Despite the miracles Biomarqs could pull with flesh, no amount of gene-splicing and meat-dicing matched up to a magnetically accelerated round nearly clearing 2,000 metres per second. Pressing my hand against the chitin faceplate, a twitch of an implanted trigger muscle, and my entire arm bucked back. The cavitation wave jostled my organs. They would hold. The faceplate didn’t.
In a flood of mucus, I was birthed unceremoniously onto the floor. Two standing to my left. A scaled hybrid and a vatty. Two shots. Three rounds left. The heat of the barrel warmed my radial artery as the muzzle slipped back into my wrist. A blanket of pins and needles wrapped around my arm as I looked down at the microorganisms slithering within my veins. Under the skin, they surged to escape the heat discharge of my arm-canon.
I stood there, naked and dripping mucus, veins and catheters trailing into the cryococcon. Ripping free of the umbilicals, I surveyed the room around me. Glossy black walls flexing with each footstep of the scuttle train. Throbbing arteries and bioluminescent nodules. A line of cryococcons behind me.
‘Please, don’t shoot. I- I’m just a tech.’ I spun in the direction of the pleading, arm outstretched. Something trembled in the corner, dressed in a white skinsuit. Compound eyes like segmented black pits stared back at me.
It shrunk against the wall as I stepped closer. ‘Where are we?’ I barked.
‘The Naran Desert. We’re heading to a tribunal, f-for you and your squad.’
I looked at the microorganisms swimming through my veins. ‘You put bug juice in me?’
‘T-they’re h-harmless. You’re badly injured. They’re keeping you alive f-for trial–’
Damn Biomarqs and their ethics. My death wasn’t good enough for them; they wanted me tried in a court of law.
‘I won’t say anything. Here, I’ll open the doors for y-you.’
Even though the thing was seemingly unarmed, there was all manner of Biomarq trickery. Nanothorns, acid spitters, hidden fangs. Mercy had left me with scars before. ‘You’ve been in the cocoon for three-’ Their brains splattered over the walls as my arm jerked back.
I’d shot four times. Two more rounds left. My body would supply the iron to reload the railgun in my arm, but it would take days, and that was counting on me eating well.
At either end of the room were doors leading to other compartments of the scuttle train. Likely pheromone-locked with sniffers, but I had three keys in the bodies surrounding me. In a heaving pile, the scaled hybrid and a standard vat-grown infantry man were bleeding out. Both had slug throwers. Even the Biomarqs recognised the value in a fast-moving hunk of metal. I liberated one of the bodies of their skinsuit, gun, and magazines.
Through the slick chitin of the other cryococcons I could see the faces of my comrades. Jameson was there, face serenely unaware that he had been the one to fuck up and drag me into this. I stared vacantly at the knot of control ganglia connected to each of the pods, and then looked back at the cratered face of the tech. I should’ve made one more demand of her.
Instead of leaving them for the judgement of the bugs, I allowed my squad one last mercy. Shell casings tinkled onto the floor amidst waterfalls of mucus. I would’ve wanted the same. Rather my last memories be with a squad of real humans, rather than cuffed to a hard-backed bench suffering the stares of a whole courtroom of subhuman hybrids and vatties.
The floor rocked under my feet as the scuttle train trotted along. I could see the desert languidly pulling past out of a glossy porthole. I had two options: gunbattle through the whole train, or risk the heat.
It wasn’t that I was worried about a sunburn. The bug juice soaking my every cell and keeping me walking had a downside. The increase in my body heat would boil the sensitive microorganisms they’d put in me to keep me from succumbing to my injuries. If I began to sweat, I’d die. Even someone not relying on bug juice to drive their neurons would’ve been wary to trek through the Naran shrublands without a coolsuit.
A burst of the slug thrower and the porthole splintered. Squeezing my mucus-slick body through the hole was easy. Beetle-like compartments stretched for a kilometre down the scuttle train, each supported by spindly legs that churned the sand with every footfall. With difficulty, I hurled myself out of the porthole. I didn’t throw myself far enough.
Landing on my back, I choked out my breath in a wicked wheeze. A shadow flickered above me. Rolling to the side, a wave of sand scattered over me as the chitinous skewer speared down. I scrambled forward just in time to avoid being skewered by another appendage..
Wiping the sand from my lips, I watched the gleaming carapaces thunder away from me. I began stumbling toward a depression in the distance.
