by Mark Anthony Brennan
Bledsoe nudged the thing with the toe of his boot. Orange body fluid oozed out of the shredded flesh.
Huh. Xeener meat.
The drots had done a good job on this one. It was a walker. Or it had been. The fat main body was now just a charred chunk, about the size of a two-man cruiser. The long, spindly legs were shattered and strewn around the main body.
Bledsoe kept poking through the carcass with the barrel of his pulse rifle to make sure there were no detachables. Finally he was satisfied and he looked up to scan the surrounding terrain.
There were some low hills in the distance, covered in green growth. However, down in the flats, where only the smallest, gnarly shoots could make their way through the purple-tinged rock, the ground was bare. Up above the small first sun was making its way up into the milky white sky. They had to head back before the second sun rose, or else they’d risk over-heating their suits.
Years of special campaign training and they send him out here. Out here in the fringes to do clean up detail. Man, what he’d give to get back to some real action.
“Parij,” said Bledsoe, chinning his communicator bar. “All clear over here.”
“Yeah, here too,” replied Parij. “I’m heading back over. I’ll be right—” There was silence for a few seconds. “Hey, wait.”
“What is it?” demanded Bledsoe.
“Flyers? What, here? Hang on, I’ll be right there.”
Bledsoe engaged his boosters so that with each step he was propelled twenty meters through the air. He leapt over their cruiser and headed for a ridge. Parij had to be just on the other side.
What the hell were flyers doing in this sector? They’d never come across anything other than burrowers and walkers around here.
Bledsoe saw Parij as soon as he cleared the top of the ridge. She was standing about fifty meters away with her pulse rifle aimed in the sky. One flyer was almost directly above her. Two others were approaching from a distance. There were two bright flashes from the end of Parij’s pulser and the flyer above her fell from the sky, its huge, leathery wings crumpling around it. It hit the ground in a heap just as Bledsoe landed next to Parij.
“I’ll watch for the others,” ordered Parij. “You check that one out.”
“Yes, sir, Lieutenant,” hissed Bledsoe. Whatever you fuckin’ say.
The white flesh of the wings fluttered in the breeze like a mass of sheets. The wings made the flyers look massive, but Bledsoe knew that the main body, buried beneath its broken wings, was only a fraction of the size of the walker he’d just seen over the ridge.
In several spots there was a rippling, which at first could be mistaken for just a wafting caused by the wind. But Bledsoe knew better—there was movement underneath the blanket of wings. The movements became discernable mounds, each one heading for the nearest edge. Detachables. About a dozen of them.
The first detachable emerged from under the wings just a few meters in front of Bledsoe. It was a small walker, no bigger than a man’s hand. Vaguely reminiscent of a large spider, the walker’s body was delicately supported by a multitude of wire-like legs. Bledsoe blasted it with a silent pulse. There was nothing but a shallow hole in the rocky ground where the walker had just stood.
Bledsoe then walked around the flyer carcass, blasting the emerging walkers as he saw them. It didn’t take long to get them all.
“All clear, Lieutenant,” he reported, walking over to where Parij stood. “Where’re those other two?”
“I dunno. They were headed this way, but now I’ve lost visual contact. I’ve ordered in a unit of drots. They should be here any minute.”
The two of them scanned the sky. There was nothing but an empty white expanse.
“We shouldn’t be here,” muttered Parij. “I put us in harm’s way.”
“Don’t blame yourself, sir. You couldn’t have known there were flyers in this sector.”
“I should have known. It’s my job to know.”
“Hey, come on, stop beatin’ yourself up. We’re just here to do a job. It’s not up to us to figure out what the meat is up to. That’s up to Lamarr and his…” Bledsoe shifted his shoulders and waved his hands mockingly, “…empaths. Lieutenant, we’re soldiers. We just kill the enemy.”
“For god’s sake,” sighed Parij, “can’t you get it through that skull of yours? They aren’t the enemy. They’re friendlies. This is what they want. We’re doing them a favor.”
“Do you know how fucked up that sounds? Listen to yourself—”
Parij was staring at something behind Bledsoe. He spun his head to see. There was a flurry of darkness above and behind him. A huge mouth, sharp teeth, claws—all bearing down on him. In the same instant in the corner of his eye his saw three flashes in rapid succession. The darkness collapsed, dropped. The flyer landed no more than two meters from Bledsoe’s feet.
Bledsoe gulped. His heart was pounding in his chest.
“Thanks, Lieutenant,” he gasped. “I owe you one.”
“Forget it. The drots can clean up. Let’s move. Fast!”
