How will fear be dealt with by those in the far future? How does it affect the people we trust to protect us? How is fear linked to our other emotions?
With these questions in mind, I presnent to you:
Part One: Hard Landing
In the shuttle’s gloom, strapped into my berth as we plummeted onwards, I could tell the others were jittery. Corso never had managed to get those shakes out of his hand. He’d tried everything. Leastways, he’d tried every method available to a Confederate Marine. Even a Spec-Ops payroll wasn’t enough to pay for that sort of surgery. I felt sad, watching him. Civilians watch the newsfeeds and see these hulking marines in powered armour, like something out of Starship Troopers and they think we’re immune to fear. They expect, when they see the Marine, that the Confederacy has reached into his prefrontal cortex and played with his mind, eradicating the possibility that he could succumb to terror. That sort of neural tinkering might be available to some of the richer citizens on some of the more advanced colony words, but not to a Confederate Marine. We really were the lowest rung of the ladder. Even SCV duty was preferable to what we had to do. Which was enter the hostile zone and hold it against all odds, until relief arrived or we were cut down where we stood.
Next to me, Tarken smoked the rich cigars of which he was so fond, his helmet open. Id’ tried one once… never could get the taste out of my mouth. We used to complain when he first started – after we’d all first faced the xenomorphs. But the comments soon stopped, once we realised we needed to find our own ways to deal with the fear. Tarken smoked on regardless. On Chau-Sara, when we were ordered to hold our posts until the civilians were evacuated, he smoked. Later when Zerg boarded our cruiser he smoked as he faced them without armour or weapons – flesh against flesh. By rights he should have been leader of our squad. But no, the Confederacy knew better. In terms of strategic and tactical planning, my scores at the academy were far superior. But Tarken… I guess he just had charisma. It was indefinable. He was born ugly and scarring hadn’t improved his features. His voice was a gravelly rasp we all hated. And yet… and yet… I always relied on him to keep the squad functioning when situations looked dire.
Across the shuttle, her face made all the more pale by the low blue lighting, Maya disassembled and reassembled her gauss rifle endlessly – a difficult task at the best of times, but exacerbated by our vertical plunge. I don’t know whether it was the task itself or merely the soft clicks of interlinking components that calmed her. It wasn’t really my place to ask. She was the one member of the squad with whom I had to make a strong effort to hold myself at an appropriate distance. Closeness brought its own emotional dangers to a Confederate Marine, especially in these troubled times.
Over in the far corner, Mitchell was praying. He prayed the same prayer, over and over. Sometimes he rearranged the words, or prayed in a different language. I don’t think he was really religious. Like Tarken’s smoking and Maya’s rifle work, it was his own way of stopping the fear from taking control. He’d had it worse than any of us – his first posting had actually been overrun. His comrades were slaughtered around him and he survived only by hiding beneath the corpses of his old friends. When the rescue team found him, he was praying. He’d never stopped, in all the time I’d known him – only to answer questions. I’d tried to engage him in conversation, but it was clear from the outset that he didn’t enjoy it. The rapport we eventually established was simple. When we ate, we shared rations. Anything more than that, I think he wouldn’t have been able to cope with. He probably thought if he made even slight attachments to people again, the whole incident would be repeated.
As for me? Well, when I said ‘we’ earlier, I wasn’t being as truthful as I could have been. Before the Zerg invasion and the evacuation and subsequent sterilisation of Chau-Sara, my family were wealthy and influential. Despite the Confederacy’s disdain for the cybernetically augmented, my father’s position in the government had allowed him to give me several expensive alterations. My prefrontal cortex had been subject to the alterations of several of the Confederacy’s finest doctors and surgeons. I have no fear, in the most literal sense possible. No, the hard part was not letting the lack of fear lead me to my death. I’d been in many different combat situations, three of them lasting for days. At many times I suffered the almost overwhelming temptation to take two gauss rifles, strap them to my arms and run out into the hordes massed beyond our trenches.
