Man of War
In movement, be as swift as the wind;
In slow marches, be as majestic as the forest;
In raiding and plundering, be as fierce as fire;
In defense, be as firm as mountains;
In camouflage, be as impenetrable as darkness,
When striking, be as overwhelming as thunderbolts.
- Sun Tzu
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.
Quite a few of the cap troopers that I have spoken to (and I have spoken to quite a bit of them these past years) have told me that they always get the shakes before a drop. Not me though. It seems that whenever I get into that tube and they strap me onto that capsule and the anticipation begins just before the drop, I fall asleep. That's right, little Austin, the pride of his mother, falls asleep during a drop.
Of course, a number of military psychiatrists have told me that this is quite normal; there are some people who get the shakes before a drop just as there are some people that fall asleep. I never really wondered too much about the psychology behind the reasoning of why men do this or do that, I guess it's not my job to do that anyway.
But don't get me wrong, I don't fall asleep during the whole ride down the planet's atmosphere. I wouldn't be alive to tell you this now if I had done that. And its not like I'm completely asleep either; its just that when I'm strapped into that re-entry capsule, my entire body immediately relaxes and I go into a trance-like state. Although I am surrounded in darkness, I feel completely relaxed, as if I had been returned to my mother's womb.
Even when my capsule begins to throb from the acceleration as the ship I'm in begins a high orbital drop and I hear the Bump! -As my capsule slides into place at the firing tube, my mind is dreaming of a still pond beside the garden of the house where I spent my childhood in. Even when the massive clang! –As my capsule gets locked into place on the firing tube and the staggering -WHAMBO! Rattles my ears, I'm still at peace.
It's when my capsule begins the descent into the planet's atmosphere and it begins to peel as several of its layers acts as a heat shield to slow down my descent does my body begin to come alive. The new armor that I'm wearing instantly comes online; its got advanced sensors and communications found only previously in Command suits but with the type of job I have, communication is quite vital. Even the capsule that I'm riding in differs from previous ones in that this baby is almost undetectable; at least, that's what they told me.
But wait. I am getting way too far ahead of myself. I actually forgot to tell you how I got myself into this mess. I'm sorry, I better get to that part first!
This story actually begins approximately two months ago, on the planet Sanctuary, a closely guarded location somewhere in the outer edges of the Terran Federation. It's essentially a major staging area for both the Navy and the M.I. Imported flora and fauna from Earth surround Espiritu Santo, the capital city. I guess our know-it-all psych ops people had decided that since the military spends so much time on other planets, some might tend to miss Earth too much and so they had decided that if they can't bring us to Earth, why not bring a little of Earth to us. Anyway, here I was, taking a break from the usual intensive training that they like to give operators like myself and enjoying the many recreational parks in the area. It was a time to celebrate. After all, the Bug War was over, and we had won.
After buying myself a tall drink of pineapple squash (I'm not sure if this was real pineapple or just an imitation but I really didn't care at that point) along one of the many stalls along Churchill Road, I then run into an old batch mate of mine from Currie, Lieutenant Robert Mkwala. He was apparently lounging along as well, his M.I. uniform sprouted quite a bit of medals, most probably from the Klendathu Campaign.
"Gietz! It's been a long time! How are you?" Mkwala gave his usual, big-toothed grin and shook my hand.
"Not bad at all. I think my training cycle is just about finished and so they are going to be shipping me out again." I answered.
Mkwala gave me a puzzled look. "I suppose your unit hasn't heard that the war is over?"
"Oh they know it's over all right, but you don't really know my unit."
Mkwala looked me over and noticed that I wasn't even wearing a uniform and my hair was longer than regulation. "Come to think of it. What unit are you with these days? Last time I heard, you served as a personal bodyguard to Major Xera. But that was over a year ago."
At that moment my personal communicator beeped. I was saved. "Oops! Sorry, I've got to get going." With that, I got up from the patio chair and proceeded to walk briskly.
"There's an old Irish saying Gietz, may you be in heaven an hour before the devil knows you're dead!" Mkwala shouted as I left the park.
After a brisk walk back to the M.I. compound, I quickly grabbed an air-bike ride to the outskirts of Espiritu Santo. It was there that I met the ones from my unit that, like me, had an unrealistic thought that we were going to take it easy from this point on. Boy, were we wrong.
Although the M.I. and the Navy both have their headquarters in Espiritu Santo itself, there is another HQ, quite far to the south. Despite the fact that no civilian knows the location of Sanctuary, almost no one in the military knows about Shangri-La. Don't ask me why they named our base Shangri-La, apparently it refers to a hidden paradise from an old Earth novel. I can tell you one thing though; Shangri-La Base on Sanctuary is anything but a paradise.
As we leapt out from our transport and walked through carefully guarded gates into a smallish, unobtrusive bunker that jutted out from under the foliage; I had a sinking feeling that this would be the last I would see of Sanctuary for a while, at least.
Once you actually got underground, Shangri-La presented you with a whole different world. Deep inside these man-made caverns were testing facilities, intelligence rooms, counter-intelligence rooms, debriefing rooms, special weapons training rooms, interrogation rooms, alien containment rooms, special talent headquarters, neodog infiltrator rooms, neodog assault unit rooms and ad naseum. From what I've told you so far, it seems that this base housed special warfare units that the Federation doesn't openly like to advertise.