With booster-enhanced strides the two of them made the top of the ridge in a few seconds. Then their hearts sank. To their right, less than a hundred meters away, there was a flyer swooping down in their direction. To the left there were two more flyers not much further away. And in the distance there were others. Six, seven, maybe more. Their cruiser was still several jumps away.
We’re dead. We won’t make it.
“Where the hell are those goddamned drots?” moaned Parij.
Bledsoe took a deep breath. “You take the one on the right. I’ll take the left.”
“Got it,” said Parij.
The two of them held their pulsers up at shoulder height and prepared to leap. Just as they were about to move the flyer to their right suddenly changed direction. It had been diving down directly at them but now it veered off to its right, cutting across in front of them. The creature flapped its wings and headed in the direction of the other two flyers.
“Now’s our chance,” barked Parij. “Move!”
As they bounded across the flats towards their cruiser Bledsoe kept his eye on the flyer. The creature let out a shriek that sounded like gravel landing on metal. Then it tucked in its wings and lunged at one of the other flyers.
Oh my god. It’s attacking one of its own.
The two flyers clashed in midair in a tangle of wings and claws. The two creatures fell to the ground but continued to scuffle. The remaining flyer hovered above them for a few seconds then dropped down to join in the fray.
“What the hell? What are they doing?”
“Not sure,” said Parij who had reached the cruiser ahead of Bledsoe, “but let’s get out of here, soldier.”
* * * * *
“What’d they say?” Bledsoe was busying himself in the cramped cargo area behind the seats as the cruiser carried them rapidly back towards base.
“It’s a new phase,” replied Parij, removing the communications headset. “The members of this colony have reached the point that they are aware of the competition they are in. Now they are battling each other.”
“Yeah, you don’t say,” muttered Bledsoe, clamping his helmet to the wall. Before taking off he’d seen several of the other flyers in the distance attacking each other.
“The empaths have noticed that several other colonies have reached this phase. The drots may not be required much longer.”
“Empaths,” growled Bledsoe.
The empaths were the ones that created this whole mixed-up situation. They were the ones that figured out that the members of the Khyan colonies needed to be killed off in order for the colony to develop. Even though the exploratory expeditions had detected no intelligent life, the empaths sensed—no, they felt—the colonies grow in strength as their members were killed. So the Khyan Campaign was initiated with the use of drots. And the Khyan appreciated it. Or so the empaths said.
“Get with the program, Bledsoe,” said Parij from her seat. “We’re not here to question orders.”
“This isn’t a military operation, Lieutenant. Why are we even here? Anyone could operate these drots. Why do they need us?”
“They need our expertise.”
Bledsoe looked up from the equipment and stared at the back of Parij’s head. “Oh come on. When does Lamarr ever listen to us?”
Several metal orbs whizzed past the window, heading in the opposite direction. Bledsoe crawled over and peered out the rear window at the fighting robots disappearing behind them.
Oh, right on time. Thanks a lot.
Bledsoe scrambled forward and squirmed into his seat next to Parij.
“This campaign is ridiculous. The empaths even admit they can’t communicate with these xeeners. It’s all based on vague feelings. It’s bullshit.”
“Don’t call them xeeners, they aren’t enemy aliens.” Parij turned and looked Bledsoe in the eye. “It makes sense to me. Each colony is really a single entity. It has a collective awareness but it needs to develop in order to exhibit intelligence.”
“Yeah, yeah. And as more of its members are killed off, the more it develops. I’ve heard the lecture, sir. But what sense does that make? The more we kill them off the better they feel?”
Parij sighed. “Yes. The fewer members it has the stronger and more developed the collective awareness becomes. I guess its awareness becomes more concentrated.”
“Well, why are we wasting time sending in drots to fight them individually? I say we go in there and carpet bomb the colonies. That’ll help them reach… nirvana.” Bledsoe smiled to himself on his choice of words.
“That won’t work and you know it. Something like that the collective would sense as an aberration, an accident. Then it would just replace the members it’s lost. It must be a true battle. A sort of survival of the fittest.”
“This whole thing stinks, Lieutenant. On the basis of some whacked-out empaths we’re supposed to believe that by slaughtering these xeeners we’re doing them a favor? And they’ll thank us for it?”
“You’ve got to think beyond the human paradigm…”
“Jesus! Now you sound like one of them.”
Parij grinned suddenly. “Okay. Okay.”
Parij turned back to stare out at the landscape moving swiftly below them. The rocky flats had given way to gentle rolling hills covered in greenery. Just barely visible in the distance ahead were the rectangular gray buildings of the base.
