It wasn’t long before they reached a broad swathe of destruction carved across the forest that marked the crash site of the mysterious craft. Ruson paused by a charred section of fuselage, half-embedded in the churned earth. He moved it with his foot, trying to discern any markings or other hints of its origin, but it was completely blackened. There were still a few small fires guttering in the scorched undergrowth and smoke hung in the air, for there was very little wind in the depths of the jungle, though the Marines’ armour meant they neither breathed it in, nor suffered it obstructing their vision. More wreckage was littered around, all similarly damaged. Ruson could make out the shape of a shattered wing and part of an engine, its covering sheared through, revealing damaged inner-workings. The four members of the squad moved through the devastation with a practiced wariness, scanning the blasted edges of the forest, pistols drawn.
Ruson turned from examining a section of what appeared to be ventral hull to see Avamor standing by a much larger chunk of debris. He joined him across the clearing and saw it was a mostly-intact section of the downed ship.
“This looks like the front compartment,” Avamor explained, “I can see part of the cockpit.”
He was right: the whole section seemed to have been blasted free during the crash, and had subsequently been driven several metres into the ground. But just visible was what appeared to be glass canopy, heavily smeared with mud and blackened by residue from the conflagration that had destroyed the ship. Ruson placed his hand against the edge of the hull and pushed it experimentally. It moved slightly. An ordinary human without the benefit of powered armour wouldn’t have had the strength to shift it, but with a curt exchange of nods, Ruson and Avamor set to. The section of ship rose easily from its cradle and they pushed it into its side, revealing the broken and filthy cockpit. It was obviously a small vessel with a single pilot.
Jesk and Shiroc arrived, the latter still holding the Meccite rifle. “This was a spacecraft,” he said.
Avamor cocked his head, and Russon could imagine the quizzical look he wore beneath his faceless helmet. “You think so?”
He pointed at another good-sized chunk of wreckage. “That’s part of an ion engine,” he said.
“A one-man shuttle,” Jesk surmised, “but why launch it in the middle of a bombardment, with an enemy fleet in orbit? They’d never get to another planet.”
Russon looked up at the sky. Here, with the jungle burned clear, he could see the sweep of stars above them. Some were moving quickly in the foreground, in regular formations: their ships. But there was another that was larger, brighter, low on the horizon. “This world has two small satellites,” he said, “a shuttle like this could make a landing on one of them and power down, hiding until help arrived.”
Jesk looked at the debris surrounding them. “A ship this size couldn’t carry enough air and supplies to last more than a few days. A risky strategy.”
“So let’s see what they were trying to save that made them so desperate.” He took hold of one edge of the canopy and wrenched it away from the cockpit. It fell into several pieces and he tossed them to one side. Inside was a figure in a flight suit, still strapped into the chair. His head was wrenched to one side, his neck obviously broken. His pale hands still rested on the inert control panel before him. Ruson cut the straps free without preamble, dragging the corpse out and dumping it into the mud. The Marines gathered around it, looking at the strangely calm face that stared sightlessly into the sky beyond them.
“It’s a clone,” Shiroc was the first to say.
Ruson was forced to agree. The features were unmistakable: it was the oddly unfinished, almost aggressively bland face of a synthetic human. It lacked the small details that marked out a real human – the wrinkles, birthmarks, scars, the complexity of the ears and folds of the nostrils – as if it had been popped out of a mould.
“Why would they try to save a clone?” Jesk asked incredulously.
“Perhaps it was just the pilot,” suggested Avamor.
“A clone pilot?”
“They don’t have the reactions.” Russon crouched down and turned the thing’s head around, looking into its dead eyes. He knew they’d have looked no more animated when it was alive, and the effect was disconcerting. Many clones served aboard Marine ships and he was used to working alongside them, but there was always something about their empty expressions that he found unnerving. Why would the Meccites have sent this clone here to die? Why even sacrifice the ship?
“Corporal, scan it. There must be something unusual here.”
“You’re sure you want to risk it, sir?”
A deep scan with her armour’s sensor would potentially expose them if someone at the enemy facility happened to be doing a sweep of their own in their general direction, but Ruson felt this was important enough. Something about the whole situation felt wrong. Jesk knelt beside him and moved her wrist-mounted interface up and down the clone’s body. When she reached its head, she paused, then scanned again.
