Arun glanced into the darkness of the side tunnel as he thundered past with the rest of Delta Section. His eyes could see nothing in the branch, and his helmet visor didn’t ping up any threats. No one said a thing. Arun was sure he wasn’t the only one to feel the deep shadows of the side tunnel burning with threat but what could they do but ignore them?
Keep running. That was all they could do.
The rest of Blue Squad was pinned down by a Troggie redoubt. Delta Section had been tasked with pushing ahead and left to outflank the enemy position. Every time they passed a branch in the tunnel, Arun felt even more isolated, but there were only eight Marine cadets in the section. To peel off a pair to check out each fork in the tunnel network would be beyond madness. In this crazy twisting warren, there could be no such thing as a front line, not unless they had an entire regiment down here. The enemy could strike from behind at any moment.
He glanced across at Springer, her mottled gray battlesuit pumping her along at a steady 15mph, her SA-71 carbine just one safety away from spitting railgun death. The sight stirred his pride, and buttressed his courage. Together they were strong.
“Halt!” called Cadet Corporal Brandt.
Delta Section braked. What was Brandt thinking of now?
As Brandt pondered his move, Arun’s resolve began to drain into the dirt floor.
A moment ago, he’d been buoyed by the momentum of his armored unit. Seeing them stationary had the opposite effect. There was an old Marine saying, drummed into them since the start of novice school: stay still and die.
Arun scanned the walls and ceiling for signs of ambush.
Scuttlebutt had it that Trogs could swim through the soil as easily as a human diver through water. He shivered, imagining alien eyes observing him through the dirt walls. If that rumor were true, they were utterly flekked.
No point worrying about what you can’t change, he told himself, but only half believed it.
Whether or not the Trogs were watching, Arun was certain that his superiors were. None of the humans had ever met a White Knight. Never would, either, but through their vast network of nano-spies, the White Knights knew everything that happened within their empire, and they had no room for disloyalty or incompetence, even when the source was as irrelevant as a seventeen-year-old human dumbchuck. Like Brandt, for instance.
“I don’t like it, because…” Brandt’s words died away as he tried to organize the dust motes floating around his brain into a plan.
Brandt was indecisive rather than stupid, but hesitation could get you killed just as readily as dumb orders. Brandt had only been made cadet corporal less than an hour before, a temporary promotion that didn’t entitle him to be addressed by the rank, only as ‘sir’. Cadet Lance Corporal Majanita, Arun’s fire team leader, would’ve made a much better section commander.
“We’ve penetrated too far without resistance,” spoke Brandt in his best semblance of authority. “You heard the briefing. The Troggie guardians we’re facing have regressed mentally to the borders of sentience, but we mustn’t mistake that for stupidity.”
“Do you think they’re creeping up behind us?” asked Del-Marie.
“Err, yes,” agreed Brandt. “That’s exactly what I mean. Osman, go three hundred meters back the way we’ve come. Check our rear is still clear.”
“Sir!” Osman raced off to obey. He wasn’t going to give any cause for complaint now, but give him a cup of grok in a rec-chamber, and Osman would cheerfully tell you exactly what he thought of Brandt’s order. For starters, sending a lone cadet to check a position was against their training. They should go in a pair. Buddied up Marines could cover each other. They were more than twice as strong as two Marines on their own.
Everyone knew that.
Arun only allowed himself to hesitate for an instant before answering: “Sir!”
“Recce that side tunnel we’ve just passed.”
And so Arun McEwan, a seventeen-year-old Marine cadet chilled with foreboding, entered the shadows alone.
If the tunnels had been constructed by human engineers they would have been wider, well-lit, and level, but Trogs weren’t human. As Arun cautiously penetrated the tunnel, he felt the wrap of alienness tighten around him with every step. He flicked his visor display to survey mode and confirmed one of his suspicions: the tunnel was rising and falling in its depth below the surface of the hill above. The change wasn’t obvious as you walked, given the frequent twists and turns. Half-expecting an alien warrior to spring at him from out of the shadows, he quickly switched back to tactical mode, and breathed out when no threats were displayed, though it also told him that he was out of comms contact with his comrades.
