some well-deserved R’n’R afterwards while us command-types filled out paperwork. Just another day at the office, one step closer to retirement and that 30-foot boat I’d been daydreaming about. A little shock and awe and everything would be right on our corner of the world. Give the kids something to bullshit the starry-eyed civvies with back in town, maybe enough to impress the locals to come back their place and get all sticky together. I was just glad we mandated strict birth control, religious and cultural affiliations be dammed.
The first indication it was not a terrorist group was when the incursion team breached the outer doors and started screaming. The whirling mass of death that came storming out tore into the team like a starving man at a buffet. To their credit, they stood their ground and gave as good as they got until backup arrived and provided supporting fire, splattering the shit out of whatever it was before recovering our dead and wounded.
I gave the order to move in and secure the facility, assuming that whatever had torn Alpha team to ribbons was some unsanctioned animal experiment that got loose. It was only after we lost both Bravo and Charlie did we realize it wasn’t animals we were dealing with but a whole new life form, one that really enjoyed snacking on humans. By the time the rest of the division showed up to provide much-needed support we were down to less than a hundred functioning soldiers and had nothing to show for it.
The UNSOF trained and outfitted some of the best soldiers on the planet, and we were experts at enforcing the peace or dealing with the odd armed insurgent, but an actual alien invasion was a little outside of our bailiwick. But we were also never one to back down from a fight, especially one where the fate of the world hung in the balance. The extra firepower allowed us to force our way through the swarms of aliens that just kept coming and coming. Sergeant Iva Magdalene joked with Private Sam Lammert that it was like some sort of video game and wondered if there was a boss level. That was the last coherent thing I heard from her team, screaming and the sound of gunfire saturating the radio channel shortly afterwards.
The bar was starting to fill up, the afternoon working class crowd shouldering their way in and talking loud. Friends backslapping each other, yapping about sports or the latest movie or how the new foreman was an idiot. I ignored them and stayed on my perch, nailed there by a continual supply of whiskey and spicy dried peas. I blinked and the empty bottle magically replaced itself, the bartender swapping it out as he moved by. I took that as a good sign and poured myself another, sipping it as I mentally counted out the names.
Afonso Lefteris. Castor Theudemar. Rodrigo Neely. Arcadia Frantziska. Coco Yana. Lesha Teagan. Dan Dorin. Cassandra Goldburg. All gone, just names on a wall somewhere now, destined to be part of a school field trip where bored kids stand around and fidget as their teacher tries to jam some history between their dirty ears. Not one of those kids or their teacher will care Cassandra wrote dirty Harry Potter vampire fan fiction, Rodrigo had been studying to be a lawyer, or that Dan moonlighted as a classical guitarist. Each one had a future and a life ahead of them that was wiped out when I sent them off to die.
And every last one of them went willingly. Confident, strong, proud. A credit to the uniform. A uniform I no longer felt that I had the right to wear.
I set my empty glass down with exaggerated care, uncertain of where the tabletop was, my enhanced liver working overtime to process the influx of alcohol. The thunk told me I had made it successfully, and I let go of the glass and stared into it, the slowly collapsing film of whiskey that clung to the side a reminder of the gateway at the epicenter of the invasion.
The egg-shaped device looked like wet glass, the distortion rippling between complicated armatures keeping the field open. It had taken six hours of constant fighting, some of it hand-to-hand, before we gained access to the chamber housing the gateway. Behind us we had left a trail of bodies, both ours and theirs, some of them stacked three deep. The stench of death mixed with the smell of cordite and burnt railgun coils. I had lost track of my own weapon some point, picking up a discard and using that instead. The stock was crusted in dried blood, some of it mine, most of it alien where I had used it as a club. My continual requests for more support and heavy equipment were being shuffled around and put off, nobody willing to believe the reports being sent in. Those of us on the ground were resolved to end this here and now, holding the first, last, and only line of defence between Humanity and the growling alien mob.