“What about it?”
“I don’t know. I’m getting some strange readings.”
Ruson patched into her suit to see them for himself, but they made no more sense to him than they had her. “Clone brains are different to real human brains…” he said, a little uncertainly.
“This isn’t that, sir.”
“Can you go any deeper?”
“Right then.” He drew his blade and set it against the clone’s skull. Jesk rose and stepped back. With a single precise movement, Ruson sliced the unfortunate pilot’s head open, deftly removing the entire top part of its cranium. Dark blood oozed from the wound, clinging to the fingers of his armoured gloves. Squeamishness was something that was quickly beaten out of Marines. Not only were they invariably involved in bloody, desperate battles, but their own rituals – the removal and redistribution of bionics, often in the immediate aftermath of an engagement – meant every one of them was no stranger to field surgery. It was not even close to the first time the sergeant had been required to open up a skull like this, and none of his troops watching flinched at the casual mutilation either. But what did cause no small amount of fascination was the brain now revealed. Ruson tore the whole head free of the neck and spine with a liquid crunch and held it upright to he could peer at the strange…object…that apparently served as the clone’s cerebrum. In place of the familiar lobes – normally rather smooth and even for clones – was something that seemed to sit somewhere between the organic and synthetic. It was a thing of several open chambers, rather like complicated valves, and as he shifted it in the dim light cast by the smouldering fires of the clearing, the reflections and shadows did odd things, as if there was more matter there than they could physically see. There was a suggestion almost of pipework, and strange twisted tori that looped back on themselves so that they seemed to possess only one exterior surface. It was geometrically impossible, and as he tried to make sense of it with his helmet’s visual sensors, he could feel the system struggle to process the input. In frustration, he opened the helmet with a thought, the opaque visor sliding back and the faceplate opening. All at once there was a rush of sensation: smells and sounds and the taste of an unfamiliar atmosphere that plunged him bodily into this alien world. He took a moment to adjust, blinking away the smoke that was so acrid it burnt his throat and nostrils. He looked at the brain-thing, but it seemed its logic-destroying nature even foxed his own mind. He became aware of the limits of human vision: of the blind spot that the awesome, context-driven processing power of the brain ordinarily hides. It was like a blot in the centre of his visual field, for there was nothing familiar for him to latch onto in that mess of weird shapes and surfaces. Suddenly repelled by the strangeness, he hurled the head onto the ground and reared up onto his haunches, lip curling in distaste.
“I’m open to suggestions,” he said after a few seconds of staring at the empty face that was now looking at him again, where the opened skull had rolled to a halt in the mud.
“It has to be some kind of exotic matter construct,” Shiroc said.
“In a living organism?” Jesk sounded rightly appalled.
That did nothing to quell Ruson’s revulsion. The whole reason the Free Planets was fighting this war was to prevent the Meccites from continuing their reckless experiments with various forms of exotic matter: materials formed by the most extreme processes in the universe that defied conventional physical laws. Exotic matter made it possible to create tidal drives to cross interstellar space, it was used to entangle neutrinos that made instantaneous communication possible, and it even underpinned some of the galaxy’s most venerable megastructures. But it was also dangerous and volatile. It had to be studied and understood, used in a controlled fashion, lest those same physical peculiarities that made it so useful cause untold damage to the fabric of spacetime itself. For thousands of years, the fanatical Meccites had periodically emerged onto the galactic stage to begin their relentless technological expansion, causing havoc for anyone else who happened to share the same volume of the Quadrant. For them, the pursuit of forbidden knowledge was an almost religious act. They didn’t believe in empirical investigation and scientific rigour: whatever they discovered, they abused, holding to the notion that only through constant, untrammelled advancement could they unlock further secrets. To them, knowledge existed as a physical property of the cosmos, buried in the deep mathematics of spacetime, just waiting for humankind to seize it. Once, perhaps, they’d pursued technology as a means to an end, but now discovery was itself the object of their obsessions. Each time they rose, they were stamped out by whatever government held sway at the time. Sometimes, in periods of galactic anarchy, they might flourish for centuries, but in doing so they almost always caused catastrophe on a planetary, or even stellar scale. One way or another, they collapsed back into barbarism, and the cycle would begin again, on one of their former worlds or another, with primitive societies crawling from the ruin of their once mighty civilisation, revering their ancestors as philosopher-kings, aping the same religious reverence for discovery, but now couched in further layers of myth. The Meccites were a plague.