Suddenly he was gasping, fighting to control his breath. Why hadn’t Brandt sent Springer with him?
He calmed his breathing, but his instincts still told him he was in danger. With his visor tac-display showing no movement, no EM activity, and no inexplicable heat signatures, those instincts were indistinguishable from cowardice. To be afraid was inevitable, even for a Marine. To succumb to fear, though… that was punishable by death.
So Arun pressed on around a tight left bend and immediately came to a halt when he saw the tunnel narrow ahead. He would have to turn sideways to squeeze through the gap. Even if he were dressed in fatigues, it would be tight. The bulky battlesuit he wore meant he would have to force his way through.
Or try to. He could easily get stuck in there, deep inside enemy territory with no one to call for help.
He felt the crushing weight of earth envelop him, driving the breath from his lungs. He bent over, hands on knees, and fought to even out his short, rasping gasps. The walls ahead seem to tremble, all the more eerie in the blue glow of his low-light display. That had to be his mind playing tricks.
The tunnel was constructed from nothing more than trampled soil mixed with alien spit. The incalculable weight of soil overhead was not held up by some product of advanced materials technology, as with the human and Jotun Marine base. Just spit. Perhaps the shock waves from heavy weapons fire was bringing the hill down on top of him.
Arun wanted to go back. The fear was so intense he was on the brink of sobbing. If he triggered an ambush, then he’d die. If the ceiling collapsed he’d die. He’d been a cadet for just two weeks. What dungering use would dying be to anyone?
Flushing these tunnels of Trogs was supposed to be a training exercise, but the enemy didn’t know that. The danger was very real. He took a deep breath. And another. To push his fears away was beyond him, but he rose above them enough to find sufficient air and calm for his brain to kick in and think!
Brandt wanted a recce. To advance five hundred meters down the tunnel sounded acceptable. Even though Arun had lost his BattleNet connection, he daren’t lie about how far he’d gone down the tunnel. The chance that the Jotun officers were recording everything was too great. He would get to the five hundred yard mark, count out ten seconds, and then run back.
Now that he had a plan, a little confidence returned.
Pace by faltering pace, Arun squeezed sideways through the gap, using his power-assisted musculature like hydraulic rams to force his way through.
The earth was darker here. Damper too. Bubbles of foam oozed from the soil and stuck to his battlesuit; loosened soil tumbled to the floor, piling up almost to his knees.
It felt like climbing into the throat of an immense and hungry beast.
After a final series of twists, the constriction opened up again. He began to breathe more normally until the very walls began to tremble in a freakishly organic movement as if the tunnel itself was breathing. Perhaps that was exactly what the tunnel was doing. He’d seen no obvious sign of ventilation and who knew what these aliens were capable of? His battlesuit AI, Barney, confirmed the motion: whatever was happening to the walls wasn’t a figment of his imagination. This was for real.
Great, he thought. Just frakking great.
He checked himself. He was a Marine, and Marines think. He might not know much about the Trogs, but the Jotuns did and they had selected this exercise. The older cadets he knew, those in Class G and Class G-1, had all lived through similar exercises, though they were not allowed to discuss the experience. They’d survived. Logic said he should too. Probably.
Class G-1. Of all the cadets in the year ahead of him, Arun saw in his mind’s eye the smooth oval face and dark midnight eyes of Xin Lee. She’d come through this alive. What would she think of him if she ever found out he’d gotten the scoojubbers in his first live fire exercise?
Emboldened by his logic — and thoughts of Xin — Arun switched back to survey and set his visor to place a target marker at the spot that Barney estimated to be five hundred meters into this tunnel. The target appeared as a glowing green cross slightly to his right, past a sharp bend, and an estimated distance to go of only sixty meters.
Once again the tunnel shimmered.
Switching his helmet to tactical didn’t show up anything to fight.
“C’mon, Barney,” Arun whispered to his suit AI. “Help me out.”
Barney response was to flash the green target marker at him again.
“Okay. Okay! I’m going.”
