Umbilicus by Alex Burns Part 1/3

There are three types of people on Zarmina. The posh can afford to spend the half-decade, twenty-light year journey in stasis, their hearts beating once an hour, taking precisely four breaths per day. They arrive as fresh and healthy as the day they left home. The nons fly steerage. Six years at only half a gee takes its toll. The extra weight they experience once they disembark further weakens their already-depleted skeletons. Inside a year, nearly all of them develop hunched backs. Few of them make it more than a decade once their feet find purchase on the considerably more massive planet. Their only real hope is to hook up once they get to Planet Z, to crank out a batch of the third type of resident: the Natives. You can tell the Natives, the first generation of kids born on Zarmina, by their relatively short stature and muscular build. Just getting out of bed in the morning against twice the force of Earth’s gravity works your core like a couple dozen crunches. The twenty thistle-headed men stepping off the orbital elevator at Clarkeson are too built to be nons, dressed too shabbily to be posh, and too tall to be Natives.

“TUG,” Weaver says, letting the binoculars he had been peering through dangle around his skinny neck. Weaver is gaunt, all angles, the son of posh parents. He ducks down beneath the concrete windowsill of the tower block, five stories up from what anyone could consider a completed condo. Weaver picks up his sketchpad, sweeps his raggedy black hair out of his eyes, and resumes his designs.

“We haven’t even issued the Declaration of Grievances yet, and the Terran Unilateral Government is already shipping out grunts to keep us in our place.” Rob thumbs the last rifle round (7.62 millimeter, full metal jacket) into the magazine and stacks it with the others, twenty in all, in his duffel bag. His folding StealthShot Medium Range Rifle gets a quick polish before it’s collapsed and stowed. Rob shrugs the bag onto his broad Native shoulders.

“How do you suppose they got here so fast? How’d the Tuggers even know we’re pissed? There’s only about a dozen ZIA council members, and they’ve only been meeting for a couple of months. Hey, check it out.” Weaver tosses his schematic to Rob. He’s drawn what looks like a scuba tank with two leaf blowers attached. “Flamethrower arms!”

Rob chuckles, shakes his head. “This thing—“he tosses the pad back into Weaver’s lap “—is going to get you killed. Let’s go. We’re gonna be late for work.”

Weaver scoffs as he gathers his gangly legs beneath him. “Carbon fiber! Totally bullet-proof!”


Sergeant Baker is out of his element. His normal environment, usually the inside of some dank concrete bunker illuminated by the dim glow of surveillance video, has nothing on this place. Baker’s standing in the penthouse rock garden of Mr. Watanuki, glassed in and climate-controlled, fifty stories above the ground in Clarkeson. Thick oblong pebbles line the floors, surrounding granite stepping stones laid out on a grid. Gnarled, enormous bonsai trees dot the garden and cast long twisted shadows in the red light of Zarmina’s perpetual sunset. Outside the window, past the building, up the street about half a mile, the thick black cable of Clarkeson’s orbital elevator divides the sky neatly into day and night. Baker removes his cap and holds it in his hands behind his back, resisting the urge to scratch his ass in front of the richest man in twenty light years.

Obviously, the Sagan City facility represents a significant investment on the part of Planetary Development Services.” Watanuki’s grizzled, ancient head pokes out from the top of a very formal-looking blue kimono that covers him from chin to ankle, the better to conceal the mechanized orthopedic exoskeleton the old man has to wear just to get around anymore. He peers at Baker from across the room, expectantly.

Sergeant Baker’s fully aware of the financial cost of stringing up 200 miles worth of unbreakable carbon cable and tethering it to a space station in geosynchronous orbit. But he’s not sure how to respond, so he just says “sir” and stands at attention.

Watanuki’s scowl shifts tectonically into a pained smile and emits an imploring groan, as the old man waggles an open hand loosely at Baker. As if to say, “Go on…”

Sir, the ordnance we’re going to be dropping over there will be coming in from orbit at high speed. Two tons of tungsten at terminal velocity, per rod. It’s going to do some pretty significant damage. It might be enough to topple a building or two, but nothing we have will be able to put a scratch on your elevator there. You’d need a hydrogen bomb for that.”

