They had never been human. It was important to remember that. At no point had these twisted abominations had the potential to be anything more than they were. But, on some level, they were as human as Ruson and his squad – in a sense, more so – just subjected to some very particular treatments as they went from artificial embryo to fully-grown clone. At various times in galactic history, interstellar governments or would-be warlords had tried to clone soldiers, to create vat-cultured armies of warriors, but it never worked. A clone was not real; its mind was incapable of the nuances of a truly living creature, it couldn’t weigh up risk and reward in the same way. A clone couldn’t fear for its life; if made to, it would swiftly become catatonic. And a soldier incapable of fear was useless for anything but berserker fury, a one-shot weapon that wasn’t worth the resources required to manufacture it. The Meccites were the first culture to find a viable solution to this ‘problem’: rather than engineer men, they engineered beasts. Human flesh and bone, but a mind consumed with atavistic rage. And yes, they tended to die, but the Meccites bred them so that the carnage they inflicted made the investment worthwhile. This, they did by the application of sheer bulk, osseous mass and unnatural, extreme growth.
Ruson watched the shadow of the one coming from the right as it moved rapidly up and down on the red-lit wall, its motion driven by the thing’s unnatural sinews. It had their scent, and its pace increased. A moment later, he could hear the sound of its slavering jaws, and the scraping chitin of its natural armour. “We’ve all faced these before,” he reminded them.
“Normally we have artillery support,” Shiroc murmured.
When the first one appeared, it was far too sudden. Nothing as big as that should be able to move so fast. It was man-shaped, broadly speaking, in that it walked on two-legs like nothing else in nature. It was hunched though, its back curled over into a tight arch, its heavy head hanging low, its thick, muscular arms clutched close to its distended trunk. Its flesh was pale, human, but bony lesions erupted through its skin to form armour plates, and where it wasn’t protected by its own physiology, it was clothed in metallic armour made up of many flexible links, proof against most energy weapons. And it was three times the height of any of the Marines, even in their armour. It didn’t even stop to assess the threat: its vision was poor compared to its sense of smell, and it had already decided they were viable prey. To a warrior-hulk, almost everything fell into that category. Ruson had seen one flip an armoured troop carrier before, then tear it open with its bare hands. It charged them, just as its fellow came from the other side. Ruson dived aside, firing off a volley from his fusion pistol. One blazing shot glanced off its armour, but another singed bone, leaving a blackened scorch mark. The creature felt nothing, he was certain, but it roared its anger nonetheless, the sound reverberating from the walls of the enclosed passage. It swung a massive fist towards him, but Ruson dodged again, and it hit the concrete with a meaty crunch. He risked a look over his shoulder and saw the other hulk bearing down on Jesk and Avamor. Beside him, Shiroc fired at the first one, hitting it on one side of its distended head. Beneath a heavy, ridged brow of bone, peered a hauntingly human face, but stretched and smeared out, like it had been drawn onto a flexible membrane that someone was now trying to force their clenched fist through. The close-range fusion blast only turned it aside for a moment, then it came at them again.
Ruson motioned for Shiroc to take one side while he took the other. Its attention momentarily divided, the hulk wavered, consternation showing in its rage-addled gaze. Then it lunged for Shiroc, slamming its fists into the ground to propel itself forward. It swiped at the Marine, knocking him off his feet, and Ruson heard him cry out. He shot at it, trying to draw it back to him, keep it off-balance. The shots left more scorches, and one hit an area of exposed skin, causing it to crackle and burn, but if the hulk felt it, it gave no indication. Shiroc had his blade out, and as the monster reached for him, he slashed out. The steel shattered on a bone spur as hard as granite, and he was pinned to the ground by thick, calloused fingers, each as broad as a normal human’s forearm. Ruson sprinted towards the hulk’s curved back, deploying his suit’s caltrops as he ran. He jumped, and while one of the heavy spikes caught bone and bounced free with a spark, the other embedded itself deep into a fleshy thigh. The hulk cried out in what sounded like genuine pain. Ruson pulled his foot out, and thick, dark blood oozed from the wound he’d managed to inflict. He dragged himself up the thing’s back, using the bony plates that covered it like handholds on a cliff face. It had released Shiroc now and straightened to its full height, trying to shake the sergeant free. Its grotesquely muscled arms flailed helplessly as they tried to reach around to dislodge him, but it lacked the dexterity and simply spun around on the spot, roaring and stomping.
