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In early 2862, the Marines raided sovereign Han Federation land on a backwater world. The ensuing skirmish ended in a few hundred casualties on each side; no territory changed hands and both countries barely acknowledge it ever happened. Officially written off in Imperial records as a “border incident,” I know it was a deliberate mission—a search and destroy mission—whose success was ultimately worth every man lost that day. In fact, we got lucky.

I was a Diver in the 3rd Group Sea Force: the lesser known wing of the Marine Special Forces made for littoral planetside operations. We landed on the modified destroyer TNS Roseicollis around 0400 in the morning and began lowering powerboats into the water by the break of dawn. As the jagged outline of the warship’s superstructure shrunk into the horizon, we remained assured its magnetic guns could cover us at least 20 miles inland. Drops of fresh ocean spray rolled down our waterproofed blue fatigues as we cruised East to the designated beachhead.

A few weeks ago, satellites detected a small town hidden among the icy mountains on a large island south of the arctic circle. Unlike the usual industrial settlements, this one appeared to have several large, enclosed facilities at the center, and was surrounded by several lines of military fortifications.

Navy Intelligence intercepted messages about suspicious shipments, suggesting the whole town could be servicing a laboratory for first strike chemical weapons development. Now, merely developing chemical weapons was an act of aggression in the eyes of the world, so the Premier General was more than justified in ordering the strike without a declaration of war, no matter what the peanut gallery media might complain about. Looking back, I wish it was just a WMD factory. It would have been so much easier to deal with.

Half an hour later, we were dragging the boats ashore through the frozen sand. The rest of the marines were still another half hour out. An entire Motor Rifle brigade and close air support was on an entry trajectory; the Empire was pulling out all the stops.

I ordered the eight-man squad into a column formation, moving forward in a quick travelling overwatch with myself positioned between both fireteams. The squad divided into two wedges, one following the other about 50 meters behind.

A mile inland, the three-man forward team engaged the enemy: the only small outpost covering the west coast of the island. Hostile fire cracked and whirred past our heads, but it didn’t worry us. The maneuver team calmly went leftward while the forward team laid down drums of 5.56 LMG fire to cover. While the enemy kept their heads down, my fireteam swept inside and cleaned them out with snap-bursts of rifle fire.

Checking the bodies, I heard my Geiger counter starting to tick. “There’s radiation on their uniforms. Brooks, could we be dealing with nukes?”

“Very unlikely,” said Specialist Hal Brooks, our chemical warfare operator. “There’s radioactive mineral deposits in the soil. This region’s used for nuclear fuel mining, we’re going to be picking up small doses here and there. It shouldn’t be anything serious.”

“Uh, I’m getting about 350 millisieverts off this guy’s coat. We’re getting into cancer territory here.”

“It’s geological, Sergeant. The Weissland Corporation surveyed the region 30 years ago. They found unusually high concentrations of thorium ore. It gets up to 15%. Why do you think everyone wants it?”

I was hesitant to argue with a CBRN-certified operator. “Alright. If you’re positive it’s safe, then we’re still on the clock. We need to be in position before the 3rd Motor Rifles hit the atmosphere. Let’s move.”

***

We walked miles through the bitter cold, with every step the bluish-white mountains growing taller. The snow had a way of absorbing sound so that we could only hear our softly crunching footsteps and the occasional whistles of wind from the mountains. Occasionally, I’d get a few hollow clicks from my Geiger counter.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about the whole place. The angles and luster of all the outcrops and peaks were just unusual enough to seem like none of it was real. It was like someone had printed out a picture of an arctic tundra on glossy paper and crumpled it up.

I ordered the squad to hold position behind a large rocky outcropping within view of the town ahead. There was a typical grid of angular concrete and glass buildings, but with a four massive box-like structures protruding five stories above the highest roofs. There were no windows or openings: the hallmark of chemical containment structures, so we thought.

***

At 0545, we heard the first fighter-bombers approaching, signaling the beginning of the attack. Two Electronic Warfare birds fired SEAD missiles to blow up the town’s air defenses, followed by long landing craft rapidly decelerating from orbit, bringing in the Ground Forces and their equipment. We watched from our rock perch for a few minutes to make sure the strike wasn’t immediately driven back, seeing squads of infantry fan out in their cold-weather gear and open fire into the wide streets.

