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Prologue 11 page





 

Kozlowski took a luxurious breath of bad air. It tasted good through slightly less constricted lungs.

 

"Can't see a goddamned thing," said Argento, the dark-haired mustached sergeant who sat behind her. Argento's brooding eyes and bushy eyebrows and bushier mustache made Tanarez look like the Blue Boy. He was like a Neanderthal with all that hair and stolid attitude. But there wasn't a man in the Corps who knew his way around artillery, light or heavy, better. Kozlowski had worked with Argento the year before, and when the possibility of his coming along arose, she grabbed it. He had a rich, deep voice that inspired confidence in him from the git go. He was a man's man and a fine poker player, too.

 

"Do you really want to?" said Jastrow, suddenly talkative. "If ignorance is bliss, let's enjoy it for another half hour, huh? Me, I'm just going to rest my eyes."

 

That seemed like a good idea to Kozlowski. Unfortunately, she was too high-strung to give herself even that much of a treat. She had to see it all. Somewhere, in this hellish cloud cover, might be something she needed. In the first break, when she got the lay of the land—that might make a change in her strategy that might save lives, might give this mission the edge it needed for a thorough success.

 

So, for long minutes she watched as the lander pierced the cloud cover.

 

Occasional comments arose from the troops, but generally there was silence.

 

Finally, the cloud cover started to break up.

 

Kozlowski peered out through the port.

 

As far as she could tell, they were still a couple miles up, but she could make out some of the landscape below. She'd seen pictures of it before of course in her studies of this godforsaken planet.

 

Like Mars, the report had said. A few mountains, lots of volcanoes, but for the most part flat and pocked. More atmosphere than Mars. Breathable even. Not nice, though. Not nice at all.



 

The pictures had clued her in to the starkness, the hellish wasteland quality this place had. There was something stricken about it, somethingunholy. Kozlowski wasn't a religious person, but that was the first word that came to her mind.

 

Unholy.

 

Damned, was the second.

 

Shakespeare could have used it for his "blasted heath" in the playMacbeth.

 

"Still can't see much down there through the cloud cover," Fitzwilliam was saying.

 

"Anything coming through the telemetry topography scan?" said Tanarez.

 

"Hey. What do you know? Calculations totally correct. The sucker's down there!"

 

A thrill of elation filled Kozlowski.

 

The moment theRazzia had entered parking orbit, its heavy-duty sensors, on full power, had gotten to work. The coordinates of the original alien hive were known. And sure enough, it didn't take long to locate the ugly hive, poking up from the flat land like a huge unlanced boil.

 

"What the hell is this?"

 

"What?"

 

"Just take a look, will you!"

 

Begalli's eyes grew bright with excitement. "Isuspected as much!"

 

About a hundred miles away from the original hive, there was another hive. A hive shaped differently from the original, according to the sensors.

 

Sure enough, up close, the sensors were showing it was indeed an alien hive. So far so good. Now they just had to determine if it was the flavor alien they wanted.

 

The misty clouds swirled away from the ship, and they got a better view.

 

Somehow, even from way up here, Kozlowski could tell that things weren't quite right.

 

"Jeez," she heard Tanarez say. "This unit checks out. So this reading must be correct."

 

"Yeah? So what's it say?" Fitzwilliam shot back.

 

"Well, judging from the surface activity." She could hear the slight gulp in Tanarez's voice, breaking up that Yeager effect. "There's some kind ofwar going on down there!"

 

"Let me look!"

 

Grant's eyes were suddenly open and eager. He strained forward on his belt, his hands frantically scrabbling at the catches.

 

"Grant!" she barked at him. "We haven't landed. Keep your goddamned butt parked. We don't want your brains all over the ceiling."

 

Grant halted his efforts to release himself. Nonetheless, his desire to see what was going on down there had not diminished. "What's going on? Begalli! Talk to me! How does this work into your high-flown theories?"

 

Begalli was wearing a shit-eating grin. "Couldn't be sweeter, boss."

 

"We're looking at aliens swarming like ants around a hive and that's supposed to be sweet?" said Grant.

 

Kozlowski wasn't too worried. They had the technology to deal with this. Just a detail. The brass were going to like this—they were going to be able to check out how well the new stuff worked.



 

"You bet. You ever hear of the xenos fighting among themselves wholesale, Colonel?"

 

"Nope. Not the batch that came to Earth."

 

"Exactly. Because they were all the same breed, the same race. They smelled the same to each other. They worked together. The fact that there's conflict down there tends to prove that what we suspected would happen, has."