The conviction that the walls were alive proved too much. Twenty meters short of his target, Arun lost his nerve. He turned and fled. The movement in the tunnel walls gave him something important to report. That was why he was withdrawing, he told himself, not because he was a coward.
From behind him came the sound of scuffling, the dull sprinkling of falling soil.
Something was digging through the walls!
He ran faster, a risky maneuver in a battlesuit over uneven ground. Nothing would be worse than losing balance and tumbling headfirst into the alien dirt.
The frantic scurrying sound grew in volume until it drowned out the digging.
When he reached the narrow gap, he realized he’d been trapped. He turned to face whatever was coming for him from behind.
He saw a blur of black insectoid bodies scuttling toward him along the floor, ceiling and walls. Each creature was half as big again as a human, with a halo of barbed horns surrounding the head, and vicious fighting claws adorning the front pair of legs.
These barely sentient aliens had no concept of the words ‘training exercise’. Only one thing drove the guardians: the burning desire to kill any intruder in the nest.
He didn’t need to ask Barney to know that they were coming for him faster than he could push through the narrow passageway.
Reason said that his only chance was to stand and fight.
But reason had fled even faster than the rest of Arun
Fear drove him to bully his way through the narrow constriction, gouging out more clumps of slimy earth from the walls as he went.
Then he was through to the far side. Still alive.
“This is only an exercise,” he blurted, but he knew death was only seconds away.
Fifteen meters ahead was a tight right turn and beyond that, the main corridor. He made it as far as the turning, but then his courage failed again and he had to turn and see.
Drawing on countless hours of combat drill, as he turned, he seamlessly readied his SA-71 carbine, bracing the stock tight in against his shoulder in readiness for the ferocious recoil kick he knew was coming.
Then he opened fire.
Every ten milliseconds the twisting railgun inside the barrel charged, launching a spinning kinetic dart out of the muzzle at Mach4. For the first two seconds of full auto fire, the darts whistled out the muzzle so gently it was as if Arun were blowing a stream of deadly butterflies. Then the recoil dampener tripped out and the carbine kicked and writhed with such fury that he couldn’t aim with more accuracy than to point in the right general direction. But he didn’t want sniper shots. He was after a withering barrage.
The SA-71 delivered.
Ichor and carapace fragments flew from the aliens. Horns shattered. Legs were chipped into fragments, making the insects trip and fall and stumble.
When the ammo carousel reported only 15% of the darts remained, Arun ceased firing. The alien advance was still pouring through the gap, drilling in and out of the solid walls as if swimming through a soil sea. Would nothing stop them? They powered around their fallen comrades, and ignoring the cloud of body fragments. Every alien heart pumped hard to accomplish a single goal: to kill Arun.
Particulate matter from alien body fragments churned into a black fog that would have choked Arun if not for his helmet filters.
Oh, drent! His carbine wasn’t going to be enough. He needed the tripod-mounted beam weapons and missiles of the heavy weapons section.
Without really thinking about what he was doing, he’d turned away from the enemy guardians. Stumbling into a run, he unsnapped a grenade from his hip and rammed it into the launcher underneath his SA-71’s barrel.
He swung around.
The lead Trog was about eight meters away.
In that half-instant before the grenade blew, he saw more guardians emerging from the ceiling on his side of the defile, burrowing out from the earth. Their numbers were too great to count, but he saw enough to know that any aliens he slaughtered would be more than replenished.
Then the grenade’s blast wave hit him, followed by a shower of alien ichor and gore.
Arun too sailed through the air and landed against a curve in the tunnel wall, his ears clearing enough to hear the hard body fragments clatter to the floor like hardened leaves in the fall
Roof and walls began to drip with purple slurry in which black and brown rubbery chunks were mixed with clumps of falling soil. Then a half-dozen aliens fell through the top of the roof, bringing more showers of earth with them. Flailing all six limbs as they fell, they landed on the jumble of chitin below, skidding down to join the ungainly heap of living aliens scrabbling to right themselves.
The hordes behind kept coming, slipping and slithering into an ungainly mass that could not win purchase, only impede itself.
