SFWRITER.COM > Short Stories > "Wiping Out"
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2000 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in the anthology Guardsmen of Tomorrow,
edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff, November 2000.
by Robert J. Sawyer
They say flashbacks are normal. Five hundred years ago, soldiers
who'd come home from Vietnam experienced them for the rest of
their lives. Gulf War vets, Colombian War vets, Utopia Planitia
vets they all relived their battle experiences, over and
And now I was reliving mine, too.
But this would be different, thank God. Oh, I would indeed
relive it all, in precise detail, but it would only happen just
And for that, I was grateful.
In war, you're always taught to hate the enemy and we had
been at war my whole life. As a boy, I'd played with action
figures. My favorite was Rod Roderick, Trisystems Interstellar
Guard. He was the perfect twenty-fifth-century male specimen:
tall, muscular, with coffee-colored skin; brown, almond-shaped
eyes; and straight brown hair cropped short. Now that I was a
Star Guard myself, I don't think I looked quite so dashing, but I
was still proud to wear the teal-and-black uniform.
I'd had an Altairian action figure, too: dark green, naked
like the animal it was with horns on its head,
spikes down its back, and teeth that stuck out even when its
great gash of a mouth was sealed. Back then, I'd thought it was
a male I'd always referred to is as "he" but now,
of course, I knew that there were three Altairian sexes, and none
of them corresponded precisely to our two.
But, regardless of the appropriate pronoun, I hated that toy
Altairian just as I hated every member of its evil
The Altairian action figure could explode, its six limbs and
forked tail flying out of its body (little sensors in the toy
making sure they never headed toward my eyes, of course). My Rod
Roderick action figure frequently blew up the Altairian, aiming
his blaster right at the center of the thing's torso, at that
hideous concavity where its heart should have been, and opening
And now I was going to open fire on real Altairians. Not with a
blaster sidearm there was no one-on-one combat in a real
interstellar war but with something far more devastating.
I still had my Rod Roderick action figure; it sat on the dresser
in my cabin here, aboard the Pteranodon. But the
Altairian figure was long gone when I was fifteen, I'd
decided to really blow it up, using explosives I'd concocted with
a chemistry set. I'd watched in giddy wonder as it burst into a
thousand plastic shards.
The Pteranodon was one of a trio of Star Guard vessels now
approaching Altair III: the others were the
Quetzalcoatlus and the Rhamphorhynchus. Each had a
bridge shaped like an arrowhead, with the captain me in
the Pteranodon's case at the center of the wide
base, and two rows of consoles converging at a point in front.
But, of course, you couldn't see the walls; the consoles floated
freely in an all-encompassing exterior hologram.
"We're about to cross the orbit of their innermost moon," said
Kalsi, my navigator. "The Alties should detect us soon."
I steepled my fingers in front of my face and stared at the
planet, which was showing a gibbous phase. The harsh white light
from its sun reflected off the wide oceans. The planet was more
like Earth than any I'd ever seen; even Tau Ceti IV looks less
similar. Of course, TC4 had had no intelligent life when we got
to it; only dumb brutes. But Altair III did indeed have
intelligent lifeforms: it was perhaps unfortunate that first
contact, light-years from here, had gone so badly, all those
decades ago. We never knew who had fired first our survey
ship, the Harmony, or their vessel, whatever it had been
named. But, regardless, both ships were wrecked in the
encounter, both crews killed, bloated bodies tumbling against the
night human ones and Altairians, too. When the rescue
ships arrived, those emerald-dark corpses were our first glimpse
of the toothy face of the enemy.
When we encountered Altairians again, they said we'd started it.
And, of course, we said they'd started it. Attempts had been
made by both sides to halt the conflict, but it had continued to
escalate. And now
Now, victory was at hand. That was the only thing I could think
The captains of the Rhamphorhynchus and
Quetzalcoatlus were both good soldiers, too, but only one
of our names would be immortalized by history the one of
us who actually got through the defenses surrounding the
Altairian homeworld, and
And that one was going to be me, Ambrose Donner, Star Guard. A
thousand years from now, nay, ten thousand years hence, humans
would know who their savior had been. They would
"Incoming ships," said Kalsi. "Three no, four
Nidichar-class attack cruisers."
