Chapter Excerpt, Delivering the Commonwealth

2 | Makindi | iThanga Elide, Farmark

Benjamin Makindi had only once before been to Farmark—a family vacation when he was eight years old—to visit relatives for a wedding. He now wished he’d retained a better memory of it because the Farmark he could see now was a desolate nightmare.

Three klicks ahead of him, ostensibly, was the city of Ukunqoba, but where once gleaming ceramo-metallic skyscrapers had stood, now lay only piles of ash and columns of smoke.

“Abe’s God, Master Gunnery Sergeant,” came the voice of his lance corporal, Jonah Mehta-Valdez, behind him. “What are they doing?”

“They’re burning the rats out of the fields,” Makindi replied. 

“You really think we’re gonna find anyone here?”

“ISG says they received a survivor signal from just outside Ukunqoba, about a klick ahead of where we are now.” Makindi surveyed the arid, dusty landscape before him, using his helmet’s heads-up display to look for life-sign readings or signals received.

“What about them? Do you think we’re going to see any of them?”

“Lance Corporal, if I never see one of them, that will be fine with me.”

“I’ve heard they’re creepy as—” Mehta-Valdez was silenced by Makindi’s suddenly outstretched arm. That same arm gestured for him to take cover, which he and the rest of the squad did at once.

“Movement at one o’clock,” Makindi said, crouching low to the ground. “Does anyone have eyes up?”

“Have a drone up now, Master Gunny,” responded a specialist named Van Ness.

“Feed it to me, Specialist.”

“Aye, sir.” 

Makindi keyed a switch in his helmet’s display settings and was given a bird’s-eye view of the terrain before them. He could see the squad and the surrounding area, with a graphic overlay indicating elevations and wind conditions and highlighting anything moving. All was still; it must have been a trick of the light he’d seen. 

He switched to infrared to make sure. It wouldn’t be as helpful in the hot southern Farmark summer sun, but it might—he gasped. The display was covered with five-legged, starfish-like shapes. 

He flicked off the display and looked around. What the hell? There was nothing there. He turned the display back on and scanned for distortion, suggesting the presence of a cloaking device, but nothing showed up. That was when he noticed the elevation annotations on the display and leapt to his feet.

“Run!” he screamed. “Back to the lander!” For a moment, his marines looked at him in baffled confusion. “They’re in the ground!”

The earth erupted around them as living nightmares emerged from the dusty soil. Each of the invaders was about two and a half meters high. As far as Makindi could see, there was no visible body, just a hub where its five muscular, cricket-like legs came together. At the end of each of its legs were eight tentacles. The creature in front of him reared up on three legs, holding a device in one of its “feet,” which it braced with the fifth leg.

Makindi dropped and rolled to his right, bringing his weapon to bear and firing round after round into the creature. He poured fire into the alien but couldn’t figure out where to aim. Without any obvious brain center, how were you supposed to kill this thing?

All around him were the screams of his squad and the sound of constant gunfire punctuated by concussive sounds that he couldn’t identify. The creature turned its weapon toward him as he dodged once again to his left. The invader’s weapon missed him by fifty centimeters but tore a hole in the ground, firing a round that surely would have gutted him had it found its mark.

“RPGs!” Makindi shouted into the commlink, but all he could hear by way of acknowledgment were his marines’ screams. He dodged another salvo and scrambled behind a boulder, praying for just a couple of seconds to act. He switched his XR-90 from Gauss rounds to rocket-propelled grenades. This model only carried a magazine of three such rounds. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need more than that.

He rolled out from behind cover and fired an RPG at the invader. The creature was rearing up once again to bring its weapon to bear on Makindi, and the master gunnery sergeant’s RPG struck it right at the nexus of its legs and detonated. The creature was blown apart, thick green fluid spraying everywhere. 

Makindi burst forward and ran through the settling dust where the alien had been. To his left, he saw another of the creatures pick up Lance Corporal Mehta-Valdez with three of its legs, each on a different limb, and pull the screaming corporal apart, his right leg landing about two meters in front of Makindi. The master gunnery sergeant dropped and fired another RPG at the creature that had just murdered his corporal, blowing two of its five limbs apart. He didn’t know if that was a mortal wound for these creatures, but he wasn’t about to wait around to find out. He ran past the body of another marine—an alien slug had blown a hole through the marine’s chest armor; a second one had taken the marine’s head off. Makindi grieved that he couldn’t even tell which of his marines it had been.

