Bughunters: Unnatural Selection 2012-03-16 CaesarCon
by, 03-26-2012 at 02:46 PM (1869 Views)
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
(After playing the Bughunters scenario “Unnatural Selection” by Lester W. Smith from Polyhedron Magazine # 96 Friday at CaesarCon with Adam Frager, Neil, Steve Walkup, and Rick Snyder from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
In its first attempts at colonizing the stars, United Terra discovered that the galaxy hosted horrible dangers. But given the incredible distances involved, the extent of those dangers remained unknown. In a growing effort to gain better information of Sol’s galactic neighborhood, United Terra decided to pepper the stars in Sol’s vicinity with a virtual shotgun blast of colony ships. Whereas Terra’s initial colonies were sent out in colonizer ships – huge, lumbering vessels carrying great contingents of colonists, incredible arrays of equipment, several years worth of supplies, and entire companies of synthetic human troops for protection – the colonies of the new effort were being sent in lightly loaded modified combat landers carrying just half a hundred colonists, minimal prefab buildings, barely enough supplies for six months of survival, and a mere squad of low-ranking United Terra Reconnaissance and Peacekeeping Force (UTRPF) troops. Nor did the ships remain with the colonists; rather they paused just long enough to offload their contents before returning to Terra. Other smaller ships were sent to resupply the colony on a semi-annual basis.
The synthetic humans were relatively new as well. Vat-grown clones of human volunteers, specially modified to serve as starships crews, combat teams, and general troubleshooters for the human race, they were all part of UTRPF and superior than humans in many ways. They had been physically enhanced to react more quickly, to keep moving longer, and to endure more punishment in battle. Mentally, they were able to withstand the psychological stresses of hyperspace travel, a situation that disoriented normal humans sometimes to the point of madness. Synths were not just clones, but also got recordings of the brain structures of their donors. Thus, they were not allowed on Earth except in very controlled circumstances. They had the intelligence and memories of their donors as well, and they knew it.
Six brand-new UTRPF (utter-puff) troopers were quartered at UTRPF’s training facilities on Stargate station. Stargate hovered roughly between the Earth and the Moon, at LaGrange point 5 to be exact, and contained a civilian population of nearly 100,000 people. Roughly one-fifth of the station’s ring was taken up by the UTRPF HQ and training grounds.
PFC Jackson was the ranking synth in the group. His donor background was an infantry lieutenant with the U.S. Army, giving him more military expertise than would be expected of a private. He was armed with an assault rifle (with grenade launcher), several hand grenades of various type, and body armor.
Private Two Fisk was the lowest ranking member of the squad and got most of the crappy jobs. His donor had been a factory worker and from him, Fisk had inherited a natural skill with various electronic, computer, and mechanical repair. He was also armed with an assault rifle and grenade launcher, hand grenades, and body armor.
Private Two Boomer was listed as the heavy weapons expert in the group and his donor had also been a factory worker. In addition to his heavy pistol, he was responsible for a grenade launcher, a flame thrower, and had the typical body armor. He liked the big weapons and the big explosions. His motto was “Shoot before you see the whites of their eyes!” He was a little miffed that Jackson was the squad leader, having only one week of seniority over Boomer.
Flatline was the group’s radio operator and also a Private Two. His donor had been an office clerk but the recording was 46% patchy. It wasn’t easy making do with only half a set of memories, but his donor had died during the trauma of undergoing a mental recording for his cloned brain. He was quiet about his donor’s past and carried only a heavy pistol. He tended to follow Jackson around.
Doc Martin was the squad’s medic and also a Private Two. His donor background was a chemistry professor who had been very intelligent. He got along well with Boomer and the two joked constantly. He was armed with an assault rifle. Finally, Runningwolf was the squad’s scout, also a Private Two, and armed with a heavy pistol and a laser sniper rifle. His donor had been wealthy but there was a 6% error of the mental recording. He seemed very serious.
It was a Monday morning, August 25, 2132, at 0430 hours.
The synths had finished their period of basic training some weeks before, and each completed their individual occupational training on Friday. According to tradition, they should have received weekend passes immediately thereafter, then been allowed some R&R time in Stargate’s civilian quarter. Instead, they had received orders to report to the Marines’ Third Brigade, Echo Company, where they were assembled as Squad B of Second Platoon. Saturday and Sunday found them putting in long hours at the mission simulators. They ran through an array of different tasks, from tracking a tiger-analogue through steaming jungles to rescuing avalanche victims on a mountainside.
On Monday, they had been assigned to a real mission. PFC Jackson had just finished reading their mission orders aloud: They were to accompany a group of 50 new colonists to the second world orbiting 61 Cygni A. The trip would be aboard a lightly loaded modified combat lander. It was carrying only a half-load of colonists and supplies, enough material for six months of survival. During flight, the 30 synners’ berths would be occupied only by the six synths and a starship crew of three.
