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.
Epilogue II: Conglomerate Flagship Zenith
“Dag, these things are everywhere!” Private Gant yelled as he fired off a three-round burst at a Nagleth, another warrior race in the Conglomerate. The creatures looked like the bipedal bastard children of lions and lizards, with the rocky-hard compound eyes of a trilobite thrown in for good measure. While the seven-foot tall Crickets were the Conglomerate’s ground forces, the man-sized Nagleths were their Marines.
“What did you expect, Private? This is a Flagship. for crying out loud.” Lance Corporal Robins yelled back. “The only place you’d expect more Marines would be in a damn troop ship.”
“GYAAAARRRRRR” Robins shouted as he shot another squad of Nagleth to pieces. “Back! Get behind the corner, there’s just too many of them coming at us here.” A flurry of ion pellets spattered off the wall behind Robins as if to punctuate his point.
“How the Hades are there still so many?”
“That Hacker took down the main power. He kept this ship out of the main fighting. In the long run, he did right.” Another flurry of pellets bounced near the soldiers. “We just have to make his actions mean something! Shoot on sight, these Nagleth are not our friends!”
The squad of four Marines huddled just out of sight, popping out to ambush the enemy squad that had rounded the corner. The corridor filled with the furious hissing of energized pellet rifles and semi-automatic squad assault rifles as the two squads engaged each other. The humans took minor damage, but the Nagleths had had it, no survivors.
“I’m damn glad the Conglomerates equip their soldiers with this crap equipment. Nothing like the gear our freeborn allies have.”
Early in the war several isolated Nagleth worlds had been found. First contact had proven them peaceful toward humans, and worthy friends in the struggle to end the Conglomerate’s death grip on this arm of the galaxy.
“We need to get to the bridge, and we need to do it fast.”
The sounds of boot steps filled the surrounding corridors. “Looks like it’ll be another fight. It’s good we got an updated dictionary for our translators. I can read the signs on the ship now. Get ready boys, we’re going to have to break through. After me!”
Robins and his squad charged into another squad of Nagleth, annihilating them before they could get off any shots. The Marines kept running past the bodies of the fallen foes. They didn’t have time to spare.
After several twists of the corridor, they came to a lift that would take them to the flagship’s bridge. “Alright, I’ll take center. Gant, you take right, Matheson, you take left. Greer, you take center with me. We’ll have to hold here until the lift arrives.”
More Nagleth boots could be heard down every corridor. “Boys, if this is the end, just know it’s been a pleasure fighting beside you. Guns up, and give ’em hell!”
At just that moment three squads of enemy Marines appeared in the corridors. The human Marines dodged energy pellets and rained three round bursts down the hall, riddling the Conglomerates with holes that not even their armor could stop. Within seconds the lift appeared, and the doors opened to admit the Marines. “They really need better equipment.” Robins commented off hand.
“I’m sure you can bring it up to the War Leader on this ship, sir. We’re about to meet it.” Matheson flippantly replied.
“It’s such an obvious statement, but naw, I’d rather not be a traitor to my own people.”
The lift stopped, and the doors opened. The bridge was littered with the dead bodies of crew members, liquefied almost to the bone and covered in green ooze. “What in the name of the unholy is this?” Private Gant whispered, almost inaudibly.
“This is apparently what the Conglomerate do when a ship is about to be captured. I’m throwing an ice grenade before we go in.” Robins pulled out the grenade as he was speaking, pulled the pin, threw it and closed the lift doors just before the endothermic explosion froze the entire room.
When the doors reopened the entire room was covered in a sheen of ice, most of it green. “As long as we don’t vaporize it, the war leader should still be alive, so be careful. We want to nab some of it for the scientists back home.”
The four soldiers stepped inside, mindful not to step on any green ice. Matheson looked at the body of a half-eaten Nagleth by a console. “I’m guessing this one’s Tactical, sir.”
“Let me see.” Robins walked over and looked. “Yup. Don’t assume anything, though. Our friends taught us that there’s far more to the Nags than just fighting. You never know with these Conglomerates, this war leader seems pretty smart, for an Amoeboid.”
Gant and Greet were on the other side of the room, examining more corpses under the ice. Both of them felt something drop on their shoulders, and looked over at one another as green ooze invaded both their helmets. They both erupted screaming.
Robins and Matheson looked over to see their comrades struggling with green in their helmets. “Oh damn!” That was the last thing Robins said before the back of his helmet was infiltrated and a slime mold launched itself into his mouth and nose.