I didn't have to look where Kalsi was pointing; the holographic
sphere instantly changed orientation, the ships appearing
directly in front of me. "Force screens to maximum," I said.
"Done," said Nguyen, my tactical officer.
In addition to my six bridge officers, I could see two other
faces: small holograms floating in front of me. One was Heidi
Davinski, captain of the Quetzalcoatlus; the other, Peter
Chin, captain of the Rhamphorhynchus. "I'll take the
nearest ship," Heidi said.
Peter looked like he was going to object; his ship was closer to
the nearest Nidichar than Heidi's was. But then he seemed
to realize the same thing I did: there would be plenty to go
around. Heidi had lost her husband Craig in an Altairian attack
on Epsilon Indi II; she was itching for a kill.
The Quetzalcoatlus surged ahead. All three of our ships
had the same design: a lens-shaped central hull with three
spherical engine pods spaced evenly around the perimeter. But
the holoprojector colorized the visual display for each one to
make it easy for us to tell them apart: Heidi's ship appeared
"The Q is powering up its TPC," said Nguyen. I smiled,
remembering the day I blew up my Altairian toy. Normally, a
tachyon-pulse cannon was only used during hyperspace battles; it
would be overkill in orbital maneuvering. Our Heidi
really wanted to make her point.
Seconds later, a black circle appeared directly in front of me:
the explosion of the first Nidichar had been so bright,
the scanners had censored the information rather than blind my
Like Peter Chin, I had been content to let Heidi have the first
kill; that was no big deal. But it was time the
Pteranodon got in the game.
"I'll take the ship at 124 by 17," I said to the other two
captains. "Peter, why don't "
Suddenly my ship rocked. I pitched forward slightly in my chair,
the restraining straps holding me in place.
"Direct hit amidships minimal damage," said Champlain, my
ship-status officer, turning to face me. "Apparently they can
now shield their torpedoes against our sensors."
Peter Chin aboard the Rhamphorhynchus smiled. "I guess
we're not the only ones with some new technology."
I ignored him and spoke to Nguyen. "Make them pay for it."
The closer ship was presumably the one that had fired the
torpedo. Nguyen let loose a blast from our main laser; it took a
tenth of a second to reach the alien ship, but when it did, that
ship cracked in two under the onslaught, a cloud of expelled
atmosphere spilling out into space. A lucky shot; it shouldn't
have been that easy. Still: "Two down," I said, "two to go."
"'Afraid not, Ambrose," said the Heidi hologram. "We've picked
up a flotilla of additional Altairian singleships leaving the
outer moon and heading this way. We're reading a hundred and
twelve distinct sublight-thruster signatures."
I nodded at my colleagues. "Let's teach them what it means to
mess with the Trisystems Interstellar Guard."
The Rhamphorhynchus and the Quetzalcoatlus headed
off to meet the incoming flotilla. Meanwhile, I had the
Pteranodon fly directly toward the two remaining
Nidichars, much bigger than the singleships the others
were going up against. The nearer of the Nidichars grew
bigger and bigger in our holographic display. I smiled as the
details resolved themselves. Nidichar-class vessels were
a common Altairian type, consisting of three tubular bodies,
parallel to each other, linked by connecting struts. Two of the
tubes were engine pods; the third was the habitat module. On the
Nidichars I'd seen before, it was easy to distinguish the
living quarters from the other two. But this one had the habitat
disguised to look just like another propulsion unit. Earlier in
the war, the Star Guard had made a habit of shooting out the
engine pods, humanely leaving the crew compartment intact. I
guess with this latest subterfuge, the Alties thought we'd be
reluctant to disable their ships at all.
They were wrong.
I didn't want to use our tachyon-pulse cannon; it depleted the
hyperdrive and I wanted to keep that in full reserve for later.
"Shove some photons down their throats," I said.
Nguyen nodded, and our lasers thoughtfully animated in the
holo display so we could see them lanced out toward first
one and then the other Altairian cruiser.
They responded in kind. Our force screens shimmered with auroral
colors as they deflected the onslaught.
We jousted back and forth for several seconds, then my ship
rocked again. Another stealth torpedo had made its way past our
"That one did some damage," said Champlain. "Emergency bulkheads
are in place on decks seven and eight. Casualty reports are
The Altairians weren't the only ones with a few tricks at their
disposal. "Vent our reserve air tanks," I said. "It'll form a
fog around us, and "
"And we'll see the disturbance created by an incoming torpedo,"
said Nguyen. "Brilliant."