While the Marines raised clockwork Hell, our mission was to slip past the distracted Han forces into the laboratories and secure any evidence before it could be destroyed. We moved quietly over the weirdly angled rocks and into the town, the gunfire at times approaching worryingly close. The Marines’ 7.9 GPMG’s could cut through several walls, and behind enemy lines, we were now on the receiving end of its fire. On a few occasions, we had to shoot down an enemy squad that ran into us, but our priority was to move quick and undetected.

Breaking into the lab, we fully expected chemical weapons and went in with visor-masks sealed. No explosives were allowed within 500 meters of the structures, so I melted the steel door hinges off with a cyanogen torch.

Inside the containment structure, I stopped so abruptly the men behind me almost tripped. The entire ten-story concrete building was surprisingly hollow, built around a decrepit tower-like structure. The intricate, multi-tiered ruin was surrounded by modern scaffolding, various heavy equipment and some temporary lab buildings at the ground level. It wasn’t a chemical lab; it was an archeological site of epic proportions.

“Well,” I said, reaching to take off my gas mask, “this complicates things.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Brooks, “Chemical weapons or not, all kinds of toxic fumes can accumulate in ancient ruins like these.”

“Ancient ruins…” a sudden thought hit me, and I turned to my squad. “You guys realize we may have started a war with the Han Federation over archeology, right?”

“Yeah, we should get out quietly while we can,” someone said from the back. “We’re about to be at the front of a major incident.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, is nobody going to ask the obvious question?” interrupted the team’s automatic rifleman, Corporal Kenada. “Humanity has been on this space rock for all of 30 years. Who the hell built that thing? Isn’t that at least suspicious enough to investigate a little more?”

“It’s your call, Staff Sergeant, but our window for getting out of here without trouble is going to get really slim in a few minutes,” said Brooks.

“Navy Intelligence had hard evidence this was, somehow, being used to develop a ‘first strike’ weapon,” I concluded. “Considering the amount of Han blood we already have on our hands, I say we follow this through.”

From that point, I admit I was motivated more by curiosity than duty to the mission. As far as we could see and hear, the research complex was empty. Shortwave radio reception was blocked by the concrete walls, leaving us alone with our thoughts, echoing footsteps and flashlight beams sweeping with the movement of our rifle barrels.

We cleared the ground-level research buildings first. No one was inside, and there were signs it was abandoned in a hurry. Papers were scattered on the floor and doors were left wide open. As expected, everything was written in traditional, non-simplified Chinese, and I could understand maybe a third of their research notes.

My suspicions were confirmed that the ruins were not of human origin. How could they have been? According to the researchers, the towers were entrances to a sort of tomb or mass grave, built by an ancient spacefaring species for some deviant group that split from them and died off ten thousand years ago.

I also read a report about an entire expedition of Han mountaineers mysteriously found dead in this valley 20 years ago. There was no identifiable cause of death. Their clothes were slightly radioactive, but not enough to kill them in the next few years—it was as if their perfectly healthy bodies just decided to stop right there. Those events did in fact motivate their government to pursue WMD research, which means our little battle wasn’t entirely unjustified, but information more detailed than that was lost in innumerable, complex characters.

If we wanted to learn more, we had to go inside the ruins ourselves. By that time, we could hear the fight approaching the town center. The air-cracking sounds of battle rifle ammunition was getting much clearer, and we could hear the low thumping of distant artillery. The marines had rolled out their truck-mounted 180’s and started bombarding key positions around the town. With the battle now at full intensity, we knew we would likely be caught in an almighty crossfire on the way out.

The ancient tower had already been outfitted for research, with structural elements reinforced with braces and certain gaps within it bridged. Some of the surveying equipment had been scattered around, but there were no signs of people inside, just like the lab buildings. I was surprised the tower still had electricity. The bluish lights appeared to be built into the walls in thin patterns of lines. Only a few sections had burnt out and had to be supplemented by lanterns. The strangely pristine interior felt forbidden, like we were somehow trespassing in millennia-abandoned yet sovereign territory.