Although my personal information, if anybody does try to do research on moi, states that I am officially attached to the Mobile Infantry. That is true, to a point. Although I did my basic training in Camp Currie, just like most every other cap trooper out there, the powers that be decided that on the strength of my aptitude test scores, I was destined to do work that most cap troopers would sneer at: dirty work. From then on, I was shoved off into a special commando school where they made me twice as lethal as your ordinary cap trooper (which by itself is almost as lethal as any human being would come) and then shipped me off as a personal bodyguard to the Mobile Infantry's most valuable senior officers whenever they made a combat drop into enemy territory. I can tell you a lot of hair-raising stories from Operation Bughouse but that would be for another time. Anyway, after I had a number of "intense" field experiences under my belt, they sent me to another school where I learned other things in war aside from just knowing how to kill things. And by then, I was a fully fleshed out Special Forces operator.
As far as my unit goes, we have had many names. The Navy people call us Pathfinders since some of our missions entail us to drop onto enemy-held worlds before the rest of the M.I. comes knocking. The M.I. guys call us Commandos, since we are trained to operate as individuals or in very small independent units, far from any support. There were some reports in the civilian press that even referred to us as Assassins due to the fact that we were allowed to keep our hair long and was therefore able to blend in with the civilian population. Some of the guys in my unit designate themselves Green Berets or S.A.S. from the old special-forces units used by us humans during our tumultuous past, but me, I just call myself a handyman.
The next thing I know, I'm sitting in a small auditorium with the rest of the men from my unit. Now, I'm used to seeing a lot of mean-looking people in my line of work but this guy, who happened to be coming up to speak at the podium, was one of the meanest son of a guns I've ever seen. As he turned his chiseled face to peer in our direction, I instantly noticed him. I'm sure everyone else did. He was our new commanding officer; our previous Captain had bought the farm on the Klendathu Campaign. Although this new guy came in with quite a reputation as a premier combat infantryman and leader, the rest of us felt that the powers that be should have promoted someone from inside the unit rather than bringing in an outsider. Of course, we kept this to ourselves, for now anyway.
"Gentlemen, recent intelligence reports of a possible sighting of a lost Pseudo-Arachnid colony have been confirmed." The Captain began.
We did hear rumors that despite the fact that we exterminated all the Bugs on this side of the galaxy, there had been some rumblings from the Skinny intelligence networks of a Bug colony that was never found. If such a thing were indeed true, a Bug colony would multiply within a few years to the point that their empire would be reborn and smash us into oblivion.
Our Captain continued. "On the direct orders of the Sky Marshal, all special operations units will immediately go on full alert. Your mission is to locate this colony. Once the location has been confirmed, the navy task force will nova bomb all Arachnid infested planets."
"We have narrowed the search to several star systems in the Orion Constellation. You will each be dropped in pairs on every planet in that sector. Remember, we need a confirmation." The Captain explained.
No one in the audience said anything. The entire room was as silent as a graveyard. But of course its not like we were scared or anything like that, we were more angry than scared, angry that our vacation on Sanctuary just ended.
"One other thing I would like to add people, you will be issued new special equipment for this mission." With those words, The Captain pulled out a remote controller and activated the vid-screen.
The computer generated image stared back at us. It looked like an M.I. powered suit, though albeit slightly modified.
"That gentlemen is the Ninja Mark II. It is the latest in the long line of powered armor models that so proved itself during the last war."
Well they finally improved on the old steel gorilla. At least our scientists were doing something for once. I always thought that every braniac that ever got into Federal service did nothing but fiddle with his calculator and drink java while the real people like us did all the work.
The Captain was clearly on a roll now. "You may remember that in the last campaign you boys were either issued a Scout or modified Command suit with extra power units for increased range. You may be happy to note that our tech boys on Earth have finally made an armor that would be specifically suited for your talents. The Ninja may not pack enough firepower as our universally famous Marauder suits but it can hold its own. It has about the same mobility as a Scout suit but it also has the added communications and tracking gear of a Command model. But what makes this baby so special is that it has got stealth systems onboard to prevent the enemy from identifying and tracking you; that's why you see that it rather looks more streamlined than in previous models. Now I have tested this suit personally and I can tell you it works. But of course, this doesn't mean that you should get careless, though I shouldn't have to be telling you guys that."
He sure didn't. This new CO of ours might have been one of the best combat officers the M.I. ever had to offer but when it came to us, he would have to earn his chevrons all over again.
The rest of the speech pretty much covered the usual, like which pair would go where as well as insertion and extraction procedures. Each and every one of us had served in at least over three dozen different operations of this sort over the past several years and so the rest of the briefing looked pretty much routine.
That night, as I was packing my bags to get shipped out to our orbital base, one of my old mates, Li-Kew Chang, came in to my room.
"Hey, Aus. Pretty much good to go?" Chang asked.
Unlike the spit and polish Navy, we were pretty loose about rank and stuff. Everybody in the unit went by nicknames and first names except the CO. He was still so new that we weren't sure if he would bust us for insubordination or something.
"Yeah, as soon as I can fit my Y-rack into this little-bitty night bag, I'll be all set." I answered.
Chang laughed. "Oh Aus, still the joker. Let me ask you a question. Do you think that this Captain of ours will let us down in this operation?"
