Air Los AndaresEdit
Images were swirling around him--images of breathtaking ferocity, monstrous creatures from out of the world. They were headed all around him, bony carapaced armor a brownish hue, crab-like, immense demonic beings that belonged to another world... Sharp blades, a frenzy of activity, an endless thirst--like Daniel Travincal had never known of before. He looked in horror at what was behind him as well... a veritable storm of creatures, whirling around with charged anticipation... of what? There was an absence of thought, just a mindless, sheer power...
Force! A greatness and majesty beyond comprehension, beyond all that was human. It was... definitely not of this world… The pervading blackness cast shadowy glints off the hardened shells of these floating giants, so many that he could not count... Around and around, past him... His pulse pounded and he rushed to the side as one of them charged at him, went storming past. Part of it went through him... It was a monstrous entity, he could instantly conclude. But he was not standing on anything, just hovering in an immense... void...
He could almost sense the roaring hatred--or was it devotion?--Daniel could not tell, though these were as diametrically opposed emotions one could have... Hungry beasts, eager to the hunt, dim darkness of--and then fear-
It was all silent with activity, pulsating with emptiness, the formula for the impossible. His imagination.
Then yet another creature charged, through the scintillating disturbing web that clouded his mind's eye, charged straight at him, he saw himself slipping away, and jumped-more fear- if only it could not attack him! A bead of sweat dropped from his brow. A flotilla, rushing past him... and that creature slammed right into him, through him, emerging from the other side...
And Daniel awoke from his nightmare of a slumber, in the soft familiarity of the military outpost of Artifact Station, tossing and turning and gasping in his own self-caused shock, while three other soldiers watched over him with disconcerted glances. He couldn't remember the last time he had a dream, and could probably count all his memorable dreams on one hand. And none of them were like this one: it felt real - frighteningly so. It seemed childish for a grown man to be trusting his dreams, but then again, better safe than sorry.
What had happened? he pondered, still quite stunned from the experience.
Is this... this place still my quarters on Mar Sara? --? It was, because as he looked around he could see his mahogany desk with handy laptop and surrounding plant decor, his heavily armored combat suit parked in the corner, a sofa on the far end, an easy chair, and of course the Queen-size bed he was lying on. Yes, this surely was his personal room on Artifact Station, and the other three members of his squad - His squad - had rushed into the room, looking at him with a tinge of anxiety for their corporal.
What had come to pass? What were those creatures? But it, or they, were already slipping from his memory, he could not recall-- --but couldn't, couldn't call forth from the dimness of his mind the troubling encounter of but seconds ago that had so startled him awake with sudden trauma.
He stopped shaking, gradually, gasping for breath as another three hot beads of liquid rolled down beside his ears, past a set of miniature transponders which everyone in the infantry wore 24/7. The marines too were gaping and gasping, watching over him with anxiety.
"You al'right?" asked one of the soldiers whom Daniel recognized as Michael Bryant.
"Y-yeah, I sh-ould think... so," replied Daniel, panting at the same time.
"Well, what was it? What did you dream of?" asked the only female soldier on his squad, Sarlena Aeryth.
"Darn it," was the very precise reply that Daniel gave, meaning, I don't remember, those dreams are so easily forgotten!
"Well, it's morning, so I suggest it's time for you to get up, and especially if your dreams have been bothering you lately," admonished the final soldier, Christopher Lowry, lending a hand to pull Daniel out of his bed.
Daniel gave his three good friends a hearty look, and glanced at them over and over, while his bodily functions returned to normal, as he felt himself recover his energy. Whatever it was, it had left him mentally strained. Thank goodness for my comrades. It was a calming influence, these three friends being next to him, taking care of him...
"Yeh, your overactive imagination got the better of you this mornin'," Michael concluded. "Say, let's try to take it nice 'n easy, what you say to that?"
"I guess so," Daniel replied. He pulled back his cover sheets, and ignored almost everything in his room as he made toward the armored suit.
All that mattered was his CLCS-300, the Confederate Light Combat Suit 300, standard military issue. He rushed toward it, a child playing tag rushing toward the safety of ‘base’, instinctively walked into its warm, steely embrace, swiftly donning its hundred pounds of bulk. With this suit on, I'll be protected the next time something scary were to try to jump me.
