The Shortest StrawbyPhineas©
It was hot. Not the sticky and muggy heat people would complain about during a backyard barbecue when Earth was still around. No, this heat was dry and deadly. My suit read off 55 degrees centigrade as the outside temperature.
I was born and trained on the Earth Systems research station that used to orbit Mars. Keywords being 'used to'. The top secret military outpost was gone now. Then again, so was Mars.
My brothers and sisters and I were pioneers of genetic engineering. Not mere cloning, gene manipulation, or selective breeding. Humans had been doing that for over a couple of hundred years, either publicly or privately, depending upon the laws passed by the administration during that term. No, we were 100% gene-spliced and custom designed hard core sons (and daughters) of bitches. Lean, mean, fighting machines. Earth Systems Marines. Semper Fi to the Nth power.
But all of those enhanced genes I had, all of the state of the art weaponry and armor and equipment, and all of the exacting training I had been through my entire life… none of it prepared me for just how damn hot it was here.
The natives called the planet Acathia. We had captured some of their people and they had captured some of ours. Hard to believe, given the unforgiving nature of combat in a vacuum with weapons powerful enough to destroy small moons. Up until cracking our first Acathian, we had just called it Alpha Centauri Prime and the black skinned powerfully built humanoids Centaurians. Not the type with four legs ending in hooves and a tail either. Those are centaurs and this sure as shit ain't no fairy tale I'm living!
Acathia orbited the primary star in the Alpha Centauri system, with the secondary star also orbiting the primary, but at a distance ranging from 11 AU to 35 AU as opposed to Acathia's 1.2 AU. Proxima, the third (and final) star in the system was a dim and small little red dwarf, barreling along through the universe at a whopping 13,000 AU from the other two stars. The fact that the primary star was almost 10% larger then our belated Sol explained the larger climate, or so the scientists told us. That and a full cycle of daylight due to the three suns. I was a marine, I could handle a weird light schedule. Hell I had fought down the rebellion on Mercury's power station back in 2309. That was hot too, now that I think about it. We had better suits then though, after all, Mercury had no atmosphere.
Come to think of it, Mercury has a lot less now.
"Ell-Tee, there's a village down in that gully!"
That pulled me out of my musings. About damn time we found something on this rock. "Hill, Watson, cover that rock, Jackson you got point. Lead us in!"
The mission was recovery. My marines could do it all, of course, but we preferred blowing stuff up. One of our pilots got shot down a standard week back but his ship was only cracked up, not destroyed. With Earth gone every bit of material we can salvage could mean the difference between survival and extinction. But even more important, all the readings the Columbus got back from the wounded fighter told us the pilot was still alive. Normal ground pounder ethics insists that nobody gets left behind, but with only a few thousand of us humans left, every one of us is invaluable regardless of outfit, rank, or status. Kinda makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
We were moving then, with corporals Hill and Watson setting up on a rocky mound that covered our approach into the dry gully where the Acathian village was at. Being the snipers in my platoon, both men had their laser rifles tuned in and ready to go at a moments notice. Most of the rest of us were sporting GARs, or Gauss Assault Rifles. The GAR's used electro-magnetically accelerated Teflon jacketed tungsten alloy 4 millimeter slugs propelled at a speed of over 9000 meters per second. I'm no tech, but they told us the kinetic energy caused by one of those slugs hitting a man sized target was equivalent to handing your victim a get out of life free card and waving goodbye. Very messy.
Jackson, as the point man, was cradling his favorite weapon. Based on the historical room sweeper shotgun, the Soundblaster could incapacitate or pulverize multiple targets at relatively close range with a blast of ultra low frequency sound waves. A couple other marines followed his style, thinking that a close in weapon would be more effective in a village.
As ready as we were, we were not ready for what happened next. Jackson rounded the first corner out of the gully and into the village and stopped cold, his weapon pointed menacingly before him then lowering slowly. "Lieutenant Snow, I could use a little help up here," he said, his voice trailing away.