By this point we had all gotten pretty good at figuring out what the alien’s weak points were - head shots fucked them up pretty good, but they’d just barrel along until you took out the heart-thing located in their ass. Someone told me later they were like bees, putting their vital bits in back and responding to a queen. I stopped eating honey right after that.
Being more efficient at killing was not that helpful when the enemy force seemed to have an unlimited supply of bodies to throw at us. At some point we were going to run out of ammo - we had been scavenging what we could off of our dead comrades, exhaustion and terror keeping us from feeling bad about it. I kept sending soldiers out in twos and threes to search the surrounding areas and bring back what they could. Sometimes they came back missing a team member. Sometimes they didn’t come back at all.
I added them to the list of dead that I was responsible for and kept pushing forward.
The bartender came over and gave me a look, judging if I was at the point where he should consider cutting me off. I held out my hand to show that it was steady - surgeon's hands, my mother called them - and nodded, my fancy liver having already dealt with the booze. He reluctantly complied and poured a drink for me from a new bottle - my third, I think - before moving down the bar to take care of someone else.
I kept drinking and counting off the names.
Our first clue we were getting closer to the center of the invasion was a change in the mix of xeno types. Before it was just nasty critters that would attack en-masse, but these were more upright and started to sport weapons of their own. They also started to show a level of unit cohesion that was downright disturbing. We figured out pretty quickly that they were also responsible for directing the mass of smaller xenos, so killing them became a top priority. Same general body layout as the rest, so popping a round in their ass worked wonders.
By this time we had finally figured out what the hell this place was and command had bought into our doomsday scenario - but were seemingly incapable of making a decision on what to do about it. I lost three men - Williams, Carine, and Renáta - as I hunkered down and got into a screaming match over the vidphone with a four-star general who had never seen live action before. It was only until I broke off to club a snarling mass of alien flesh that tried to eat my face did they get the message how dire the situation was. Nuclear weapons were off the table - even if we could get the release codes, the fallout would poison a large chunk of valuable farmland and wreck the underlying aquifer. The only available units with bunker busters or MOABs were hours away, about the same time as any heavy artillery that could punch through the walls.
That left us with jack and shit, along with a dwindling number of functional soldiers who were running short on ammo and adrenaline.
So we did what we were trained to do - we kept fighting.
And kept dying.
My upgraded liver had finally done its job and processed most of what I drank into hydrogen and energy, feeding a process that cracked the rest into more base components my body could use. Very little alcohol actually made it into my bloodstream, and what did was filtered out quickly and excreted in the normal manner. The upshot was I could generally keep drinking for as long as my bank account held out - which these days meant practically forever.
One side effect of the upgrades is that I tend to sweat more than normal when I drink, which is hell on my clothing and contributes to the sad state of my personal hygiene. I honestly don’t care - that’s what laundry service is for. As for the smell, it kept the seats next to me clear, which let me focus on more important things. Like drinking and remembering the dead.
So when someone invaded my personal space by sitting down and greeting me by name, I was totally unprepared.
Fuck. Robbie.
The promised support was going to be a long time in coming - most of what we needed were scattered around maintaining the peace or on a ship somewhere. Nobody expected some idiot to throw a complete division of troops and material into a meat grinder and then ask for more.
We knew we were in the right area when we killed a dozen of the Walkers - what we started calling the upright fighters - all stationed around a hanger-like door that had been forced open from the inside. A quick peek around the corner showed the room inside was filled with critters of various sizes, all milling around the gateway that kept pooping out more. I could see a dozen or more Walkers arranged in front of it, gathered in a loose circle and waving their hand-things around in some sort of ritual fashion. I didn’t know if they were holding a seance and talking with Great Uncle Charley or just discussing the weather, and frankly I didn’t care - I just wanted them out of the way of our objective. Once we shut the gateway down I was certain that all of our problems would be solved and we could call it a day. Maybe even get out this in time for dinner.