Matheson backed away and raised his rifle as he watched his commanding officer fight to survive. Over his radio he heard his three comrades struggling, and Robins’ voice shouted out, “Kill me!” Just as Matheson was about to pull the trigger, something wrapped around him and knocked his gun out of his hands.
Greer’s head slumped, before slowly looking back up, his eyes glaring. “Did you really think an ice grenade was going to kill me?”
Matheson tried to struggle, but the Amoeboid’s body tightened around him. “You’re not going anywhere.” A small glob detached itself from the green tendril wrapped around Matheson’s arms and waist, crawling up his suit.
“You won’t get me alive, you filthy green bastard!” Matheson jumped to the wall and hit the helmet release with his chin, before bashing his head against the wall, attempting suicide. The green tendril caught on before Matheson finished his jump, and kept him from using full force. Matheson only managed to knock himself unconscious, making it easier for the Amoeboid spore to burrow into his brain.
All four Marines then stood. The men they were had died, absorbed into the Amoeboid’s consciousness, their bodies mere puppets for the monstrosity in the room. The four armor suits were soon filled with green as the Amoeboid settled its body inside them, splitting off into four separate beings for a time.
The one inside Robins keyed the channel for all Marines. Using his voice and the knowledge it had gained from him, the war leader impersonated him. “This is Lance Corporal Robins of seventh squad speaking. We’ve found the bridge. Send the scientists and engineers to our coordinates.”
The war leader possessing Matheson’s body broke off a tendril to call the leader of the Nagleths. “Niscart, this is war leader Istago. Keep up the fighting but let the unarmed humans and their escorts through. We’ve taken over a squad and plan on using them to mind-wipe the rest.”
“As you command, leader.”
* * *
It took an hour for the engineers to arrive from the engine section of the ship. They’d restored enough power to get lights and elevators working before anyone headed to the bridge, and they were eager to see what their work had recovered. When the lift doors opened, they were shocked. The four Marines were standing calm as could be in a wintry room surrounded by bodies.
The man known as Robins spoke to them. “We were shocked too, at first. I threw an ice grenade to catch the enemy leader. I should have warned you to bring some ice drills, shouldn’t I?”
The head of the science contingent, Dr. Hamlin replied, “Yes, you should have. How are we going to work in here with everything under a sheen of solid ice?”
Robins looked down and snapped off a piece of ice with his power suit, looking at Hamlin. “I guess you won’t need those drills after all. Just clear the ice up by hand.”
Hamlin looked peeved as his crew stepped into the bridge and started clearing off consoles amidst grumbling about Marines being stupid. Their escort had sent a single Marine up to guard them, since there was already a squad present. “Will they be alright under your watch?”
Robins smiled and said, “Yes. We’ll take good care of them.”
“Good, then I’ll go join the others. Those Nagleths fight something fierce.”
“Indeed they do.”
The Marine closed the lift doors, and as soon as he was out of sight, the four Marines shot tendrils out, wrapping around the scientists.
“Hey! What’s the meaning of this? Let me go right this instant! Robins, do someth—”
That was when Hamlin noticed it was Robins and the other Marines who had tied his science crew up. Spores jumped off the tendrils and invaded helmets, disabling the science crew’s headsets before they could call for help.
“Niscart, kill the Marines. Every last one.”
Robins grinned wide at the scientists. “I have to thank you for returning some power to my ship. My crew can restore the rest. I just have to buy time.” The spores jumped from headsets to faces, invading the minds of some of the Empire’s top scientists and taking them over.
* * *
“Something doesn’t seem quite right. I can’t put my finger on it, but something seems off about those Marines.” The admiral had just gotten off the hailing frequency with the bridge Marines aboard the Zenith. “I’m not sure capturing that ship was a good idea.”
“I’m wondering when they’ll bring some samples of that Amoeboid back, personally. I can’t imagine they had an easy time of gathering it. Did you see that bridge?” Science officer Andrews spoke. “It looked like it had just been cleaned. I’d expect evidence of a bridge crew in there. And compared to the cave of the monarch, that bridge was a confined space. Where did the rest of the Amoeboid get to?”
“We should have heard from the Marines by now also, sir. They’re overdue for making contact.” Tactical Officer Dresden looked up from his console. “The job shouldn’t be done this quickly. A flagship of that size should have around a thousand security guards. I don’t trust it.”
“Well, you heard the Marine. He says they found the bridge empty. No one recorded escape pods, not even the Cannon Sights. Andrews, any ideas on where the missing crew went?”