The grenade’s shaped blast front had left Arun dazed but relatively unscathed. His visor had cracked, its display unavailable, including its low-light enhancers. Smart armor had reduced fatal shrapnel to punishing bruises, but his left knee was numb and unbending.
When his senses came back, Arun hurriedly switched on the lights at the side of his helmet. One of them worked, revealing that the wavefront of alien death had slowed more than he’d hoped. He estimated that his grenade had won him a fifteen second remission before he was sliced to a bloody pulp with those front-limb claws, or impaled on the wicked horns.
Last chance, then.
He activated combat immunity, the emergency combat-med that would numb all sensation within three seconds, and allowed him to keep focused on killing, even if he were critically wounded. He used his right leg to push up from the floor, feeling his left knee crunching as he did. By the time he’d gotten to his feet, the pain was gone and he charged at the onrushing insectoids. Grinding noises came from his left knee; he heard his leg tearing and splintering. He smelt the moldy stink on the aliens.
By the time he’d brought up the next grenade, and engaged it in the launch attachment, the pain had gone — all feelings had gone. He pressed his gun’s trigger with his numb fingers and was lowering his head — too late — before the soil and chitinous armor blew over his face, almost burying him. Reaching round to the utility attachment patch on his back of his battlesuit, he snapped off another grenade, setting it to a new blast mode while he clicked it into place.
Barracks rumor — allegedly from older cadets — hinted that carrying extra grenades would be a good idea for this exercise, and that blast mode 37H might get you out of a tight spot in a Troggie nest. Whether his senseless fingers had actually punched the right code was another matter. Normally he’d tell Barney to set weapons modes, but his suit AI wasn’t in a fit state to listen.
He had been trained since birth to be a Marine, bred for it, in fact. Between the years of drill and the combat meds, his mind was not much more than a spectator as he fired the grenade at the mass of aliens.
Another blast of soil and diced bodies flung itself over his disabled visor, but more subdued this time. The grenade had tunneled through the pile of aliens and buried itself deeply into the tunnel wall behind. This blast had wreaked much less destruction, but had won him time by giving the body pile such a kick that many Trogs lost their footing again.
The combat immunity drugs seemed to be trying to tell him something, to make him remember something from training. He didn’t exactly have time to sit down and hum a memory-inducing meditative mantra, so he blanked his mind and followed his instincts… to burrow!
Instead of firing at the aliens, he turned his back on them, firing the grenade at the curve in the tunnel wall where he’d been flung by the first grenade.
The blast buried itself into the wall, hurling a cloud of spoil out into the tunnel and coating Arun who’d flung himself to the ground just in time. Even before he’d gotten to his feet and wiped his visor clean of soil and sticky gore, he’d set another grenade to code 37H — emergency excavation blast mode, an implanted memory informed him — and fired again into the small alcove carved out of the wall by the previous grenade blast.
But it was all too little too late because he felt the impact of an armored claw slashing him from behind just before the grenade blast blew him backwards off his feet to fall onto hard unyielding carapace and slide down onto the sticky floor. His smart battlesuit armor soaked up enough of these blows to keep him alive for now.
Around him, the nearest aliens stirred feebly. Still half-stunned himself, Arun took a gamble. Instead of racing on into the hole his grenades had scooped out, he got himself up to a kneeling position and put one last 37H into the center of the cloud of alien body debris in front of him. This time he braced while the blast front rolled over him. Then he was staggering to his feet and stumbling on into the spray of soil and aerosol blood, and beyond into the hole the grenades had burrowed out of the soil. Clouds of spilling earth blinded him, but he judged he’d crawled in fifteen meters before the hole stopped and he could go no further. He abandoned his carbine, freeing both hands to burrow into the loosened soil, throwing it behind him like a gauntleted mole.
Euphoria gripped him. He’d abandoned his firearm, a capital offense, and the Trogs would dice him into a hundred bloody chunks any moment now, but he couldn’t help but grin at the simple pleasure of using his hands like paddles. For this task, his combat immunity numbness actually seemed to help.
