It’s time for Weird Fiction… uh… Tuesday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers! As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough. I’ll say a bit more about the story at the end of the post, if you make it that far. This is a science fiction story with a horror twist.
“What was the worst planetary battle you fought in, Grandfather?”
A group of young soldiers had approached Mako as he was mopping the floor of the canteen. They looked much younger than Mako had been during his time in the service, but of course they were – the age of eligibility for active duty had dropped from eighteen to sixteen in the intervening years. One young man stood in front of the others, and was apparently the leader of the group, and its instigator. He wasn’t Mako’s grandson, of course: “Grandfather” was a nickname given to those no longer fit for combat who volunteered for service aboard one of the capital warships, usually doing menial work. It was intended to be an honorary term, though was more often used in an almost sarcastic tone, and Mako could hear a faint hint of mockery in the young man’s voice.
Was I like that, at his age? Mako asked himself, though he already knew that the answer was yes.
The young men were almost certainly on edge, however: in less than 8 hours their warship, the Minotaur, would be meeting with three others in interstellar space for final planning and coordination. Less than 24 hours after that, the attack and invasion would begin, and these soldiers would be the first ones to go planet side, their assault the final stage in breaking the enemy’s defenses. They would also likely suffer the worst casualties.
“My worst battle?” Mako said aloud, reaching almost unconsciously to his throat. Decommissioned soldiers were no longer allowed to wear their dogtags, and often fashioned them into jewelry. Mako had made his into a simple metal locket hanging around his neck, which he twisted in his weathered hands thoughtfully. “The worst situation I’ve ever been in was the first Ancinian action on Jackson’s Hell.”
The entire assembly sniggered, and their leader laughed.
“Jackson’s Hell?” he answered. “Bullshit. Nobody survived the first battle on Jackson’s Hell.”
“Not true,” Mako responded, and he felt himself involuntarily bracing himself, in case the young troops set themselves upon him. It wouldn’t be the first time it had happened, not even the first time on this journey. “One person came back from Jackson’s Hell, and that was me.”
“I heard that, too,” a soldier said near the back of the group, and everyone turned to the new speaker, the pack parting to give Mako an unobstructed view. “My father told me that there was only one survivor in the battle, and that he was the first to touchdown on the Ancinian homeworld, afterwards.”
The group fell silent, the smirks and smiles fading. Perhaps there would not be a beating today, Mako mused. The war with the Ancinians was now as much folklore as history, even though it was discussed in every class on military strategy.
“I was at the very head of the invasion of Ancinian World A, to take revenge on what they had done to my squadmates,” Mako said. “And I was hailed as a hero for it, for a number of years afterwards. Then, as memory of the war faded, it was no longer convenient for there to be a public hero of the battle, and so my role was forgotten. Forty years is a long time, and few remember that there was even a survivor, now.”
“I heard that you fought to the last man on Jackson’s Hell,” another soldier said. “That you were the last of them all standing at the end.”
Mako shrugged. “There is some truth to that, but what you have heard about the conflict is more legend than fact. Things happened much differently, in reality. Would you like to hear what really happened?”
Nobody spoke, but heads nodded. Knowing that he had captured their attention, Mako told his story.
Do you know why the planet is called Jackson’s Hell? It wasn’t, when we visited it. Back then, it was simply known as MCP-1311-B, and that number has stuck with me more than the name. It was named after Jackson, of course. He visited it first, performing a preliminary surveying mission for exotic quark matter, and reported back that the planet possessed an abnormally large quantity of the stuff below the crust. We use this, of course, to fuel our interplanetary expansion.
But others had an interest in the planet, as well: the Ancinians. After Jackson left MCP-1311-B, the Ancinians contacted the Empire and told us in no uncertain terms that they had already laid claim to the world and would accept no further incursions there. That was, in fact, the first official, direct contact we had ever had with them.