The top of the tower was nothing but more survey equipment. It seemed kind of pointless aside from all the walls from floor to ceiling covered in neatly arranged glyphs and crude diagrams, perhaps as some way of storing information across ages. We knew from the reports it was just the entrance to a much larger underground tomb, but when we reached the ramp at the bottom, the men started to hesitate.

We stood overlooking a 100-foot descent with frigid air, far colder than the freezing temperatures outside, wafting up plumes of vapor.

“I…I don’t think we should go down there, Staff Sergeant,” said Brooks. “If the Han forces come back while we’re down there, we’ll be stuck in a massive kill box. That’s not even considering the structural hazards—this is clearly a dangerous site.”

“Kenada, how long can you defend that door with Fireteam Two?”

“Well, it’s is a pretty small choke-point and the rest of the containment structure is too dense to breach. We can probably last 15-20 minutes until we run out of ammo.”

“Alright, radio us on first contact and we’ll haul ass back. Set up your team around your machine gun and dig in.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“First team, on me. We’re going in.”

***

As Kenada’s team went back outside the tower to cover the door, the other three in my team exchanged a few nervous glances before following me down the ramp. The air only got frostier the further we went, the pea soup fog surrounding us and swirling in our wakes.

Eventually, we reached the bottom of the ramp and started walking over some translucent blue floor emitting an extremely dim light. It cast a soft glow over the cold vapors around our feet but didn’t reach much further. Although we could hear some distant humming machinery, there was nothing but the smooth, glowing floor far and wide. Imagine a room so large, it had a horizon in every direction. The only reference points we had were the ramp and a trail of rapidly fading chemlight sticks presumably left by the researchers.

We followed the researchers’ light trail due east until the ramp disappeared over the underground horizon. By now, we figured we were miles beneath the mountain range. We were about to turn back when we finally saw a perfectly square patch of floor where the light source appeared to have burnt out.

When we were a few steps away, I realized the black tile was a square hole. That’s when it occurred to me that the floor we were standing on was actually some kind of energy field, which was weird because it felt like a solid, slightly glassy material beneath our boots. I even took off my glove and felt it with my hand. It was like a sheet of acrylic plastic, only it could cease to exist at any moment if the power gave out, sending us plunging God-knows-how-far into the darkness below.

With that unnerving thought, I peered over the empty square and shined my barrel light down. I could actually see a solid stone floor within a few dozen feet, with a long rope ladder hung over the side by the researchers.

We climbed down to the bottom and found ourselves in a symmetrical labyrinth of wide rectangular corridors. The complex had been carved out of the mountain’s basalt bedrock, leaving it tar-grey on all sides. At regular intervals, the corridors would empty into larger stone rooms.

In the rooms, we found some interesting reliefs, beautifully carved into the walls and finished with colorful, translucent enamels. They depicted tall, winged humanoid beings similar to angels. It made sense a tomb would contain religious iconography, but the lanky figures made me wonder about parallel evolution. Maybe the aliens looked like us, evolved under similar ecosystems, and developed similar beliefs to ours.

“Kenada, radio check,” I said into my helmet mic.

“I copy, but your signal’s getting weak. It sounds like the battle has halted temporarily about two klicks away from here. The Han must have dug in…”

A slopping sound in the darkness to my left caused me to ignore the rest and silently order the team to halt with a closed fist in the air.

“Hey, you hear—”

“Shut up.” I had to gather the courage to point my flashlight towards the rhythmic, wet dragging sound to our left, my arms in a tug-of-war with my own dread to move my rifle. I was not prepared for what the beam would reveal.

An uneven mass of flesh twice as large as a man was dragging itself across the ground like a slug. Various vestigial limbs grasped at the air, and a half-exposed skull at one end stared at me with black empty eye sockets. It wriggled toward us surprisingly quickly. The first time a person sees combat, it’s common to freeze up; your panicking mind trapped in your paralyzed body. Special Forces spend years building up a resistance to that freeze, and yet, when I saw several more of those things unevenly crawling towards my team, my boots became lead anchors in the pavement.