The pilot of the ship was listed as Star Lieutenant Myers; the copilot and navigator was Chief Warrant Officer Stratton; and the engineer was Warrant Officer Briggs. They were to obey the aerospace synths orders explicitly while aboard ship. On the ground, they would answer to Mayor Heinz Reiter in all issues not specifically military. PFC Jackson would be the final authority in such matters and Reiter would defer to Jackson’s expertise. Jackson was also told that Reiter had more ammunition that could be released to the marines if he chose. The tour of duty on the planet was six months. At the end of that period, a supply ship was set to arrive. The captain of that ship would have the authorization to decide whether to extend their stay or to bring them back depending upon the colony’s condition.
The ship was set to leave in 59 minutes from docking bay 37. It took about them 15 minutes to pack and another 10 minutes to travel to the docking bay.
The modified combat lander was waiting for them. Like all Terran ships, it was not pretty and, though new, looked like it was on the verge of falling apart. Modular in design, all UTRPF ships had a similar look about them. This one was long and gangly though not as long as a standard combat lander. It appeared to be short one of the Transport modules, which were usually used for transport of either goods or personnel, and it had the addition of a smaller transport module that was probably where the stasis pods were being kept. A small scout ship was attached to the bottom of the transport.
Jackson, in the few minutes that he had before they were off, got information on the 61 Cygni system, the planet they were going to, and even a cargo manifest. The system was 11.43 light years from Sol and consisted of a K5 and a K7 star orbiting each other. The planet itself was listed as having a gravity of .978 g, four satellites, 89% land area covered in lush jungles, a year of 391 days, and a day of 31 hours. According to the report from the UTRPF Survey of July 3-6, 2131, the planet was covered with lush jungles, small seas, and numerous rivers and lakes. There were negligible life forms on the planets and the largest herbivores were equivalent in size to a gazelle and only aggressive when threatened. The largest carnivore was the size and shape of a badger. The report included a photo of the planet and an illustration of the “gazelle” as described by the survey, which was signed by Gunnery Sergeant Jolly.
Once aboard ship, they were led to the sleeper modules by Engineer Briggs, a skinny synth with short-cropped hair. He then rushed back towards the drive section. There were five sleeper modules, each with six bunks. The first had been taken by the starship crew. The marines were assigned to the fourth. The others echoed emptily.
The marines were still stowing the last of their gear when the intercom pinged and the pilot’s voice rang out:
“Launch in 90 seconds. Launch in 90 seconds. Everyone buckle in.”
Ninety seconds later, the ship dropped away from the Stargate. Then there was a growing thrust of acceleration from the drives at the rear and they were off towards the stars.
“We’re now in Isler Space,” the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. “You may ... do whatever you want.”
“Stop cleaning the gun,” Flatline said to Boomer.
They unstrapped themselves and stood up. The gravity field of the ship felt much like the one on Stargate Station. Fisk suggested they look over the ship and they headed aft. Flatline was depressed because they were moving faster than radio waves and he knew his equipment was useless.
They found the crew module, where they would spend the next several months eating and showering, and then the transport module that held the stasis pods. The larger transport module behind it was empty of interior walls but filled with seed containers, prefab housing, supplies, and even a couple of small ATVs for the colony’s use. Everything would be coming out of the transport module when they reached 61 Cygni A 2. The airlock door that connected the scout to the lander was there as well, though it was locked with a security lock.
They investigated the drive section, but Briggs ran them out fairly quickly.
Over time, they got to know the starship crew, though they seemed distant to the marines. Only Briggs seemed to have any time to deal with them, and even that was a bit rushed and strained. Flatline spent the time working on homing signals to connect to the ATVs or that could be used by the colonists as locator beacons. He plundered some of the less necessary electronics that were going to the planet for the parts. Boomer and Doc Martin spent all of their time together. Jackson often checked on the stasis pods.
The first month slipped by without incident, then the second month, then the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth ...
Halfway through the 13th month, all of the ship’s power suddenly went off! Light, heat, air circulation, even gravity all died unexpectedly. Immediately, dim red emergency lights came on, and a claxon blared through the ship. Most of the marines saw Briggs come flying down from the direction of the first sleeper, heading towards the drive section. There was a panicked look on his face.
Jackson, in the sleeper module, watched as the pods shut down, one by one. Then Briggs came crashing through the room and sideswiped Jackson on the way through.
“God damn it!” Briggs shouted. “Get out of my way!”
He continued on through, closely followed by Boomer, who was armed with a heavy pistol, and Flatline shortly after. Jackson followed the three men.
They found Briggs in the drive section. When they asked, he told them that the drives had shut down for no apparent reason, and with it every system aboard the ship, including the stasis pods. He said he was trying to reboot the main drives. It was 10 minutes before the main drive was online again. After that, he rebooted the central computer and the stasis pods.
“What’s the best thing we can do to help?” Flatline asked him power came back up.
“Go check the stasis pods,” he said. “See if the colonists are okay.”