Then he reached soil that was still too compacted to shift. Actually he’d hit that barrier several moments or minutes ago. The sense of time’s passage had numbed with most of his other senses. Even in the depths of confusion, one thing rang clear: Arun had nowhere left to run.
He screamed. High-pitched like a child. His scream cracked, turning into some hybrid of a sob and a gasp.
“McEwan, come in!”
Nowhere to run! Flekked!
Those aliens had done this. Those Trogs. He’d make them pay…
Arun twisted around and charged at the Troggie horde who’d gathered around the entrance to his hole.
He’d rip their legs of their stinking alien bodies.
“Report, cadet! Damn you! That is an order.”
The irritation in Brandt’s voice reached through the helmet speaker and sent a jolt of challenge into Arun’s mind. He slowed as he wondered what the frakk he was doing charging along an alcove to head butt a pack of slavering aliens desperate to reach inside and kill him.
Damn those experimental combat drugs.
“I’m under heavy assault,” he whispered into the helmet mike, more interested in putting his brain back into order than following reporting protocol. “I seem to be alive. I feel rather good, actually, thank you for asking.”
“I didn’t. I asked you to report.”
“I want a sit-rep. What’s happening? We came back when Osman reported movement, but now he’s dead and we’re pinned down. What are you going to do?”
In front of him, Arun could see his carbine half-buried in the dirt where he’d dropped it. The gun looked so pretty there. Shiny. He wanted it. But the aliens were reaching into his hole, flicking their claws at him, and the gun was so close to the bad insects.
Big, fat insects. They were too big to follow the human into his hole, and whatever had let them swim through the walls earlier wasn’t working here.
Arun shuffled around until his feet were pointing at the aliens and slid his left boot towards the waiting creatures, ever so gently.
Ever since they’d emerged from the walls and ceiling, the Trogs had been slavering, chittering beasts climbing over themselves in desperation to rend him limb from limb.
Now they froze. Arun froze too. His pulse was a dull drumming inside his helmet; there were no other sounds — until Brandt growled: “Well?”
“I think I’m going to kill them,” Arun said. “Or maybe the other way around. I’m not sure yet. I‘ll report back when I know.”
There was a way to turn off his comms unit, but he couldn’t think what that was right now. He asked Barney to switch it off, but Barney wasn’t listening. He tried out emergency eyeball gestures but they didn’t work either. If he could, he would have taken the frakking helmet off and buried it.
Brandt was very annoying. If he couldn’t turn him off, Arun decided he would drown out his voice. So Arun began to sing, a stirring ballad about the beauty of Old Earth, the precious homeworld left so very far behind. The chorus was rousing; just the thing to belt out with your pals at the end of a rec-evening.
His song got the attention of the Trogs. Each guardian shifted its head for the best reception of his singing voice. Perhaps his song was charming them to obedience, or sleep, or an even fiercer rage. Maybe they liked the words.
Inch by inch, he shuffled toward them, trying to slip his toe through the strap of his SA-71 carbine. Ever so slowly… almost there…
“Are they coming in our direction? Report, McEwan!”
Oh, frakk! Brandt’s voice had come out of his external suit speakers, spooking the Trogs so they were jumping around as if he’d rammed a red-hot poker up their butts.
Arun abandoned his attempt to be subtle and slid towards the gun as fast as he could.
At the same moment, the sea of alien motion flowed at his crude little tunnel and launched something at him, a dark blur of motion with hate in its alien head and coming right at him.
He’d wasted a precious heartbeat watching the thing come for him. The tip of his toe reached the gun strap. By yanking back his leg and contorting his torso so forcibly that this muscles spasmed, he whipped the gun his way and grabbed. Grabbed the barrel end.
He started shuffling back as this new thing came close
As he was spinning the gun round to point the killing end at the thing, the beast finally reached him
Arun looked up from his gun. At first he thought it was a Troggie child but it was difficult to make out because it moved so very fast, all flashing limbs and flailing body and jaws, and came so close that the beam of helmet light didn’t spread wide enough to pick out the limbs in detail.