The skinsuit barely kept out the heat. Its pores were already leaking precious moisture into the arid air as the sun peppered my body like red-hot needles. I had no idea of the exact timeframe, but I doubted I would last more than an hour. My muscles were already growing sluggish. Thinking of the writhing flagellates boiling in the heat, my body a mass grave for millions of microscopic corpses, sickened me. I had to contact the Federacy somehow. If they couldn’t transplant some good-old-fashioned nanites into my blood, I’d accept dying. I just didn’t want to die out here, a meal for a buzzard.
If the Biomarqs hadn’t discovered the railgun in my arm, there was no chance they’d found the tracker chip. My allies had to know I was in the middle of the desert right now. Perhaps the Federacy had been unwilling to directly assault the scuttle train, or they’d written me and the squad off as dead and gone. Either way, I couldn’t give up now. Sticking to the shade of the megacacti, I staggered along, distantly aware that my fingertips were numb. Dead bug juice floaters clouded my vision.
The ground dipped. Ahead of me was a lush tongue of green, beyond that, a glassy sliver. Water.
The insectile caravan had been marching parallel to one of the arroyos that stretched the shrubland. The benefit of the river was two-fold. It would make tracking me harder. I’d made no effort to hide my trail; the Biomarqs could easily set a sniffer to my scent. More importantly, it would cool me down, delaying the gradual cell death.
Dragging myself into the water, I was swept away on a thousand chilled hands. More than once I was dragged across rocky shoals, but the pain was distant. All that mattered was that the unbearable heat was relieved. Feeling flowed back into my fingertips.
The boundaries between my flesh and the cool water dissipated. I was no more than a blob of meat towed by the current. The ever-present adrenaline rush ruling me since my emergence from the cryococcon faded.
– +++ –
I remember zipping across the desert on hoverbikes as the flashbombs detonated. The thermobaric blast tore the sand around us into vortexes. Jameson had knicked a megacacti when the sandstorm stole our vision. That’s when I knew it was over.
Flyers homed in on the scent, spitter cannons blazing. Rounds tore through my body, sending me hurtling to the ground. The oversized wasps landed in a huddle. The last thing I saw before things went cold was the scaled hybrid leaping out of the cockpit and rushing towards me. I played the memory over again. The flyer’s wingbeats overhead was startling vivid, an overwhelming daydream. I opened my eyes.
I’d made an amateur mistake to relax. Hovering above me, the bulbous cockpit almost floated when the sun didn’t catch the gossamer wings beating the air into a hum. It swooped down.
Swinging the slug thrower into the air in front of me, I fired a frantic burst. It did nothing to slow the flyer. I tried to dive down into the water, but I was suddenly arrested. Something clung to my back. Whipped out of the water, I thrashed against the grip as a needle slid into my back. My muscles went slack, and the gun tumbled from my fingers.
The scorpion tail of the flyer slung me into the cockpit. It was too late to scramble back out the door and desperately hope we were still above the water. I was a sopping wet mass of flesh, barely able to suck down a breath. A war was going on in my body, a pitched battle between the flyers’ paralytic venom, the bug juice, and my own half-fried neurons. Rough hands threw me into a gel seat. The cool material flowed over me, webbing me in place with tacky strands. At the front of the craft, the pilot stroked the control strands, the flyer purring in response.
The thing in front of me folded its arms. Scaly plates covered its face. It was the same that had killed me in the bunker. The same that I’d left for dead in the cryococcon compartment. Synthflesh covered a gaping wound in their chest. Flanking them were two vatties holding guns. At the front of the craft, the pilot stroked the control strands, the flyer purring in response.
‘You got lucky back there.’ The voice was sibilant, a buzzsaw in my eardrums.
‘Was worth the try,’ I responded. The words came out in a slur. ‘That hole in your chest hurt?’
‘I won the first time. And now I’ve got you again.’ The chill of the air coming from the vents pimpled my skin.
‘Just kill me again. Should’ve just left me in the sand.’
‘Federalists are all the same. The easy way out, the shortest path forward, no matter the costs.’
‘It was a special operation,’ I spat back.
‘You killed several thousand civilians. You boiled an entire breeding lake.’ The words passed right through my ears. Arteries pulsed around me. My eyes locked on a throbbing knot leading to the heart.
‘We’re at war.’
‘Will that hold up in a tribunal?’ Eight polarised eyes glinted like milky coins.
‘They were orders.’ I tried to set my jaw. My mouth hung open, trailing drool.