I may not have fear, but I certainly retain the capacity to be horrified. Trench warfare would have left me a blubbering wreck were it not for the enhancements made in my youth. To see a slavering bundle of jagged bone limbs, putrescent cartilage and hideous purple carapace hurtle down a narrow space towards you, as you stumbled backwards in the thick mud… the first time it happened, the men either side of me lost control of their bladders. I was the only one with enough sense to raise my weapon and drive the monstrosities back with tracer fire.
That was almost a year ago now. Since then I’d fought in battles ranging from tight close combat in facilities and on starships to huge, expansive campaigns where I’d been but one insignificant unit, marching along with hundreds of others, staring up as the battlecruisers roared overhead, while armoured tanks lumbered by on both sides. My father’s influence hadn’t been enough to guarantee me a commission, not post-CS. But I’d worked my way up. Relentless, I’d heard Confederate generals refer to me as being. In this squad, my soldiers called me ‘Fearless’.
A red LED counter flashed up on my HUD. Soon we’d face our fears again. Or in my case, I’d face an enemy whose emotional response to battle in some small way reflected my own. Hydralisks had no fear. They charged Terran lines without a thought for their own safety. But their fear was mindless, a by-product created through near-endless genetic tinkering. Whereas my fearlessness was due to technology. Unlike the blind hydralisk, I could see how to use my ability to bolster my comrades’ flagging spirits. When those around me were on the verge of breaking and running for cover, I would stand and shout a battle cry. Sometimes the cry had words; sometimes it was just noise, underscored by the throaty clatter of my gauss rifle. All I knew was that every time I stood up against the Zerg, those around me followed.
The LED counter told me only a few minutes were left until we landed. I barked an order to ‘make ready’ and was rewarded by a chorus of whines as powered armour came online and clicks as gauss rifle clips were slammed into place. The tension in the shuttle was almost palpable, I knew something had to be done or my squad would break before I even had a chance to rally them with my surgical courage.
“Tarken, you mind saying something to the squad?” I asked. His skills as a speaker were far beyond mine. I think he used to be an orator, before the Zerg came – closely followed by conscription on several colony worlds. Tarken was probably the only one of us who hadn’t chosen to become a Marine – he’d been press-ganged in his home city – wherever that was. “Sure thing, Fearless.” He said. Other squad commanders would have launched into a tirade about ‘propriety when addressing a senior officer’, but I let the comment pass. Tarken knew that I knew that it would help the others to hear my nickname.
“Listen up, guys!” Tarken called out. “I’d give you that ‘glory for the Confederacy’ spiel, but we all know it’s crap. I know we all scared witless, but Fearless here? They don’t call him that for nothing. He knows no fear when he fights the Zerg. And if he’d not afraid, we don’t need to be either. Aside from that, he’s the best ‘damn shot I ever served alongside. He’s the only person I know other than myself to have killed a xenomorph with his bare hands. And he might be a lousy chef, but he’s the only ‘damned person who cares a jot about us, so let’s all do whatever the hell he says and we might just live through this, eh? We got confidence in him, right?” I could see the others nodding within their helmets. “Well, if our own determination can match one tenth of his, we’ll have this mission in the bag in no time at all. Relentless, Fearless, whatever they call him. I know he’ll see us through. Trust me.”
I muttered a word of thanks to Tarken before activating the heads-up display units of the other suits. Once their HUDs casting hues of sickly green onto their faces, I showed them a map of the landing zone. Even without the detail afforded by more expensive gravometric imaging systems, the landscape was obviously precipitous. “Three years ago, the first surveyors who came to this moon called it the Anvil. They built their first base in the lee of the cliff and within a week the swarm swept in from the east to massacre the workers. The platoon of Confederate Marines was wiped out in less than an hour – they had nowhere to go, no cover to use. The Zerg – not that the people here knew who they were back then - didn’t even have to spawn hydralisks – they just sent wave after wave of zerglings to smash against the anvil. You ever seen a melon on an anvil get hit by a sledgehammer? It was like that.”
