Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Beachhead



The invasion force came hurtling down from space.

The marines who formed the first shock wave dropped individually from orbit, riding down through the thickening layers of atmosphere, ready for action long before the armoured feet of their powered battle-suits hit the ground. They were fresh, rested, combat-hardened, ready for action, and the best troops in the known universe. They had been trained for every eventuality, knew how to handle any given situation. They had been given their task and they were more than capable of doing it.

They came from all over, from Earth and the colonies, and bore names like Rico, Ho, Dubois, MacArthur, Khan, Rasczak and Mtambe. They were tall or short, dark or fair, with the physiques of a dozen colony worlds. But all had been chiselled and scraped, cut and shaped until they fitted the mould, until they had left all their individuality behind, and had been formed, heart and body, mind and soul, into what they were, Marines of the Space Expeditionary Force.

They could rip apart enemies with their bare hands, these marines. They could survive a week alone in the desert with no tools but a knife and a trowel, no food but a bar of chocolate and whatever they could find, no water but the contents of cactuses and other succulents. They could find their way through the darkest night with nothing but the stars to navigate with. They could operate any vehicle the Space Expeditionary Force had in its inventory, and they could depend on each other utterly and completely.

Even in their physical structure, they were special. Their skin had been reinforced with bonded fibre mesh to make them resistant to penetrating injuries. Their muscles had been honed with chemicals until they could run forty kilometres in full combat gear without a break. Their eyes had been fitted with optics enabling them to see in the infra-red and ultra-violet. Their sexuality had been suppressed with hormones, because they had no need for sexual desire. Sexual desire was a distraction, an unwelcome one, for an SEF marine.

More formidable even than the marines themselves were the suits they wore. Each cost as much as an old-time battle-cruiser, and was far more capable. They were of alloys that could be heated to a thousand degrees Celsius without softening, let alone melting, and were proof against all blast damage. Mirror-polished to defeat laser beams, they had full protection against nuclear, chemical and biological agents as small as the tiniest viroids. The hulls of the suits were covered with bricks of explosive meant to detonate outwards and protect the underlying armour plating from damage from projectiles, and these were covered by a further alloy skin designed to defeat all forms of radar or other electronic detection.

Each suit was a world in itself. It carried enough food and water to sustain its occupant for a week, and its power pack could keep it going constantly for a fortnight without pause. Its interior had perfect micro-climate control, with breathable air being cycled constantly at the most comfortable temperature for the suit’s owner. Waste removal was immediate and completely efficient, with all excretions stored carefully for future disposal. The suit’s motors translated each movement of its occupant’s limbs into motion, delicate or strong as the need dictated, so it could, if required, manipulate a screw or jump ten metres in earth-normal gravity with equal felicity.

The suits bristled with weapons, too: heat-seeking missiles in backpacks, grenade throwers in shoulder batteries, quick-firing Gatling cannon at the wrists of the gauntlets. Each suit was capable of more destruction than an entire brigade of old-time soldiers with their machine guns and rocket-launchers, and all this destructive capability was directly keyed to the suit’s occupant’s mind. A marine only had to think, in a particular format, of a weapon in order to use it, and each weapon, each system, of the suit had failsafes and backups so a blown fuse or burnt microchip couldn’t possibly mean a major failure.

Marine and battle-suit, then, a perfect combination; more than enough to defeat almost any enemy one could imagine, anywhere in the known universe. And down through the atmosphere, riding cones of flickering white hot plasma, they came, an entire division of them, to set up a beachhead for the second and much larger wave of troops to follow.

                                                          ***********************

Inside one of the battle-suits in the forefront of the first battalion of the first wave, a marine laid his head back against the padded headrest and nibbled his lip absently. A few centimetres away, on the other side of his faceplate, the atmosphere rushed by, heated till it burned from the friction of his passing, but his suit kept him completely cool and comfortable. Through the white flicker of plasma, he could see the curve of the planet below, flattening swiftly into a line as he fell.