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"Oh nothing. Its just, well, you know we have been a tight little unit and all. Our former Captain was pretty much close to each and every one of us. This new CO of ours seems to be quite detached. I haven't seen him socialize with a single member of the team. He seems to keep to himself mostly." Chang explained.
"Well, maybe its cause he's shy or something." I speculated.
Chang frowned. "I don't think so. I betcha he's either scared of us or he is hiding something. I don't trust anyone whom I haven't been around with at least two years you know."
"Well, I don't trust anyone period."
"Not even poor little old me?" Chang winked.
"Jerk. Well anyway, good luck. Whose your partner on this one?"
"Torgerson." I sighed.
Chang rolled his eyes. "Oh man, not BTB Torgerson? Oh well, I feel sorry for you, blighter."
"Get lost, willya!"
In regards to troop transports, the smallest Navy ship that the Mobile Infantry uses is the corvette, which in itself can carry one platoon of cap troopers. In Special Forces, we prefer to use even smaller ships due to the fact that we operate as smaller units with almost no support and occasionally drop into the enemy's back yard. When we requested this many years ago, the Navy went nuts, it would mean that they would have to design new ships, at great cost, and assign a small team of pilots, again at great cost, in order to accommodate our needs. Of course, during that time we weren't sure we were going to win the war and so the Navy acquiesced; and as the story goes, to their eternal regret.
The ship that carried Torgerson, the two Navy pilots and me was officially classified as a scout due to its size. Now, scout ships are used by the Navy for mostly exploration and long-ranged patrol; but in our case, the Navy modified half a dozen of these maneuverable little craft to suit our needs. They had added stealth systems to make us less noticeable to planetary sensors as well as placing launch tubes just before the aft thrusters for combat drops. These little scout ships function as retrieval boats as well since they are small enough to enter the atmosphere. With modified fuel tanks and an engine taking up most of her mass, these versatile little ships could take us anywhere in Federation space as well as what was once Bug space.
Now that I told you the good stuff about these scout ships, here's the rub: they are cramped as hell. With no more than two very tiny staterooms, an even tinier galley/mess hall and a storage room that happens to be mostly taken up by two launch tubes and equipment, it is definitely not a pleasure cruise. If you want my advice, you better be on good terms with the Navy pilots since you practically share every room, even the single, overworked toilet! Since we can operate on these types of arrangements for months at a time, making planetfall is actually a godsend to both sides: the Navy people get more room and we get to hop around in the wide, open spaces of enemy controlled worlds. Well, maybe its not totally a great thing to us, but it does brighten up a Navy puke's day.
After about six weeks on Cherenkov drive, we were close to the Orion Constellation. While one of the Navy pilots was manning the helm and the other probably snoring in her bunk, BTB Torgerson and I went through an operational planning session in the wardroom. BTB stood for "by the book" due to the fact that Torgerson was more rigid in reliance to operational planning and would rarely deviate from his mission orders. Of all of us he was probably the most conventional and wasn't too much into individual initiative and creative thinking, hence his nickname. But don't let that reputation fool you, this blond haired giant was all muscle because he would work out practically every hour, inventing an exercise with which to push his body into the upper stratosphere of human limits; and not to mention that he was absolutely fearless.
Planning sessions have an air of democratized anarchy. What I mean by this is that unlike the M.I. which sets up a plan which is dictated by the most senior officers in its unit as opposed to our planning sessions in which everyone gets a say. Our meetings essentially end up as a free-for-all. One guy would present his plan and another would say, "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard." which would provoke intense arguments over to who is right. Some outsiders who listen in might think that we would get up, get into martial-arts stances and duke it out. Well, that has happened more than once in my experience.
BTB Torgerson looked over the planet's map and said. "I say we could do a close orbital drop just below the northern pole. From there, we could have our first supply drop just below the equator as our initial rendezvous."
"I think its better that we just get a soft landing from the scout craft, that way we won't have to expend any capsules, not much chance of having a bad drop." I countered.
"No way. If the Bugs have orbital defenses we could get shot out of the sky."
"But the Navy has already done a preliminary reconnaissance over the planet several weeks ago. They would have spotted any Bug orbital defenses then."
Torgerson was adamant. "What if the Bugs wanted to stay hidden until ground forces came up, huh? We could be sitting ducks out there. Use your head."
Although Torgerson's rank was officially a Master Sergeant and I was a Second Lieutenant, I let the obvious insult go. After all, guys in our unit never cared much for rank. We transcended rank. We were trained to act and think for ourselves. What was pretty much gut instinct in our part came from years of experience. We could pretty much do what we liked to do as long as we got our job done. Some big shots in the M.I. and Navy held us in contempt due to our frequent insubordinations and unconventional way of doing things. But in our opinion, we just cut through the red tape and all that silly stuff about serving humanity for the greater good. We did this because we wanted to be part of the best, we wanted to push ourselves to the limit to see just how hard our mind and body would take us. Although we did get into trouble as a whole every once in awhile, our sterling reputation in combat and the ability to get the toughest jobs done, gave us a bit of an insulation for those clamoring to break us up.
I guess that's always been that way. There has always been a traditional rivalry between conventional forces and unconventional ones within the same army. Call it competition or call it jealousy, it has been around and it will never go away. Perhaps it may be a squabbling over precious resources, which gets the better equipment, which gets the best men; it always comes to that in the end. What I can say is that we never get to do the mundane tasks that drive an ordinary cap trooper insane; we exist solely to fight. Sure, we may work to a degree, checking our personalized equipment, making sure we are ready for combat; but we never have to do the ordinary things.