They returned to the stasis transport module and found that two of the stasis pods were reading that their contents had expired. John Archer, who was listed as a 23-year-old male from the United States with the profession of cook had died. The colony cat, a three-year-old calico named Persephone, had also died during the power outage. However, the three pods full of livestock embryos were fine.
Jackson went up to the cockpit.
“Lt. Myers, this is Jackson,” he said over the intercom. “I’m checking on your condition. Is everything okay in there?”
“Yeah, yeah,” came the reply. “Hold on.”
A few seconds later the door opened up.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” the agitated Myers said.
“You have any idea what happened?” Jackson asked.
“No. No. The drives just stopped working. You’ll have to ask Briggs. I’ll be getting a full report from him once he gets back up here.”
“All right. If you hear of anything, just keep me informed.”
“Did we lose anybody?”
“We lost two.”
“God damn it.”
“The cat and somebody else.”
“John Archer,” Fisk said.
“John Archer,” Myers replied. “What was he? Was he important?”
“Cook,” Flatline said.
“The cook?” Myers asked.
“We lost the cook,” Fisk said.
“Well, it could have been worse I guess,” Myers said. “We could have lost somebody important. That sucks, I guess. Okay. Well, turn his pod back on, keep him frozen. The colonists can decide what to do with him. If Briggs finds out anything ... sometimes these things just ...”
He gestured at the hull of the ship and Jackson nodded knowingly.
Several hours later, Briggs admitted that he was not sure exactly what happened. All he could point to was the possibility of a glitch in the system. There was nothing specifically wrong with the drives but it could happen again. Boomer brought up the question of whether it could have been sabotage. Briggs noted it was possible and Boomer said it could have been programmed to wait until they were out 13 months before activating. Jackson asked if he was good with computers and Flatline wanted to see what Briggs had done to bring the ship back up. The engineer told him he rebooted the entire system and took Flatline back to show him how. He reiterated that he didn’t think it was radiation and if it was sabotage, it would have to have been a pretty intricate program to do what it had done. He admitted that he didn’t completely understand the Isler Drive, noting that he knew how to service it but didn’t know all the physics behind it.
“I don’t know what happened, but I hope it doesn’t happen again,” Briggs said. “I’m going to keep a closer eye on it.”
It was good enough for Myers.
Stratton told Boomer to be careful about the gun he was carrying.
“I was hoping to repel some boarders,” Boomer said. “But, not this time.”
“No, we don’t want any boarders!” Stratton said. “Wait to you get planet side. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of things to kill.”
The next two months passed uneventfully.
The journey was over after 463 days. The marines were standing at a viewport, looking down at a very green world with stripes of cloud. Once orbit was established, Stratton came looking for them.
“Grab your gear and come along with me,” he said. “We’re going to find a suitable landing spot.”
They geared up and followed the copilot back through the ship to the cargo module where the airlock to the scout stood open. Stratton climbed in and took the pilot’s seat. He gestured for Jackson to take the co-pilot’s seat. The rest of them had to stand in the drive corridor, clutching at straps that hung from the ceiling.
“Somebody close that airlock so we don’t all die,” Stratton said.
Boomer reached up and closed the airlock, dogging the hatch, and getting a green light. Stratton powered up the scout.
“Okay, is everybody ready?” he asked.
“Uh ...” Jackson said.
“Let’s do this!” Boomer shouted.
“Okay, three,” Stratton said, sounding like he was doing a countdown.
He reached forward and pressed a button. The scout fell away from the combat lander and dropped towards the planet’s surface as Boomer let out a “Woo-hoo!” The planet got large very quickly and Boomer chanted “Faster! Faster!” The ship dropped down to treetop level and then Stratton set the vessel to skimming just above the trees as Boomer hooted. The ride was rough.
After an hour or so of that, Stratton dropped the ship into an open meadow and landed.
“Let’s take a look,” Stratton said.
“Woo-hoo! Let’s earn our pay!” Boomer said.
He pulled up the lower airlock door and jumped out, dropping about six feet to the soft surface below. Jackson followed, pushing a button that extended the ladder and climbing down. The others followed with Stratton exiting last, a handgun in his hand.
Flatline immediately set up a field radio and contacted the ship. He found no interference and no other radio traffic. The others spread out until Stratton walked over to Jackson and talked to him briefly about the site. The warrant officer pointed out that the clearing was too small and not flat enough to land the starship. He noted that the trees would have to be cut back on each side to make room for the colony’s prefab buildings. He said that they would have to keep looking and Jackson asked if he wanted to do it in the ship or by foot. Stratton suggested the ship and they loaded back up. Boomer was the last one on.
“Sometimes I like it that you’re this crazy,” Flatline said as he climbed into the scout.
They took off, Boomer hooting, and continued looking for a site. The tree-hugging, heart-stopping flight continued for the rest of the day. Finally, near nightfall, Stratton put down in a larger clearing, some 200 meters in diameter. The marines headed out to scout the perimeter. The trees there looked almost like pine trees but they had reddish-bluish palms instead of needles hanging down.