He was falling very quickly, in a long arc taking him over the unseen landscape hidden below the thick yellow clouds, in a trajectory meant to put him down within visual distance of his primary target; yet only a little discrepancy, a minor error in height of insertion, and he could easily overshoot or undershoot the mark by hundreds of kilometres. He knew it, and he was not disturbed. His faith in the Space Expeditionary Force’s equipment was total.

All around him, above and below, to his left and right, were hundreds of other suits. They were close enough that he could see them easily, bright points of flickering light, railing fire across the sky. The nearest ones were close enough that he could see the outlines of the suits themselves, and knew that if there was an accidental collision, even the suits’ incredible technology would not save their occupants from instant annihilation. But he did not need to look at them to know they were there, because even now his suit’s communications suite kept him instantly updated of the location of each of those others. If he wanted, he could have a three-dimensional map of their location relative to his own suit projected on the inside of his faceplate, with paths traced out; and his suit would move him out of any possible danger of collision with its belt rockets. But there would, he knew, be no danger of collision, because the training ensured that the division’s co-ordination was perfect.

The marine was a master sergeant. He was very good at his job, completely efficient, without even the slightest trace of the nervousness most of the other marines took into combat. The Space Expeditionary Force was his life, and he had given his all to it, and had left his past completely behind, until he could barely remember a time when he hadn’t been a marine. He was tall, strong, intelligent, utterly dedicated, and was widely thought of as on the track to promotion to officer rank. He had, himself, no particular desire to be an officer; his current rank suited him just fine, with its perfect blend of power and responsibility. Besides, he made officers uncomfortable with his absolute calm even in the most trying of circumstances. But if he was ordered to join the officer’s training academy, he would. He had never even thought of disobeying an order from the first moment he put on the uniform of the marines.

His name was Venkatachalapathy, and he had made this kind of drop many times before.

Down under those billowing yellow clouds, he knew, was an endless rocky desert, broken only occasionally by a patch of shallow sea. Down there the atmosphere was poison, made of gases which could strip the lining out of the inside of human lungs, and temperatures at which human blood would boil. Yet he, and the thousands of other marines making this drop, would be perfectly protected from the environment by their battle-suits, and could get on with the business of fighting the enemy.

Yes, the enemy would be there, crawling through their underground networks of caverns below the stones of the desert. Down there, where the division would be landing, was the enemy’s capital, a vast and diffuse maze of tunnels and chambers. If the division could capture it, the heart would be ripped out of the enemy’s defences, and the second wave could easily fan out and overrun the rest of the planet. If the division failed to capture it, though –

Master Sergeant Venkatachalapathy grinned humourlessly. The division would not fail. The division had never failed, even against opponents far more capable than the enemy crawling through the holes under the desert below. The division had ripped apart massed armoured charges, had fought an entire army to a standstill more than once, and in its previous deployment had fought its way out of encirclement by a force six times as large. The creatures under the desert sands didn’t even have weapons a tenth as deadly as those the division had faced and beaten. It would be no contest.

Thinking about the fight, however, brought the enemy themselves to mind, and despite his iron self-control, Venkatachalapathy’s mouth turned down at the corners and his grin changed to a grimace of disgust. Like the others, he’d been told all that was known about the enemy, all about their mindless hatred towards common decency, and how they were preparing steadily for the day when they could send asteroids to crash on Earth and obliterate entire cities. He’d been told, further, about the enemy’s vileness towards their own females, imprisoned for life in rock chambers far underground, never to see the outside again, and growing gigantic, blind and limbless in their confinement, condemned to a life of forced breeding. Far more than all the others the Space Expeditionary Force had fought, this enemy was utterly evil, depraved and worthy of extermination.

“The common name for them is the Insectoids,” the colonel had said, back at that first briefing, to the assembled battalion. “Of course, they aren’t really insects, though they have many features in common with them. They’re more like armoured worms with legs – huge armoured worms with legs, bigger than a large man.” Holographic images of an Insectoid warrior had appeared in front of each marine, turning slowly to give a complete view. There had been a few muted gasps of shock and disgust, and even Venkatachalapathy had felt his lips drawing back in a snarl. “We’ve never actually interacted with them directly, but we’ve been watching them for a while, and we think it’s time to take action before it’s too late.