Anyway, back to the story.
So the next thing I know, I am hurtling through the planet's atmosphere, my capsule peeling off its layers that would act like metallic chaff to confuse any detection equipment looking up at the sky. Dropping at a planet's dark side or during nightfall helps a lot too. The drop came off without a hitch more or less, and I landed on what looked like a deserted prairie, there were some plant life on the plain that I dropped on and I could see some mountains in the distance.
To work then, the first thing I had to do was to hook up with Torgerson and then maintain a link with the scout ship. From there, we were to scout the planet for any signs of Bug activity.
I did tell you about the Bugs didn't I? Anyway, here's the bottom line, they are an intelligent race of arthropods that happen to look like giant spiders. They also have a true hive mentality, which means their castes do specialized work and nothing else. An individual Bug doesn't really think on its own; it is supervised by a brain Bug who tells it what to do by using a sort of mental telepathy. It's quite similar to the Special Talent operatives that we develop, although most humans don't really have the gift for implanting thoughts on others, brain Bugs do this for a living. We learned from Operation Royalty that if you capture or kill all the brains, the Bug colony dies. But that's the hard part, because there's about several thousand warrior Bugs who are gonna do their darnest to kill you. Bugs don't care much about individual life unlike us humans, they are more than willing to sacrifice a worker here or a warrior there as long as it means well for them in the end.
But don't get me wrong, these Bugs aren't stupid, they build starships and have weapons just like us. The Bug War was all about who was going to inherit the galaxy, it was them or us. As it turned out so far, it looked to be us. We had beaten them off every planet and finally ended the war when we wiped out their main colony on their homeworld, Klendathu. That was several months ago; then all of a sudden we began to hear rumors from military intelligence that we may not have wiped out every Bug colony. These Bugs were like pests, if just a single queen and brain had survived on a planet that we didn't know about, we would be back to square one in a matter of a few years.
After jumping around for a few hours, covering hundreds of klicks in the process, I finally run into Torgerson after picking him up on my tracker.
"Report any contacts Aus?" Torgerson asked.
"Uh-uh. Looks like there don't seem to be a bug colony on this planet."
"Let's not be too sure, we still have to investigate the Northern Latitudes." I wanted to make sure.
"Let's hop to it then." Torgerson agreed.
The hours stretched like days as we made a preliminary reconnaissance but found nothing. Other than a few acres of lichen growing on some rocks, this planet looked dead.
As we replenished our power units and oxygen canisters from a dropped supply capsule in our latest rendezvous, I began to notice that my uplink with the scout ship wasn't working. I told this immediately to Torgerson.
"Yeah, mine isn't working either. Maybe there's a magnetic disturbance or the ship may be in high orbit." Torgerson replied.
"Let's hope so. If anything happened to our extraction arrangements it would be weeks before we were declared overdue."
"Well, I think we could probably survive by eating fungus for a year." Torgerson speculated.
"That's really funny, Torgerson. I didn't know you had it in you."
"Come on, let's go."
"Where to, mon frere?" I asked.
"Let's try the base of that mountain range to the west. I got a strange reading on my internal compass when we passed it."
"Lead the way."
Another hour passed as we made our way to the base of the range. It looked like the sun was beginning to set as this side of the planet rotated away from its blood red star. By this time I was getting worried, we still were not able to make contact with the scout ship. My guts told me that something was amiss.
It happened when we were moving along the rocky base of the mountain. It was the twilight time for the planet now, as night had begun to fall. Torgerson saw it first.
"Aus, get over to my side! You're not gonna believe this." Torgerson's excited voice rattled in my ear.
I never experienced him ever getting excited like this before. "What is it?" I asked as I made my way over to him.
"Stay down." Torgerson placed his armored hand on my black metallic shoulders as I got in beside him.
"This had better be good Torgerson." I was expecting a trick of some kind but that wasn't how he normally acts.
This time he didn't say anything but rather pointed to a lichen-encrusted hillock that we were overlooking.
I had wanted to scratch my eyes but since I was in full armor I couldn't. I even adjusted my telescopic sights and even got to the point of switching on my snoopers for confirmation but every sense told me it was real.
It was a woman.
She seemed to be wearing nothing more than a white sheet as she gently laid her bare toes into a small puddle of clear water. Her jet-black hair waved in the wind like a pirate flag on a pole. Her skin was clean and pale in the early moonlight. I guessed her age to be in her early adulthood.
"Impossible! There are no human colonies this side of the galaxy." Torgerson could barely contain himself.
"Could she be part of a prospecting group perhaps?" I asked.
"Not a chance. Intelligence would have said something."
"All the sensors on my suit tell me she's real. Now what?"
"I don't know. This wasn't part of the operational plan." Torgerson was becoming himself again.
"Well, I'm going down there." I decided.
"What? You're not cleared for this! We gotta contact HQ!" Torgerson argued.
"We can't get anybody! Look, stay here and keep me covered."
Torgerson acquiesced. "Dammit, okay. I'll try to keep signaling the ship."
"Good. Here goes." I got up and sneaked around so that she wouldn't be able to tell that I came from the base of the mountain.
