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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012