Previous parts: 1
There were many more like that before I reached the Captain. Dead weight which we nonetheless cannot afford to dump. When I found him, he was peering over the rim of the trench with a pair of dingy brass binoculars. “For God’s sake man, what took you? Spit it out already.” I dug the notebook out of my coat pocket and began rattling off the numbers.
I didn’t get far. “Impactor inbound!” one of the men down the trench hollered over the constant booms of the artillery. The damned things fall too quickly to hit them with anti-aircraft guns, only slowing down by solid fuel retro rockets within the last few hundred feet. I turned to watch in awe as the sleek, black coffin shaped capsule came to rest in the distant reaches of the trench.
Sooner after I heard the faint sounds of screaming and far off gunfire. I’d seen one land before and so could guess what was happening. The dome at the top is a teleoperated Lewis gun turret which clears the immediate area of opposition, then continues to lay down suppressing fire as the sides of the capsule blow off and the contents of it climb out.
But oh, those contents. The crawling. The teeming, relentless crawling! What is there to say which hasn’t already been screamed by those who return from an engagement with them? Piteous, traumatized witnesses to the grave mites.
The Captain adjusted the focal distance on his binoculars and muttered “We’re lucky they only send the bulls. The females are more aggressive by far, but also the only ones who secrete. Since their whole war machine relies on the secretions there’s no way they’d ever let us get close to a mite farm.”
Farms? Didn’t ask, didn’t want to know. The only farms the coldbloods have any use for, to my knowledge, are for us. So that when we’re defeated, they’ll still have a sustainable supply of replacement parts. I’d been along for a raid on one of the few we were able to liberate before the tide of the war turned.
The stench hits you before the screaming. Something like the inside of a meat processing plant. Anguished cries mixing seamlessly into the cacophony of thumping machine noises. Would’ve simply been an impressive feat of industrial efficiency, had it been any other animal they were feeding into it.
Row after row of pregnant women huddled on all fours, shackled at the wrists and ankles. Some sort of mask was strapped to their faces such that they could not remove the feeding and respiration tubes passing through it.
Most were being milked. They still collect it to wean the children. A few were in the middle of delivering, a team of coldbloods receiving the infant, snipping the umbilical, then rushing it to the incubator. It was these wretched women, most out of their minds, that we rescued first.
The deafening rhythm of the machines drowned out our gunfire and gave us the element of surprise. The dead barely notice being shot. Even a bullet to the head only leaves them disoriented and clumsy. So we’re trained to take off their limbs from a distance, then finish cutting them apart at the joints once they’re immobilized.
The head continues to move even once separated from the body. It must be crushed or burnt. By the time we’d cleared the place out, we were all caked in the foul black syrup they bleed. It was a moral victory more than a practical one. Even as we gently eased the screaming, weakly thrashing nude men down from the conveyor of hooks that ran along the ceiling, none were cogent enough to speak with.
They’d been swallowed whole by a throbbing mechanical beast, belching thick black smoke from its nostrils. Passing through its labyrinthine insides, stripped not just of their dignity but their sanity as well. Filthy, bruised and gibbering, most could not be salvaged. There was no choice but to shoot and burn them, as otherwise they’d be reclaimed for parts.
None of us hesitated. Just as there is no speaking of surrender or reconciliation, there are none among us who dare to question choices of that nature. Even then, we’d begun giving up on the pretense of heroism. Of decency, and a just war. There was no atrocity the coldbloods would not resort to. Which they hadn’t already. So, unapologetic barbarism was the order of the day.
I’ve run out of tears since then. Not so much strengthened by these experiences as worn out. The endless cavalcade of horrors, unbearable at first, has since grown banal. There is nothing they won’t do to destroy us, and nothing we don’t do to survive. A fairly straightforward struggle…if only death were still permanent.
Another impactor landed ahead of us as we fled down the trench. With one in back and now another in front, there was simply no avoiding them. I knew what to expect, but it still took my breath away when the first one came into view. It’s the eyes that do it. Grand, bulbous compound eyes sprouting from either side of a head only slightly larger.
Paralyzing to gaze upon. No matter how many times you engage them, you never get used to it. I figure it’s because the primal part of the brain which assesses threats has no basis for comparison. If our ancestors had ever encountered such a creature, there’d be some record of it.
The Captain stepped in, supplying an abrupt shotgun blast to one of its eyes before it could reach me. The torrent of sticky black blood and jiggling bits of brain matter absolutely drenched us. There’s a distinct sickly sweet smell to it which never fully washes out.
“Where’s your head, idiot!? Pull yourself together, it’s another two kilometers to the evac point.” I gaped, wiping black goo from my forehead. “We’re…retreating?” He dragged me to my feet. “Falling back, for the time being. It’s not ours to second guess.” I looked back at the men behind us, still fighting what I now realized was a doomed battle. One of many comprising a doomed war.
The beleaguered remainder of a platoon met up with us at the end of the trench, evidently instructed to escort the Captain. I was of no such import that I knew of, but had the good fortune to be along for the ride. Again, he shouted at me to run. This time the moment we were clear of the trench rim.
I looked back again as we ran. Long enough to witness thousands of grave mites surging down the trench toward us like a dam had broken. I then watched in quiet anguish as the front line was overrun with corpses. Waves upon waves of the dead tumbling over the edge, indifferent to the bullet holes they’d been riddled with and the coils of barbed wire tearing at their flesh.
Behind them, a raucous procession of tanks and various other machines of war, grinding along on all shapes and manner of treads. Chaplains perched atop some of them, before podiums mounted to the upper deck of each rusty behemoth, recited melodic invocations to battle over a loudspeaker system. Behind the podiums hung the banner of the coldbloods, tattered from gunfire but fluttering defiantly in the breeze. Even their symbols are not so easily destroyed. Nor their faith, whatever it is.
Stay Tuned for Part 3!