I double timed it up there, my light body armor custom fit to my rock hard muscles to ensure maximum maneuverability. Rounding the corner my mouth dropped open too.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Eric Grindholm stood facing us in the middle of the path. He smiled and waved weakly. He appeared to be in good health, if somewhat worse for the heat. I could appreciate that at least. It was the company he was in that had me speechless.
I had seen one of the captured Acathians back on the E.S.S. Columbus. Truth be told, I felt rather dignified when I saw him. Granted, I was genetically engineered, but I still studied history growing up. I was fiercely proud of my black skin and African heritage, even if it was not acquired during a process involving a lot of sweating and moaning. All of the Acathians we captured or found proof of had been even darker skinned then I was, and I was an especially dark skinned black woman.
The creatures that stood beside the downed pilot resembled humans in no way other then being bipedal and upright. I mean… they had tails! Sure, they were kind of short and stubby, but they were still tails!
Okay, so humans evolved from monkeys. Fair enough I suppose, perhaps these things were not very far up the evolutionary ladder. It was an entirely different ladder though, because these things ranged in color from green to gray and brown. That and their skin resembled a lizards. Sort of like walking iguanas I guess. I never did pay much attention to herpetology. Even their heads were heavily reptilian, with beady eyes of similar dark colors.
"Friend," one croaked out, his voice harsh, grating, and hissing. It had both its arms out to the side, indicating that it carried no weapons.
"What the hell are these?" Jackson asked from beside me. He had spoken quietly but apparently the lizards had good hearing because they started talking in their own language to each other. It did not sound angry, but it was making me nervous. I tightened my grip on my own GAR and glanced around, making out where some of them had hidden in nearby stone huts or in defensible positions. Still, I saw that not a one of them brandished a weapon.
The apparent leader of the walking iguanas turned to Eric then and gestured towards us. Eric nodded and walked forward slowly. "These… um, guys, found me where I crashed and hid me from the Acathians that tried to find me. The acathians got my fighter, but I destroyed all of the sensitive equipment in it beforehand."
"What," I began then stopped. "Who are they?"
"I've only been here a few days, Lieutenant, I really don't know other then they call themselves the Faradwim. They seem to be no friends of the Acathians we've been fighting though."
"The enemy of my enemy?" I asked rhetorically, staring at the lizard-man that had spoken to us.
"Perhaps. They have an incredible gift for our language. In the short time I've been here they have learned the basics of English. No reading or writing, but their potential has astonished me."
I looked again at the leader of the Faradwim. This time I saw intelligence in its eyes. It was taller then me and if I was any judge of body size, probably stronger as well. Hanging from a leather-like thong at its side was a bone handled rock club. A similar material made up the creatures outfit, which consisted of little more then a loin cloth and a harness over its chest from which various charms and items hung. I had no idea what to make of him, and was about to admit to being out of my element. After all, the creed of the marines is that we get to travel to strange and exciting new places, we get to see beautiful new horizons and sights, we meet strange new cultures and people, and then we get to kill them. Diplomacy was not my forte.
"Lieutenant, come with me into a hut so we can discuss this. I think we have a great potential here. And there's somebody else I want you to meet." The space jockey said to me with a hint of grin. It almost reminded me of a leer. I was more then willing to defer to his lead, even though I was technically his superior officer.
The hut was small and fashioned entirely out of stone. Walls, roof, everything. Far from being windproof or weatherproof, the shade was nevertheless welcome. Enough holes remained in it for ventilation to prevent the air from being stifling. I reached up for my helmet to remove it but stopped when I saw the inhabitant of the hut. It explained the pseudo-leer Grindholm had given me.
In a word, she was beautiful. White skinned but deeply tanned by the harsh sun of Acathia, she looked like one of the human girls I had seen worshipping the sun on one of the Venusian beaches back when there was a Venus. She had long strawberry blond hair to the middle of her back and deep blue eyes that you could get lost in. She was a shorter then me by 6 or 7 centimeters, but I was tall for a Earth girl at 179 centimeters tall. Fashioned out of the same leather-like material as the Faradwim's outfit was her sandals and clothing. Though 'clothing' was sort of a poor term. She wore a patchwork skirt that was loose fitting and ended before it reached her knees. An armband graced her right forearm and from her waist hung a curved sword fashioned out of a strange metal I could not place. A long jagged knife hung from her other side. Resting lightly across her shoulders was a bow carved out of a bone of some sort of animal, the string of it ran across her chest and slipped gracefully through the valley between her nicely rounded and firm, if a bit small and athletic, breasts. Hey, I may be a woman, but I can appreciate beauty when I see it. And besides, I like 'em athletic.
