A Short Story by Lee Garratt
Alfred stepped out of the carrier into the long blue grass of planet 2190. This was his third ‘mission’, and so far, the experience of being a famed Starship Trooper had not lived up to what he had imagined, what was it, only a year ago on Earth. Back then, lying in his bedroom, staring up at his posters of distant planets and strange alien life forms, he had imagined himself striding, muscled and determined, blasting alien scum with his laser beam. Imagined himself returning to parties where the girls who had previously ignored him crowded around, hanging on his arm listening to his tales of derring-do.
So far, however, his experience had been a miserable one. Barely 18, he was at the bottom of the ladder, a ‘grunt’ in the troopers slang. He had been the daily butt of banter which, sensitive by nature, he had found impossible to deal with. If it wasn’t for the Sergeant keeping a close eye on him, no doubt worried about the effect a ‘friendly fire’ incident might have on his promotion chances, he dreaded to think what might have become of him. Alfred was determined now that when he returned to Earth, next month if all went well, he was going to give in his notice and not return.
Looking up, and trying to ignore the pointedly rough jostling he received from the disembarking troopers, Alfred took in his surroundings. The prairie of blue grass stretched off ahead, low wooded hills on either side narrowing ahead of him. Scans on the orbiting ship had picked up numerous life forms, but nothing that showed anything amounting to intelligent life. There had been an early attempt at a colony here over 200 hundred Earth years ago which it was assumed, due to the almost entire lack of contact since, had failed. This, sadly, was the case more often than not. Such ‘pioneers’ as they called themselves were often more truly alone than any previous examples in Earth’s history. Whilst a homesteader in 19th century Texas may have been two weeks or more from a nearby store, in space travel, even considering the incredible developments there had been in technology, this would more often be years or decades. Any medical incident with strange new viruses, any failing of the harvest with the limited stores they could carry, would more often than not mean death. It was a wonder to Alfred that so many people continued to try for these new lives amidst the stars.
The troopers mission should be a simple one. The Federation was trying, finally, to organise and regulate these, largely piecemeal and individual ‘pioneers’. Before the next colony was attempted, the Starship Troopers had been ordered to conduct a patrol of the planet and submit a report of its dangers and potential. Looking ahead, Alfred watched as the troopers dispersed into patrol formation. Some flying creatures took off from some distant trees and started to circle upwards on the rising thermals.
Gulub hunkered in his hole. It was troubled; the vibrations in the air and the ground could only mean one thing – those strange new creatures had arrived again. He had taken a quick look out of his burrow and it was true – he saw the ship land in a burst of flame, scores of armoured creatures get out. Just seeing them for a moment brought back the memories which had never really gone away. His brothers and sisters being hunted down, burned out of their holes. His mother who had gone, desperate, to try to talk with them, clubbed and speared till she lay still.
The Ulub had beaten them off eventually. The aliens’ crops had withered thanks to their efforts. Then the Ulub had told all the other animals to leave this place, go far beyond the reach of the incomers hunts, leave them to starve. So, the settlers had died, eventually, though it had taken a long time. And at the end, even Gulub, last of his tribe, had pitied them, thin and meagre, as they wrestled with the ground for food that would never come. But it had all been achieved at such a terrible cost that Gulub had sometimes wondered, over the centuries that had passed since, whether it had all been worth it. That had just been idle sentiment Gulub thought now as he lay there, listening to the strange sounds that travelled up to him. There was no reasoning with such warlike savages. If these fools were here again, the Ulub could do the same trick which worked last time. Hide. Deny them food. This time there would be no talking. No fighting. Especially with these ones who were obviously much more prepared than the last.
The heat was stifling in the armour, air-conditioned though it was. Alfred lifted his visor. This was against orders, but all the troopers broke it routinely like many other orders they were formally under. What happened in space was a lot different than the rules that Earth commanded Alfred had realised very quickly. The swathe of blue grass he was wading through entered the canyon area ahead where the hills narrowed, and trees of some kind grew on the surrounding hillsides. This, at least, suggested shade, maybe even water. Alfred wiped his brow and walked on.
Yes, it hadn’t taken long for the boyish dreams of his glorious career as a trooper to be shot down. In fact just a couple of hours had passed when, in the canteen on the first night after signing up, Amber, a veteran of the troop at 25 years of age, covered in decorations for various acts of valour, had asked him, with a bold white smile, almost casually if he was a ‘virgin’. The fact that he, much to his chagrin, was, led to an awkward pause as the band stared at him before, as he stuttered an answer, they exploded into laughter. Since then, his nickname had been, unimaginatively, ‘virgin’, and the mere sight of the imposing and, it had to be admitted, magnificent (and unashamedly sexually voracious) Amber raised his heartbeat and brought him out in a sweat. He was terrified of her, and she knew it.
