The world of Aftershock
The Nova hung like a multicoloured wheel in the blackness of space, turning slowly on its axis as it circled the planet below. The Nova was a massive orbital platform spanning tens of kilometres in diameter, the final outpost of human civilisation. The planet Earth had been invaded by the Reticulans, an alien race, 50 years previously. They had subordinated the entire planet by superior force and technology, and by dropping billions of spores to create an unstoppable biomass. This biomass was a form of organic intelligence, the so-called PlanetMind that had enveloped Earth – devouring everything in its path to feed its processing power.
The inhabitants of the Nova numbered fewer than 50,000, preserved by a pact signed with the Reticulans at the end of their campaign. Within the last year, weak signals had reached the Nova from a mountainous region in the North American continent. The signals appeared to be from a small human colony who had survived in a cave complex, somehow keeping the biomass at bay.
The Nova’s ruling council was desperate to find a way of re-establishing a foothold on the Earth. If humanity was to have a chance of returning from exile on the Nova the biomass would have to be defeated. This possible human colony could hold the key to their return. The council ordered that a scouting mission travel to the surface of the planet. The mission’s goal was to establish contact with any humans; to try and find out what technologies they had employed to counter the biomass. An elite team of soldiers was assembled and trained for the task, ready to depart a few months after the signals were first received.
A small white star appeared to detach itself from the Nova and drop away. It was the shuttle containing the scouting mission, falling like a grain of sand into the green and blue expanse below.
It looks like a plate of wilted hydroponic spinach, thought Jason Thorpe, as the shuttle swept into the upper atmosphere of Earth. The shuttle’s viewscreen showed mile after mile of a dark green glutinous surface, interspersed with patches of blue ocean. Jason found himself grimacing as the landscape unfolded beneath the shuttle.
“It doesn’t look any better from here, does it.”
Kelly McMahon, the mission leader, leaned forward in her gravity harness next to him. Jason nodded and settled back. “There’s only so much the sensors on the Nova could tell us, now we get to see what it’s really like.”
“Not getting cold feet are you, Thorpe?”
This was Marc Vincent, the team’s medic and Thorpe’s least favourite person.
“Shut it, Vincent.”
“Come on – this is the biggest moment in the Nova’s history! Everyone is counting on us.” Vincent grinned and slapped Thorpe on the shoulder from his harness behind him.
Thorpe twisted his head around
“Back off, Vincent.“
“Hey, why so touchy Thorpe? We’re practically family here!”
“I’m going to rip your - ”
“Enough!” growled McMahon. “Keep a lid on the schoolboy stuff, stay focused.”
Thorpe turned away from Vincent’s grinning face and looked back at the screen. The shuttle was now arcing through the thicker air of the lower atmosphere, trailing vapour.
“Target area acquired, Ma’am.” The voice of Zafar Khan, the pilot of the shuttle, crackled over the intercom.
“Touchdown in 6 minutes. Prepare for assault landing.” Khan‘s voice betrayed his excitement this time. This mission was the most important one ever launched from the Nova, and this was not lost on the hand-picked team as they prepared for the landing.
Thorpe tightened his gravity harness and glanced around him. The cabin of the shuttle was bare and functional, racks of equipment and weaponry lining the walls and the viewscreen ahead of them. McMahon was strapping on her combat helmet and testing the comms link. Behind him he could hear Vincent whistling tunelessly, still managing to annoy him. The remaining few members of the mission team were busy buckling on helmets or pulling on gloves, checking equipment with a minimum of conversation.
The mood grew tense very quickly. The shuttle buffeted and shuddered as it bulldozed through the air. The viewscreen was filled by the green surface, with outcrops of rock occasionally poking through. It looked extremely unwelcoming and forbidding.
“Hello Earth.” Thorpe whispered to himself.
“Two minutes out.”
All Thorpe could hear above the cabin noise as it manoeuvred violently towards the landing zone were the metallic clicks of various weapons being armed, and the high-pitched whine of encounter suits as they powered up. Shortly he would be seeing the surface of a planet that no human from the Nova had seen in over 50 years. Thorpe’s increased heart rate and blood pressure caused a warning to appear on the heads-up display inside his helmet.