 

"Likewhat?" demanded Jastrow, eyes round and a little protruding with fear.

 

Kozlowski didn't blame him. Looked like a goddamned African ant war down there. Hundreds and thousands of the bastards, swarming, swarming ...

 

"Okay, okay. Classified material. Sorry. Shouldn't have brought it up in front of the troops," said Grant.

 

That pissed Kozlowski off, but she didn't say anything. Wouldn't do the soldiers any good anyway. Would just take their minds off the job at hand. Nonetheless, she knew what Begalli was talking about, and dammit, it did make sense. She just hoped it wouldn't complicate things, mucking over the mission beyond redemption.

 

The theory was, of course, that aliens without a controlling queen would branch off into different packs. Breeding might (and apparently did) give rise to bugs with recessive traits. If these bugs were allowed to continue to breed, the result would be a new race ... and hurry over to start up a new hive, complete with a new queen.

 

This was a new hive here.

 

Call them the Democrats.

 

But apparently, the old fart bugs had gotten things together and spawned a new queen mother ... and millions of workers. And although the new Democrat hive was a long way away, eventually they'd located it. Their queen mother had sent off her armies to destroy the interlopers into the genetic xeno broth.

 

Call them the Republicans.

 

She looked out at the troops. There were naked questions beside the fear and misgiving in their eyes.

 

"What are you assholes looking at! Plan C takes this kind of situation into account." She smiled grimly. "Just look at it this way ... We're going to be able to kill more bugs."

 

"Pardon us, Commander ..." said Fitzwilliam. "Plan C starts the same way they all do ... Land as close to the hive as possible. There are thousands of aliens down there now."

 

Colonel Kozlowski grinned. "And hopefully there will be thousands there when we land—onlyburnt aliens."

 

Grant shook his head. "Well, I guess those bugs aren't the only specialists in genocide."

 

They continued their descent.

 

 

When they were a mile above the hive, the mist had cleared enough to use optical magnifiers to good effect.

 

Sure enough, there was a war going on down there. As vicious a war as Alex Kozlowski could imagine. Thousands of struggling bugs going at each other.

 

Fangs and talons.

 

The ruddy landscape was running with alien parts, alien blood, spasming monsters.

 

How long had this been going on?

 

Kozlowski's best guess, offhand, was that this was just the latest of many attacks. She saw alien skeletons littering the landscape. One more battle.

 

That wasn't all the crew of theAnteater saw, though.

 

"Run this over with me again, Begalli," said Grant.

 

"Very quickly, sir, the creatures have had a freak genetic offshoot. Normally a queen mother would stamp this out immediately. With no queen mother, though, another colony has been allowed to take root and thrive. As for the possible difference caused by the recessive gene theory ... we'll just have to examine them closer, won't we."

 

The most important thing the magnified view on the screen pointed out was that Begalli's theories were entirely correct.

 

One set of bugs had a vague reddish cast. The rest—the defenders, it could be seen, because they were the ones streaming from the portals of the huge hive below—were the usual dark color that Kozlowski was accustomed to.

 

Begalli whooped. "What did I tell you. And ten to one, they've got unpredictable internal differences. I can't wait to find out. There's also got to be other kinds of life on this planet that have learned to survive the xenos. If possible, I'd like to check on them."

 

"Celebrations later, fella. For what I'm not sure. They all look nasty as ever. And as for other forms of life—yeah, I guess the critters have got to eat something. But that's not why we're here, is it?" Kozlowski unhooked her belt and hurried up to a place beside the pilots. "Okay, fellows. I've got this wonderful idea. You usually use force impellers as well as a few retros to land, correct?"

 

"That's right."

 

"Anything to stop us from using the thrusters to land? That should cook a lot of them pretty good."

 

"Sure. Lots of fuel consumption though," said Fitzwilliam.

 

"We just need enough to get back."

 

"We've got plenty to spare for that," said Tanarez. "I could do a configuration of the primaries and tertiaries that would do the trick."

 

"Good. Then do it. Burn the bastards, and make sure they're well done."

 

"Okay. That looks like the main entrance to the hive. Not as close as we'd like, but it's the only option," said Fitzwilliam.

 

"That'll be just fine," Kozlowski said after studying the computer schematics that the pilot had called up on the screen to illustrate the lay of the land.

 

"You'd better sit back down, Colonel, and buckle that seat belt. Rockets are a little bit rougher than force impellers ..." suggested Fitzwilliam.

 

"So I've noticed."