“Staff Sergeant, what do we do?” said Brooks, already sighting his rifle at the creature.

“I…I don’t—” I was trying to determine if the hideous things were hostile when my Geiger counter started ticking more aggressively. It was coming off them. Hostile or not, the radiation was only getting stronger—already many times more than any human could survive for long—and if they reached the surface, they would contaminate the outside world.

“Sergeant, we need orders. Are they a threat or what?”

“Put ‘em down,” the words barely escaped my lips.

Muzzle flashes flickered around the room from our four rifles. Single shots to what we thought were their heads. Even with suppressors, the indoor gunshots were loud enough to feel in my ribcage.

7.62x60mm “Imperial” rounds were made of sintered iron in a plastic jacket. On unarmored targets, they were known to produce baseball-sized exit wounds, so imagine our surprise when the slug-creatures took three or four direct hits to stop moving. Their flesh gave way like dry cheese, and smelled nauseating like it had been decomposing for some time. Even in this necrotic state, they kept moving far longer than they should have.

Once we opened fire, the creatures began emitting a piercing, enraged shriek and doubled their speed towards us. Dread washed over me as my flashlight beam revealed dozens more of the slug-creatures writhing their way through a broken-down door at the other end of the darkened room. There were more of them than we had bullets, not to mention the dangerously high doses of radiation we were already taking. Our body armor had thin lead shielding integrated over vital areas, but it still added up.

People commonly think radiation is a death ray; it’s not. Every disintegrated atom that makes up radiation is like a tiny sledgehammer to our cells. Like houses, cells can repair the damage to an extent with time, but if their structural elements are too broken, they’ll collapse.

“Cease fire. Fall back to the ladder.”

We ran back for the opening in the blue energy field, back through what felt like endless stone corridors and rooms. By now, the slug-creatures were keeping up with our own running speed, writhing along the ground with astonishing effort. They spilled through entryways and sometimes ran atop each other in the corridors.

At last, we reached the ladder and started frantically climbing back up. Weighed down by about 40 pounds of body armor, rifles and ammunition, it was no easy task, but the creatures were right behind us. Once the last marine reached the top, we started hoisting the ladder back up, but the creatures got a hold of it first and started ascending it by contorting their bodies around it.

The two riflemen pulled furiously while Brooks and I opened fire down the ladder. Even our combined rate of fire couldn’t stem the tide, so I grabbed a frag grenade, pulled the pin and dropped it down. A huge explosion funneled stone dust up through the opening, allowing the riflemen to pull up the rest of the ladder, the bottom end coated in the same putrid substance.

***

“We have to find something to barricade the tower with,” I said, breaking back into the lab buildings on the ground floor.

“Then what?” said Brooks.

“I don’t know. I’ll call it in to Command, see if we can get a fire mission from the destroyer. Maybe we can get the Navy to napalm this whole place.”

“Oh yeah? What are you going to tell them, and what makes you think they’re going to believe you? I knew we shouldn’t have gone down there.”

“Just shut up and help me move this panel,” I said, trying to lift some of the steel shielding from an experiment room.

We almost dropped it back down when we found a young, black-haired woman in a lab coat hiding in a tiny crawlspace behind it. She was just as surprised to see us.

“You’re not Han Military. Who are you?”

I could tell she was concealing a pistol in her lab coat by the long outline in her top right pocket. “That’s not important,” I said. “Do you know what’s down there beneath that tower?”

“Yes, I know, and I understand it a lot better than you probably do. Barricading the ramp entrance isn’t going to stop them.”

I looked at Brooks, who shrugged. “Okay then, start from the beginning. Who are you, what are those things, and why is the Federation researching them, for weapons development?”

“My name is Xiaolian Tam, PhD materials chemist for the Army Research Group. If you’ve been in the tombs, I assume you’ve seen the carvings on the walls that look like angels?”

“Yes,” I said.

“We spent months translating their glyph system based on ‘keys’ they left using diagrams to explain words. Those slug-things are the exact same species as the angels—only a culturally-deviant group. Their nervous system is responsive to gamma radiation; they can feel it, and it apparently feels very good to them. They consumed radionuclides like drugs.”

