I Chapter Nine: Diplomacy
February 11, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
We reached the Harvest Botanical Gardens late last night, after spending a day traveling north by bus along the Gladsheim Highway.
Captain Ponder formed us up into our squads and sent us to our posts, where we had been standing ever since.
It was around 0400 in the morning. We were tired, but still very much awake.
We were very quiet. Not much to say, really.
Aliens were about to land, and we were the only protection Harvest had if they turned out to be psycho aliens.
No pressure, right?
Some of us weren't taking the news as well as the others.
Ricketts broke out into a nervous twitch.
Dempsey started hyperventilating a few times before a squadmate would notice and help calm him down.
Scotty Lowell could barely speak, he was so scared. When he tried to speak, all that came out were stutters and whimpers. Carrol discreetly moved him to the rear of our formation.
Hey, if we were going to stew in our anxiety, at least we got to stew in the Harvest Botanical Gardens.
The Gardens were breathtaking during the day. They were divided into three landscaped tiers – each tier stepping down towards the edge of the Bifrost.
The lowest tier of the Gardens, nestled right at the edge of the Bifrost, comprised of a wide lawn of close-cropped grass, capped by a band of magnolia trees. A promontory extended over the edge of the Bifrost, offering a breaktaking view of the Plains of Ida to the south.
That promontory was where the landing was supposed to take place.
1/C and 2/C, Amon and Habel's squads, were both stationed on the Gardens’ middle tier, by the main gate. Their job was to keep civilians out of the Gardens, though at this time of night we really didn’t need to worry about surprise visitors.
The Bravo Squads—my squad, along with Andersen's 1/B—were stationed on the upper tier of the Gardens.
A greenhouse occupied the middle of the upper tier’s lawn. We were arrayed in staggered lines in front of the greenhouse, one squad on each side.
In between our two squads was a long rectangular table, piled with fruit and bread.
Staff Sergeant Byrne stood guard in front of the table.
All that fruit and bread was supposed to be Governor Thune’s offering to the aliens.
The whole thing struck me as absurd – the aliens I’d seen from Johnson’s helmet camera footage didn’t exactly seem like they’d be interested in freaking carbohydrates.
The Mimir River roared quietly in the background, thundering down the Bifrost to the Plains of Ida below.
A bat flew through the air, chasing after mosquitoes and flies.
The waiting never seemed to end.
More than once, I caught myself dozing off. My eyelids would start drooping, my breathing would slow, and all of a sudden my head was falling forward.
Each time this happened, I straightened back up and prayed that Byrne didn’t notice.
Then my eyelids started to droop again and the cycle repeated.
"Forsell's got contacts on thermal,” Jenkins’s voice crackled suddenly through the COM“Ten o'clock high."
"Holy fuck, this is happening?" murmured Ricketts. “This is really happening?”
“Shut it, Ricketts,” Carrol hissed before the younger recruit got the chance to begin hyperventilating again.
Twin points of light descended from the night sky, slowly expanding into the forms of ships as they grew near. They looked like giant tuning forks, with hulls of bright purple alloy.
What really got my attention were the ball-mounted turrets fixed to underbellies of the two alien ships.
I really hope we never see them in action.
The pair of alien dropships circled the Gardens twice, sweeping the area before committing to a landing.
Apparently satisfied, one of the ships descended to the lawn of the lower tier of the Gardens. The second ship remained in the sky.
We started to murmur and fidget restlessly, but a fierce glare from Staff Sergeant Byrne instantly silenced us.
There was a soft commotion down on the lower tier as Johnson and the Alpha Squads met with the alien landing party.
My heartbeat began to accelerate.
I took a few deep breaths. This was the absolute worst possible time to lose my nerve.
Captain Ponder emerged from the greenhouse, wearing his dress blues. He walked down the staircase and stepped off to the right, nodding for Byrne to accompany him.
Next out was a jovial, rotund man with a bushy red beard and a flamboyant shirt.
That had to be Governor Nils Thune – I recognized him from the campaign posters.
Behind Governor Thune came Rol Pedersen, Harvest's aging Attorney General, clad in a customary gray linen suit.
Last to emerge from the greenhouse was Lieutenant Commander Jilan al-Cygni, our liaison with the Office of Naval Intelligence. She was the one who’d recruited Byrne and Johnson to train us.
With our little human delegation assembled and waiting, Staff Sergeant Johnson arrived from the lower tier via the stairs.