We knew almost nothing about the Ancinians at the time. They held a small collection of planetary systems close to the edge of our expansion, and had fiercely refused any of our diplomatic overtures. The little information we had about their civilization came to us through the few independent human traders that were permitted entrance to their domain; pressure on these traders had given our leaders a few precious bits of intelligence. Their technology level was comparable to ours in many ways, though still perhaps decades ahead in others – which explained part of our interest in them, and our caution – but they appeared to be more focused on bio-medical instead of military research. They had a space fleet, not strong enough to threaten us but strong enough to make us wary.
With this in mind, the Empire didn’t think that the Ancinians would really push the issue over Jackson’s Hell. And if they did, we would be ready. For the second visit, my warship at the time, The Viper, was used to transport the surveying crew along with a sizeable military force. It wasn’t nearly as big or as advanced a ship as this one: The Viper only could carry about a thousand passengers and crew, almost nothing compared to the roster of The Minotaur. Jackson’s preliminary analysis had shown that the planet held significant reserves of quark matter, but not the exact amount or how hard it would be to get: our mission was to protect the survey team as they made more precise measurements.
I was part of the company that made planetfall. MCP-1311-B – sorry, Jackson’s Hell – would have been unrecognizable to you back then. I understand a lot of cadets pass through there before heading to training in the outer rim? You’ve probably seen, then, its barren grey terrain, flat and featureless for kilometers, except for the mining stations and the filter factories that pull the soot and radioactive byproduct from the atmosphere. When we arrived there, however, it had been unoccupied by any civilization, and was completely wild. It was heavily forested, the plants a mixture of vibrant greens and deep blues. The green plants sustained themselves with something like chlorophyll; I later heard that the blue ones got their energy through some exotic interaction with residual surface quark resonances. Nothing like them has ever been seen elsewhere.
A surface scan showed no sign of any Ancinian bases, and of course no sign of the Ancinians themselves. This was a bit disappointing to my squadmate Jacob and me; we had been itching for a fight, and had psyched ourselves up – like you’ve probably been doing today – in expectation of battle. Nobody had ever fought the Ancinians before, so we didn’t know what to expect; our emotions were a mixture of fear and excitement. Everything was very quiet, however, and we set up an outpost in a protected valley, with the soldiers taking the high ground around it, and the surveyors doing their measurements within, drilling holes and setting up sensing equipment.
Jacob and I were on the second watch, during the afternoon, and had pretty much begun to relax when the attack came. There was no warning – remember that I said that we had limited information about the Ancinians capabilities? It turns out that they had developed camouflage that completely thwarted our sensors. One moment it was quiet, and in the next moment we heard the crack of hypersonic rounds flying past us. One of these caught Jacob in the top of his shoulder, and he cried out as he was knocked partly down the hill. I slid after him, but as I arrived he was already telling me that he was okay – the round hadn’t even penetrated his armor.
But it was starting to. Even as we were assessing the damage, we could see that the impact site on his armor was sizzling – the Ancinian rounds were filled with a particularly caustic acid, and it was eating quickly through the ceramic shell. There wasn’t anything else to do but get the chestplate off of Jacob before the acid could get to him as well.
We’re trained to never take off our armor in a combat situation, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice. In the heat of battle, you react instinctively, and this was the only option. We were out of the line of fire, at least. Down the line, I could see that a few others had been hit, as well, and had shed pieces of their own protection. One poor bastard hadn’t gotten his helmet off in time and was clutching at the dissolving remnants of his face.
My sergeant was yelling at me to get back to the line; I crawled back up with my rifle, and saw…
Did you study “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the Academy? No? I guess training changes with time. The “Charge” was touted during my education as an example of the consequences of faulty communication. Some 500 years ago, during a battle between the British and the Russians in the Crimean War, a misunderstood order sent a brigade of light cavalry charging directly at a battalion of Russian artillery. Some may have realized the mistake as the charge began, but the riders as a whole continued bravely into a valley of death, sustaining heavy casualties. A French Marshall who observed the attack commented in its aftermath, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre” – “It is magnificent, but it is not war.”