Bledsoe gazed admiringly at Parij’s profile. Her high cheekbones, her delicate nose and chin, her rich, dark complexion.
“You saved me today, Larla,” he said softly. “Thanks.”
The corner of Parij’s mouth turned up. “Don’t mention it,” she said, still staring forward.
“Maybe I’ll show you my appreciation tonight.”
Parij blushed but she didn’t turn her head. “We’re on duty, mister,” she frowned.
Bledsoe took a deep breath and sat bolt upright. “Yes, sir.”
* * * * *
“Mr. Lamarr, I wish you would reconsider.”
“Lieutenant Parij, we cannot leave now,” said Lamarr. “That’s preposterous.”
“Sir, I have…” Parij glanced over at Bledsoe standing beside her, “we have… been on countless campaigns. I ask that you trust our judgement.”
“But this is not war. I think you forget that. This is a benevolent peer race contact. My department has well-defined protocols for this situation.”
Parij was silent for a few seconds. She and Bledsoe stood in their military uniforms, their hands clasped behind their backs in respect. They stood before Lamarr’s desk, which was an elaborately carved block of dark wood. Around them there were layers upon layers of multi-colored drapes that wafted lazily in an artificial breeze. Behind Lamarr there was a waterfall emptying into a pool nestled between moss-covered rocks. The pool was surrounded by tropical terrestrial plants.
Lamarr’s office was a far cry from the metal barracks that Parij and Bledsoe were housed in.
“If you will not come with us now,” said Parij finally, “then I would ask that we be permitted to stay.”
Lamarr stood up from his desk. He wore loose-fitting, flowing garments that glittered under the lights. He walked over to the pool and looked down into the waters before answering.
“My department is eternally grateful to the Armed Forces,” Lamarr said, turning around to face Parij and Bledsoe. “You will both be commended highly—your drone robot campaign was a complete success. But that phase is over now. A military presence is no longer required.”
“Sir,” said Parij slowly, “the Khyan have advanced beyond our understanding. Even the empaths cannot comprehend their actions, their motivations.”
To the right of Lamarr’s desk Ekmas held up his hand in protest. Ekmas had the body of a man, but below the skin there was a network of tubes. This was a fypol, a worm-like creature about the diameter of a human finger. The fypol was everywhere under the skin, making Ekmas’s body appear lumpy and misshapen. The head was a web of intertwining tubes. The nose and ears were lost in the snarl. The eyes were set in deep hollows and the mouth was merely a gaping hole.
Ekmas was a human/fypol symbiont. And an empath.
“Lieutenant,” breathed Ekmas, “that is not quite correct.” His voice was soft and airy like a gentle breeze. As he spoke, the fypol shifted and squirmed beneath the human skin. “It is true that the Khyan are extremely foreign and therefore difficult to understand. But we know they are progressing in their natural cycle. They are close to attaining their ‘true’ beings, thanks to our help. Intellectually the collectives are indeed well beyond humankind. But some things remain clear—they see us as friends, they are grateful for our assistance, and they wish to contact us to express their gratitude.”
Bledsoe shifted and opened his mouth to speak. His glanced over at Parij. She gave him a nod.
“Mr. Lamarr, sir, if I may speak?” said Bledsoe. “If these… creatures are advanced beyond our comprehension then that makes them unpredictable.”
“Spoken like a true warrior,” smiled Lamarr. “But I repeat, this is not war. We appreciate your concern but we have the expertise in these matters.”
“But,” argued Bledsoe, “we can’t guarantee your safety.”
“You weren’t sent here to protect us,” lisped Ekmas. “Our safety was never the issue.”
Really? You ever been out on the flats, pal?
Bledsoe found it disconcerting to look at the writhing mass of Ekmas’s head, so he kept his eyes on Lamarr. “Sir, you are from the Conservation Department. Isn’t it your mandate not to interfere?”
At the corner of his eye Bledsoe saw Parij shoot him a glare of disapproval. He pretended not to notice.
“Well…” Lamarr coughed. “We… we disrupted their normal life-cycle. We eliminated their natural predators when we first arrived. We thought we were protecting them. It was our duty to make amends, so we brought in the drots.”
Typical. You fuck up and then you call us in to clean up the mess.
“But,” said Parij, “now that they’re evolving without you…” She shrugged and raised her eyebrow questioningly.
“The protocols on first contact with a benevolent peer race override all other directives,” said Lamarr.
“We will await the appearance of the ‘true’ beings,” breezed Ekmas.
“Please forgive my companion’s abundance of caution,” said Parij, glancing sourly over at Bledsoe. “However, may we remain, sir? As observers.”