When the creature flicked a claw across his leg, a realization hit him with pointless urgency: guardians are the last stage of the Trog lifecycle. There’s no such thing as a Troggie child.
What faced him was an adult guardian with four of its limbs ripped out. Only the front two remained, held out in front of its head as combined motive force and assault weapons. This was the hive creatures’ answer to the narrowness of his crawlspace.
Spikes of pain flickered up his legs as the mutilated Trog cut into Arun, using his flesh to pull itself closer until it could make a killing blow.
Arun wiggled his toes. And laughed.
Without most of its limbs, the Trog couldn’t get power behind its attacks. If he could still move his toes, he probably wasn’t going to die from its claw strike. Not just yet.
With a slightly firmer hold on his SA-71, he brought it to bear on this crazy alien. But the beast flicked the carbine out of his hands, which were still too numb from the combat immunity to grip properly.
Helplessly, he watched his gun sail overhead, out of reach to land with a dull thud behind him, at the far end of the short tunnel gouged out by Arun’s grenades.
Then the crippled guardian flopped its middle segment — its thorax — onto Arun’s legs, pinning him with its weight. Arun flung his body left then right in a frantic attempt to wriggle free. His legs slid slowly towards freedom but not quickly enough.
The two-limbed Trog raised its legs up and sliced down, aiming in a coordinated attack that convinced Arun that these guardians knew a lot more about human anatomy than he’d given them credit for. It aimed that metal-sheathed claw directly at his heart.
At the moment the claws started to bite into his armor, Arun screamed.
Arun rampaged through his memories of his life, trying to remember all of it while he still had a chance. He screamed all the way, only stopping when the realization hit him that he’d never properly been in love with a woman. It was so unfair to end it all now, when he was just getting his life started.
Then another unexpected thought struck him: he still wasn’t dead.
Looking down at his chest, he saw the claw embedded inside his ACE-2/T training suit, and it hurt like frakk, but… his smart armor had caught and held the blow. The constraints of the narrow tunnel dimensions, the lack of limbs… whatever the reason, the claw was stuck!
The guardian thrashed madly, banging each side of the tunnel in turn, making Arun worry about a cave-in but allowing him to free his legs. All this time, the Trog made no sound at all except for the thudding of its carapace on the dirt walls.
Then it abandoned that tactic and reduced itself to flopping back onto Arun, trying to pin him to the ground.
“Only a matter of time before I get out, my friend,” said Arun, beginning the work again of wriggling free.
The alien hissed at him. The sound was like a pressure valve release. Perhaps this meant challenge or hatred. It might be its death rattle or it might mean: “Well done, sir, for besting me.” How could he know? It was a drenting, skangat alien for frakk’s sake.
With his legs about halfway to freedom, Arun heard an answering hiss from the main tunnel, and a second mutilated alien launched itself at him.
One chance remained… Arun activated the emergency release on his battlesuit, gasping as the shock instantly hit his system. Emergency suit release felt like his body was turning inside out. Endocrine pumps retracted from insertion points. Myriad med-points detached from their hold on his skin and below. Waste pipes released his penis and slithered out of his anus. Clamps popped. Warm lubricants dripped.
Arun slithered free of his clothing in a short series of slurping wrenches.
The second Trog had reached its companion and tried to squeeze past. With three-quarters of its limbs missing, and the first Trog still stuck to the battlesuit’s armored torso, the newcomer never stood a chance.
By the time the second Trog managed to push its head and thorax past its companion, Arun had finally reached his gun. He fired a controlled burst of darts.
The insect’s front limbs exploded into chunks. Wet shrapnel of head and jaws and thorax peppered the area.
Arun released pressure on the trigger and inspected his handiwork. Both beasts were still twitching.
He switched the gun’s ammo supply from kinetic darts to rocket rounds: bangers. The main purpose of bangers was to be fully recoilless, something very handy in zero-g combat out in deep space. But even here under a planet’s surface, the rounds still made a decent bang.