Boomer noticed a rank odor blowing in from the trees near his position and a stealthy but heavy rustling among the trees.
“Something’s coming!” he shouted.
He chambered a grenade in his grenade launcher.
“Lock and load, baby!” he shouted.
“Check that trigger finger, Boomer!” Jackson called. “Let’s leave this planet mostly intact.”
He never lets me have any fun, Boomer thought.
The marines headed over towards Boomer’s side of the clearing.
“Doc, stay behind me!” Boomer yelled.
“What do you see, Boomer?” Jackson called.
“I don’t see nothin’ but I smell it and I hear it!” Boomer said.
Jackson headed that way while Stratton ran for the ship.
“Boomer, we can only synth once!” Flatline yelled.
As the marines grouped together, Jackson aiming towards the area as he approached, something leapt out of the underbrush. It looked something like a badger but was as large as a bear. It made a terrible squealing and screaming noise as it went for Boomer, slashing the man with one huge claw and tearing through his body armor. Jackson fired a burst from his assault rifle a moment later but aimed too low and struck Boomer in the back. Doc, standing near the man, jerked to one side as his friend got hit.
Oops, Jackson thought.
Across the clearing, Flatline turned, saw the thing, knelt, and fired a HEJA (High-Explosive Jet-Assisted) bullet from his heavy pistol. The bullet struck the thing in the side and seemed to tear a large piece of its flesh away.
“I’m getting it from both sides!” Boomer yelled.
He fired a flechette burst from his grenade launcher into the alien, ripping through it and tearing more of its flesh away. Nearby, Fisk moved closer to the forest to get a better angle on the thing. He had switched his assault rifle to auto fire, filling the air around the alien with bullets but not hitting it with any. The rifle had gotten away from him and he did more damage to the trees than the thing.
“Guess I got to do all the work again!” Boomer shouted.
“Hey! I hit it!” Flatline yelled back.
“You need to die, boy!” Boomer yelled at the thing, firing another bunch of flechettes at the thing.
More of it was ripped away but its wounds were closing up with no visible effect. The flesh itself seemed to cover the parts that were damaged, but wasn’t filling it out. As parts were ripped away, it seemed to be losing body mass.
“Why won’t you die!?!” Boomer yelled.
Flatline, still kneeling 20 yards away, fired another aimed shot at the thing, blasting away more of its flesh with another HEJA bullet. With that, the thing turned and bounded into the forest.
“Run, you coward!” Boomer yelled.
“Come back here with my bullet!” Flatline yelled.
But the thing was gone, having disappeared into the undergrowth.
“Doc, check on Boomer!” Jackson shouted. “Boomer, what’s your condition?”
“Come back here you son of a *****!” Boomer shouted towards the trees.
“All right,” Jackson said. “Normal.”
“Trigger stuck,” Fisk muttered, looking at his assault rifle.
Boomer pulled out the flechette magazine and replaced it with a magazine of 40mm grenades. He fired a shot upwards and they watched it arc over the forest. There was an explosion in the distance.
“Who shot me!?!” Boomer yelled, turning.
“Sorry,” Jackson said.
“Did you fail weapons training or something?” Boomer said.
“I guess after 15 months, I’m a bit rusty,” Jackson said.
“So’s my trigger,” Fisk said.
“You stay beside me from now on,” Boomer said.
“C’mon Boomer, you can’t expect us all to be like you,” Flatline said.
“I’m just saying, he is the leader, he should be able to shoot. He’s supposed to set the standard. He is the leader.”
“Just hold still,” Doc said to Boomer.
Doc Martin opened up the medkit and was seeing to Boomer’s wounds. He paid special attention to the wounds the alien creature had given him. Boomer moved away from the woods and stripped his body armor off. It looked like the tears in the front didn’t damage the armor beyond use. Out of curiosity, he looked at the grouping of bullets that were in the back of the body armor. They were very tight, almost as if Jackson had been aiming at him.
I’ll keep that in mind, he thought.
They got samples from the fleshy alien chunks on the ground. Jackson took Flatline and walked the perimeter but didn’t smell or see any sign of the creature. They noticed the large tracks where the thing had fled the clearing. Boomer recommended that they not colonize that area though Jackson pointed out that there could be areas that were worse. It would actually be Myers’ decision.
They boarded the scout again and headed back up to the combat lander. After some discussion, Myers decided that, despite the alien creature, it was the best location for the colony.
When morning came to the clearing below, Myers gently landed the starship and Briggs began decanting the colonists from the stasis pods. It was left to the marines to protect the clearing’s perimeter until all the cargo was off-loaded and the colony’s electric fence could be erected. Colony Leader Heinz Reiter was not at all happy to learn of the marines’ tussle with the giant badger-thing or of the death of John Archer.
“We scared it off,” Boomer told the man. “It ain’t coming back anytime soon.”
“I’m hoping zat is so,” Reiter, a German man, said. “You vill make sure that this is so. Yah?”