 

The craft was rumbling and rocking like a son of a bitch. Kozlowski stumble-walked back to her chair, strapped herself in again, and watched the action, eyes gleaming.

 

TheAnteater slowed down.

 

There was a mighty wrenching as the rockets cut in. Fitzwilliam was right. It felt like they were riding a jackhammer down. She had to clench her teeth to keep them from rattling.

 

She looked up to the magnification screen. The bugs had stopped fighting. Some were waving their heads, as though attempting to look up, to make out the source of the terrible rumbling in the sky with their primitive photosensors.

 

"I hope the bastards don't have the sense to run," she said under her breath.

 

"Unfortunately, the instinct for survival is paramount in the creatures," said Begalli, above the roar. "They're disoriented, but as soon as they sense the presence of the ship, they'll start to scatter. Fortunately, there are enough of them clustered that they can't scatter fast."

 

"Can we go down quicker?" said Kozlowski, excited.

 

"Not and get the effect you want!" screamed Fitzwilliam.

 

"Besides, we want 'em good and crisp! We don't want any of that blood eating away at the hull or support struts," said Tanarez.

 

True. Very true. C'mon, Koz. Use your head ... not your hate and bloodlust.

 

She looked up again at the screen.

 

The shadow of the craft showed now, spread like a blot on the land and the mass of aliens.

 

Who began to scurry.

 

The shadow narrowed, darkened.

 

"Shit!" cried Tanarez. "That outcropping over there!"

 

"Yeah. I see it," said the other pilot. "I'll take her another twenty-five meters away. Tight fit, but I can land this baby on a dime."

 

The confidence in Fitzwilliam's voice encouraged her.

 

She could feel the shift of the ship. It slewed sideways, and started down again.

 

Catching a bunch of the bugs by surprise.

 

The tongues of intense puce and orange and ocher shot down to the ground, licking across the arid ground.

 

Lapping at the creatures.

 

Unable to take her eyes off the scene, she watched as the rocket flames covered and consumed hundreds of the beasts. Hundreds more not directly in the fires nonetheless burst into incandescence at the horrible heat.

 

Fried.

 

"Incredible," she whispered.

 

She watched as long as she was able as the aliens were immolated. A black swath of alien ash ... lovely. TheAnteater, in just a minute, had wiped out enough to fill a couple of nests back home.

 

Unfortunately, it looked like there were plenty left to take their place.

 

"Hold a moment. Scorch the ground a little, more before we land," said Fitzwilliam. "We've got about all we can. I just want to make sure these below are properly cooked."

 

"Sure."

 

The craft jerked, and hung for just a few seconds.

 

Smoke was curling up now past the viewports, obscuring the scene. Kozlowski closed her eyes. Afterimages of the skeletal demons torching up flickered across her vision.

 

Then the ship descended again, this time landing on its struts with a wobbling jolt. It swayed, then stilled.

 

A red light shifted on.

 

"All right, grunts!" snapped Kozlowski. "We've got ourselves an emergency combat landing on our hands. It'sshowtime!"

 

Now everything was in the hands of an Irishman named Seamus O'Connor—and the marvelous new technology at his fingertips. O'Connor was a guy she didn't know that well. He was a technician who'd helped develop the procedure he was about to use, a sandy-haired gentleman with a soft voice and a twinkle to his eyes in social situations, but a rock-solid attitude of concentration during briefings and exercise. He looked like the kind of person who got a job done, and then went off to the pub to play pipes and whistles and have a few pints.

 

She looked out at the heaving mass of aliens, outlines in the soot. And if that didn't work, they might as well just take off again out of here!

 

"All right, O'Connor," Fitzwilliam's voice crackled through the 'lobephone. "I've cut the engines. The smoke is pretty much dissipated. "Do your duty before any of the things put on their boots and stomp back in."

 

"Roger, Skipper."

 

Corporal Seamus O'Connor scratched his beard. He adjusted his grav-chair for a better view of the control panel. He'd been training for this moment for months in virtual reality sims. Unfortunately, somehow it wasn't quite the same here. He'd never had xenos crawling all over the place before. He'd never had a field of dismembered and burnt bugs to negotiate before.

 

What O'Connor operated were the PEHs—the Perimeter Extension Harpoons. The marines had learned pretty damned quick that in dealing with hostile life forms—i.e., bugs—force fields were quite useful. They'd been in use to a certain extent in the routine humdrum of company galactic life, but as soon as the nasty things with a penchant for destruction were discovered, necessity became the mother of invention yet again. Power was increased, but in landings like this one it was rapidly discovered that the Fields could only be beamed out a short circumference around the ship. In situations involving the need for expanded territory, their reach had to be expanded.