“Those overlapping armoured plates,” the officer had continued after a measured pause, “are thick pseudo-bone, almost certainly as hard as tempered steel. Notice the legs? They may look spindly, but an Insectoid can move faster than a man can run, and keep it up for much longer. And note those eight turreted eyes – they provide a view in all directions, can be retracted into the carapace when required, and each eye is in turn covered by a transparent integument which seems to be extremely resistant to damage. They need it, in the sort of hellish climate they live in.

“Now watch this,” the officer had continued, as the holographic Insectoid had unfurled a short thick elephant-like trunk from under the front end of the carapace. “That trunk is the Insectoid’s primary manipulative organ, which it will also use for handling weapons. Look closely...” The colonel had paused as the holograph zoomed in to the trunk tip, which divided into several projections resembling long fingers. “Those look thin, but from what we’ve observed, they’re very strong. Certainly they’re stronger than any human is, stronger even than a marine is.

“But we’re going to beat them,” the colonel had announced, the silver badges glittering on his black uniform as he’d glared around the room. “We are going to beat them, and remove the threat they are to us. We’re going to beat them and we are going to free their poor imprisoned females. And then we are going to teach them civilised values. Know why we’re going to do all that?”

The same fierce grin had appeared on the faces of all the assembled men. “Because,” the colonel had shouted, “we are marines of the Space Expeditionary Force, and we are the best that has ever been, is, or will be. Nothing can stand up to us. Nothing.”

The cheer that had followed had echoed through the enormous room, bouncing back from the walls again and again.

The officer had gone on to talk about the weapons the Insectoids had, at the most primitive projectile weaponry of the order of machine guns, and possibly poison gas. But their entire atmosphere was toxic anyway, so the poison gas was superfluous.

“We know they hate us,” the colonel had ended. “We have to stop them before they can develop the asteroid weapon they’re designing, with which they can wipe out entire earth cities. Continents. Besides, have another good look at them. They’re too damned ugly to be permitted to live.”

The room had erupted in cheers again.

                                                         **************************

The first wisps of cloud had already started streaking by Venkatachalapathy’s battle-suit. In the moments left to him before he’d be submerged in the opaque sea of cloud below, he performed a quick visual check on the rest of his battalion. They were there, precisely where he’d expected them, each suit still sheathed in its bright corona of flaming plasma. Things were going perfectly according to plan, which was only natural. He’d have been astonished if they hadn’t.

Inside the cloud, the light faded quickly, from bright yellow to murky ochre. They were still dropping fast enough to burn away the vapour near the suits, so each marine fell surrounded by a sheath of clear incandescent gas, but they were slowing as drag increased. Soon it would be time to deploy the drag chutes.

No matter how many times he’d done this, in training and in action, the master sergeant never let his attention wander during this phase. It was the most critical part of the entire descent, because to deploy the parachutes too soon or too late might make a considerable difference to his landing point. Even though the suit’s computer would handle the actual deployment of the chutes, he never quite trusted them to get it right. Bringing up the relevant graphics on the faceplate display, he watched the red, green and yellow readouts – brilliant against the darkening cloudscape outside – until, at precisely the calculated time, he felt the slight tug as the pilot chute pulled away.

A moment later the battle-suit burst out of the bottom of the cloud into clear atmosphere. Below, the desert stretched away in a series of rocky ridges and eroded hills, until lost in the haze of the horizon. The scene was even more awful than the visuals in briefing had led the marine to expect, but he did not waste any time dwelling on it. He had more important things to do.

Already, the atmosphere below was dotted with the rectangular panels of main parachutes. Under them, the battle-suits still arced downwards – the function of the chutes was to slow them down, not to change their course in any way – and the marines would be preparing their landing jets for last-minute course corrections. Venkatachalapathy called up the control panel to check on his own.