“We’ll do our job, you do yours,” Jackson told him.
“That is vhat ve must do, our jobs,” Reiter said. “Yah.”
By nightfall, everything had been unloaded, the fence was up, and the outer shell of the city hall building had been assembled directly in the center of the clearing, providing a place for the colonists to lay out their sleeping bags. A makeshift tent had been put up outside for the marines with cots and equipment. The three-meter tall electric fence with razor wire over the top stood about 25 meters from the edge of the clearing, making their compound about 150 meters across.
Stratton, Myers, and Briggs wished them all luck and then went back into the starship. The vessel lifted off into the night’s sky, leaving them to their own devices.
They were on their own for six months with 49 colonists and the colony dog.
The marines kept alternating two-man group on watch at night. They also walked the perimeter during the days and scouted out the area in groups of at least four. There was little more that they could do to defend the compound. They met with the colony peacekeeper, a Vietnamese man named Binh Huang. The colony had a few technicians and a few scientists, but the bulk of the colonists were there to simply work. Boomer was especially interested in the 22-year-old Paula Mozombite from Bolivia, a very attractive woman.
Some of the colonists seemed somewhat standoffish though most of them were friendly enough. Reiter was more assertive but seemed to understand the chain of command in the colony. He wanted daily verbal reports from Jackson and he had one of the other colonists typing up the reports on a portable computer. The only medical personnel the colony had were a Hong Kong-born physician named Huy Lee; an Egyptian dentist named Odi Qadir; Hannah Scholotz, a German Nurse; Frieda Smith, a veterinarian from the United States; and Rafael Valdez, a Mexican paramedic.
The bodies of John Archer and the colony cat, Persephone, were buried on one side of the compound, their names carved on two pieces of metal.
Flatline actually found a notebook and started to keep track of their routines and what was done in the colony.
They were busy. Sometimes the marines escorted scientists out of the compound to examine plant and animal life, or geologists who were digging in the ground. One of the colonists, Matthew Foley, was a lumberjack from Canada and took work crews out to clear some of the trees nearest the electric fence. The lumber proved to be useable and actually produced an aromatic and harmless smoke when burned.
On one of their patrols outside the compound, they found the partially devoured carcasses of local creatures. It looked like some of those gazelle-creatures. Boomer, who knew something about xenological theory, examined the bodies and found that they not only had claw marks but also deep puncture wounds, as if by long fangs. The badger thing they had fought earlier had not had long fangs. That same afternoon, they found another carcass and in that creature found that the puncture wounds were surrounded by necrotic tissues, as if from a strong poison. They made sure to mark the locations so that the scientists could return to examine the carcasses. That required another escort.
Security relaxed a little as the quiet continued. Small crews left the compound, not always with marine escort. Foley took more crews out to cut more trees and scientists occasionally headed out, usually within view of the compound, to test the local flora and fauna.
The days passed without incident. About a week after the starship left, they heard a scream from the opposite side of the compound and a man came stumbling from the edge of the woods, holding bloodied hands over his face. Jackson called for a medic and Boomer headed over to the entrance of the compound and drew his heavy pistol. The colony doctor appeared and ran to the man, examining him. Jackson looked over the doctor’s shoulder as he worked.
The man had several bloody but shallow claw marks across his face.
“What did this to you?” Jackson asked. “And it is coming?”
“I was-a taking my dog for a walk-a out in da woods,” the man said in a strong Italian accent, “when something, it looked-a like a squirrel or something-a, attacked me. It just-a came at me and attacked me. I think Butch ran after it-a. It was-a that way!”
He pointed out of the compound.
“Who was with you again?” Jackson asked.
“Butch,” the man replied. “My dog. The dog, he ran-a off after the squirrel thing. I don’t-a know where he is.”
Jackson got the marines together. They left Doc Martin and Runningwolf in the compound while the rest geared up and headed into the woods. Boomer argued that they should take Doc Martin but Jackson decided against it.
“It’s a vicious squirrel,” Jackson said. “If four grown men can’t take care of it ...”
Flatline had looked for a face shield of some kind but the only welder’s mask he could find was in be used.
They headed into the jungle and soon found the path the man had taken. They eventually found a nest of mashed and dead baby squirrel-things at the base of a bush. Nearby lay a stick with a bloody end. It looked like the colonist had been smashing them.
Jackson called for Butch and the others whistled and called for the dog for a few minutes but there was no sign of it. Jackson had the marines pick up some of the things and he took the stick back as well. When they returned, everything looked normal at the colony. Doc told them that Dr. Lee had taken the Italian man to the city hall.
Jackson went in search of Huang, the peace keeper. He found him after a short search and showed him what they had found and told him what he thought happened. When he noted that it looked like the man had bludgeoned the creatures to death, Huang asked if he knew the man’s name. Boomer pointed out that he was with the doctor.
“I’ll go ask him,” Huang said.