A few of the men started to look unnerved as she continued.

“As for military applications, we thought we could find a gene that made humans resistant to radiation like them, but it turns out it’s just as harmful to them as it is to us. They’re just much faster healing and faster growing. Healing all that radiation caused more and more mutations until they became those…things. It’s become encoded into their DNA now. They rarely live longer than a few years and are extremely aggressive towards anyone who might take their radionuclides away.

“The 'angels' recognized the threat to their society, but they couldn’t gather the political wherewithal to kill them off. As a bureaucratic compromise, they constructed a mass cryostasis facility under this mountain, carving a translation system into the towers to convey a warning message to anyone that would find it. The problem is: after thousands of years, it’s starting to break down. A barricade won’t work because they can sense you, and they’ll stop at nothing to find your radiation.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“I know,” said Brooks, sliding off his radio backpack. “Our long-range radios use nuclear thermoelectric batteries, powered by the heat of plutonium decay.”

“The threat is more widespread than that,” said Xiaolian. “Their cells are a lot more undifferentiated than ours. In theory, one of their stem cells can reproduce into a complete organism, feeding on trace chemicals in the air. If you track anything out on your boots, it’ll spread across your country and mine like locusts, searching for radionuclides to consume.”

“There are over a million nuclear reactors in Human Space,” said Brooks. “They power 80% of our civilization, not to mention every last starship. If they get out, they’ll send us into a literal dark age. Nations will collapse.”

“It can’t be that bad, can it?” asked a rifleman.

“Starships and nuclear electricity put food on the table for hundreds of billions of people. We just take it for granted. And imagine what kind of violence they’d commit just to break into our cities.”

“Then we have one chance to contain it,” I said, “and we aren’t going to squander it. Dr. Tam, what do we do?”

“We were trying to find a way to repair the cryostasis machinery, but every researcher who has gone inside the tower eventually never returned, meaning most of our progress is lost.”

“If we can’t refreeze them, can we kill them all and sterilize ourselves of any cellular residue?”

“Thinking like a soldier, I see.”

“Marine, actually.”

“Well, there may be a way, 'Marine.' If the cryostasis machine is overloaded with too much electricity, it can theoretically start sucking out all the air from the tombs, suffocating everything down there. We’d have to block off the air intakes, and then go back down and hook up the machine manually.”

“And how do we cleanse ourselves when we go back up?”

“High-voltage electricity over the surface of your entire body and equipment. It won’t be pleasant, but it’s the only way to be sure.”

“We’ve been through worse,” said Brooks.

“Alright, then it’s settled. We go back down there, fight our way through to the machinery, and connect an external power source from the town’s electric grid. We need high voltage cables and a whole lot of ammo.”

“But you can’t leave the containment structure,” said Xiaolian. “You’ve been exposed to the creatures.”

“Not all of us.” I reached for my radio. “Corporal Kenada, I’m sending your fireteam on a shopping run.”

“Go ahead, Staff Sergeant,” replied his calm voice on speaker.

“Link up with friendly forces. I want 12 spare mags of 7.62, two more drums of 5.56, and as much high-voltage cable as you can find. Don’t get caught in the crossfire; take the long way if you have to.”

“You want some milk and sugar too, honey?”

“What do you think, smartass? Get in gear, we don’t have all day.”

“Copy. On the move, out.”

***

In less than an hour, Kenada’s team returned with all the ammo and equipment we needed. They left it on a pile on the ground for us so we couldn’t contaminate them and returned to their posts guarding the door.

The men were at ease before the mission, taking a few minutes to put themselves into as stable and Zen a state as possible. A palpable calmness actually seemed to lighten the air, and for a moment, it felt like everything would be okay. Brooks handed out iodine and Prussian blue tablets to absorb radioactive elements in our bodies.

Given the terrifying stakes, I called that a round of team prayer was in order. No one was forced to participate, but everyone, including Dr. Tam, who I’m pretty certain didn’t share our beliefs, joined in. We gathered in a circle, arms over shoulders and heads bowed. I didn’t waste words on flowery language.

