Monday, September 12, 2011

Rock and a Hard Place, Part 2

The second part arrives! Later than I wanted but still here. This one ran long and is full of swears, violence and a splash of gore... Not to mention a better look at some aliens and humans.

Lieutenant Thames' drop pod shuddered as it slid forward into the magazine. This drop was simple. No terrorists, separatists, insurgents, enemy combatants or freedom fighters. Just bugs. Of course, that did greatly increase their chances of being torn apart on some alien world.

They had received a distress call from a Tslao occupied planet, Zshela, approximately 40 hours earlier. Seems they were terraforming it and a tkt hive near their base lost it's overlord and went apeshit - the technical term for the highly aggressive behavior patterns they exhibited while waiting for a new overlord to hatch.

The Ingraham was the closest ship by four days. It was just a patrol frigate, but it was better than nothing. Landon Thames and the rest of his marines were the 'better than nothing' part in this particular situation. Collectively, they had killed tens of thousands of tkt. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel about that.

What little intel they had gotten out of the Tslao put the base at a hundred personnel. They could evac that many in a pinch but it would be a tight fit... If there was anyone left alive when they hit the ground, anyway.

He just barely felt the launch of the DN-4 Darkstar INTCOM package, his armor passing the subtle vibrations from the CNS Ingraham's launch tube into his feet. It was almost like he wasn't wearing the two hundred kilo suit of boosted armor.   


He knew the launch procedure well. The bolt rotates open, the gravity plate under the pod shuts off, stomach tries to escape. A single precise jolt means the pod has been seated in the breech. A second, smaller bump is the bolt rotating closed and then a sharp jerk as electromagnetic coils shoot him out the belly of the frigate.

If it had been anything other than tkt, they would have hung around in orbit, made some careful decisions about where to go down and what to do when they got there. Turn it into nice, precision work. But it was frenzied tkt, so they got popped just as soon as the Ingraham slowed enough to launch them. The plan for bugs was simple: clear a landing zone, secure who or what needs to go and then get out.

“Last pod is away. Godspeed, Lieutenant.” Warrant Officer Lund said over the comm, his voice crystal clear. He was one of the better launch controllers Landon had worked with and actually seemed to understand that they’d want to land near their objectives. Not so close that the pods damage or kill them, though. In this case, he was also in charge of picking their LZ en route based on fresh imagery taken after launch. The pods were very maneuverable before they hit atmosphere.

They’d make contact with the planet in one minute at current velocity and spend less than that decelerating through the atmosphere. It had stopped being scary after his second drop, but he did feel that same surge of adrenaline and the urge to act rise. He wanted to do something, right now. Preferably not in this expensive, fast coffin.

The first bump from the atmosphere kicked him and he checked his HUD layout. Ammo counts, tracker and vitals for his fire team at the edges of his vision. Sergeant Williams appeared tense, she had almost as many drops as he did. No worry there. Same with Lance Corporal Deng. He’d dropped on two tkt operations before and had proven to be cool under fire. The rook, on the other hand... Heart rate was high, adrenaline was high. Not good, but it was to be expected.

He checked his gear again while he was at it: M192c carbine locked onto his right hand, shield still strapped to his left arm. A dozen extra magazines for the carbine, the standard issue sword and to top all of it off, two axes. Probably wouldn’t need them, but it was better to have them and he wouldn’t notice the weight in armor.

The pod bumped along until the retrorockets fired and deceleration began. It bled off thousands of kilometers an hour in a few seconds before gravity became noticeable. He felt the roar of the atmosphere join the rockets and a countdown timer kicked in his vision. Thirty seconds.

“Setting you down west of locals, they have been notified you are inbound. En-" Static.  Lund was barely recognizable as the heat screwed with their comm system."-es one point two klicks to your west on landing.”

He clicked an affirmative and watched the final few seconds roll off quickly. At the two second mark the rapid bang-bang-bang of the final deceleration stage went off beneath his feet as the heat shield was blown off with a series of shaped charges that filled a wide circle beneath the pod with orange-hot shrapnel. It was always nice and clear down there afterwards. On fire sometimes, but that usually helped their entrance.

The landing was gentle, like jumping off a second story roof onto pavement. They always came down a little faster than normal when fully armored. The door blew out and Thames stepped out of his pod into the dusty noon sun, wind whipping sand around him as he ran to the top of the shallow crater to assess the situation.