Where she differed from us humans was arguable. Her ears were an obvious change of pace, being slightly elongated and pointy. Her cheekbones and facial features seemed rather long and airy as well. Overall her build reminded me of an underfed waif, but I could see from the tone in her form and the stance she took that mistaking her for a weakling would be a grave mistake. Save for her breasts, she seemed possessed of almost no body fat. Reminded me of myself and my fellow marines, actually, since our bodies were designed to have a higher metabolism.
I caught myself staring at her body and then found that I was blushing. The thought infuriated me. Jessica Snow, 29 standard years old and 1st lieutenant in the Earth Systems Marine Corp. I had coupled with countless partners. That this girl with her outlandish and somehow strangely familiar beauty could do this to me was ridiculous!
"Who is this?" I snapped, more harshly then I intended to. Better I sounded gruff I suppose, since I was unsure of whether my voice would work properly!
"She is a Pudarin. Her name is Jethallin," Eric said. Upon hearing her name the woman puffed out her chest and stepped forward. Her chin was thrust forward defiantly. It was all that Eric and I could do to keep our attention above her prominently displayed bosoms.
"How do you know all this?" I asked suspiciously. I still could not take my eyes off of Jethallin.
"The Faradwim," He said. "They are amazing with their ability to communicate. They are able to converse with her easily, and less so with us."
"Is she one of the Acathians?" I asked, surprised by my own interest in the question.
"No, she's a Pudarin." I gave him an exasperated look which asked the question for me. "I'm not sure what that means. I think it's the three type of people on this planet. Acathians are the advanced ones that we are fighting. They run the planet and apparently pissed off the other indigenous life forms. The Faradwim and Pudarin are less advanced and apparently lesser powers… at least in the eyes of the Acathians."
"This is going to give me a headache," I muttered. I turned around and walked to the doorway to the hut.
"Gunny!" I snapped out, getting the attention of Gunnery Sergeant King, my second in command. "Get me a heavily encrypted line up to the Columbus, we have a clusterfu- a situation here!"
"You got it Ell-Tee!" He responded, already turning to snap orders to my men to get them situated. He would have the men in defensive positions too. Half the work of being a successful commander was in having skilled people under me. Made my job that much easier.
"You," I pointed towards the Faradwim that was standing nearby, the same one that had addressed us earlier. "Um, would you please join us and help me figure out what the fu- help me figure out just what is going on here?"
The lizard nodded after a moment of thought and walked forward, moving past me and into the hut. I looked up to the sky and regretted it instantly. That sun was bright. Dreading the decisions that were to come, I turned and headed back into the shaded hut.
The woman beside me, Lance Corporal Doyle, yanked a magazine out from her body armor and tossed it to the trooper that had run dry. He snapped it into his GAR fluidly and turned back to where the Acathian armor column was advancing on us.
It was similar to the space battles that had already taken place. Our weapons were superior to theirs, but they had us outnumbered heavily. Every casualty we took meant a narrowing of the gene pool, but for them it was less then a drop in the bucket.
I drew a bead down on a quick moving lightly armored hovercraft and sent several slugs slamming into the thin coiling around the bottom of it. It dipped down, whatever device giving it the mysterious power of levitation damaged. I grinned fiercely and fired again, this time cutting into the squad of Acathians riding in the open topped vehicle. A few jumped free but most succumbed to my lethal weapon.
I started to track the survivors on the ground but held my fire when I saw a quickly moving person approaching them. It was Jethallin, the Caucasian Pudarin that damn near everybody in my platoon had the hots for. Turned out she was something of a hero to her own people as well. Or her tribe or something, I never did figure it out. Might have even been a clan of them. One of her sources of honor was in the strangely forward curving metal sword she used. Metal seemed by and large to be a rarity for the Pudarin and the Faradwim. I think it had something to do with their relatively primitive cultures and lack of mining technology.