“You put us here and no one else,” I said. “Every skill and experience in our lives has led us to this moment, and for that reason we expect you’ll see us through this, our finest moment, safely. We’re honored—and a bit scared—to be chosen to deal with this threat, so we humbly ask for your guidance in putting these bastards in the ground for good. Oorah.”

“Marines don’t die…” said Brooks.

“They regroup in Hell,” Kenada radioed in. “Good luck down there. Knock ‘em dead.”

“My dad’s a Weissland Electric plant director,” said Brooks. “My family’s been keeping the lights on for decades, now it’s my turn.”

We repacked our magazines, chambered our rifles and went cautiously back to the tower with renewed motivation. Back on the blue energy field, we realized that millions, maybe even billions of those creatures were still frozen for miles, and the wave of awakened ones came from a relatively tiny section of them. If they were all packed tightly, they could easily outnumber the humans in the entire solar system.

Back at the hole in the force field, the long rope ladder was still piled up beside it. Dozens of the radioactive creatures had been piling on top of each other to get up to the top from the floor. My Geiger counter immediately began ticking. I had to have a little respect for the creatures’ sheer determination.

“Once we’re down there, we need to move fast. Radiation’s only going to get stronger,” I said, rolling a grenade down the pile of creatures. The blast took out their foundation, sending the rest of them crashing back down. We lowered the ladder again and climbed down fast. “Brooks, how long until we get a dangerous dose?”

“Assuming 800 millisieverts? About 30 minutes. Less for her, she’s not wearing our armor.”

“Alright, we can do it. Xiaolian, where’s the machine?”

The doctor consulted her paper map and pointed us through each of the hallways where they branched off. We made sure to keep all four of us in front of her, hoping to block as many of the radioactive creatures as possible. We used the Marines’ Maneuver Warfare doctrine to push forward, at times, splitting into groups and taking different paths to encircle the creatures. Rifle fire echoed up and down all the corridors, punctuated by the occasional grenade blast. Stopping power was the name of the game here, and our high-caliber battle rifles had plenty.

It was the only time in my career I had ever switched my rifle to full auto. The fully-automatic “machine gun” setting is mostly useless due to recoil, especially with 20 round magazines, but boy was I glad to have it in those catacombs.

To us, most of the carved stone rooms and hallways looked identical, and without Xiaolian telling us exactly which turns to take, we would have been hopelessly lost in the endless grid. Eventually, we could tell we were headed in the right direction by the colder air intensifying vapors from our mouths and rifle barrels. Xiaolian was dragging the electric cables from a miles-long spool aboveground, ready to plug in and overload the cryostasis machine.

Nightmares were closing in on us from all sides, crawling horribly out of dormant racks in the rooms and sliding along the floors with a trail of rotting matter behind them. It was getting hard to breathe in our gas masks with all the running, but it was worth the burning lungs to avoid that horrible, necrotic smell. I was thankful I could only catch brief glimpses of them in flashlight beams and muzzle flashes, but their sheer disgustingness only motivated me harder to rid the galaxy of them for good.

“How much farther?”

“One last right turn. We’re here!”

***

The door was deceptively heavy, and it took my and Brooks’ combined strength to drag it open. Inside the machinery room, the tomb had to give us one last horror—one last haunting image I will never forget. At the center of the room were all the researchers, fused together with other slug-creatures into one fleshy, pulsating entity, growing like a cancer over the machinery. The biomass must have been the size of a small house, heaving arrhythmically in and out to breathe.

“Why,” was all I could manage to say. “Why?”

“That’s why the facility has been losing power,” said Xiaolian, weakly. “They’re trying to get into the nuclear power source.”

“What do the glyphs say?” I asked. There were crude geometric symbols painted in crusted blood underneath the massive reactor creature.

“It says ‘our god, the ideal in pursuit of pleasure,’” she said, disgust hanging off her words. It was completely beyond me why those aliens, who were once an angelic race with a similar concept of beauty as us, would suddenly turn and worship such a self-evidently unnatural, decaying monstrosity. What a waste! My nauseous revulsion turned briefly to anger and then sadness. I couldn’t feel anything besides a pit of loss in my soul. Those lost people, hopelessly self-destructing, propping up the worst of them as a mockery of an idol.

