2948-02-18 – Tales from the Service: A Spacer's Hell

Though the skirmishing in Matusalemme continues this week, and there are many stories of action and close scrapes with the enemy in that system, the Cosmic Background embed team always try to bring something interesting to the audience with Tales from the Service, something they wouldn’t necessarily see in the usual vidcast programming our organization and others provide. Others will cover the moves and countermoves as the Navy tries to wrest control of the system back from the Incarnation – in the meantime, the team here aboard Saint-Lô has been busy verifying a few other stories sent to us since the fighting there kicked off.

This week, all throughout the Frontier, colonies have been beefing up their ground-side defenses while the Navy installs orbital systems on the most likely targets. With the Frontier Defense Army shipping its first troops – mainly construction units, with combat troops still being trained – to the worlds nearest Adimari Valis, preparing to make the Incarnation’s next move far easier to counter. Many of these advanced detachments have been sent to the Frontier’s most valuable worlds, but some find themselves in the strangest of places. Raya Frank’s engineering team found its way to Mudiwa, the closest inhabited system to Matusalemme. The fertile world is beautiful and, unfortunately for Raya, its ecology is not completely explored even by the few thousand settlers who live there. To a born and raised spacer like her, used to the clean, sterile corridors of stations and starships, Mudiwa is perhaps among most unpleasant places imaginable, and though what she experienced would be no serious hardship to Nojus, it resulted in her resigning from the FDA as soon as the mission was over.

“Something’s coming!” Raya shook Gulbrind’s shoulder urgently – at least, she tried to. His huge, heavy arm didn’t move at all.

“Raya, go back to sleep.” It was Ishita, across the shell-tent, who she had awakened. “You remember the ecology brief.”

Raya did, and that knowledge did not comfort her in the least. Mudiwa’s large, slow-moving grazers shook the earth as they plodded through the arboreal nightmare beyond the tent’s sealed door, oblivious to the presence of humans. One might step on the shelter at any moment, crushing the three FDA engineers inside quite easily. Perhaps Gulbrind’s iron bones and sturdy quills might inconvenience such a behemoth, but only briefly.

Raya had been born in a can-city orbiting Jupiter, and had not seen the surface of any living world except heavily populated Earth until she was twenty. In a moment of what she later regarded as temporary insanity, she had stepped away from a comfortable job overseeing the construction of orbital spaceports for new colonies to join the Frontier Defense Infantry, and in another moment of spectacularly bad luck, she had pulled an assignment to the shrieking, fetid hellscape of Mudiwa, a planet she hadn’t even heard of until that assignment. Close to fallen Adimari Valis, the world

Her two team-members, of course, thought very differently. Gulbrind thought the world’s complex ecology merely interesting, but Ishita somehow managed against all odds to fall in love with many of the hideous specimens that thundered, scurried, darted, and fluttered among the huge trees. They seemed to treat the week-long trek to mark the best sites for defensive anti-orbital batteries around the muddy little colony outpost as a bucolic vacation rather than an unpleasant but necessary part of the war effort.

Of course, the war wasn’t personal for either of them, not yet. Raya’s uncle had been working on a Xenarch dig-site on Adimari Valis, and had not made it off-planet before the invading counterhumans had stopped the evacuation. She didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. Would he would return at the next family holiday, grinning and telling a new story of Frontier close-scrapes, or would his corpse never be found, laser-charred and left to rot among the sun-baked rocks of the Adimarian uplands?

Another thundering footfall, like the one which had awakened Raya, shook the shell-tent. The treetrunk-legged beast was, Raya decided, no more than ten meters away, and getting closer. Again, she tried to shake Gulbrind awake.

“Hells and sunfire, Raya.” Ishita threw back her thin bedroll covers and sat up in the dimly lit shelter. “We’re not going to get stepped on.”

She had been assured this many times during the previous few days, but still didn’t believe it. “You don’t know that for sure. Those things have braincases smaller than my palm. The tent probably looks like a boulder to them.”