Shiroc, now free, rolled up to his feet. Ruson could see the scuff marks on his armour, and in places the reflective field was flickering uncertainly where the generators had been crushed. From the way he stumbled, either he’d taken a blow to the head or some of his servos had been damaged. Ruson hoped it was the latter. No time to think about that now though: he kept climbing, and spun his own blade in his fist. Shiroc, on the ground, wobbling slightly, fumbled his pistol out and took aim. The shot hit the hulk’s shoulder, perilously close to where Ruson had been about to place one hand, then a second caught it in the head again, and it was close enough for the sheer force of the discharge to stagger the massive creature. It veered towards the wall and Ruson yanked himself up onto its shoulders, so he was perched above its swaying, smoking head. He brought the blade down, but the hulk’s motion threw off his strike, and instead of piercing the thing’s brain, it skittered down its brow bones and caught in its eye socket. Another howl, now so close it threatened to burst even Ruson’s augmented eardrums, and it crashed into the wall. Chunks of concrete came loose as the ancient masonry cracked, and the sergeant was thrown clear, landing hard on the ground a few metres away. Blood coursed down the warrior-hulk’s ugly face. Its eye – one of its few truly vulnerable areas – was ruined, and even though it didn’t rely on eyesight as much as a real human, the effect of losing one was still disorientating. It threw itself ineffectually against the wall again, and part of the ceiling caved in, showering the passage with huge concrete lumps. The hulk went down, buried under a pile of rubble. Ruson had seen its kind recover from worse, but it brought them some reprieve.
Jesk and Avamor were faring a little better against the other warrior-hulk. It seemed to be the smaller of the two, perhaps a little younger, as such things were reckoned for cloned creatures, and they had been successful in keeping it off-balance. Jesk, nimble even in her armour, rolled aside from a swipe of its malformed paw and jumped up to her feet behind it. She let off a series of shots with her pistol that made it screech angrily. As it tried to spin around and catch her, Avamor circled around and shot it from the other side. Ruson picked himself up and fired several times, aiming not for the warrior-hulk itself, but the walls and ceiling surrounding it. A curtain of dust and splinters of concrete fell across the monster’s back. Jesk narrowly dodged its grasp again and its hand slammed into the wall, burying itself ten-centimetres deep. It howled and tried to pull itself free, but the hand didn’t budge. Jesk drew her blade and darted in to slash at its muscular forearm. She cut deep, and dark blood flowed, but in extricating it she fell prey to the same thing that had trapped the hulk, finding it embedded too thoroughly. The creature snaked its other arm around and grabbed her by the back of the neck, hauling her into the air and shaking her like a ragdoll.
Ruson and Shiroc both fired at the warrior-hulk’s hunched back, leaving behind more scorch marks, but it didn’t release Jesk. Avamor, closer to hand, rushed it, using his own blade to slash at its thighs and belly. Jesk was abruptly cast aside, thrown into the wall and landing in a crumpled heap at its base. It finally yanked its hand free and closed it around Avamor’s throat, lifting him off his feet. He kicked out, attempting to bring his fusion pistol to bear. Jesk, reeling as she stood, lunged in. She was elbowed away forcefully. Ruson sprinted towards the flailing Avamor, but he knew he wouldn’t cover the distance in time to do anything but watch in horror as the warrior-hulk grabbed hold of the Marine’s thrashing legs and tore him in two, separating him at the waist, armour and all. Blood and viscera exploded everywhere, and sparks joined the gruesome rain as the suit shorted out. The two halves of his former squad-mate were discarded, what remained of his torso skittering to a halt at the sergeant’s feet. The dismembered part convulsed once, almost looking like it was trying to crawl away, then was still. Ruson looked down at Avamor. There was no time to reclaim what now rightfully belonged to the squad, to reflect on who he had been in life, only to take revenge, and to try to complete the mission.