 

Some kind of fence had to be constructed, utilizing force-field generating devices. However, in a theoretical hostile situation, neither men nor robots could be expected to trundle out and erect these posts.

 

Hence the harpoons.

 

They'd been tested before in the field, of course. Out in deserts and plains, among rocks and what have you. You just played Moby Dick, and shot them out to likely-looking spots. When they thunked in properly, you pressed a button for remote control and—ZAP. You had yourself a wide but snug little force-field cap within which to work.

 

O'Connor's job now was to get those harpoons out.

 

He touched a button and the ports opened.

 

He did a quick analysis, adjusted the aim, said a prayer ...

 

And fired.

 

Four harpoons—each seven meters tall and two thick—burst from their ports, sailed out into the alien atmosphere, trailing their power cables like baited hooks tossed from fishing rods.

 

They sailed majestically and gorgeously.

 

C'mon you beauties, thought O'Connor.

 

Hit your marks.

 

The sharp points, capable of boring into rock, struck the surface of the alien planet and—marvel of marvels—stuck.

 

"Bull's-eye!" O'Connor cried.

 

The radio crackled. "No time to rest on your laurels. Looks like those bugs haven't been discouraged much. They're coming back in!"

 

"No problem!"

 

O'Connor leaned over and pulled the switch.

 

The posts sparked. A shimmer of power traveled down the lines, and then spread like electric coloring in water, connecting the posts, the cables, and swirling along the ground.

 

"Outwall activation has been initiated," O'Connor reported, a note of triumph in his voice.

 

Dozens of aliens caught in the power grid were simply sheered in half. Others heading back in toward the lander simply bounced off the field, limbs and heads bent or smoking.

 

O'Connor grinned to himself, and put the field on automatic. He'd done his job.

 

Now the troops were going to have to do theirs.

 

This was why they had worn their suits:

 

So they could go into action at a moment's notice.

 

"We've got some cleaning up to do, people," said Kozlowski, motioning for the troops to hurry along into the hangar deck. "This is what we came to do."

 

The rest of the crew already had their helmets on, so she couldn't see what their faces registered.

 

"It's why we're drawing a salary."

 

She put her own helmet on, tongued on communications.

 

"Gentlemen," she said. "I do believe we're ready."

 

"Roger, Colonel. Hatchway opening initiated."

 

The carbines, plasma rifles, and other automatic weapons of the assembled rattled upward, positioning themselves for firing.

 

No depressurization was necessary. However the PSIs were not the same, so there was a distinct escape of air as the hatchway opened. A chiaroscuro of dark colors and smoke wavered between them and distant jagged rotten-tooth mountains. Before her oxygen-rich mix started to whisper through her suit's ducts, she fancied she smelled the land beyond.

 

Burnt carbon.

 

Burnt silicon.

 

Alien acid.

 

Never-ending death beneath an eldritch, evil sun.

 

She had a regulation upper-pill in her hand, ready to take it. Looking out, though, she realized she didn't really need it. She threw it away.

 

A surge of victory ran through her.

 

"C'mon, people," she snapped through her microphone, staccato calling of a parade into a battle on shores not made for humans. "Let's earn some money."

 

 

The operation was basically a clean-up proposition.

 

The landing had cindered hundreds of the bugs. The force-field perimeter had locked out the remainder. Only about twenty-five of the aliens had made it past the harpoons before the field crackled on.

 

These were the current targets.

 

These were the bugs that had to be crushed.

 

Vague colorings or internal differences didn't seem to matter. From the way these things acted, all were every centimeter the crazed berserkers their cousins were.

 

The lip of the ramp had not been touched down, and one of them leapt on it, scuttling up toward them, slavering and tearing away at the air.

 

"Simultaneous!" she cried and lifted her own rifle and fired.

 

The blast of weapons was so strong converging on the bug that the force lifted the thing up a good meter and slammed it back another ten. Damned good thing, too. It disintegrated into a splatter of parts and blood in midair.

 

"Keep that shit off the hull!" Kozlowski cried. "Okay now, move it!"

 

As practiced before, the troops moved out, plasma weapons first. A robo-wagon trundled out after them, bearing extra weapons, supplies, and automatic support keyed from theAnteater. As soon as the first four marines cleared the bottom of the ramp, they started blasting. A wave of fire, like a manic flamethrower on amphetamines, roared out, whacking into a group of five bugs scampering into the melee.