"That's why they pay me the colossal credits," I said.
"Meanwhile, aim for the struts joining the parts of their ships
together; let's see if we can perform some amputations."
More animated laserfire crisscrossed the holobubble. Ours was
colored blue; the aliens', an appropriately sickly green.
"We've got the casualty reports from that last torpedo hit," said
Champlain. "Eleven dead; twenty-two injured."
I couldn't take the time to ask who had died but I'd be
damned if any more of my crew were going to be lost during this
The computer had numbered the two remaining Nidichars with
big sans-serif digits. "Concentrate all our fire on number two,"
I said. The crisscrossing lasers, shooting from the eleven beam
emitters deployed around the rim of our hull, all converged on
the same spot on the same ship, severing one of the three
connecting struts. As soon as it was cut, the beams converged on
another strut, slicing through it, as well. One of the
cylindrical modules fell away from the rest of the ship. Given
the plasma streamers trailing from the stumps of the connecting
struts, it must have been an engine pod. "Continue the surgery,"
I said to Nguyen. The beams settled on a third strut.
I took a moment to glance back at the Rhamphorhynchus and
Quetzalcoatlus. The Altairian singleships were swarming
around the Rhamphorhynchus (colored blue in the display).
Peter Chin's lasers were sweeping through the swarm, and every
few seconds I saw a singleship explode. But he was still
Heidi, aboard the Quetzalcoatlus, was trying to draw the
swarm's fire, but with little success. And if she fired into the
cloud of ships, either her beams or debris from her kills might
strike the Rhamphorhynchus.
I swung to look at the hologram of Peter's head. "Do you need
help?" I asked.
"No, I'm okay. We'll just "
The fireball must have roared through his bridge from stern to
bow; the holocamera stayed online long enough to show me the wall
of flame behind Pete, then the flesh burning off his skull, and
And then nothing; just an ovoid of static where Peter Chin's head
had been. After a few seconds, even that disappeared.
I turned to the holo of Heidi, and I recognized her expression:
it was the same one I myself was now forcing onto my face. She
knew, as I did, that the eyes of her bridge crew were on her.
She couldn't show revulsion. She especially couldn't show fear
not while we were still in battle. Instead, she was
displaying steel-eyed determination. "Let's get them," she said
I nodded, and
And then my ship reeled again. We'd all been too distracted by
what had happened to the Rhamphorhynchus to notice the
wake moving through the cloud of expelled gas around our ship.
Another stealth torpedo had exploded against our hull.
"Casualty reports coming in " began Champlain.
"Belay that," I said. The young man looked startled, but there
was nothing I could do about the dead and injured now. "What's
the status of our cargo?"
Champlain recovered his wits; he understood the priorities, too.
"Green lights across the board," he said.
I nodded, and the computer issued an affirming ding so
that those crew members who were no longer looking at me would
know I'd acknowledged the report. "Leave the Nidichars;
let's get rid of those singleships before they take out the
The starfield wheeled around us as the Pteranodon changed
"Fire at will," I said.
Our lasers lanced forward, taking out dozens of the singleships.
The Quetzalcoatlus was eliminating its share of them, too.
The two remaining Nidichars were now barreling towards us.
Kalsi used the ACS thrusters to spin us like a top, lasers
shooting off in all directions.
Suddenly, a black circle appeared in front of my eyes again:
there had been an explosion on the Quetzalcoatlus. A
stealth torpedo had connected directly with one of the Q's
three engine spheres, and, as I saw once the censor disengaged,
the explosion had utterly destroyed the sphere and taken a big,
ragged chunk out of the lens-shaped main hull.
We'd cut the singleship swarm in half by now, according to the
status displays. Heidi powered up her tachyon-pulse cannon
again; it was risky, with her down to just two engines, but we
needed to level the playing field. The discharge from her TCP
destroyed one of the two remaining Nidichars: there was
now only one big Altairian ship to deal with, and forty-seven
I left Heidi to finish mopping up the singleships; we were going
to take out the final Nidichar. I really didn't want to
use our TCP the energy drain was too great. But we
couldn't risk being hit by another stealth torpedo; we'd left our
cloud of expelled atmosphere far behind when we'd gone after the
And the Pteranodon rocked again. A structural member
dropped from the ceiling, appearing as if by magic as it passed
through the holobubble; it crashed to the deck next to my chair.