My radio crackled to life. Corporal Kenada’s voice cut up with rifle fire. “Sergeant, the Han Army’s back! You’d better get back here soon!” I could hear his LMG rapidly firing in bursts while enemy bullets snapped overhead, breaking the sound barrier with tiny whip-cracks.

I took a deep breath. “How do we shut off the air intakes?”

“Damaging the piping will cause the ventilation system to seal for self-repairs. That should last long enough to kill everything. I can hook up the power cables, do you have a grenade to break something?”

While Brooks went to help her with the cables, I took the last pill-shaped grenade from its pouch and headed over to the pipes under the loudly breathing creature. As I passed under it, it spoke to me in a weak, raspy voice. All the fused-together researchers were speaking with degraded vocal cords in unison to create the voice.

“Wait…” it wheezed. “Your civilization is coming to an end. I can feel its radiation…we shall consume it…just as we did the others.”

I ignored it and kept walking.

“You can’t avoid it; the collapse of good order is…unstoppable. We can only siphon joy off its decay. The only goodness in the universe…is that which we feel ourselves.”

I reached the pipe system, readied the grenade and told it only two words: “You’re wrong.”

As I put my finger in the pin to pull it, a massive limb broke out from the reactor creature with a disgusting noise of flesh tearing and knocked me back. The grenade went rolling away across the floor as I readied my weapon to beat the tendril back. I was locked in a struggle with the thing, using my rifle as a club, trying to predict its every move and swing at it whenever it lunged at me. Eventually, it faked me out and knocked the rifle out of my hands too. I had taken the sling off because it was such a nuisance in close quarters, so nothing stopped it from clattering to the ground. My final option was to draw my tactical bayonet from its sheath. I was now attempting to fight off several hundred pounds of mutated muscle with a four-inch blade.

My team heard my rifle slide across the stone floor and came to my aid, opening fire with their own rifles on the reactor creature. As it shifted its attention to fight them off, I scrambled to my feet and sped across the room to get my dropped grenade. I pulled the pin and rolled it behind the pipe system. The explosion ruptured the whole assembly, pressurized air venting into the room for a few seconds before stopping completely. The ventilation system was sealed off. The creature let out an enraged shriek; it must have known what we were doing from the researchers’ absorbed brains.

“Hey, asshole!” Brooks yelled over to it, a jumper cable in each hand. “From my God to yours: ‘let there be light!’”

He stuck the cables onto two makeshift electrodes on the machine and the room glowed with arcing electricity. Warning sirens blared overhead as the cryostasis system went into overdrive and began sucking the air out of the complex. My ears popped from the rapidly lowering pressure. The room was quickly turning into a vacuum chamber.

“We need to get back to Kenada, now!”

The five of us made a mad dash back through the catacombs, clearing the way with our dwindling ammunition. We had done our part, but Kenada’s team was still in trouble and we had to help them hold the entrance. I would have ordered the whole squad to just surrender at that point if it weren’t for how the Han treated their POW’s.

We emerged from underground up the rope ladder, exhausted by the thinning air. The hole in the energy field was too small to let enough air back inside so we left it while the creatures below suffocated to death. We just continued to run back up the ramp to the tower, hearing the gunfire getting louder.

Exhausted and starting to get nauseous from the radiation, I pushed on with the sheer will to help my squad. Near the entrance to the containment structure, I could see Corporal Kenada’s fireteam positioned around him behind crates and barricades. Their rifles all fired in support of his rapid LMG, which was currently cutting through every Han soldier that ran through the door.

My fireteam took position around them, doubling their firepower. The presence of a second automatic rifle positioned at an angle created a nearly unstoppable field of suppression. I had to double-take when I saw Xiaolian take a place at the barricade, draw her pistol and open fire on her own countrymen—soldiers of the same military she was technically a part of.

“Last mag!” said Kenada, fitting a 50-round drum onto his LMG. “Sergeant, if we’re all going to die anyway, did you at least do what you came here to do?”