That elicited a few laughs. Our opportunities for genuine mirth were few and far between, so we laughed whenever we could. Which wasn’t all that often. I relayed our orders to the built-in processors of my squad’s suits, watched their faces blankly accept what we had to do. They were dropping us into a hostile fire-zone without even the support of a few light vehicles. Even the shuttle wouldn’t stay with us – assuming it survived the predations of the spore colonies photographed from orbit. We would be stranded, alone, to destroy sensitive information files relating to some of the Confederacy’s more confidential research projects. It turned out this moon had been chosen for a base because of its lack of proximity to any vulnerable colonies in the system. It was the perfect place to research dangerous equipment. Or it had at least appeared that way. They had no way of knowing about the dormant Zerg colony.
But after all this time the Confederacy couldn’t afford to send a large, well-equipped force – an army capable, if not of defeating the infestation on this moon, then at least lasting long enough until reinforcements could be gathered from nearby systems. No, all they could afford was us – the finest squad of Confederate Marines throughout all of Terran space. If I do say so myself. Of course, why they didn’t launch an investigate when contact was first lost is beyond me… maybe they were expected not to send messages anywhere so as not to draw attention down on the facility. We’d never know.
Now we were approaching the landing zone, all outward signs of fear were gone. Corso’s hands weren’t shaking as he clasped his rifle. Mitchell’s prayer had dropped to a low murmur and Maya had ceased her rifle play when I give the ‘make ready’ order. Beside me, Tarken still smoked the stub of his cigar. I ignored it, for the time being.
The shuttle suddenly rocked beneath us and we would have been tossed around the interior like rag dolls, were it not for the restrains holding us in place. Not for the first time, I wished Confederate shuttles had at least one viewport fitted – even if we couldn’t do anything to turn aside the hypothetical projectile racing towards us, at least we’d be able to see it. This wasn’t fear, more annoyance. If I were to die in the name of the Terran Confederacy, I wanted to do it on a battlefield, surrounded by the corpses of my enemies. Not torn apart within a shuttle, by nothing more that a quirk of fate. Fortunately we could all hear the whisper of the point-defence lasers reaching through the hull. If they stopped, we knew we were in trouble. But the whispers continued, until they were drowned out by the roar of the landing thrusters. The restraints snapped open and we moved rapidly. When the ramp of the shuttle slowly lowered itself to the ground, I could see that when the mission briefing said the landing would be dangerous, they didn’t tell us the half of it. “Confederate bastards.” Corso said behind me as he glimpsed what I saw. “They knew, didn’t they?”
Part Two: Facility Massacre
We were dropping straight onto a thin, mossy carpet of creep – that horrendous alien lichen-like growth that spread inexorably forwards wherever there were xenomorphs to maintain it. Which meant that there were drones around. Thankfully, the pilot of the shuttle took pity on us, jeopardising his own safety to fire the flamers and clear us a small space. Then, once the five of us were ready and tracking movement with the barrels of our gauss rifles, the pilot ignited the thrusters once more and sped away into the night.
A brace of slavering zerglings tore themselves out of the ground and threw themselves upon us, dripping slime from their insectoid mandibles. I could see their dim yellow eyes, lit in the glaring white beams of my shoulder-mounted lamps. Meeting their snarls with one of my own, I gave the kill-order and we proceeded to butcher the zerglings with precise, tight salvos. Sensing a disturbance in the ground behind me, I swung to face the horror that was emerging. There was neither the space nor the time to bring my rifle around so I dropped it, drawing instead the old chainsaw that hung from my belt. Spec-Ops did have some advantages over normal soldiers – we got to choose more weapons that your average trooper. And I used mine now to good effect. The jabbing arms of the xenomorph scraped against my armour, denting the steel and scratching the pain. On its next attempt to strike, I ripped through the zergling’s claws with the titanium chain-blade of my weapon, then systematically cut it apart, as one would a pig. However, this was one creature we certainly wouldn’t be eating anytime soon.
I wiped all the sickeningly blood-like internal fluid from the weapon before returning it to my belt. Then I picked up my rifle and looked around at the others, only to see Maya and Corso staring at me with slack jaws. They were relatively new to the squad; they hadn’t ever seen me deal with zerglings without the use of a rifle.