"Evasive maneuvers!" I shouted.
"Not possible, Captain," said Kalsi. "That came from the
planet's surface; its rotation must have finally given a
ground-based disruptor bank a line-of-sight at us."
"Still green, according to the board," said Champlain.
"Send someone down there," I said. "I want an eyeball
Heidi had already moved the Quetzalcoatlus so that the
remaining singleships were between her and the planet; the
ground-based cannon couldn't get her without going through its
The remaining Nidichar fired at us again, but
Way to go, Nguyen!
A good, clean blast severed the habitat module from the two
engines a lucky guess about which was which had paid off.
The habitat went pinwheeling away into the night, atmosphere
puffing out of the connecting struts.
We swung around again, carving into the remaining singleships.
Heidi was doing the same; there were only fifteen of them left.
"Incom " shouted Kalsi, but he didn't get the whole word
out before the disruptor beam from the planet's surface shook us
again. An empty gray square appeared in the holobubble to my
right; the cameras along the starboard side of the ship had been
"We won't survive another blast from the planet's surface,"
"It must take them a while to recharge that cannon, or they'd
have blown both of us out of the sky by now," Heidi's hologram
said. "It's probably a meteor deflector, never intended for
While we talked, Nguyen took out four more singleships, and the
Quetzalcoatlus blasted another five into oblivion.
"If it weren't for that ground-based cannon ..." I said.
Heidi nodded once, decisively. "We all know what we came here to
do and that's more important than any of us." The
holographic head swiveled; she was talking to her own bridge crew
now. "Mr. Rabinovitch, take us down."
If there was a protest, I never heard it. But I doubt there was.
I didn't know Rabinovitch but he was a Star Guard, too.
Heidi turned back to me. "This is for Peter Chin," she said.
And then, perhaps more for her own ears than my own, "And for
The Quetzalcoatlus dived toward Altair III, its sublight
thrusters going full blast. Its force screens had no trouble
getting it through the atmosphere, and apparently the
ground-based cannon wasn't yet recharged: her ship crashed right
into the facility housing it on the southern continent. We could
see the shockwave moving across the planet's surface, a ridge of
compressed air expanding outward from where the
Quetzalcoatlus had hit.
Nguyen made short work of the remaining singleships, their
explosions a series of pinpoint novas against the night.
And Altair III spun below us, defenseless.
Humanity had just barely survived five hundred years living with
the nuclear bomb. It had been used eleven times on Earth and
Mars, and over one hundred million had died but the human
race had gone on.
But our special cargo, the Annihilator, was more much
more. It was a planet killer, a destroyer of whole worlds. We'd
said when Garo Alexanian invented the technology that we'd never,
ever use it.
But, of course, we were going to. We were going to use it right
It could have gone either way. Humans certainly weren't more
clever than Altairians; the technology we'd recovered from
wrecked ships proved that. But sometimes you get a lucky break.
Our scientists were always working to develop new weapons; there
was no reason to think that Altairian scientists weren't doing
the same thing. Atomic nuclei are held together by the strong
nuclear force; without it, the positively charged protons would
repel each other, preventing atoms from forming. The Annihilator
translates the strong nuclear force into electromagnetism for a
fraction of a second, causing atoms to instantly fling apart.
It was a brilliant invention from a species that really wasn't
all that good at inventing. With the countless isolated
communities that had existed in Earth's past, you'd expect the
same fundamental inventions to have been made repeatedly
but they weren't. Things we now consider intuitively obvious
were invented only once: the water wheel, gears, the magnetic
compass, the windmill, the printing press, the camera obscura,
and the alphabet itself arose only a single time in all of human
history; it was only trade that brought them to the rest of
humanity. Even that seemingly most obvious of inventions, the
wheel, was created just twice: first, near the Black Sea, nearly
six thousand years ago, then again, much later, in Mexico. Out
of the hundred billion human beings who have existed since the
dawn of time, precisely two came up with the idea of the wheel.
All the rest of us simply copied it from them.