The suit was completely coated on the outside with a material erroneously called NeoSteel - the dark, grey-black, rubbery, yet incredibly tension-resistant composite material matrix would not remind one of any metal at all. The NeoSteel covered every part of the suit, including the part of the helmet right in front of the eyes. Unlike what the Confederacy propaganda had made the armor look like - all bulky with gadgets strapped all over the outside - technology had gotten far more sophisticated than the dystopian world the bulky poster-armor would imply. Instead, it looked a lot like rubber clothing, and terribly thin at that - so much so that Daniel, though he knew that his CLCS-300 was completely trustworthy, decided to make sure.
Aiming his standard-issue Gauss submachine gun at it, he pressed the trigger for a split second - and in that short span of time twenty or so shots had impacted the suit's front at almost exactly the same place. A few white streaks of strain had appeared on the otherwise black-painted breast plate, but that was it.
None of the bullets had penetrated. A pile of flattened bullets fell to the ground, now coin-shaped.
"Why are you shooting your own armor?" asked Christopher.
"Well," replied Daniel as he hurriedly donned his armor, "I need to make sure that I'll be safe in this thing, and I have just proven it to be so."
Within half a minute he had entirely gotten dressed within this suit, his main form of bodily protection since he first reported to duty at Artifact Station three years ago. He didn't feel heated up at all - the air conditioning and insulation mechanisms of the suit had been optimized to his favorite temperature and adjusted when it detected sweat or goosebumps.
Daniel finally started to relax as the built-in life support system modified the percentage of oxygen it provided to match his hyperventilating breathing. The wide helmet visor - also bullet-resistant - descended over his eyes, providing a digitally transformed and enhanced view of the outside. Finally assured of his safety, he looked side to side in search of anything that could pose a threat to his squad. At the slightest pressure from Daniel's muscle, the suit would move or turn. The NeoSteel suit was, despite its resistance to bullets, as flexible as skin, and he didn't even feel anything stopping him as he turned his neck.
Superimposed in text on the visor's display, at the center of each person, was that person's name in light green Verdana font, allowing for easy identification.
Through his visor, Daniel could see that the other three members of the team looked at him strangely. Despite it being the military and they were supposedly in a forward position, Daniel was the only one that was dressed up. Indeed, none of them had put on a CNLCS-300 for nigh a month. Christopher had on a shirt that proudly proclaimed his membership in the Engineering Guild, Sarlena had on a pretty dress upon which had been placed a dainty fragrance, and Michael's was a simple, red T-shirt. Whereas Daniel felt incredibly bulky, like wearing a sweater in summer, they all looked just right in their flimsy, soft civilian clothes. And so vulnerable, especially since Daniel was holding a submachine gun and they didn't.
Not like that would matter. Mar Sara was a boring planet - good for a soldier to live on and avoid getting shot, but at the extent at which Mar Sara was boring, even the ennui was deadly. Even though regulations stated that the soldiers were supposed to have their armor donned all their waking moments, they rarely ever did so because no one ever expected to be in a situation that warranted them. Daniel's donning his armor like this was slightly unnerving for his friends at the station.
“Somebody been trying to shoot you in your nightmare?” interrogated Sarlena rather wryly.
“As a matter of fact, No,” Daniel replied, placing emphasis on the refusal, continuing: "but somebody was trying to shoot You, babe," he told her, giving her a wink, causing her to give him a smile.
"Scan," Daniel ordered into his suit. The voice-recognition system immediately translated the words into computerized commands and superimposed over his vision a radar-like minimap of the surrounding territory. It allowed him to see both in front of him and everything significant out to ten miles or so. There was only the green dot in the middle - Artifact Station itself. As Daniel very well knew, this was a total backwater. There shouldn't be anything else on the minimap.
"All clear," Daniel muttered underneath his breath. He had originally thought that they were surrounded by enemies. But then again, that was just his imagination - or nightmare - kicking in...
"Well, Daniel, since you're now wide awake you ought to get some breakfast," advised Michael. Daniel made a point of not being referred to by his status - puny as it was - by his teammates - his friends.