A moment later there was a violent jerk as his own main chute deployed, and his speed dropped dramatically, turning him from a flaming meteor to a diving falcon. He turned his attention groundwards, looking for the feature he was aiming for, a low hill like an upturned saucer with a huge chunk of it cut away. Below the sands over which he was still falling, the Insectoids would be scuttling through their tunnels, unaware of the retribution that was descending on them at several times the speed of sound. It was difficult to believe that he was flying over a portion of the enemy capital – there was nothing but rock and sand to see, and even that was shrouded in gloom. Although it would be nearly mid-morning below, the light was very bad.

He saw the hill, and sideslipped towards it, checking to make sure his trajectory didn’t intersect that of any other battle-suit. Now he was rushing by above the terrain in a shallow dive, and the parachute fell away from his suit with the slightest of nudges. He fired the jets, their blast stirring up sand in clouds behind and below him as he slowed and turned, looking for a flat place to land. With a final explosion of sand as he fired his retrockets, he was down.

Even in combat, there is something about a successful planetfall that draws a moment of silent reverence from the most hardened marine. Possibly it’s the fact that another difficult and dangerous landing had gone off perfectly, without a hitch. Perhaps there are other, more metaphysical reasons. In this case it was also the realisation that he was one of the first humans ever to land on the planet that gave Venkatachalapathy pause. Besides, he was standing in the middle of the very capital of the enemy, but there wasn’t a single building, or any other recognisable structure, to be seen. It was almost surreal.

He did not pause long. He had to get moving, to clear the landing zone for the second wave, which would already be falling through the atmosphere, though still above the clouds. Pressing down with the treads of the battle-suit, he leaped forward. Despite the much greater gravity, he felt quite normal. The suit had a superb suspension system.

All around him, the first wave was landing. The suits came down fast, turning quickly with their jets and landing on cushions of retrocket fire. It was efficient and impressive, but it threw up massive clouds of dust which made the poor visibility even worse. The master sergeant waited just long enough to ensure that the battalion was down, and continued across the landscape in jumps, looking for his primary objective, an entrance to the city below. A couple of hurdles over low hillocks, and suddenly he was alone.

And it was only a moment after that when he noticed the hole in the ground.

Because he’d never expected to find an entrance so quickly, it took him by surprise, and he’d already gone past the low arched opening in the side of a mound of rock and earth before he could order the suit to stop, and turn round. It was his responsibility to check whether it was a tunnel entrance or just a random pit, before calling in a squad to mark it out for the second wave. He turned, slowing to a walk, and made his way heavily towards it.

And then, quite suddenly, he was no longer alone.

They seemed to materialise out of the landscape, stepping high on their long jointed legs, their eyes peering balefully out at him from the turrets of bone. They unfurled their trunks, and the grasping fingers at the tip held angular weapons, pointing at him. An instant later, a hundred darts and pellets were hurtling towards his battle-suit.

Venkatachalapathy laughed. He laughed with the pure exultation of combat, as the explosive bricks on his armour blew out at the darts, knocking them away, so that he was surrounded in a fireworks display of explosions. He laughed as he raised his hands, and as the Gatling cannon at his wrists spat out streams of shells which turned the Insectoids into fragments of bony armour and maggot-like wormflesh. He laughed as he turned, hosing down the terrain around him with the cannon, firing at maximum intensity but they were still coming, still boiling out of the ground and rushing him, and the cannon were slowing, the ammunition racks in his forearms empty, and no time to reload from the lockers fitted over his thighs.

Suddenly it wasn’t quite such fun anymore.

All around now, he could hear heavy firing, and the shouts of his men filled the communication channels. For the moment, at least, he couldn’t expect any help from them. But he was a master sergeant of marines, and against mere overgrown insects there was no reason why he shouldn’t be able to fight and win.

The grenade throwers at his shoulders barked, canisters of explosives lobbing through the air, and he ran through the blasts as they exploded, knocking armoured monsters over like toys. And then – except for a single enemy warrior facing him – he was free of them.