So it was probably a fluke that Alexanian conceived of the
Annihilator. If it hadn't occurred to him, it might never have
occurred to anyone else in the Trisystems; certainly, it wouldn't
have occurred to anybody any time soon. Five hundred years ago,
they used to say that string theory was twenty-first-century
science accidentally discovered in the twentieth century; the
Annihilator was perhaps thirtieth-century science that we'd been
lucky enough to stumble upon in the twenty-fifth.
And that luck could have just as easily befallen an Altairian
physicist instead of a human one. In which case, it would be
Earth and Tau Ceti IV and Epsilon Indi II that would have been
about to feel its effects, instead of Altair III.
We released the Annihilator a great cylindrical
contraption, more than three hundred meters long from our
cargo bay; the Quetzalcoatlus and the
Rhamphorhynchus had had Annihilators, too, each costing
over a trillion credits. Only one was left.
But one was all it would take.
Of course, we'd have to engage our hyperdrive as soon as the
annihilation field connected with Altair III. The explosion
would be unbelievably powerful, releasing more joules than anyone
could even count but none of it would be superluminal. We
would be able to outrun it, and, by the time the expanding shell
reached Earth, sixteen years from now, planetary shielding would
be in place.
The kill would go to the Pteranodon; the name history
would remember would be mine.
They teach you to hate the enemy they teach you that from
But when the enemy is gone, you finally have time to reflect.
And I did a lot of that. We all did.
About three-quarters of Altair III was utterly destroyed by the
annihilation field, and the rest of it, a misshapen chunk with
its glowing iron core exposed, broke up rapidly.
The war was over.
But we were not at peace.
The sphere was an unusual sort of war memorial. It wasn't in
Washington or Hiroshima or Dachau or Bogatá sites of Earth's
great monuments to the horrors of armed conflict. It wasn't at
Elysium on Mars, or New Vancouver on Epsilon Indi II, or Pax City
on Tau Ceti IV. Indeed it had no permanent home, and, once it
faded from view, a short time from now, no human would ever see
A waste of money? Not at all. We had to do something
people understood that. We had to commemorate, somehow,
the race that we'd obliterated and the planet we'd destroyed, the
fragment left of it turning into rubble, a spreading arc now, a
full asteroid belt later, girdling Altair.
The memorial had been designed by Anwar Kanawatty, one of the
greatest artists in the Trisystems: a sphere five meters across,
made of transparent diamond. Representations of the continents
and islands of the planet that had been Altair III (a world
farther out from that star now had that designation) were
laser-etched into the diamond surface, making it frostily opaque
in those places. But at the gaps between representing the
four large oceans of that planet, and the thousands of lakes
the diamond was absolutely clear, and the rest of the
sculpture was visible within. Floating in the center of the
sphere were perfect renderings of three proud Altairian faces,
one for each gender, a reminder of the race that had existed once
but did no more.
Moments ago, the sphere had been launched into space, propelled
for the start of its journey by invisible force beams. It was
heading in the general direction of the Andromeda galaxy, never
to be seen again. Kanawatty's plans had already been destroyed;
not even a photograph or holoscan of the sphere was retained.
Humans would never again look upon the memorial, but still, for
billions of years, far out in space, it would exist.
No markings were put on it to indicate where it had come from,
and, for the only time in his life, Kanawatty had not signed one
of his works; if by some chance it was ever recovered, nothing
could possibly connect it with humanity. But, of course, it
probably would never be found by humans or anyone else. Rather,
it would drift silently through the darkness, remembering for
those who had to forget.
The flashback was necessary, they said. It was part of the
process required to isolate the memories that were to be
Memory revision will let us put the Annihilator genie back in the
bottle. And, unlike so many soldiers of the past, unlike all
those who had slaughtered in the name of king and country before
me, I will never again have a flashback.
What if we need the Annihilator again?
What if we find ourselves in conflict with another race, as we
had with the people of Altair? Isn't it a mistake to wipe out
knowledge of such a powerful weapon?
I look at the war memorial one last time, as it drifts farther
and farther out into space, a crystal ball against the velvet
firmament. It's funny, of course: there's no air in space, and
so it should appear rock-steady in my field of view. But it's
I blink my eyes.
And I have my answer.
The answer is no. It is not a mistake.
• The End •
If you enjoyed this short story by Hugo and Nebula Award-winning
science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, how about giving one of his
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