Their latest revival had come in a period of political upheaval, with the Free Planets at first fragmented and existing largely in name only, then finding itself engaged in an apocalyptic war that swept across the entire galaxy. The Darkstar War had cost the Free Planets dearly, but it had also united the ailing government as nothing had in a thousand years. Now Spacefleet was pushing against the old borders again, rediscovering lost worlds and bringing them back into the light of civilisation. It was unfortunate that, almost a century and a half after the guns had fallen silent, they would find the Meccites in resurgence across their ancient homeworlds, allowed to prosper unopposed for so long, and have no choice but to begin another costly war so as not to lose what they had fought so hard to reclaim.
“Why,” Jesk asked, “would they replace a clone’s brain with something like that? If they wanted to keep it safe…”
Russon shook his head. “No, this wasn’t a replacement: I think it was its brain.” Undoubtedly it was connected just like a real brain – he could see the nerve endings grafted to and disappearing within the unnatural surfaces of the exotic matter construct.
“But…why? And how?”
“That’s not something we’re qualified to figure out. And even if we were, we don’t have the time.” He was angry for some reason. Most emotions were dulled in Marines, a combination of training and the odd remove granted by extensive bionic prosthetics, but strong, base feelings – rage, for example – could batter through those artificial barriers. He didn’t know why the sight of this strange clone with the even stranger contents of its skull would fill him with such fury. Perhaps it was the frustration of knowing that they’d never understand what any of this was really about. That was a nagging problem for almost all Marines in command positions; they were uniquely talented, capable of formulating both knife-edge tactics in the heat of battle and planning grand strategies on a planetary scale. By their nature, they had to possess powerful intellects. Yet rarely were they afforded the opportunity to actually utilise their superb minds. Their lives were dedicated solely to war, and the reasons for the wars they made, the moral and ethical considerations, the wider implications of the brutal deaths they dealt, weren’t concerns thought appropriate for such blunt instruments.
He pointed to the mutilated skull. “Jesk, perform a full scan of this. Hack it out if you have to, but be careful not to touch it. Store the data in your armour’s core and we’ll each download a copy so we can be certain to get it back to Command.”
He stepped away from the grisly scene, hoping distance would quell his anger somewhat. Shiroc caught up with him and he turned to the trooper. “What is it?”
“I’ve been looking at this gun, sir…”
“Oh, yes.” He turned and received the odd weapon from his squad-mate. It was quite long and bulky, its shape utilitarian, constructed from unadorned metal. A prototype, maybe. He hefted it. The weight felt strange. As he moved it, he could feel it shift, as if there was fluid inside.
Shiroc ran a hand down the long, rectangular barrel. “There seem to be a set of magnetic struts in here, running the length of the barrel.”
“Yes, sir. It uses physical ammunition, projected along the struts.”
“Rails,” Ruson corrected, “it’s a railgun.”
Shiroc’s helmeted head bobbed. “I thought the same thing. But no one’s fought with such a primitive weapon in millennia. It doesn’t make sense for the Meccites of all people to use it.”
“Agreed.” He glanced up at the other man. Although he couldn’t see beneath his featureless helmet, he felt sure there was more he wasn’t saying. “Well?”
“Check the ammo hopper, sir.”
“Ammo hopper…” It was an unfamiliar term, but he took the meaning. Flipping the heavy gun around, he found a box on one side with a hatch that he could easily open. Inside was a series of small, greyish objects, stacked up in neat rows and columns. He was none the wiser.
“Here, sir.” Shiroc reached in and retrieved one of the objects. It was a small, rounded disc with a flattened centre. There was nothing at all unusual about it that he could see.
“That’s the ammunition?” he asked.
He remembered his ancient history lessons, long ago, in another life. “Railguns fired sharp discs, didn’t they?”
“This is something a little different. Here, hold out your hand.”
Ruson handed back the weapon and took the little toroid from Shiroc. It was much heavier than he’d expected. There were dozens of them in the hopper, and he couldn’t imagine lifting that many without effort. Something very strange was going on. “Get to the point, trooper,” he growled, starting to become angry again.
“Turn it over.”
“Rotate it about the narrow edge, sir.” He mimed with one armoured hand.