It didn’t look very good. There was a wave of tkt incoming, less than a kilometer away now. His tracker got solid readings and verified several hundred targets west, down to the mouth of they wide valley they had been put down in. There were another few dozen on their six that were engaged by the local forces. The autoturret on top of the drop pod went active and he set it to deal with the group behind them first.  

The rest of his team had their ready lights on, all fully operational. He brought his carbine up to shoulder. No time like the present.

“Light ‘em up.”

From this distance, the tkt almost looked human. There was a faint bipedal shape to them, in the thick dust you could mistake one for a person if you squinted. When the wind died down and the dust thinned, they looked like bugs again. The shoulders too wide and abdomen too narrow, the limbs too skinny, the head... There wasn’t a head. A pair of eye stalks could be mistaken for a head, but it was all daylight between them. The brain was a walnut sized lump of tissue at the top of the spine, protected by the ribcage.  

The targeting system picked the closest one and he pivoted to it, the first round from the carbine cracking out with laser-like accuracy. The tkt he had been aiming at jerked softly and then just stopped living mid-step, falling forward. The one immediately behind was ripped up by shrapnel and it fell, only to push itself up and continue its march towards them with mangled limbs and body. The warriors didn't feel pain. Their brains lacked the ability to process it.

The first thing Lieutenant Thames had learned was they did not think like people. They did not care for their fellows, they did not care if you were a civilian or military, fighting or trying to run away. You could not take them prisoner, you could not reason with them. They would fight to the last.

At the very least, they usually didn’t have any kind of ranged weapon.

He left the mangled one - it would bleed out before it reached them - and picked another fresh target near the front of the mob. It fell, the penetrator taking the one behind it out as well.

That was better. The autoturret started firing over the top of his head, the field behind them cleared. He checked his tracker again. All of six individual Tslao and one walker. Not a lot, but they could be gone just as soon as the Ospreys were on site.

The walker stomped up to the middle of their line and started to lay fire down at the incoming mob. Harsh blue plasma streaked downrange but did little, plasma burns seemed to be a trivial annoyance until they had been shot a few dozen times.

Still, he would rather have it than lose it. He tabbed the open channel. "Deng, Blumenthal! Form up on the walker, keep 'em off it's legs!"

Their ready lights winked to yellow, on the move. Green a beat later. Rookie was handling himself better than expected.

The wave of tkt had been thinned nicely by the time they closed to a hundred meters, the walker doing an admirable job at that range. The mob had been split down the middle, about a hundred left in each group, nice and tightly grouped.

Each shot knocked down two or three and the turret picked off anything that got back up. As they got closer they started to pick up speed, whatever intelligence they had finally urging them into battle.

Thames glanced at his tracker again, the blue friendlies behind him just sort of milling around back there. What the hell were they doing?

He looked over his shoulder and was struck by two things in rapid succession.

First, they did look kind of like dogs. He had never seen one in person and didn’t trust pictures he didn’t know the origin of, so that was kind of a surprise. The tkt bore only a passing resemblence to insects, but everyone still called them bugs.

Second, that fucker was just strolling his ass on over to their firing line, picking shit up off the ground.

That was how the Lieutenant missed the tkt charging him until his tracker gave him a five meter warning. By the time he turned back, the lead bug loomed over him, skinny arms raised to strike. The warrior caste are big, a little over two meters tall and weighing several hundred kilos, with strength to match. Their inability to feel pain and near total lack of vital organs make them hard to stop with conventional weapons.

The M129 is by no means conventional. The 25mm round Landon managed to land on the tkt fragmented a millisecond after impact. The small entry wound was backed by a wide cone of destroyed tissue and bone, shrapnel and kinetic dart alike blowing out of the alien's back with a chunky spray of gray ichor.

It died instantly, but this did not stop its forward momentum. It slammed into him and sent him sprawling to the ground, the twitching carcass laying over his gut. Eventually, he could get out from under it, but that would not be soon enough. He sounded remarkably nonchalant over the comm. “Williams, need assist on my location.”

Her light winked red twice. A little bit busy right now, but I’ll be there as soon as possible.