Briskly walking in his power-suit, Daniel stalked away from his bedroom, into the hallway of the complex. Though the suit weighed a hefty fifty pounds, it felt not even ten. Christopher, Sarlena, and Michael followed, relieved that their corporal was okay.
The brilliant lighting of the hallway would be a joyful light in anyone’s life, its shining ceiling shop-lights illuminating the smooth, decorative carpet underneath, and the walls a cool wind-drift blue. It stretched for about fifteen yards, connecting to four bedrooms in total. One for each member of his team, and filled with furniture. And that was cheap by any standard.
Because buildings were now built by immense machines that constructed them like a printer would a document, and lightly-populated Mar Sara had incredibly low land value, the military could afford to make rooms this large. And because Daniel and the others all had plenty of money that they didn't have much to spend on, the place was filled with semi-luxurious furniture too. That made sense in Daniel's mind; after all, "those who serve and put their lives on the line for everyone else" ought to be rewarded for risking a shorter life by having a better life.
Breakfast had already been served courtesy of Christopher, and now three of four plates lay empty on the long dining table. Daniel eagerly reached for it, mouth watering. Fried eggs, bacon, and a large platter of salad with vinaigrette—Mmm!
"So, do you remember now?" asked Michael.
"Ah yes... a little bit, come to think of it."
"Well, who was the enemy? Was it an assassin, or an army?"
"Did you manage to see their flags or army colors?"
Daniel smirked; Michael was treating this like it was real. That was real like him, the joker kind. So Daniel decided to play along. "I was getting attacked by critters." Only then did Daniel realize how pathetic that sounded. One moment he was surrounded by inquisitive faces; suddenly he was surrounded by about-to-burst-into-laughter faces.
"Oh I get it!" said Michael with a huge smile on his face. Then he imitated a commander and shouted: "Okay, 105th Fire Ant Division, use them flamethrowers on that there Aphid Regiment! And I want the 4th Damselfly Wing to scout ahead!"
"Hey, that wasn't too bad of a joke," said Christopher, patting his pal on the back. Sarlena couldn't restrain the giggles either. Daniel joined in with the laughter. It was, and would be, sorely needed.
This is the life, Michael thought, as he collapsed eagerly onto one of three leather sofas and turned on the 40-inch plasma TV. Ever vigilant, Sarlena ran the station's sophisticated detection equipment (far superior to that of the suits), while Christopher routinely checked the foursome’s gauss rifles by shooting volleys into the empty expanse outside.
Not that there could ever be a threat to such a backwater station as this one. Heck, there were so many such boring stations littering the fringe worlds that the Confederacy even had a station called Backwater Station, to the endless joking of much of their military.
Much of the planet was a dull red clay, with canyons marking where there had once been water flows. Now it was all desert, streaks of crimson and violet rock layers, with scarcely any life form besides the occasional cactus specimen brought over from core world Tarsonis.
The day-to-day life in this sector, pacific as can be, still brought with it a military duty: regular supplying for the occasional perimeter patrol trucks. Other than that, nothing was happening in the world they cared about, which was not saying much since it was pretty much the same every day. Heck, something worth noting was bound to happen sometime - a rock falling down a canyon of its own accord, for example.
Daniel inwardly smiled. Hey, life as a soldier wasn't bad at all, especially considering there hadn't been a major incident on Mar Sara for over a decade. The only enemy was the fact that it was so BORING. (If that could be considered an enemy, that is.>>
In a war against boredom, however, the four marines were certain to win: society and technology had for centuries given humanity something to do in times of ennui. <i>Thank goodness for culture. Sitting on an easy-chair, Daniel idled away the early hours of the morning, listening to such unimportant matters as “Rumors of Sons of Korhal Spotted” and “Potentiplatin Anti-Cancer Drug Passed Phase III Trial”, while Sarlena sat blissfully beside Christopher, both of them admiring the elegant beauty of two ice skaters spinning on the rink, performing live from the permanently-winter planet of Braxis.