Johnson approached the table, followed by three…things…
One thing was clear right off the bat; these aliens were not the same bird-like aliens we’d seen from Johnson’s helmet cam footage.
These aliens were massive hulking monstrosities covered in thick fur.
If a gorilla ever fucked a grizzly bear from Hell, the offspring would look something like these aliens. They stood well over ten feet tall, clad in humming power armor.
Breath could be seen snorting from their helmets – the aliens did not seem to like the crisp night air.
The alien leader had silvery-gray fur, wearing ornate golden armor and a large V-shaped helmet crest.
The other two aliens wore blue armor. One had tan fur, the other dark brown. Both possessed nasty-looking bayoneted pistols on their belts. The brown-furred alien also carried a massive warhammer, which hummed and crackled with some sort of energy.
Really hope we don’t see those in action, either.
"What the fuck are these things?" Dempsey whispered. "How are we supposed to fight something like—"
"Shut the fuck up, Dempsey," Billings growled, beating Carrol to the punch.
Staff Sergeant Johnson, having completed his task of leading the alien delegates to the table, broke formation and circled around to join Ponder and Byrne.
Governor Thune thanked Johnson and turned to address the gold-armored alien leader, his face splitting into a wide, toothy grin.
"Welcome to Harvest!" the Governor beamed. "I am its Governor," he tapped his chest, "Thune."
The golden-armored alien gave a throaty huff.
One of the younger aliens began to emit a strong musk. It didn't smell bad, but it was very pungent.
Beyond that huff, the alien leader gave no reply.
There was an awkward silence as Thune waited for the alien to give him something, anything. He opened his mouth and seemed to be about to launch into an extended introduction, but Lieutenant Commander al-Cygni gave a quiet cough.
Thune flicked his gaze over to the ONI officer and she gave a slight shake of her head.
Governor Thune pursed his lips in annoyance, but he quickly remembered his audience and wiped the expression from his face. He made eye contact with Rol Pedersen and gave him a short nod.
The gray-haired Attorney General held out a COM pad to the aliens.
The orchestral tones of Harvest's anthem began to play on a looped feed while images played across the screen of the pad. JOTUNs hard at work in Harvest's fields, families enjoying their meals, workers crowding the streets of Utgard – the montage went on.
For the better part of five minutes, no one moved.
The aliens watched the display with obvious impatience.
After five minutes, the aliens started shifting inside their armor, grunting quietly.
I wiped my palms on my pants – the sweat was making them slippery.
When the aliens started to grunt and huff again, I tightened my grip on my M6J carbine. I didn't dare raise it, but I was more than ready to.
Something was off with these aliens. They scared the living shit out of me, and I had a tough time believing they were here for anything friendly.
The video on the COM pad came to a conclusion.
Pedersen tucked the dormant pad under his elbow and stepped back.
The golden-armored alien grunted to the shorter of its escorts—the one with the dark brown fur.
The shorter alien pulled a perfect square of metal from its belt. There was something sketched on it, but I could not see what it was.
The alien chieftain presented the metal square directly to Thune, bypassing Pedersen.
Governor Thune peered at the image on the metal square for a moment, his smile widening. He beamed again at his Attorney General. "Look at this, Rol. See this picture? Just like we did to the freighter!"
Pedersen was not nearly as enthusiastic as his superior. "I think it's a piece of the freighter."
Thune waved that statement away, gesturing to the drawing on the sheet. "But see what they've etched?" he asked.
Pedersen craned his neck towards the sheet, squinting to see the drawing. "They want to trade," the Attorney General guessed.
"Governor, if I may," Lieutenant Commander al-Cygni stepped in, nodding towards the sheet of metal. Governor Thune handed it to her, tapping his foot impatiently while the ONI officer studied it.
As al-Cygni examined the metal square, Thune crossed over to the table. He reached into the fruit basket and pulled out a large, ripened cantaloupe.
Smiling even wider than before, which was a feat in of itself, Governor Thune walked up to the golden-armored chieftain and presented the fruit with a flowery bow. "Please, take it," he said. "We can give you plenty more."
The alien chieftain took the fruit, bringing it up to eye level, giving it a curious sniff.
As Thune began to speak of the pros and values of interspecies commerce, Lieutenant Commander al-Cygni cleared her throat again, setting the square of metal onto the table.
"Governor," the ONI officer said in a calm, but warning tone, "they don't want food."