This is the thought that came to my mind as I looked over the hill at the Ancinians. They were charging us – on foot – which would have been insanely laughable if there weren’t thousands of them approaching. There were no more than two hundred of us defending the high ground. The pointed, peaked heads of the Ancinians made them look oddly like the tips of medieval pikes, as if this were an advance of foot soldiers from the Dark Ages.
I have to admit that I simply stared at them for a few moments, stunned. Then my lieutenant had struck my helmet, ordering me to fire, snapping me out of my reverie. I shot into the rapidly approaching wave of Ancinians. I didn’t even need to aim, really: there was a wall of enemy troops running towards us. Hundreds of them fell in a matter of moments, but there were countless others that surged forward and, inexorably, they made up ground.
Other soldiers lost parts of armor as acid rounds hit. Those without armor came back up to the line anyway, including Jacob, as every soldier was needed to repel the assault. I couldn’t even now tell you how many times I reloaded during that initial push, but our efforts weren’t enough: the front line of Ancinans fell upon us.
My memory of the rest of the battle is scattered and chaotic. The Ancinians discarded their long-range acid rifles in favor of close-quarters scatter guns and acid blades. Soldiers without armor were particularly vulnerable. I remember screaming as Jacob was hit in the back by a blast of scattershot; I took off the head of the attacker with a rifle round.
I dodged and tumbled, grappling with and shooting at the enemy for what seemed like forever. And, suddenly, the hordes were thinner. I dodged under a final blade swipe, firing a micro-bayonet into the Ancinian’s chest, and then I was standing alone. Down the rest of the line, the remains of the company were finishing off the stragglers in the attacking force.
(“I thought you said you were the only survivor!” a young soldier yelled from the group listening to Mako, and he was immediately scolded to silence by his squadmates.)
I wasn’t the only survivor of the battle; I’m sorry if my earlier statements mislead you. The things that happened at Jackson’s Hell were far more complicated than you have been told. If you are willing to keep listening, you’ll understand what I mean.
The official casualty count for the battle Jackson’s Hell, on our side, was fifty dead, and another fifty injured, some critically. Of the Ancinians, most had been directly killed in battle – we went around and finished off the few survivors. For my part, I was relieved to find that Jacob had survived being shot: the scatter gun blast had hit him at a sufficient range that the shot didn’t penetrate much deeper than skin level. His entire back was riddled with painful holes, however, which had kept him incapacitated and out of the rest of the battle. I accompanied him as he was airlifted back to The Viper for medical attention, and we joked the whole way, even though it hurt him to laugh.
If there’s anything the Empire knows how to do, though, it’s treating war injuries, and light injuries such as those suffered by Jacob were trivial to deal with. After an hour’s work, he was walking out of the hospital sector on his own two feet and, though it was against doctor’s orders, he indulged in a number of drinks with the squad. And even bought.
I couldn’t drink, however, as I was slated for exterior inspection duty that shift. These days, with self-healing polymers and repair-making nanobots, you soldiers don’t have to worry about a ship’s hull integrity. In my day, though, the outside of every warship had to be constantly inspected for damage: failing seals, holes caused by micrometeorites, transmutation of metal due to interstellar travel. Due to the size of the ships, a lot of people were needed to cover inspections every day, and even the soldiers were drafted into two hour shifts crawling around on the hull, with only the vacuum of space to keep you company.
Or almost the only thing keeping you company. A crewman inside was assigned to constantly monitor progress by video, and was supposed to check in verbally every fifteen minutes by radio. On that shift, I had been out an hour and a half when I realized that the crewman – I think his name was Pan – had missed the most recent contact. This didn’t particularly alarm me: I was doing just fine outside and it was not unheard of for someone to fall asleep on duty. I actually felt sorry for the poor bastard, who would suffer through hell if he was caught.
Little did I know, then!
I tried to initiate contact from my side; nothing. There was still work to do but I decided to cut the inspection short and head back to the airlock early.
The hatches were pretty much the same then as they are now: circular, about two meters in diameter, with only a very small ten centimeter window to allow visibility inside or out. The controls were fixed right beside the hatch.