One would almost forget why one was here, surrounded in such elegant living quarters and with a panoramic view of the nearby canyon. From the fiberglass windows of the compound, Daniel watched leisurely as the brilliant sun shone its rays across the mesas and canyons that traversed the exotic, but to him familiar, landscape of this resource-rich planet. Such a dazzling display! The tranquil glow of the soothing pink, the exciting orange, the cool purple of the mesas, and scarcely a cloud to defile the cerulean skies above...
As the lights shone throughout the room, the odor of newly prepared breakfast drifted about lazily, accompanied by the music of the ice skaters. Daniel sat comfortably on his easy-chair, savouring the taste of his platter, as an automatic mine soundlessly drilled into the ground beneath him, turning raw minerals into electricity.
Other than that, it was mostly silent, this bastion of human presence in a sea so red, orange, and absent of life.
What else could he wish for?
He would wish for more life--more plants, and animals, rather than this desert. But then the desert had its own touch, an incarnadine aura, something he would gladly keep, as it made the landscape so charmingly pretty. He had seen images of the Grand Canyon back on Earth (even in tenth grade, he had said "Earth? Never heard of it!"), and this was just as spectacular scene as its cousin on that planet, only stretched over hundreds of thousands of miles, this colossal work of nature.
No, he would not wish for verdant forests to ruin this landscape. But he did wish for his family. His parents, grandparents, and brother were far, far away--not on the planet, even; they were on Halcyon, which was far more lavish in its greenery. Too bad it would take so darn long to get from one planet to another, even with gravitic hyperdrives to speed up the process.
Daniel was born one year before his younger brother, yet he was almost certain that his brother must now appear three years older than him. Quite a disconcerting thought, having to call your own younger brother "elder brother".
Meanwhile, Christopher poured out some of the wondrously tasty soda from a tin can with an image of a yellow radioactive sign. "Ahh, thank goodness for Cold Fusion (tm)", Daniel remarked as he opened his own can of the beverage and poured into a crystal wine-glass. (And no, it wasn't radioactive.)
"Give me some, Chris," asked Sarlena charmingly and rather lazily, her legs crossed, still watching the program being aired.
Christopher held out the glass of soda to her, but as she reached for it, he withdrew it, a smile on his face beckoning her to try to get it. Sarlena uncrossed her legs and stretched over to reach for it, but Christopher brought the glass further away, spurring another round of Sarlena leaning intimately close to him in an attempt to get it. By the time Sarlena finally caught the cup, they were both laughing, and Sarlena gave a cry of joy as she held the cup up, a sign of non-consequential victory, before she started drinking from it.
The two looked at each other, wishing never to be separated. Christopher gazed into Sarlena's beautiful face, enjoying his time away, while Sarlena would have had to admit that her feelings had also been swayed in the last month or two. They had both arrived at the station about a year ago, after two others had been relocated to some other duty. But with each other, things were still very interesting - far more than either Daniel or Michael could fathom.
Christopher gave her a kiss on her cheek, which made her blush, though she returned the favor quickly, so that neither of the other two could see her do it. Her face was flushed pink.
"Hey guys!" shouted Michael, who was watching another channel as both televisions shifted to showing advertisements. The other three turned to face him, wondering what joke he had this time.
Michael began seriously. "A person and a polar bear somehow got trapped in a humongous refrigerator. The next morning, when they were freed, the polar bear had died of the cold while the person was still alive and well. How is this possible?"
"Erm..." there was little the others could say at that... "Don't know, what's the answer?" asked Christopher.
"Well, the polar bear doesn't know either," replied Michael, turning back to look at the advertisements, which had changed to selling a new and improved graphics drive.
"Wait... so that's the answer?" asked Sarlena, tapping her head lightly. The others shook their heads in confusion.
"Oh..." realized Christopher. "You!-- Are you implying that I'm no smarter than a polar bear?" he shouted back.
"Why, yes," said Michael, turning back and smiling--which quickly diffused Christopher's anger.
"That was a horrible joke," Christopher concluded. "You should be able to do better than That." Of course, thousands of jokes having already been shared, everyone had long been out of ideas and now all the jokes were getting retarded.
"Actually, that was all right," said Daniel with a wry smile.
"Yeah, seeing that appearance of utter distaste coming from you is priceless!" said Sarlena, barely holding in her laughter.
