by James Bright
In a distant future, Capt. Richard Hargrove and a computer technician, Erik Johansen, are on an interstellar scouting mission. Hargrove had commanded an expedition in which Erik’s older brother, Roger, was killed two years earlier. Hargrove blames himself for Roger’s death, but Erik sees it rather differently. In the end, loyalties must come to terms with justice.
Two Years Ago:
The ground near Hargrove’s Armored Legion erupted and a giant worm burst forth. Its front end landed next to the hole it had carved, and its mouth opened, unleashing a platoon of Cricket soldiers onto the small valley the soldiers were resting in.
Without a thought everyone in the valley opened fire, shredding Crickets and taking fist-sized chunks out of the worm before it retreated. Slipping between torn-up carcasses of Crickets, the Armored unit ran to the edge of the wormhole and peeked down with their sensors. Nothing was visible except a neatly smooth tunnel, so Hargrove sent a squad down nice and slow to investigate.
The soldiers hit the bottom of the hole, looked up, and told Hargrove, “All clear.” The attack had been a surprise, considering the war up to this point had been mostly space-based, leaving both sides in a vacuum about the other’s infantry. Subterranean carrier units, that would be something for the boys and girls back home to chew on.
Hargrove ordered his squad to stay in place and monitor the tunnel while fanning out his other soldiers to survey the area around the valley. If the worm hole led to the enemy leader, it would be a nice surprise entrance for an attack, but that was a big if. It could just as easily lead to a barracks.
If the enemies were sending soldiers after them, they obviously expected the armored unit to attack the cave entrances. Hargrove decided to take a gamble on surprising them and ordered everyone to dive into the tunnel instead.
One squad at a time, the remaining fifteen soldiers jumped down the hole and landed behind their comrades. Hargrove’s personal squad took up the center as the unit started marching in hostile territory formation: scouts ahead and to the sides to distract enemies until the main force could strike with everything they had. The tunnel was wide enough for six soldiers to march abreast without touching, so there was plenty of room for the scouts to move.
The tunnel went straight ahead for three hundred meters before curving right. As soon as the unit reached the curve, they hid by the wall and looked around the corner with periscopes. The tunnel seemed to extend in that direction for another hundred meters before reaching a large opening, so two scouts inched closer to get a better look.
The scouts fed their data recordings back to Hargrove so he could see through their eyes. What they saw couldn’t be described better than as an enormous underground hangar wriggling with the transport worms and Cricket soldiers.
The hangar was better lit than an underground space should be, and a faint sound explained exactly why. The space really was a hangar, with top-open doors for ships to fly into, and three large flying transports were using it right at that moment.
The unit realized exactly what they were looking at: the preparations for an invasion fleet complete with ground forces. Hargrove took a moment to let the new surroundings sink in. His soldiers were the first to see an enemy staging ground, and he didn’t want to waste the moment.
The faint noise grew louder and more carriers became visible; it was surely an invasion army of some sort. Hargrove’s platoon watched the ships gather, and knew they had to do something about this.
Bracing himself inside, Hargrove turned to Johansen and ordered, “Make contact with our warships above and tell them about this. Bring this place down around that army’s ears, antennae, whatever they have. Don’t let them leave here alive.”
Johansen nodded and whispered, “Yes, sir,” before slipping quietly back to the tunnel entrance.
Hargrove kept scanning the hangar through the eyes of his scouts, looking for clandestine ways down so they could get on with their own mission. Surely it would take time for the ships above to rain hell down on this place, hopefully time enough for the platoon to snake out of this tunnel and into the enemy’s main base.
Within minutes Johansen was back beside Hargrove, giving the thumbs up “job’s done” signal. Hargrove saw a path that wound down into the hangar, but there were too many enemies flying in the sky above. They would have to wait for the fleet to take care of this mess. Hargrove and his warriors sat to watch the enemy, keeping on their guard in case someone decided to use the tunnel.
For a half hour the soldiers watched carriers land and load bugs — worms and Crickets — aboard. Hargrove set his view to keep track of enemy eyes, painting the air in the hangar blood-red as enemy lines of sight filled the room, including the path he had thought of using to get down and past the hangar. It wouldn’t work.
Suddenly a static hiss was felt through the air, pinging off the suits and seemingly off of the ships, as every enemy stopped what it was doing and looked up. A blazing light lanced through the hangar, incinerating everything in sight.
The suits blotted out the light, leaving everything dark for the soldiers in the tunnel. When it cleared, the rock floors in the hangar looked molten red, and there was nothing left of the enemy.
With heat sensors wide open, a scout was sent closer to check whether the walk down would be survivable. She skidded down the rocks and landed on the path Hargrove had thought of before, surviving the trip. The rocks had cooled fairly quickly.
The warship above must had launched a low radius sun-bomb to destroy the enemies, so any radiation to hit the rocks would have been small to begin with. Only the armor had kept Hargrove’s troops alive.