I was just crossing the hatch to get to the control panel when a face slammed against the window from the other side. It was pressed so hard against the glass, and its owner’s features distorted so much by fear, that I didn’t recognize him at first. It was, of course, Pan: the man who was supposed to be monitoring my shift.
He was in the airlock, without a spacesuit. I was stunned when the lights around the lock began to flash, an indicator that the door was about to open. The only place that could be done was from within the airlock itself; Pan himself was trying to open the door and, in effect, kill himself. I wondered what could make a man do that.
He didn’t get to finish the job. Only a handful of seconds after he crashed against the window, his face went slack and his eyes rolled back into his head. He fell backwards away from the glass, leaving a streak of sweat upon it.
I pressed my helmet up to the window, trying to see what had happened to him. There I was, in space, looking through helmet glass and a small, smeared window. The chamber was barely a blur, but I could see that there was nobody else inside with him. I looked down at his body to see if he had been wounded.
Things were crawling on him. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, and my poor view; however, as I continued to watch, I could see a handful of… things… fan away from his body and come to rest at roughly equal positions on the floor of the airlock. They reminded me of spiders, but they were not spiders. Their bodies were translucent and glistening, about the size of a thumb joint; they possessed thin legs that looked like steel wires. Beyond that, I could not make out any other detail; without getting closer, I would not be able to learn more. I tried again to contact someone else in the ship, anyone, but there was still no answer.
Pan’s body moved. I thought that he was attempting to get up, but there were in fact things moving under his clothing. As I looked on, more of the spider-things began to emerge from within. A lot more. Had they been there the whole time? No; they began to crawl out of his mouth, as well, and I imagined I could see one struggling to pull itself out through one of his ears. The new things spread out through the room as well, equidistant from one another, forming a regular grid upon the floor and partly up the walls. And they waited.
But I couldn’t. There was still no response from anyone on The Viper, and I already was certain, for obvious reasons, that things were bad inside. There was nowhere else for me to go, of course.
I moved to the airlock controls and initiated a wet vent – that’s what we called it when the airlock is opened without extracting and recycling the air inside. The rush of the gas into the vacuum took with it the spider-things as well as Pan’s body. In the instant it took to pass by, I imagined that his eyes shifted and looked at me, still alive.
I clambered into the airlock and filled it with oxygen. I didn’t take off my suit, however, with the memory of the spiders fresh in my mind. I had enough air for another half-hour, anyway. I opened up the inner door and reentered The Viper – and I walked into a nightmare.
The spider-things were everywhere. I could see them scuttling, to varying degrees of density, in every corridor in sight. A few of them rushed towards me as the door opened but they turned away quickly: they seemed to know that I was inaccessible within my vacuum suit. The rest of the passengers and crew were not as lucky, and as I walked further into The Viper I came across various scenes of horror.
Can I really do justice to what I saw? In my vacuum suit, sounds were muffled, giving the entire experience a dreamlike unreality and, fortunately, detachment. In every hallway, in every chamber, people were struggling to survive, desperately fighting off the things. More than once, I had to step aside as someone stumbled blindly past, flailing to dislodge hordes of spiders that were apparently stinging or biting them. As I passed one chamber, I could see a man on top of a table, using a fire extinguisher to try and beat back the swarm. Down another corridor, a group had set a fire to keep the things out. As I looked, though, the creatures swarmed out from the ventilation ducts behind the defenders and fell upon them. Movement drew my attention through the window leading into the infirmary. A single soldier was within, sitting upon an examination table. Our eyes met; as spider-things burst from the vents around him, scuttling rapidly towards him, he raised a pistol to his head and blew his own brains out. In another sealed room, a man was slicing frantically at his own arms with a straight razor, an insane attempt to cut the infected flesh off of himself.