"Well, that's... If you think so, Sarlena, then I guess that's quite all right," Christopher muttered, a bit embarrassed. Turning back to the other men, he abruptly added, "But I'm not letting you off lightly. I won't be helping you work all the equipment, nor will I be repairing anything."
Christopher sounded serious; that made Michael's heart leap. What if he really decided not to cooperate? Half of the military stuff around here they didn't know how to use, and only Christopher, as the squad's engineer, could fix anything. Michael was about to open his mouth to apologize profusely when Sarlena cut him off.
"If you're going to be tough, I'll spend my time with Michael, at least he's got a precious sense of humor," Sarlena stated, acting a bit hurt and knowing just what effect that would have on the man sitting next to her.
That sounded like Christopher's worst nightmare come true. "No Sarlena, fine then--anything for you, dear..." he muttered, redness rising up his cheeks. Michael and Daniel looked at each other, smiling mischievously. Someone changed the channel.
Daniel’s attention was disturbed by an announcement broadcast on Air Los Andares, the planetary news network broadcast from its one and only city. "...Yep, that's right folks, twenty cattle mutiliations in the course of a single night!" --pictures of the tortured cattle rushed by the screen, one after another-- "Now, this chart shows where they were located at. As you can see, they're all concentrated at..." The map showed Artifact Station near the edge.
"Hey!" Daniel noticed with a start. "Isn't that marker within just a few dozen miles of our Station?" Now he was more interested. Out-of-the-ordinary things hadn't happened for the last couple of months, and before that was just a small breakup of an attempted bootlegging operation.
"...We've just gotten telsat feed of the general vicinity where half of these ignominious mutilations had been sighted. Here they are--" All four rushed over to take their seats and turned their attentions to the TV, their hearts racing at several of those rare words that she had used.
The first images from the nearest televista satellite in geostationary orbit over Mar Sara appeared on the screen, while the offscreen news anchor suddenly stopped her normally endless chatter-- "OH. MY. GOD!!!"
They all stared at the television, a growing sense of dread building within.
A dark, thick, fungus-like matter had begun to spread at that location, creeping over things, in an ever-enlarging ring. In several places, the creep had begun to pulsate, up and down, up and down, rhythmically. A giant, jellyfish-like, flying beast, all covered in chitinous plating, released from its ventral sacs a dozen of reptilian creatures, while at the same time excreting a gelatinous pile of black, fungus-like material. The telsat feed zoomed in, showing the rows of incisive teeth, the muscular appendages of the alien species, as the pack of dog-sized, perverted monsters rushed across the blackened planetary surface at a rapid pace, brandishing sharpened blades.
"God, where did those critters come from, the fungus?" asked Michael in disbelief.
The news anchor had switched to "aggravated mode", and was starting to simply describe in a shouting voice what she was seeing on the screen. Not much of it sank into the thoughts of the foursome in the compound.
Daniel watched in disbelief, stunned by the images of the rare sighting. There was noise on the other side of the show, the video winked out, and was replaced by a blue screen. An automated voice then declared, "this program has been terminated by government censors..." and suddenly there was static, with the exception of the logo of Air Los Andares in the corner. Then various advertisements for truffles, hoverbikes, and laptop computers appeared, wrenching the four viewers from their dazed state. They looked at each other, for several seconds too stricken to move, too mind-numbed to think. Had the impossible really happened?
"Rewind that for me please, Chris," Michael asked of the other marine, who did so. The images showed, once again, all too clearly, the powerful build of these new creatures, the packed armor and minimal flesh. The giant stone-like jellyfish. The map with the twenty markings representing the cattle mutilations, and the icon representing Artifact Station.
Even as the others stared at the images, Daniel decided on a course of action with a loud groan. "Chris, Mike, and Sal, maybe it's time you got into those suits of yours," Daniel said, a bit grimly. (He was the only one still in his suit.) "And it's also time to go take a good look at what's going on over there."
"Yes sir, corporal," replied Christopher in stand-to-attention tone as he rapidly donned his suit and the others followed suit.
"Right, and get your arms ready. If we run into hostiles we're gonna give them something they haven't never seen before." It was the only rally cry that he could think of at that moment--he'd forgotten all the others since he left the barracks.