“All right…” He did so, and his eyes widened as he felt the change in the object’s apparent mass. Turned the other way around, it was effectively weightless. Only the hardness of its surface pressing against his fingers indicated he held anything at all.
“Let it go,” Shiroc said, sounding oddly excited.
He removed his hand. The thing stayed exactly where he’d left it, wobbling very slightly in mid-air. He passed his hand beneath it, stunned. “I don’t…how…”
“Monodirectional mass, sir.”
“A theoretical form of exotic matter. Well, until now anyway.”
“How do you know about that?”
“I used to be an engineer. Before.”
“This thing’s mass changes relative to its orientation. This way around relative to the local gravity, it’s almost massless. But from the other direction…” He leant over and tipped it back. It moved slowly at first, wobbling again, until it passed some sort of equatorial line, whereupon its heft reasserted itself: it fell abruptly to earth, hitting with such force that it buried itself partway in the soil. Ruson stared down at it in disbelief.
“That’s one word for it.”
“You see,” Shiroc said, stooping with a whine of servos to retrieve the odd projectile, “the way they’re orientated to the firing mechanism, they’re light as a neutrino, so they’re propelled at extraordinary speed. Faster than sound, I reckon.”
“And the target gets all that momentum from the side with the mass,” Ruson guessed.
“Ingenious,” the sergeant acknowledged. “Power efficient too, I’d imagine.”
“Very, sir. Just a negligible EM charge. The only obvious cost is producing the toroids.”
“It had a nasty kick too.”
“The design needs some tinkering, yes.”
“The Meccites won’t get that opportunity.”
“No, but Spacefleet might. Command could easily adapt this design. We should take it back with us.”
Ruson wanted to reward the Marine’s enthusiasm. He wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment. But their priority was the mission. “Scan it.”
“But, sir – an actual example of these projectiles would be much more useful than…”
“Trooper, that wasn’t a request.”
Shiroc straightened, then shifted a little awkwardly with the big gun still in one hand. “Yes, sir. Understood, sir. But…if I may make a suggestion…”
“You’re testing my patience, but go on.”
“I can use this weapon, sir. When we assault the base. That way I can get better data and…”
“Did you misunderstand the mission briefing, trooper? We don’t have the luxury of experimentation. You fight with the weapons you’ve been issued. Unexpected variables are not part of the parameters.” He yanked the gun away. “Avamor can complete the scan. You’ll take point. No more about this, is that clear?”
“It is, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“I don’t want your apologies, trooper, just your obedience.”
He found the other Marine and hoisted the railgun on him with barked orders to do a thorough scan. Jesk was just finishing up her own task. The brain-device sat in the mud at her feet, looking like something somehow pasted into the scene as if this were a badly-edited holostill. The clone’s mangled head was on the ground in front of Ruson. What remained of its face was staring up at him again. He regarded it coldly, wondering what this creature was, why it had been bred, and what purpose the alien technology it carried had been intended to serve.
“All done, sir,” Jesk said, standing up and shutting the sensor panel on her suit’s wrist plate.
“What should I do with…” She waved a hand at the unnatural thing.
It was a strange fancy, but it seemed to possess a kind of sentient malice as Ruson looked at it. He hadn’t even thought about what they would do with it now. But we were sent here to destroy their weapons. Was it a weapon? The railgun certainly was, but as wondrous as it seemed, it didn’t feel like the reason they’d been sent here. No, the Meccites thought in strange ways, their minds warped by weird radiations and encounters with psyche-destroying phenomena. Whatever they were dreaming up in their madness, it had to be something truly sinister. Something like this.
He drew his fusion pistol and fired straight at the brain-device. Jesk jumped back as the bright-white beam of superheated atmosphere incinerated the object. Exotic matter or not, the terrible fire of the blast reduced it to molten slag, and it bubbled and hissed as it melted into the earth. He fired again, and once more for good measure. Nothing but smoke and rock fused into dirty crystal remained afterwards.
“There. They’ll probably send another patrol out to try to find this. I don’t plan to give them their prize. Now, we have a mission to complete.” With a curt gesture, he turned and headed off back into the forest. His helmet snapped shut over his face. Behind him, he could hear the squad falling into place. Curiosity was for ordinary humans: they were Marines, and they had their orders.