 

They all fell apart in the hellish fire.

 

Kozlowski and the others were out in a flash, bringing up the rear "and selecting targets. Kozlowski felt as though she'd just downed a couple tabs of Xeno-Zip. Adrenaline? Yes, and bliss, too. It had been a long time since she'd fought real xenos, and there was nothing like the satisfaction of the prospect of one's slugs putting out the lights on a bug to get a gal's heart to thumpin'.

 

"Fire at will!" she said.

 

She jumped off the ramp and swiveled over to cover the underside of the lander. A space of about seven meters existed between the base of the lander and the ground. All in shadow. Unlikely that any had scuttled under here, but you never knew.

 

She nudged the correct com switch. "Turn on the bottom lights, Control!"

 

"Roger."

 

The lights started to blink on, but even before they were up, through the heightened "ears" of the suit, she heard the telltale hissing.

 

"Damn!"

 

One was coming toward her.

 

They had descended to Mission Control, to stand and watch beside Corporal Seamus O'Connor as the monitors flashed the frenetic details of the conflict.

 

Daniel Grant felt giddy victory turn his skin to goose pumps.

 

What a spectacle!

 

Whatever doubts he'd ever felt about the competency of this batch of marines disappeared within seconds as the group fanned out in perfect formation, their weapons efficiently blasting away. Out in the open, the alien strategy seemed simple: charge and destroy. The Marine strategy seemed equally simple: blast the things to bits.

 

The marines acted like precision-sensored robots. Their aims were deadly. Like a phalanx of destruction, they performed this grisly, pyrotechnic ballet. Grant suddenly wished for some appropriate music. Sturm und drang!

 

O'Connor was clearly equally impressed. "Wow." He turned to Dr. Begalli. "Those suits you produced are working great. Used to be, you couldn't fight these things in such close quarters."

 

Indeed, Grant noted.

 

As the radium bullets, the plasma blasts, and the tossed explosives struck the aliens, rupturing the chitinous material of their exoskeletons, they tended to burst apart like ripe tomatoes atop M-80s. Their "blood"—a viscous green ichor—hurled every which way, slapping across the white armor and helmets the marines wore.

 

The skin of the suit ruptured, fluid leaked out, instantly neutralizing the horrible full-bore effects of the acid. Then the skin "healed." And voila—no harm done to the marine. Nonetheless, the troops seemed to be trying for the knees and the heads, as Colonel Kozlowski had instructed them, waiting till the aliens were prone before they blasted the torso apart.

 

Whatever they were doing, whatever the plan had been, it seemed to be working just fine. True, the alien blood was leaving pocks and craters in the ground, but the soldiers were trained to deal with them.

 

Particularly impressive in his efforts was Corporal Henrikson. Like some military juggernaut he moved over the battlescape with fierce speed and agility, his plasma rifle snuffing out aliens and putting them to fiery deaths in what seemed like speeded-up film.

 

"Man," said Grant. "Look at Henrikson go!"

 

"Quite something," said Begalli. "He's a regular one-man army."

 

"I've heard rumors. Some of the troops think he's a synthetic," said O'Connor.

 

"What the hell does it matter?" said Grant. "He's doing his job and damned well!"

 

Dr. Begalli shook his head. "True. True. With soldiers like that, we're going to get into the nest."

 

Grant looked up just in time to see an odd look pass over Begalli's face. A squinting feral look, like a rat considering the implications of a maze—and looking forward as much to shitting in the passageways as to getting to the cheese at the other end.

 

But then, Begalli had always struck him as one odd customer, and so he just set the observance aside and turned back to this marvelous bloody sport up there on the screen.

 

All he needed now was a beer and some peanuts!

 

It was a big one.

 

The alien under the lander scrabbled for Kozlowski like some frenetic dinosaur closing in for the kill on what it considered a soft-bellied mammal.

 

"Just try, asshole," said Kozlowski, whipping her gun up.

 

The lights came on full bore, stopping the thing not one stride, but illuminating it thoroughly.

 

She fired.

 

The burst of bullets from her semiautomatic rifle fanned out perfectly. Textbook. The explosive slugs caught the thing in the kneecaps, exploding them. The beast went down, snarling and hissing, scrabbling for her without missing a beat.

 

She drew a bead on its bananalike head and squeezed off another burst. The thrill of competency seized her as the head burst apart. The blast kicked back a dollop of blood onto her suit.








Date: 2015-12-13; view: 147; Нарушение авторских прав

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