Arun pumped ten seconds of fiery destruction into the two battered Trogs, imagining the blessed day when he would be issued with micro-nukes. Then the gun pinged that its ammunition was exhausted, and he remembered the downside of bangers: they were far larger than darts, so you couldn’t fit many into an ammunition carousel.
After the black rain of chitin chunks had subsided, he tried cleaning his slick hands by wiping them on the walls, but they walls were soggy too. Maybe it was just as well they hadn’t issued him with nukes.
The two mutilated Trogs that had attacked weren’t moving, weren’t even an obstacle any longer. Outside in the main tunnel it was a different story. An ocean of six-limbed aliens waited for him.
“Should have evolved the opposable thumb,” he shouted at the enemy. As taunts went, it didn’t have much effect. He reached for fresh ammo to reinforce his message.
That was when he remembered he had squirmed from his battle dress in order to escape from the aliens pinning his legs. He was naked, save for his helmet and gauntlets. His ammo was still attached to the battlesuit that he’d discarded underneath the two Trogs, the same Trogs he’d just liquidized with a volley of explosive bullets.
He crawled over the slurry he’d created. He struggled to spot his battlesuit under its covering of gore, but something of vaguely the right shape was there, pushed farther up his hole toward the waiting Trogs.
As he advanced, the Trogs outside stilled, and silenced. He preferred them manic; this was more menacing somehow. He ignored the guardians waiting just out of slashing range and wiped at the muck coating his half-buried suit. Arun flipped over the armor, which revealed shapes in the slurry underneath. Feeling with his hands, he found an intact fastening from an equipment pack, and two unused grenades. Underneath a shard from his drink bottle, he found an ammunition carousel. In a smooth and swift motion, he rammed the ammo into an unused socket in his carbine, took a kneeling posture, and fired.
Instead of the soft whine of darts, Arun heard an angry whir as his carbine rejected the ammo carousel, and then a faint plop as it fell to the wet ground.
When Arun crouched down to retrieve the bulb of ammunition, a wave of stench hit him: a Trog pheromone signal. It was an earthy smell; probably it carried layers of meaning to the aliens: taunts and an incitement to victory. To Arun it was remarkably similar to the pungent aroma of unwashed socks.
Zug might know what that scent meant, but his friend wasn’t here. At this moment, his best friend was the AG-1 Ammunition Carousel, a dull-gray plastic bulb filled with bullets, darts and shells, a reservoir of sabot resin, and a power pack whose ability to recharge itself was as near as frakk to magical. Arun blew into the carousel’s opened feed interface. Dark goop spewed out, gobbing into his eye. He blinked furiously.
Willing his tear-smeared eye to remain open, Arun snapped the slightly-cleaned ammo carousel into his carbine, which clicked and whirred hungrily… and carried on whirring. His gun was unhappy. A blue light lit up on its stock. He couldn’t make it out. So he brought the stock to his head and thumbed for the carbine’s AI to give an audio status.
“Ammo feed impaired. Risk of explosion. AG-1 contents only partially utilizable.”
Partial, eh? Arun squinted out of his hole. He saw aliens as far as he could see. He shrugged. Once the dumb bugs worked out that all they needed to do was widen the opening to his bolt-hole, he was going to die anyway. Partial would do just fine.
Arun overrode the warning and fired into the waiting horde. He screamed incoherent sounds of battle fury as his weapon accelerated sporadic volleys of kinetic darts interleaved with frequent misfires. On and on he pumped death through the aperture of his hastily excavated bolt-hole until he realized the ammo supply feed was clicking through an empty reservoir.
Drop by splatter, the aerosol of ichor and soil succumbed to gravity and cleared, engorging the dark pools already on the floor.
Recognizable fragments of carapaces, jaws, horns and legs poked out from the jumble of undifferentiated alien chitin… and… moved!
Icy fear cooled his battle fury. Dead aliens moving… he’d heard of undead aliens in the morbid rumors that frequently washed over the human community on Tranquility. Arun reckoned that ninety-five percent of this scuttlebutt was drent. That left five percent with at least an undercurrent of truth, such as the tales of alien warriors who would not be killed. Every time you snuffed out their life, they reconstituted, coming back stronger than before.