Lamarr took a deep breath. “Very well. But strictly as observers.”
* * * * *
The observation module was a huge squat cylinder. Circling its lower edge was a wide viewing platform. Today the platform was crowded with over a hundred of the base personnel, there to witness the contact with the Khyan being.
To the eye it appeared the platform was out in the open air as the module hovered above the flats. However, with no wind, sound or smells coming from the outside it was obvious that the platform was protected within a shielding bubble, invisible though the shield was.
Bledsoe was glad that they were also protected from the heat. With both suns in the sky the flats fifty meters below were being baked. An exposed human wouldn’t last more than a few minutes down there. But, of course, the toxic air would kill them first.
“So what happens now?” asked Bledsoe. The module had been positioned over the Khyan colony for well over an hour.
Parij shrugged. “I don’t think they know.”
Most of the crowd was over by the railing looking down at the colony. Bledsoe and Parij stood away from the edge by themselves. They’d seen the colony many times before. It was just a large mound, a hill really, riddled with holes. The holes were for the members of the colony to come and go.
“But they know it’s today?”
“Yes,” replied Parij. “The empaths say that there is now only one member remaining in there. That member becomes the entity’s ‘true’ self. It shouldn’t be long now.”
Like they know what the fuck they’re talking about.
There were empaths placed on raised daises every ten meters or so around the edge of the viewing platform. Bledsoe looked over at the one closest to them. It was sitting in a square tank, bathed in a yellow liquid. The fypol was thicker than the one hosted by Ekmas. It was difficult to make out the figure of the human host, whose skin was stretched obscenely by the quivering mass of tubes.
Bledsoe grimaced in disgust. Looks way more fypol than human. You mean there’s a man in there somewhere?
Bledsoe twisted his head and peered up at a balcony that overlooked the viewing platform. There were about a dozen people up there—the base’s elite. In the center stood Lamarr, resplendent in a golden robe. Ekmas was close to him. Lamarr bent his head in Ekmas’s direction, then suddenly shot out his arm, pointing at something below. The crowd on the viewing platform were muttering excitedly over by the railing.
Parij raised her eyebrow. “Show time?”
The two of them pushed their way through the crowd until they could see the colony below. The mound was now crisscrossed with a series of cracks. Even through the bubble shield they could hear a rumbling coming from the colony. It was a rumbling like distant thunder. The noise was growing louder. And the cracks were getting wider.
Bledsoe instinctively reached for his waist. But there was no weapon there. Lamarr’s strict orders. Parij looked down at Bledsoe’s hand then frowned at him, shaking her head in disapproval.
Rocks on the surface of the mound were now bouncing as the entire colony shook. The cracks grew ever wider and chunks of rock were breaking off the edges of the fissures, collapsing inward. The noise was intense—it was as if the planet was about to split in two.
Then there was silence. Everything below was still.
A few people in the crowd gasped. Bledsoe exchanged a quick look with Parij. She looked as puzzled as he was. Then…
With an ear-splitting crack the colony below exploded in a flash of bright light. Several people screamed. Everyone jumped back in shock. But they were safe. The debris from the explosion rained harmlessly on the face of the bubble shield.
Everyone shielded their eyes as the light became brighter. Bledsoe became disoriented. Was the module surrounded by flame from the explosion? It seemed that the light was engulfing them and rising. It was difficult to tell—he couldn’t take his hand down from his eyes, the light was too intense.
Some people were still screaming. Many more were yelling at each other. A few were running for the exits.
“Wait!” came a booming voice.
It was Lamarr. Bledsoe looked over, realizing that the light had subsided. He blinked as the after-glare lingered in his eyes. He still had to shield his eyes from the bright sun above.
Lamarr had his arms raised, waving at the crowd to calm down. “Don’t worry you are safe. There’s no danger.” He paused and leaned over to listen to something Ekmas was telling. Lamarr nodded. “Look,” he said, pointing upwards.
Everyone raised their heads. It wasn’t the sun that was bothering Bledsoe, it was another globe that hovered just above the observation module. It was difficult to judge the size, but it was at least the size of the module. It shone brilliantly, but not so brightly that it was unbearable to look at. There was an unevenness to the light within the globe. It twinkled, as if the globe was crammed with millions of tiny stars.
“That’s… that’s…” stammered Bledsoe.
“Yes,” said Parij, grinning at him, “it’s the Khyan. Still think it’s meat?”
Bledsoe shook his head, feeling sheepish. Okay, you got me. Never seen a xeener pull that.