It took about 15 minutes threading my way so as to come at her from another direction. No sense in revealing to her that she was under observation. I finally came up behind her as she was wiping off her feet.
I activated my PA system on low volume. "Hello."
She turned and faced me.
"I mean you no harm. I'm with the Terran Federation." I held up my armored hands.
She didn't seem the least bit surprised. She just stared at my armored form, as if she was examining me. There was no shyness in her at all. I backed off a bit when she smiled; her white teeth were perfect.
I can tell you now that in all the years of my experience in war, I had never experienced this situation, encountering a beautiful girl on a supposedly deserted planet. For what seemed to be minutes on end, we just stared down each other. Finally she turned away from me, and began to walk towards the base of a mountain to the east.
"Wait." I said in plain basic.
"Maybe she doesn't understand basic?" Torgerson replied, he was monitoring our conversation.
"I don't know any other language." I answered as I began to follow her.
"Wait! We're not authorized for this!" Torgerson protested.
"Just keep me covered okay?" I snapped back.
Night had finally fallen as she walked to the base of the eastern slope. In the cool of the night, the mountain looked to be made of granite as its sides glistened in the pale evening light. As I turned a corner, hoping to catch her, I quickly saw that she had entered a mouth of a cave.
"Jesus! There's a cavern complex here!" I said to Torgerson's link.
"Okay that's it. We are gonna wait for further orders." Torgerson said as he made a jump and landed right beside me.
"I'm going in there." I was adamant.
"No you're not."
"You can't stop me. Just cover the entrance from here."
"Dammit. I don't like this."
"You don't have to, just do what I say." With those words I started going into the entrance of the cave.
The cave didn't seem to have any illumination so I activated my snoopers and it became well lighted instantly. As I started inside, ignoring Torgerson's continuous protests, I realized that the cave seemed to have branched out into a series of tunnels. That was great. I didn't want to get lost in them so as I turned around to back out, I ended up face to face with the woman.
She smiled at me. At that moment the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up and I had a very bad feeling about the whole thing. I then heard three noises that I never want to associate together with again: The first noise was that of bacon frying, at the same time I heard Torgerson scream and the woman let out an ear piercing laugh. The next thing I knew Bugs were all around me. I used my arms and legs to smash quite a number of them as I fumbled to pull out my hand flamer. I was hoping to get to the entrance of the cave just as a piece of the roof caved in on me. That was the last thing I remembered before I blacked out.
I don't really remember much of what happened next. My memory is still quite cloudy and I think my mind just wants to forget about the next few hours that came after that. I guess in the smallest amount of words is that it was nothing more than one horror scene after another, being stripped of my armor, being carried on the back of a Bug worker all the while being in a daze.
It was a voice that woke me up. When I opened my eyes and began to sense as to what condition my body was in, the voice continued, it seemed to be humming a tune. As I looked around, I noticed that I was lying in a pile of rags in a smooth subterranean tunnel. I was apparently a prisoner. A human-like figure stooped over to me and offered me a bowl of liquid.
"Drink this." The figure said.
I took the bowl from his hands and sat up to get a closer look. The cavern was dimly illuminated and I could only see the outline of the figure, but as I sat up even straighter, the illumination was clearer and so I was able to see his face. That's when I nearly dropped the bowl in horror.
His face was once human, that I was sure of. But what were so unnerving were his eyes. They were bulging, multi-faceted insect eyes, like that of a housefly.
"Don't be afraid." The man said.
"Who are you?" I asked in between sipping the liquid. It tasted like water.
"I was once human, till I was taken prisoner by the Arachnids."
He had my complete attention. "Mobile Infantry?"
"Yes. I served in the Wildcats' special-weapons squad. Operation Bughouse. I was once called Garcia."
"What happened? What is this place?"
Garcia shuffled to the side and sat down. "You are in a research colony. The Arachnids shifted a few prisoners from Klendathu when they feared that it was going to be overrun."
"There was a woman." I asked.
"Ah yes, she is the byproduct of years of research on humans."
"I don't understand."
"Don't you see why the Arachnids took humans as prisoners? Just as we were curious about them so were they about us. When it became apparent that they were going to lose the war, they shifted their entire focus on researching new ways to destroy us. That woman is the pinnacle of their science. She is the first successful human-Arachnid hybrid."
"Yes, she may look human on the outside, but she is nothing more than a Bug who is controlled by the brain caste. They plan to use her as well as others like her to infiltrate and destroy the Federation from within."
As Garcia said those words, another man came into the cavern. He seemed normal looking enough, until I noticed that his forehead was twice wider than normal and his right forearm ended in a spider-like claw.
Garcia saw me stare at the other man. "We are failed experiments. Once our usefulness has been exhausted, they either kill us or keep us here for observation."
I had to ask about Torgerson. "My teammate?"
"He is dead. His body is still encased in his suit and he is in one of the trash chambers." Garcia answered nonchalantly.
I sat for awhile, wondering about my predicament. It was obvious that the Bugs were probably going to experiment on me when the time came. I never really cared much whether I was going to live or die during the war, I just felt that as long as I didn't let my team down, fate could do unto me whatever she pleases.
But now I sat there thinking. I did let my unit down. It looked like the Bugs might have shot the scout ship out of the sky and it looked very much that they would have a resurgent empire. And if that did happen, I would have let my entire species down.