They learned that the man’s name was Marco Santora. He was a broker from Italy and, after constable Huang talked to him, he was ordered to talk to Alexander Vernon, a psychologist from the United States and the colony’s counselor. Huang mentioned to Jackson later that it might have been possible that the man had some psychological anomaly that the psych exam had missed.
After a couple of hours, the dog came wandering back into camp. Tongue lolling and tail wagging, it trotted across the clearing towards the town hall. When it arrived there, it reached up with one front paw, grasped the front door handle, opened the door, and slipped inside.
A woman screamed.
The marines all ran to the town hall where more screams and cries for help were erupting. They burst into the place to find a horrible creature within. It looked like the dog but it was standing on its hind legs and had expanded upwards and outwards. Insect-like legs had burst out of the thing and at its feet was a woman. It swung a single, horrible appendage at another man and slashed him wide open. Some of the colonists were frozen with fear while others screamed and ran around, trying to find places to hide.
The thing looked down at the woman at its feet who was trying to crawl away. It leapt onto her and sunk its fangs into her torso. She screamed and then started to have seizures, her body jerking on the floor.
Boomer fired the heavy pistol in his hand even as Fisk fired his assault rifle from the hip. Boomer’s HEJA rounds tore into the thing, as did the assault rifle bullets. The flesh was torn away but the wounds closed up with apparently no effect on the creature other than it was losing body mass.
Jackson dropped to one knee and fired his own assault rifle. Several bullets struck the horrible creature which looked less and less like a dog as the bullets struck it. Most of them actually bounced off the creature’s fur, however. The last bullet struck the horrible thing solidly.
Flatline rushed the thing, shouting “We’re here to protect the humans!”
Then he shot the thing in the face three times with his heavy pistol, hitting it with the first and third bullet. The terrible thing had ducked out of the way of the second. Boomer fired over the man’s head, striking it once more though two of his bullets went wide, one of them smashing through one of the windows in the town hall. Fisk moved to one side to give himself a better shot and opened up with his assault rifle again. Two bullets struck the thing, though not solidly, and two of them bounced off the thing’s fur.
The horrible thing rushed across the room and leapt out of one of the broken windows. Jackson ran to the window and saw that the thing had gone to all fours and was rushing towards the fence. People were running from the thing and trying to get away. He fired a burst at the thing and the bullets struck it, ripping pieces off. It now looked like it was just skin and bones, but it was still moving fast.
“What the hell is that!?!” Runningwolf yelled from somewhere near the gate.
Boomer moved to the window next to Jackson and aimed carefully, firing his last pistol bullet. It struck the thing and though it stumbled, it did not fall.
“Damn it!” he yelled and continued to pull the trigger on the empty weapon.
Flatline came up behind the two synths and practically climbed over them, launching himself out of the window by grabbing their shoulders and flinging himself out of the window. He tucked as he landed and rolled to his feet, then ran after the horrible creature.
Fisk, meanwhile, had run out the front of the town hall.
“Turn on the fence!” he shouted. “Turn on the fence!”
Runningwolf looked at the man, nodded, and then ran to the gatehouse. He rushed in the door and disappeared inside. Moments later, the generator next to the gatehouse roared to life.
Jackson leapt clumsily out of the window and landed on the ground outside, then ran after Flatline. They both saw that, just as the generator started, the thing changed course, no longer running directly at the fence but still moving away from the marines. It was almost as if it knew that the generator was powering the fence. There was no cover in the area where the thing was, however.
When it got close to the fence, it went to ground and just seemed to melt into the soil.
Boomer tried to climb out of the window but the flamethrower tank caught the edge and he fell.
Flatline ran to the spot where the creature had disappeared. He could see the clawprints and even where it vanished, but there was no sign of it. Fisk came running around the side of the town hall. Jackson also ran to the spot, yelling for Runningwolf to lock down the gate and the gatehouse. He was pleased to hear the clang of the magnetic clamps on the gate. When they examined the spot, they saw where the claw prints ended and a tiny bit of slime on the ground as well. Boomer got out his flamethrower and, with a push of a button, lit the pilot light.
“Stand aside!” he said.
Jackson backed off and Boomer lit the area up. He blasted it for over a minute, emptying one of his tanks.
“You son of a *****!” he yelled. “You aren’t getting away from me!”
When the fuel ran out, he took out a cigar and lit it off the pilot light.
“Squad leader, I don’t know if that fence is doing us any good,” Flatline said.
They discussed how effective the fence was against the creature. Then they checked on the wounded with some talk of quarantining them. Boomer and Flatline were ordered to do a perimeter check. Jackson went to examine the gatehouse. Flatline was worried that the thing could make itself look like anyone but Boomer pointed out that they hadn’t heard it talk. Flatline wanted to make up some kind of sign, but then he remembered that there were transponders in their helmets.
They learned that Anh Jiang was the woman who had been killed. She had been a meteorologist from North Korea. The man who had been killed was Alexander Vernon, the colony counselor and psychologist.