McMahon nudged him with her elbow and winked – she had the whole team’s vital signs on her helmet display. Thorpe grinned sheepishly and turned his attention to his own equipment. The energy cell on his pulse rifle briefly glowed red as he powered it up, 100% POWER – NARROW BEAM flashed up on his helmet display. His encounter suit felt lighter as it came online.
The shuttle’s cabin was roaring now as the airbrakes were deployed. McMahon’s voice cut in over the comms unit, cool, detached. “As we rehearsed, team. I want a rapid deployment. Establish the perimeter and execute the mission.”
The shuttle descended to a rocky plateau, free of the green vegetation that covered the surface everywhere else. A cloud of dust and debris flew up as the landing thrusters flamed brilliantly, and the shuttle thumped roughly down onto its undercarriage. A loading ramp lowered instantly, bulky black figures moved rapidly down, expanded outwards in a rough circle from the shuttle and lay prone on the rocky ground.
On autopilot, the shuttle roared into life again. The delta-shaped craft lifted off in a blaze of white-hot flame and accelerated away. The team picked themselves up and moved stealthily away, hugging the shadows.
Thorpe ran down a low slope, his boots scrabbling on the loose surface. He reached a cluster of boulders and crouched down. He couldn’t see any of his companions in the darkness, the low morning sun having not yet cleared the surrounding mountains. He flicked over to infrared for a few seconds as he scanned around. He saw a few white shapes off to his right, moving into the same cluster of boulders.
“Staging area one, report.” It was McMahon. Thorpe confirmed his arrival in the first staging area. The assault landing had passed off flawlessly, and after a few minutes of stealthy progress they had arrived at their rendezvous.
“OK, all units confirmed. Converge on me and move out in scouting formation.”
McMahon’s homing icon flashed up in his helmet display, guiding him to her location. Within a minute, the whole squad had regrouped in a staggered column.
Thorpe groaned inwardly as he realised that Vincent was the nearest squad member in the column to his right. McMahon was just out of sight ahead of him according to his helmet locator, while he recognised the distinctive stride of Zafar Khan as he glanced behind him. A sudden rude gesture and toothy grin confirmed that it was the young shuttle pilot.
An urgent clenched fist hand signal from the column leader brought the team to a sudden halt. Everyone crouched down where they were, weapons brought up into firing positions as they scanned around them. Thorpe had his back to a boulder as he readied himself. Nothing moved in his field of vision.
“Clarke, what have you got?” McMahon was still calm and assured.
“I had contacts on the forward scanner, Ma’am. Just for a second or two. I couldn’t get a lock.”
“What are you seeing now?”
“Nothing. I did a narrow beam scan too. All quiet.”
“OK, we are heading towards possible friendlies so I don’t want any loose trigger fingers. If you get a Reticulan target signature call it in and await my order. If we encounter hostiles that we cannot contain, we are to retreat and be extracted by the shuttle. Clear?” Optical sensors relayed the squad’s acknowledgments to McMahon and they prepared to move out again.
Thorpe swung in beside Vincent who was closer now. Thorpe kept his eyes on the plateau around him, his weapon still in firing position. They moved on towards the target which was now only a kilometre away. The squad was tense, eyes straining to see in the grey dawn – the infrared view did not offer much more clarity.
“Thorpe – something doesn’t seem right here.” Khan spoke to Thorpe on a private channel, sounding nervous.
“Easy fella, nothing about this place is right anyway.” Thorpe tried to be reassuring, but he couldn’t help feeling that Khan was right. Vincent looked nervous too, jerking his pulse rifle left and right.
“Khan, Thorpe and Vincent. Form on me” ordered McMahon. The three men jogged forward, passing other squad members who had taken up firing positions again. McMahon was lying on a low ridge, her helmet scope focusing on something ahead. They crouched down beside her.
“I want you make a basic three-pronged approach to the target area, 200 metres ahead. I see no movement, but there are signs of recent human activity.” They started to move, but McMahon held her arm out. “I also detected Reticulan sensors on the valley floor. They’re inactive, but I want you ready for anything.”
Ahead of the ridge where McMahon was positioned, there was a rocky valley floor that led to a row of caves. The three men fanned out and moved towards the target. Thorpe took the direct route with Khan to his left and Vincent to his right. They quickly covered the distance and took up positions near the darkened cave entrances.
“Thorpe, tell me what you can see.” McMahon crackled over the comms unit.