The attack – for that is what it was – must have started not long before I reentered The Viper. It seemed that the spider-things had a sting that could, on accumulation, induce paralysis. But it also injected eggs, or whatever, into the host, and those rapidly incubated, spread throughout the body, fed on soft tissue, and hatched into thousands more. I learned this from observation. As I stalked carefully through the corridors, I encountered crew in various stages of the process: some just having fallen to the ground, frozen, others spewing hordes of spiders through orifices as well as holes torn open from within, and some completely depleted, as Pan was. At one point I came across a soldier who had managed to get himself into a vacuum suit, but not until after he had been infected. Now, his body was splayed across the corridor, with a seething mass of spider-things roiling within his helmet, desperate to get out.
You may ask why I didn’t try and help any of them. I could tell, from the moment that I reentered the ship, that it was lost. My only hope was to cross to the far side, where I could access the lifeboats. Before I did, however, there was one stop I simply had to make.
It took me only a couple of minutes out of my way to visit Jacob’s room. My instinct told me I would find answers there, and I was right. I found Jacob in bed with his shirt off. He had lain on his stomach to avoid putting pressure on the wounds in his back. Those wounds, a series of small punctures caused by scattershot, were now centimeter-wide suppurating holes, the edges reddish and hard and pushed outward. As I stared, a single straggling spider-thing lazily pushed itself out of one of the wounds and dropped to the ground, clattering off in the direction of the quickly fading sounds of carnage. Jacob’s head was turned towards me, and his eyes were wide open in a fixed stare of agony and terror. The rest of his body looked sickeningly deflated, with only his ribcage keeping his torso from collapsing completely. He looked like a doll that had been stripped of its stuffing.
It was here that the infection had started. What we took as scattershot was, instead, a densely-packed ball of nearly indestructible spores in hibernation, only waiting for moisture and living tissue to incubate. Eventually, some of the Empire scientists who pieced together the evidence explained to me how it worked. The Ancinians were expecting us to eventually attack their territory, and they planned in advance. Those human traders that had visited Ancinian territory? The Ancinians surreptitiously collected genetic material from them and used that material to construct the perfect weapon against us. If you remember, I mentioned that they were known for their remarkable biomedical technology.
The attack on Jackson’s Hell that we won so handily? The Ancinians never intended to win that battle; its only purpose was to infect some of our soldiers with the spider spores. They sacrificed themselves, by the thousands, to get to us. Acid weapons were used to expose our men to scattershot. That initial infection was time delayed to show no symptoms at all until hours later, after we brought our wounded back home to The Viper, and perhaps brought some of them back in hibernation to populated worlds.
It was only much later that I really understood the Ancinians’ strategy. You know how, on Earth, we use poison to kill household vermin? If you get ants in your house, there’s no point to crush the ants – they just come back. The only way to eliminate them once and for all is to give them poison to take back to their nest, to destroy them at the source. And this is what the Ancinians did to us, and how they saw us – as vermin.
But that mattered little to me on the ship at that point. By the time I turned away from Jacob’s body, the sounds of battle had ended, and I was the only one left alive and uninfected on board. I stepped back into the hall to find a mass of spider-things waiting for me, perhaps all of them that remained. They knew that I was their last target; they studied me with an alien and cunning intelligence. I had no doubt that their initial attack had been coordinated to begin throughout the ship simultaneously. The spider-things had surreptitiously crawled from their initial hosts through the air ducts, spreading to every corner of the vessel before their assault; there was nowhere for the crew to hide when it began.
As I began my journey towards the lifeboats, the creatures parted to let me pass, and then followed behind me. Even with the sound muffled in my helmet, I could hear the collective sound of their legs clattering on the floor and walls of the corridors. They knew that they could not reach me within the suit, so they opted to follow, and wait.
This posed a real problem. By the time I reached the lifeboat chamber, there were thousands of the spider-things accompanying me, and some already waiting for me there. The lifeboat itself was sealed, but if I opened the hatch to it, one or more of the spiders could accompany me. In fact, I couldn’t be sure that there weren’t any already hitching a ride on the back of my suit, just out of sight on my neck. It would only take one to sting me, and I would carry the disease back to the Empire.