Good. Good.” Watanuki shuffles toward Baker, and places a bony hand on his shoulder. Now that he’s close, Baker can see the old man panting for breath, wiping the sweat away from his wrinkled brow. Watanuki’s exhausted from the effort, even with titanium braces keeping his spine from giving way. “Proceed as you see fit, Sergeant.” He mercifully waves Baker off.

Sir,” Baker barks, and makes a hasty exit. He can’t wait to get off this rock and back home to blue skies and green grass.

Awaiting Baker in the lobby is Corporal Mbenga, his sparkling grin on display. He snaps out a salute. “How was the meeting, Sarge?” Mbenga says, playing innocent. Everyone know’s Watanuki’s got a way of creeping out enlisted men.

Fucking wonderful, Corporal,” Baker deadpans. “Get the boys over Sagan City on the horn. Let’s clean up this godforsaken mess and get the hell out of here.”

Planet Z’s a shithole, ain’t it, Sarge?” Mbenga says, all smiles.

Amen.” Baker slaps his cap back onto his shaved head. “Round up those boys that just got in. After the shit hits the fan in Sagan City, we’re going to need to keep a tight hold on Clarkeson.”


Private Leonard Lawrence, reporting for duty, settles into his seat on the bridge of the SS Colin Powell and fires up his view screen. An image of the planet Zarmina pops into view, overtaking the space on the screen as the ship zeroes in on its target. From the Colin Powell’sangle of approach, the rocky gray planet looks like a martini olive, speared through the middle by the orbital elevators at the world’s two major settlements: Sagan City on the top, Clarkeson on the bottom. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Lawrence traces out a rough rectangle around Sagan City with his finger and taps it in the center. The screen switches to a closer view, replacing the wide planetary shot with an overhead view of the settlement, dominated by the thick black line of the elevator’s shaft, surrounded concrete buildings both newly completed and still under construction. A few more gestures and Lawrence is greeted with an even closer view that shows the base of the elevator, blocked by heaps of whatever debris the colonists can scrounge together to prevent the lift compartment from reaching purchase on the ground: chunks of hastily chiseled cement, bundles of rebar, random rocks, sandbags, even a burned out buggy or two. Lawrence, sipping his coffee, plants a finger in the center of the screen, dragging it right so that his camera will pan in the opposite direction.

A gathering of settlers is arranged in a rough semi-circle around an impromptu stage of pallets and cinder blocks, being addressed by a speaker. Another zoom shows the man gesticulating wildly, waving his arms and pounding his fists on an honest-to-goodness podium. He wraps up his speech and throws both hands in the air as the audience’s applause gives way to a rhythmic pumping of fists, presumably accompanying a chant. Lawrence wedges an ear bud into his ear and dials in the signal from audio surveillance on the ground.

TUG fuck off! TUG fuck off!”

Lawrence grunts to himself and patches the display into his commander’s console elsewhere on the ship. A hiss comes over the line, followed by a gruff, hollow voice. “Proceed, Private.”

Aye, sir.” Lawrence taps an icon at the bottom of his screen, a targeting reticule that flashes red three times. Weapons systems ready. Lawrence marks a spot in the middle of the crowd, one directly on top of the podium, and a few over likely escape routes for the angry bogeys. He utters the magic words: “Private Lawrence, Leonard. Authorization code Charlie-Alpha-seven-seven-niner. Kinetic bombardment: engage.”

An affirmative and pleasantly harmonized beep sounds. Switching back to his medium shot of the city, Lawrence watches as five telephone pole-sized rods of tungsten slide into view, white-hot as they rip through Zarmina’s atmosphere. A few seconds later, they converge into a cloud of dust, and the chanting over the line is replaced by five overlapping concussive thuds, followed by a chorus of frenzied screaming.

On the screen, the dust clears and reveals a now-empty space in the middle of the city, piles of rubble surrounding five jagged holes punched into the earth, topped with a heaping helping of disembodied limbs, crushed torsos, smashed skulls. Bystanders rush onto the scene and paw frantically through the rubble, trying to remove chunks of shattered concrete from on top of friends and relatives.

Lawrence yanks the ear bud out and cues up the highlight reel from last night’s Cubs game.

Continued in Part 2

2 thoughts on “Umbilicus by Alex Burns Part 1/3”

  1. Interesting story! The characters pop on cue, the narrative is compelling, and the exposition is smart and relatively sparse. Worth the read.

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