“Good one, boss.” Tarken said. I shrugged. “I probably should’ve got him before he chipped my paint… that scheme took weeks.” “See my tears.” Came his sarcastic response. I ignored him, turning my rifle on the drone responsible for this patch of creep. The others joined me and once it was dead, leaking bodily fluids onto the rocks, we watched the patch of alien organisms whither and die in mere seconds.
We moved on, travelling along the base of the cliff. We’d been dropped several hundred metres from the outer defences of the base – which were minimal. Hopefully we’d be able to get a little power back, maybe some lights – maybe even get any intact missile turrets operational.
Getting to the base would be the hard part. I slid my visor down and scanned the open ground leading up to the edge of the base. We were hidden in a pile of boulders that had been dislodged in the first attack. Between the nearest buildings and us was a stretch of land devoid of any cover. Any Zerg out on the plains that stretched away from the cliffs would be able to see us and bring whatever diabolical friends they wished. To make matters worse, my HUD tagged several otherwise innocuous patches of earth that looked like they had been disturbed recently. From the size of them, I guessed there were hydralisks buried beneath the earth, waiting for the telltale vibrations signalling the approach of fresh meat.
“Corso, grenades. Five second fuse. Go.” I highlighted the areas I wanted bombarding and left him at it, climbing up to a ledge in the cliff wall. I had a much better view up there, watching with some pride the graceful trajectories of Corso’s grenades. He was the best thrower in the squad. In fact, he was top bowler on the Chau-Sara Cheetahs under-seventeens’ cricket team. That was part of the reason why I picked him – top sportsmen were already on their way to possessing the mental and physical capabilities required to function as a soldier. As an elite.
Now Corso’s training hours paid off. The slight thump of the grenades on each patch caused the earth to churn as the Lovecraftian horrors beneath stirred and began to rise. Five seconds after impact, when the veined purple carapaces were just visible above the hard ground, the grenades detonated. Most of the force was directed downwards, ensuring the internal and, indeed, external organs of the emerging hydralisks were pulped beyond recognition – not that they looked like anything Terrans had ever seen, anyway. Still, a reasonable spray of gore and clods of soil erupted upwards, hurtling into the air only to come back down as a gristly rain. Even from a few hundred metres away, my visor was splattered with much. The small wiper slid across instantly, clearing my vision of the occluding ichor. The explosions had made the pitted ground even more perilous than before. We advanced cautiously, mindful that Terran sensors were far from perfect concerning the detection of subterranean xenomorphs. Only a few buried zerglings dared to attack us. We dealt with them swiftly before moving on.
The first building we reached was a supply depot, gutted in the first battle. A mouldering carcass of a zergling lay across the lap of the deceased Terran who’d killed it, apparently using a long steel rod. Both the zergling and the Terran were mostly exoskeleton and skeleton respectively – the winds ripping through the base were fierce and gritty, filled with suspended particles that could flense a man’s skin from his bones. I could hear the wind rattling against the plates of my armour as it threw futile abrasive volleys of rock and dust at me.
We left the scene and moved toward the centre of the base, missile turrets looming out of the darkness. Several of them were little more than blackened stumps or shattered piles of wreckage, but one or two – scarred by strange energy blasts more reminiscent of Protoss technology than anything else - looked like they could work again, given a little power. And providing the AIs in control of them had survived this long. Apparently this world had a strong electromagnetic field, due to the high density of radioactive elements in the crust. It made the silicon pathways of our sentient data entities corrode rapidly – usually an AI could last for several months before needing to be replaced, but here it was more like weeks. If an AI in a missile turret went rampant, the Zerg infestation would be the least of our worries. We walked through the ring of turrets and cross the deserted landing field, where two shuttles lay – one in pieces; the other tipped on its side. A shack in one corner of the field contained a computer terminal. I set Mitchell working on it – despite his apparent brand of insanity, he was a genius with machines and systems of any kind. Within two minutes, he’d called up a map of the base layout and pinpointed the location of our objective.