As I began to observe the situation at this Bug colony, I noticed something peculiar, the Bugs seemed content to leave us alone. Although there were warriors stationed at the entrance to our series of chambers, the Bugs on the whole would let us do whatever we wished, as long as we stayed inside. I wasn't sure about any surveillance devices but so far I kept my activities non-suspicious. There were even times that I would observe worker Bugs bringing in fungus growths with which to feed us. There were also some unnerving instances in which a worker would carry away a human prisoner, some of these people would return, weak and dazed and some others would never be seen again.
For the next few days I sized up the situation. There were maybe a couple hundred human prisoners that were failed experiments. Garcia seemed to be the unofficial leader. If I was going to do something I would need to convince him, before it was too late.
I took him aside one day and said. "Garcia, I need your help."
His faceted eyes looked down at the chamber floor. "What for? We have been forgotten by humans and all we ask now is that the Brain caste orders our execution soon."
I kept at it. "Garcia, had the Federation known about this, we would not have stopped looking for you people. You must believe me."
Garcia sat down and began weeping, his multi-faceted eyes could not shed tears, but I still knew it. "All I want now is to die. There is nothing left for the rest of us."
"What about humanity, Garcia? Will you let them die too?"
Perhaps it was his old duties coming back to him. But whatever the case, I had touched a nerve on him.
"What can we do?" He asked.
"I will need to get to Torgerson's armor and make it to the surface. Can you provide a diversion so I could get to the trash chamber?" I asked.
Garcia clutched my hand. "Many of us will die, even if we succeed."
"Many more will die if we do not try." I countered.
"And how do you propose to do this? Even if we decide to fight, we have no weapons and no armor, we will be slaughtered for no purpose."
"Think, Garcia. Remember what was taught to you even before the day you became a fully-fledged Mobile Infantryman. It is not the weapons which make us deadly, it is you." I explained.
And so Garcia called the others and they formed a small semi-circle to hear me out. There seemed to be about a dozen of them, my guess is that they were representatives of the entire prisoner population, each one had been an officer in either the Navy or M.I. and there were a few civilian leaders who had been captured in Bug raids on our colonies. They were all apparently failed experiments; one man did not have a humanoid digestive system and could only eat liquid soup, another had a set of spider-like legs growing from his back and yet another had his body covered in an insect-like carapace. I could feel the hopelessness in the air, these people had lost a part of their humanity, many were afraid that they would never be accepted back into Federation society even if they were rescued. I knew that I had to convince them to rise up and fight; otherwise, the Federation was doomed.
I am not really one for making long speeches, I guess I probably won't be a politician when and if I ever get my franchise; but I did go through officer candidate school, I was a 2nd Lieutenant after all, but then again, I was speaking to a number of ex-officers themselves.
My speech began with a current events lecture, I stated to them that we had practically won the war and we were rooting out the remaining Bug colonies. I told them it would just be a matter of time till this colony was discovered and nova bombed. As I paused for feedback, I could see that the Bug experiments on them also made them somewhat docile and helpless. A number of them argued about lack of weapons and the general hopelessness of the situation. Despite the fact that Garcia was with me, I knew I had to win them over. I had to make them understand what it meant to be human and to recover their sense of duty.
Although it started to become very similar to a History and Moral Philosophy lecture, the entire discussion had a very serious air to it. We all knew what the stakes were. I asked them what would our species would be like if the Bugs had conquered us. Could they imagine clemency from the Arachnids? Which would be better, victory or defeat?
"What makes a man special? What makes humans so unique? Let me tell you, it is our capacity to think and to sacrifice our lives in the line of duty so that our children and our children's children can live in a better world. You say you are tired? That you have done your best and made your sacrifice? I will not contend that. But what I can say is that our actions here will determine the fate of those unborn children in our beloved Federation. All I ask is that if you are to die, then at least die for a cause. And that cause is your species, your blood. Will the friends and loved ones who had died in the war; will they have died in vain? If we do not do something now, in a few years the Arachnids will have regained their empire and the war will begin again. I cannot force you to help me, all I can do is to make you realize that I am not just fighting for myself, but for the entire fate of humanity." With those final words, I stopped talking.
They seemed to murmur to themselves and then they broke up to confer with their groups in the adjoining chambers. It would probably take some time till a consensus was reached.
As I lay in my cot to rest, I hoped that I had touched a nerve of those people; otherwise, I would have to do this alone. My eyes were open and I could barely see within the dim illumination of the chamber when a shadow fell over me.
It was the woman.
I could tell that she wasn't alone. At the corner of my eye, I could see a part of a Bug's leg; warriors were close by, ready to defend her in case I made a hostile move. Had the Bugs found out about our impending revolt? Was there a spy in our midst? If they had pinpointed me as the ringleader, would they put me to death? My palms and forehead became drenched with sweat as she stared at me.
"I know you are awake." With a voice like honeysuckle, she spoke.
I knew I had to answer or face death. "Yes."
Her figure towered above me. As usual, she was dressed in nothing but a white sheet; it didn't matter at this point, the human prisoners like myself were dressed in nothing but rags and bits of cloth. I had a sense of utter helplessness.
When she spoke, her accent and syntax was perfect. "Do not be alarmed. No harm will come to you. The brain caste will not permit it."
"So you will not experiment on me then?" I asked.