There was only one option. The launching lifeboat would take the whole wall with it, exposing the chamber to vacuum. I sealed the room, switched off the local gravity within it, and then launched the lifeboat remotely from the chamber. The air rushed out, taking with it – and killing – the mass of spider-things inside. Then, bracing myself against the inner wall, I did the most dangerous thing I have ever done, and jumped for my life towards the lifeboat as it drifted away into space.
Mako stopped talking, and the canteen was quiet for a moment as the young soldiers watched him.
“And then what happened?” asked one of them at last.
Mako shrugged. “I made it, of course. I entered the lifeboat, refilled it with air, and then set off a FTL emergency beacon. Obviously, the Empire responded before the Ancinians.”
He swallowed. “You know what happened then. The Empire decided that an initial ground assault on the Ancinian homeworld would be too risky, and they opted instead for an orbital bombardment. We smashed through their fleet and rained high-yield neutron bombs down on their cities. And then, as you heard, I was part of the first division to land on the planet to finish them off.”
“You see?” the leader of the squad of soldiers said, turning to his mates. “The Ancinians tried to treat us like vermin, but we eradicated them like cockroaches! WHO ARE WE?”
“WE ARE THE TIP OF THE SPEAR!” the group shouted in unison. “WE ARE THE ARROW THAT PIERCES! WE ARE THE SWORD THAT DRAWS FIRST BLOOD!”
“Off to sleep, you bastards!” the leader then said. “We’ve got a day ahead of us tomorrow – we’re going to destroy the Goldyr rebellion – crush it – end them!”
They dispersed without even saying goodbye to Mako, or even acknowledging him. He was not surprised: the entire interaction had gone as he expected, though he wondered if they would have reacted any differently if he had told them the rest of the story.
Mako had been at the forefront of the invading force on the Ancinian homeworld, and he had been thirsty for blood, ready to avenge Jacob and the others who had been slaughtered on The Minotaur. When the drop-pod doors swung open, Mako had lunged out with his rifle, expecting a hail of defensive fire.
What he found was… stillness. The Ancinians were not a military civilization, and they had no ground defenses or bombardment shelters. They had been defenseless when the Empire dropped their bombs: Mako had entered a city of the dead and dying.
Even so, it was beautiful. Mako found himself wandering through the streets, marveling at the architecture, nothing like anything he had seen on all the worlds he had visited. Rather than claiming the territory for their cities from nature, it seemed that they had made a truce. On earth, in the 21st century, humans had attempted to minimize the effect of their cities on the ecosystem. On Ancinian World A, the city was the ecosystem. Trees entwined with the buildings in a manner that was seamless, both supporting them and being supported by them. The trees and the buildings together provided nests for wildlife that had been modified to live in harmony with the Ancinians. The Ancinians could harvest produce from everywhere around them, and help pollinate the vegetation for the next season’s yield. Now, however, under the intense orbital neutron bombardment, the trees were dying, rotting from within, their genetic structure destroyed. They would probably stand for years to come, a testament to a civilization that had ended in a flash. The Empire’s neutron weapons savaged organic matter, leaving the inorganic matter mostly intact – an instant graveyard and memorial to the dead.
One particularly large edifice drew his attention, its doors hanging wide open. Mako stepped inside, not even bothering to check for an ambush, his rifle hanging slackly at his side. It was an art museum. There were many, many bodies inside. Mako thought at first that they had fled within for shelter, but the position of the bodies suggested another motivation. The Ancinians had known they were doomed; they had come to the museum to spend their last moments among their greatest works. Here there was several thousand years of painting, sculpture, and more: it would all be destroyed by the Empire, buried under new colonial construction as the Empire expanded.
Mako felt his leg seized, and though he was startled, he felt no fear. By some fluke of physics and biology, one of the Ancinians had lived through the bombardment, though only just. It – he – had blindly grabbed Mako’s leg and, now conscious again, was gasping his last few breaths. Mako did not know his language, but he understood the Ancinian’s wishes: to not be alone in his last moments of life.