“Echo Squad, on me! Fall back! Fall back!” He ran as hard as he could toward the lander, the servos in his armor straining to give him as much speed as possible. He had run about half a kilometer before he noticed no one was following him. He turned to look back. “Echo Squad! Report!” 

The comms were filled with nothing but silence. He turned and continued running toward the lander, switching his comm settings. “IAC-17, do you copy?” he panted. “This is Makindi. We’ve been ambushed; squad is taking heavy casualties. We need evac now! IAC-17, do you copy? This is Ma—”

Something slammed into him, knocking him two meters forward into the dust. Seemingly, every alarm in his armor went off simultaneously: suit breach, severe bodily injury, concussion warning, sudden blood pressure drop, and a couple of others he couldn’t identify. He tried to get back up, but he could only manage to roll over onto his back. He looked down and saw that the right flank of his suit had been blown off. Typically, a mere suit breach would be cause enough for alarm, but he was on Farmark—there was still an atmosphere he could breathe. From this angle, he couldn’t tell how much of him the alien’s round had carried off with the missing suit armor, but he could see a growing pool of blood staining the dusty ground beside him.

His vision began to blur, and the edges of his sight started to go dark. So this is it, he thought. This is a worthy death for a marine. He tried to lift his head and could just make out the skittering form of one of the aliens racing across the arid terrain toward him. He was at the edge of consciousness when he saw the creature rearing back on three legs, aiming its weapon for the kill.

Something else slammed into him. He rallied long enough to look and see one of the alien’s legs on top of him, its green blood spattered across his helmet visor. He sank into a dreamlike state, imagining he could hear voices shouting around him as he floated off the ground. He dreamed that he floated into the presence of a giant, who promptly placed his enormous foot on Makindi’s chest and pressed down, trying to suffocate him.  He surrendered, and everything went dark. 

Somewhere, off in the distance, something was beeping. Go away; I’m trying to sleep, he thought. The beeping seemed to get closer until it was right over his head.

He opened his eyes and then squinted. In the sterile bright light, he could make out an instrument panel that was the apparent source of the beeping.

A door opened, and he heard footsteps approaching. A young woman in a medical corps uniform leaned into his field of vision.

“You’re awake!” she said. “Please, don’t strain yourself. You’ve been through a lot, and your body still has a lot of healing to do. Are you feeling any pain?”

“I, uh, I,” was all he could muster.

“You’re on some pretty strong painkillers, so do let us know if you are in any discomfort. I’m going to go get the doctor.” Makindi heard her footsteps receding and the door closing behind her.

I guess I’m not dead, he thought. Then, the memory of what had just happened came rushing back to him. Mehta-Valdez, Van Ness, Singh, Chesnokov, all of them—they were all dead, weren’t they? I should be with them, he thought. It’s not right. It’s not right.

The door slid open, and the nurse returned, followed by a man and a woman—a physician and someone in a fleet uniform. He was not quite coherent enough to discern the rank.

“Master Gunnery Sergeant Makindi,” said the doctor. “I’m Doctor Gonzalez, your attending physician. Can you hear me all right?”

“Aye, sir,” Makindi rasped.

“No need to call me ‘sir,’” the doctor said amiably. Your wounds are healing well, and vital tissues are regenerating nicely, but I want to make sure that you’re not in too much pain. You left quite a decent-sized chunk of yourself on Farmark. If you hadn’t been in battle armor with artificial blood stores and tourniquet mesh, you probably wouldn’t have made it off the surface, let alone survived the acceleration during the escape.”

The giant’s foot, Makindi thought. “No, I’m not in any pain. I do have a strange feeling that ants are crawling all over my right side, trying to tickle me.”

“Those are the nanoprobes rebuilding your oblique muscles. They don’t hurt?”

“No, they don’t even really itch. Just sort of tickle.”

“Good, good. Look, I won’t lie—it was touch and go for a long time. You’re lucky to be here, but you’re through the worst of it.”

“Where am I?” Makindi finally thought to ask.

The woman in the ISG uniform stepped forward. “You’re at the fleet command center over Fairhaven.”