“Good job, Mitchell.” I told him. “Find the base generators and get ‘em online.” I moved away, then turned back. “Keep your guard up.” I added. I was about to leave when he put a hand on my shoulder. In his other was the clip from his gauss rifle. He held it up to me, his lips still moving with the endless prayer. I understood what he wanted, pulled the own clip out of my rifle and replaced it with his while he did the same with mine. It took a measure of trust. We both slotted our rounds into the clips before each mission and if either of us had made a mistake then our rifles could literally blow up in our faces. But even if I had been capable of fear, I wouldn’t have been loathe to fire the rifle – I knew Mitchell was a competent soldier, maybe even a deadly one. I left the shack and went out to join the others.
The research facility was set into the side of the cliff, a utilitarian structure covered in cables, pipes and machinery of dubious function. An empty SCV lay on the ground nearby. I sent Maya to take a closer look. When she returned she was pale and her breathing had gone shallow.
“What’s wrong, Maya?” Tarken asked, before I could speak. “It’s just an empty suit.” She shook her head emphatically. “Oh, no… it’s not empty.” She refused to say any more on the subject and I chose to press her. I could guess what she’d seen and cursed my mistake. I should have gone and investigated it myself. Still, it was too late now. I put an arm round Maya’s titanium-plated shoulders and gave her a clumsy hug. It was what she needed, her Confederate training returned and she soon had her breathing under control. “Thanks, Fearless.” She said, walking towards the heavy blast doors of the facility.
Nothing in the world could have prepared us for the utter carnage we found within. Terrans, Marines and civilians alike hadn’t just been slaughtered… they’d been mutilated. There was a certain grim saying that had sprung up amongst Marines who’d faced down the xenomorph, especially those who’d seen what happened when Zerg were unleashed on an unprotected populace. It ran thus: ‘wimp or warrior, we’re all the same inside.’ Most people didn’t grasp that this statement was a literal one. And that it was unequivocally truthful.
Explosions of intestines and flesh stained the walls while blood mixed on the floor, as if it were a demon’s palette. We all physically recoiled, stomachs churning. The squad backed hurriedly out of the entrance bay, nearly tripping over the tangled intestines of civilians and troopers. When were outside, we all opened our helmets and stomachs in turn. That level of brutality… it beggared belief.
Sometimes I wake in the night screaming, and I know in my dreams I must have visited that tomb once more. I see scientists in lab coats and fight the urge to vomit. Thinking about their shattered corpses, I knew I had to say sometime… anything…
“Alright, squad. These poor sods are dead. We can’t help that. What we can do is help guys who are still alive by finding these files. Are you all with me?” “I am, Fearless.” Tarken answered. The other two just nodded, straightening up.
We went back inside after a few minutes, no one daring to speak. Moving through those crypt-like halls over grilled floors daubed with death and dripping with blood, our lamps picking out horrendous details on the far walls… I think if I’d been able to feel fear as well as sickness and revulsion, there would have been no power in the galaxy that could have made me go back inside. As it was, the lack of fear enabled me to lead the others through the facility.
My infrared sensors found no Zerg. I could tell the conspicuous absence of any xenomorph resistance was getting to my comrades, even though it didn’t bother me. I assigned Corso to sweep behind us, in case anything decided to rear its ugly head after we’d passed. The facility wasn’t very large; we’d searched most of it in a few minutes and quickly located a terminal. This time I used it, seeing as I’d sent Mitchell to restore power. The terminals ran on emergency batteries, thankfully. I sorted through room listings and inventories before finding a room marked as ‘classified’ and bearing the mark of the Confederacy R&D division.
This area of the facility was relatively clean. Bodies lay in corners or sprawled over the floor, but they’d suffered less damage. Curious, I knelt down to examine the nearest corpse. It looked like he’d died and then a Zergling had jabbed him with a claw to make sure he was dead. It was the same with all the others. Something wasn’t right here…
I decided not to go any further until we at least had some power. My communications equipment warbled quietly to itself as it tried to link with Mitchell’s. His endless prayer flooded the channel as soon as contact was established. I was always loathe to ask him direct questions – though he answered them, he seemed to resent it, but we were on a mission. I had to put many of my usual considerations aside.