Mako kneeled down, his anger all spent, and took the being’s hand. There they sat, in silence, for the few minutes it took for the very last Ancinian on the planet to die.
The Empire’s assault on Ancinian World A was so successful that the strategy of overwhelming force used there was employed in countless other operations as their territory continued to expand. Orbital bombardment and genocidal ground assault became the norm, whether against neighbors in a border dispute or rebellious subject worlds. Within a few years, the Empire was feared and uncontested in its corner of the galaxy, with a score of new subject worlds.
Not that Mako was there to see it. After his experiences, he was put on administrative leave, and not long after was dropped from the military altogether. He took a series of menial jobs at one of the overpopulated core worlds not far from Earth and simply followed the Empire’s engagements second-hand.
Several years later, he had an opportunity to visit Jackson’s Hell again, when he took a temporary spot on the crew of a freighter. The planet was dead. The unique plants and wildlife that Mako had seen during his limited time on-world had been obliterated, wiped out to make room for the mining operation that followed. The world had earned the name Jackson’s Hell because of its new demeanor.
It was there that Mako finally understood what the Ancinians had been fighting for. They had not defied the Empire over possession of the world; they had been protecting the world from the Empire. The Ancinians had respect for nature and living things, and had fought and died to try and keep the world from the destruction they knew would follow.
On a later shipping trip, Mako discreetly tried to learn if there were any Ancinians left, anywhere. The most he learned was a vague rumor that some of them had survived on a remote, resource-starved world in a stone age level settlement. He never learned, however, where they were, if they even truly existed.
Forty years is a long time. Through the years of enforced peace, various planets began to grow restless under Empire rule, and last year a handful fell into open rebellion. The Empire attempted to quell the uprising with small actions, but the aliens of those worlds were resilient and determined. At last, it was announced that multiple warships were being sent to Goldyr, and Mako knew what would follow: bombardment, followed by ground troop fighting. And complete extermination, the Empire’s policy.
Mako had seen images of Goldyr, in peacetime. It looked very much like Ancinia had looked.
He had signed up as a “Grandfather” the next day.
Mako finished up his cleaning of the canteen, which was now completely deserted, and he headed back to his own small room on The Minotaur. He sat down on his bed, and looked at his weathered hands.
If he had not survived, the Ancinians might have. The Empire might not have learned of the threat they were facing, and they could have been neutralized just as the crew of The Viper were.
Now another world, filled with life, and art, and beauty, was to be razed by the march of the Empire’s progress. They would not stand a chance against the four capital warships facing them.
Mako took his locket off of his neck and looked at it.
When Jacob had been released from the hospital sector of The Viper, he had dragged his squadmates out for a drink. And at the bar, he shared a set of mementos with the squad: the pieces of scattershot that had been pulled out of his back. One ball, a few millimeters in diameter, was given to each squad member.
Mako opened his locket and took the ball out. Nobody knew he had been given it by Jacob, and Mako himself had forgotten about it at first. It had been in his pocket on his terrifying spacewalk. It was a perfect weapon, in hibernation.
All it needed was moisture, and living tissue to feed on.
In less than eight hours, the four warships of the Empire would be joining together, for final assault planning.
With a last brief hesitation, Mako put the shot in his mouth and swallowed.
This story was inspired by an odd, not-yet-scientific concept known as “trypophobia.” Not a true phobia, this is a term that was coined to describe a strange revulsion that some people have when confronted with a series of small holes, usually in biological matter. Some psychologists have suggested that this revulsion is all in people’s imagination, a collective suggestion induced by others. This doesn’t agree with my experience: some 20 years ago, I distinctly recall feeling creeped out by a lotus flower and wondering why, loooong before I’d ever heard of trypophobia. Recently (see the link above), a group of scientists suggested that it may be an inherited reaction to venomous creatures, which often display a spotted or ring pattern.
Even more recently, I was exposed to the horrifying reproductive habits of the Surinam toad. From that shock, this story grew.