"Our experiments are over. Please do not speak of that again. It was a necessary task that we needed to do."
"Very well. What is it that you wish of me then?"
"As I have said, no harm will come to you. We need an intact human in order to begin negotiations."
I sat up due to the fact that my fear had subsided and was now replaced by curiosity. "Negotiations? For what?"
"We no longer wish to fight against your species. You can have this part of the galaxy. All that we wish now is to be left in peace. We need a negotiator; someone who can bring our message to your leaders." She said.
"And how do I know that this is a genuine offer?" I asked.
For the first time, I could see the rage in her eyes. It was as if the collective hive had been enraged. "You will have no choice. Tell your leaders to either accept it or face complete destruction. We have new weapons that will bring your species to its knees. You have until two rotations to decide if you would want to deliver this message to your leaders. Already a sizable faction in the brain caste wishes to unleash our new weapons against your species. You do not have much time."
With those parting words, she left my side and walked out of the chamber.
Two rotations. That meant two days. I needed to get a message out to our military and nova bomb this planet before the Bugs could begin their offensive.
Sensing that there was no time to lose, I got up from my cot and stepped into an adjoining chamber where Garcia lay sleeping. I woke him up by tugging at his arm.
"Garcia, you must tell the others that they must decide on this revolt quickly. The Bugs are planning an offensive in two days." I told him.
"Two days? Even if the others agree, we will not be ready." He answered.
"Then I will go it alone." I was set.
"Wait, let me confer with the others." With those words, he got up and proceeded to hold another meeting.
As they were conferring in the adjoining chambers, I quickly took stock of my meager weapons. A few days before I had fashioned a makeshift knife and spear from the scraps of metal found in some of the adjoining trash chambers and hid them in the recesses of my chamber. All though these crude weapons were a poor substitute for a powered suit, I didn't have much choice. It would probably take a precise thrust to the Bug's nerve case; it wouldn't kill the Bug but it would sever its link to the brain caste and consequently it would just run in a straight line until it would crash into a wall or something. Workers we could probably ignore if we had a chance but we would have to kill every warrior we would find, a daunting task indeed.
A valuable piece of Bug intelligence I heard from the prisoners is that when a bug colony isn't under attack, most of the brains spend their time sleeping. Only one or two brains would be active at any time, mostly directing workers to harvest food or to maintain the colony. A reserve brain handles the warriors who guard the perimeter of the colony from possible outside threats. Therefore, an internal revolt from within had a chance to succeed if both brains were either distracted or neutralized; a few minutes respite would be sufficient as it would take some time for the other brains to wake up and deal with the emergency.
Based on years of painful observation and experience from the patterns of the activity within the colony, the prisoners were able to deduce which brain was controlling the activities of the workers and warriors and most importantly, their locations. But since these brain chambers were heavily guarded, the team that would be tasked to neutralize them would essentially be a suicide mission.
These thoughts were in my head as the group of leaders gathered around me. This was it.
It was Garcia who spoke for all. "We are with you."
A sense of joy and sadness permeated my body as I placed my hand on each shoulder. They knew they were going to die, but at least they would die trying to do what they had accepted to do a long time ago. It was all about duty and honor.
With no time to spare, we quickly began to plan the operation. The main team with Garcia and myself would try to disable the guards around the trash chamber. From there, the prisoners would hold off any bug counter attack while I activated the armor. Another team would neutralize the brains that were supervising the active workers and warriors. Although the latter operation was not wholly necessary, a few minutes of respite would dramatically increase our chances of success. The suicide team knew this and we had no shortage of volunteers.
But what was even more important was that several prisoners had in their possession a few tanglefoot gas bombs that they salvaged from the trash heaps. Although a "Tanglefoot" gas cloud wouldn't kill a Bug, it would give them a sort of shaking palsy, it interferes with their nervous system somehow and slows down their reaction times dramatically. We gave most of the bombs to the suicide teams and kept a few for ourselves. This was going to be close no matter what.
Most of the prisoners were military people anyway, although not all. I quickly taught them about Bug anatomy, especially the location of the Bug's nerve case and the techniques on where to target it. The rest of the time we waited, readying our makeshift weapons and counting down the time until the specific brains would be active and the rest were asleep.
Just as the hour was upon us, one of the men, a man with ostrich-like legs that resembled a grasshopper's, spoke to me.
"When you do make it to the surface Lieutenant, please remember us." Was all he said.
Since I couldn't find the words, I merely nodded. He seemed to understand this and moved out with the suicide team.
The Bugs were not expecting an internal revolt and so they were slow to respond. Our squads had made it into the central trash chamber with practically no one to oppose us. We had noticed a few workers shifting debris around the chamber but there also was a possibility that they were warriors. It is quite hard to tell a worker from warrior; we would always base it on their reactions, if it came at you, it was a warrior, if it didn't then it was a worker. In this case however, we could ill afford any chances, we had to take them all out.
Using hand signals, we had pre-positioned our squads along the main entranceways leading to the central trash chamber. Garcia headed one squad and I the other. I was firmly in the middle and not allowed to lead the way due to the fact that I was the only human that hadn't been experimented on and naturally the person that had to be the most protected. I wasn't quite sure what to think in regards to the men around me; men who were prepared to lay down their lives for me yet I could not return the favor when the time came. If this was to succeed then I had to survive no matter what the cost to them. That very fact made me feel guilty and helpless in the shadow of fate.