"Don't be so sure, Commander," Thune chuckled jovially as the alien chieftain continued to examine the cantaloupe. "I think this one's about to take a bite!"
"No." al-Cygni shook her head, keeping her tone level. She retrieved the square of metal, gesturing at the etching. "Look."
I craned my neck, but was still too far away to see what was on the square.
It was maddening. Utterly maddening.
What were they talking about?
I had no way of knowing. Still, whatever bothered al-Cygni was enough to make Thune’s eternal smile falter, which really couldn’t be good.
Right as Thune hesitated, the golden-armored alien let out a bark and held the melon out to Pedersen.
"No, no," the Attorney General held up one of his hands and stepped back. "Keep it."
The alien chieftain cocked its head and barked again.
The odor exuded by the smelly alien intensified. Now it smelled bad.
My left eye began to twitch nervously.
I tried to keep my breathing under control, but it was no use.
My grip tightened around my M6J, clinging to the carbine like a security blanket.
I couldn't take this much longer.
Suddenly, a gunshot cracked through the air.
I immediately recognized the sound as an MA5 assault rifle.
Why the fuck was someone shooting? Was it a misfire?
A throaty alien howl pierced the nighttime stillness.
Everything happened so fast.
The alien with tan fur ripped the bladed pistol from its belt, firing a burning spike into Attorney General Pedersen’s chest.
Johnson and Byrne returned fire, targeting the two younger aliens.
The aliens' power armor shimmered as it was struck, deflecting the bullets.
When the shimmering subsided, the armor underneath hadn’t even been scratched.
The brown-furred alien tossed the chieftain its gigantic hammer.
“Governor Thune, get down!” Johnson bellowed.
The golden-armored chieftain caught the hammer and immediately swung it at Thune.
The Governor would have died right then and there had Captain Ponder not pushed him out of the way at the last second.
The alien chieftain’s hammerblow caught Ponder in the left side, crushing his prosthetic arm. The Captain went flying.
"Open fire!" Carrol bellowed.
We were more than happy to oblige.
All three aliens shimmered with faint white light as their energy shields absorbed our firepower.
After standing up to our withering barrage of lead for several seconds, the brown-furred alien’s energy shields suddenly POPPED and vanished. Its armor began to vent cyan smoke.
The brown-furred alien roared with pain as it felt the force of our bullets for the first time.
The golden-armored chieftain leaped in front of its beleaguered subordinate, presenting us with its back. Its armor must have had stronger shields, because even all of our concentrated fire could not bring them down.
While the chieftain pulled its wounded escort away, the tan-furred alien let out a thunderous roar and opened fire again, raking us with a barrage of glowing projectiles.
I’d already dropped to my stomach, not quite remembering how I ended up on the ground. Burning spikes seared through the air where I’d just been standing.
Scotty Lowell hit the dirt next to me.
More spikes flew overhead.
“You alright?” I called over to Lowell.
He did not answer me.
“Lowell?” I reached over to him, jostling his shoulder.
Lowell rolled onto his back. A spike protruded from the center of his forehead. Blood seeped down his face, into his unseeing eyes.
I stared at Lowell, completely numb.
Did he just die in front of me?
I haven’t been this close to a dead body since-
“On your feet, shiteface!” Byrne screamed at me, grabbing me by the shoulders and hauling me upright.
I’ve never been so grateful for Byrne’s assholery. It brought me a focus I never would have been capable of on my own.
Billings writhed in the grass, a spike burning in his upper right arm, obscenities of all colors pouring from his mouth.
Everyone was screaming.
Davis took a spike to the throat. He went down hard, blood gurgling from his mouth.
Byrne shouted for us to cease fire as the aliens retreated down the stairs to the Gardens’ middle tier.
"Move it, Bravo!" the Staff Sergeant bellowed. "Healy! Get your ass out here!"
"Bravo, on me!" Carrol barked.
As we rushed down the stairs after the aliens, I glanced behind just in time to see Doc Healy come around the back of the greenhouse, medkits in hand. He hurried towards the motionless form of Pedersen and our wounded comrades who were lying on the greens.
I don’t think there was much he could do for them.
The middle tier of the Gardens was a fucking warzone.
Both Charlie Squads had been engaged by over twenty aliens of a completely new species.
These aliens were squat, stubby creatures, barely three feet tall, wearing breathing apparatuses. Their voices were high-pitched and squeaky. They wielded small pistols which fired bolts of green energy.