“Eugen, Pyotr. Take a squad each and scout left and right of our position. Look for power conduits big enough to power that thing. Sing out if you run into trouble. Go.” Two dozen men and women scampered off without a second thought. “Mansel. You and yours hold here with me. The rest, fan out and grab whatever ammo you can find. Return in five minutes.” Sixty soldiers ran down the hallways in groups of sevens and eights to find whatever they could, coming back within the allotted time. One ran into a pack of xenos and used up what ammo they had, returning empty handed. We parceled out everything the best we could. I kept as many railgun coils as I could carry and handed the rest to Robbie, who had the other functioning railgun. The rest were armed with upgraded SAR29’s and were ready for blood.
Pyotr called in saying they had found a power cable that looked promising - it was certainly big enough and had warnings in six languages. Eugen hadn’t reported in and wasn’t responding to coms. I was hoping it was just because their radio was broken or the signal was blocked, but we all knew in our guts they were gone. More names to add to the list of brave men and women I had sent off to die.
I ordered Pytor to cut the cable, which should shut down the gateway and prevent the aliens from bringing in any more reinforcements. As soon as that happened we were going to storm the room and kill every last stinking xeno. No survivors, and no Geneva convention to tell us different.
It sorta kinda worked.
“Whatcha drinking, Colonel?” Robbie asked me, as if everything was normal and it was just another day in the neighborhood. The rest of the bar hooted and hollered, someone sinking a clever shot on the pool table.
“Whiskey. Get’cher own,” I growled back, taking a drink and pretending to ignore his presence. I was in no mood to share, particularly not with him. “And I’m retired.”
The last time I had seen Robbie he was missing a hand along with a chunk of his face. The surgeons had done a good job on patching him back together. Hell, they had done a good job on everyone that made it out, myself included. They had to - if they showed the world what it really took to beat back an alien invasion, recruitment numbers would plummet to near zero. So broken bones were set, mangled limbs and organs were repaired or replaced, plastic surgery was scheduled. The scars were erased, but for some of us, they went too deep for any amount of medical care to fix. On the surface we looked and acted human, but inside some of us were more plastic and ceramic and high-tech gear than flesh and bone. But we looked good on TV, which is what really mattered.
Robbie signaled for a beer, which the bartender obliged. “Put it on his tab,” he said, jerking a thumb at me. “He doesn’t mind.”
“What do you want, Robbie?” I asked, waving a hand at the bartender to say it was okay. “Not like we parted friends last time I checked.” Words were exchanged, most of them heated. We didn’t come to blows, but damn near could’ve.
“Things change. You were angry, blaming yourself for everything that happened.” Pointing at the line of empty bottles, he added, “looks like you still do.” I grunted in agreement and continued to drink. Robbie wouldn’t shut up and kept at it. “Still doing that thing where you go over the names of everyone that didn’t make it out?” I turned my head slowly towards Robbie, fixing him with a hostile stare. It was his turn to ignore me and he blathered on. “What’s the count again? Oh yes, nineteen thousand. I hear they are going to make a documentary. Want to be in it? They can use a sad sack of shit. Be right up your alley.” He shut up and took a drink from his beer, not realizing the amount of control it took not to punch his smug face in.
I thought he was done talking but he started right back up again. “Believe it or not, I have been and always will be your friend. Maybe you forgot that, but I never did. Which is why when you walked away I didn’t, even if I wanted to. Someone had to stick around and pick up the slack. So while you’ve been drinking more than humanly possible and blaming yourself, I - we’ve - have been figuring out what happened.”
“I know what happened. We went in and got blown to hell,” I answered, lifting my glass. “Most of a division wiped out on my orders. But we got the job done.”
Robbie hit me with a sucker punch. “Who said the job was done?”
Pytor’s team took down the power cable as ordered and we came in guns blazing. The gateway was going crazy from all of the ordinance flying around and its power supply being interrupted, but it wasn’t shutting down. Either there was a secondary conduit somewhere or a backup generator providing juice. I had a momentary worry that whatever ritual the Walkers had been doing was keeping it open, but they wasted no time in jumping into the fray, dispelling that notion.
Our first order of business was taking the Walkers out - without them providing guidance, the rest of the xeno swarm should be easy. Great idea, but they weren’t going down without a fight.