Jesk still fought, but she was clearly groggy, her movements erratic. A blow to her head felled her again, and her helmet jarred alarmingly off the floor. Ruson moved calmly, ignoring the alerts sounding from his own suit. He braced his legs and took a two-handed grip on his pistol. The beast was wounded, and if he could exploit a weak spot he might…
A crash from behind made him turn around, and he saw the first warrior-hulk shouldering its way free from the rubble. Its armour was rent in several places, and bloody gashes were scored along its unnaturally pale flesh. One of its legs had been lamed and it moved lopsidedly, even as its brute strength cleared through the massive chunks of concrete. Shiroc backed away. His helmet was at an odd angle, and his free hand worked at the neck joint.
“You okay?” Ruson asked him.
“Servo fused,” muttered the other Marine through the comm.
It was a fair point. They were down to three, and none of them stood a chance against a warrior-hulk alone. Jesk would soon join Avamor, but he couldn’t turn his back on the other one that was fighting its way free from its temporary tomb. For the first time in his life as a Marine, Ruson saw his mission begin to fail. But Essar’s orders still rang in his hears. Omega priority. They all knew what that meant, and he had to make a difficult decision, something which went against his every instinct as a commander. He turned from Avamor and raced back towards Jesk, firing repeatedly at the warrior-hulk’s back. It was enough to distract it and it waddled around to face him, snarling and spitting through its deformed, bony mandibles. He heard another crash behind him, and then the sound of something huge barrelling down the corridor. He leapt at the smaller hulk, kicking out with his caltrop, jamming it beneath the monster’s brow as it flailed at him. Blood spurted and Ruson was thrown upwards. He smashed into the ceiling and tumbled down the hulk’s back, landing beside the inert form of Jesk.
There was a sound he didn’t recognise. Like something tearing through spacetime itself: a high-pitched scream that gradually became a full-throated roar, bursting into a thundercrack that reverberated through every cell in his body. He stared as Shiroc was silhouetted in a violent discharge of energy. He held a long weapon in his hand and it took the sergeant a moment to realise it was the exotic matter weapon that he had entrusted to Avamor. The warrior-hulk, bearing down on Shiroc, stopped in its tracks, swaying. He shot again, a second thundercrack hitting Ruson’s eardrums, and saw with disbelieving eyes the lumps of bloody flesh blasted free from the monster’s twisted form. Again and again he shot, until all that was left was twisted bone and blackened viscera.
The second hulk was advancing, having left him and Jesk for dead. Shiroc turned, but his balance was still off. He was quick enough and a swipe tore his head clean off just as he pulled the trigger. His body collapsed to the ground and the remaining warrior-hulk staggered backwards, half of its own head missing. It snarled and thrashed and then, with a hideous bubbling sound, crashed into the near wall and went still.
The silence was strange in its abruptness and totality. Ruson rested his head against the ground. His helmet’s display was flickering. He had damage alerts all over his armour. “Corporal?” he rasped.
“I’m alive, sir,” she replied weakly. “Lost contact with the others…”
Ruson rose, picking his way through the carnage. Shiroc’s headless corpse still held onto the Meccite weapon. He was aware of the tragic irony of having denied the Marine its use, only for it to prove their salvation, but he had no space in his mind for regret. He pulled it free and hefted it across his chest. It was a little heavy, awkward to hold. Perhaps it was a prototype? If so, he wondered how it might be refined in the hands of a more measured group of researchers.
Jesk was on her feet, performing a few manual checks of her suit. It was battered and dented, but appeared functional. When she saw Ruson with the weapon, she surveyed the ruinous scene around them and seemed to make the connection. “Good gun,” she observed.
“Dangerous, like everything the Meccites make.”
She paused. “They were good soldiers, sir.”
“They were. They should be honoured with the harvest, but that won’t be their fate.”
“We continue,” he nodded.