“Go out and look if you want.” Ishita picked up the team’s lone bolt rifle, checked its safety and battery, and handed it to Raya. “But if you let any of those damn stirgerays into the tent-”

“I know, I know.” Raya shrugged the weapon’s strap over her shoulder, then carefully unlatched the door, which rolled up under its own spring tension. Hopping over the lip, she quickly pressed it back into place until the latch clicked once more, certain that none of the hated nocturnal bloodsuckers had gotten inside the shelter.

Another footfall crashed through the underbrush, and though it didn’t sound quite so close this time, Raya still spun around and brought the bolt rifle up. The weapon made a bright flash and would at least sting and scare the big native herbivores. Standard ferroceramic railgun slugs from their usual sidearms would hurt them more – enough to make the beasts angry, but unfortunately not quite enough to kill them.

Something moved in the shadows, something large enough for its silhouette to pass behind several trees. Raya stepped forward, not willing to risk a light, but also not able to see which end of the beast was the head. If it was heading away, she knew, it was best to leave it alone – but if it was coming closer, the bolt rifle could dissuade it from blundering into the team’s shelter.

Raya was convinced the stupid brutes had just enough neurons to be malicious. They had not gone a night yet without having several of them wander nearby, shaking the ground and making sleep difficult. It was as if they knew that the team’s mission would mean an invasion of their grazing range by large machines constructing hardened weapons installations and roads connecting them to the landing pads outside the colony town. Only by accidentally crushing the surveyors into the leaf-litter could they postpone this rendezvous with Terran industry.

The glint of beady eyes in a thick-necked, beak-mouthed head peeked out of the shadows, and Raya drew a bead with the bolt rifle. The big beast was facing toward her, though it was no longer moving. Its dull gaze seemed locked on the engineer and her weapon.

“Go away, you stupid animal.” Raya whispered over the stock of the energy gun. She didn’t want to shoot it, though that was more because she didn’t know which way it would flee from the flash and stinging pain of an artificial bolt of lightning.

The moment dragged on, and Raya realized at length that the big herbivore, frozen and wary, wasn’t actually staring at her. With a sinking feeling of dread, she lowered the rifle and turned slowly around.

Looming over the shelter, Raya saw a pair of eyes, much larger and gleaming dull yellow in the pale starlight, rise above the stiff but only too thin walls of the tent. The beast’s head rose further, until a long maw filled with intermeshing teeth, slightly open and dripping with whitish saliva, also came into view. The beast was smaller than the big herbivore, but not by very much, and certainly far larger than the trio’s quadwalker.

The ecological briefing had mentioned that the big herbivores had predators of course, but the specimens they had warned about were carnivorous flora, not ambulatory hunters. Whatever the toothy head belonged to, Raya knew, would not be any more injured by the beam rifle than its prey. Her only hope of survival was the fact that tastier prey stood only thirty meters away.

The predator and the herbivore stared at each other in silence for many long seconds, each ignoring the human completely. Raya dared not move, lest that call the predator’s attention or spook the prey – neither would bode well for her own survival.

“Raya, what are you doing out there?” Ishita fumbled at the door latch inside the shell-tent. “This is ridiculous.”

“Shut up, Ish.” Raya hissed, glancing at the tent. “There’s something…”

When she looked up, the yellow-eyed predator’s head had vanished. Whirling, Raya looked at the herbivore – its dark eyes stared warily at, and past, the shelter, but it was clear that it, too had lost track of its hunter.

Raya darted to the door and forced her way inside, nearly knocking Ishita to the ground. Closing the latch with trembling hands, she dove into her own bedroll, hugging the bolt rifle. Neither the tent nor the bed would protect her if the local predator returned, and she knew it – but she knew something else. She was safe from the big, toothy predator simply because she was insignificant - too small for it to waste energy on.

“What’s wrong, Raya?” Ishita tried and failed to pry the weapon from Raya.

Raya shook her head and hugged the gun tighter. “I hate this place. I hate it so much.”