One of the point men returned and whispered to me that he spotted about a dozen or so Bugs in the chamber. I told my squad to choose their targets carefully; two men per Bug so in case one man missed the nerve case, the other one would hopefully get it. Once the men had chosen their individual targets I shouted at them to open fire.
All the bugs inside the chamber either fell on their backs and twitched their legs up in the air and then lay still or they started running around in crazy circles. We quickly moved into the chamber and speared the ones that were still moving.
"Hurry now!" Garcia said to me as the men began to set up defenses at the entryways.
I quickly began to dig through the trash with my bare hands until I finally located Torgerson's suit. Using the tools on his belt I began to remove the body from its armored sarcophagus; the stench was terrible but the task was not alien to me; I had done this before.
Precious minutes passed and I could hear some shouting and explosions on the far side of the chamber; it seemed to me that the suicide squads had begun to engage the warriors that were guarding the brains. I bit my lip as I tried to work as fast as I could.
As I began to make some power tests on the suit after I had removed the corpse, a few Bugs jumped into the north entranceway and started firing before quickly being brought down by the squad positioned along the ceiling of the chamber. It was not easy however, as several men were nonetheless lost.
Garcia instructed the men to deploy the tanglefoot bombs all along the entranceways as I got a positive reading on the suit power grid. Apparently there was still power on the suit though a number of systems were damaged. As I quickly began to don the armor, the bugs made a concerted push into the tunnel again but their legs became wobbly when they passed through the tanglefoot gas. The men made short work of them without taking casualties this time.
There was a large gaping hole on the left side of my back but otherwise the armor was functional. I quickly began a diagnostic routine with the hopes of getting some weapons online. At that moment the Bugs began to recover and thought we were becoming a dangerous nuisance. This time worker Bugs poured through all of the entranceways as both decoys and cannon fodder before being followed in by the warriors.
The next few minutes became a chaotic, swirling melee as men with spears and knives attempted to close with the nearest Bug and the warrior Bugs began firing indiscriminately at anything that moved. Within a few seconds, piles of corpses that were once men and Arachnids lay strewn all over the chamber floor. About less than half a dozen men remained standing. One of them was Garcia.
"We need to go now! Where to?" I shouted as I was now suited up.
"This way!" Garcia shouted as we hurriedly began to move to an eastern tunnel.
More Bugs began to pop out at the other entrances and two more men got cut in half from their beam weapons but we made it out into the tunnel. A few Bugs came out in pursuit as I burned them down with the still functioning flamer on my suit.
Many of the prisoners were killed but Garcia and a few others as well as I made it to the surface. The remaining survivors formed a defensive line around the hole, preparing to spear any Bug that came out of it.
"Hurry, there is a crevasse behind that rock." Garcia pointed to a landmark to the north.
I turned to face him. "What about you?"
"It was already too late for me my friend. But thank you for making me remember my duty." He smiled.
I nodded and made for the crevasse. I didn't look back.
As I got into the crevasse, I activated the emergency beacon as well as the ship's tracker to see if I could get a bead on it. When the sensors came back with the information I needed, I knew I had to go back into the tunnels.
The Bugs had shot the scout ship out of the sky all right; they carried the ships' power-plant back into their tunnels. Since the scout was fusion powered, all I needed to do was detonate it in the heart of the colony. So I went back in using another hole.
Using the snoopers and stealth systems to avoid warrior patrols, I had made it into one of their larger chambers. There were a few Bug warriors guarding the chamber but I flamed them quickly. I ripped open the engine casing and immediately set the power-plant to overload as fast as I could; the brains were probably alerting more warriors now.
I felt a pressure on my shoulder and I quickly turned around and came face to face with the visor of the Captain.
"Come on, let's go!" He shouted.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I asked.
"When your ship didn't report in I knew something was up. I followed your tracking beacon here when you activated it. Come on, the task force will be nova bombing this planet soon enough." He began to make his way out.
And then he hesitated. Less than a meter away was the woman. She held her hand out to him, as if to say that they should stop and talk things over.
"She's a Bug!" I shouted.
The Captain recovered his senses quickly and toasted her without breaking his stride. I followed and ran into a few Bug warriors. We both incinerated them and jumped out unto the planet's surface that was crawling with Bugs. Grabbing my suit by the belt, we jumped as one and used our jump juice lavishly. By sheer luck we made it into the waiting retrieval boat in several dozen long leaps.
As we made our way up, I could see the nova bombs being deployed by the Navy battlewagons. I guess we could rate this operation a success.
Well, I can honestly tell you that it was one of the weirdest operations I was ever involved in. We had a few more after that but none was as harrowing as that one. Eventually I retired from the constant workload to enjoy my franchise. I never forgot about those men that gave up their lives to help me and I wrote letters to all their dependents. When writing letters like this, you tell them what you always tell them; that their sons and daughters died as heroes in the service of the Federation. In this case, it was the truth.
Oh yeah, one last thing. Although I hated the Captain when I first met him, he earned my respect after that operation. He was a first class leader and I never doubted the decisions of the powers that be that placed him in to command our unit from then on. When I first heard of his reputation, I doubted it and wanted to see for myself. Well, he definitely proved it to me. I guess I never told you his name before didn't I?
His name is Zim.