Gulub watched the aliens come closer. He had little fear of being detected – Ulubs could mimic a landscape exactly. It was one reason they had become the dominant species on the planet. After direct battle proved too costly last time, this age-old tactic of camouflage and sabotage had proved, although it had taken a while, a winning one. From where he watched, his burrow on the hillside, he could see the troopers start to file into the canyon (one of them he noticed lagging behind at the back). He wondered about their mission. They must be here as an advance party he thought. Complex emotions swirled inside Gulub. Theirs was a slow breeding species on a world that was, for the most part, not particularly fertile. The family group who lived here, his parents and grandparents and siblings, had all been killed, all 7 of them, with him as the only survivor. They had a primitive kind of telepathy and Gulub knew that, on the rest of the planet, there had been no more incursions and, indeed, a fertile partner might make her way to him at some point in the future. It made his role here tricky though. He could hide but that would not be easy if this occupation went on for long. Perhaps he should signal for help, but that would be condemning others to danger he knew. Emotions, long nursed inside him, boiled inside him. Two hundred years ago, he was young and sheltered. He had watched his family die. Now he was older, in his prime. Yes, frightened though he was, he would like some revenge.
Alfred gratefully entered the shade of the trees. This canyon had been mapped, of course, before landing. Not far now, ahead of them, it opened up slightly, and that was to be where they would make their camp, on the site, as far as they knew, of the last settlement. In the week ahead, they were to scan for signs and clues to what happened, check the surrounding country for any risks. Alfred was ok with that. In fact, that was what most frustrated him. He was brave of a sort he knew. Whenever they did training, whatever it was, Alfred always came near the top in physical ability. It was the social aspect, the banter he was hopeless in. And now, ahead of him, he could see the distinctive profile of Amber slowing and then, awfully, turn around to face him. Alfred’s heart sank.
Gulub pondered. A noble death appealed to him in a way. His was a social species quite prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Although outnumbered, he knew he could take a few of these creatures out. Camouflage himself to the last moment; if he leapt out he knew he could rip a few to shreds before they realised, then release his poison spray to get a few more before their awful weapons turned on him. He knew this wasn’t sensible, that his role here would be better served, as before, to watch and to sabotage, but he longed for action of some kind.
Alfred couldn’t face it. Desperately attempting to appear casual, he suddenly swerved up the bushy sides of the valley as if this was what he intended all along. Amber wasn’t fooled though, “Hey, where you going, big boy” Amber shouted at him, scoffing. “Aw, come on, Alfred, I’m here waiting for you”. He heard her laughing as he pushed further up the hill.
Gulub watched as the human pushed up towards him. Almost unbelievably, out of the miles and miles of the empty landscape that surrounded him, the creature was, at its current rate, heading straight for him. Perhaps, Gulub wondered, this was what the great father Anthar had planned for him – an act of providence from the great one. Well, it thought, I won’t let you down. It hunkered down, coiled its strength within it. Yes, this one, it felt, won’t stand a chance.
Alfred felt stupid now. He was away from the rest of the troop now, dangerously so in fact – he knew Amber would tell what had happened to the captain, and Alfred’s blusters of checking something out would be drowned in an abusive rant of ‘not following orders’. He might even be put on half rations. Still, for now, he was away from her mocking voice, and that was all that mattered. Ahead a rock loomed, and below it, a small cave seemed to go into the hill. Alfred stopped and scanned. There was no sound. No sign of life. No spoor, nothing. He would sit here a while for some peace before heading back.
Gulub couldn’t have planned it any better. The strange creature sank to the floor just in front of him. This was it. This was his moment. Perhaps even not a sacrifice as, strangely, there didn’t seem to be any other of the creatures with him. Just this one. Easy. Carefully it crept towards him, then, in an explosion of violence, leapt out and, at the same moment, rent at it with all its strength, its razor-sharp, poison-tipped claws, ripping through the body with little resistance.
Alfred’s last thought, for a split second that seemed to magnify as his death loomed, was regret. Another ignominious moment of his ‘career’ that hadn’t even started. He had probably made another mistake, he realised, and from the pain he was beginning to feel, it would probably be his last one.
If Alfred had been conscious of it, he would have been struck by the irony that the person who came valiantly to his aid, was Amber. When she returned to the camp, her tale of how she had burned (‘fragged’) the ‘worm’ (as the Ulubs came to be known) led to her getting another medal in her glittering career.
It is not known how Alfred or Gulub would have felt that, when Amber led them back to his body, the remnants of the worm were retrieved and, what was learnt by the scientists on the hovering ship, led to this ancient lifeform being very quickly and easily, totally exterminated (when the key to their camouflage was revealed, it was game over for the Ulubs). What was left of Alfred’s body was shovelled up, and his remnants, in a sealed metal casket, were buried with full military honours at space. Amber and all his colleagues stood and saluted before he was ejected into space (as was the custom for a trooper). A few weeks later, his family got the message that he had died ‘valiantly’ in battle and was a war hero.