“Yeah, it’s done, I’m ready to regroup if you are.”

“We’ll make sure its damn crowded when we get there.”

After the last wave of enemies fell in the doorway, there was a long pause. For a few tense minutes, we waited, rifles sighted, for more to come back. I wanted them to just get it over with and storm in already, I was done with waiting for what we all knew was coming. I listened to the battle outside for a while, appreciating the sounds of humanity. We would continue on, squabbling among ourselves, into the cosmos.

“Friendlies coming in! Check fire! Check fire!” yelled a voice from outside.

Four more marines dashed in, brandishing their rifles. They lowered their guard upon seeing us, bewildered, exhausted, and surrounded by piles of enemies. Corporal Kenada was changing the red-hot barrel on his LMG, casually pushing aside hundreds of steel shell casings. These marines were also Special Forces, but from a different branch. Their uniforms were dashed with brushstrokes of green and brown like a Van Gogh painting. 32nd Spaceborne “Winged Hussars.”

“Staff Sergeant Andris? I’m Sergeant Victor Reiston. We’re here to help. What’s the situation?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you, Sergeant. You wouldn’t believe it…I’d shake your hand, but there’s one more thing we have to do first.”

***

“You’re sure this will work?” I asked, dousing myself in buckets of water.

“Yes,” Xiaolian reassured me, “we’ve tested sterilization in the labs extensively. Again, it won’t be pleasant, but you’ll survive.”

“Alright, just get it over with,” I said, connecting the electrodes to my damp helmet and boots.

She threw the switch and 12,000 volts of electricity went over my body from head to toe. Every muscle seized up and created the worst cramp of my life. I could feel the electricity arcing across my skin like thousands of stinging fire ants. I imagined it cooking away all the surviving cells from those horrible slug-creatures to help get through it, but it was by far the longest five seconds of my life. Once they were over, we knew the threat had been extinguished, and the day was ours.

Afternoon sunlight was pouring in through the containment structure door as more marines came inside and looked around at the ruins in amazement. I couldn’t help feeling a bit let-down after the mission. Our finest hour came and went, and nothing else could live up to the rush of really making a difference in the world.

Xiaolian and I sat on an ammo crate together, watching armored vehicles rumble by outside. IFV’s had bullet scratches and scorch marks from what appeared to be a very intense, hard-won fight. The truck-mounted 180mm guns came after, brown carbon staining the barrels from prolonged shelling.

“I want to defect,” Xiaolian said, her hazel eyes glossed over, staring off deep in thought. She was obviously still coming down from all the action, trying to make sense out of so much horror and triumph in one morning.

“I haven’t even told you what country I’m from. How do you know?”

“Well, it can’t be that bad of a place if it made you. Not a lot of people could have done what you did back there. I didn’t even expect you to be persuaded so easily. Things don't work that well in my country. They never have.”

“You’re a convincing person,” I admitted.

“Really?” She turned and smiled with a refocused gaze. “Then take me home, Staff Sergeant.”

“Home…” I paused for a minute, looking up at a sun 308 lightyears from Earth. Humanity was only beginning to find its place among the heavens, and this discovery may well have sealed our fate as its good stewards. Only time could tell.

***

The media will tell you we bungled our intel, raided a peaceful archeological site, and had to get rescued by another unit. That's much easier to believe and helps people sleep at night. The thing is, we have a defector—and I have a fiancé—to prove otherwise. A formal agreement was reached by both sides with ultimately insignificant terms. Military satellites have noticed in recent weeks that the Federation began dismantling the four containment structures from the center of the town.

Someday, I believe the world will summon something we cannot contain. Civilization is too good a concept to last forever. Like a doctor, we know that our patient is going to die one day—just not today. Still, I can’t help but think about those slug creatures; the “fallen angels.” By some glitch of evolution, they got pleasure from something destructive, so intense they were willing to give up their health, their people, and their self-actualization in its pursuit. What’s worse is that the other “good ones” were too politically deadlocked to deal with a problem the way it needed to be. The question that keeps me up at night is: are we so different?




Written by BettaFins
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