Thorpe surveyed the entrance – nothing moved. Infrared showed no heat signatures other than those of his two colleagues nearby. Thorpe keyed his comms unit to reply, when suddenly several things happened at once.
His helmet display went black and the encounter suit sagged like a dead weight. Green light flared in the sky above him casting stark shadows amongst the boulders, something fizzed past his right shoulder and exploded in a shower of sparks on the rock. Thorpe threw himself to the ground, tearing off his helmet and rolling to one side. Searing green light flared and sparked all around. Thorpe’s eyes struggled to adjust without the helmet’s enhanced vision. He heard Khan shouting off to his left, and realised he had lost sight of Vincent. The air rocked and splintered to the sound of explosions and impacts.
Thorpe looked around frantically, his heart hammering. He heard Khan shouting again but was unable to make out any words. Thorpe struggled out of his encounter suit which was now inert and powerless. He checked that his weapon was still powered up then sprinted towards the sound of Khan’s voice, twisting and weaving around boulders.
“Thorpe! Over here!” Khan was lying in the shadow of a boulder, clenching his right shoulder. He had removed his helmet but was lying awkwardly in his bulky encounter suit. He had suffered the same loss of power to his combat systems. Thorpe slid to a stop – the young pilot had been hit by a beam weapon that had sliced through the right shoulder of his encounter suit like butter. Smoke still curled up from the wound, and the smell caused Thorpe’s breath to catch in his throat.
Thorpe sensed motion from the direction he had come and swung his weapon around, finding Vincent squarely in his sights.
Vincent held his hands up. He had shed his suit and helmet too, and his rifle was missing. Thorpe dropped his aim and waved Vincent impatiently across. As Vincent arrived, he saw Khan’s injury and it seemed to galvanise him. He immediately unpacked his medical kit and set to work.
“The wound is cauterised, so bleeding is minimal. Help me get his suit off.” Vincent and Thorpe unclipped Khan’s encounter suit, and eased him out of it as quickly as they dared. Green light flared and crackled around them, the sounds of battle still raging. Thorpe could hear the metallic rattle of pulse rifles now, so at least some of the team were still in the fight. Vincent dressed Khan’s wound, fashioned a sling for his right arm, then dosed him up with painkiller and stimulant – his right arm was out of action, but he would still be able to use a weapon with his left. Khan managed a grim smile.
“We need to find better cover – we can’t pick them up on scanner or infrared.” Thorpe was sweeping left and right with his rifle, trying to see where the fire was coming from. Vincent was helping Khan struggle to his feet. Thorpe took the lead.
“To the caves, come on!” Thorpe ran towards the nearest cave. Khan and Vincent followed right behind, the few seconds it took them to cross the exposed ground seemed endless. They arrived unscathed in the dark cave and were finally able to look back to where they had come from. The ridge where they had left McMahon was awash with smoke and flame. Thorpe could see dark shapes moving to and fro up there, lit by occasional flashes of green light.
“I can’t see anyone.” He whispered, his throat dry with fear and adrenaline. Vincent knelt beside him, holding Khan’s rifle. Khan had his pistol in his left hand. Then they heard it. Something heavy crunched onto the gravel nearby. There was a slithering sound, then the unmistakable crunch of something walking across the loose, rocky ground. Thorpe and Vincent brought their weapons up into firing position.
It was all over in the space of a few heartbeats. They sensed the huge creature in the shadow of a large boulder to their right before they could see it and both men opened fire almost simultaneously. Bright red tracers from the pulse rifles hammered a lethal pattern across the boulder, then into the creature. It emitted a brief hideous shriek as it was torn apart.
They stopped firing and slowly lowered their guns. Khan was sitting against the wall further back in the cave and couldn’t see what they had been firing at.
“What was it? What was it?” he cried.
Thorpe and Vincent backed into the cave, keeping their guard outwards. Khan dragged himself to his feet beside them.
“What was it?”
Vincent shook his head slowly. He turned and looked straight at Khan, his eyes wide with fear.
“I don’t know. It was .. it was .. “
“It was not Reticulan.” Thorpe cut in.
He slung his rifle over his shoulder and flicked on a torch, lighting the tunnel ahead.
“Come on then!” smiled Thorpe. “Let’s make ourselves at home.”