Reiter came out of the town hall and found Jackson. He was very distraught.
“Vhat is it?” he said. “Vhat are we going to do about it?”
“We’re going to find it and kill it,” Jackson replied.
“Vhat happened? Did you kill it?”
“Still working on that.”
“I need a report. I need to know vhat’s going on!”
“All in due time, sir. We’re still working on it.”
“All right. All right. Just let me know as soon as you know.”
Some colonists who had been outside of the compound eventually returned. Jackson made sure that the gatehouse was closed up tight and posted Runningwolf to keep an eye on it. He also looked in on Marco Santora but found the man convalescing nicely. He questioned constable Huang about the man and learned that he had questioned Santora but the Italian was sticking with his story of self defense, though Huang didn’t really believe it. Jackson asked that Santora be quarantined and Huang had no problem with it; he feared that Santora’s pointless violence might be the sign of some deeper problems.
Fisk found the scientists whom they had given the poisoned carcasses to. Fiona Duncan, a Scottish chemist, and Maya Teller, an Israeli biologist, both agreed that the poison was some kind of neurotoxin. It was a very complex formula and they had thus far been unable to make an anti-venom, though if they could get more of the toxin, it would help. When Jackson suggested they try to get the venom from one of the victims, they said they would try.
The colonists buried their dead and the colony chaplain, Bejune Kettani from Botswana, led a short service.
Jackson also issued orders that if anyone saw the St. Bernard to shoot it.
“I don’t care if it’s real or fake,” he said.
They discussed the creature and wondered if the thing had to physically digest its victims to take on their shape. He noted that with their equipment and communicators on their helmet arrays, they would know if one of them was real. There was talk of armbands and Boomer and Doc Martin went out to look for the dog and found only its remains a kilometer away. It had been devoured almost completely.
Jackson made a report of the entire incident to Reiter. The man was willing to get Boomer another filled flamethrower tank as well. They also decided not to let anyone outside the compound for a few days.
When some of the scientists who had been out of the compound returned, Jackson was sent for.
“What is going on?” one of them asked.
“There was an attack,” Jackson said.
“Let us in, then,” one of them said.
He looked over them and the ATV they had taken with them carefully. The two women were Kriti Pillai, a botanist from India, and Nazeera Gul, a Qatar biochemist. They had gone out to get samples and had brought back some sample packets on the sides of the ATV. They looked normal, if nervous. Jackson eventually let them in.
Patrols around the compound actually found numerous tracks and trails around the compound. However, they didn’t appear to be well-used trails. Boomer, in particular, went looking for the thing’s den without luck. He reported to Jackson and told him what they’d found.
“That thing’s been scouting us,” he said. “I’ve been following the tracks. It comes in different points on the perimeter. It’s been scouting. It’s been watching. It’s definitely intelligent, not just some dumb animal.”
They discussed how it had gotten past the fence, Jackson worried about the possibility of it getting back into the compound. They worried about how intelligent the thing might be as well and Jackson brought up the fact that it went directly to the town hall when it had invaded the compound before. Jackson had interviewed the survivors of the attack and learned that the thing had moved to the nearest person to the door and attacked them as claws and additional legs had burst out of it. Witnesses reported that the thing had been very efficient in its attacks and when it had bit the woman, it had immediately moved away, as though confident that the poison would finish her off. He shared his findings with the others.
Flatline, meanwhile, was working on a tiny tracking device set into a dart for a tranquilizer gun. He’d learned the colony had one air-propelled rifle for that very purpose. He worked through the day but didn’t complete the tracking device. He felt like he needed more room.
They continued with the two-man night watches and those on watch seemed to hear large movement in the woods. It was no different from other nights, but now they had something more to fear in the dark. Nothing attacked the compound, however.
The next morning dawned overcast. It rained lightly and the marines met in their tent mid-morning. Jackson recommended turning the fence off during the day as it hadn’t stopped the thing from getting in or out. Flatline told him about the tracking beacon in the tranquilizer darts he’d been working on but noted that it wasn’t quite ready yet. Jackson approved and told him to keep working on it. Flatline told him he needed elbow room and more place to work so they commandeered one of the prefab workshops for the day.
Boomer and Fisk headed out to scout around the compound and found a place where tracks seemed to start out of nowhere. They followed the fresh tracks but they merely led a half-kilometer and then vanished again. Jackson had wondered, at one point, if the thing could fly.
“Let’s get out of here,” Fisk said.
When they met at midday, they discussed the possibility of booby traps, tripwires, or mines. Flatline noted that he hoped the thing didn’t have a whole family. However, he had finished the tranquilizer gun transponder and showed the others. It was built with the radio in the tip and he’d fixed the dart so that it could easily break away after fired. He hoped that the tip would embed itself deeply enough into the thing that, even if the rest were broken off, the transponder would still be lodged in the creature. He had only had time to make one and it was fairly rugged. It still needed a little work but he guessed he would have it completely done in the next couple of hours.