A handful more of them poured over the top of his crater and he raised his shield, gritted his teeth and detonated the first AP mine attached to it. It hurt like a bitch but the result was good, everything that had been in sight reduced to parts rolling down the hill to him.

It didn’t stem the tide for very long, though. He let more of them come over the top before he detonated the second mine. Same result, more parts on the pile. Thames continued to try to shove his way out from under the body, stopping to fire as more tkt came into view. His ammo counter turned red when he hit three rounds, which he burned through in as many seconds. Thankfully, he had already used all the spare magazines he could get to laid out like this.

One of them finally made it to him, a rock grasped in a bony, tentacle hand. For a moment it didn’t seem to know what to do, blank eyes staring forward with its U shaped mouth flap seeming to smile at him. He tried to grab one of its legs, maybe bring it down to his level or use it to pull himself free.

His thrashing arm brought the alien back into action and raised the rock and smashed it down like a hammer. The first blow fell onto the carbine as Thames tried to slap the damn thing away while getting to some other weapon. As it raised its arms again, a metal shaft bloomed suddenly from what passed for its face and it collapsed onto him.

A second tkt met a similar fate, then a third and fourth as they came up the top of the rise. The Tslao he had seen collecting things rolled the fresh body off of him and wrenched a god damned spear free of the creature before using it to leverage the old one away.

The Tslao looked like shit. Its dark grey fur was matted with dirt and sweat. One of its antenna was a long stump and part of the ear on the same side was missing. Its boosted armor crusted with dark blood, suggesting a stab wound in it's side. He - Thames believed it was a he - had a sort of hard, wild look in his eyes that was more than a little threatening.

Without so much as a nod the Tslao stepped away and went about collecting his spears, moving silently through the pile of bodies while Thames got up and reloaded his carbine. Tracker showed a half dozen targets left, down by the walker. They had them in the bag.

Williams appeared at the top of the crater and looked over the scene. “You called, LT?”

“He needs an uplink.” Thames jerked his head to the beat up Tslao.

She stowed her carbine and dug an armored hand into a hard case on her hip, withdrawing a finger-long bit of electronics as she headed over to deal with him.

The last enemy marker winked out from his tracker. “Ingraham actual, Ingraham actual, this is Bravo Five Two.”

“This is Ingraham actual, go ahead.”

“LZ secured, getting natives fitted with uplinks now. See if they have anything they need to bring. ETA on those Ospreys?”

“They will be on the ground in ten minutes.” Ospreys were good, solid vehicles, but they had to come down through the atmosphere slowly. “Hold the LZ until extraction.”

“Wilco. Bravo Five Two out.”

“Lieutenant? We have a problem.” Williams waved him over and gestured to the Tslao. “This is Base Commander Kaen Lhenan.”

“Sir.” Thames tipped his head to acknowledge him. “What is the problem?”

Kaen’s eyes had softened and he now looked more weary than anything. He started to speak and a translated version of what he was saying filtered into Landon’s comm. “We will not leave before the civilians have been evacuated.”

He looked around the valley, really taking in the debris field they were standing in. He saw a whole lot of flattened building materials that had once formed a military base, but nothing else. “What civilians?”

“We evacuated them into the service tunnels for the reactors and terraforming equipment.” Kaen pointed to a long row of massive turbines pointed skyward along the north rim of the valley.

“Fine, we take them too. Transports will be here shortly, get them ready to come down.”

Williams cleared her throat. “Sir? Evacing civvies isn’t the problem.”

He looked over to Williams and then back to the Base Commander. “What is the problem?”
“We have six hundred civilians here.”

Landon coughed. “Six hundred? Six zero zero?”


That was several times more than the Ingraham could hold and keep alive at the same time. He held up a finger and stepped away from them. “Ingraham actual, did you catch that?”

“Negative, Lieutenant.”

“Actual, we have several hundred civilians on the ground. Looks like we’re going to be digging in until a bigger ship arrives.”


  1. Awesome! If ever you decided to write more along the lines of this, I don't think there'd be complaints. ;o)

  2. Literally brought my heart-rate up. Excellent story! You describe action very well, and the tkt are interesting. I think they'd be *really* dangerous if the were more cognitive.

  3. @Tummy: Glad you liked it! The tkt... well, there's more to be said about them, yet.