Robbie and I fought back-to-back, railguns close to overload as we fired round after round, punching through aliens four at a time. The rest of the remaining company of soldiers burned through ammo like it was going out of style. Someone yelling “grenade!” caused us all to duck, the bang of it going off followed by the whistling sound of shrapnel and someone screaming. Turns out it was me. A chunk of metal made it past my armor and lodged in my gut, tearing things up pretty bad.
“Power souce!” I called out, doing my best to ignore the pain and stay upright. “Find the goddamn power source!”
And incoherent shout drew my attention to Corporal Mahmud Paz, who was pointing at a unit mounted on the far side of the bay that was being guarded by three Walkers and a bunch of their pets. That looked like a fine place to have some target practice, and anyone who wasn’t directly engaged with staying alive moved in closer.
Before we got there something came through and started to tear us a new asshole. Robbie and I ganged up on it and turned it into Swiss cheese, but not before it had wiped out twenty men and women we couldn’t afford to lose.
“We’re fucked!” he gasped, the side of his face that wasn’t hamburger pale from blood loss. I was inclined to agree, but wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.
“No we’re not,” I said with confidence I didn’t really have, eyes tracing the line of wrist-thick cables going from the generator to the arms of the still-functioning gateway. “There. Hit it there,” I ordered over the command channel, lighting up a junction with the laser targeting system. I followed through by reloading a coil and chunking off rounds, the railgun rapidly warming up in my hands, heading towards a critical overload.
The remaining troops did the same, just as the Walkers realized they were about to be cut off from whatever hell they called home and broke ranks to try and stop us. Robbie’s railgun failed after five more rounds, the final shot warping the barrel and exploding, taking his right hand with it. The rest of us kept firing, spraying and praying we’d finally punch through and hit something important.
Eventually we did.
“Of course I am. Shut the gateway down, killed all the xenos, exfil’d back to base. World saved, all that jazz.” I took a big slug of whiskey and poured some more, skipping the water this time around. “You were there as I recall. Didn’t look as good as you do now.”
“The miracle of modern medicine. So here’s the deal. We managed to salvage the research and rebuild the gateway. Now hold on, lemme finish. Smaller this time, lower power, double isolation chamber, failsafes, the works. Just big enough for some probes to go through without being detected. Guess what we found?”
“Your virginity?”
“Close, but no cigar. Worlds. Hundreds of worlds. And on all of them, dead civilizations, wiped out by the sames bastards that attacked us. Research managed to translate some of what they found and figured out that every time a species build a gateway, these things come through and wipe them out.”
“But not us,” I grunted.
“But not us. And it gets better.” Robbie looked around and leaned over slightly before continuing in a lower voice, like he was imparting some great secret. “We found their home world.”
The Walkers and their remaining pets tore into us just as the power junction let go, causing the gateway to collapse in a soundless explosion of light and fury. The best part was that it sent the aliens reeling, making them easy pickings. By the time our reinforcements arrived we had bandaged our wounded and crawled out of the rubble, seventy three survivors out of a division of almost twenty thousand.
Fresh air never smelled so good.
I fully expected to be court-marshaled for taking such devastating losses and not calling for a retreat. Instead what I got was commendation after commendation, so many they had to create new combos just so I wouldn’t run out of chest area to display them all. I suspected that it was all a put-up job, but couldn’t get anyone to admit it. Everyone kept telling me how great I was and how I had done the impossible against incredible odds. I had so much smoke blown up my ass I thought I would get lung cancer. After a while I couldn’t take it anymore and turned in my paperwork and resigned, leaving the uniform and the job behind - the only thing I had known for most of my adult life.
I never did buy that boat.
“Explain,” I ordered, giving Robbie my best Don’t Fuck With Me glare. He pretended it didn’t work on him but answered anyways.
“Just like I said. We found the planet they come from. Easy, too. If you don’t know enough to plan ahead the gateway naturally lands there, like a default setting. Then our buddies swarm through, kill everyone, and leave. Lather, rinse, repeat. Break the laws of physics, get eaten.”