For a long moment, the man and the Insectoid stared at each other. Seen this close, the enemy didn’t look as unnatural and horrible as it had appeared in the holographic image. It looked at home in this desert, its armoured plates and turreted eyes somehow suited perfectly for the rock and sand and poison air, the heat that made everything ripple even through the faceplate of the suit. It looked at home here, and it was the man who felt like an interloper.

It was only a moment, and then the Insectoid was unfurling its trunk, and held in the trunk was a heavy metal rod with a pointed end. It took Venkatachalapathy a second of utter incredulity to realise what he was seeing. The alien monster was preparing to throw a spear at him.

It came with such speed that the marine could not have dodged even if he’d wanted to, and with such force that when it smashed into the centre of his suit’s chest he actually felt the impact, like a sharp rap on the metal which drove him backward a step. The explosive bricks had gone from that point, and the spear had hit the alloy. Still staring at him from those turreted eyes, the Insectoid reached over its back to a quiver it was carrying, and drew out another spear. Cocking its trunk, it prepared to throw again.

Roaring, Venkatachalapathy jumped forward, his suit’s arms rising, the hands grappling. He grabbed hold of the Insectoid and pulled, feeling the armour split under the pressure of his metal fingers, the thick meaty body underneath part. Still shouting with fury, he pulled until the warrior was in two pieces, and he threw them in the dust, the long bony legs still kicking.

Suddenly tired, Venkatachalapathy felt his anger drain away as abruptly s it had come. And then he grew aware that the firing had ceased, and the shouting. Cycling through the communication channels, he tried to call his men. Except for the faintest crackle of static, there was silence.

He was still standing there, desperately trying to raise the battalion, when the silence was suddenly broken.

In itself it wasn’t anything very significant – the sharp crack of an object striking the back of his battle-suit’s helmet. His first thought was that one of his men had seen him, and, unable to use the communication channel for some reason, had thrown something at him. His second thought was that an Insectoid had emerged from some unseen hole and had fired a dart at him. He glanced over his shoulder as he turned.

Half an Insectoid  stood behind him.

Incredulity held him frozen as he watched the creature. It was the one he’d torn in two only moments before, but the ripped and ravaged flesh was knitting, the spilled intestines retracting through the ragged tear in the abdominal wall. It was tilted to one side, the legs on the other holding it up with difficulty, but the baleful eyes were staring at him, at him specifically, and he knew this creature meant to kill him if it could. Its trunk had already picked up another stone.

He was still wondering whether to tear it apart again or take evasive action when something struck him hard, between the legs, and twisted. Thrown off balance, he fell. And as he lay in the dust, stunned by the unexpectedness of his fall, he saw what had happened.

The other half of the monster had tripped him, with the second spear, which it still clutched in its newly-regrown tentacle. Raising the metal rod, it began dragging itself across the dust towards him.

And now he could see the others, small ones, the remnants of those he’d shot to pieces earlier. Missing limbs and eyes, trunks and armour plating, they were dragging themselves through the sand, holding up their weapons, dart guns and stones. And his explosive bricks were gone, so the projectiles were all impacting on the metal. They were coming down like rain.

The metal of his armour was proof against particle beams and laser rays, explosive blasts and flame-throwers. It was not proof against sticks and stones.

He heard the metal crack and splinter. He felt something under his side, rolling him over, and he knew it was the spear again, levering, and he tried to resist, but it was useless. Faintly, he remembered the colonel talking about how strong the individual Insectoid was. He tried to raise his arms, but they would not obey him. He tried to call for help, but there was nothing to disturb the crackle of static. He tried to raise the second wave, but there was no answer.

His faceplate was filled with the half-destroyed visage of the Insectoid now, and he felt almost a moment of sympathy, for the healing the creature was going through, and how much agony it must be suffering. But then the Insectoid raised its trunk high, and the trunk held a sharp, pointed stone, which it brought down on the middle of the faceplate, again and again.

Unable to move, unable to fight back, he lay and watched the stone, and wondered how long it would take for the faceplate to break.

Long before the first crack appeared, he was screaming.



Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

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