There was no more resistance. Perhaps the facility had been evacuated already, the release of the warrior-hulks a last resort. It didn’t matter. They’d find what they came for: they owed that to their fallen comrades. A set of heavy blast doors fell victim to the exotic matter gun, crumpling like paper, and they stepped into what was clearly the heart of the complex: a vast, cylindrical room built on many levels, with banks of terminals, incubation pods and cryo chambers stacked metres high along the walls. Cables and pipework snaked across the floor and a faint ozone mist hung over everything. In the centre, on a high gantry, were two incubators, front hatches frosted over.
“Think that’s what we’re here for, sir?” Jesk asked as she scanned the room, her pistol roving back and forth in case of a surprise attack.
“Maybe. Either way, we’re taking a closer look.”
They climbed a set of narrow metal stairs and clanked along the gantry. The incubators were set on a platform connected to a towering cluster of pipes and valves that ran from ceiling to floor in the middle of the chamber. Ruson stopped before them. The first was slightly ajar. He yanked it open unceremoniously. “Empty,” he growled.
The other was closed. Jesk held her weapon across her wrist and she manipulated the handle. It fell open and she stepped back. Clouds of freezing air billowed out, but when they cleared, it too was unoccupied. “Whatever was in here, they took it with them,” she said.
“Apparently so.” He looked at the machinery with a frown. “Any idea what this is for?”
“Nothing good, I bet.”
“Two chambers…” he murmured.
“They’re definitely incubators,” Jesk said, examining the tubes and wires inside, “clone pods.”
“Two clones then. Human-sized, so not the hulks.”
“Complicated though. I’ve seen cloning vats before, and they were nothing like this.”
“Complicated…like the brain of our friend in that crash?”
“That would make sense,” Jesk said.
“I agree,” said the other woman standing next to them.
“But if one of them was the pilot, what happened to the other one?”
Jesk made an uneasy sound in her throat. “They might still be around.”
“It’s a distinct possibility,” the woman agreed.
“We have to risk a scan. Whatever this thing is, I don’t want it sneaking up on us.”
“That would be very unfortunate, yes.”
Jesk turned. “What?”
“Did you just say something?”
“Don’t look at me,” the woman said.
“Maybe my suit’s senses are screwed up…”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“What’s what, sir?”
“You just said…”
“Oh, I’m bored now.” She reached over and plucked the fusion pistol from Jesk’s grip. The Marine looked up, startled.
It took Ruson a second to see what was happening. Once he had, everything snapped into focus. There was a woman standing next to them, holding Jesk’s gun. She was almost aggressively non-descript. Pale skin, eyes and hair, bland features, neither ugly nor beautiful, and ordinary in a way that seemed to defy attention. If there was an opposite to animal magnetism, this individual had it. He felt like if he looked away, he’d forget she was there. In fact, as he glanced aside for a split second, he felt exactly that happen: she became fuzzy, and the memory of her voice faded, and it was as if there was just a blank space where she’d been a moment ago.
“No, look at me.”
He snapped back, blinking, staring at her. How could she fade like a dream like that? “What…what are you?”
“Does it matter?” She raised the pistol, pressing it against the faceplate of the unresisting Jesk, and pulled the trigger. Her head exploded in a bright blast of flame and Ruson fell back, flinging his arm instinctively across his face.
“Time to die,” she whispered.
“No!” He reached out, fighting through the mind-wrenching effect of her ordinariness, forcing himself to concentrate on her presence. Jesk’s body fell from the gantry, clattering down to the floor. He felt his armoured hands grip the colourless overalls the woman was wearing, but then there was a sensation like air being sucked into a vacuum and his grasp was empty. He stared at the place the woman had been moments before. She was gone: truly gone. Something hit the back of his head and he stumbled, almost pitching over the narrow railing. She was behind him. He aimed his gun and took a shot. There was another sense of rushing air and she seemed to twist into nothingness, as if sidestepping reality itself. A moment later, he saw her shadow pass overhead on a higher gantry. He shot, three times, causing sparks to fly off metal, and heard a trill of laughter.