“Well that sucks,” I observed, taking a pull from my glass. “But you never answered my question, Robbie. What do you want?”
“We - I - want you. We’re building a bigger gate, one that can send a division or three through. We want to take the fight to them, wipe them out for good before they can do the same to another species. Give the rest of the universe a chance to get off their own rocks and make something of themselves.” Robbie cleared his throat before continuing, “but we need a leader. One that can make the hard choices even if it tears him up inside. One that keeps going and going, putting his ass on the line every single day and inspiring others to do the same. One who knows how to fight these things and win. No matter what it takes. No matter what it costs him personally.”
Robbie put his hand on the top of my glass, and forced it back down to the counter top. “How about it, Colonel? Wanna get some payback? Maybe make those names of yours mean something other than an excuse to wallow in your self-pity?” I didn’t say anything and stared at the reflection of the man in the mirror. “Don’t do it for me. Hell, don’t do it for yourself. Do it for them. For the nineteen thousand. Make their deaths be more than just names on a wall somewhere or a glass in your hand. Don’t walk away this time and hide in a bottle,” he pleaded, hand still covering mine and holding the glass of liquid memory eraser on the countertop.
As I watched, my reflection shifted for a moment, showing me the man I used to be. A man deeply ashamed at what he had become - a drunk, a loser. A man that thought there might be something still inside worth saving, who had never really given up on either of us or what we had once believed in. A man who wanted a second chance to make up for his mistakes.
“Weapons?” I asked, my voice quiet and lost in the background noise of the bar. I had hoped Robbie didn’t hear, but they must have fixed his ears, too.
“New SAR31’s. Better fire control, larger magazines, bigger punch. Railguns have been improved, too. No more losing fingers,” he said, waving his replacement hand around, the synthflesh blending seamlessly into his wrist. “Got some prototype plasma casters that look promising, if you want’em.”
“Armor?” louder this time. No use pretending any more.
“Dragonskin v8. Interlocking plates. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Carry weight has been dropped by half, more flexible. Think chainmail that’ll stop a rocket.”
I stared at the mirror. “Resupply? Air support?”
“Done and done. Trust me, I was your XO for six years before you walked away. I know what you’re going to ask before you ask it. We’re locked, cocked, and ready to roll. Only thing missing is you. The key part to the whole shebang.”
I drummed my fingers on the countertop, trying to think of something to trip him up, and give me an excuse to say no. The bottles called out to me, and I really wanted to get back to my drinking. I finally played my ace card and said, “fine, but I want Kitty,” referring to the best damn sniper I had ever had the pleasure to work with. The last time I spoke to her she was happily retired and living on a beach, having traded in her scope for an endless supply of cabana boys and surfers. She was out for good, no way in hell Robbie had managed to lure her back in.
Robbie threw back his head and laughed, attracting the attention of the entire bar and proving me wrong. “Deal! She’s tanned, toned, and ready to kick ass. Even brought some promising new recruits with her. So what do you say Colonel, ready to get back to work? Maybe bring some peace to the universe, make a real difference again?”
The names were a silent presence, floating around in the back of my mind. I realized in that moment of pure absolute clarity that I had been wrong, so very wrong. The names of the men and women that had followed me to hell and stayed there were not a burden or a curse but a blessing. They had not been dragging me down or holding me back - I had. They were there to lift me up, keep me going, push me forwards. Knowing each one of them had been an honor, and I would never forget their sacrifice.
I shoved Robbie’s hand off the glass and tossed it back before standing up and giving the mirror the evil eye. My reflection looked back at me, pleased for the first time in ages. I made a silent vow to carry the memories of those men and women to the farthest reaches of the universe and make their deaths count by tearing the xeno homeworld down, brick by bloody brick, until the galaxy was free from the threat they posed. I could feel the names, all nineteen thousand of them, milling around, tired of excuses and eager to get on with it.
Nineteen thousand. Plus one more.
Mine.
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