“The crew? Nothing certain. They could have run from the bridge but I can’t think of where they’d go. The bridge is the most secure part of any warship. As for that Amoeboid” — Andrews looked over the screen on his console — “I was looking at the ceiling of that bridge. There’s a lot of empty space for something to hide up there. Almost like shelving on the ceiling. My bet would be it’s hiding.”
“Then my Marines are in danger still?”
“Judging from how long they said they’d been there, I don’t think those are your Marines anymore. Or else the Amoeboid escaped somewhere else. We’ve never heard of them taking people over, but since our only up-close contact with those creatures was the mission two years ago, we can’t rule anything out.”
“Then we’ll keep an eye on that ship. If it acts funny, we’ll disable it permanently. Even if we have to kill it.”
“What about the overdue call from the other Marines on board?”
“Give them another two hours. If they don’t make contact, assume they’ve died and take it from there.”
“Destroy the ship?
“If it comes to that, yes.”
* * *
The Amoeboid’s orders were being followed. It was a waiting game now. Waiting to see whether it would make it out of that star system alive. It took a lot to kill an Amoeboid. Freezing the creature would do little more than force it to hibernate. How those humans figured out to overload the Monarch was something every surviving Amoeboid wanted to know.
The Marine once known as Lance Corporal Jack Robins stood watch on his bridge. Having absorbed the knowledge and personality — the very essence — of Robins, the Amoeboid knew time was running short. At least if it wanted to get the ship out too. This close to a star, the Amoeboid could semi-hibernate and survive the cold of space, with the right radiation keeping it awake enough to think.
The Amoeboid species had long ago mastered the art of absorbing the brainwave pattern of others, though it was not a trick they used often, in case the knowledge were to get out. It was a trick often reserved for great strategic battles and spy-work. It was also used on the rare occasions that someone actually managed to force an Amoeboid apart.
The human overload hadn’t so much killed the Monarch as it had ripped the Amoeboid ruler into thousands of independent pieces that couldn’t reunite. It was as close to death as anyone had ever brought one of their kind since they reached space.
The different pieces were scattered across the home planet two years ago. For the first few months, every piece that was found was absorbed by a different Amoeboid, giving everyone a piece of the ruler to hold and cherish. Most went to waste, trapped inside some mindless weakling who hoped absorption would bring the Monarch back.
A few, however, were put to great use, as new war leaders smart enough to read their new possessions gained insight into how the former Monarch thought. Different pieces of the puzzle became apparent to each new leader.
This one’s piece had involved the humans. It involved how the Monarch had felt about them. It was a pity they had to attack the Monarch, it had held such high hopes for them, if they’d only submit and accept Conglomerate rule.
No use sparking over the past, though. Or was that crying? It was difficult for this Amoeboid to keep itself separate from its new human possessions. If it had only absorbed the one, and hadn’t had to separate itself, this might be an easier task. Time and knowledge were of the essence, though, so it had taken the risk.
The lift doors at the rear of the bridge opened, and Niscart walked out, pausing in question as it saw a human standing there. He almost aimed his pellet rifle at the Marine before it spoke. “No need to waste your pellets on me, Niscart, Istago’s in control.” Niscart lowered his rifle and peered at the body of his former enemy.
“Leader? What happened?”
“I can’t answer that until I know: are you loyal to the Conglomerate, or to me?”
“Both, but to my leader first, and my nation second.”
“Good. I’ve absorbed this person. His thoughts, his feelings, his very self is now a part of me. The same with the other humans that were escorted to the engineering bay to fix my ship.”
“We are still surrounded, and our ship took a beating back in the battle. It looks like we’ll be fighting to the death today, my Leader.”
“With the knowledge I’ve gained from those humans, we can use their equipment to repair the ship. If we hurry, we won’t be fighting or dying this day. Just escaping.”
“As you command, Leader.” Niscart looked up. “I see most of you still resides in the ceiling.”
“Indeed. No need to waste space in the suit. It’s cramped inside this human armor, much better to hide where I’m comfortable.”
The ship rocked. “I see the crew has gotten the ship operational. Good. Take up your tactical post, Niscart. Things will get interesting for the next few minutes.” The Marine sat by navigation and began inputting coordinates, aiming the ship back toward Conglomerate territory. “It’s sad that we were forced into this battle by some idiots. I could have used the extra time to build security measures like myself into the computers.”
“The enemy are getting ready to fire on us, my Leader!”
“We’ll just see about that,” Istago said, as he hit the warp drive and the ship vanished from the star system, leaving behind an ion trail that ended at the warp barrier.
Copyright © 2013 by James Bright