Bledsoe leaned over the railing and peered down. Through the swirling dust and falling debris he could glimpse the remains of the colony. It looked as if it had been nuked. But it was clean, no scorch marks. Just a large gaping hole in the middle of the flats.
The crowd chattered excitedly in the odd glow. Parij had a look of awe on her face as she craned her neck to get a view of the Khyan globe. Bledsoe followed her gaze. As he stared into the shifting glints of white light Bledsoe was bathed in a wave of euphoria. The points of lights gleamed with a benign purity. He was tempted to reach up his hand to try and touch the ‘stars’.
How could he have been so foolish? There was nothing to fear here. This was warmth, this was safety.
Then the globe started to rise. Slowly at first, but it gained more speed as it climbed into the sky.
“Where’s it going?” asked Bledsoe. The grumblings of protest from the crowd echoed his disappointment.
The empath near them thrashed in its yellow liquid. Its body slapped against the sides of the tank. Under the tightly stretched human skin the fypol tubes were blushing a bright purple.
“It looks agitated,” said Bledsoe.
“Hmm, just in an empathic state,” said Parij. “That’s how they get.”
The Khyan globe was rapidly diminishing into the white sky.
“Well, what’s with the contact?” asked Bledsoe. “Is that it?”
Parij looked up at the elite balcony. Lamarr was in consultation with Ekmas. Apparently he liked what he was hearing. He was smiling broadly and nodded every so often. After a while Lamarr turned away from Ekmas and starting talking to members of his senior staff.
“What the hell is going on?” asked Bledsoe impatiently.
Parij shrugged. “Let’s ask someone.” She strode over to a tech in a white tunic. He had his finger to his ear, listening to something on his headset. “Hey, what’s happening up there?” demanded Parij.
The tech frowned and held up his hand to silence Parij. After a few seconds he lowered his hand from his ear. “It seems they cannot make contact with us,” he said.
“What? Why not?” asked Parij.
“The Khyan realize we are not ‘true’ beings. They can’t contact anything less.”
Parij smirked. “They think we’re just members? Just members of a colony?”
The tech shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. They think we’re just agents or something. But not a real part of a colony.”
I don’t believe it. I don’t fuckin’ believe it. “They think we’re drots,” Bledsoe laughed. “They think we’re goddamned drots.”
Parij smiled but waved at Bledsoe to be quiet. “So why is he so happy about it?” Parij jerked her head in the direction of Lamarr who was still beaming as he walked among his staff.
“Well,” said the tech, “the Khyan have figured out where our colony is and they’re all heading there to express their gratitude. This is a feather in Lamarr’s cap.”
Bledsoe looked towards the horizon. The Khyan globe was now many kilometers away. Over above the distant mountains another point of light emerged like a daytime star. Then Bledsoe noticed other lights to the right and left. They were all moving rapidly and converging in on one another.
“They’re… they’re going to Earth?” demanded Parij.
“Of course,” said the tech. “The empaths figure they’re—”
“They’re all going,” asked Bledsoe, cutting the tech short. “All of them?”
“Well… yes,” said the tech. He looked nervously at Bledsoe and then backed away into the crowd.
Bledsoe stared squarely at Parij. She looked shaken. There was panic in her eyes. Finally she took a deep breath.
“Come on, soldier,” she barked, turning away. “We have to contact Fleet Command.”
“This is bad, isn’t it?” Bledsoe gasped as he trotted alongside Parij. Their boots clanged against the metal deck as they headed for an exit. “I mean, if this was a diplomatic mission they’d just send one or two emissaries, right?”
Parij clamped her jaw but didn’t answer.
“But them all going in force,” continued Bledsoe, “that’s something else, isn’t it?”
Parij nodded grimly.
“I knew it,” spat Bledsoe. “I knew it. This is them returning the favor, right?”
Parij paused at the exit and turned to look at Bledsoe. “Yes, Lonnie. They are going to Earth to do there what we did here. To make us happy.”
“Oh my god, Larla,” whispered Bledsoe. “Why aren’t you telling him?” Bledsoe pointed back over his shoulder in the direction of Lamarr on the balcony.
“Since when does he listen to us?” said Parij wryly.
Bledsoe swallowed hard. “Can we warn Earth in time?”
“Even if the message gets through from Fleet Command in time,” said Parij, shaking her head, “what can anyone do against those?”
Bledsoe’s shoulders sagged as the full implication of the situation hit him. “Shit. What chance do we have?”
Parij put her hand on Bledsoe’s shoulder and peered into his eyes. “Let’s just hope these… xeeners continue to think of us as drots.”