He shuddered. In front of him, as the spray of destruction cleared a little more, he could make out chitinous bodies jerking into movement, reassembling themselves. Returning to life.
Relief flooded his body when he realized what was really happening. He slapped a hand on his bare thigh and laughed so hard that he had to sit down. The dead Troggie guardians weren’t coming back to life; it was their living nest-siblings removing their fallen comrades to clear the way for another attack.
As if to reinforce that common sense was returning to his world after that fright, he noticed the Trogs were now flicking away at the entrance to his hole, widening it. They’d lost their earlier attack mania and were now using their combat claws to loosen the soil at the side of his hole, and then flick the spoil behind. They frequently stopped to examine the walls and roof, feeling them with their mid-limbs. These were guardians, he reminded himself: the last stage in the Trog lifecycle. He guessed these vecks weren’t normally allowed to do any digging.
Arun backed away the short distance to the rear of his hole and counted down his last moments before evisceration. He’d heard you were supposed to cry for his mother when you faced certain death.
That didn’t seem to be working for him, so he closed his eyes and tried to bring up memories of his mother.
She had been kind enough, but she had always known that one day she would be shipped out-system, leaving him behind. That she had kept her emotional distance was obvious to him now.
He couldn’t even picture her face, just a name and rank: Sergeant Escandala McEwan.
Inefficient yet remorseless, the Trogs dug him out. Arun kept his eyes shut, but the unceasing scraping noise told him they were almost within range of a claw strike. As he waited to be sliced, his thoughts drifted to Stephen Horden. The older cadet had claimed to be descended from the President Horden of Earth who had signed the Vancouver Accord and condemned the ancestors of the Human Marine Corps to perpetual slavery.
Arun had never cared about lineage. What impressed him was how Horden had built quite a following with his secret teachings on Earth history, and compelling arguments about why Old Earth was something worth fighting for — worth humans fighting for — and, one day, returning to as free people.
Horden had graduated the year before, part of a replacement list sent off to some garrison fleet around the mining system of Akinschet. Arun’s mother had been posted there. Perhaps the two would meet?
Fighting for humanity… as he waited to die a pointless death on behalf of uncaring alien masters, he wondered what it must be like to fight for a cause you could believe in, a new kind of Human Marine Corps that actually fought for humanity.
Without warning, the Trogs simultaneously emitted a screech like poorly lubricated wheel brakes. A few seconds later came another pheromone-laden smell. Like rotten fruit this time.
Guess that meant contemplation time was over.
He opened his eyes. The guardians had withdrawn from his hole, standing motionless in the main tunnel corridor. Great! They must have found some digging-caste Trogs to get at him safely without bringing the roof down.
“Cease fire, humans!”
The voice seemed to be coming from within the tunnel walls, not from a single source but diffusely spread throughout this area of the hive. “This exercise is concluded. Cease fire!”
Within moments, the guardians calmed to a stop, listing woozily. If the notion wasn’t so absurd, he’d say they had grown sleepy.
A ripple spread through the insectoid mob. As it neared him, Arun saw the disturbance came from a new kind of Trog. Smaller and more lightly colored, this one lacked the halo of sharp horns. When the newcomer had pushed through the crowd and stood at the entrance to Arun’s little cave, he could see its carapace was as black as the guardians but covered in fine red hairs that looked unexpectedly delicate, picked out in the beam of his helmet lamp. Instructor Rekka had explained in her briefing that this was a Trog in an earlier stage of the lifecycle: a scribe.
“The guardians will not harm you now,” spoke the scribe via a box hanging around its neck, which whirred with gears as it generated a mechanical version of a human voice.
Arun wasn’t convinced. But, what the hell? It beat cowering. He got down on hands and knees and slithered through the sea of spent sabots floating in a carnage sea. It was like crawling through a midden pit dug for an outdoor field exercise, except now he was so close to the chopped aliens, he smelled a tang of sweetened metal.
This had only been a training exercise.
But when he looked around at corpses of his allies, killed by his own hand, he wondered whether the scribe would see things the same way.
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