She used her weapon well, primitive or not. I saw the Acathian soldiers trying to reach cover from my men. They were unaware of her as she leapt into their midst from behind, sword in one arm and long knife in the other. The Acathians were armored lightly, wearing some sort of lightweight tan colored material that provided minimal safety from our hypervelocity GARs. About all their armor could do was provide token resistance to a light charge from a laser rifle, but both of my snipers were too good to make the mistake of letting the piecemeal armor get in their way more then once. Jethallin seemed equally skilled with her blades, dispatching three of the Acathians before they knew she was amongst them. The fourth went down spraying blood from his throat and firing his particle rifle blindly.
The beam passed just over Jethallin, scorching her shoulder in its passing, and slammed into the head of the fifth survivor from the downed hovercraft. The resulting explosion as the Acathian's brain was instantly superheated was less then pretty. Of all the sights I take to my dreams every time I enter HIBS (HIBernation Sleep), I knew I would relish seeing that one again very little. Damn scientists still insist that you do not dream in HIBS sleep too, the idiots.
I gave Jethallin a wave and a grin, which I doubted she could see through my tinted faceplate, and turned back to pick out some more targets. Jethallin melted into the landscape, stalking her next victim. From their hiding spots the Faradwim were using their slings and bows as best they could. Occasionally they would do something effective, but mostly they only served to distract the Acathian's from my far more deadly marines.
A hovertank approached along the same path as the personnel carrier, coming right down my line of fire. The wonderful thing about the state of warfare in the 24th century was miniaturization. Pulling out my own Soundblaster I set the power to low on it and attached an armor piercing grenade to the acoustic barrel. I keyed the release on the grenade and took a moments aim while I counted off four seconds in my head. The sonic burst propelled the grenade flew out when I pulled the trigger on the gun. It hit a little high on the tank, bouncing still higher up on it before it went off. The blast sent the hover tank dipping towards the ground before the stabilizers in it recovered.
The top of the tank was a mess of scarred metal. Two of the three particle cannons on the turret were damaged, and the hatch leading into the crew compartment was nowhere to be found.
Gravity on Acathia was stronger the Earth's by roughly half a gee, due to it being about 15% larger then the Earth had been. Still, my boys and girls were trained marines. We had trained and operated missions on all sorts of varying environments, including missions upwards of 3 gees. Nevertheless, not a single one of us could have done what I saw Jethallin do next (even if we were practically naked like she was). She leapt off a nearby rock some ten feet horizontally and about 3 feet vertically to grab onto the side of the damaged tank. She scrambled up quickly and dropped into the crew area, both of her weapons in her hands by that point. She was a wildcat who was ready to party. A minute later I glimpsed her leaping away from the tank moments before it plowed into the ground.
I needed to see if I could get her to enlist in the marine corp.!
Outnumbered nearly 3 to 1 at that point, it was only a matter of time. I had two soldiers down, one permanently and another only wounded. Had it been for the recovery of only one man, Lieutenant Junior Grade Eric Grindholm, then I would have been pissed. But it had turned out to be a hell of a lot more. Now it turned out that not only were we acquiring some allies, but we were also fighting to establish a beachhead on Acathia.
Like I said, it was only a matter of time. In another 20 minutes we beat off the last of the Acathians and set about standing down to a ready alert status. Overheard our fighters performed similarly against the Acathian air forces, destroying the majority and driving the rest back. A few more ships were shot down and pilots killed, but all in all, the Earth Systems fleet – the last of the human race – were doing more then their share.
"Well done, Lieutenant," Alexia Tomlonovich, Commander and XO of the E.S.S. Columbus said. She rose up from her seat at the head of the table and saluted me.
I returned the salute smartly. I had received another couple of medals for my securing of a landing zone, recovery of a downed pilot, and discovery of allies in our fight to keep humanity alive. I had not done all of it, but I was apparently the token girl this week. The other officers around the table rose as well. Captain Hartley, my own boss, and then Major O'Leary.