“Mitchell, you close to restoring power?” I asked. “Yes.” Came his terse reply, the prayer stopped mid-sentence. “One minute.” He broke off the link. True to his word, within a minute machinery in the walls of the facility started to hum with power. Lights came on, their electric brilliance blinding me until my eyes adjusted to their glare. I switched off my own shoulder lamps and led the others forward, alert for any presence, Zerg or otherwise.
The biomonitors wired to my HUD flashed up a warning, informing me that they were detecting lowering heart rates from the rest of my squad. I cancelled the warning, knowing full well that it was the due to the light, banishing one of the myriad fears that beset them. The fear that was gone was one of the oldest, most primal – the fear of the unseen, the unknown. Now darkness was confined to the shadows, which meant there were a lot less places zerglings could spring from. We continued our search.
Part 3: Haunted Laboratory
We found the room swiftly enough, but the door was sealed shut. It looked like it had been welded. Maybe the scientists and researchers had decided to lock themselves in so the Zerg couldn’t gain access to the secrets they possessed. I tried manually opening the door, but to no avail. Even when Tarken and I worked in concert, assisted by powered armour, we couldn’t even make it budge. All cybernetic commands were understandably denied at the source. It looked like we were going to have to burn or blast our way through. Gauss rifles and grenades were unsuitable for this sort of work and the door was too sturdy to bring my chainsaw to bear against, but I’d spied a weapon on Tarken’s belt when we tried to shift the door before.
“That a pneumattock?” I asked him. He grinned in response. “Nothing like it for crushing Zerg skulls in close quarters.” “Or… bashing through a sealed door? It’s not a blast door, the armour ain’t too thick.” I told him. As I expected, he protested. “This is a tool, a delicate tool! You can’t make me use it on a door…” “Don’t make me order you, Tarken.” I warned, half-joking. We both knew he’d capitulate, but these little scenes of mild resistance were our way of sorting out the fact that I’d been promoted over his head, in typical bureaucratic fashion.
After a moment of looking at me with a pained expression, we both laughed. He unclipped the pneumattock and thumbed the power button. The pistons inside the weapon’s casing pulled back the hammer, making it shake in his hands. Pneumattocks were the ultimate space-age hammers. With a normal hammer, an unarmoured man might be able to kill a zergling, given determination and no small amount of luck. With a pneumattock, an unarmoured man could slay a zergling easily. And with powered armour… gods above, some of the Marines I’d fought alongside used to pulp whole packs of their enemies with a single swing, sending the devastating vibrations rippling through the tightly packed bodies.
I stepped back, motioning for Maya and Corso to do the same. Tarken swung the pneumattock over his head and brought it down against the door. The walls shook around us, betraying something of the facility’s shoddy construction. He swung the weapon again, and this time the doors buckled.
“Ok, Tarken, that should do it.” I said. Once more we placed our plated shoulders against the door and heaved. This time, they gave way to our strength and foul green water came flooding out, carrying with it foul flotsam. The bodies of three scientists, lacking even the standard armour issued to non-military personnel who worked in military installations. I checked them all for life-signs, to no avail. They’d obviously drowned. But I couldn’t understand why they’d flooded the room when there were people still within it. It wouldn’t have delayed the Zerg overly much, everyone knew they could spend long amounts of time underwater.
“Thoughts, people?” I asked. Tarken simply shrugged. “Beats me.” “That’s so helpful.” I replied. “Always glad to assist.” He gave a mock bow – difficult when wearing powered armour. “Maybe there was a fire and the safety systems were disabled, so they just kept on pouring.” Corso put in. His armoured glove shook a little before he reasserted control over the errant limb. “Possible.” I said, thinking. Surely if the safety systems were disabled, the sprinklers would have worked? Hopefully we’d find the answers inside.