One after another, the rest of the platoon slid down the rocks, and started onward, still in hostile territory formation. They found another large tunnel, this one more formal, not just some wormhole. It looked like nothing other than an underground palace out of some dwarf story.
Looking to the left and right, the soldiers saw pillars to hide behind, and slunk through the tunnel, running from pillar to pillar by squads, making their way quickly to the other side. There was a closed door that spanned the far wall from floor to ceiling. The soldiers stood beside it when they made their way there. Hargrove looked up to see a hinge above him, in proportion to the rest of the door.
Hargrove ordered his soldiers to take cover behind some pillars. He pulled out a sticky grenade, rocket-jumped up to the hinge and slapped the grenade into the hinge before falling back to the ground. Within seconds the grenade went off, pulverizing the inner workings of the hinge and blowing it apart, sending slivers everywhere.
Hanging on one hinge, the door started to sag before pulling away from its mate and swinging haphazardly open. With the doorway clear, Hargrove snuck a peek through and saw a large chamber faced with doors on every wall. It seemed to be a central hub. The platoon went through, creeping along from hiding place to hiding place, looking around.
In the center of the room was a pool of what looked to be green water. Hargrove wasn’t sure what to make of this, but as the soldiers got closer, sparks started emanating from the pool. The water oozed up and took shape, forming a person.
Everyone in the platoon had seen the footage from ships contacted by the Conglomerate. They knew they were looking at an Amoeboid, but this was their first time seeing them in anything but human form. It was creepy, seeing that water form a humanoid shape.
What little data there was on the Amoeboids had shown them to be highly electric, so a strategy had been devised for killing one: overload. Hopefully by overcharging the creature they could take it out like a transformer, so the suits were outfitted with projectile electric generators that could fire a stream of sparks into a target.
Pointing at the enemy, Hargrove ordered into his mic, “There’s the target, everyone. Get it!” and fired off an electric jolt into the pile of ooze before him, lighting it up like a Christmas tree as a sympathetic spark reaction occurred within the beast.
A stray burst came off of the Amoeboid and struck Johansen’s armor, sparking off of him. Everyone except Johansen joined in, shooting lightning into the beast, trying to fry its internal circuitry.
All of a sudden the Amoeboid grew brighter, as if a powerful ray was welling up inside of it. Unsure of what to do, Hargrove ordered his soldiers to hold their fire and run back to take cover. Johansen, standing like a statue, had never fired off a shot, nor spoken. Hargrove kept calling him over the speakers, but to no avail. The lightning bolt had fried his suit, leaving him unable to talk or move. His internal sensors were down so no one could even tell if he was alive or not.
Hargrove reached out and grabbed Johansen’s suit, trying to pull him along. Johansen’s dead weight slowed Hargrove down, even with the augmented strength of his suit, and the internal glow of the Amoeboid was steadily increasing. Hargrove figured if Johansen wasn’t already dead, he would be shortly if they stuck around.
He took one last look at the monster, whose body seemed to burn like radioactive lava, and said, “I’ll miss you. old friend.” He let go of Johansen, grabbed the communications array from his back, and ordered his troops “Run like hell!”
The Armored Legion unit left at a dead run as sparks flew from the Amoeboid, hitting the rock walls all around, and licking at Johansen’s suit again. Hargrove sincerely hoped his communications specialist was already dead, or else he was about to be in for a few seconds of sheer agony.
The lead scout ran back through the tunnel and up the path they’d taken to get down earlier without missing a beat. Reaching the wall they’d had to skid, they rocket-leaped up to the worm hole and kept running. Everyone followed suit. They could hear explosions in the background, getting closer, and they weren’t sure whether they were from the Amoeboid or some unseen horde headed their way. They didn’t intend to stick around and find out.
Reaching the upward tunnel the enemy worm had formed when attacking them, the lead three scouts shot handholds through the ground and rocket-jumped from one to another all the way up the forty-foot cliff. Once they made it to the top, they helped their brothers and sisters in arms until everyone was on solid ground, then ran back the way they’d come, putting as much ground between themselves and the explosions as they could. The ground was shaking at this point.
Once they were ten miles from the enemy leader, they stopped just in time to see flames lick the sky and a mushroom cloud appear. The shockwave that followed threw everyone to the ground, and they rolled to cover in the cliff faces, hoping they’d take the brunt of any aftershocks.
When the explosion had passed, Hargrove slid the com-array onto his back, synched it to his suit, and stood up. He walked out into the valley they’d been running through, and looked up to see the sky full of dust particles from the explosion. He knew they’d have to make their way out from under this cloud on foot, they were lucky to be alive. At least, those who were.
Hargrove took this time to have everyone check in, and saw that five others besides Johansen had ended up at least missing in action, though more likely killed. He bent over, finally allowing the day’s exhausting runs to take their toll on him, and thanked the Gods he hadn’t lost more. “Fifteen minute break, then we need to find a place we can make contact from.”
Copyright © 2013 by James Bright