‘That sounds like an excuse.’
A wave of warmth reverberated through my body. It wasn’t shame. The bug juice was fighting the paralytics. No doubt the hybrid knew it would happen, and that was why he had me restrained in the gel seat. The walls around me palpitated as the flyer fought against thermals.
‘I don’t make excuses. I accept the consequences of my actions.’
‘Really? You could have spared Phi−the scientist.’
‘She was in the warzone.’ Pins and needles prickled up my body.
‘Again, with the excuses. Just face the facts. You’re a war criminal.’
‘If it’s so easy to judge, then what about yourselves? Spawning thousands just to leave them bleeding in the sand?!’ Shouting the words helped breathe life into my chest. The gel web squeezed my body as the flyer grew nervous. ‘If you’d given up years ago, none of this would be happening. We bomb, you gas, we kill, you kill. It’s all the same in the end.’
‘Cold blooded,’ the hybrid scoffed. ‘So, it’s okay if both sides do it? Eye for an eye?’
‘No. It’s only okay if you are the last one standing.’ The wave of heat reached my hand.
I flexed the trigger muscle in my forearm. My arm pinned to my body, I had no other choice but to shoot through my leg. The shock helped dispel the fog. I could feel the raw absence of a thumb-sized hole in my thigh.
I should’ve been unconscious from the pain, but the flyer was not benefitting from the same numbing chemical cocktail as I.
My stomach lurched into my throat as the flyer pitched downwards. Lost in free-fall, I clenched my teeth and watched as their eyes went wide like saucers.The Biomarqs were thrown against the ceiling. A vatty flew out the open door. Like a bug with its wing clipped, we slammed down into the hard clay of the canyon below.
– +++ –
Dust filled the cockpit.
The gel restraints had kept me in one piece. My thigh was a gory mess, but the bug juice would congeal around the wound quickly enough. I would survive, or at least stay in a state of post-death. The vatty was a pulped mess. The hybrid was a crumpled heap, chest barely moving.
The vents spaced around the flyer were still exhaling sour, but cool, air. The bug juice in me would stay alive, and by extension, I would as well. I closed my eyes and let my head tilt back, relishing the cool air on my face.
The aorta of the flyer coughed. The sputtering continued, phlegm splattering out the vents and onto my face. The cool air wheezed to a stop.
It would be a temporary failure. It had to be. The railgun shots I had made weren’t enough to kill a flyer −unless I had hit an artery. Dark fluid out from under my feet.
The desert heat built in the cabin. Sweat prickled my face. The gel restraining me was a warm blanket. A numbness altogether different from that of the venom hung over me. There, in front of me, was a utility cabinet. I could see the trademark appearance of a coolsuit dislodged from the crash. There had to be a way out. Writhing against the gel, sweat pulsed onto my face. I was going to cook myself to death. I strained, and then the gel slithered back into the seat. The death of the flyer had weakened it.
I stood up from the seat, stepping over the crumpled body of the dying hybrid.
‘This is… where it gets you,’ the hybrid choked out. Blood bubbled from its torn body. ‘All that.. killing… ‘
I could see myself in its eyes. Slivers of shattered mirror reflected eight different versions of me. Eight lives caught in a cycle of shooting, dying, killing, expiring.
‘What a…victory. I kill for my… people… You…what drives you? Hate? You ca–’
I shot it with the last round of my arm-cannon.
It wasn’t going to speak for me. I assured myself that we had nothing in common – that scaled thing was as far from me as a slug to a human. Anything that would willingly give up their humanity didn’t deserve to live.
I drank in the silence and pulled on the coolsuit. Stepping out of the flyer, my eyes shifted on their own for a final indignant look back at my provoker. Bug juice ran down my thigh and dripped off my brow, but through the cloud of liquid I saw blood – red human blood – pooled around the hybrid’s body.
If you thought about others for a second, you’d lose sight of the goal.
I spat out the ichor that collected at the corner of my mouth and scoffed at the dead thing’s moral platitudes. Perhaps we did have one thing in common… We were both killers. But in the end, I will be standing above them with a boot on their neck.
This is how it has to be. I’m human, truly human. I survive, and that’s all that matters.
About the Author
Trent Ball is an aspiring writer trying to survive the Texas heat. When he’s not writing, he’s hiking, wasting time on the internet, or reading ScifFi that deals with interesting technology (like working air conditioning).