The firefight lit up the night, glowing green energy projectiles crisscrossing the air with fiery yellow tracer rounds. It would have made for a terrific light show, were it not for the screams of unlucky Charlie Squad recruits.
"Take these wankers out, then proceed to the lower tier!" Byrne shouted, raising his BR55. "We need to draw that ship turret's fire!"
I can do that.
I shouldered my M6J, took aim at one of the little aliens, and opened fire.
The little alien’s head exploded.
These aliens had no energy shields.
As the adrenaline surged through my body, I wondered if the feeling of taking a life would ever grow old.
The rest of Bravo opened fire alongside me, tearing through the little aliens’ flank.
Sometimes a bullet would strike one of the tanks mounted on the small creatures' backs, igniting a brilliant blue fireball which consumed everything unfortunate enough to be too close.
Whatever those little aliens were breathing, it was extremely flammable.
After a few seconds, the surviving aliens broke off and fled towards the lower tier, where the first dropship waited, firing its turret towards the Alpha Squads.
"Keep moving, Bravo!" Carrol urged us on.
We charged past the entrance gate, across the access road, hurtling over the bodies of slain aliens, making our way through the band of magnolia trees separating the middle tier from the lower tier.
1/C and 2/C formed up behind us and joined in our advance.
Staff Sergeant Byrne was the first to skid down the hill to the lower tier, over thirty recruits hot on his heels.
I provided supporting fire from the rear of the advance.
Call me a coward if you want. I really don't give a shit.
As we reached the lower tier of the Gardens, the second alien dropship came in for a landing on the bank of the Mimir River, at the very edge of the Bifrost.
A red-armored alien with pitch-black fur – of the same species as the three from the delegation – emerged from the ship, armed with a bladed spike rifle. It fired a series of short bursts in our direction, scattering our charge and forcing us to find cover.
The surviving aliens from the skirmish on the middle tier climbed aboard the second dropship, their retreat covered by the red-armored alien.
At Byrne’s order we shifted to the first dropship, which was firing fat blobs of crackling blue energy from its turret at the Alpha Squads, who were pinned down behind another grove of magnolias.
As our weaponsfire clanked against the hull of the first dropship, it broke off its attack on Stisen and Dass, ascending into the sky.
By then, all remaining alien survivors had boarded the second dropship. Once the red-armored brute climbed aboard, the second ship rose above the trees. It paused to fire several more roiling globs of energy at us before following the first dropship into the night.
For the briefest of moments, the Gardens were silent.
Then Byrne and Johnson started barking out orders and reorganizing us.
My squad was sent back to the upper tier for clean-up duty, which was a fancy way of describing the task of moving corpses.
Attorney General Pedersen was dead, but Governor Thune had come through unharmed.
Captain Ponder had cracked nearly all of his ribs, creating a mess of internal bleeding in his torso. If he didn't get serious medical treatment soon, he would die.
The Harvest Colonial Militia lost nine recruits in its first battle, including Joe Davis and Scotty Lowell from Bravo.
Billings got pegged in the arm by one of those spikes. Fortunately, the spike hadn’t hit anything vital, so Doc Healy was able to remove it without complication.
He assured us Billings would be running marathons again in a few days.
“Garris!” Carrol’s voice called from behind.
I turned around.
My squad leader stood next to Scotty Lowell’s body. “I need a hand.”
I helped Carrol carry Lowell’s body to the parking lot on the middle tier, laying him down next to Davis.
Dempsey and Worthington arrived with the body of Attorney General Pedersen, laying him down next to Lowell.
Recruits from Alpha and Charlie started trickling through, carrying their own dead, adding them to the line.
We piled all the alien corpses together in the middle of the parking lot, drenched them with a can of gas, and lit them on fire.
A stone-faced Byrne retrieved dog tags from each of our dead. He kept the five from Second Platoon and gave the other four to Johnson. Both Staff Sergeants placed the tags around their necks.
With cleanup complete, we were ordered to stand guard and keep the Gardens secure from civilians.
We stood watch for the rest of the night.
I did myself the service of not looking at the clock, allowing my meandering thoughts to make the time slide by quickly.
Next thing I knew, I was yawning as the eastern sky brightened and the sun peeked over the Plains of Ida.
No civilians came.
Who was going to visit the Harvest Botanical Gardens before dawn?
I don’t think we’re recruits, anymore.