Ruson pounded towards the stairway, trying to clear his head, trying to fight through the shock of losing his entire squad, trying to figure out just what he was fighting. He caught sight of her again, jumping across a wide gap. She seemed to flicker in space for a moment, then reappeared on the other side, still running. Had the Meccites invented a form of teleportation? That was exactly the sort of weapon that could change the outcome of this war. If he’d been sent her to find anything, it was surely this creature. Undoubtedly she was a clone, and perhaps of the same type as the dead pilot. So, one of them they’d tried to send away, to save, and the other had remained here. He knew what his duty was.
“Do you have a name?” he bellowed.
The dim shape above him stopped. “A name?”
“Yes. I know you’re a clone. I know you have some sort of…of…exotic matter construct in your head. That’s what’s giving you these abilities, right?”
“Why do you care?”
“I was sent here to find you, by the Free Planets. You’re a weapon. A very advanced one. My whole squad is dead because of you. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can surrender and come with me, back to my ship.”
She laughed. “Why would I do that?”
“Because if you don’t, I’m going to have to kill you.”
“Oh, is that so?” The timbre of her voice changed on the last word and then she appeared beside him, Jesk’s pistol still in her hand. She levelled it, but he anticipated and flung himself to one side. He slipped on the edge of the gantry and fell backwards as the fusion blast burst above him. He tumbled down the steps, laughter following him. Then, as he came to a halt at the bottom, she was there waiting for him. He looked up at the gun, knowing there was no way to dodge now. She blurred again as the pain of his fall distracted him, and he wondered what he’d ever been concerned about. Just in time he reached out, grabbing the pistol’s muzzle and turning it aside. The heat seared through his armour, blasting his hand away at the wrist. Alarms blared and flashed inside his helmet. He ignored them and the agony at the end of his arm and hurled himself into her. She didn’t have time to disappear on him this time, and he bore her down to the ground. He pressed his gun against her forehead. “Dodge this…”
She vanished. The gun exploded as he discharged it into the concrete floor and the fiery backwash engulfed him. His armour shorted and the display disappeared. He was plunged into darkness. He fell back, feeling suddenly heavy in the dead suit. He could barely lift his good arm, but through a tremendous effort of will he took hold of his helmet and tore it free. He blinked in the hazy atmosphere. He could smell smoke, blood, ozone and charred flesh. He wasn’t sure if it was the discharge from the gun or his own damaged eyes that made everything seem blurry. But, swimming through the murk, came the pale shape of the clone woman.
“This is over,” she said.
“You’re right.” Ruson pressed the control on his armour’s hip. The emergency auxiliary power booted up, providing a last, desperate gasp of functionality. He only needed a second to access the protocol he needed in the skeleton system it provided him with. He shunted all of the data gathered in the squad’s virtual memory – corrupted though it was – and sent it blazing into the sky with a single imperative. The Meccites would know, of course, there was no hiding a signal like that, but now it was too late.
Captain Essar received the message on the bridge of the Iobates. She perused its contents impassively, including the single glyph that ended it. Wordlessly, she sent a brief neutrino signal across the gulf of space, seeking confirmation with command.
That signal was received more than a score of light years away, in a system far behind the front lines of this dirty little war, on the bridge of a very different ship. Captain Robert Ajax, sector commander for task force Red Delta, glanced at the display by his chair. The holo scrolled quickly and he frowned at it then, with a flick of his wrist, signed off on the order.
“What was that?” his daughter, Emily, asked from the seat next to him.
“Just some admin. Don’t worry about it.”
In orbit of Azazel Prime, the Spacefleet flotilla manoeuvred into position. The prow of the Iobates turned to bring its guns to bear on the coordinates on the surface, now revealed by Ruson’s final transmission. The ion cannons blazed to life, momentarily connecting the ship and the planet in a white arc of fury. Two more pulses of light and then nothing remained of the Meccite facility but a charred crater twenty kilometres across. Essar closed her eyes as the sensors confirmed the destruction. It was done, and all it cost was the lives of five Marines. With the information they’d gathered on the new threat, the war might soon be won too. It was, she forced herself to acknowledge, worth it, and the cruel but necessary equation of war – and of the Omega Priority that demanded completion of the mission regardless of cost – had once again proved itself.
“You have the bridge,” she told her XO, and left.