Jackson went to talk to Reiter and tried to get a feel for the man. He also talked to other colonists to make sure that he was not acting any different than he had been. He feared that the man might be the thing in disguise but had nothing to base that on.
Flatline informed Jackson a couple of hours after midday that the transponder was ready. They discussed who should use the tranquilizer gun and it eventually fell to Jackson. They also discussed the fact that nothing happened until the broker went out and killed the squirrel-things. Jackson wondered if the compound was close to the creature’s home and maybe they should look for it. He had gotten a download of the rough maps that the colonists had made. At one spot two kilometers northeast of the compound was a place where some of the colonists had found what appeared to be a group of narrow burrows in a cleared area.
In the end, he decided to leave Doc Martin and Runningwolf to guard the compound while the rest of them went to investigate the burrows. Jackson carried the tranquilizer gun though he had it slung on his back and kept his assault rifle ready.
Near the burrows, they found tracks similar to the ones they had found in the compound. The burrows themselves looked almost like little sinkholes less than a meter in diameter. There were a dozen of them.
Boomer walked over to one of the burrows and tossed a smoke grenade in, backing quickly away. Flatline had his pistol ready as he knelt nearby. Smoke came out of the burrow he had flung it in and from some of the nearby holes as well. They guessed that some of the burrows connected and thought it possible that all of them were, but the smoke wasn’t going far enough for them to tell.
Nothing came out of any of the burrows after the smoke had been laid down.
They carefully examined the tracks. They looked, for the most part, like the same creature, though some of them were narrower and seemed to resemble the tracks that they had followed inside the compound. They discussed setting up snares or traps in the area as well. Jackson worried that there might be a whole herd of the horrors in the place.
“Who’s our skinniest guy?” Boomer asked while looking at the holes.
It was actually Flatline but Jackson ordered Fisk to scout the burrows. The squad leader went over and tossed several glow sticks into various holes. He also ordered someone to tie a nylon line to the man’s foot, just in case they had to drag him out of there. Boomer gave the man his heavy pistol and they picked one of the nearby burrows. Fisk crawled into it, pistol in one hand and stun grenade in the other.
I knew this was coming, Fisk thought as he crawled into the darkness.
Moments after Fisk disappeared into the burrow, the creature lunged out of the ground near Jackson. Boomer was faster, however, and lit the area up with his flamethrower, nearly roasting Jackson in the process. Jackson flung himself to one side as the burst of fire caught the horror and it lit up.
“Burn, mother****er! Burn!” Boomer shouted. Then he looked at Jackson. “We’re even!”
The bug, still aflame, seemed to melt into the ground. Flatline and Jackson looked around, trying to find it. Jackson put his assault rifle on his shoulder and took out the tranquilizer rifle.
There was no sign of the thing.
* * *
Fisk had only been crawling in the burrows for 15 or 20 seconds when he heard shouts from above. He had only moved a little ways into the burrow but had reached a place where the tunnel met another in a y-branch. He was unnerved by how tight the tunnel was and the constant dirt that fell down from the ceiling. He’d also noticed some slime in the place.
The fork had one path that went downwards and another that headed back up. He could even see light up the second branch and so started crawling back towards the surface.
Then he heard something behind him and looked over his shoulder. Behind him lay one of the glowsticks and in the strange, green light, he saw something seep out of the wall and completely block the tunnel. It looked like it was made of all claws and fangs.
It moved towards him, covering the glowstick and filling the tunnel with darkness.
“Shit!” he screamed.
He crawled faster towards the light.
* * *
The others turned as Fisk’s head and shoulders burst out of another burrow.
“It’s behind me!” he screamed.
Boomer ran to the man, Flatline right behind him. The latter grabbed Fisk by the belt and jerked him out of the hole.
“Suck on this!” Boomer shouted.
He shoved the end of the flamethrower into the hole and pulled the trigger. Flames burst from the edge of the hole and there was a squeal. Then he fell back as the thing catapulted out of the hole, completely ablaze. It stumbled only a few feet before it fell, brightly burning. Boomer helped it along with another burst from the flamethrower and, after a few minutes, there was nothing much left but some long, slim bones with bits of burnt meat upon them.
“That’s what you get for fishing with the right bait,” Fisk quipped.
They took the remains of the thing back to the colony and it was examined. The scientists started testing it and found it unlike anything they’d ever seen.
The next few weeks were very quiet.
The scientists finally finished their testing and their best guess was that the alien was some kind of creature that adapted with uncanny and amazing speed. The basic DNA was different from other life forms on the planet, however. They guessed that, somehow, the creature was not from that world at all. Jackson wondered if it had anything to do with previous colonies but it was unlike anything on Earth. Additionally, 61 Cygni A 2 had not yet been colonized.
Boomer wondered aloud if it might be the survivor of an alien spacecraft.
They didn’t see any more of the things over the next six months. They were unsure if the thing was the only creature of its kind on the planet, in the area, or just the only one that noticed the colony.