“Fairhaven?” he said, sitting up and rallying himself into a higher state of alertness. “How long have I been out?”

The officer and the physician exchanged a brief look. “It’s been three weeks since you were extracted from Farmark,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

“My squad—”

“You’re the only one we recovered,” the officer said.

Makindi closed his eyes and laid his head back. 

The officer turned to Gonzalez. “Doctor, may we have the room, please?”

Gonzalez looked at his patient and quickly scanned the readouts. “Yes, of course. Master Gunnery Sergeant, if your pain increases or you need anything, you can press the call button or use the voice response system.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Makindi whispered, eyes remaining closed.

“Thank you, Doctor,” said the officer as Gonzalez nodded and turned to go.

“Master Gunnery Sergeant,” the officer said after Gonzalez had gone. “I am Fleet Captain Asha Silva-O’Connor, Naval Intelligence. I am truly sorry about the loss of Echo Squad.”

“Sorry enough to delay this interrogation?” Makindi replied, opening his eyes and looking toward the ceiling.

“I’m afraid not, Master Gunnery Sergeant. You’re the first survivor of a direct encounter with the enemy that we’ve had.”

“There’s not much that I can tell you that you couldn’t get from my suit cams. Were they damaged?”

“No, but I’m not here to get the combat details. Your suit and the drone footage captured that well enough. I want to know what they were like.”

Makindi sat forward as much as his healing wounds would allow and looked Silva-O’Connor in the eyes. “What they were like!?”

“Yes, Master Gunnery Sergeant. As I said, you’re the only one who has survived a direct encounter with the enemy. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that our recon missions should have such a low survival rate when they come into contact with the enemy. From what we can glean, their weapons are powerful but nothing that should tilt the balance so much in open combat. It stands to reason that they must have some other more . . . intangible advantage. We need to know what that is if we’re going to properly equip our forces.”

Makindi looked down at his right hand. He felt a phantom sensation of desperately squeezing his XR-90’s trigger until every last round was spent.

“They’re monsters,” he said at last. “They move wrong. They look wrong. They sound wrong. They’re hard to kill. And they have little trouble killing us.” Makindi’s vision was filled with images of Mehta-Valdez being ripped apart and of the headless, nameless marine staining the sands of southern Farmark with their blood and viscera. He looked down and saw his entire right flank soaked in blood and the room floor covered with body parts. His vision started to swim, and the giant stood on his chest again. And there was that beeping.

The door burst open, and the nurse ran in. “What happened?”

“I think he’s having a panic attack,” Silva-O’Connor replied. The nurse went to Makindi, took a hypospray out of her scrubs pocket, dialed a setting, and pressed it against his neck. The hypo hissed as it dosed Makindi with a sedative, and he collapsed back onto the bed, breathing normally.

When he woke again, Silva-O’Connor was still there, sitting in a chair at his bedside. On the other side of his bed was Dr. Gonzalez, holding a scanner and examining its readings.

“What—” he managed.

“You’re okay. You’re safe,” Gonzalez said. “We had to sedate you, but you’re going to be okay. You’re safe.”

Makindi turned to Silva-O’Connor. “I should be dead, too. But for the IAC, I would be. It’s not right that I survived when—”

“Master Gunny,” Silva-O’Connor said, addressing him now not as an officer in Naval Intelligence but as a fellow service member. “I can’t speak to the cosmic significance of why you survived when others didn’t. I can only tell you that I am grateful that you did; your experience, however limited, can still give us a better idea of what we’re up against.”

Makindi sat for a moment, then nodded. “Doctor, how long will it be before I can return to duty?”

Gonzalez and Silva-O’Connor exchanged a look. “The nanoprobes will have finished their work in a few days. You still have some other wounds that need to heal, and, of course, you’ll need some physical therapy to get back up to fighting condition.”

“Master Gunny,” Silva-O’Connor interjected. “The ISG is suspending all operations in Kittim. No one’s going back until we figure out how to fight them more effectively. That could be years.”

“No. No. No. That’s no good. I need to go back. I need to—”

“You need to heal,” Dr. Gonzalez interrupted. “Rushing this won’t do anyone any good.”

“Besides,” added Silva-O’Connor, “if you’re looking for a way to contribute, I think I have an opportunity for you. It’s not combat, but if successful, it could help us win the war.”